Towards a (History of) World Literature through Images

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Martinelli Hélène


This paper discusses the hypothesis that studying the visual characteristics of books makes it possible to question the linguistic borders which impact the circulation of literary works. By taking into account the material media of literary expression and its graphic counterpart, it also allows us to challenge the main issues of world literature, and go beyond the logocentrism prevailing in this field.

It is indeed surprising that our understanding of world literature remains strictly verbal, and even one of the greatest contributors to its definition, Martin Bodmer, the Swiss collector, based his thinking on how the genesis of literary works appears in the materiality of their form, whether manuscript or printed. Goethe himself, at least insofar as his discussions with Eckermann attest, mentions some old master drawings among the objects that gave rise to the first developments of the notion of world literature (on January 10th 1825).

Hence, the attempt to conceive a form of world literature through images, starting from the “Future of the Book”, that was theorised in 1926 by Lazar Lissitzky as a medium for a “new plastic language”[1], which actually resembles the one he used in 1922 for About Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions.

It is not insignificant that both Lissitzky and Bodmer were primarily interested in “hieroglyphic” rather than “alphabetical” books. Though they both reflected on the contributions of Gutenberg in order to consider a universal literature, Lissitzky did so

in a process of development while Bodmer considered it already at a standstill. This is evidenced by their writings, not only El Lissitzky’s “Future of the Book”, but also the many writings Bodmer devoted to world literature[1]. The latter did not necessarily promote the graphic component of the works he studied, even though he considered extending his collection and thus his conception of world literature to drawings and coins in 1938, and, going back even further prior to the origins of writing, by studying fossils in the 1960s[2].

In addition to these conceptual undertakings by theoreticians of world literature or book artists, what I intend to address here is the question of the method needed to establish a world literature through images.


Published: Nov 14, 2022

Article Details

Individual Sessions: Words and Images Crossing Literary and Critical Borders