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Introducing Comparative Literature: New Trends and Applications by César Domínguez et al.

Reviewed by Naomi Charlotte Fukuzawa, University College London; and Christian Howard, University of Virginia

Introducing Comparative Literature: New Trends and Applications, César Domínguez, Haun Saussy, and Darío Villanueva. New York: Routledge, 2015. £24.99. ISBN: 9780415702683.

The first English-language critical introduction to the field of comparative literature since the 1990s, César Domínguez, Haun Saussy, and Darío Villanueva’s Introducing Comparative Literature: New Trends and Applications provides a much-needed outline of the extent and approaches of comparative literature while simultaneously tracing developing movements within the discipline. Indeed, although the authors primarily approach comparative literature through the US model, they are nonetheless attuned to the contours of the discipline’s history as it developed in Europe, from Goethe’s concept of Weltliteratur to the French school, and to more recent developments in the Chinese “third phase theory” (51). Yet even as they outline its historical progress, the authors address contemporary challenges to the field, responding to claims made by figures such as Susan Bassnett and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak that “comparative literature is dead” by positing new methods and approaches being employed by comparativists (10). The result is a concise book that addresses different aspects of comparative literature, ranging from literary theory and comparative methodology to translation studies, decolonization, East-West studies, literary history, and trans-literary thematic comparisons. In short, Domínguez, Saussy, and Villanueva offer a general introduction that is both engaging and historically informed, but which is ultimately forward-facing with regard to the continued and dynamic developments in comparative literature.

The book is divided into nine chapters, the first of which outlines the history of comparative literature by focusing upon key movements and figures who have shaped its growth. The authors situate comparative literature in relation to three other elements of literary study – poetics or literary theory, literary criticism, and literary history – defining it as the fourth of these primary disciplines. By addressing challenges to the field from a historical perspective, the authors acknowledge the shortcomings – such as Eurocentrism – that have beset comparative literary studies. Nonetheless, they use such historical background skillfully to resituate the debate within larger questions of methodology and approach. As such, the authors primarily draw upon Charles Bernheimer’s definition, outlined in his 1993 Bernheimer Report, as the basis of their critique, arguing that “comparative literature has risen to the challenge, showing itself to have enough resources to grow out of its contradictions, integrate new perspectives, and progress along the path of interdisciplinarity” (17). The remaining chapters expand upon the resources available to and progress accomplished by comparative literary studies today.

One method for rethinking the domain and methodologies employed by comparativists is outlined in the second chapter, which sketches the Slovak scholar Dionyz Durišin’s concept of interliterary theory. Adapted to comparative literary studies, interliterary theory “aims to explain how relationships are established between individual works and, as a result of these relationships, how literary groups are created – from smaller to larger – and hence how they determine some dominant directions of (world) literature” (22). Interliterary theory provides for two types of literary relationships, those based on genetic contact and those on typological affinities. These models are in turn applied to comparative literary studies, a move that enables Domínguez, Saussy, and Villanueva to reorganize comparative literature according to a re-consideration of “world literature” (a topic taken up in more detail in chapter 4).

Dominguez’s chapter on decoloniality clearly distinguishes this area of study from Postcolonial Studies. While Postcolonial Studies has “similar aims to those of comparative literature,” (41) the latter places stronger emphasis on the independence of once colonised cultures, on the one hand, and the multi-layered character of all human culture on the other. As such, the decoloniality of comparative literary studies calls for a stronger inclusion of Latin American cultures in the field of Comparative Literature and of Comparative Literature’s standing in Latin America. The description of this field’s challenges leads to the explanation of ‘comparative philosophy’ in distinction to comparative literature and to the so-called ‘East-West studies’ that emerged out of comparativism. One is reminded of Spivak’s call to overcome Eurocentrism by including non-European literatures ordinarily seen as peripheral to the canon. Dominguez says that “an imperative comparative literature will not stop at deconstructing and overcoming Eurocentrism, but will address all kinds of ethnocentrism all over the world, as well as non-European imperialisms” (53, 54). By highlighting the potential gaps in the application of decolonial studies or “world literary knowledges” within the field of comparative literature, Dominguez sets up the three following chapters written by Haun Saussy that circle around the inclusion of Chinese literature and thought into the discussion of world literature.

Saussy’s first chapter, “World Literature as a Comparative Practice,” classically traces the origin of world literature to the 19th century starting with Goethe’s conversation with Eckermann, regarding the similarities between a Chinese and a European novel. Goethe’s concept of world literature calls for an inclusion of Oriental literature, culture and wisdom into the European canon, and represents a parallel to Marx and Engels’s critique of nation-states as epistemological entities within the global network spread by capitalism. Saussy quotes the Danish critic Georg Brandes’s note to a German newspaper’s inquiry into world literature in 1899. The paper had published an inquiry into world literature about the hierarchy of literary languages prioritising literatures in French, English and German. Brandes posits Andersen’s fame and Kierkegaard’s obscurity as examples of unequal power structures in the canon of world literature. This idea is taken up in contemporary discourse by David Damrosch who notes the shrinking number of studied authors. In this line of thought, Saussy traces the shift of the concept of world literature, paradigmatic for comparative literature overall, towards themes of globalization and transnationalism: the China-West comparison is presented as a key topic for future comparative literature studies, particularly the way Western literary themes and genres are included, adapted and partly subverted by Oriental writers. He raises the example of Madame Butterfly, showing how Long’s version – the groundwork of Puccini’s opera – was completely transformed in a late 20th century re-adaptation. World literature is thus seen more as a process of global interconnection, dealing with national images based on Self and Other, rather than as a fixed canon encompassing a certain number of titles.

Chapter Five, ‘Comparing Themes and Images,’ opens with quotation by George Steiner that introduces themes and Self-Other constructions as the basis for intercultural interaction. Haun Saussy gives examples of this sort of transformation in ‘Stoffgeschichte’ 'history of themes' from Virgil and Curtis to Petrarch and John Donne and also integrates modern Chinese literature. Saussy concludes: “Thematization, then, is an operation on meanings dormant in language, in society, in culture, performed by authors and also by readers. The alert reader detects patterns of association or exclusion that give the themes of a work their active role in generating new meaning. With this aim, thematic reading cannot be put aside as mere positivistic Stoffgeschichte” (77).

The sixth chapter, ‘Comparative Literature and Translation,’ emphasizes the role of translation in intercultural literary crossings, a concept that draws on René Wellek’s definition that “comparative Literature is an account of the ‘foreign trade of literatures’” (78). In this sense, the main concern of comparative literature is identified as “the relations among literatures of different languages.” Therefore, translation as a literary process remains central to Comparative Literature: “Perhaps between any two languages there is a zone of mutual borrowing, a zone where translation is superfluous or always erroneous. Perhaps ‘pure’ Arabic, Chinese, and the like exist somewhere, but as regions notably poor in semiotic exchange. We must, if this view of macaronic has any basis, be willing to discard our mental maps of languages occupying, without differentiation, a bounded territory.” (87). The notion of translation unites the constant movement of languages, the acquisition and adaptation of themes to different cultural contexts, and the change in forms of human imagination, and narration throughout the history of civilization remains at the heart of the comparative investigation. Still, it is made clear that the existence of translations should never be an excuse for maintaining monolingualism nor that the study of the original can be neglected, as illustrated by Emily Apter’s theorisation of ‘untranslatability’. Saussy states: “On the map of Comparative Literature, monolingualism is a blank. Through attention to multilingualism, code-mixing, and creolity, comparatists can make translation something other than a connector between two blank zones” (ibid.). Comparative Literature therefore is a thinking that overcomes national, linguistic, and formal boundaries between national territories, languages, and literatures upon which different philologies have been drawn.

Chapter Seven defines comparative literary history as a subset of comparative literature, and the authors outline the study of comparative history in order to apply the methods and approaches garnered therefrom to comparative literary history. These methods of approach include: time-orientation (95-96); spatial approach/mapping (97); nodes and networks, which can be “temporal, topographical, institutional, and figural” (99); and marginocentric cities, which examine the nexus between East/West (100). Emphasizing the comparative aspect to comparative literary theory, Domínguez, Saussy, and Villanueva “stress the narrative dimension of literary history, a perspectival vision, the dialectic of past and present as seen from the present,” and they argue that “ no comparative literary history could go beyond national limits and adequately represent inter-literary processes if what is shared globally is not contemplated from the site of its local/regional/national idiosyncrasy” (104).

Taking up the claim established in the Bernheimer Report of 1993 that “the space of comparison today involves comparisons between artistic productions usually studied by different disciplines,” chapters eight and nine address the expansion of comparative literature to areas of study that extend beyond the purely literary and into interartistic comparison and digital studies (108). Such comparisons are based, in part, upon the dual premises that “all the arts are imitative” while “each art imitates in different ways” (107). This foundation allows the authors to sketch several fruitful intersections between literature and other arts, including film, music, and the visual arts. These interartistic comparisons are defined according to Lubomir Doležel’s term “transduction,” which has “the double meaning of transmission and transformation in the posterior processing of literary works” (111).

In their final chapter, the authors outline current trends and developments in literary studies, positioning comparative literature within the purview of such developments as digital narratives, including cyberdrama, hypertextual narration, and cyberpoetry. Comparative literature is, the authors argue, especially equipped to evaluate and shed light on these new developments. Ultimately, the foregoing discussions enable the authors to posit a new, more fully encompassing definition of comparative literature: “Comparative literature is an intellectual and methodological perspective founded precisely on wide temporal (and spatial) horizons. […] This is literature without spatial or temporal boundaries, which transcends the barriers of different languages thanks to the circulation of texts, translation and multilingualism, and especially thanks to creators, mediators, and receptors” (136). The predictions and claims outlined in these final two chapters and encompassed by this revised definition of the discipline are already coming to pass with the recent surge in digital and narratological studies, including the focus on “multimodal” literature and edited collections such as Marie-Laure Ryan and Jan-Noël Thon’s 2014 Storyworlds across Media.

Even as it provides a concise and well-articulated reexamination of the field, Introducing Comparative Literature offers a valuable discussion of the vicissitudes and growth of a reviving discipline. Indeed, the book is supplemented with a brief glossary of major terms, as well as a succinct annotated bibliography for further reading. Likewise, this introduction is especially illuminating for the European reader – and particularly the German reader – who has studied the discipline beyond its main circuits of development within the US and France. Indeed, the book provides a portrait of the field through the US in particular, a country whose history in the 19th and 20th centuries has laid the groundwork for the discipline’s development through its republican and cosmopolitan ethos as well as through its absorption of a vast number of European intellectuals during World War II. Yet despite such cosmopolitanism, the full academic establishment of the discipline according to a set of international standards still seems to be an enterprise for the future. Faced against scholarly arguments regarding postcolonial studies or criticism about the intellectual surplus of world literature and the risk of “academic tourism,” Introducing Comparative Literature lays fundamental groundwork toward such an international establishment. For a discipline that has thus been written off as “dying” not only in Germany and America but across the world, this introduction could provide just the right reinvigoration to revive the important field of comparative literary studies.