Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Name and Nature of Comparative Literature (essay by: R. Wellek) – an Overview

Through this long and detailed essay, Wellek strives to give some definition to the umbrella term comparative literature by studying the root of the word, its historical context and the varied meanings it has been assigned over time. Concluding of course, with the importance of the field and the essence of what it constitutes.

The term “Comparative”
Comparative as a word, occurs in the Middle English period and can be found in Shakespeare. The definition is narrow though, for it merely is used to mean “comparison”. From tiles like ”A Comparative Discourse on Laws” and “A Comparative Anatomy of Brute Animals” in the early 18th century, we mind the term to be scientific and narrow in its scope.

Thomas Warton in ‘History of English Poetry’ speaks of “a comparative survey of the poetry of other nations”. George Ellis on the other hand in ‘Specimens of Early English Poets’ (1790) comments how comparative criticism can help give one an idea of the society that the ancients dwelt in. The first combination of the term “comparative literature” occurs with Matthew Arnold’s letter in 1848 merely noting the fact that the state of literature in England is far behind the Continental standard. Thus, comparative even till the 19th century had not moved on from being “comparable”.
The changing meaning of “Literature”

With the advent of the 18th century there was a shift in the meaning of the word ‘literature’. It came to mean a body of writings in a particular period, country or region instead of knowledge or study of literature. Of course, the former meaning is still alive today but the concept of ‘imaginative literature’ did not exist then as it does now. In early English usage literature was associated more with learning, especially knowledge of Latin.
Aesthetics has long been a part of works associated to literature as we can fathom by Carlo Denina’s definition of the same when he states that only books of “good taste” and “eloquence” can be considered such. There were also people who felt literature was meaningless, like Philarete Chasles who remarked on the lack of philosophy, history, erudition and the like. Considering the fact that both the terms “comparative” and “literature” were so narrowly defined, it is not surprising that the geneses of comparative literature took such a long time in coming about. The use of “comparative grammar” or “comparative politics” was fine, but what in heavens is “comparative literature”?

 In France things were considerably better as literature still preserved its meaning of literary study. That’s how we have Voltaire (1764-72) defining literature as “a knowledge of the works of taste, a smattering of history, poetry, eloquence, and criticism.” Due to this, it is not surprising the term littérature comparée” cropped up.
World Literature and definitions and objectives of Comparative Literature

Weltliteratur was a term invented by Goethe in 1827. His highly utopian concept visualized a single unified world literature unaffected by differences between individual literatures. Van Tieghem defines the objective of comparative literature as: “essentially the study of diverse literatures in their relations with one another.” While Guyard on the other hand sees it to be “the history of international literary relations”. J.M. Carré calls it, “a branch of literary history” and a study of “spiritual” international relations. He also brings in the fact that writers of diverse literatures influence others and their works.
In 1948 we have Anna Saitta Revignas who considers it as “a modern science which centers on research into the problems connected with the influences exercised reciprocally by various literatures.” One problem with the French school of comparative literature was that the approach was binary, it focused on the only the binary relations between two elements when there was so much more comparative literature offered. Foreign trade between literatures could not be the sole focus as individual works of art would stand neglected. For this purpose general literature was supposed to research into the common elements of other literatures.

Comparative literature and global awareness
Looking back at the ancients, it is not surprising to find that the Greeks could not be students of comparative literature as they had a closeted worldview looking on other nations as barbarians. The Romans were conscious on the other hand, of their Greek influenced literature. Contact between cultures is necessary for the question of comparative studies to arise.

Though as early as 1607, we have Samuel Daniel’s ‘Defence of Rime’ which indicates that atleast he knew that Turks, Arabs, Slavs and Hungarians use rhyme! Greece and Rome are not his only touchstones for even barbarians are “children of nature as well as they”. Unfortunately, such instances of tolerance and universality are not common.
Literary history

Francis Bacon’s “Advancement of Learning’ (1603) brought on a whole new concept of literary history. According to him, without history the world would lose an essential element that reflects its changing spirit and evolution. He goes on to state that an observation of style, method, argument and taste from some of the best books can give a good idea of the spirit of the age in which they were written. For Bacon literary history did not however, contain imaginative literature for it was more confined to history of learning with poetry incorporated within.
Peter Lambeck misread Bacon so well that he begins his literary history with the creation of the world and biblical history. It was only with the emphasis on the art of literature which propelled nationality to the forefront that we find a change for the better. The Enlightenment brought on resistance to cultural leveling. Nationalism was high and poetry deeply embedded into the national language. The new outlook of literary history sprang up in Germany. Johann Gottfried Herder conceived literary history as a totality within which “the origin, the growth, the changes and the decay of literature with the diverse styles of regions, periods, and poets” would be commented upon while he would also defend the national literatures in their uniqueness. And so, German nationalism led to a wide expansion of the literary horizon as every nation felt the need to be heard in its unique voice through its poetry.

Schlegelian Literary History
The Schlegels were the first to look at universal literary history on the broad scale and though they dwelt more on Western Europe they did bring in Eastern Europe and also the study of the Sanskrit language. Friedrich Schlegel literature is neatly packaged for though a great mass it is all coherent and well organized and due to the union of several works of art forms a unique work of art. It is the essence of all the intellect and productive capability that a nation posses. A.W. Schlegel on the other hand sketches the history of Western literature with the difference of classical versus romantic. Carlyle was certainly influenced by them when he said “the History of a nation’s Poetry is the essence of its History, political, economic, scientific, religious,” he continues on the same thread by calling literature “the truest emblem of the national spirit and manner of existence”.

Stoffgeschichte Literary History
A highly romanticized notion based on the concept of prehistory which is a reservoir of themes from which all modern literature is derived from though it casts a pale shadow when compared to the original works. This view excited by a wave of mythological, philological and religious studies. The Brothers Grimm are its earliest practitioners who carries out comparative research into the migration of fairytales, sagas and legends. Jakob Grimm that natural poetry composed itself way back into the past and so was on the decline as it deteriorated with distance from the divine source of revelation.

In Warton’s ‘History of English Poetry’ (1824), we have a different view of general literature where he links it to a huge treasure house of themes that spread, multiple and migrate while popular fiction is based on tradition and has age old symbolic wisdom buried at its root. Darwinism brought on a new shade of evolutionary literature or a biological way of studying literary history advocated by Spencer. Thus, we have Moriz Haupt of Germany studying the analogical development of the epic in Greece, France, Germany etc. John Addington on the other hand felt the future course of literature could be predicted from such application as each genre has its course of “germination, expansion, efflorescence and decay”. In France, Ferdinand Brunetière treated genres as biological species.

The best way to reach an all encompassing definition of comparative literature is by studying its spirit and perspective. Comparative literature looks at literature from a cosmopolitan and international perspective with a conscious attempt at studying the unity of all literary creation and experience.
Comparative literature has no set pattern or system. The method involves a blend of various things like description, characterization, interpretation, narration, explanation, evaluation along with comparison. Comparison doesn’t only include historical contact but even unrelated ones. What is required is a broad mindset without prejudice. History and criticism too are elements of it and so, instead of confining it to certain aspects; one should see comparative literature as simply the study of literature.


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