Martin Puchner

Socrates, Scheherazade, and Superheroes

Harvard professor and Norton anthology editor Martin Puchner on the importance of World Literature and how it can impact students.

The stakes for world literature are nothing less than “the single best way … for achieving intellectual breadth.” At least, that’s in the estimation of Martin Puchner, editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, now in its fourth edition.

Puchner is giving a lecture, “The Case for Global Literature,” at 7 p.m. April 19 in Lied Library’s Goldfield Room, where he’ll be discussing why world literature matters today more than ever, and how teaching these second-year seminars can improve student success not just at UNLV but at universities across the country.

He recently took a moment after teaching his own world lit classes at Harvard to chat about the intellect-enhancing power of reading literary texts from every era and from all over the globe.

The fourth edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature is the textbook we rely on for UNLV’s most popular second-year seminars, namely world literature I and II. These classes are designed to reinforce our university undergraduate learning outcomes, one of which is intellectual breadth and lifelong learning. Do you see the latest edition of the anthology helping students to better see their lives as ongoing intellectual journeys?

I think a course on world literature is the single best way I know for achieving intellectual breadth. After all, literature allows us pretty much direct access to the minds of people from other parts of the world or from the remote past. That’s the power of literature. This also makes it hard. Making literature from other parts of the world speak to our students requires a lot of work from teachers because we want students to be able to access this experience by providing them with the necessary cultural knowledge. But I think there’s no good substitute for reading world literature. History textbooks can only do so much because they provide information second-hand. Actually reading what a writer wrote hundreds or even thousands of years ago and halfway around the world is a thrilling experience, one that expands our intellectual horizons like nothing else. 

In your book The Written World, you make a case for the importance of foundational texts in shaping our history, culture, and politics. You certainly admire Alexander the Great for the intensity with which he built his empire around concepts found in Homer’s Iliad. But there’s another way of looking at Alexander’s literary inspiration for empire-building: Shouldn’t the Iliad instead be held accountable for glorifying armed conflict over many centuries?

My main goal in The Written World was to show the influence of literature on human affairs. When people hear the world “literature,” they sometimes think what’s on the fiction bookshelf in the local bookstore. And that’s not exactly world-changing. So I wanted to expand the notion of literature to include important written stories, even religious and political stories, and show how much they have shaped our world. The story of Alexander and the Iliad was a perfect example, which I why I start with it. But you’re absolutely right that the powerful influence of literature has not always been for the better. Literature has done terrible things—or rather, humans have done terrible things with it, or in its name. That’s the thing about tools, and I think of literature as a powerful tool: it all depends on how you use it. In the book I talk about textual fundamentalism as a real problem in a world shaped by religious and political stories. So, yes, we have to careful about how we use literature precisely because it is so important and not always benign.

There are new translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey by women in the antholgy. How significant is their inclusion? As a fan of Homer and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian), should I be concerned these translations skimp on macho violence?

I think the new translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson is superb. You are right that it is noteworthy that it is the first translation of the Odyssey into English by a woman, and Emily has very interesting things to say about how many previous translators let certain gender biases influence their choices—for example in the depiction of female slaves in Ithaca, and of Helen. But those corrections are only a small part of what makes this translation superior to all others I know. Emily’s translation is incredibly fast-paced, as fast-paced as the original, which is very rare, because it is so wonderfully unfussy; it’s very direct and hard-hitting. It eschews fancy-sounding language and is very modern without being colloquial. I don’t know whether I would go so far as to call it a “macho” translation, but I wouldn’t be shocked if someone described it that way. So I think you’ll get your battle scenes with more power, more direct impact, in this translation than in any other Odyssey.

You’re not afraid to use the term “cult of personality” in regard to the great teachers of the classical world—Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus. Are you ever tempted to label them as “trolls?” We can identify a tendency of these teachers to sow discord and to antagonize the powerful and hypocritical, don’t you think?

You’re right that these teachers certainly disrupted prevailing ideas and values, often with forceful and cutting words. The difference with online trolls I see is that these teachers didn’t hide behind the anonymity of the internet and instead put their own bodies and lives on the line. Two of them, Socrates and Jesus, died violent deaths for it. And they did so willingly. Both Socrates and Jesus had the opportunity to flee, but they didn’t take it. I don’t see Internet trolls doing that. So perhaps the better term would be the one Socrates used for himself: gadfly. They were gadflies, all four of them. Perhaps we could convince some Internet trolls to take their inspiration from these teachers and become gadflies.

Another learning outcome at UNLV is global/multicultural knowledge and awareness. However, it’s often hard not to judge the authors of a work like One Thousand and One Nights when we boil the frame narrative down to a sultan keeping a woman, Scheherazade, prisoner so she can tell him enthralling stories. If part of the mission of multicultural awareness is learning about other cultures, how do we square the application of social justice when approaching such texts?

True, many works of world literature don’t describe behavior we would condone. The frame story of One Thousand and One Nights, with the sultan killing every woman he spends a night with, is a good example. I don’t think we read world literature to find uplifting tales that confirm our own values. That would be much closer to propaganda and extremely boring. I think what’s important about world literature is precisely that it confronts us with different worlds, different societies, and this also means, different morals. We don’t have to accept these morals, but we can take note of them, debate how they arose, and even sharpen our own values by contrasting them to those we encounter in world literature. Having said that, I think there’s an ultimate purpose to One Thousand and One Nights. The story collection clearly portrays the sultan as having gone mad over the infidelities of his wife when he decides on his murderous course. By the end of the story collection, the king is cured and he is capable of a normal marriage again, when he not only spares Scheherazade, but marries her. It is clear that Scheherazade has cured him through her stories. Amoral stories as cure: Perhaps that’s a good definition of world literature?

Can you imagine a world, not far in the future, when university students won’t be required to read or understand Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Cervantes’ Don Quixote?

I actually can, if only because canons change all the time. We see that at Norton every time we go through the responses to our questionnaires. Certain classics—for example Goethe—have been declining in popularity with teachers and students while others are on the rise. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. After all, what we want from literature, what we need from it, changes all the time, so it makes sense that the literature we read—and how we read it—changes as well. I used to think that a canon is a stable store of great works from the past. I have since come to realize that it is a much more dynamic process. Having said that, I see no indication that Ovid and Cervantes specifically are in trouble. They’re both going strong and I think they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We even increased our selection from Don Quixote for the new edition by including the interpolated “Captive’s Tale,” in which Cervantes used his own painful experience of having been a captive slave in Algiers for four years.

Do you believe it valid for world lit instructors to encourage students to make connections between epic literature and the mythic characters of the Marvel and DC comic-book universes? Isn't it condescending when a professor constantly points out New Testament symbolism in, say, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels?

Yes, I think it is valid to see influences and patters that connect today’s literature with the past. That’s what literature is: retelling stories. Harry Potter is a great example in that Rowling borrows a lot from medieval literature, and literature about the Middle Ages, as well as from 20th-century boarding-school novels. I myself would spend more time with narrative patterns than with symbolism. In my experience, though, students are very interested in making connections between the literature they grew up with and world literature. Yes, I’m sure there are ways of talking about pop literature that are embarrassing, or condescending, or pandering, so let’s avoid those.

Do you often think that your editing of the anthology might be the most important work you’ll end up doing in your life? Isn’t this project, in some ways, similar to the work of so many nameless scholars who kept the light of the human imagination alive on scrolls, papyrus, and parchment?

Yes, that’s a very nice point. While writing The Written World, I was struck by how much of world literature was the product of scribes and editors; modern authors don’t become dominant until the age of print. In fact, we may well be witnessing a decline in the importance of individual authorship in today’s world of “content” providers and online aggregators. When contemplating these changes it did occur to me that the work on the Norton was in many ways similar, with its emphasis on selecting works, connecting them with others, creating frames—unfortunately nothing as effective as the unforgettable frame tale of the One Thousand and One Nights. What I like about it is the collaborative nature, not only because I work with a large team of editors, but also because I feel that as an editor you also work with previous editors, authors, teachers, and students. An anthology is not the brainchild of a single person. It is truly a collective enterprise.

For more information on Martin Puchner’s April 19 lecture, head here.

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