Only in the course of preparing a graduate seminar session on Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters did I learn that Casanova died, far too early, three years ago at the age of 59. No one would have appreciated better than Casanova the significance of delayed uptake. But, all ironies about myself aside, I was quite moved by the memorial notices by Gisèle Sapiro for the Institute of World Literature and by Joseph Jurt for Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. Here’s a brief belated tribute of my own.
The World Republic of Letters is one of the handful of scholarly books that has most shaped my work. I read it while working on a dissertation chapter on autonomy from the nation. It certainly gave me the framework I needed to make an argument about James Joyce and Djuna Barnes in Paris, but more than that, like the work of Bourdieu which I had started reading not long before, it taught a radically liberating attitude to the literary world. For Casanova, this world is ruled (largely from Paris) by autocrats whose piety about literature and confidence in their disinterestedness is combined with profound and serenely unself-conscious ethnocentrism. The inequality of this world is never more evident than when it is celebrating a new discovery from parts hitherto unknown (a celebration which is principally self-celebration). Not to put too fine a point on it, I recognized New Haven in Casanova’s Paris.
I had the pleasure of watching Casanova calmly troll the hell out of a Yale audience in 2007, when she gave a talk to the French and Comp Lit departments. I wish I remembered the talk in more detail—I can’t find my notes—but I recall what joy I felt in hearing her dispassionate account of the mechanisms of literary consecration. Afterwards she told me she spotted me smiling in the audience, and she gave a very kindly response when I tried to ask her some esoteric tangle of a grad-student question, in my awkward French, at the reception after. And I remember a Yale faculty member telling me that she couldn’t possibly be considered for a job in Yale Comp Lit because her English wasn’t good enough—an irony I imagine Casanova would have appreciated. Around that time she became a visiting faculty member at Duke, though illness cut her bodily transnational circulation short.
Of course what is enchanting about Casanova’s work is not simply its debunking power: at the same time she is fully committed to the idea that (relative) literary autonomy is worth having, and to showing that the work that is produced in the struggle for autonomy is all the more admirable for overcoming both extra-literary and intra-literary obstacles. I was compelled to set out to read along the world-spanning lines she laid out; for a while I was on a mission to read analogues of Ulysses in every language on the basis of Casanova’s citations (my favorite of these was Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain). One could certainly quarrel with some of her literary judgments and with her brusque dismissal of previous comparative literary scholarship. But the most important qualifications to World Republic—from the perspective of the longer history of empires and cosmopolises—are really tributes to the power and reach of the initial formulation. Casanova’s example is best followed by trying to find even more ways to expand the field—and by continuing to struggle against the misrecognition of inequality in all its forms.