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29 December 2009

Comparative literature

When I tell people I'm hoping to do an MA in comparative literature, they usually ask what's that? and I usually can't answer. Someone answered the question for herself though; she said so, it's like saying, this book's bigger than that book, right?. Funny, and it seems not that far off certain approaches. I've been given Susan Bassnett's book Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction for Christmas (it was either that or Katie Price's latest autobiography), and I realise the question is one that has been around a long time, and one that doesn't have an easy answer.

One answer has always been that comparative literature is there to demonstrate that our literature is bigger and better than theirs. Here's a table showing some of the us and them alignments:
EnglandvWales, Scotland, Ireland
EuropevThe Orient
EuropevThe Americas
AfricavThe rest of the World
Comparative literature, in other words, has been used as a political tool. The literature of, say, the Middle East is used to demonstrate and maintain prejudices about the nature of its people and society (eg Kinglake and Burton), while the sagas of Iceland were adopted by a ragbag of people, including Nazis, as the exemplary development of male aryanism.

So, according to Bassnett (writing in 1993), the study of comparative literature has declined in Britain, presumably because of the obvious unloveliness of the discipline in this form.

But, she says, there has been a growth in interest in the subject in, for example, India. This has depended upon a revaluation of the local literature, which has put that at the heart of the subject. In India, historically, it may have been hard for local intellectuals to get free of colonial thoughts about the primacy of English literature, in which it is the benchmark against which other literatures are compared. This transformation is partly driven by post-colonial theory, but it means that comparative literature becomes a tool of post-colonialism, a complete reversal of its earlier role.

There's also a fascinating interplay between colonialism and sexuality, which I hadn't realised before. Bassnett clearly brings feminist theory into the subject, but when you realise how often colonisers talked about "virgin" territory, and orientalists speculated obsessively on the sexual secrets of the east, it's hard to deny it was always there.

So, interesting stuff, but I still don't have an easy definition of what comparative literature is. Probably it's too general a concept, and it should be renamed as "world literature". But if the music business is any precedent, "world literature", like "world music", would mean anything that's not from North America or some parts of Europe. So maybe it's just "literature". That can't be right - it's much too simple.

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