You are here

Comparing the Literatures: Literary Studies in a Global Age by David Damrosch

Reviewed by Byron Taylor, University College London

Comparing the Literatures: Literary Studies in a Global Age, David Damrosch. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. £28. ISBN 9780691134994.


Within the field of Comparative Literature, the name David Damrosch needs little introduction. Damrosch completed his doctorate at Yale in the 1970s, finishing a thesis on James Joyce and Ancient Egyptology. His taste for breadth has not subsided since. His seminal work What is World Literature? (2003), and the subsequent establishment of the Institute of World Literature (with various anthologies, conferences, and publications in its wake) have revived a discipline in need of leadership and initiative. But what is that discipline, anyway? As many comparatists are asked, what are they comparing exactly, and what are they expected to compare literature to? Damrosch’s book seeks to address such questions with authority, intimacy, and eloquence, for those of us tired of answering them. 

            Comparing the Literatures acts as both a compass for Comparative and World Literature for the uninitiated, while also offering a globally panoramic account of its exciting and challenging developments around the world. ‘Comparative literature today is experiencing a paradigm shift of the sort that occurs only once or twice in a century,’ he claims, ‘and an effective response will require us to rethink the grounds of comparison from the grounds up’ (5). This charming, well-paced, and exhaustive account historicises this moment—considering its contributors, contexts, challenges and possibilities—conveyed in an immensely readable and accessible format.

            As such, it presents as comprehensive an overview of these disciplines as can be imagined (one far too wide-ranging to summarise here). It is an account that foregrounds institutional history, while incorporating archival correspondence, comical anecdotes, from ancient scribes in Mesopotamia to literary video games in New York. Damrosch thankfully manages this plethora under simplistic Chapter headings (Emigrations; Theories; Languages). Altogether, Comparing the Literatures seemingly manages the impossible task of condensing a global body of literature, criticism, and theory into an extended study that avoids contrivance, pretension, self-congratulation, or inappropriate verbosity.

            For an audience of educators, Damrosch addresses the question of language proficiency:—a matter of anxiety to many academics in the English-speaking world. While we need not ‘achieve near-native fluency in every language,’ he insists, ‘each of us does need to know whichever languages are most important for our teaching and research, and we need to decide just how well need to know each of them for our purposes’ (173).

We also need to know how to work intelligently with translations when necessary, and for this purpose it is important to gain a good grounding in the field of translation studies. Most fundamentally, we need to use originals and translations alike in active awareness of the deeply intertwined problems of language and of politics that confront every use of language today. (173-174)

In this sense, Damrosch recognises the importance of integrating translation into syllabi as well as language-learning: a view expressed in 2003 but given greater emphasis here. Perhaps in response to Nicholas Harrison’s 2014 query as to Damrosch’s acumen with languages (“World Literature: What Gets Lost in Translation?”), the author is also admirably honest in relaying his own experiences on this topic and many others. Yet Damrosch’s interjections only serve to personalise an otherwise dizzying range of material. The reader follows the twentieth-century institutional narrative of Comparative Literature through the Cold War and out again: ‘Comparatists weren’t just in bed with the State Department and the Pentagon; they were having to share the bed with the scientists who were hogging the blankets and the balance sheets’ (88). By extending the history of the discipline to include such institutional critique and political contexts alongside the oft-quoted thoughts of René Wellek and Eric Auerbach, Damrosch here stakes a claim for writing a substantial and unparalleled history of the discipline.

            This is not to consider the present work an acritical overview of its field. The author does not shy away from those who vehemently disown World Literature on various grounds (most prominently Emily Apter and Susan Bassnett). One senses a quiet exhaustion with the blunt edges of a literary theory blind to the contexts of history and thus to the full dimensions of a given text: ‘How successfully can we employ a theory formulated by Derrida in Paris or by Partha Chatterjee in Kolkota—to analyse a poem composed in China or India a millennium or more ago?’ (156)? ‘Used badly,’ he observes elsewhere, ‘a theoretical lens may distort as much as it reveals’ (126), though Damrosch admits that theory will be necessary in the face of a growing body of reading if only as an organising principle. Addressing his contemporaries, Damrosch claims comparatists should not only be drawn to works appropriable to their own context but must persist in reading more locally-informed theorists of literature, like Antonio Candido and Roberto Schwartz. Damrosch settles for the more nuanced mission: ‘The challenge is to employ our modern theories in dialogue with the theoretical knowledges found in the traditions we explore’ (156).

            Much of the material will be familiar to those who have read Damrosch’s publications over the past decade or so, while some of his case studies echo his choices on the various anthologies that he has overseen (from Hu Shih and Germaine de Staël to Partha Chatterjee). Yet the consolidation of these various lines of argument, observation, and inquiry into one coherent work only underlines the ambitious scope of Damrosch’s project. That is not to suggest it is merely an introduction to the discipline. Rather, there is also a sense in which Damrosch seeks to amend here for prior oversights. Firstly, to amend for the lack of attention to female comparatists, making poignant reappraisals of Germaine de Staël, Barbara Johnson, and Lilian Furst. Polemical, controversial, and well-travelled, Germaine de Staël led a fascinating life and should be read today, insists Damrosch, ‘for her pioneering analyses of the relations of literature to social institutions,’ and ‘her sobering reflections on the limits of what criticism can accomplish’ (30). Barbara Johnson was a Professor of Psychology and English at Harvard University in the 1960s, producing literary criticism of tremendous rigour and scope. The mid-century émigré Lilian Furst, meanwhile, demonstrates for Damrosch how deeply migration figures in a discipline obsessed with language, borders, and boundaries. Yet Damrosch’s inclusion of these female critics is less a matter of moral obligation and more an attempt to sketch out the rich history, sequence, and tradition of the discipline more fully (to which female critics continue to make resounding contribution). Secondly, there is the sense that World Literature has ran further than Damrosch’s prior definitions intended:

After two decades of ongoing discussion, it ought to be possible to flesh out the ghostly or vampirish concept of world literature. […] As with literary theory, no one will need to utilize every approach to world literature; what we need to know is what choices we are making, and why we make them, when we adopt a given definition of “the world” in world literature, and we should be able to use different definitions for different purposes. (268)

So elastic is this term that Damrosch inevitably feels a need to redefine its possibilities after so much ‘ongoing discussion’. From my own reading, one senses that the author finds the invocation of World Literature has rested too much and for too long on the geographical emphasis of that term, while resting too little on the historical scope it could equally initiate. In his opening, Damrosch critiques what he sees as the persistent presentism of the discipline (9), while closing the book with the belief that it would be ‘a tremendous impoverishment of literary studies if we only studied contemporary world literature’ (298-299) Various extracts of pre-modern texts are scattered luminously throughout the book. Damrosch is at pains to point out the enduring value of these texts (as both literature, and even as literary theories in their own right). He pointedly reminds us early on that institutional syllabi tends to only focus  on the last two centuries: ‘just 1% of the history of literacy to date’ (9). This is a provocative truth, one that uncovers the sheer range of works still unconsidered in many of World Literature’s various critiques.

            Despite the expectations that must have weighed upon its completion, Damrosch’s book is sweepingly vast yet delivered with charismatic clarity and an admirable coherence. Constructed over twelve years as its field gradually developed, it takes a sober view of both its achievements and the paths that lie ahead. This latter sentiment finds its most modest articulation when Damrosch confesses: ‘Both in theory and in practice, we have a long way to go if we want to have a world literary theory worth the name’ (164). Yet Comparing the Literatures charts the course of this brilliant and fragmented global tradition, its interruptions and accelerations, with such impassioned interest as to inspire its readers to contribute to just that end. The book constitutes, depending on its reader, a charming introduction, a rigorous literary history, and an enduring point of reference for ‘anyone interested in incorporating a comparative dimension into their work’ (1).