Showing posts with label philology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philology. Show all posts

Friday 13 November 2020

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.

Sunday 16 February 2014

How to Make Love to a Logophile?

What does it mean when John gives Mary flowers?

For more than a dozen years, I taught an introductory literature course to 60 or so first-year undergraduates, 80% of whom were young women--a number of whom would typically report being interested in questions of love and romance.  Every year in the first class I described the following scenario and asked the class what word they would use to describe this young man’s actions.

John’s eyes always light up when Mary enters the room.  He always talks in a tender, flattering manner to her.  He takes her out to dinner and buys her flowers and small gifts. Etc. Etc.

What is the verb for when a man pursues a woman?

As I presented this hypothetical heterosexual scenario, I could feel Judith Butler and the gender police breathing down my neck, but bear with me. So what do we call what John is doing?  Over the years I noticed a shifting in the tenor of the answers.  The typical mid-90s answer was that he “was cruising,” “on the make,” “hitting on her” and, cutting to the chase, “trying to get laid.”  At the millennium the answers became strident:  “he’s a sexual predator,” and “it’s patriarchal oppression” and “hegemonic domination.”  In more recent years the pendulum swung back slightly and it was typical to hear reported that it’s not about him but them:  “they are friends with benefits” or “they’re dating” or “hooking up.”

Without "wooing" and "courtship" is romance dead?

As I called the room to order, I reminded my students of what they already knew: that the expressions they had given me did not include the correct verb for the scenario I had described.  When pressed, someone would eventually come up with the proper expression:  “to court.”  Eliciting the older and much more English verb “to woo,” even among students who claimed to have read Romeo and Juliet where the lexeme is used a half dozen times, was a much greater challenge.  I eventually asked my students when they had last used the expressions “to court” or “to woo” in conversation.  The point of my questions was to provoke philological reflection on the relationship between language and culture using an example that I knew mattered to a lot of them.  What does it mean that there are no current, earnest words for courtship?  Does this gap in the vernacular prove that romance is no longer part of our daily culture?  The number of advertisements I see for dating and match-making companies and web sites tell me that there is a void in the culture which consumer capitalism has been moving rapidly and vigorously to fill. 

"Making love" before 1920 and after

The scenario I have described used to be called “making love.”  Thanks to Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, we can now date the shift in meaning to what Wharton called the “French sense” of the expression (i.e., having sex) to just before 1920 in the USA.  We might also associate this American shift of mores with the automobile, which F. Scott Fitzgerald likened, in his famous essay on the 1920s, to a bedroom on wheels.

"Making love" in the 19th century

It would be perfectly reasonable for us to imagine a conversation between two men in the 19th century in which one mentions fairly casually to the other, “I noticed you making love to my sister last night.”  Modern readers are likely to misinterpret Algernon’s meaning when he tells Jack, in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else, if she is plain.” Not a very nice sentiment, but not quite as bad as it sounds. “To make love” in this context means to display the courtship rituals I have described above; it does not mean to copulate.

"The Rules" for making love

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the earliest usage of “to court” meaning “to pay amorous attention or make love” as 1580.  The OED dates the Old English verb “to woo” as 1050.  Oddly, the OED describes “to woo” as “Now somewhat homely” but contradicts itself by adding “also poetic.”  (Much as we might love the OED--and I do--we should remember that the original version was significantly compiled by a homicidal maniac confined to a lunatic asylum.  See:  The Professor and the Madman.) “To court” is also a problematic expression because of its elitism since it explicitly refers to what goes on in the royal court and more specifically what went on in the court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine where the rules of “courtly love” were first written.  The rest of us peasants and plebeians were to get by in whatever way we could, clubbing women over the heads in Neanderthal fashion and dragging them off to our caves I suppose.  I feel like the Grinch in saying so, but a lot of the behaviours which people today point to as evidence of “true love” are the remnants of the rules of “courtly love” codified in the 11th century under the supervision of Queen Eleanor and her daughter.  Over the last 30 years,  Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider have turned their version of The Rules of “courtly love” into a not-so-cottage industry.  

Making love to a logophile 

Oh yes, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post:  a “logophile” is a lover of words, so the answer is almost redundant-- with words!

Why Is the Vagina Masculine? And What’s the Alternative?

“Vagina” is masculine  I first came across this factoid thirty years ago in Daphne Marlatt’s novel Ana Historic .   It came up again more r...