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Global Circulation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2018

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Keywords for Victorian Literature and Culture
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

In May 2017, I co-hosted a conference at the India Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, with a call for papers that read “Scholar-participants are expected to address and examine questions that … cut across at least two linguistic cultures. Papers that are too narrowly monolingual in their focus will be given a lower priority in comparison with those that have a multi-lingual focus.”Footnote 1 The case of India makes clear the importance of language at the base of states, rights, and entitlements. The Belgian economist Phillipe Van Parijs, well known for his formulation and advocacy of a Universal Basic Income, has understood this in proposing the rather utopian notion of linguistic justice and a tax on English, and such ideas have given rise to a thriving field of the Economics of Language. In multilingual countries, a national literature will be diverse and promoted through translation, and India is a multilingual nation with one billion citizens and 415 languages and dialects. 415 is a conservative estimate. SIL Ethnologue lists 7000 languages in the world, and some argue that 2000 of them are currently in India, with 22 recognized in the Constitution for legal use, including English. The Sahitya Akademi was founded in 1954 amidst debates over national languages “to foster and co-ordinate literary activities in all the Indian languages and to promote through them all the cultural unity of the country.”Footnote 2 In 1956 Jawaharlal Nehru divided states along linguistic lines, exhorting them to learn each other's languages to promote unity in the newly independent India. Although with hindsight it appears that contrary to Nehru's hopes, this linguistic division actually decreased multilingualism, the debates tolerated even English as a possible force during the unification of the new nation-state: “[English] does help in our understanding each other, more especially the people from the North and the South … it provides a link between us and the outside world, and it is of the utmost importance that we should maintain and recognize that link … And not try to cut ourselves from it and isolate ourselves.”Footnote 3 Today, it is worth noting that even the most oppressed groups in India can make claims for empowerment through English. One spokesperson for the Dalitbahujans (Dalit in Marathi is the term chosen by scheduled castes to mean oppressed or broken and bahujan means majority), Kancha Ilaiah, writes “English's accessibility to the oppressed is creating a new philosophy … In the future it can become a big instrument of liberation of the Dalitbahujans and women. It translates the new global ideas within no time and the organic intellectuals who could read and write in that global language would be in a better position to handle these ideas with much more confidence than those who cannot.”Footnote 4 Without taking sides on English, we can discern two contrasting possibilities for language: language as local identity and community or as a process of change, as in processes of globalization. Our attitude may be one of preservation and protection or laissez-faire and evolution. As languages become extinct, as English or Mandarin becomes hegemonic, we may take the tolerant view that languages serve the needs of their speakers and as speakers change their languages will evolve with them. Or we may say with Van Parijs that global languages are forms of domination, and that local languages are worth fighting for, or in any case that the idea of mother tongues and language purity only arose with modern nation-states.

I have begun with language because the global circulation of English language and literatures is largely the effect of the Victorian British empire and settlements and in the future this empire and settlements and their international relations, rather than an island's literature, will be central to Victorian Studies. Thirty-five years of postcolonial studies have shown us the interdependence of things British and things global, and an even longer history of Marxisms has shown us the horizontal contexts between Britain and other empires and settler colonists in the nineteenth century and the vertical struggles (socioeconomic class, caste, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.) within each of them.

Victorian ideologies of liberalism, individualism, nationalism, socialism, cosmopolitanism, and Internationalism will be seen through other geopolitical movements, such as the May Fourth and New Cultures movements in China, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, the Turkish Tanzimat and the Arab Romanticism that resisted it. Well-known in Victorian Britain, Theosophy was also a global movement intended to rationalize and universalize religions; Esperanto was meant to provide a modern universal language; even the New Woman was a social type circulated to modernize gender relations. She appeared in Britain in the 1880–90s, in China in the 1920–30s, and in Arabic-speaking cultures in the 1950s.

Just one example. From the Victorian fin de siècle, Oscar Wilde and particularly his “Soul of Man under Socialism” (1891) was particularly influential on the young André Gide, and, through Gide, on colonial Annam (French Indochine today Vietnam). Wilde had argued in characteristically brilliant fashion that in order for individualism to flourish, society would first have to institute a level playing field through socialist redistribution. Only from an initial basis of equality would people then be able to develop in accordance with their different and unique talents and capacities. In his “Défense de la culture” speech at the 1935 International Writers’ Conference in Paris, the anti-fascist Gide used Wilde's ideas to promote international solidarity through national particularity. Gide argued “There are, for peoples as for individuals, certain indices of particular refractions, and this is precisely the great interest of our cosmopolitan meeting … the culture that we aspire to defend is the sum of the particular cultures of each nation. This culture is our common good. It is common to all of us. It is international.”Footnote 5 Like Wilde, Gide was working his way into being that Victorian-inspired combination of communist individualist and national Internationalist. He said: “For my part, I claim to be strongly internationalist while remaining intensely French. In like manner, I am a fervent individualist, though I am in full agreement with the communist outlook, and am actually helped in my individualism by communism.”Footnote 6 On the topic of World Literatures, he spoke out: “What could be more particularly Spanish than Cervantes, English than Shakespeare, Russian than Gogol, French than Rabelais or Voltaire—at the same time what could be more general and more profoundly human.”Footnote 7

The Wilde/Gide crux then appears in the Art for Art's Sake Debates in colonial Annam in 1935–39, so the relevant empire in which the Victorian Wilde's ideas were translated was the French and the relevant movement was the communist International. Gide was attractive to the Vietnamese for his “romanticism” (for them, the value he placed on individual subjective expression) and his “realism” (for them, his representation of the real struggles of the masses). In the Art for Art's Sake Debates, the critic and activist Hoài Thanh cited Gide in developing a cosmopolitan outlook, essentially summarizing Wilde's argument in “The Soul of Man”: “Gide expresses his complete commitment to individualism. Individualism does not contradict communism, but rather individualism needs communism in order to reach complete fruition. The more an individual develops his character the more the collective benefits, Gide claims. The same is true for each national culture: the more each enunciates its distinctiveness, the more [hu]mankind benefits.”Footnote 8 While rebutted by “realist” Marxists, Gide's model of international solidarity through national particularity as adapted by Hoài Thanh broke with the Confucian instrumental use of literature in favour of creative and personal expression. Hoài Thanh thought that this would lead to ethically autonomous individuals who would benefit the collective. The free development and articulation of the individual could only be realized by the free development and articulation of all.

It is noteworthy that Wilde's “Soul of Man under Socialism” translated into Hebrew was also dear to the founders of Israel in the early days of the socialist state. Chana Kronfeld, a specialist in Hebrew and Yiddish translation and transculturation, has noted how Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest (1895) was taken as an anti-anti-Semitic tract in the early days of Zionism. Kronfeld has also discussed “The Soul of Man”’s circulation among the early founders of the kibbutzim who inspired the anarcho-syndicalist and socialist perspectives of Noam Chomsky and Bernie Sanders.Footnote 9 Such intercultural transvaluations of values often associated with Victorian Britain—individualism, socialism, nationalism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and so forth—will be central to the development of Victorian Studies in the future. If we don't motivate ourselves, we will be motivated by our international, multilingual students and university managers funding our global collaborations.



1. India Institute of Advanced Study International Conference, “Purifying the Dialect of the Tribe: Cross-Cultural Concerns in Colonial and Postcolonial India,” Rashtrapati Niwas, Shimla, May 17–19, 2017.

2. Ministry of Education Report, 1971, in Singer, Wendy, Independent India 1947–2000 (Harlow: Longman, 2012), 153Google Scholar.

3. Report of the Official Language Commission, 1956, minuting Nehru, in Singer, Independent India, 153.

4. Ilaiah, Kancha, The Weapon of the Other: Dalitbahujan Writings and the Remaking of Indian Nationalist Thought (Delhi: Pearson, 2010), 174Google Scholar.

5. Tran, Ben, “Queer Internationalism and Modern Vietnamese Aesthetics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Wollaeger, Mark and Eatough, Matt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 367–87Google Scholar, 369.

6. Tran, “Queer Internationalism,” 370.

7. Tran, “Queer Internationalism,” 371.

8. Tran, “Queer Internationalism,” 374.

9. Personal communication at the Asia-Pacific Forum on Translation and Intercultural Studies “Translation and World Literature,” University of California, Berkeley, October 20–22, 2017.