What is Comparative Literature?

From English to comparative literature

Equipped with a collection of degrees in English language and literature, for two decades, I taught, researched and published in a field called "comparative literature."  As near as I can judge, the discipline got its English name in the early 20th century from a faulty translation of the French expression "littérature comparée."  The literature which comparativists study isn't comparative in any meaningful sense.   It would make some sense to call the subject "compared literatures" (a literal translation of "littératures comparées") or, even more obviously and aptly, "comparative studies of literature." However, we specialists learned to succumb and accept the terminology that got us tenure without a whimper until some first-year undergraduate asked us "what exactly does 'comparative literature' mean?" Then we mumbled and grumbled about students who hadn't done enough reading.

Comparative literature = literary theory

It might be a stretch to describe comparative literature as influential, but whatever fashionable nonsense we didn't originate we were quick to support and promulgate. Over the postmodern period, comparative literature became code for literary theory, and comparative literature never met a theory it didn't like enough to adopt. Whatever nascent passion a student might bring to the study of literature, you can be sure literary theory was ready to quell it.


 Identity crises


Comparative literature has been suffering from an identity crisis for about as long as it has existed  (see Gayatri Spivak's Death of a Discipline), as has the discipline of English literature (see Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature). I have come to accept George Steiner's definition from his lecture/essay "What Is Comparative Literature?": "[...] comparative literature is an art of understanding centered in the eventuality and defeats of translation" (10).  There has been a turf war (more of a squabble really) between comparative literature and translation studies in recent decades.  Having done some translation work and research in translation studies, I came to the conclusion that Steiner got it right: comparative literature fills in the gaps in translation and tells us about what any translation is forced to leave out or leave behind.  We need a comparativist to tell us why a joke is funny in one language but not in another.

Comparative = 2 or more?

I think the expression "comparative study" means something because it suggests that the study is marked by "a consideration of at least two things."  I actually proposed this starting point at a meeting of comparativists once and was roundly told that my definition was "too narrow."  An additional irony (paradox? absurdity?):  for as long as I was active in the field there was a strident movement against explicit comparisons in the field of comparative literature on the grounds that such comparisons were out of date and smacked of "binary thinking."  (See Binary Thinking Versus the other Kind.)

Binary = bad!

In Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction, Susan Bassnett traces the notion that “comparative literature should involve the study of two elements (études binaires)” (27) to Paul Van Tieghen’s La Littérature comparée (1931) and argues that “[i]t is possible to see almost all French comparative literature from the 1930s onward as coloured by the études binaires principle” (28).  Bassnett describes a binary approach as having served comparative literature “so ill for so long” (24) and cites the “narrowness of the binary distinction” as the first of a number of reasons that “[t]oday, comparative literature in one sense is dead” (47).  

 

         

Studies of Canadian literatures in two languages = binary = bad!

In his introduction to Textual Studies in Canada 5: The Aux Canadas Issue, Robert K. Martin argues that the “binary model is no longer acceptable to many Canadians” (3). Claiming that “the paradigm of two founding nations leaves little place for the native peoples of Canada” (3), and he invokes the need for Canada “to go beyond duality” (3) in order to remain open to other voices.  Insisting that it is not enough to “simply add a soupçon of otherness to an otherwise unchanged recipe” (3), Martin points out that “[t]he comparatist enterprise has too long sought to produce a paradigm with variations, without adequately recognizing how much the apparently descriptive paradigm becomes prescriptive.  If major Canadian works are like this, then one that is like that can’t possibly be major, or even Canadian” (4).

Major Canadian works of literature?

The problem with the counterfactual problem that Martin imagines is that the average Canadian scholar of literary studies would be hard-pressed to name a "major" Canadian work of literature and reluctant to even describe a literary work as Canadian.  The postmodern scholar would dismiss the concept of "major" or a canon of major literary works, and equally dismiss the notion of a national literature.  The postmodern project was the stalwart investigation of the eccentric and the minor in opposition to a major or mainstream national literature.  What Martin and Bassnett fail to acknowledge, which anyone who has ever touched the keyboard of a computer knows, is the incredible possibilities for refinement, subtlety, inclusion and advancement that a binary approach can offer.


Everything old is new again!

Ultimately, literary studies, both English and comparative, was born out of an attempt to escape philology.  No doubt, historically speaking, philology has a lot of tedium and absurdity to answer for.  My career was spent studying the intersections of language(s), literature(s), culture(s) and disciplines which, everywhere I look, is a basic definition of philology.  In fact, Spivak's new comparative literature sounds a lot like philology to me.  As Sheldon Pollock points out in World Philology:  "The lowest common denominator of philology is [. . .] how to make sense of texts."  Turf wars aside, making sense of texts--which today means making sense of intertexts--has always been the lowest common denominator of literary studies, comparative studies, translation studies, and a host of other disciplines both new and old.


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