Comparative literature (sometimes abbreviated “Comp. lit.”) is critical scholarship dealing with the literature of two or more different linguistic, cultural or national groups. While most frequently practiced with works of different languages, it may also be performed on works of the same language if the works originate from different nations or cultures among which that language is spoken. Also included in the range of inquiry are comparisons of different types of art; for example, a comparatist might investigate the relationship of film to literature.
Students and instructors in the field, usually called “comparatists,” have traditionally been proficient in several languages and acquainted with the literary traditions and major literary texts of those languages. Some of the newer sub-fields, however, stress theoretical acumen and the ability to consider different types of art concurrently, over high linguistic competence.
The interdisciplinary nature of the field means that comparatists typically exhibit some acquaintance with translation studies, sociology, critical theory, cultural studies and history. As a result, comparative literature programs within universities may be designed by scholars drawn from several such departments. This eclecticism has led critics (from within and without) to charge that Comparative Literature is insufficiently well-defined, or that comparatists too easily fall into dilettantism, because the scope of their work is, of necessity, broad. Some question whether this breadth affects the ability of Ph.D.s to find employment in the highly specialized environment of academia and the career market at large, although such concerns do not seem to be borne out by placement data that shows Comp Lit graduates to be hired at similar or better rates than their compeers in English.
Since WWII, there have been three major international conferences in Comparative Literature: in 1965, 1975 and 1993. The published notes from each conference reveal the contested nature of the field, and deal largely with disputes over theoretic rigor, linguistic incompatibility and the fundamental goals of the field.
The work considered foundational to the field, and the first to be so-titled, was New Zealand scholar H.M Posnett’s Comparative Literature, published during the 1860s. However, antecedents can be found in the ideas of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose vision of “world literature” was widely cited by Posnett. In addition, the novels of Honor�� de Balzac, many of which ruminate on the supposed “nature” of people from different nations, could be interpreted as an early form of comparativism, albeit fictionalized.
During the late 19th Century, comparatists were chiefly concerned with deducing the purported “national character” or “spirit of the people”, which they assumed to be embodied in the literary output of each nation. Although many comparative works from this period would be judged chauvinistic, Eurocentric or even racist by present-day standards, the intention of most scholars during this period was to increase the understanding of other cultures, not to assert superiority over them (although politicians and others from outside the field used their works for this purpose).
In the early part of the 20th century until WWII, the field was characterised by a notably empiricist and positivist approach, termed the “French School”, in which scholars examined works forensically, looking for evidence of “origins” and “influences” between works from different nations. Thus a scholar might attempt to trace how a particular literary idea or motif traveled between nations over time.
Reacting to the French School, postwar scholars, collectively termed the “American School”, sought to return the field to matters more directly concerned with literary criticism, de-emphasising the detective work and detailed historical research that the French School had demanded. The American School was more closely aligned with the original internationalist visions of Goethe and Posnett (arguably reflecting the postwar desire for international co-operation), looking for examples of universal human “truths” based on the literary archetypes that appeared throughout literatures from all times and places.
Prior to the advent of the American School, the scope of
comparative literature in the West was typically limited to the literature of Western Europe and North America, predominantly literature in English, German and French literature, with occasional forays into Italian literature (primarily for Dante) and Spanish literature (primarily for Cervantes). One monument to the approach of this period is Erich Auerbach‘s book Mimesis, a survey of techniques of realism in texts whose origins span several continents and three thousand years.
The approach of the American School would be familiar to current practitioners of Cultural Studies and is even claimed by some to be the forerunner of the Cultural Studies boom in universities during the 1970s and 1980s. The field today is highly diverse: for example, comparatists routinely study Chinese literature, Arabic literature and the literatures of most other major world languages and regions as well as English and continental European literatures.
Indeed, there is a movement amongst some comparatists to re-focus the field entirely away from the nation-based approach with which it has previously been associated (see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline, Columbia University Press, 2004; or ‘s framework of comparative cultural studies). These scholars advocate a cross-cultural approach that pays no heed to national borders. It remains to be seen whether this approach will be successful, given that the field had its roots in nation-based thinking and that much of the literature under study was (and is) inspired by issues relating directly to the nation-state.
- CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture
- CLCWeb Library: web resources for comparative literature and culture studies
- What Was Comparative Literature?
- Comparative Literature Here and Now
- Gruppo04: web resources for comparative literary studies
- A Comparative Literature lecture series at the University of Pennsylvania
- Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania