World Literature: never neutral views

Passions and politics were hard to tame when critics and scholars of world literature from 62 countries gathered in New York at summer's end. The occasion was the tenth triennial conference of the International Comparative Literature Association, a meeting which sounds far removed from the urgencies of newspaper headlines.

But soon enough the participants found their heated attitudes toward language , censorship, government interference, values, styles, translations, and national barriers intruding upon scholarly deliberations over literary research, literary theory, and the cultural contexts of literature.

Reingard Nethersole, occupying the only chair of comparative literature in all of South Africa, was one conference participant who finds that literary scholarship cannot be separated from politics.

Dr. Nethersole, a fiery German-born woman who has lived in South Africa for 16 years and who speaks Zulu and Afrikaans in addition to several European languages, teaches at the multiracial University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. This is a privately funded ''English medium'' university, in which 1,600 of the 14,624 students are, according to the government's strict classifications, ''black, Indian, and Coloured.''

Paradoxically, black vernacular literature did not appear on the reading list for a conference on South African publishing held at Witwatersrand.

Because the Afrikaner-dominated government has attempted to segregate blacks in small homeland groups by compelling them to use tribal languages, and because it is almost impossible for black writers to achieve publication in indigenous languages, most dissident literature has been written in English and published in London by small publishers, Dr. Nethersole explained. Her department remains committed to promoting their work in English, at present the only way in which an audience can be reached.

At this time few blacks fill faculty positions at Witwatersrand. In theory a black professor would still be required by law to live in Soweto, the 1 -million-person government reserve for nonwhites outside of Johannesburg.

Many ''high powered'' blacks have fled South Africa, Dr. Nethersole said. Recently, however, a few influential, expatriated blacks have felt free to return, she said.

The much-admired short story writer, Ezekiel Mphahlele, who went into voluntary exile in 1957, after he was banned from teaching in South Africa for campaigning against an education act he found repressive, accepted an invitation to be present at Dr. Nethersole's publishing colloquium.

Dr. Nethersole noted that while many of her students idolize the United States, because of the black-consciousness movement, few American students have come to study in her department, even though scholarship money is available.

Tarek Jawad, chairman of the English Department at Kuwait University, spoke of the effects of early colonial impositions on his nation's culture. Political and cultural rivalries have affected even the dictionaries young Arabs use to acquire their language skills, he said.

Ever since the late 19th century, these books, which are keys for these students to all other works in English, have reflected the biases of either British Orientalists or of Arab scholars of English. Dr. Jawad said there is still a ''dire need'' to produce bias-free dictionaries.

Dr. Jawad is himself an example of someone who a generation ago might never have had the opportunity to develop as a scholar. In 1945, the first tanker of oil for foreign markets - commanding a considerably lower price than it would today - left Kuwait. At about the same time, Jawad was born.

As the revenues from the exported oil grew larger and larger over the years, much went into modernizing and transforming old Kuwait; some of the surplus oil money flowed into education. The amiable Dr. Jawad - who today heads a department of 45 faculty members and 1,000 students - was among those who benefited.

Educated in Lebanon, England, and the US, Jawad returned to a new Kuwait to teach at a university full of students eager to ''learn fast,'' he said, to keep pace with the modern world.

Skepticism from Westerners greeted Soviet scholar P. V. Palievsky as he finished his talk.

The Soviet speaker had applauded the ''daring role'' of the literary critic as guardian of the public interest. Literature, he said, should represent the ''central core of life'' and serve the larger social good.

He then expounded to the assembled scholars all the justifications for suppression of literary freedom - and none of the implications of such a method as practiced in his home state, notorious for the production of ''samizdat'' (self-published) and ''export only'' literature by nonconformist writers.

Socialist ''realism'' which involves the representation of state-ordained values, remains the approved literary genre in the Soviet Union.''

Everything is interdependent,'' said the writer from Moscow's prestigious A.M. Gorky Institute of World Literature.

''Absolute freedom doesn't exist,'' he continued. ''Writers here (in the US) are under control, . . . are restricted in hundreds of ways. No one can escape this.''

During questions that followed his talk, Dr. Palievsky often responded with collective pronouns.'''In our opinion,'' he told a questioner, an individual writer ''is not self-sufficient.'' He cannot decide for himself the ''value component'' of his work. In the Gorky Institute scholar's view, it is the task of realism - which his institute equates with ''real art'' - to reflect the connection between literature and society.

Decorum ruled in the lecture hall, and no one asked Dr. Palievsky what happens in the Soviet Union when an artist's work is not ideologically pure, not deemed by critics at the government institute to serve an ''objective,'' social value higher than, or beyond, art. This is not to say that everyone agreed, however.

After his talk, Palievsky explained that each of the Soviets' 15 national republics has an institute devoted to the study of literature and language, where approved translations are prepared. The Soviet critic was proud that the Gorky has recently succeeded in getting ''Gone With the Wind'' translated into Russian. ''At last!'' he exclaimed. For years the text was seen as too racist for Soviet consumption.

Asked about his institute's views of expatriated Russian writers, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Dr. Palievsky told an anecdote about his student days. During that period, Soviet scholars ''were told'' that Howard Fast was in the pantheon of great American writers, alongside Hawthorne, Whitman, and Poe.

According to the Soviet scholar, ''hundreds of articles'' were published in the USSR on Fast during the period of his flourishing fame. Palievsky ascribes Western response to the exiled Solzhenitsyn to a similar kind of misapprehension of the scale and importance of his achievement. Dr. Palievsky regards his expatriated countryman not as a ''big writer,'' but as a ''talented publicist'' for monarchist views, one who seizes ''every opportunity to put his finger in the wound.''

Dr. Palievsky's panel mate, Rene Wellek, professor emeritus at Yale University, is known as one of the founders of comparative-literature studies in the US. Dr. Wellek said that ''judgment cannot be eliminated from criticism. . . . Attempts to do so cannot succeed.'' But he also insisted that, while a work of art represents an ''assembly'' of values, it must be dominated in the end by the aesthetic function.

One Norwegian scholar with traces of a Texas accent picked up in his native city, Stavanger - where oil drilling, beginning in 1968, brought an influx of Americans - remarked that he was disappointed not to have learned anything really new at the conference. He acknowledged, however, that he and his colleagues had only attended sessions where papers were given by scholars from America and Western Europe.

The message built into his remarks - that it is time to break down international barriers to discussion - was reiterated throughout the week.

Claudio Guillen, of the Concentration in Literature Program at Harvard, praised guest speaker Carlos Fuentes and his Latin American contemporaries who, he said, have been part of a literary movement that has made Spain seem ''provincial.'' Fuentes has, since 1958, published a torrent of novels that have distinguished him even among the ''boom'' generation of Latin American writers.

In his cogent, if wildly allusive, lecture, Fuentes wove a tapestry of references to literature, tracing the development of the novel from its ''almost vertiginous fullness'' during the 19th century to the ''deserted beach of modernity,'' where man wakes up and ''finds he's become an insect'' or ''walks to the mirror and realizes he has no face.''

The present vigor of the literature of Hispanic cultures, including the works of (Nobel Prize for Literature winner) Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fuentes said, has depended on its ''circulation,'' its travel back to powerful archetypes - Don Quixote, Don Juan, La Celestina. Through this tradition, writers of his generation have gone beyond the exhausted possibilities of ''character'' in modern fiction and the ''figure'' of the West has been reborn.

The eloquent Henri Peyre, speaking at the Henri Peyre Institute for the Humanities, a center named in his honor at The City University of New York, told the conference that the time has come for students, teachers, and researchers to get over old prejudices, to be willing to look to new centers, to realize that Paris is no longer the only ''Ville lumiere.''

''Literary criticism is more alive than ever,'' he said, adding that comparative literature may offer a means of transcending nationalism and creating international good will.

When a Southeast Asian discovered that an American counterpart spoke no French, he switched into flawless Spanish. ''It was amazing,'' she later remarked. ''He had learned it in Cuba.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.