Modern Language Association

Comparative Literature? Author(s): David Damrosch Source: PMLA, Vol. 118, No. 2 (Mar., 2003), pp. 326-330 Published by: Modern Language Association Stable URL: Accessed: 16/08/2009 04:15
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theories and methodologies

Comparative Literature?

BEENMARKED A DOUBLE BY MOVEMENT: OUTWARD FROMTHE Euro-Americansphere toward the entire globe and inward within national traditions, in an intensified engagement with local cultures and subcultures.Both directionsmight seem naturalstimuli to comparative frame of global studies but study-most obviously in the transnational also in more local comparisons:a naturalway to understand distincthe tiveness of a given culture,afterall, is to compareit with and contrastit to others. Yetjournal articles andjob listings alike have not shown any majorgrowthin comparative emphasisin recentyears.Is the comparatist doomedto irrelevance, equippedthanthe nationalspecialistfor local less study and yet findingthe literaryglobe expandingfartherand fartherout of reach,accessible only to a multitudeof, again,local specialists? The specter of amateurismhauntscomparativeliteraturetoday. As formalistapproacheshave waned, scholarshave found so much to learn aboutthe full outlinesof individualculturesthatthey have often preferred delving deeply into one time and place over pursuingbroad-basedcomstakedout a disparisons.Formuchof the twentiethcentury, comparatists tinct middle groundin betweenthe nationalliteratures the vast space and of the full globe, most often concentrating the majorliterarytraditions on of westernEuropeas a graspablegroundof international comparison.As studies has begun to wake from its long Eurocentricslumber, literary though,this middle groundhas faded in importance,as has comparative literature's relatedadvantage since the 1970s in the import-export tradein muchtheoryis homegrown,and "travelEuropean literarytheory.Today ing theory"circulateslargely in translation,its concepts andtexts seemingly usable without special regard to their time and place of origin, a literature theoretical in therebyundercutting specialrole for comparative work(Said, "Travelling and"Travelling Theory" TheoryReconsidered"). In principle,the growingemphasison worldliterature providesa new venue for comparative study.Yetpostcolonialandglobal studiestodayand withina linguisticnetfocusing on issues of transmission adaptation work like those of francophoneor global English literature-are often

DAVID DAMROSCH is professorof English and comparativeliterature Columbia at Universityand president of the American Comparative Literature Association. He is the author of TheNarrativeCovenant (Harper, 1987),WeScholars: Changof (Harvard ing the Culture the University UP,1995),Meetingsof the Mind (Princeton UP,2000), and WhatIs World Literature?(Princeton forthcoming) of and UP, articleson ancient,medieval,and modern literatureand theory. He is also the Antholgeneral editor of TheLongman (2nd ed., 2002) ogy of BritishLiterature and of TheLongman of Anthology World Literature (forthcoming).





David Damrosch


hardlyless monolingualthanmost studies of national traditions. Literaturesoutside the major colonial traditionscontinueto be studiedmostly by specialists who have devoteddecadesto their chosen languages and cultures. Excellent comparativework is being done in such areas (e.g., Sheldon Pollock on Indianvernacularsand Steven Venturinoon Tibetanpostmodernism),and yet such venturesomework is still the exception ratherthan the rule, and it underscoresthe difficulty of doing serious work on a truly global basis. Lackinga deep knowledge of more thana few cultures,are comparatists constrainedeither to stay within a limited range of material or to succumb to a kind of scholarly tourism? The prominentcomparatistA. Owen Aldridge used this analogyquitepositivelytwentyyearsago: In the days of exploration, wouldhavebeen it impossiblefor any single European navigator to coverin a lifetimethe entiregeographic expanseof the two Americancontinents,but in thetwentieth can century tourist visitbyjet any all airplane of the majorcentersof population in three or four months.We may hope for a similar future toward universal coverprogress in the studyof literature. age (1) We need a better model today than literaryjetsetting if we are to develop comparativestudies adequate to the scope of the materials now available for comparison. Comparativeliterature can thrive in the coming years, but only through a renewed engagement with national traditionsand with global contexts. Here I will discuss our problems and our options under three rubrics:nationalinternationalism, cultural and translation, specializedgeneralism. National Internationalism As a discipline, comparativeliterature arose in a kind of competitive symbiosis with the nationalisms dominantin nineteenth-centuryEurope. While some comparatists studiedthe interactions of nationaltraditions, otherssaw the nation-state

as destined, like capitalism, to wither away in a few decades. This is the perspective that Marx and Engels endorsed in the CommunistManifesto of 1847, where they followed Goethe in proclaiming the rise of world literature as the culturalmirror a postnational of world: Thebourgeoisie through exploitation has its of a cosmopolitan theworldmarket characgiven ter to productionand consumption every in Tothegreatchagrin reactionaries of it country. has drawnfromunderthe feet of industry the nationalgroundon which it stood. All oldestablishednationalindustries have been deor are daily being destroyed.... In stroyed seclusion and placeof theoldlocalandnational we haveintercourse every in self-sufficiency, universal of direction, interdependence nations. Andas in material, also in intellectual so production.Nationalone-sidednessandnarrowmindedness becomemoreandmoreimpossible, andfromthenumerous national localliteraand therearisesa worldliterature. tures, (421) The seductive lure of "intercoursein every direction"became the norm in postwarAmerica. The comparatistsof the 1950s saw the field of world literatureas the grand successor to "the nationalisticheresy,"as Albert Guerard it in put a lead article in the Yearbookof Comparative and GeneralLiteraturein 1958. Looking ahead to European unification, Guerard anticipated that "ComparativeLiteraturewill disappearin its very victory;just as 'foreign trade' between Franceand Germanywill disappear the Comin mon Market;just as the 'foreign relations' between these two countrieswill be absorbedby a common parliament" For Guerard, overthe (4). riding question in 1958 was, "How and when shall we commit suicide?" His answer: "Not just yet: we are needed so long as the nationalistic heresy has not been extirpated" (5). We can no longer proceed as though this The EuropeanParheresy is aboutto disappear. liament in Brussels is unlikely to supplantEurope'snationalgovernments duringourlifetimes, and in an academiccontext the greatmajorityof




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[PMLA terestfor explorationsof culturalidentity,while poets like Dafydd ap Gwilym have fascinating satirical things to say about Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Normansalike. Deconstructingnationalism in theory,these medievalistshad succumbed to it in practice. The point of this example is a double one: more than ever, serious study of national traditions can benefitfroma multilingual comparand ativeperspective;conversely,comparative study must engage directly and affirmativelywith nationaltraditions, which arehardlyaboutto wither Nationalismandinternationalism inexare away. intertwined tricably today,to theirmutualbenefit. Cultural Translation Throughoutthe twentiethcentury,comparatists tended to assume that nations were ephemeral but languages were eternal.Thoughnineteenthcenturyscholarslike HutchesonMacaulayPosnetthad often workedcomfortably translation, in literature consolidatedits base insticomparative romancephilology andcompatutionallyaround rablefields of study,like classics and East Asian studies. As a result, translated works were no longer thought to be available as objects for scholarly study, and comparatistsperforce neglected what they could not readin the original. Comparative study became institutionallybifurcated:worldliterature mightbe taughtin translation to undergraduates, graduate but studentsand scholars were expected to focus on what they could read in the original. Adventurouspeople might venturebeyond the boundariesof western comEurope,into Slavic studies or "East-West" but any given scholar's range parative studies, was sharply delimited by whatever languages there was "worldenough and time" to study, to recall the line from MarvellthatErichAuerbach used as his regretfulepigraphto Mimesis. To thrive today, comparative study must embracetranslation more actively thanit did far duringthe past century.We can studytexts fruitso fully in good translations long as we attendto

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teachersand scholarsof literature continueto be based in departmentsorganized along national lines. Whatdoes the ongoing vitality of national of literarytraditionsmean for the understanding world literature?Much recent literarystudy,inspiredby figureslike Foucaultand Said, takes a dim view of nationalistideologies and imperial enterprises,andyet in an odd way the critiqueof nationalism has turnedout to coexist comfortably with a continuingnationalismin academic practice.The moreone needs to know,say, about the courts of Queen Elizabethand King JamesI to understand the Shakespeare, less time one has available to learn about the cultural underpinnings of Frenchdramaor Greektragedy,andone tendsto downplaywhatone doesn'tknow. Moving beyond a regionally linked set of traditions is harder still. The more committed today's Shakespeareansbecome to understanding literaturewithin culturalcontext-at times, almost as a function of cultural context-the less likely they are to feel comfortable in comparing Shakespeareand Kalidasa.Indeed, even in a single region a range of disparateliteratures can seem too daunting to tackle. Several years ago I was on a searchcommitteelooking to hire a medievalist;one of the hottesttopics we found among our applications was the origins of nationalism in the medieval kingdoms that were struggling for mastery in the British Isles. The severalwritingsamples on aspects of this theme all took a critical attitude toward the efforts of the Anglo-Saxons and then Anglo-Normans to promote themselves culturallyand extend their sway politically, and yet none of these scholars was doing any work in Irish or Welsh literature. Not on principle,no doubt, since the richnessof both traditionsin the medieval period is widely recognized:the medievalistssimply had not had time to learn those languages along with everything else they were studying.Insteadof including materialthey could read only in translation and withouta close culturalknowledge,they left it out of account altogether. Yet works like the Irish Tainand the WelshMabinogiare full of in-

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David Damrosch


the culturalcontexts from which they come. An older comparatismoften centered on philologisuch as that cally based modes of interpretation, advocatedby Leo Spitzerin Linguisticsand Literary History. Yet the insights that Auerbach and Spitzer gleaned from evidence like unusual turns of phrase or patterns of assonance can often be gained at other levels of a text as well. Kafka's haunting ironies play out in sentence structuresthat do not always translatewell, yet "the Kafkaesque"is fully visible in translation at the levels of the paragraph of the scene. and Translation can thus be used actively for comparative study, but it should also be used critically,drawingon the work of contemporary translationtheoristswho study language as part of a broadexaminationof culturaltranslation. A notable example of such an approach is the work of LawrenceVenuti,closely pathbreaking attentiveto relationsof power and influencebetween "source"and "target" cultures.Relatedly, Natalie Melas's forthcomingbook, All the Difference in the World,admirablyconnects comparative and postcolonial studies, through a joint examination of issues of cultural translation in early comparatists like Charles Mills Gayley and in the contemporary Caribbean writerand theoristEdouardGlissant.

Specialized Generalism The impulse to do comparative workremains,as it has always been, a generalizing one: to look Oftenin the beyond a single context or tradition. past, though,generalistsoperatedat a high level of culturalabstraction, takinglittle or no note of local researchon works and on their culturesof origin. Theoristslike NorthropFrye and Roland Barthes typically made little reference to specialized scholarshipas they developedtheir elegant theoriesin workslike Anatomyof Criticism and Sade, Fourier,Loyola. At the end of Mimesis, Auerbach confesses his positive relief that working in Istanbulduringthe war had cut him off from "technical literatureand periodicals."

He says, "If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing" (557). Well, yes, but would he have had to read all the scholarship ever writtenon his chosen worksto use any of it? His argumentscould have gained in depth if he had consulted a good selection of the specialized literature,either during the war, when he was in Istanbul,with its extensive library,or after the war, when he could have revised his at manuscript any libraryof his choice. A comparatist muchto gain from an achas tive engagement with specialized knowledge, but this is not to say that a comparative work should simply be the sum total of a set of specialized studies. On the contrary,a comparatist needs to use the specialized literature selectively, with a kind of scholarly tact. When our purpose is not to delve into a culture in detail, the reader and even the work may benefit by being spared the full force of our local knowledge. Such selectivity should yield something otherthana reductionfrom the plenitudeof specialized studies. Intimately aware of a work's life at home, the specialist is not always in the best position to assess the dramatically different termson which a text may work in a distantculture or a new theoreticalframework. Looking at such new contexts, the generalist will find that much of the specialist's information about the work'sorigins is no longerrelevantand not only can but should be set aside. At the same time, any work that has not been wholly assimilated to its new context will still carry with it many elements thatcan best be understood throughan of why they came to be there in the exploration first place. The specialist's knowledge is the major safeguardagainst the generalist's will to power over texts thatotherwiseall too easily become grist for the mill of a preformedhistorical or argument theoreticalsystem. WhenI distinguishspecialistsfromgeneralists, I mean to characterize approaches rather than individuals. Anyone can be a specialist

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in some areas and a generalist in others. When we use a generalistapproach,we should not cast off our specialist selves-or our specialist colleagues. Instead,the generalisthas the same ethical responsibilitytowardspecializedscholarship thata translator towarda text's originallanhas guage: to presentthe work effectively in its new culturalor theoreticalcontext while at the same time fundamentally getting it right with reference to the sourceculture.Too often, a generalist who alludes dismissively to the narrow-minded concernsof specialistswill merelyend up retailing a warmed-overversion of what specialists were saying a generation earlier. Generalists have much to learn from specialists and should always try to build honestly, though selectively, on the specialists' understandings,ideally even inspiring the specialists to revise their understandingsin turn. Comparative study today is becoming as concerned with national as with international contexts, as involved with translations as with original texts, and as connected to specialized scholarshipas to generalapproaches.Comparative literatureis experiencing the excitement of a newly global possibility, while at the same time it can continue to exert a leavening influence on nationallybased and specialized study. literature? Comparative Absolutely!

Literature: An Aldridge, A. Owen. "East/West Comparative Inquiryinto Possibilities." Chinese-WesternCompara-

tive LiteratureTheoryand Strategy.Ed. JohnJ. Deeney. Hong Kong:Chinese UP, 1980. 1-24. Auerbach,Erich.Mimesis: TheRepresentation Reality in of Western Literature.Trans.WillardR. Trask.Princeton: PrincetonUP, 1953. Barthes, Roland. Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Trans. Richard Howard.New York:Hill, 1976. Frye, Northrop. Anatomyof Criticism:Four Essays. Princeton: PrincetonUP, 1957. Gayley, Charles Mills. "WhatIs ComparativeLiterature?" 1903. Comparative Literature: The Early Years. Ed. Hans-Joachim Schulz and Phillip H. Rhein. ChapelHill: U of NorthCarolinaP, 1973. 85-103. Glissant, Edouard.CaribbeanDiscourse: Selected Essays. Trans.J. Michael Dash. Charlottesville: of VirginiaP, U 1989. Gu6rard,Albert. "ComparativeLiterature?"Yearbookof and Comparative GeneralLiterature7 (1958): 1-6. Marx, Karl,and FriedrichEngels. Manifestoof the Communist Party. Trans.Samuel Moore. Marx. Chicago:Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952. 415-34. Vol. 50 of Great Books of the Western World. Melas, Natalie. All the Difference in the World:Postcoloniality and the Ends of Comparison.Stanford:Stanford UP, forthcoming. Pollock, Sheldon. "TheCosmopolitanVernacular." Journal of Asian Studies57 (1998): 6-37. Posnett, Hutcheson Macaulay. Comparative Literature. London: K. Paul, Trench, 1886. New York: Johnson Reprint,1970. Said, EdwardW. "TravellingTheory."Raritan 1.3 (1982): 41-67. . "Travelling Theory Reconsidered."Critical Reconstructions: The Relationship of Fiction to Life. Ed. Robert M. Polhemus and Roger B. Henkle. Stanford: StanfordUP, 1994. 251-65. Spitzer, Leo. Linguistics and Literary History: Essays in PrincetonUP, 1948. Stylistics.Princeton: Steven. "ReadingNegotiationsin the TibetanDiVenturino, aspora."ConstructingTibetanCulture: Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. FrankJ. Koram.Quebec: WorldHeritage, 1997. 98-121. Venuti,Lawrence.TheScandals of Translation:Towards an Ethics of Difference.London:Routledge, 1998.

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