13 October 2009

Bias against multilingual literature

The Review of English Studies (2000), in its review of David Wallace’s The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (1999), talks about the bias literary historians have against multilingual literature:

"Yet the new Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, for all its anxiety to be inclusive – of the various languages and literatures of the British Isles, of ‘literature’ as most broadly defined, and of its institutional as well as its authorial production – begins (at least as far as England is concerned) at 1066. Why should this be so? And what will be the effect of this implicit but seemingly authoritative pronouncement about what counts as ‘medieval’ within the English literary tradition? If Old English and Anglo-Latin literature are not part of ‘medieval English literature’, then what are they part of? Or are they – as the Cambridge History seems to wish – to be consigned to oblivion?"

The review adds: "One of the enduring lessons of literary theory of whatever school is that critical positions are necessarily particular, and cannot be hidden or half-hidden behind a façade of apparently stable authority or an implicit claim to some measure of enduring validity which might have the commercial advantage of guaranteeing ‘shelf-life.’"

Because multilingual literary works are rarely included in textbooks, literary anthologies, and even literary histories, they are "consigned to oblivion" unless a significant number of writers and critics take up the cudgels for them. Studies of the canon of literature in various countries invariably show that the majority rules, and as Henry David Thoreau so aptly put it, the majority are always wrong. (What he actually wrote was this: "Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable?" But we can change government to literary history and conscience to taste.)

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