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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 40, September 24, 2011

Is Globalisation Going to Devour Literature?

Wednesday 28 September 2011, by Amiya Dev

On May 24-26, the Daesan Foundation of Seoul, South Korea held its Third International Forum for Literature, the two previous ones having been held in 2000 and 2005 respectively. The themes for those two were ‘Writing across Boundaries’ and ‘Writing for Peace’. This one’s theme was ‘The Globalising World and the Human Community’. It was approached through the following sub-themes: (1) ‘The Self and the Other in the Age of Multiculturalism’, (2) ‘Writing in the Globalising World’, (3) ‘Literature in the Age of Post-Ideology’, (4) ‘Writing for the World Market and the Multimedia Environment’, and (5) ‘Literature and Eco-Criticism’. Each of these had a number of speakers, both overseas and Korean, the total tally being 45. Among the overseas participants were Nobel Laureates Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and Gao Xingjian, Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, former Poet Laureate of Britain Andrew Motion, the Argentine Ana María Shua of microfiction fame, the Japanese Yoko Tawada who also writes in German. On the Korean side were writers young and old, all eminent, and a few outstanding critics—the youngest and the oldest participants being Jeong Yi-hyun (b. 1972) and Yu Jong-ho (b. 1935) respectively. The three keynotes on the three days were given by Le Clézio, Gao Xingjian and Kim U-chang.

This Forum happened to have come in the heels of the unveiling of a bust of Rabindranath Tagore in celebration of his 150th birth anniversary in the art district of Seoul with the words he had written on Korea, ‘The Lamp of the East’, inscribed on its pedestal preceded by their Korean translation: ‘In the golden age of Asia / Korea was one of its lamp bearers / And that lamp is waiting / To be lighted once again / For the illumination of the East.’ He had not been to Korea, but had written these words as a token of goodwill to the young Koreans he had met in Tokyo in 1929. Korea had been under Japanese occupation then and he had a political conversation too with a thoughtful Korean youth on the future of such downtrodden countries which he recorded as an appendix to his Russiar Chithi (Letters from Russia). It was indeed fortuitous that this International Forum for Literature had on its eve a toast proposed in Tagore’s words, to ‘The Lamp of the East’. Tagore had no inkling of globalisation, but he had seen a lot of world evil and hoped, when World War II had broken out, that the new Saviour would come from the East. Let us take this for more than wish-fulfilment that writers and critics from diverse languages recently gathered at the Far Eastern city of Seoul to work out strategies to wrestle with the tentacles of globalisation.

For strategies are needed. Globalisation has a way of gobbling up literature’s very marrow. It has come in the wake of an apprehended death of history and ideology, with diaspora and multiculturalism running riot, and of course with multimedia taking over everyday comm-unication, and all this while a global warming gathering through a whole battery of assault on the planet’s earth, water and air. It is not that global capital has no interest in books; only books must be ever newer and newer, ever fleshier and fleshier, like every other commodity in the market, dazzling, but to be outdazzled by the one round the bend. The message is: ‘Writers of the world! Write more; you have nothing to lose but your name.’ For there is no going back, no tasting afresh of a pack of words, no cherishing, no telling you that you did well or did not do so well. ‘Classics’ are only glossy covers emptied of what was between them; they are only signposts in the pseudo-history of the book market.

Things are changing so fast that you cannot conjure up what you read yesterday or the day before: globalisation divests you of your memory. And what is literature in the long run if not literary memory? When Borges said that the Paradise was a choice library, he hit the truth of literature, for it means the co-habitation of writing from all times and languages, Mahabharata and War and Peace, The Divine Comedy and Fleurs du Mal, Oedipus Rex and Hamlet, Sakuntala and The Tempest, The Tale of Genji and The Remembrance of Things Past, Don Quixote and The Arabian Nights. In a lecture in 1907 Tagore had said that world literature was an ever-rising edifice with the literatures of the world adding their parts to it. It is this idea of world literature or rather literature that globalisation is out to wipe out.

These three days at Seoul were days of reflection and resolution. Globalisation is not only undermining literature but the very humanity that produces and nourishes it. Globalisation is enemy to hospitality. But globalisation too has its own canker. And literature has the third eye to locate it. So it is to literature that humanity is looking up for its survival. Literature must not fail.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal.

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