Letters


Spring 2007, Vol. 15, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Why the Death of Comparative Literature is a Defeat for the Humanities
By Helmut Walser Smith

"Comparative literature," the American Association for Comparative Literature tells us, "promotes the study of intercultural relations that cross national boundaries, multicultural relations within a particular society, and the interactions between literature and other forms of human activity, including the arts, the sciences, philosophy, and cultural artifacts of all kinds." Literature appears but once in this definition—as a term to be understood relationally. Culture, by contrast, is mentioned three times, but it never stands on its own feet. Twice, the prefixes "inter" and "multi" provide the term with a sleeker sheen, and once it qualifies the surreptitiously materialist term "artifacts."

We are here a long ways from Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy and from a sense that humanistic study is about the best that has been thought and known. More worrying is the distance from the Herderian impulse to collect and gather the literatures of the world and to oppose the myopia of one's own culture with a wide and deep sense of the literary expressions of other people's speaking and writing in a range of languages. For Johann Gottfried Herder, writing in the late eighteenth century, there was "no Favoritvolk." Precisely, the diversity of language and literature precluded the narrowness of national thinking. But as a cosmopolitan and a humanist, he exclaimed against the wind of history. The subsequent period witnessed the division of the world into nations and empires, each with its own manifest destiny; in the nineteenth century, national literatures crystallized and, with them, the specialized disciplines that ordered and shaped national literatures, canonizing literary works in the measure that they expressed national identity. It is against this clamoring, unsubtle concert of "Favoritvolker" that the aged Goethe first coined the term Weltliteratur. Fascinated by the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafez, Goethe believed that world literature would someday replace national literature as the cultural reference point of educated citizens.

The tension between the literature of the world and the literature of the nation is at the heart of the challenge of comparative literature. In institutional terms, however, the literature of the nation has emerged victorious. North American universities sport large, robust departments of English (increasingly focused on American literature) and small, but still thriving, departments of select foreign literatures—French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Russian literature, despite its monumental literary tradition, struggles. Hebrew and Yiddish remain stable, but for how long? And what of Chinese literature? Or of the Persian literature Goethe so admired? The discipline of English drew from the efforts to define the national literary tradition—it drew from the "essential Englishness," as F. R. Leavis put it, of Milton and Shakespeare. But who was to speak for the other languages and literatures?

Granted, comparative literature did not make life easy for itself. Penned in 1877 by Hugo Metzl de Lomnitz, a Rumanian nobleman, the discipline's first programmatic statement suggested that an adequate understanding of comparative literature required eleven languages, including German, English, French, Icelandic, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, Spanish, and Hungarian, with Latin and Greek not counting since they could be assumed. If the list was Eurocentric, the method centered on contrast, and contrast—whether Montesquieu's lettres persiannes or Madame de Sta‘l's De l'Allemagne—tells about the self in a different way. Moreover, early comparative literature developed not at the center of Europe but at its eastern margins, in places like the University of Cluj (Kolozsvar), now in Rumania, where de Lomnitz taught, or in Istanbul, where Erich Auerbach conceived and wrote Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. As Auerbach's masterpiece counts as the founding exemplar of comparative literature in the United Sates, it has acquired myths of heroic proportions. Auerbach, the story has it, composed the book in Istanbul without the aid of a library—an achievement of the European mind in exile, forcibly stripped of place or context. As Kader Konuk, a scholar at the University of Michigan has shown, the legend is not entirely accurate. Auerbach wrote his great work with access to the significant holdings of the University of Istanbul, and he was strongly influenced by the specific context of the history of Turkey—a country then suspended between its own traditions and its Europeanizing impulse.

Comparative literature then flourished in the United States, where its great teachers were scholars who fled the shatter- zones of Europe's nationalist and revolutionary politics. But even in the United States it soon fell into crisis. In the early sixties, Rene Wellek began to sound this note, admonishing the discipline against variants of French poststructuralism. As it turns out, poststructuralism introduced a second golden age to comparative literature, with the influence of Derrida and Foucault paramount, and the discipline turned on brilliant deconstructive readings, a theoretical language of its own, and an intellectual pull (especially on younger scholars) that the national literatures could not easily match. It helps to recall this moment in the mid-eighties (if only to realize how recently and precipitously the discipline has since fallen) when a genuine theoretical burst emanated from comparative literature programs.

Yet comparative literature could not place its Ph.D. students. Tenure-track lines re-mained the prerogatives of national literatures, and, as university budgets constricted, hiring slowed and the crisis turned existential, with many of the best students leaving the field. Some of the young scholars landed in departments focusing on national literatures and retained a measure of their comparative training, but the discipline went adrift. By the late eighties, deconstruction lost its avant-garde lustre, and the controversy around Paul de Man, who had kept secret his anti-Semitic wartime writing, further undermined the status of the field's investment in poststructuralist theory. In 1993, the American Association for Comparative Literature issued its so-called Bernheim Report, an outline for future research that was remarkable for its lack of attention to the literary. "The term 'literature,'" the Report averred, "may no longer adequately describe our object of study." Instead, comparative literature, as far as its governing body could set an agenda, became a border-crossing discipline—one that crossed into the textual and visual world beyond literature and toward non-literary methods deriving from history, philosophy, cultural anthropology, and media studies.

Ten years later, disciplinary soul-searching centers again on literature, with Herder as a guide and with Weltliteratur as a possibility. But now the situation is more urgent, with prominent authors like Gayatri Spivak talking about the death, not merely the crisis, of comparative literature. Programs at Research I universities have folded—and many have been folded into English departments, despite the latter's monolingualism. Others have become part of a literature major, or an arm of cultural studies (whose affinity to identity politics make it no less monolingual than English departments). Some comparative literature programs continue to thrive; others confirm Spivak's fears.

What is the consequence? Disciplines have died before. Who now studies comparative anatomy, folklore, or geography (even if the latter has become intellectually central again)? But the death of comparative literature, should it come to pass, brings with it an irreparable loss to the humanities. And this loss has to do with how we study the world.

In the age of sound bites and of Fox News, universities belong to a collection of the few sites in the United States where people take foreign cultures seriously. Homes to international scholars, universities also house specialists in history, literature, philosophy, and the social sciences whose jobs are to understand other places. How to organize these scholars is a question no smaller than the question of how American universities should organize their knowledge of the world. Area studies, a creation of the Cold War, is one way to group this knowledge, with departments or programs bringing together specialists who share knowledge about place. In keeping with their Cold War origins, area studies programs have been traditional preserves of political science, especially as that discipline has turned away from prizing local knowledge in favor of higher levels of abstraction. Conceivably, however, comparative literature could infuse area studies with a more decidedly humanistic bent, which, in this context, means a pronounced emphasis on the literary and a renewed attention to the linguistic realms. This is the solution proposed by Spivak, who sees an alliance of comparative literature and area studies as mutually beneficial. Yet this solution ends by placing the literature of non-European languages in a non-literary field, much as museum curators used to place African art in the ethnology section, separate from the work of European masters.

But if we believe, as Herder did, that literature represents a privileged road to understanding other cultures—and if we imagine that not just our own literature but the literature of the world matters, as Goethe did—then it is necessary to establish a disciplinary base in the humanities from which the understanding of foreign-language literature can proceed. Comparative literature, with its emphasis on literature in many languages, once provided that base, even though, in practice, it often remained tied to a comparison of major European literatures. Yet its origins and much of its history point elsewhere, not to Berlin or to Paris, but to Cluj and to Istanbul—to the crossroads of continents and to scholars whose vitas were marked by the forced routes of displacement. Erasmus, peripatetic patron of the humanities, famously said "home is where my library is." When Auerbach wrote Mimesis, Istanbul was his home, and this home suggests the importance, now, of comparative literature in a broader sense. That broad sense simply asserts, as Auerbach's University of Instanbul predecessor Leo Spitzer put it, "the power of the human mind of investigating the human mind." In a precise sense, it entails close reading of texts—both in English and in other languages. The focus on the literary and on reading literarily cannot, contra the Bernheim Report and the ASCL definition cited at the outset, be incidental; it is what constitutes and differentiates the discipline and enables a particular kind of understanding across cultures. This understanding is philological—an understanding based on the love of words and on the imperatives of deep reading. But it also focuses on translation—sometimes literally word for word, sentence for sentence, and sometimes in the figurative sense of bringing the imaginative expression of one culture into contact, relation, and dialogue with another. This emphasis on translation, however imperfect a science it remains, ties comparative literature to the departments of foreign languages and literatures—for these are the departments in our universities where the understanding of foreign places via languages not our own is most tenaciously defended. English, as a department or as a world language, has not overcome the problem of Babel, a fact for which we might be grateful. At the core of the humanities there remains the problem of reaching across linguistic barriers, and, in literature, this entails a reaching to world literature qua literature. This is a Herderian quest, and it requires institutional support. There is no doubt, as Katie Trumpener has put it, that we are "not fully adequate to the task"—but, as she also asks, "if not us, who? And if not now, when?"


Further readings:


Edward W. Said. Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York, 2004).

Haun Saussy, ed. Comparative Literature in the Age of Globalization (Baltimore, 2006).

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Death of a Discipline (New York, 2003).

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