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But on the other hand, the concerns that were expressed in the latter decades of the twentieth century remain unresolved. The original enterprise of comparative literature, which sought to read literature trans-nationally in terms of themes, movements, genres, periods, zeitgeist, history of ideas is out-dated and needs to be rethought in the light of writing being produced in emergent cultures.
There is therefore a politicised dimension to comparative literature; Spivak proposes the idea of planetarity in opposi- tion to globalisation, which she argues involves the imposition of the same values and system of exchange everywhere.
It is a theory deriving from her own particular history and from the perspective which that history invites. Other voices can now be heard, rather than one single dominant voice. Plurivocality is at the heart of post-colonial thinking. However, neither paradigm is particularly helpful for those of us who have as a starting point one or other of those great traditions.
Attempts to define comparative literature tended to concentrate on questions of national or linguistic boundaries. For the subject to be authentic, it was felt, the activity of comparing had to be based on an idea of difference: texts or writers or movements should ideally be compared across linguistic boundaries, and this view lasted a very long time.
As late as the s I was being told by my supervisor that I could not engage in comparative literature if I were studying writers working in the same language; literature written in English was deemed to be all of a piece, the different cultural contexts completely ignored. At the same time, also in the s, Wole Soyinka was unable to give lectures in the English Faculty at Cambridge where he was Visiting Fellow, since African literature was not recognised, and was compelled to lecture under the aegis of Social Anthropology.
The stifling weight of the Great European Tradition was such that it is not surprising that there should have been such a violent reaction by post-colonial scholars. Nevertheless, we have come a long way in three decades, and the impact of post-colonial scholarship, along with other theories that have challenged the canonical status quo has been considerable. However, there is a need now to look again at the idea of the canon, not least because of the way in which Western foundation texts have found their way into other literatures — think of the impact of naturalism on southern Indian literatures, of the extraordinarily creative use of Homer and the epic tradition by the St.
Lucian Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, of the current translation boom in China, as Western writing is translated, imitated and rewritten in exciting new ways. A fundamental question that comparative literature now needs to address concerns the role and status of the canonical and foundation texts that appear to be more highly valued outside Europe and North America than by a generation of scholars uneasy about their own history of colonialism and imperialism.
For Spivak and Southern hemisphere scholars, the crucial issues of comparative literature are indeed politicised. For we are undergoing a radical reassessment of what constitutes literary knowledge, as across Europe the academic curriculum is rewritten to accommodate a generation of students who can no longer access texts written before the Early Modern age.
The disappearance of classical languages has been followed by the disappearance of medieval languages, so that emphasis increasingly falls on literature produced from the sixteenth century onwards. This will inevitably affect how we think about literary history, how we trace the emergence and disappearance of different themes, forms and genres over time.
Significantly, there seems to be a revival of interest in the ancient world, most notably in the theatre of classical Greece among contemporary writers, an indication of a literary phenomenon that involves rewriting and translation.
In I published a book on comparative literature in which I argued that the subject was in its death throes. The basis of my case was that debates about a so-called crisis in comparative literature stemmed from a legacy of nineteenth-century positivism and a failure to consider the political implications of intercultural transfer processes. This had led, in the West, to a sense of the subject being in decline, though elsewhere in the world comparative literaure, albeit under other labels, was flourishing.
Today, looking back at that proposition, it appears fundamentally flawed: translation studies has not developed very far at all over three decades and comparison remains at the heart of much translation studies scholarship. What I would say were I writing the book today is that neither comparative literature nor translation studies should be seen as a discipline: rather both are methods of approaching literature, ways of reading that are mutually beneficial.
The crisis in comparative literature derived from excessive prescriptivism combined with distinctive culturally specific methodologies that could not be universally applicable or relevant.
The patterns of exchange and transfer that happen in literary and philosophical movements can be compared to the shifting patterns of global information flows, which means that theories of cultural capital and its transmission can be a productive comparative method.
Significantly, the celebration of particular events which brings together scholars working across a broad range of diverse disciplines can also be very productive, and indeed represents the best of comparative scholarship. The conference held in Lisbon in November to commemorate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed the city on All Saints Day in was a model of interdisciplinarity and comparativism. The small Goethe, still only a child, later remembered the terror inspired by stories of what had happened in Lisbon.
The book O grande terramoto de Lisboa: ficar diferente,4 timed to be published for the conference, contains chapters by scholars from different countries and different disciplines and though it does not claim to be such, is arguably a model for twenty-first century comparative literature. For here there is also plurivocality, but the voices are assembled in a kind of chorus all referring back to one particular historical moment.
The act of compar- ing thus takes place both in terms of the ways in which individual scholars approach the same topic and then, most significantly, in the reading process.
Individual essays may make comparative points, but the actual comparison comes through the juxtaposition of the diverse contributions and through the response of readers to that juxtaposition. When comparative literature lost its way was in trying to determine how comparison should take place, hence the drawing up of artificial boundaries and the prescriptiveness of some of the theories.
This was particularly true of the so-called French school of comparative literature in the first half of the twentieth century.
Both these approaches struggled with the idea of comparison itself, getting caught up in definitions of boundaries. Where the subject starts to make sense and where it offers a genuinely innovative way of approaching literature is when the role of the reader is foregrounded, when the act of comparing happens during the reading process itself, rather than being set up a priori by the delimitation of the selection of specific texts.
It is also important that the texts in question be considered in an historical context, for this can radically change the reading and alter the whole notion of comparison. As Hugh Kenner points out in his book The Pound Era, the Cathay poems may have started out as translations of ancient Chinese verse, which is what Pound intended them to be, but in the way they were received they were transformed into war poems that spoke to the generation coping with the horrors of the trenches in Flanders.
The impact of these poems was such that on the one hand they could serve as models for a new generation of poets struggling to make the horrors of war a proper subject for poetry, while on the other hand they established a benchmark for future translators because they set the parameters in the minds of English-language readers of what Chinese poetry could do.
The object of the comparative literature scholar is therefore to see these poems in a context and to compare them with other kinds of war poetry being produced at the same time. Cathay is interesting because it highlights the way in which translation can serve as a force for literary renewal and innovation.
This is one of the ways in which translation studies research has served comparative literature well; whereas once translation was regarded as a marginal area within comparative literature, now it is acknowledged that translation has played a vital role in literary history and that great periods of literary innovation tend to be preceded by periods of intense translation activity. Similarly, when Kemal Ataturk led the Turkish modernisa- tion programme in the s, central to his thinking was the systematic translation of what were perceived to be key foundation texts of Western culture.
Through translation come new ideas, new genres and new forms, so it is extraordinary that for so long comparative literature as a field of study did not acknowledge the importance of research into the history of translation.
I have referred to comparative literature as a subject, as a discipline, as a field of study, uncertain which terminology to choose. Any comparatist studying that play would need to consider the historical moment in which Marlowe was writing it along with the problems it poses to a contemporary British director in the wake of the July bombings in London in and would need to weigh the aesthetic compromises of the Old Vic production against the desire to preserve the integrity of a by-now classic English play.
The future of comparative literature lies in jettisoning attempts to define the object of study in any prescriptive way and in focussing instead on the idea of literature, understood in the broadest possible sense, and in recognising the inevitable interconnectedness that comes from literary transfer. No single European literature can be studied in isolation, nor should European scholars shrink from reassessing the legacy they have inherited. There is a great deal to learn from the perspectives of Southern hemisphere scholars, principle of which is the shift in perspective that their views inevitably incite, but it is important not to lose sight of where we, as Europeans, stand in relation to our own literary history.
That history involves translation as a crucial means of enabling information flow, hence the need to position the history of translation centrally within any comparative literary study. Significantly, since writers are always a good twenty or so years ahead of literary critics, more and more contemporary writers across Europe are looking back to literature of previous ages, engaging with it, rewriting it, using it as a way of interrogating the world in which they move.
Hopefully, literary scholars will follow where they lead, and will abandon pointless debates about terminology and definition, to focus more productively on the study of texts themselves, mapping the history of writing and reading across cultural and temporal boundaries.
Related Papers. By Zhoukun Han. Comparative Literature and the Question of Theory 1. By Touria Nakkouch. Comparative Literature and the Question of Theory.
Book for review. By Carolina Perez Vazquez. The Import of the 'Comparative' in Comparative Literature. By Divya Rao. Download pdf. Remember me on this computer. Enter the email address you signed up with and we'll email you a reset link.
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Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction
Access options available:. Jeanne J. Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction. Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishers, At the Southern Comparative Literature conference, James Rolleston made a remark that cast some light on our field's recent history. When Duke University decided to launch its version of comparative literature, Rolleston recalled, the academic climate ofthe early s made the adjective seem irrelevant.
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She was educated in several European countries, which gave her experience of diverse languages and cultures, and began her academic career in Italy, lecturing in universities around the world. The Translator as Writer was co-edited with Peter Bush. Translation in Global News was written with Esperanca Bielsa. Beside her academic research, and writing for several national newspapers, Susan Bassnett also writes poetry.
You are currently using the site but have requested a page in the site. Would you like to change to the site? Susan Bassnett. Bassnett asks questions not only about the current state of comparative literature as a discipline, but also about its future. Since its beginnings in the nineteenth century, comparative literature has been closely associated with the emergence of national cultures, and its present expansion in many parts of the world indicates that this process is again underway, after a period of narrowly Eurocentric research in the field.
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