World Theory

Interpreting Literature: A List of World Theory Readings, from Antiquity to 1949

Steven J. Venturino
2007, 2013:

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This reading list presents a suggested collection of “global literary theory” addressing central issues of literary interpretation, from antiquity to the middle of the twentieth century. Along with a full selection of readings from the Western tradition, this list also reflects a global scope with readings drawn from sources not widely available in critical anthologies, such as major Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian criticism, Latin American critical movements, African interpretive traditions, and influential perspectives offered by Christian exegesis, Midrashic interpretation, and Islamic approaches to literature.

Many of the excerpts will be found in existing anthologies. For example, when the list includes “Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), from Biographia Literaria,” you can find an appropriately chosen excerpt from this work in any good collection of criticism. Other selections may take some digging and specialized knowledge, but what with the increasing availability of texts on the web, almost all of the following texts can be obtained with a bit of work.

An alternative to existing volumes that range “from Plato to the present,” these selections offer students readings specifically designed for courses in the history of literary criticism, world literature, and “pre-contemporary” literary theory. The readings not only provide students with a view of the perspectives that link Plato to Sidney to Sartre, but also allow students to trace the concerns that connect the fifth-century Chinese critic Liu Xie with the burst of literary scholarship in China during the 1920s, or the approaches that complement the Ramayana of south Asian antiquity with the Sanskrit literary criticism of a millennium later. Just as important, the readings show students how literary interpretation, like literature itself, is a dialogic, collaborative art in which conversations span nation, era, and language.

I’ve also included samples of the three tables of contents originally envisioned for this volume, in order to facilitate the global conversation of literary criticism. The first reflects the chronological arrangement of the readings in the volume, while the second table of contents presents readings emerging from a particular region or tradition. A third table allows students to compare readings that address specific shared interests, such as the value of mimesis, the role of imagination, or the nature of truth in poetry. Feel free to create your own versions of these tables of contents to suit your own needs and goals.

Theory courses often beg two provocative questions. In the contemporary theory classroom, students ask, “What did critics do before the twentieth century?” Meanwhile, students of “classic texts” that precede the mid-twentieth century wonder aloud if any critical work was being done outside the Western tradition. This list responds to both questions by recommending the most significant reflections on literature from around the world and offering them in one resource.

For readers interested in focusing only on contemporary global literary theory, take a look at the recently published volume, Global Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Richard Lane (Routledge, April 2013). More information on Lane’s book can be found at the publisher’s website.

My own world theory list presents an earlier picture of theory and criticism. In it, the Western tradition appears much as it is reflected in the major competing volumes, but it is complemented by important non-Western readings. These readings, ranging from essays on Yoruba divination and Biblical exegesis to Japanese No theater and Latin American modernismo, are currently scattered through separate volumes on world literature, national literatures, or philosophy, yet when brought together in one text they respond to the demand for a broader view of literary criticism as such. Simply put, this list allows students access to the critics, traditions, and dialogues that both support and interrogate the global fascination with literary art.

I’ve provided three tables of contents so far. The first reflects the chronological arrangement of the readings, while the second allows readers to easily link the readings of the various regions and traditions covered. The third table of contents (a growing and customizable set) arranges the readings by topics important in the history of criticism.

Comments, suggestions, and random inquiries are welcome!
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