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21 Jan

What is Comparative Literature Today?

 What is Comparative Literature Today? - Susan Bassnett

Discuss how Susan Bassnett argues that the reading of one author automatically leads to another.

As Matthew Arnold puts it, “everywhere there is connection, everywhere there is illustration”. Susan Bassnett argues that anyone who has an interest in books embarks on the road towards comparative literature. Reading Chaucer, we come across Boccaccio. We can trace Shakespeare’s source materials through Latin, French, Spanish and Italian. We can follow the process through which Baudelaire’s fascination with Edgar Allan Poe enriched his own writing. We can consider how many English novelists learned from the great 19th century Russian writers. We can compare how James Joyce borrowed from and loaned to Italo Svevo. When we read Clarice Lispector we are reminded of Jean Rhys, who in turn recalls Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin.

 

How according to Susan Bassnett has the term comparative literature changed?

Initially, Goethe came up with the notion of Weltliteratur (world literature) in 1827.

In 1903, Benedetto Croce argued that comparative literature was a non-subject. He concluded that ‘there is no study more arid than researches of this sort’. He suggested that the proper object of study should be literary history. He argued that the term comparative literature had no substance to it.

But other scholars made grandiose claims for comparative literature. Charles Mills Gayley proclaimed that the working premise of the student of comparative literature was “literature as a distinct and integral medium of thought a common institutional expression of humanity, prompted by the common needs and aspirations of man, sprung from common faculties”. In 1974, Francois Jost claimed that comparative literature “represents more than an academic discipline”. He maintained that “it is an overall view of literature, of the world of letters, a humanistic ecology, a literary Weltanschauung (world view), a vision of the cultural universe, inclusive and comprehensive”. Jost, like Gayley and others before him, propose comparative literature as some kind of world religion. Wellek and Warren in their Theory of Literature (1949) suggested that “comparative literature will make high demands on the linguistic proficiencies of our scholars”.

However, the high ideals of such a vision of comparative literature have not been met. By 1960, Wellek was already talking about the crisis in comparative literature. In the 1960s and early 70s, even as the subject appeared to be gaining ground, flaws in the idea of universal values and of world literature could already be seen. And as great waves of critical thought, from structuralism to deconstruction, swept through one after the other, the notions of single, harmonious reading were shattered forever.

What is the role of history in comparative literature for Bassnett?

In 1903, Benedetto Croce argued that comparative literature was a non-subject. He concluded that ‘there is no study more arid than researches of this sort’. He suggested that the proper object of study should be literary history: “The comparative history of literature is history understood in its true sense as a complete explanation of the literary work, encompassed in all its relationships, disposed in the composite whole of universal literary history”. Croce’s argument was that the term comparative literature was obfuscatory, disguising the obvious, that is, the fact that the true object of study was literary history. Croce claimed that he could not distinguish between literary history pure and simple and comparative literary history.

 

How does she argue that art is an instrument of cultural harmony?

Charles Mills Gayley proclaimed that the working premise of the student of comparative literature was “literature as a distinct and integral medium of thought a common institutional expression of humanity, prompted by the common needs and aspirations of man, sprung from common faculties”. In 1974, Francois Jost claimed that comparative literature “represents more than an academic discipline”. He maintained that “it is an overall view of literature, of the world of letters, a humanistic ecology, a literary Weltanschauung (world view), a vision of the cultural universe, inclusive and comprehensive”. Jost, like Gayley and others before him, propose comparative literature as some kind of world religion. The underlying suggestion is that all cultural differences disappear when readers take up great works; art is seen as an instrument of universal harmony and the comparatist is one who facilitates that harmony.

 

Why did the students in the fifties and sixties turn to comparative literature?

In the 1950s and early 1960s, high flying graduate students in the West turned to comparative literature as a radical subject, because at that time it appeared to be transgressive, moving across the boundaries of single literature study. That there was no coherent methodology did not matter. Nor did it matter that the debates on the existence of the subject continued unabated. By the late 1970s, a new generation of high-flying graduate students in the West had turned to Literary Theory, Women’s Studies, Semiotics and Cultural Studies as the radical subject choices, abandoning comparative literature.

How does Ganesh Devy link Indian comparative literature with nationalism?

Ganesh Devy suggests that comparative literature in India is directly linked to the rise of modern Indian nationalism. He notes that comparative literature has been used to assert the national cultural identity. There is no sense here of national literature and comparative literature being incompatible. The argument is important, because it serves to remind us of the origins of the term Comparative Literature in Europe, a term that first appeared in an age of national struggles, when new boundaries were being erected. Then the whole question of national culture and national identity was under discussion throughout Europe and the USA.

How does literature from England problematise or justify Comparative Literature?

Terry Eagleton discusses the way in which the emergence of English as an academic subject had quite clear political implications. The establishment of the subject in the universities followed the vast social changes brought about in the aftermath of the First World War. “English literature rode to power on the back of wartime nationalism; but it also represented a search for spiritual solutions on the part of the English ruling class whose sense of identity had been profoundly shaken.”

English itself has entered a crisis today. What after all is English today? Literature produced within the geographical boundaries of England? Of the United Kingdom? Or literatures written in English from all parts of the world? English no longer means texts from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf.

 

What is the contribution of Translation Studies towards Comparative Literature?

Translation Studies has developed to such an extent that there are many now who consider it to be a discipline in its own right. Translation Studies derives from work in linguistics, literary study, history, anthropology, psychology and sociology. It posits the radical proposition that translation is not a marginal activity but has been a major shaping force for change in the history of culture. Comparative literature has traditionally claimed translation as a sub-category, but this assumption is now being questioned.

The work of scholars such as Toury, Lefevere, Hermans, Lambert and many others has shown that translation is especially significant at moments of great cultural change. Evan-Zohar argues that extensive translation activity takes place when a culture is in a period of transition. But when a culture believes itself to be dominant, then translation is less important.  While comparative literature in the West is losing ground, translation Studies is undergoing the opposite process.

 

Copyright © Manu Mangattu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, SGC Aruvithura

Provide your Feedback/Suggestion/Requests for notes to manumangattu@gmail.com

 

 

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