The handmaiden’s balancing act? The (re)presentation of East European literatures in Weltliteraturgeschichte and younger ‘world literary history'

De evenwichtsoefening van de dienstmaagd? De (re)presentatie van Oost-Europese literaturen in Weltliteraturgeschichte en jongere ‘wereldliteratuurgeschiedenis’
Start - End 
2015 - 2018 (ongoing)
Department of Languages and Cultures
Research Period 
Research Language 
Research Methodology 
Additional tags 
Literary history
World literature



In 1877 the Austro-Hungarian Hugó Meltzl warned his colleagues: “As every unbiased man of letters knows, modern literary history, as generally practiced today, is nothing but an ancilla historiae politicae [‘handmaiden of political history’]”. At the time, Europe was dominated by the five powers of the ‘Vienna System’ (after the 1815 Congress of Vienna): England, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia, whose respective ‘national’ languages, except for Russian – the important exception –, were already then (as they arguably still are) considered to be the languages of world literature.

The balance arrangement between these powers more or less survived until World War I, a long period which saw the rise of the subgenre of Weltliteraturgeschichte or world literary history. While literary history about the ‘self’ indeed often served the legitimization of political claims, (world) literary history about the ‘other’ within and outside these herculean books did not function as such. Because the case of Eastern Europe is imperative to prove the legitimacy of, or refute, the idea that historical power relations were the main preoccupation of (world) literary history, this project studies how Weltliteraturgeschichten (re)presented the mostly young literatures of Russia – the newest superpower, victor over Napoleon – and the burgeoning nations of the heterogeneous ‘buffer’ in between: the Balkans and East-Central Europe. Notwithstanding the sometimes dubious introductory remarks, the actual treatment of Eastern Europe’s emerging literary achievements in general reveals respect and – one could say – enlightened hospitality, at least on a (Eurocentric) world cultural level. Apart from studying the obvious German pioneering works of the subgenre (esp. Scherr), the project also takes into account their Russian equivalents (esp. Pypin), with their specific focus on the literatures of the ‘fraternal Slavs’ on the Balkans and in East-Central Europe.

The project’s world literature studies scope (cf. the involvement of Theo D’haen) also paves the way for other world-literature-related approaches regarding how East European literatures were and are transnationally (re)presented. In this respect, concepts such as ‘(major vs.) minor literature’, and cultural transfer ‘vehicles’, such as comics adaptations of East European literary classics and (pseudo)translation prove to be useful instruments to probe the evolution of the ‘(market) value(s)’ of Eastern Europe and its literary heritage in the West. A particularly challenging world-literature approach – yet another, albeit politically incorrect manifestation of the handmaiden’s balancing act – of the region’s (previously) ‘retarded’ literatures (at the crossroads with supervisor Ben Dhooge’s scholarly interests in Modernism) is offered by Georgii Gachev’s concept of the accelerated development of Bulgarian and by extension Balkan and other (East European) literatures. An edited volume (by Dhooge & De Dobbeleer; book proposal accepted by Brill) on Gachev’s overlooked concept and its repercussions on the assessment of so-called peripheral East European (and two other) literatures is in preparation.





Theo D'haen