On October 7, Events Editor Julia Tolda attended an event hosted by Barnard College, which celebrated its authors. Professor Emily Sun was joined by panelists to discuss her newest book On the Horizon of World Literature.

A couple of days before the event, Professor Emily Sun reminisced on when the Comparative Literature department could serve wine and cheese and sit dozens of attendees in lavish rooms at Barnard Hall. But on Thursday, October 7th, it was through Zoom that we gathered to hear of her newest release. Nevertheless, the warmth emanating through the screen from Professors Jenny Davidson, David Lurie, Christopher GoGwilt, and Peter Connor was palpable, as was Professor’s Sun excitement.  

Professor Connor, chair of Barnard’s Comparative Literature and Translation Studies program, gracefully introduced the three panelists: Jenny Davidson, Professor at Columbia University and expert in eighteenth-century literature and culture, David Lurie, Columbia Professor and an expert in East Asian languages and cultures, and Christopher GoGwilt, a Fordham University professor and expert on modernist studies. Before giving Professor Sun the floor, Connor playfully commented on the department’s inability “to find an expert on horizons.”

Titled “On the Horizon of World Literature: Forms of Modernity in Romantic England and Republican China,” Sun’s book compares and contrasts texts from both periods, whilst discussing the concept of modernity. A dive into what Professor Sun called “the adventure of reading comparatively,” it was written between East and West, begun at one institution and finished at another. In her opening remarks, she thanked professors and students she met across many fields and disciplines, for inspiring her work of “cultural, disciplinary archeology.” 

Jenny Davidson, who had met Sun while they both pursued doctorate degrees and Yale University, congratulated the professor’s brilliant introduction. In it, she defines and reclaims Goethe’s concept of Weltliteratur (World Literature) in a context that is “liberated from its roots.” Zooming in on literary writing of asynchronous periods, Professor Sun conveys the possibilities of literature, through careful, philological, and philosophically-informed reading.

David Lurie also praised Sun’s ability to compare without hegemony, not presuming normativeness or superiority of the genre of Western literature. By disrupting the expected vectors of comparison (West influencing East, old influencing new) Sun gives way to the much more complex and interesting reading of Romantic England and Republican China. 

Finally, Christopher GoGwilt, lauded Professor Sun’s deprovincialized close reading, her attention to the alchemy of words. Engaging with cultural sources in constellations, and seeing “strangers as companionable forms, predicated on the shared discursive framework,” the author speaks on the transmedial life of words, and lived and inherited media.

Answering the panelists’ questions, Professor Sun discussed modernity in the context of early 19th century England and 20th century China. It is in the enactment of political modernity, which affirms aspects of ordinary life, that the two periods coincide. Brilliant yet daunting, Sun’s book opens possibilities for comparison which have previously been neglected. She establishes a reading of literature that transcends the bounds of time and space, which is sure to influence Comparative Literature in the coming years. 

Celebrating Barnard Authors via Barnard College.