What do you understand by the term ‘comparative literature’?


Question 1. What do you understand by the term ‘comparative literature’? 20

Ans: Comparative Literature is the study of literary texts irrespective of the boundaries of the literatures of different national traditions, time periods, genres, forms and themes along with the literature between other forms of cultural interpretation.  Moreover Comparative Literature can also be exercised towards an area or element of a group’s literature instead of applying only to the specific pieces.

Scholars and academics try to describe the principal characteristics of literature, but also stretches it in the broader context of  social changes, history and philosophical thought. Comparative Literature compares and contrasts literary works of different languages cultures and traditions, as well as it also focus on works produced by different nations and cultures that share a common language. Specialists of Comparative Literature are known as “comparatists.”  Comparatists are people with passion and expertise in languages and having an extensive knowledge in literary criticism, theory and traditions. They are also skillful in arts, history, culture and religion. Comparative literature involves complex, multilingual and eclectic studies mixing the national and the international perspective. Historically, comparative literature has shifted from narrow, selective studies on European masterpieces and works of former colonial powers to more eclectic and multidisciplinary research — moving from a Eurocentric outlook to a global one, including minority literatures. However, some Comparative Literature departments and research centers at International Universities are more concerned to the traditions of literary history and criticism, while others are more influenced by post-modern philosophy.

The origins of Comparative Literature can be traced back to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1827 concept of Weltliteratur (world literature) and to Mathew Arnold who used this term in 1848 in a private letter. Goethe observed that “different nations acknowledge each other and their respective creations” and “in this sense [a universal world literature] … has existed for a long time” (cited in Birus 13). Goethe even declared, “national literature does not mean much at present, it is time for the era of world literature and everybody must endeavour to accelerate this epoch” (cited in Birus 21). Was Goethe thinking of world literature in quantitative terms (i.e. literatures of the entire world) or in qualitative terms (i.e. “the best examples from all literatures from different epochs and regions”)? (Birus12). Again, did Goethe unwittingly equate ‘world literature’ with ‘European literature’? Birus emphasizes the catholicity of Goethe’s view, which foresaw the developments of multitudes of European and non-European literatures in the future and even included popular literature. (Birus 21, 15). What this essentially means is that there should be a blurring of boundaries demarcating literatures as from such and such countries or classical and popular.

Question 1. What do you understand by the term ‘comparative literature’?

However, what Comparative Literature means today is very different from previous views in global context. Cultural studies take us on reconsideration or redefinition of the term of comparative literature. Today boundaries of comparative literature have been expended by comparative cultural studies. Of course, we have some chance to learn or know progress, methods, and approaches of comparative literature by means of theoretical and practical/applied books I mention above or the other books; however, it can be said that we understand neither its theory and practice nor contributions.

Wellek quotes Van Tieghem’s definition of Comparative Literature in his theoretical book “the object of comparative literature is essentially the study of diverse literatures in their relations with one another” (Wellek, 1970, p. 15) with Van Tieghem’s definition. Such an idea opened the doors of different culture, language and literatures behind the borders to the scholars. From the prospect of Comparative Literature they began to consider the forerunners, their masterpieces and their influences on each other’s in world literature. Comparative Literature is a key opening all doors beyond the national, cultural, linguistic, historical, social or political boundaries, when we turn our attentions to world literature, we recognize echoes of a masterpiece on our literature or a work of the other nations’ literatures as translations and imitations, frequently by second-rate authors, or to the prehistory of a masterpiece, the migrations and the spread of its themes and forms.” (Wellek & Warren, Theory of Literature, 1949, p. 40)

A researcher who studies literatures of other nations to local literature will notice similarities, differences, and developments of the languages, literatures and cultures of two or more nations by comparative approaches, and he will observe the common themes of the literary texts of different nations. Hence, a comparatist will have a chance to know their influences of the texts or the writers on each other’s by means of Comparative Literature.

One of the most common errors in the study of Comparative Literature in theory and practice is mistake that the writers and their works of literature of a nation could be examined in the light of the science of comparative literature. Each nation may compare its own writers or literary works with each other’s, but this is not a comparative literature. This work is a comparative development of that nation’s literature; it is a progressive and historical study of the products of a national or local literature. If we want to make comparative literature or a comparative study, we have to compare two or more literatures of the different nations or languages, traditions or cultures.

For instance when we compare English poets, or novelists to each other’s, we learn some things about English literature , but when we compare English literature to French literature, American, Russian or Turkish literature we make comparative literature. In that case, aspects, parallels, similarities or developments of English and Turkish poets of ninetieth century may be compared and contrasted by comparative literature or comparative cultural approaches.

Of course, an English poet to another English poet(s) can be compared but as we mention above such a study will explore historical, social or political development, similar and different aspects etc., of English poetry. However when an English poet or writer is compared and contrasted to a Turkish one, this will be a study of comparative literature.

Undoubtedly, to study her own national writers of a country will give information about that country’s literature, and this will be a restricted study of an area, but if we want to know other’s literature(s( we need literatures of two or more nationalities away from the boundaries of one national language. Moreover as Wellek mentions “we need both literary history and criticism, and we need the wide perspective which only comparative literature can give.” (Wellek, 1970, p. 36) A comparative study of different literatures will present us rich knowledge of literatures, languages, cultures and identities of other nations, thus comparisons of products of the different literatures will get a chance us to recognize both our values and the other’s closely.

Surely while we compare literatures of the different countries or languages we need to break down the borders, we have huge materials to compare synchronically or diachronically literary genres and texts across all times and spaces. We must read, recognize, criticize and evaluate the other nations’ literary products. We need to develop, we need to know what the others are doing we must compare ourselves to other’s. As Matthew Arnold emphasizes we must have a look at literatures of all periods from classical to postmodern. We recognize similarities and dissimilarities among literatures, and perceive and evaluate the stand they come while we make a study of comparative literature.

We must compare the works of other ages with those of our own age and country; that, while we feel proud of the immense development of knowledge and power of production, which we possess, we may learn humility in contemplating the refinement of feeling and intensity of thought manifested in the works of the older schools. To know how others stand, that we may know how we ourselves stand; and to know how we ourselves stand, that we may correct our mistakes and achieve our deliverance -that is our problem. (Arnold, 1914, p. 457)

On the hand, in a globalized age, importance of the translation studies is undeniable for the science of comparative literature. To study on original texts in their own native languages while poems, epics, tales, stories, novels or essays of different languages are compared and contrasted will be better than their translations.

We all know how difficult a poem to be translated into to another language correctly? If not we know the language of an original text we must have a well translation of the text otherwise we will have to depend on the translated text, and inevitable mistakes will occur in comparisons of the texts. In this regard, to know a second language at least is an important requirement for accurate results in comparative/cultural, linguistic approaches to literatures as well as to learn the methods and techniques of literary analysis and comparison of different national literatures.

After knowing what comparative literature is in theoretical sense, practice of comparative literature can be made on literary genres selected among the literatures of different nationalities. The comparatists must be careful while determining the writers and their literary works of their own literature and other country or countries. They must know very much literary values of countries to be compared.


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