An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2006

Comparative literature in question

Pauline Ruth Yu
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Pauline Yu, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1998, is president of the American Council of Learned Societies. She is the author or editor of five books and dozens of articles on classical Chinese poetry, literary theory, comparative poetics, and issues in the humanities. Formerly professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Dean of Humanities in the College of Letters and Science at University of California, Los Angeles, she is currently an adjunct senior research scholar and a visiting professor in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University.

Comparative literature is at once a subject of study, a general approach to literature, a series of specific methods of literary history, a return to a medieval way of thought, a methodological credo for the day, an administrative annoyance, a new wrinkle in university organization, a recherché academic pursuit, a recognition that even the humanities have a role to play in the affairs of the world, close-held by a cabal, invitingly open to all . . . .1

So begins the foreword to Herbert Weisinger’s and Georges Joyaux’s translation of René Etiemble’s The Crisis in Comparative Literature, published in 1966 and itself one of many polemical contributions to a substantial body of writings on the nature of comparative literature. As Weisinger and Joyaux suggest, there has been scant consensus about the definition and purpose of the field from its very inception. Debates have been waged about its name and what to call those who practice it. Disputes have swirled about whether or not their task is one of comparison. Questions have been raised about whether or not whatever it is they do constitutes a discipline, producing delight, consternation, or despair in the hearts of those who care. Like the humanities as a whole, comparative literature seems to face one ‘challenge’ after another and to exist in a state of perpetual ‘crisis,’ as even a quick glance at the titles of numerous works on the subject can confirm.

Is it, as one critic describes it, “a house with many mansions,” or should we regard it as “permanently under construction”?2 Perhaps this is why Charles Mills Gayley, a professor of English at Berkeley, writing in 1894, believed that the members of his proposed new Society of Comparative Literature “must be hewers of wood and drawers of water. Even though they cannot hope to see the completion of a temple of criticism, they may have the joy of construction . . . . ” 3 Joyful or not, the hewers and drawers have toiled for more than a century, struggling to define an enterprise that –at once chameleon and chimera–has defied such attempts by mirroring the shifting political climate and intellectual predilections of each successive age. In comparative literature’s history, then, we can witness a series of contests that have shaped the past two centuries, between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, scientism and humanism, literature and theory, and within the very notion of disciplinarity itself.

In an Outline of Comparative Literature from Dante Alighieri to Eugene O’Neill, first published in 1954, the Swiss émigré Werner P. Friederich traced the roots of comparative literature to the influences of Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures on ancient Greece and of the latter, in turn, on Rome, although for him the real activity began during the Renaissance. His history of the discipline set out to demonstrate “the essential oneness of Western culture and the stultifying shortsightedness of political or literary nationalism,” a unifying impulse shared by many other scholars writing after the ravages of World War II. All national literatures, he argued, have incurred “foreign obligations,” for “even the greatest among our poets have borrowed, and borrowed gladly, from values given by other lands. In the words of a witty Frenchman: we all feed on others, though we must properly digest what we thus receive. Even the lion is nothing but assimilated mutton.”4

Friederich’s study exemplifies on a grand scale what had become by the middle of the twentieth century a signature method of comparative literature, the study of literary influence. Viewed from such a transnational perspective, literary reputations could shift in interesting ways, with some individuals neglected by historians of the national literature vaulting to surprising prominence abroad, and some locally eminent luminaries finding their significance in the international arena eclipsed. What is important here is the light Friederich’s history casts on a fundamental tension within the founding impulse of the discipline: the relative priority of the transnational versus the national.

Cosmopolitanism, comparison, and a transcendence of strictly national interests and characteristics presuppose an awareness of what the latter in fact might be. Just as contemporary exhortations toward interdisciplinarity require thriving disciplinary bases, so the tracing of relationships across national traditions depends on a strong sense of what they separately are. Comparative literature’s early forebears were thus as inclined to focus on the local and particular as they were on moving beyond them, but the oscillation between these two alternatives left the question of precedence unclear.

Consider two pioneers in comparative literature, Herder and Goethe. Johann Gottfried Herder urged German writers to study foreign literatures in order to learn how others had succeeded in “expressing their natural character in literary works,” not for the purposes of emulation but rather to understand their differences and “develop along their own lines.”5 His research into and revival of interest in German folklore was central to this process of national identity formation, which, he hoped, could help to ameliorate the “dismal state of German literature.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, by contrast, shifted the balance toward the cosmopolitan, urging writers to eschew an easy provincialism and recognize the larger literary community to which they belonged, the home of Weltpoesie (world poetry), the common property of humankind, and of Weltliteratur (world literature): “National literature means little now, the age of Weltliteratur has begun; and everyone should further its course.” Having learned much from various foreign perspectives on his own writings, Goethe proposed the concept of world literature not as a canon of works to be studied and imitated but rather, anticipating the world of a David Lodge novel, as “the marketplace of international literary traffic: translations, criticism, journals devoted to foreign literatures, the foreign receptions of one’s own works, letters, journeys, meetings, circles.”6

Goethe’s views would be echoed at various points over the next two centuries as scholars called upon literary study–and specifically comparative literature–to exercise a form of cultural diplomacy that would affirm a shared heritage of aesthetic excellence as an antidote to parochial political animosities. For some this would be interpreted as a return to the world of the Middle Ages, “a universal culture expressed in a universal language and comprehended in a universal mode of thought.”7 For others, Goethe’s ideal provided rather a cultural mirror for the anticipated withering away of capitalism and the nation-state, as Marx and Engels declared in the Communist Manifesto: “National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”8 In any event, most scholars agree that while Goethe’s notion of world literature–a term that would resurface later –was not coterminous with what was to become comparative literature, we can reasonably regard it as comparative literature’s logical prerequisite. As François Jost observed, one provides the “raw materials and information” for the other, which then groups them “according to critical and historical principles. Comparative literature, therefore, may be defined as an organic Weltliteratur; it is an articulated account, historical and critical, of the literary phenomenon considered as a whole.”

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  • 1Herbert Weisinger and Georges Joyaux, foreword to their translation of René Etiemble, The Crisis in Comparative Literature (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1966), vii–viii.
  • 2S. S. Prawer, Comparative Literary Studies (London: Dudworth, 1973), 166, and Roland Greene, “American Comparative Literature: Reticence and Articulation,” World Literature Today 69 (Spring 1995): 297.
  • 3Charles Mills Gayley, “A Society of Comparative Literature,” The Dial, August 1, 1894, 57, reprinted in Hans-Joachim Schulz and Phillip M. Rhein, eds., Comparative Literature: The Early Years. An Anthology of Essays (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), 85.
  • 4Werner P. Friederich, preface to Outline of Comparative Literature from Dante Alighieri to Eugene O’Neill (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954). The “witty Frenchman” was Paul Valéry.
  • 5Robert Mayo, Herder and the Beginnings of Comparative Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 107.
  • 6J. P. Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe, January 31, 1827, trans. Joel Spingarn and reprinted in Schulz and Rhein, eds., Comparative Literature: The Early Years, 6, 3.
  • 7Weisinger and Joyaux, foreword to The Crisis in Comparative Literature, xii.
  • 8Cited in David Damrosch, “Comparative Literature?” PMLA 118 (2) (March 2003): 327.