Classical World Literatures
Classical World Literatures, Wiebke Denecke (OUP) £60
Ever since Karl Jasper’s “axial age” paradigm, there have been a number of influential studies comparing ancient East Asian and Greco-Roman history and culture. Most of these have centered on the emergence of the world’s philosophical and religious traditions, or on models of empire building. However, to date there has been no comparative study involving literatures of multiple traditions in the ancient East Asian and Mediterranean cultural spheres. At first glance, it would appear that the literary cultures of early Japan and Rome share little in common with each other. Yet both were intimately connected with the literature of antecedent “reference cultures,” China and Greece respectively. These connections had far-reaching legal, ethical, material, linguistic, bibliographical, and literary consequences that made for distinctive Sino-Japanese and Greco-Roman dynamics. Exploring writers from Otomo no Yakamochi to Sugawara no Michizane and Sei Shonagon and from Cicero and Virgil to Ovid and Martianus Capella, Classical World Literatures captures the striking similarities between the ways Early Japanese writers wrote their own literature through and against the literary precedents of China and the ways Latin writers engaged and contested Greek precedents. Chapters engage in issues ranging from early narratives of literary history, cultural foundation figures, literature of the capital and poetry of exile, to strategies of cultural comparison in the form of parody and satire or synoptic texts. The book also brings to light suggestive divergences that are rooted in geopolitical, linguistic, sociohistorical, and aesthetic differences between Early Japanese and Roman literary cultures. Author Wiebke Denecke examines how Japanese and Latin writers were affected by an awareness of their own belatedness, how their strategies in telling of the origins of their own literatures evolved, and how notions about simplicity, ornateness, and cultural decline came to be blamed on the influence of their cultural ancestors. Proposing an innovative methodology of “deep comparison” for the cross-cultural comparison of premodern literary cultures and calling for an expansion of world literature debates into the ancient and medieval worlds, Classical World Literatures is both a theoretical intervention and an invitation to reading and re-reading four major literary traditions of the classical world in an innovative and illuminating light.