Reviewed: Katerina Clark, Eurasia without Borders: The Dream of a Leftist Literary Commons, 1919–1943, Harvard University Press
Yet ideas can be true, although men die:
For we have seen a myriad faces
Ecstatic from one lie,
And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now.
The lines above close what would eventually be published as ‘Sonnet XII’ in W.H. Auden’s ‘Sonnets from China’. In January 1938, Auden and Christopher Isherwood arrived in Hankou (now Wuhan), China, to document the Second Sino-Japanese War, having been commissioned by their publisher to write an Asian travelogue. Despite these rather ordinary inaugurating circumstances, Auden was received as a heroic poet-liberator on the model of Lord Byron (as the poet Tian Han put it in the newspaper Dagong). The book that eventuated from Auden and Isherwood’s four-month stay in China, Journey to a War (1939), is a hybrid text, combining Isherwood’s prose ‘Travel-Diary’, Auden’s sonnet cycle (initially titled ‘In Time of War’), and a series of photographs taken by the poet. Of these three reportorial components, it was Auden’s sonnets that had the most direct political impact: translated into Chinese almost immediately after the book’s publication, they were quickly absorbed into the propaganda cycle of the Chinese resistance movement.
In its coordination of Nanking and Dachau, a poem such as ‘Sonnet XII’ (which also mixes English and Italian elements of the form) evinces a greater worldliness than the poet himself probably possessed (indeed, Isherwood records that when he and Auden heard of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Austria, their response was, ‘What does China matter in comparison to this?’). And while ‘Spain 1937’ is Auden’s best-known war poem, I find the ending of ‘Sonnet XII’ impossible to forget—the precipitous descent from moral abstraction to cartographic particulars, the abrupt suspension of syntactical continuity for deictic immediacy, the sudden airlessness of the last line’s rhythmic reversal and abbreviation. The poem’s worldliness is primarily an achievement of tone: the trademark Audenesque yoking together of intimate and geopolitical violence under the gossamer reins of ‘light verse’—a feat that Sylvia Plath also manages to pull off in her poem ‘Daddy’. In Auden’s ‘Dachau’/‘now’ or in Plath’s friskier variations on ‘Jew’ (‘Achoo’, ‘gobbledygoo’, ‘screw’), rhyme is being used to extend the limits of a moral community bound together by its need to redress historical suffering and injustice. But because rhyme is always an instrumental use of language, these poems also remind us, rather unnervingly, that our conversion to the cause of humane identification and cosmopolitan sympathy immerses us in the same contaminated current of words and feeling as more coercive forms of conscription: ‘I began to talk like a Jew. / I think I may well be a Jew.’
Unsurprisingly, Auden and Isherwood’s Journey to a War features towards the end of Katerina Clark’s sprawling study Eurasia without Borders. For Clark, Nanking and Dachau could be seen as marking the limits of a new trans-regional entity that arose out of the ambitious remapping of the world undertaken by writers and cultural intermediaries in the interwar period. An Australian comparative and Slavic literature scholar based at Yale, Clark has turned her attention to the huge cast of leftists and fellow travellers who either gravitated towards Soviet-led institutions such as the Communist International (aka Comintern) or were galvanised by the more widely dispersed international movements against imperialism, colonialism and fascism. Eurasia without Borders does a great deal to offer a picture of ‘world literature from the left’, one that attends to an alternative global network centred around Moscow, Istanbul and Tokyo rather than Paris, London and Berlin. The big question posed by her finely reticulated study is, ‘How could you institute a “world literature” that was to emerge from a political-cum-economic system that denies a role to the market?’
While Clark begins her story with the 1920 ‘Congress of the Toilers of the East’ at Baku, where Mikhail Pavlovich, the doyen of Soviet Oriental Studies, announced his vision of ‘a single common international ocean of poetry and knowledge’, the historical bookends of her study coincide with the lifespan of the Comintern, an organisation founded in 1919 by Lenin for the purposes of exporting revolutionary fervour around the world. It dissolved 24 years later, its oceanic dream foundered on the reefs of the idiosyncratic obstacles faced by labour movements in different national contexts.
But rather than focus on a single organisation, Clark presents a planetarium of mobile alliances and institutional affiliations, with some figures in fixed orbit around Moscow and others streaking through with comet-like eccentricity. In addition to the Comintern, we learn about the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV), an important training ground for so-called ‘Third World’ leaders and intellectuals (it is conjectured that Hồ Chí Minh was one of its alumni) as well as the International Organisation of Revolutionary Writers (MORP), which was crucial for broadening the reach of Moscow’s internationalist literary platform in the early 1930s.
The large and shifting demographic range of Clark’s book necessitates some conceptual parsing. To this end, Clark distinguishes between ‘hegemonic cosmopolitans’ (those ‘committed communists or hardcore leftists who were integrated into, and identified with, Comintern or other Soviet-linked literary bodies and aesthetic regimes’) and ‘leftist cosmopolitans’ (‘who sought some transnational identity or linkages and were opposed to imperialism or fascism, but were not committed to communism’). In the first category, Clark includes figures such as Qu Qiubai, a leading Chinese communist and translator who served as an instructor at KUTV, and Sergei Tretyakov, a prolific Soviet journalist and writer whose play Roar, China! turned a historical incident, wherein two Chinese junkmen were executed at the behest of British and American merchants, into a global anti-colonial cause célèbre. In the second, we find writers such as the Andrés (Gide and Malraux) and Boris Pilniak, whose revolutionary sympathies were coloured by a primitivism that prompted the critic Aleksandr Voronsky to remark, ‘To Pilniak, even Marx looks like a water sprite.’
It is this latter, more amorphous category of literary and political operatives that Clark tries to catch in her conceptual net. Drawing on the work of transnational and colonial historian Kris Manjapra, Clark asserts that this group of leftist cosmopolitans constituted an ‘ecumene’: ‘a far-flung or worldwide community of people committed to a single cause and engaged in discussions, lobbying and writing aimed at working toward a common program, and generating a common discourse’. Deriving from the Greek oikos for ‘home, residence’, ‘ecumene’ denotes the limits of the inhabited, civilised world; it was used in this sense by ancient Greek cartographers and early Christian church leaders. By conferring this title upon her motley crew of leftists, Clark gives a clue to the magnitude and momentousness of this world-building exercise, the closest analogy being the very historical phenomenon internationalism initially set itself against: empire.
While Clark’s positing of the ecumene is welcome as a means of both challenging and offering an alternative to the core–periphery model of cultural diffusion propounded by Franco Moretti (after Immanuel Wallerstein), the book’s chief mode of exposition—a carousel of contextualised portraits, with brief forays into literary analysis—tends to sink this necessarily fuzzy framing device under a welter of narrative detail. Although Eurasia without Borders gives us more than just ‘a history of generals’ (to borrow the phrase the Russian Formalists used to disparage bourgeois literary historiography), it does tend to equate world literature with ‘world literary relations’ (a phrase Aamir Mufti uses in his blurb for the book)—that is, literary history with diplomatic history.
I wondered whether a more vivid image of the ‘poetry and knowledge’ (the aesthetic and mental furniture) of the internationalist movement might not have resulted from a different kind of focus—one that privileged, say, texts over people in the manner of Antoinette Burton and Isabel Hofmeyr’s 2014 edited collection Ten Books that Shaped the British Empire. Rather than Manjapra’s ‘ecumene’ (which Clark concedes is an ex post facto label and ‘never formally constituted’), it is Burton and Hofmeyr’s notion of an ‘imperial commons’, a shared intellectual and informational milieu within which ideas and discourses circulated, that features in Clark’s subtitle. And yet it is precisely the contours of this conceptual space delimited by the internationalist imaginary (as distinct from the physical spaces of its circulation) that remain elusive.
This, however, may have more to do with the nature of the book’s subject than its conception or scaffolding. The project of literary internationalism was an extraordinarily hybrid one and riven from the start by competing priorities: between the preservation of ethnic peculiarities and cultural amalgamation; between Moscow’s desire for centralised control and ‘the entropic actuality of the Comintern’ (in the words of Steven S. Lee); between avant-garde experimentation and a populist art accessible to the proletariat and peasantry. At an even more basic level there was the absence of a shared language among many of the participants (ironically, due to the heterogeneity of the student intake, much of the pedagogy at KUTV was delivered through the imperial lingua franca with which various groups were most familiar). In particular, the alliance between radical art and revolutionary politics was an unsteady one. Indeed, Stalin’s aesthetic mandate—‘proletarian [later modified to ‘socialist’] in content, national in form’—tried to solve at a theoretical level a problem that remained intractable at the level of practice.
As Clark reiterates throughout her study, the dream of intercontinental amalgamation was thus fraught with contradictions. The discourse of strident anti-imperialism was not entirely inoculated against some of its own Orientalising tendencies, while to borrow William James’ model of the two basic intellectual temperaments, the ‘tough-minded’ spirit of realpolitik tended to draw sustenance from the outlandish fringes of ‘tender-minded’ speculation. A vivid example of this is given early on, with Kemal Atatürk’s commitment to the ‘Turkish historical thesis’ and ‘sun-language theory’, which respectively placed Turkic peoples and the Turkish language at the start of human history. Another is provided by the pervasive influence of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy, a spiritualist movement forged out of a syncretistic blend of religions (giving a special emphasis to Hinduism and Buddhism) and ‘the Brotherhood of Humanity’ it envisaged. Not only was Blavatsky’s brand of spiritualism popular among the avant-garde (figures such as Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and Velimir Khlebnikov), it also permeated the ranks of the Soviet secret police. The extravagance of these universalist theories was, it seems, far from incidental to the internationalist project, the depth of its geopolitical reformation requiring a new legitimating mythology.
Establishing a literary commons is an act of political imagination, and certainly from our contemporary vantage point, the credence accorded literature and the arts as efficacious media for shaping this faculty and, for its faithful execution, seems scarcely less utopian than the revolutionary message they were made to bear. In the post–Cold War mentalité, culture’s relation to power is understood almost exclusively as pure instrumentality. What has been lost is a premodern or classical ideal of aesthetic statehood—in which the cultural arts, rather than being a mere means to domination, are instead constitutive of political consciousness—that scholars such as Josef Chytry (in the context of the German philosophical tradition) and Sheldon Pollock (whose work on the ‘culture-power practices’ of the ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ Clark cites) have tried to recover. However ill-defined and ill-fated the Eurasian cultural space adumbrated by Clark’s cast of prophets and functionaries, the fact that it remains in touch with this ideal—and is able to flash glimpses of it—has important ramifications for ‘world literature’.
For if, in that phrase, the word ‘world’ is to mean more than just geographical expansiveness (so that literature becomes a mere adjunct to globalisation studies), then the ‘dream of a leftist literary commons’ restores some of the phenomenological thickness (and polemical thrust) to that telling epithet. As Pheng Cheah has argued, the study of ‘world literature’, at least since its conceptualisation by Erich Auerbach, is best understood as a ‘normative vocation’, presupposing the idea of humanity
not [as] something naturally given but a telos to be achieved through intercourse across the existential plurality and diversity of human traditions and cultures whose individuality must be maintained and whose unique historical development must be respected.
It is less space than time that is of the essence here: world literature, in these terms, consists in the realisation of an emancipatory and potentially perfectionist teleology; it becomes a way of plotting the next chapter in the ‘universal history of the human spirit’. This teleology remains largely implicit in Clark’s study except in an early chapter on the privileging of sound over sense in revolutionary poetics, which she interprets as symptomatic of an ‘aural millenarianism’, the heralding of a new aesthetico-political horizon unfractured by linguistic difference. World literature then emerges as the closest thing modernity has to a secular eschatology.
What remains of this ‘dream of a leftist literary commons’ and what place might Australian writers have in it? In her epilogue, Clark posits a link between the ‘“Moscow”-oriented interwar internationalist, anti-imperialist movement in literature’ and the floruit of postcolonial writing in the postwar period, beginning with the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. And while her book describes in essence the eventual dissolution of one of the world’s most ambitious cultural apparatus, what that apparatus left behind was more than just its tantalising revolutionary promise; indeed, it helped mobilise a counterpublic that emerged from the global process of decolonisation. Yet the ongoing legacy of this trans-colonial counterpublic—the work of writers such as Mahmoud Darwish, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe (all winners of the Lotus Prize, established in 1969 as an alternative to the Nobel by the Afro-Asian Writers’ Associations)—has gradually, albeit belatedly, been metabolised by the metropolitan centres of the literary world-system without, it seems, any major disruption to their digestive tracts.
If a lesson of Clark’s study is that political orientation is partially bound up with (trans)regional affiliation, then the extent of Australian writers’ involvement in this counterpublic may depend on our ability to imagine and discover broader geographical contexts for the national literature. Situating Australian writers and writing in the Global South or specific bilateral relations (as Nicholas Jose and Benjamin Madden have done in their edited collection Antipodean China) as opposed to, say, the Commonwealth, might help point the political compass in a different direction by creating new platforms for solidarity (in a trans-indigenous ecumene, for instance).
Conversely, it would be surprising if the opportunities for and susceptibilities to transculturation did not increase with a more critical and consistent reckoning with the nation’s settler-colonial past. When it comes to thinking without borders, the sovereignty of the imagination may seem an irredeemably crude and naive crux of contemporary liberal cosmopolitanism; it certainly pales in comparison to internationalism’s firebrand vision of global proletarian revolution. But in a local context where political sovereignty is still contested (through failures of will and of imagination), ‘sovereignty of mind’, as Alexis Wright has put it, may not be a negligible thing after all. •
James Jiang is a writer, editor and recovering academic based in Brisbane/Meanjin. He is assistant editor at Griffith Review and literary essays editor at Cordite Poetry Review.
Auden, W.H., Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson, Modern Library, 2007.
Burton, Antoinette and Isabel Hofmeyr, Ten Books that Shaped the British Empire: Creating an Imperial Commons, Duke University Press, 2014.
Cheah, Pheng, What is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature, Duke University Press, 2016.
Chytry, Josef, Aesthetic State: A Quest in Modern German Thought, University of California Press, 1989.
Glaser, Amelia M. and Steven S. Lee, Comintern Aesthetics, University of Toronto Press, 2020.
James, William, Pragmatism, Hackett, 1981 .
Jose, Nicholas and Benjamin Madden (eds), Antipodean China: Reflections on Literary Exchange, Giramondo, 2021.
Moretti, Franco, ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, New Left Review 54: 1 (January–February 2000), pp. 54–68.
Plath, Sylvia, Ariel: The Restored Edition, Faber, 2004.
Pollock, Sheldon, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India, University of California Press, 2006.
Voronsky, Aleksandr Konstantinovich, Art as the Cognitions of Life: Selected Writings, 1911–1936, Mehring Books, 1998.