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Serendipity: Literary Connectivity on Digital Terms (2019-)

As an exploratory project in Research Area 5, the project pursues two axes of inquiry: it will (re-)construct the communities that feed into, inform and underwrite Horace Walpole’s coinage of ‘serendipity’. At the same time and on a systematic level, the project will discuss ‘serendipity’ as a possible concept for conceiving of literary history as a history of transtemporal and transnational relations.

Used only once in Walpole’s correspondence in 1754, ‘serendipity’ went on to become a hotly debated concept in modern theory of science, where it has been understood as referring to the finding of something one was not even looking for. Its roots can be traced back to pre-moghul India, where a version of the story of the three sagacious princes which inspired Walpole was (probably) first told by Ameer Khusrow around 1300. Its history has been framed as a history of textual transmission, from Delhi via the Silk Road and the Mediterranean to Venice, where Michele Tramezzino published a supposed translation from Persian in 1557 – Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo.

Building on the Cluster’s fundamental notion of temporal communities, we propose an inverted perspective: not one of transmission and influence, but a series of appropriations and claims that gradually converted a medieval verse narrative first into an oriental morality tale and then into a conte de fées, as it happened through the Chevalier de Mailly’s French translation of Tramezzino’s text. Little wonder that one of Walpole’s contemporaries, who easily outshone him as a global figure then and now, turned to the story right before him. It was Voltaire who had relied on the story in his Zadig, yet Walpole almost aggressively ignored this text, rather laying claim to and inserting himself into an older, more exotic and therefore more exquisite history.

The project thus aims at understanding Walpole’s serendipity as a node in a wide-ranging network that is informed by a variety of types of connections, from appropriation to negation, and will provide a relevant data set for creating a digital model of interdependent communities.


Student Assistant