The Poetics of Ultimacy and the (Meta-)World Literature of John Barth and Italo Calvino

Doctoral Dissertation


This dissertation examines how, by appropriating canonical stories, authors John Barth and Italo Calvino expose the fictionality of the 20th century idea of ‘genius,' or the artist as the solitary creator of original material. By rewriting texts like The Arabian Nights, Don Quixote, Faust, Hamlet, The Odyssey, and Orlando Furioso, they take up the idea that a finite number of narrative forms exist, and employ this principle against itself to produce original literature. I call this paradoxical approach to writing their 'poetics of ultimacy,' and argue that they return to a pre-Romantic recognition of the writer as a conduit for pre-existing materials to be artfully arranged.

Barth and Calvino’s work deconstructs the notion of an 'original' version of a text, arguing that as stories are told and retold, they enter the collective cultural consciousness and become part of the 'public domain' from which authors continuously draw. Consequently, the reimagination of an iconic figure is no longer the adaptation of a particular text, but the reuse of a familiar narrative element like those found in the oral narrative tradition. This reading challenges the hierarchical relationship of 'original' and 'derivative' in adaptation studies, offering an organic model in which an adaptation becomes a purposeful process of collaboration between the writer (who is already a reader), the creators of the source stories, and the eventual audience.

This type of fiction operates as literature which is itself comparative: one that registers, explores, and comments on the relational position of texts. While the majority of recent scholarship hinges upon the idea of world literature as a function of transmission and reception, I argue it is possible for a work to be created as an act of world literature. Barth and Calvino’s texts translate and appropriate stories from multiple traditions, as well as reinterpret figures now common worldwide; therefore, they become works of world literature simply through the act of composition. Because their texts selfconsciously investigate their own relationship to their author, reader, and the multinational network of texts that has brought them into being, they can be called 'meta-world literature.'


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-04202012-150453

Author Gretchen Busl
Advisor Steve Tomasula
Contributor Joseph Buttigieg, Committee Member
Contributor John Welle, Committee Member
Contributor Steve Tomasula, Committee Chair
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Literature
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
Defense Date
  • 2012-04-12

Submission Date 2012-04-20
  • United States of America

  • comparative literature

  • postmodern fiction

  • appropriation

  • canonicity

  • world literature

  • originality

  • textuality

  • adaptation studies

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

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