BLTC Press Titles

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The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian

The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. DuBois

The Revolt of the Netherlands

Friedrich Schiller

Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman

International perspective in criticism

by Gustav Pollak



"I Am convinced," says Lessing, "that no nation on earth has a monopoly of intellect in any of its manifestations. I know very well that people talk of the profoundly serious Englishmen and the witty Frenchmen, but who has made this distinction? Surely not Nature, who impartially distributes all her gifts. There are just as many witty Englishmen as witty Frenchmen, and just as many profoundly serious Frenchmen as profoundly serious Englishmen." We have in these words an implied declaration of his belief, borne out by all his teachings, that intellect recognizes no distinctions of nationality, race, or religion.

Chauvinistic criticism of foreign achievement is merely proof of inability to criticise at all. Herder condemns the expression, "the races of mankind," as "ignoble words." And if the philosopher and scientist is thus admonished to divest himself of a prejudice which would segregate mankind along narrow and arbitrary lines, with how much greater force comes the warning to the literary critic, who is solely concerned with the beautiful in human thought and expression.


English literature has always been rich in writers of remarkable gifts, of wide knowledge and high ideals, but these have not all possessed that precious gift which leads the thinkers of one nation to regard those of another with genuine sympathy. Matthew Arnold deplored the absence of this feeling in Coleridge, who was unable to find high literary genius in the French; yet, in turn, Arnold himself was not always just towards Germans, and far from being in full sympathy with Americans. The French, perhaps, have had more reason than most other nations to complain that their literary ideals were misunderstood by foreigners. Gaston Deschamps has spoken with considerable force of German injustice towards France, but while defending the fair fame of his country, he has his fling at Germany as the deifier of pure force in literature. That nothing is gained for the cause of good taste and mutual good-will by mutual recriminations of this kind is very evident. Fortunately, every nation can furnish a few critics whose international standards are directly helpful in bringing about a better mutual understanding between civilised countries.

Among the eminent writers of present-day England, John Morley and James Bryce are international critics in the fullest sense of the word. Oliver Wendell Holmes, among our own great writers of the past, possessed in full measure active sympathy with other nations. Writing from Paris to his parents, at the age of twenty- five, he said: "One of the greatest pleasures of living abroad is to meet in such an easy, pleasant sort of a way people from all quarters of the world. Greek and Barbarian, Jew and Gentile, differ much less than one thinks.'' We recognise in the language of the young American student the spirit of the future cosmopolitan thinker—the spirit of an Epictetus and a Montaigne.

Unfortunately, the day has not yet passed when the interests of nations were supposed to be diametrically opposite to each other. In literature East and West are perhaps further apart than they were a hundred years ago, when Friedrich Schlegel wrote: "The dwellers in Asia and the people of Europe ought to be treated in popular works as members of one vast family, and their history will never be separated by any student anxious fully to comprehend the bearing of the whole; but the idea of Oriental genius in literature generally entertained in the present day is founded on that of a few Asiatic writers only, the Persians and Arabs in particular, and a few books of the Old Testament, in so far as we may be permitted to view the latter as poetry; but there are many other Asiatic nations to whom this ordinary opinion is by no means applicable." Few, indeed, are the great writers who have heard the call of the Orient, few the critics who, by virtue of their international interests, have attained international significance.

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