By Anis Shivani
“If we Germans do not look beyond the narrow circle of our own environment, we all too easily fall into…pedantic arrogance. Therefore I like to look around in foreign nations and advise everyone to do the same on his part. National literature means little these days; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everybody must endeavor to hasten its coming.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, January 31, 1827 
In the 1820s, talking to his youthful assistant Johann Peter Eckermann, the venerable literary statesman Goethe offered some reflections on Weltliteratur (world literature) that contain the gist of all the important considerations that continue to be relevant to this protean concept today.
One has to understand the status of German literature at the time to make sense of Goethe’s concern with provinciality. Germany was then in the shade of France, the overwhelming cultural power on the continent. Goethe’s growing interest in what we would today call “minority” literatures, both European and otherwise, was part of his project of charging German literature with enough doses of internationalism to overcome the dominance of France. Germany itself represented to some extent a minority literature, so the need was indispensable for it to traffic in ideas that were different yet similar.
The remark above came after Goethe’s enthusiasm for the Chinese novel, about which Goethe elaborates: “The people think, act, and feel almost exactly as we do, and very soon one senses that one is like them, except that with them everything happens more cleanly, lucidly, and morally. With them everything is reasonable, steady, and without great passion or poetic verve and in this respect is very similar to my Hermann und Dorothea as well as to the English novels of Richardson. It differs, however, in that with them external nature always lives side by side with the human figures.” 
We can see here the beginnings of what would later become formalized as “comparative literature.”
Elsewhere in the ‘Conversations’, Goethe observes that “Now we [Germans] are also supposed to be Greeks and Latins, and Englishmen and Frenchmen to boot.”  The solution to the confusion, for Goethe, was always to turn to the Greeks, as a way of rooting new developments in literature in the ultimate classicism. Goethe notes too that “It is very nice that now, with the close contacts prevailing among the French, the English, and the Germans, we are in a position to correct each other,” because he felt that Germans lacked in the “field of aesthetics,” not having a “man like Carlyle.”  In connection with old-German studies, Goethe advised: “It is good that you gradually acquaint yourself with everything from Germany as well as abroad, for in that way you come to see where the higher world culture, which a poet must have, can be found.” 
These remarks point us to an understanding of world literature as the indispensable core knowledge every writer must attain — not that this is a fixed curriculum of some sort, with a hierarchy of texts, because the requirements will be different for each writer based on his own position in literary space. In the ‘Conversations’, we find Goethe at various times appreciating Shakespeare, Manzoni, Byron, Molière, all kinds of world literature that he felt should feed into German art to energize it and give it universal importance.
It’s important to clarify what world literature is not: It is not a naive attempt to aggregate the core of all the classics of various literatures, an approach we see in contemporary anthologies of world literature. Nor is it an assessment of the most recognized and lauded works of literature at a given point in the world as a whole.
In other words, we are not talking about adding up or arriving at static conclusions about what really matters on the world stage, according to familiar criteria for similar evaluation within national literatures. For world literature to mean something — and two hundred years of continuous reflection by some of the greatest writers and critics would suggest that Goethe’s concept, though embryonically formulated, is one with abiding relevance — it must be more than an internationalized version of Mortimer Adler’s Great Books curriculum, or any misguided attempt at permanent canonization.
The key concept that confronts world literature is nationalism. From Goethe onwards, those who have been interested in world literature have tended to be anti-nationalists. National literatures are formed along with national identities; and as these identities remain continually in flux, shifting in relation to changes in world politics, so do national literatures. By understanding world literature, Goethe thought that Germans would have a better understanding of themselves as Germans — but not as Germans defined once and for all.
The great advocates of comparative literature in the 1930s and 1940s — heroic critics like Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer — were anti-nationalists par excellence, rebelling against the political strictures of their times. Auerbach and Spitzer wrote great works in exile,  their disciplinary orientation very much a rebuke to the raging nationalisms then threatening to reduce literature to mere accessory of temporizing politics. And again today, if world literature is to have a meaning, it must find ways of transcending the various short-term politics congregating around the contested concept of globalization.
Just as those skeptical of economic globalization today might assail the hegemony of Americanization (in consumerism and personal style), those resistant to literary globalization might argue against the predominance of English as the lingua franca of the twenty-first century.  The concern, as with globalization in general, is uniformity, a monolithic dominance that crushes diversity of local expression.
Such fears, it would seem, are exaggerated, since it can easily be argued that translation into and out of English is just as likely to revive a local or national literature as it is to sideline it. The translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali was part of the reason behind his Nobel Prize, but surely this must have led to more widespread translation of Bengali literature into various languages than would otherwise have been the case — leading to its quicker incorporation into the mainstream of world literature.