Friday, 21 September 2012

The French School of Comparative Literature by Subha Dasgupta – An Overview

Comparative literature is characterized by its fluid, dynamic and non-congealed substance and is interested in the interaction of dialectic history and literary expression with the ever changing scenario of socio-political and economic changes in the world. Cultural context is extremely important as far as reception and understanding of a comparative perspective goes and since literature is plural there is more than one influence that works on it.

When one considers the French School of Comparative Literature what is important is to remember that it does not designate itself to a particular nationality or language used for the discourse it presents but rather it is a general orientation that is given to the subject matter. The main focus is on solid research before interpretations are made and also a chronological and systematic approach. What time and again has crept into the study of literature is the study of ‘influences’ or what influences a particular work of art. At first it was cause and effect that was taken up by Paul Van Tieghem and later in the works of Lagos Katona the emphasis is on the study of sources and later shifts to originality. However, in the French school the term ‘influence’ has been gradually replaced by ‘reception’. It is not the emitter that is now focused on but the receptor; from author centric to reader centric.
Reception studies

Van Tieghem was an indirect user of the theory of reception as though he may not have used the term ‘reception’ he focused on the process of communication. Yves Chevrel on the other hand focuses mainly on influence studies and its aspects like the ‘influence of X’, ‘knowledge of X’ on the neutral level. On the level of the emitter he is concerned with the fortune, reputation, diffusion and radiation whereas on the level of the receptor he focuses on reaction, critique, opinion, reading and orientation. He also charts another category that deal with the reproduction of a text viz. its face, reflection, mirror, image, resonance, echo or mutation. Thus he charts out the different aspects one can explore in the area of influence in literature.

Reception studies deals also with the transformation of a text like its translation and adaptation and well as the internal aesthetic codes of literary systems that are unconsciously linked with the prevalent ideology. The hypothesis in most cases is that literary systems have their own course of evolution and if a foreign element is introduced it causes a ripple and disturbs the system. The role of media too comes to be looked at though the geographical area covered by these studies is not large. France is taken to be the receptor while the other groups are England, US, Germany and Russia which again is a very Eurocentric approach.
French comparatist have focused considerably less on thematic aspects as by nature this is more matter dominated. Thematology as a word hints more at a methodology deriving some concepts from the psychoanalytic schools and Bakhtin’s stylistic criticism. Bakhtin studies intertextuality and thematic-formal study of the carnavalesque.

Michel Riffaterre on the other hand deals with the architectural composition of systems where even single lexical or syntactic components can provide a clue to the total system.“Each ‘theme’ therefore can be studied as inscribed in a network of multiple signifying systems, as well as the place where the systems intercross. And yet the study would be incomplete, in fact impossible, if the reader’s response, which is always variable, is not given due importance.”

The school of Annales has also dwelt on the thematic aspects of literary studies and in converse to formalist critics have analysed the nature of relations between social phenomena and cultural expression. The key concepts in the themalogical study of literature are: (a) researches on the imaginary (b) studies centred on one or the other of the great ‘universal’ thematic (c) studies in typology (d) work centred on themalogical concepts. However, in comparison to studies in themalogy done in the United State, France tends to lag behind.
Studies in myths are more focused upon where they are considered as chiefly literary phenomena and are studied as revealing veiled symbolic and dramatic structures that correspond to the changing scenario of the society. The study of images or imagology too is given a lot of importance. This study focuses on the images that are manifested in literary works which are from different cultural settings and areas. However, again the field is limited to a few regions which are Great Britain, US, Germany and Russia with certain parts of Italy as well.

The French and American Schools of Comparative Literature
The French and American schools are quite similar as far as their groupings, diversity and liberalization go. But there are minor differences especially stemming from the lack of a truly comparative perspective in the French School. The American school has a blend of a wide range of things which at times makes it appear diffuse; on the other hand, the French school tries to appear limited and restrictive but the confined methodology causes its scope to shrink considerably.

From Brunel, Pichois and Rousseau’s viewpoint, the main thrust of the American school is its openness to the world at large that facilitates a broader field of study and though conscious of its Western tradition it does not fail to be tolerant of other cultures. Furthermore, it studies works right from antiquity to contemporary literature while being ready to experiment even though they do not demean the traditional works of literature. Assumptions are constantly questioned even though this may not be a totally modern sense of studying things.
However, the French school too has individuals who are exceptions like Paul Hazard who combines imaginative daring with learning and so has an ideal blend of temperament to take on comparative studies. Another trend of the French school is literary history as per the comparative perspective where an author is focused on as well as his work. One must remember though that the survival of comparative literature in France was as comparative and general literature. The text is the centre of its research which keeps in mind the aspects of intertexuality, context and history. 

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