What is Comparative Literature?

What is Comparative Literature?

What is Comparative Literature?

There are the obvious ways one can begin to answer this question in a post-Spivakian universe but that is something we could consciously avoid for the time being. Now this is a question that takes me back to my first tryst with Comparative Literature as an undergraduate student at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University. Professor Chakraborty Dasgupta had said in one of the classes she had taken with us that Comparative Literature as a practice is too vast and perhaps diverse to be defined by the genius of any individual person, groups of persons or school. What one can take away from a statement such as this is that first and foremost Comparative Literature is a practice. What is it a practice in? Why, that is easy enough to answer; it is a practice in the study of Literature. Now one might ask why Literature with a capital “L”? That too can be answered rather simplistically. One uses Literature and literature not because one means to use the word as a proper noun but because one is speaking of a practice that engages with Literature in general…. Literature beyond boundaries of specific linguistic affiliations (at least to begin with) in other words as Prawer calls it “literary production as a whole”[1].

Now, this in one’s opinion has to do with the specific circumstances, both historically and politically, that the idea of a practice such as Comparative Literature emerged from. The germ of Comparative Literature as most agree goes back to Goethe’s formulations on ‘World Literature’, which is contrasted with the narrowness of National Literature in that it entails a broadening of one’s vision to include literatures from various nations. This, as Professor Chanda states, was in direct response to Napoleonic Imperialism and called for a spirit of inclusion in a point in history that witnessed an excess of parochial chauvinism.[2] 

However, it would be far from precise to state that it was Goethe’s idea of World Literature that later became what we now know as Comparative Literature. Rene Welek and Austin Warren in their work; Theory of Literature, deal with the ideas of National Literature, World Literature, General Literature and Comparative Literature separately, ascribing to each attributes specific to their location in history. Now these distinctions are at times not sufficiently explanatory or for that matter even accurate. Prawer cites a distinction made by R.A. Sayce which states that General Literature was to be considered the study of literature without regard for linguistic frontiers while Comparative Literature was the study national literatures in relation to one another.[3] 

Now following Prawer’s argument on the same we can establish that this is a distinction that is both fuzzy and inaccurate.  For example, if we were to trace the presence of the Faustian myth across the literatures of Europe we would be in the province of General Literature for we are, after all, studying literature without regard for linguistic boundaries. But if on the other hand we were to study Marlow’s The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustusin relation to Goethe’s Faust, we would be doing Comparative Literature. If that be the case, then a study of Mann’s Doktor Faustus in relation to Goethe’s Faust would land us in the province of National Literature. It is needless to go on and rather clear that all the above exercises cannot be separated from each other.

One cannot ignore that the Faustian legend coming from Germany, is used by Marlow in one way, by Goethe in another and by Mann in yet another. One cannot also help but study each of these reworkings of the Faustian myth in relation to one another. Thus one can safely say that attempts at defining each of the above as practices distinct from one another have (as popular parlance goes) fallen flat on their faces.

Now all of this is well and good, but the question that we began with still remains unanswered. What is Comparative Literature? From one’s readings in the discipline one has realised that this question that is often asked is the cause for much chagrin for practitioners and non-practitioners alike. There have been several attempts at settling this argument regarding the nature of Comparative Literature. There are some dominant trends in Comparative Literature that Rene Wellek and Austin Warren identify in chapter 5 of their book Theory of Literature that do come in handy:

Comparative Literature was a space where things that could not be studied in “national literature” curricula like, folklore and oral literatures, could be studied. A trend one can trace back to the Strum und Drang or storm and stress movement that started there and carried on thereafter.

The study of the relations between two or more literatures. Examples of which can be found in studies like Goethe in France(Baldenspeger) or Ossian and Carlyle and Schiller in France.

The study of literature in its totality.

These were of course the trends within Comparative Literature around the 1940s available to anybody located in American Academia of the time. A distinction Claudio Guillen makes clear in his dealing with the French and American Models of Comparative Literature.[4] The span of this brief write-up does not allow for the detailed study of either of these models and their location in their historical, political, cultural and sociological specificities.

Thus, to return to the question at hand, Comparative Literature in one’s estimation is an inclusive model for the study of Literature. It is in this sense different from other practices that in their fidelity to one language and its literature that seem to end up in a chauvinism that tends towards being parochial and the misappropriation of texts on the sole basis of the language they are written or available in. How is, in all honesty, teaching Achebe as English Literature or far worse teaching translations of Tagore’s writings in English qualify as fit for a curriculum of English Literature or English Studies? Comparative Literature is an inclusive model in the sense that it calls for a widening of perspective not only vis a-vis language but also challenges the very notion of literature as denoting only all that is written. Inclusiveness is evident in the practice from the events to which its origins are traced. Be that the event of Goethe’s response to Napoleonic Imperialism as stated earlier or the rise of the discipline in the United States where it became a means to negotiate the multicultural situation of a nation that saw the highest and most diverse immigration in wake of the post- World War II era. This is perhaps why it cannot be pinned down to any single definition which is what makes the practice truly inclusive in nature.  To put it in a turn of phrase that enjoys great popularity these days, Comparative Literature is and will continue to be an effective practice in engaging with the Other.


[1]See S.S. Prawer’s  Comparative Literary Studies An Introduction, (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co.Ltd.,1973), 2

[2]See Ipshita Chanda’s ‘Can the non-western comparatist speak?’ in Literary Research 20(United States of America: George Mason University and ICLA,2003),58-59

[3]See ibid 1, 3-4

[4]See Claudio Guillen’s “French Hour” and “American Hour” in The Challenge of Comparative Literature tr. Cola Franzen ( England: Havard University Press, 1993) 46-63

S Satish Kumar
S Satish Kumar

S Satish Kumar is a doctoral student with the Department of Comparative Literature, University of Georgia. He researches and teaches courses in African Literature.