European Literature Days 09 at Hainfeld Castle
Between 9 and 11 October 2009, Hainfeld Castle in southern Austria will become a centre for European literature.
Under an initiative by the European literature portal, Readme.cc, the European Literature Days 09 will take place there, marking the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Bringing together authors, musicians, scientists, journalists and cultural decision-makers as never before, the festival will foster link-building across national borders through literary exchange.
Three of the prizewinners of the European Union Literature Prize, which is being presented for the first time in 2009, will be presented in association with the European Commission.
The festival looks set to be an annual event at Hainfeld Castle.
- 1 Does literature promote international understanding?
- 2 Is there such a thing as a European literature?
- 3 Will the internet replace the book by 2020?
Does literature promote international understanding?
Does literature promote international understanding?
At a ceremonial meeting of the Imperial Academy of Sciences on 29 May 1852, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall held a talk on ‘Multilingualism as a Fundamental Virtue of the State’. In it he presented a line of thought that is today often termed ‘hybrid culture’. Hammer-Purgstall realised early on that cultural differences were in fact one of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire’s assets and that, above all, multilingualism formed the basis for a productive culture of multiple identities. The mixing of these multiple identities would generate diverse new cultural forms and build bridges of understanding.
Since scholarly analysis and literary aesthetics go hand in hand with hybrid culture, translation became central to Hammer-Purgstall’s ideas on cultural policy. In particular, his translation of Hafez’s Divan from Persian into German inspired his contemporary Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to write his collection of poems West-Eastern Divan.
Goethe was fascinated by the idea of creating a world literature and believed in the ability of literature to promote a lasting dialogue between cultures. With his West-Eastern Divan, Goethe wanted to unite the Occident and the Orient ‘in an exceedingly cultivated fashion. The individual poems exude hope and optimism, calling for brotherhood between nations and peoples.’ He was convinced that great literary works have an impact beyond national borders and thus become the property of humanity as a whole. World literature also meant being curious about other literary cultures in order to enrich your own culture and discover common ground.
To what degree does it make sense to ponder this model of world literature today? Goethe contemplated the topic almost 200 years ago. In the meantime, the world has become larger, on the one hand, and grown together through communications technology, on the other. In a world that has been made more dynamic by the media, can cultures be translated authentically? How do different cultures communicate their literatures? And which approaches should be taken in the face of different cultural media (such as texts, images, and music), and written and oral traditions? In light of economic considerations, aren’t our ideas more likely to be dominated by the vision of a global market in which all cultures converge and communicate in a universal world language?
Faced with these challenges, it would be imprudent to saddle literature alone with the task of promoting international understanding. And yet because language is the medium of literature, there is no way for intercultural understanding to occur without it. And this constitutes an opportunity. One that Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall would have known how to seize.
Is there such a thing as a European literature?
If we take a look at study courses that explicitly address developing a deeper understanding of European literature, two aspects stand out in particular. First, there’s a lot of emphasis on students getting to know the literatures of many different languages. Second, there’s a general tendency to propagate a Europe-wide network of publishers, archives, and the media.
In an attempt to move away from the court-orientated literature that existed up until the mid-18th century, the notion of a national literature evolved during the age of the bourgeoisie, and went hand in hand with the emergence of nation states. This development has substantially influenced literary institutions in Europe over the past 200 years. Though, recently things have changed: on one hand, due to the expansion of the European Union and the related efforts towards cultural integration, translingual institutions that mediate between national literatures and the literary world have been established all over Europe. On the other hand, the current digital and technological revolution of the media not only accelerates the geographic transfer of authors and their works, but also tests the hermetic nature of literature as the internet opens it up to the widest possible audience.
In this way, particularly on the European continent, conflicting processes are making themselves felt. Europe is gradually growing together and becoming a political and economic entity, one that corresponds – at least in part – to the many cultural features we share. At variance with this is the fact that Europe is made up of some 50 countries with just as many languages and their feelings of national pride. Particularly in countries that have only recently gained their independence, people’s sense of national identity is very much bound up with having their own language.
These contradictory forces are accompanied globally by an Anglo-American dominated cultural industry that is pushing for a normative concept of world literature. The trend is to package literature in standardised portions. Only what is easily translated and understood globally can be sold for a profit on the book market.
In this ideological tug of war, the idea of a European literature is pulled to and fro. The vision of creating a single entity can only be realised through diversity – through the idea of a European literature that expressly defines itself through the variety and disparity of the literatures in Europe, as well as through the aesthetic and individual will of its authors. It is here that an alternative to the synthetic writer of the Anglo-American world of culture may be able to evolve. Though, in order for that to happen, the notion of ‘national literature’ will have to disappear. For if translation is the guiding principle behind a European literature, how can the divisive concept of ‘national literature’ remain tenable?
The Future of Books
Will the internet replace the book by 2020?
History punishes those who act too late. Mikhail Gorbachev’s legendary dictum contains a warning for the book and literary world. Internet giant Google has recently given a powerful demonstration of how the battle to control knowledge and content is fought. In contrast, publishers, authors, and cultural politicians seem doomed these days merely to react and protect the status quo.
No matter how this tug of war turns out, we can no longer deny that information technology is having a lasting impact on the literary world. Processes of cultural exchange are undergoing rapid change due to the internet. Digital media generate hybrid forms, establish new channels of distribution, and demand innovative cultural skills. So far literature and book culture have not been as dramatically affected as forms such as music. Reading a novel appears to be less compatible with the new consumer media than listening to music. Though appearances are often deceptive. Already the internet offers users extensive libraries of reading matter. And e-books are well suited to be read on small devices when we’re out and about.
Slowly but surely the focus is shifting from paper to digital, from books to screens, from libraries to the internet, from the national to the global blogosphere. Platforms are taking over the functions of publishers; print-on-demand databanks are turning into new centres of book distribution. All this is altering the profiles of entire professions.
Can literature survive these shifts unharmed? Is the honourable, thousand-year-old book culture in danger of simply being digitised away? Where does a medium defined by its flat hierarchies and mass circulation leave quality? On the other hand, digitisation undoubtedly opens up more freedoms and untapped opportunities, and this may make it possible for literature to avoid the prevailing economic constraints.
At present, we can only sketch out a vague outline of how digitisation will affect literature, reading, and book culture. Yet one thing seems certain and that is the irreversibility of the latest developments. Much of what readers view as an imposition or annoyance today will have become a matter-of-course ten years from now. That’s why shrieking ‘Help, a mouse!’ is not enough to tackle the future. Rather, it is a question of considering carefully which values and qualities should be preserved and saved in the name of literature, no matter what.