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Walter Cohen

“Eurasian Literature and Cultural Explanation”
Walter Cohen, Cornell University


    My talk deviates a bit from the explicit interests of the conference in concerning itself not with contacts between China and Europe in the early modern era but with the distinctive but related realizations in the two regions during this period of a common literary heritage. That heritage may be traced back to South Asian oral narrative of the mid-first millennium B.C.E. From there it may be traced forward to Western Europe through frame-tale collections in Sanskrit (sixth century C.E. or earlier) and a successive series of translations and adaptations into Pahlavi (the Persian literary language), Syriac (a West Aramaic language), Arabic (the 1001 Nights is one offshoot), Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and numerous vernaculars. This tradition first achieves high literary status in Boccaccio’s Decameron (mid-fourteenth century), from where it formally and thematically influences subsequent prose fiction, culminating in Cervantes’s Don Quijote (early seventeenth century) and hence the main line of the European novel. The novella of Boccaccio and his successors also has a primarily thematic impact on European drama in Italy and elsewhere, leaving its mark, for instance, on roughly half of Shakespeare’s plays.


     Indian oral narrative also migrates to the east, via Buddhism. The Buddhist jataka, the middle section of the Buddhist canon (canon formation: fourth century B.C.E.; written text: first century B.C.E.), consists of 547 stories of the earlier lives of the Buddha. Given the popular background of much of this material, these narratives often lack a distinctively Buddhist or even generically religious cast, except for the concluding moral provided for each tale. Buddhism is attested in China from 65 C.E. Chinese translations of the Buddhist classics begin in the second and third centuries. Chinese Buddhist miracle tales, which combine didactic Indian material with native—partly oral and contemporary—narratives, first appear in the late fourth century, reaching their peak importance in the seventh. They are followed (seventh through tenth centuries) by semi-vernacular Buddhist narratives combining prose and verse that are formally close to both the Indian past and the Chinese future. The mixture of verse and prose also marks the medley, a form situated between narrative and drama. There is evidence of professional oral fiction from late in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and a considerable body of vernacular drama and partly or wholly vernacular short fiction survives from the Yuan (or Mongol, 1260-1368) and especially the Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties, with Buddhist tales figuring in both genres—and prominently among the Ming fictional works. This tradition culminates in Northern drama such as Wang Shifu’s Story of the Western Chamber (late thirteenth century) and, later, Southern drama, above all Tang Xiangzu’s Peony Pavilion (1598). There is a similar fictional legacy, to such masterworks as Wu Cheng’en’s (?) Journey to the West (or Monkey, 1570-1580) and Cao Xueqin’s (and Gao E’s?) The Dream of the Red Chamber (or The Story of the Stone, pre-1763-1792).


     So what? This common Eurasian literary tradition undermines claims about intra-regional, much less inter-regional, autonomous literary languages. This commonality also speaks against a geographically restrictive account of the origins of the novel. Further, it allows for comparative analysis.  In accounts of Europe’s distinctive path to modernity, some weight is often attributed to its competitive but complementary multistate system, as compared with China’s more unitary empire. Europe saw the emergence of multiple written vernaculars, China only one. This suggests the importance of vernacular diversity, which cut against Latin’s unifying potential, destabilizing imperial or religious integration and encouraging separatism. In the history of fiction and drama, Western Europe runs a relay race, the baton passing from Italian to Spanish to French to English. This diversity within unity fosters innovation, and not just in literature. Poland initiates heliocentrism; Italy, Germany, Denmark, and England advance it. Spain employs Italian and Portuguese navigators; Britain taps a Dutch sailor. A breakthrough blocked in one area is pursued elsewhere. Perhaps “languages, like nations, are in an important sense the effect and not the cause of literature.” (Sheldon Pollock, Introduction to Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, ed. Pollock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), p. 30). Culture might be considered an explanatory force like economics, politics, the military, technology, social structure, and ideology. Interest in cultural explanation—more in the social sciences than the humanities, paradoxically—has grown with the post-Communist rise of religious strife. Further work along specifically literary lines might deepen analysis of present and past, encourage recognition of the humanistic contribution to knowledge across the disciplinary spectrum, and increase our sense of the dignity of our work.

Walter Cohen is Professor of Comparative Literature and Senior Associate Dean of the college of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University. He is best known for his Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Cornell, 1985) and as an editor of the Norton Shakespeare. He is currently completing a book entitled European Literature on the connections between European literature and the rest of the world from Mediterranean Antiquity ot the present.  For Cohen, the geographical issue turns on the relationships of inside to outside, of the European to the non-European, and of the center of Europe to its periphery. Among his many articles relevant to the themes of this conference are “The Literature of Empire in the Renaissance,” Modern Philology (2004) and “The Concept of World Literature,” in Comparative Literature East and West: Traditions and Trends (Hawaii, 1989).

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