Comparative literature

Comparative literature is an academic field dealing with the study of literature and cultural expression across linguistic, national, and disciplinary boundaries. Comparative literature "performs a role similar to that of the study of international relations, but works with languages and artistic traditions, so as to understand cultures 'from the inside'".[1] While most frequently practiced with works of different languages, comparative literature may also be performed on works of the same language if the works originate from different nations or cultures among which that language is spoken.

The characteristically intercultural and transnational field of comparative literature concerns itself with the relation between literature, broadly defined, and other spheres of human activity, including history, politics, philosophy, art, and science. Unlike other forms of literary study, comparative literature places its emphasis on the interdisciplinary analysis of social and cultural production within the "economy, political dynamics, cultural movements, historical shifts, religious differences, the urban environment, international relations, public policy, and the sciences".[2]


Students and instructors in the field, usually called "comparatists", have traditionally been proficient in several languages and acquainted with the literary traditions, literary criticism, and major literary texts of those languages. Many of the newer sub-fields, however, are more influenced by critical theory and literary theory, stressing theoretical acumen and the ability to consider different types of art concurrently, over proficiency in multiple languages.

The interdisciplinary nature of the field means that comparatists typically exhibit acquaintance with sociology, history, anthropology, translation studies, critical theory, cultural studies, and religious studies. As a result, comparative literature programs within universities may be designed by scholars drawn from several such departments. This eclecticism has led critics (from within and without) to charge that Comparative Literature is insufficiently well-defined, or that comparatists too easily fall into dilettantism, because the scope of their work is, of necessity, broad. Some question whether this breadth affects the ability of Ph.D.s to find employment in the highly specialized environment of academia and the career market at large, although such concerns do not seem to be borne out by placement data that shows comparative literature graduates to be hired at similar or higher rates than their peers in English.[3]

The terms "comparative literature" and "world literature" are often used to designate a similar course of study and scholarship. Comparative Literature is the more widely used term in the United States, with many universities having Comparative Literature departments or Comparative Literature programs.

Comparative literature is an interdisciplinary field whose practitioners study literature across national borders, across time periods, across languages, across genres, across boundaries between literature and the other arts (music, painting, dance, film, etc.), across disciplines (literature and psychology, philosophy, science, history, architecture, sociology, politics, etc.). Defined most broadly, comparative literature is the study of "literature without borders". Scholarship in comparative literature include, for example, studying literacy and social status in the Americas, studying medieval epic and romance, studying the links of literature to folklore and mythology, studying colonial and postcolonial writings in different parts of the world, asking fundamental questions about definitions of literature itself.[4] What scholars in comparative literature share is a desire to study literature beyond national boundaries and an interest in languages so that they can read foreign texts in their original form. Many comparatists also share the desire to integrate literary experience with other cultural phenomena such as historical change, philosophical concepts, and social movements.

The discipline of comparative literature has scholarly associations such as the ICLA: International Comparative Literature Association and comparative literature associations exists in many countries: for a list of such see BCLA: British Comparative Literature Association; for the US, see ACLA: American Comparative Literature Association. There are many learned journals that publish scholarship in comparative literature: see "Selected Comparative Literature and Comparative Humanities Journals"[5] and for a list of books in comparative literature see "Bibliography of (Text)Books in Comparative Literature".[6]

Early work

Work considered foundational to the discipline of comparative literature include Transylvanian Hungarian Hugo Meltzl de Lomnitz's scholarship, also the founding editor of the journal Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarum (1877) and Irish scholar H.M. Posnett's Comparative Literature (1886). However, antecedents can be found in the ideas of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his vision of "world literature" (Weltliteratur) and Russian Formalists credited Alexander Veselovsky with laying the groundwork for the discipline. Viktor Zhirmunsky, for instance, referred to Veselovsky as "the most remarkable representative of comparative literary study in Russian and European scholarship of the nineteenth century" (Zhirmunsky qtd. in Rachel Polonsky, English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance [Cambridge UP, 1998. 17]; see also David Damrosch[7] During the late 19th century, comparatists such as Fyodor Buslaev were chiefly concerned with deducing the purported Zeitgeist or "spirit of the times", which they assumed to be embodied in the literary output of each nation. Although many comparative works from this period would be judged chauvinistic, Eurocentric, or even racist by present-day standards, the intention of most scholars during this period was to increase the understanding of other cultures, not to assert superiority over them (although politicians and others from outside the field sometimes used their works for this purpose).

French School

From the early part of the 20th century until WWII, the field was characterised by a notably empiricist and positivist approach, termed the "French School", in which scholars examined works forensically, looking for evidence of "origins" and "influences" between works from different nations. Thus a scholar might attempt to trace how a particular literary idea or motif traveled between nations over time. In the French School of Comparative Literature, the study of influences and mentalities dominates. Today, the French School practices the nation-state approach of the discipline although it also promotes the approach of a "European Comparative Literature".

German School

Like the French School, German Comparative Literature has its origins in the late 19th century. After World War II, the discipline developed to a large extent owing to one scholar in particular, Peter Szondi (1929–1971), a Hungarian who taught at the Free University Berlin. Szondi's work in Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft (German for "General and Comparative Literary Studies") included the genre of drama, lyric (in particular hermetic) poetry, and hermeneutics: "Szondi's vision of Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft became evident in both his policy of inviting international guest speakers to Berlin and his introductions to their talks. Szondi welcomed, among others, Jacques Derrida (before he attained worldwide recognition), Pierre Bourdieu and Lucien Goldman from France, Paul de Man from Zürich, Gershom Sholem from Jerusalem, Theodor W. Adorno from Frankfurt, Hans Robert Jauss from the then young University of Konstanz, and from the US René Wellek, Geoffrey Hartman and Peter Demetz (all at Yale), along with the liberal publicist Lionel Trilling. The names of these visiting scholars, who form a programmatic network and a methodological canon, epitomise Szondi's conception of comparative literature. German comparatists working in East Germany, however, were not invited, nor were recognised colleagues from France or the Netherlands. Yet while he was oriented towards the West and the new allies of West Germany and paid little attention to comparatists in Eastern Europe, his conception of a transnational (and transatlantic) comparative literature was very much influenced by East European literary theorists of the Russian and Prague schools of structuralism, from whose works René Wellek, too, derived many of his concepts, concepts that continue to have profound implications for comparative literary theory today" ... A manual published by the department of comparative literature at the LMU Munich lists 31 German departments which offer a diploma in comparative literature in Germany, albeit some only as a 'minor'. These are: Augsburg, Bayreuth, Free University Berlin, Technical University Berlin, Bochum, Bonn, Chemnitz-Zwickau, Erfurt, Erlangen-Nürnberg, Essen, Frankfurt am Main, Frankfurt an der Oder, Gießen, Göttingen, Jena, Karlsruhe, Kassel, Konstanz, Leipzig, Mainz, München, Münster, Osnabrück, Paderborn, Potsdam, Rostock, Saarbrücken, Siegen, Stuttgart, Tübingen, Wuppertal. (Der kleine Komparatist [2003]). This situation is undergoing rapid change, however, since many universities are adapting to the new requirements of the recently introduced Bachelor and Master of Arts. German comparative literature is being squeezed by the traditional philologies on the one hand and more vocational programmes of study on the other which seek to offer students the practical knowledge they need for the working world (e.g., 'Applied Literature'). With German universities no longer educating their students primarily for an academic market, the necessity of a more vocational approach is becoming ever more evident".[8]

American (US) School

Reacting to the French School, postwar scholars, collectively termed the "American School", sought to return the field to matters more directly concerned with literary criticism, de-emphasising the detective work and detailed historical research that the French School had demanded. The American School was more closely aligned with the original internationalist visions of Goethe and Posnett (arguably reflecting the postwar desire for international cooperation), looking for examples of universal human "truths" based on the literary archetypes that appeared throughout literatures from all times and places.

Prior to the advent of the American School, the scope of comparative literature in the West was typically limited to the literatures of Western Europe and Anglo-America, predominantly literature in English, German and French literature, with occasional forays into Italian literature (primarily for Dante) and Spanish literature (primarily for Cervantes). One monument to the approach of this period is Erich Auerbach's book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a survey of techniques of realism in texts whose origins span several continents and three thousand years.

The approach of the American School would be familiar to current practitioners of cultural studies and is even claimed by some to be the forerunner of the Cultural Studies boom in universities during the 1970s and 1980s. The field today is highly diverse: for example, comparatists routinely study Chinese literature, Arabic literature and the literatures of most other major world languages and regions as well as English and continental European literatures.

Current developments

There is a movement among comparativists in the United States and elsewhere to re-focus the discipline away from the nation-based approach with which it has previously been associated towards a cross-cultural approach that pays no heed to national borders. Works of this nature include Alamgir Hashmi's The Commonwealth, Comparative Literature and the World, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's Death of a Discipline, David Damrosch's What is World Literature?, Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek's concept of "comparative cultural studies", and Pascale Casanova's The World Republic of Letters. It remains to be seen whether this approach will prove successful given that comparative literature had its roots in nation-based thinking and much of the literature under study still concerns issues of the nation-state. Given developments in the studies of globalization and interculturalism, comparative literature, already representing a wider study than the single-language nation-state approach, may be well suited to move away from the paradigm of the nation-state. While in the West comparative literature is experiencing institutional constriction, there are signs that in many parts of the world the discipline is thriving, especially in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean. Current trends in Transnational studies also reflect the growing importance of post-colonial literary figures such as Giannina Braschi, J. M. Coetzee, Maryse Condé, Earl Lovelace, V. S. Naipaul, Michael Ondaatje, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, and Lasana M. Sekou. For recent post-colonial studies in North America see George Elliott Clarke. Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature. (University of Toronto Press, 2011), Joseph Pivato. Echo: Essays in Other Literatures. (Guernica Editions, 2003), and "The Sherbrooke School of Comparative Canadian Literature". (Inquire, 2011). In the area of comparative studies of literature and the other arts see Linda Hutcheon's work on Opera and her A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd. ed. (Routledge, 2012). Canadian scholar Joseph Pivato is carrying on a campaign to revitalize comparative study with his book, Comparative Literature for the New Century eds. Giulia De Gasperi & Joseph Pivato (2018).

See also


  1. ^ "About Us - Comparative Literature". Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  2. ^ "What careers do Comparative Literature majors have? - Comparative Literature". Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  3. ^ Placement of 1996-97 PhDs in Classics, Modern Languages, and Linguistics, retrieved Dec 18, 2011
  4. ^ Lernout, Geert (2006), "Comparative Literature in the Low Countries", Comparative Critical Studies, British Comparative Literature, 3 (1): 37–46, retrieved Dec 18, 2011, When I tell members of the general public, in airplanes or hotel bars, what I do for a living, the most common reply has always been: 'What do you guys compare literature to?' Nowadays I tend to answer: 'With everything else.' If I look at the courses I have given over the years, this is not even an exaggeration – I have taught courses on literature 'And Very Nearly Everything Else': literature and music, literature and the arts, literature and science, psychology, religion, sociology, history, philosophy. The trouble with literature, however defined, is that you cannot even begin to grasp its complexity if you do not fully understand its relationship to, well, everything else. In my personal life this has meant that I have found the perfect academic excuse for an unquenchable thirst for all kinds of information, some more, some less arcane (less charitably it could be argued that this has saved me from having to make up my Kierkegaardian mind about what I really want to do with my life).
  5. ^ Selected Comparative Literature and Comparative Humanities Journals, retrieved Dec 18, 2011
  6. ^ Bibliography of (Text)Books in Comparative Literature, retrieved Dec 18, 2011
  7. ^ Damrosch, David (2006), "Rebirth of a Discipline: The Global Origins of Comparative Studies", Comparative Critical Studies, British Comparative Literature, 3 (1): 99–112, retrieved Dec 18, 2011
  8. ^ Lubrich, Oliver (2006), "Comparative Literature – in, from and beyond Germany", Comparative Critical Studies, British Comparative Literature, 3 (1): 47–67, retrieved Dec 18, 2011
  • Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. "Multilingual Bibliography of (Text)Books in Comparative Literature, World Literature(s), and Comparative Cultural Studies." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture (Library) (1999-): <>.
  • CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture <>.
  • Companion to Comparative Literature, World Literatures, and Comparative Cultural Studies. Ed. Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek and Tutun Mukherjee. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press India, 2013.
  • New Work in Comparative Literature in Europe. Ed. Marina Grishakova, Lucia Boldrini, and Matthew Arnolds. Special Issue CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 15.7 (2013): <>.
  • Comparative Literature for the New Century. eds Giulia De Gasperi & Joseph Pivato. Montreal: McGill-Queen's U.P., 2018.

External links

Alain Renoir

Alain Renoir (October 31, 1921 – December 12, 2008) was a French-American writer and literature professor, son of filmmaker Jean Renoir and actress Catherine Hessling, and grandson of impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Renoir was born in Cagnes-sur-Mer, the only son of Jean Renoir. As a teenager Renoir worked in a few of his father's films, including House Party (1936), as assistant cameraman on The Human Beast (1938) and The Rules of the Game (1939). In 1942 he joined his father in the United States, enlisted in the American Army and served in combat in the Pacific.

After the war, he studied English literature and comparative literature, earning his PhD from Harvard University in 1956. Renoir became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he founded the Department of Comparative Literature in 1966. He was considered a leading scholar of medieval English literature and published books on Beowulf and John Lydgate.

After retiring, he spent his last years running a small sustainable farm in north central California, doing much of the work himself.

He had three children, John, Peter and Anne.

American Comparative Literature Association

The American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) is the principal learned society in the United States for scholars whose work connects several different literary traditions and cultures or that examines the premises of cross-cultural literary study. Founded in 1960, it has over 1,000 members, and is affiliated with other organizations like the American Council of Learned Societies, the Modern Language Association and the National Humanities Alliance.

Avital Ronell

Avital Ronell (; born 15 April 1952) is an American academic who writes about continental philosophy, literary studies, psychoanalysis, feminist philosophy, political philosophy, and ethics. She is a professor in the humanities and in the departments of Germanic languages and literature and comparative literature at New York University, where she co-directs the trauma and violence transdisciplinary studies program. As Jacques Derrida Professor of Philosophy, she teaches at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee. She has written about such topics as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone; the structure of the test in legal, pharmaceutical, artistic, scientific, Zen, and historical domains; stupidity; the disappearance of authority; childhood; and deficiency. Ronell is a founding editor of the journal Qui Parle and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.An 11-month investigation at New York University determined that Ronell sexually harassed a graduate student, and the university suspended her without pay for the 2018–2019 academic year.

Biblical studies

Biblical studies is the academic application of a set of diverse disciplines to the study of the Bible (the Tanakh and the New Testament). For its theory and methods, the field draws on disciplines ranging from archaeology, ancient history, cultural backgrounds, textual criticism, literary criticism, historical backgrounds, philology, and social science.Many secular as well as religious universities and colleges offer courses in biblical studies, usually in departments of religious studies, theology, Judaic studies, history, or comparative literature. Biblical scholars do not necessarily have a faith commitment to the texts they study, but many do.

Central University of Kerala

The Central University of Kerala (CUK) is one of the 15 Central universities established under The Central Universities Act, 2009 (Act No.25 of 2009) by Indian parliament. The university is situated in Kasaragod district, the northernmost district of the state of Kerala, India. The main campus of the university is situated at Periya, 9.8 Km from Kanhangad and 20 km south from Kasaragod.

The university started functioning from a transit campus in Vidyanagar with its humanities schools and other amenities.

Dwinelle Hall

Dwinelle Hall is the second largest building on the University of California, Berkeley campus. It was completed in 1952, and is named after John W. Dwinelle, who was the State Assemblyman responsible for the "Organic Act" that established the University of California in 1868. He was a member of the first Board of Regents. Dwinelle houses the departments of classics, rhetoric, linguistics, history, comparative literature, South and Southeast Asian studies, film studies, French, German, Italian studies, Scandinavian, Slavic languages, Spanish and Portuguese, and gender and women's studies.Although many myths surround the odd construction of the building, Dwinelle Hall was designed by Ernest E. Weihe, Edward L. Frick, and Lawrence A. Kruse, with Eckbo Royston & Williams, landscape artists. Construction was completed in 1953, with expansion completed in 1998. The southern block of Dwinelle Hall contains three levels of classrooms as well as four lecture halls, and the northern block houses seven stories of faculty and department offices.[1] While the northern office block of Dwinelle is often referred to as the "Dwinelle Annex," it should not be confused with the Dwinelle Annex, which is a wooden building located to the west of Dwinelle Hall.[2]

The Dwinelle Annex was designed by John Galen Howard and built in 1920. From 1920-33 it was used for Military Science, and from 1933-58 it was used for Music. During these periods of use, it was called the Military Sciences Building and the Music Building. Some remodeling was done in 1933 to accommodate the music department, and in 1949 it was enlarged to include a music library. Dramatic Arts and Comparative Literature moved into the building in 1958. More recently, the College Writing Program occupied the top floor. The annex is currently occupied by the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies.

Françoise Meltzer

Françoise Meltzer (born 1947) is a professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is also the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor of the Humanities and Chair of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (born 24 February 1942) is an Indian scholar, literary theorist, and feminist critic. She is a University Professor at the Columbia University and a founding member of the establishment's Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.Considered one of the most influential postcolonial intellectuals, Spivak is best known for her essay Can the Subaltern Speak? and for her translation of and introduction to Jacques Derrida's De la grammatologie. She also translated such works of Mahasweta Devi as Imaginary Maps and Breast Stories into English and with separate critical appreciation on the texts and Devi's life and writing style in general.

Spivak was awarded the 2012 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for being "a critical theorist and educator speaking for the humanities against intellectual colonialism in relation to the globalized world." In 2013, she received the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award given by the Republic of India.

Haun Saussy

Caleb Powell Haun Saussy (born February 15, 1960) is University Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago.

Hayden White

Hayden White (July 12, 1928 – March 5, 2018) was an American historian in the tradition of literary criticism, perhaps most famous for his work Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973/2014). He claimed that the manifest historical text is marked by strategies of explanation, which include explanation by argument, explanation by emplotment, and explanation by ideological implication. He argued that historical writing was influenced by literary writing in many ways, sharing the strong reliance on narrative for meaning, therefore eliminating the possibility of objective or truly scientific history. White also argued, however, that history is most successful when it uses this "narrativity", since it is what allows history to be meaningful. He ended his career as University Professor Emeritus at the history of consciousness department of the University of California, Santa Cruz, having previously retired from the comparative literature department of Stanford University.

International Comparative Literature Association

The International Comparative Literature Association(ICLA) (French Association Internationale de Littérature Comparée - AILC), founded in 1954, is an international organization for international research in the field of comparative literature. The Association seeks to foster the study of literature undertaken from an international point of view and attempts to realize this objective through international cooperation. It organizes international congresses, occurring every three years.

Josephine Donovan

Josephine Donovan (born 1941) is an American scholar of comparative literature who is a Professor Emerita of English in the Department of English at the University of Maine, Orono. Her research and expertise has covered feminist theory, feminist criticism, animal ethics, and both early modern and American (particularly 19th century) women's literature.

Modern Language Notes

Modern Language Notes is an academic journal established in 1886 at the Johns Hopkins University, where it is still edited and published, with the intention of introducing continental European literary criticism into American scholarship. Each year, one issue is devoted to each of the four languages of concern. The fifth issue focuses on comparative literature.

The journal is published five times each year in January (Italian), March (Hispanic), April (German), September (French), and December (Comparative literature). Circulation is 1,173 and the average length of an issue is 240 pages.

Modern Language Review

Modern Language Review is the journal of the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA). It is one of the oldest journals in the field of modern languages. Founded in 1905, it has published more than 3,000 articles and 20,000 book reviews.

Modern Language Review is published four times a year (in January, April, July and October). All articles are in English and their range covers the following fields:

English (including United States and the Commonwealth)

French (including Francophone Africa and Canada)

Germanic (including Dutch and Scandinavian)

Hispanic (including Latin-American, Portuguese, Catalan, and Galician)


Slavonic and East European Studies

General Studies (including linguistics, comparative literature, and critical theory)

Richard Rashid

Richard Ferris Rashid served as a VP at Microsoft for many years. He oversaw Microsoft Research's worldwide operations until 2012. Previously, he was the director of Microsoft Research. He joined Microsoft Research in 1991, and was promoted to vice president in 1994. In 2000, he became senior vice president. He has authored a number of patents in areas such as data compression, networking, and operating systems, and was a major developer of Microsoft's interactive TV system.

Rashid graduated from Stanford University in 1974 with degrees in mathematics and comparative literature. He then received a Master of Science and a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Rochester, finishing in 1980. While at Rochester, he and Gene Ball wrote what is probably one of the earliest networked multiplayer computer games, Alto Trek, for Xerox Alto computers.

In 1979, he became a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. While a faculty member, he performed research and published numerous papers and articles on topics such as networking, operating systems, artificial intelligence, and programming languages for distributed computing applications. His most notable work was on the Mach kernel.

Robert Fagles

Robert Fagles (; September 11, 1933 – March 26, 2008) was an American professor, poet, and academic, best known for his many translations of ancient Greek and Roman classics, especially his acclaimed translations of the epic poems of Homer. He taught English and comparative literature for many years at Princeton University.

Susan Bassnett

Susan Bassnett (born 1945) is a translation theorist and scholar of comparative literature. She served as pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick for ten years and taught in its Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, which closed in 2009. As of 2016, she is a professor of comparative literature at the Universities of Glasgow and Warwick. Educated around Europe, she began her career in Italy and has lectured at universities in the United States. In 2007, she was elected a Fellow at the Royal Society of Literature.

World literature

World literature is sometimes used to refer to the sum total of the world's national literatures, but usually it refers to the circulation of works into the wider world beyond their country of origin. Often used in the past primarily for masterpieces of Western European literature, world literature today is increasingly seen in global context. Readers today have access to an unprecedented range of works from around the world in excellent translations, and since the mid-1990s a lively debate has grown up concerning both the aesthetic and the political values and limitations of an emphasis on global processes over national traditions.

Zoe Dumitrescu-Bușulenga

Zoe Dumitrescu-Bușulenga (August 20, 1920 – May 5, 2006) was a Romanian comparatist and essayist. A native of the national capital Bucharest, she was educated at its main university, going on to become a professor there. Together with a focus on interdisciplinary studies, she was noted for devoting several studies to Mihail Eminescu. Meanwhile, Dumitrescu was a dignitary of the Romanian Communist Party. Following the Romanian Revolution, after several years spent in Rome, she retired to a monastery.

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