Comparative Literature
The Historical Perspective
• In the course of the 19th century, comparative
literature became both an academic discipline
and a critical system, recognized as such,
probably for the first time, by one of the founders
of modern criticism: Sainte-Beuve (圣佩韦/圣伯
夫 1804-1869). In his first article on JeanJacques Ampère (1800-1864), written in 1840
and published in Portraits comtemporains,
Sainte-Beuve uses the expression “histoire
littéraire comparée”; in his second article of 1868,
printed in Nouveaux lundis (《月曜论文新编》) ,
he refers to “littérature comparée.”
• As to the expression “littéraire comparée,” which
gave birth to “comparative literature,” it existed a
half century before Sainte-Beuve employed it.
The date of the birth of “comparative literature”
can hardly be accurately established. It may not
have been used long before 1886 when
Hutcheson M. Posnett chose it as the title of a
book (Comparative Literature, published in
London by K. Paul - Trench as part of their
“International Scientific Series”).
• After 1800, converging tendencies may be
noted not only in the various humanistic
fields, such as philosophy and history, but
in most areas of human knowledge,
including law and religion. In France the
word comparé was most fashionable at
that time and much used in the world of
letters and of science as well.
• The founder of comparative anatomy, Georges Cuvier (17651832 乔治·居维叶 ) published his famous Leçons d’anatomie
comparée (《比较解剖学教程》).
• Madame de Stael’s (德·斯塔尔夫人) De la littérature—a
simultaneous view of most European literatures—appeared in
the same year, though she did not use the word comparé
• Charles de Villers (1765-1815) put the word in the title of a
work that obtained some celebrity: Erotique comparée, ou
essai sur las maniere essentiellement differente dont les
poetes francais et allemands traitent l’amour (1807).
• Villers’ Comparative Erotics is one of the most comprehensive
studies on troubadours and minnesingers, which compares
the different ways French and Germans have of treating the
subject of love.
• As early as 1816, Jean-Francois-Michel Noel uses the
phrase “littéraire comparée” in the title of a series of
textbooks: Cours de littéraire comparée.
• Abel-Francois Villemain (1790-1870) and Ampere
compiled not only anthologies but extensive studies on
various European literatures, which appeared between
1828 and 1841. Both critics occasionally use the
expression “littéraire comparée.”
• From 1841 to 1845, Amédée Duquesnel published in
Paris the eight volumes of his Histoire des lettres des
littéraire comparée.
• Similar examples can be found in England and Germany,
and in Italy too, where the discipline, however, did not
appear until several decades later than in France.
• The founding of scholarly journals and associations,
and especially the creation of university chairs,
reflect changes in cultural approaches, interests, or
• The first comparative periodical: Acta
Comparationis Litterarum Universarum (1877-1888)
(《世界比较文学》edited in Klausenburg, now Cluj,
• The quarterly Zeitschrift fur vergleichende
Literaturgeschichte ( 《比较文学史》by German
scholar Marx Koch) ran from 1887 to 1910.
• Within this span of time, Marx Koch also published
a scholarly series called Studien zur
vergleichenden Literaturgeschichte (《比较文学研
• In America, Columbia University’s short-lived
Journal of Comparative Literature appeared in 1903.
• This evolution of cultural and intellectual attitudes and
proclivities in western countries was greatly furthered by
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an outstanding writer and
thinker, which coined the word Weltliterature (1827).
• He feels that one should not confine oneself to the
narrow circle of a single linguistic domain or any isolated
part of the globe. “For this reason,” he says, “I like to
look at other nations and I advise everyone to do the
same. National literature has little meaning today; the
time has come for the epoch of world literature to begin,
and everyone must now do his share to hasten its
realization.” He goes on to describe literature as a
universal rather than a national phenomenon.
Weltliterature is first of all the total of valuable works, the
library of masterpieces: it is the universal Weltliterature.
• According to Goethe, a great benefit that results
from a world literature is that it helps people to
correct each other. “It is splendid that we now,
because of the lively interchange among the
French, English, and Germans, have come to a
point where we can correct each other. This is
the great benefit which results and will continue
to result from a world literature.” As a further
consequence of literary intercourse, criticism
had become international, too, and Goethe went
so far as to maintain that foreign critics were the
• Goethe’s ideal had already been partly
realized by Shaftesbury(沙夫茨伯里),
Voltaire, and Lessing (莱辛,1729-1781德国
剧作家和批评家), who constantly included
works of different languages in their critical
discussions, thereby laying the foundation
for the message of world literature.
• Parallel developments can be seen in the
domain of higher education. The first chair of
comparative literature was formally established
in 1861 at the University of Naples, where
Francesco De Sanctis started teaching
“litteratura comparata” in 1871. He suggested
that literature constitutes a whole, and literary
works should be studied together, whatever their
national origins, as soon as they are ideationally
or factually related, as soon as they belong to
the same current or period of time, the same
aesthetic category or genre, or as soon as they
illustrate the same themes or motifs.
• Little by little, chairs or lectureships in
comparative literature were created in various
parts of the Western world: in 1891 at Harvard,
in 1896 at Zurich, in 1897 at Lyon, in 1899 at
Columbia, in 1910 at the Sorbonne.
• Today, in numerous centers of higher learning
within European and the United States, as well
as within other areas, comparative literature is
taught as a regular field of academic inquiry.
• The increasing development and steady
expansion of the discipline suggest optimistic
conclusions in regard to its future as a most valid
approach to literary history and criticism.
Crisis of comparative Literature and
new developments
• In 1949, Wellek and Warren published
Theory of Literature, in which they echoed
with Goethe by stating that “Literature is
one; as art and humanity are one.” The
role of comparatists are highly valued as
someone with a vocation, as a kind of
international ambassador working in the
comparative literatures of united nations.
• But the high ideals of such a vision of
comparative literature have not been met.
A decade after Theory of Literature
appeared, Wellek was already talking
about the crisis in comparative literature
and even as the subject appeared to be
gaining ground in the 1960s and early
1970s, flaws in the idea of universal
values and of literature as one could
already be seen.
• The great waves of critical thought that swept
through one after the other from structuralism
through to post-structuralism, from feminism to
deconstruction, from semiology to
psychoanalysis—shifted attention away from the
activity of comparing texts and tracking patterns
of influence between writers towards the role of
the reader. And as each new wave broke over
the preceding one, notions of single, harmonious
readings were shattered forever.
• In the 1950s and early 1960s, high-flying
graduate students in the West turned to
comparative literature as a radical subject,
because at that time it appeared to be
transgressive, moving across the
boundaries of single literature study.
• That there was no coherent methodology
did not matter, nor did it matter that the
debates on whether the subject existed or
not still continued unabated from the
previous century.
• By the late 1970s a new generation of
high-flying graduate students in the West
turned to Literary Theory, Women's
Studies, Semiotics, Film and Media
Studies and Cultural Studies as the radical
subject choices, abandoning Comparative
Literature to what were increasingly seen
as dinosaurs from a liberal-humanist
• Yet even as that process was underway in
the West, comparative literature began to
gain ground in the rest of the world. New
programmes in comparative literature
began to emerge in China, in Taiwan, in
Japan and other Asian countries, based,
however, not on any ideal of universalism
but on the very aspect of literary study that
many western comparatists had sought to
deny: the specificity of national literatures.
• As Swapan Majumdar puts it: it is because
of this predilection for National Literature—
much deplored by the Anglo-American
critics as a methodology—that Comparative
Literature has struck roots in the Third
World nations and in India in particular.
(Swapan Majumdar, Comparative Literature:
Indian Dimensions, Calutta, Papyrus, 1987,
p. 53. )
• Ganesh Devy goes further, and suggests
that comparative literature in India is
directly linked to the rise of modern Indian
nationalism, noting that comparative
literature has been “used to assert the
national cultural identity”.There is no
sense here of national literature and
comparative literature being incompatible.
• Developments in comparative literature
beyond Europe and North America do
indeed cut through and across all kinds of
assumptions about literature that have
come increasingly to be seen as
• What we have today, then, is a very varied
picture of comparative literary studies that
changes according to where it is taking
place. African, Indian, Caribbean critics
have challenged the refusal of a great deal
of Western literary criticism to accept the
implications of their literary and cultural
• The growth of national consciousness and
awareness of the need to move beyond
the colonial legacy has led significantly to
the development of comparative literature
in many parts of the world, even as the
subject enters a period of crisis and decay
in the West.
• The way in which comparative literature is
used, in places such as China, Brazil,
India or many African nations, is
constructive in that it is employed to
explore both indigenous traditions and
imported (or imposed) traditions, throwing
open the whole vexed problem of the
• There is no sense of crisis in this form of
comparative literature, no quibbling about
the terms from which to start comparing,
because those terms are already laid
down. What is being studied is the way in
which national culture has been affected
by importation, and the focus is that
national culture.
• It is possible to argue that as we come to
the end of the twentieth century, we have
entered a new phase in the troubled
history of comparative literature. That the
subject is in crisis in the West is in no
• Falling student numbers, the uneasiness of
many comparatists that is revealed in defensive
papers or a reluctance to engage in definition of
what exactly their subject consists of, the
apparent continuation of the old idea of
comparative literature as binary study, i.e., as
the study of two authors or texts from two
different systems, all these factors, reinforce the
picture of a subject that has lost its way, even as
courses in literary theory and post-colonial
theory proliferate and publishers' catalogues list
books in these areas under separate headings.
• But equally, it is also apparent that the
subject is expanding and developing in
many parts of the world where it is
explicitly linked to questions of national
culture and identity. Comparative literature
as it is being developed outside Europe
and the United States is breaking new
ground and there is a great deal to be
learned from following this development.
• Whilst comparative literature in the Third World
and the Far East changes the agenda for the
subject, the crisis in the West continues. The
new comparative literature is calling into
question the canon of great European masters,
and this process coincides with other
challenges—that of feminist criticism, which has
questioned the male orientation of cultural
history; and that of post-modernist theory, which
revalues the role of the reader.
• Another rapidly expanding development in
literary studies, and one which has profound
implications for the future of comparative
literature, is “translation studies”. Since the early
usage of this term in the mid-1970s, the subject
has developed to such an extent (through
publishing, conferences, the establishment of
Chairs in universities, research programmes,
etc.) that there are many now who consider it to
be a discipline in its own right.
• What distinguishes translation studies
from translation as traditionally thought of,
is its derivation from the polysystems
theory (多元文化理论)developed by
Itamar Evan-Zohar and later by Gideon
Toury in Tel Aviv.
• The key to the rapid expansion of translation
studies and its successful entry into literary
studies lies in its emphasis on literature as a
differentiated and dynamic conglomerate of
systems, characterized by internal oppositions
and dynamic shifts. This notion of literature as a
polysystem sees individual literary systems as
part of a multi-faceted whole, thereby changing
the terms of the debates about “majority” and
“minority” cultures, about “great” literatures and
“marginal” literatures.
• Moreover, translation studies derives from
work in linguistics, literary study, history,
anthropology, psychology, sociology and
ethnology among others, and posits the
radical proposition that translation is not a
marginal activity, but has been and
continues to be a major shaping force for
change in the history of culture.
• Comparative literature has traditionally
claimed translation as a sub-category, but
this assumption is now being questioned.
The work of scholars such as Toury,
Lefevere, Hermans, Lambert and many
others has shown that translation is
especially significant at moments of great
cultural change.
• Evan-Zohar argues that extensive translation
activity takes place when a culture is in a period
of transition: when it is expanding, when it needs
renewal, when it is in a pre-revolutionary phase,
then translation plays a vital part. In contrast,
when a culture is solidly established, when it is
in an imperialist stage, when it believes itself to
be dominant, then translation is less important.
• This view explains why, in simple term, the
emergent European nations in the early
nineteenth century, those engaged in
struggles against the Austro-Hungarian or
Ottoman Empires, translated so
enthusiastically, and why translation into
English began to decrease as the British
Empire extended its grasp ever further.
• Later, as English became the language of
international diplomacy in the twentieth
century (and also the dominant world
commercial language), there was little
need to translate, hence the relative
poverty of twentieth-century translations
into English compared with the
proliferation of translations in many other
• It may well be that we need to reassess
the role of translation studies vis-à-vis
comparative literature, for whilst
comparative literature in the West seems
to be losing ground, even as it becomes
more nebulous and loosely defined, so
translation studies is undergoing the
opposite process.
• The time is approaching for comparative
literature to rethink its relationship with
Translation Studies.
• Comparative literature has always claimed
translation as a sub-category, but as
translation studies establishes itself firmly
as a subject based in inter-cultural study
and offering a methodology of some rigor,
both in terms of theoretical and descriptive
work, so comparative literature appears
less like a discipline and more like a
branch of something else.
• Seen in this way, the problem of the crisis
could then be put into perspective, and the
long, unresolved debate on whether
comparative literature is or is not a
discipline in its own right could finally and
definitely be shelved.

Comparative Literature