Comparative literature hinternational.
Wallace Stevens, Notes toward a Supreme Fiction
"Ich bin hinternational," Johannes Urzidil would quip.(1) He was a Bohemian-born (1896), German-speaking, Czech Jew who escaped to London, immigrated to New York, and died in Rome (1970). This philologist friend of Kafka who cultivated the essay and verse forms with equal lyricism tracked an itinerary that, in many respects, could be instructive on the growth and diffusion of comparative literature in the twentieth century. His ironic quip resonates articulately for those who find themselves in comparative literature by dint of history and the vagaries of fate. It must be no less meaningful, albeit differently, for those who ventured into the field out of intellectual curiosity or by virtue of peripeties peculiar to their own form of necessity, for the most part academic.
Urzidil's portmanteau hints at what lies behind our current discussions of comparative literature as a field that is not a field(2) but an interstitial and mediate vocation, a discipline that is not a discipline per se, but a rigorous and alert repertoire of reading and writing practices that labor in that unstable gap where more self-defining (or would-be defined) domains imbricate. Internationalism is inextricably linked to comparative literature, and the letter h prefixed to international speaks elaborately of the particular nomadism, intellectual and physical, that is also inherent to comparative literature's more alert theorists and practitioners.
One is reminded inevitably of Julio Cortazar, the Brussels-born Argentine novelist who spent his working life in France and shuttled ceaselessly between "hither" and "yon" to the point of finding himself neither here nor there, except, that is, in the h which his protagonist and authorial alter ego, Morelli, wanted to affix as prosthesis to the beginning of every single word.(3) He wished to do so clearly because h is the unutterable first letter of both French and Spanish, the unspeakable alphabetic threshold that may be the only dwelling of the nomadic. In this connection, the itinerancy and endless cultural displacements of comparative literature's nomadism find no quarter except in the unspoken prescripts of language. Whether as textual theorizations or as cultural practices (and the distinction is specious, as I shall claim more fully in short order), comparative literature's narratives lie, perforce, in peripheral corollaries to firmly centered culture and in supplementary margins to more self-privileging essentialist discourses.
Sobering and liberating at once, Urzidil's and Cortazar's h is what salvages the comparatist from the righteous and wide-eyed missionary cant of the Internationale on the one hand and, on the other, from the chauvinist caricature of the nationalist's, ethnicist's, or racist's self-authentications. The h of hinternational is also the antidote to the institutionalized smugness of the self-privileging metropolitan and canonical numerologist whose empyrean supersession of the rest of humanity renders any comparisons odious. And it is an antidote also to the panic of imperial history's cringing subaltern who deems him/herself incomparable lest comparability translate yet once more into the violence of personal and cultural dispossession.
Above all, h is for history and the contingencies that historicize human existence and human constructs, lest we forget that Human History written with capital H has proved time and again a baleful demonstration of our inhumanity.
Thus, to be hinternational implies an appreciation of one's cultural delimitations and ex-centricity as well as a sentience of a larger world to which one's local and particular history is unavoidably linked. It allows one to accede to a vantage point and admit to its partiality, a perspective that could only be attained from dislocations to the periphery, to a geographic, ethnic, or ideological hinterlocus. Being hinternational means becoming wise to the all-seeing and all-comprehending cultural givens and to the begrudging nature of givenness that would just as soon take one in as proffer its enabling insight. It means becoming aware of the opacity and astigmatism in Emerson's "transparent eyeball" and wary of the cosmologist's unified discourse or global explanation.
There is something vestigial in the project of comparative literature that dates to the last century, something that could find a salutary corrective in Urzidil's ironic formulation. Wlad Godzich, another nomadic sensibility, has put it very succinctly:
What we are dealing with here is a long-standing pretension and implicit assumption of Comparative Literature: despite the diversity and multifariousness of literary phenomena, it is possible to hold a unified discourse about them. This pretension is the heir to the old project of a general poetics which was challenged and ultimately brought to a standstill by the European turn to nationalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Comparative Literature is the heaven in which the idea of this project has been preserved. The challenge posed by the establishment of distinct French, German, and English literatures is nothing, however, in comparison with that which issues today from the emergence of all sorts of new literatures: in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Canada (with its two "national" literatures), Australia, as well as black literature in the United States, women's literature in many parts of the world, native people's literature in the New World, and so on.(4)
In a timely footnote to this passage, Godzich does qualify his reference to literary traditions as emergent "new literatures" that, in some cases, have much longer histories than the literatures of the French, the Germans, or the English.
Comparative literature may have its etymons in the grand narrative schemes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European discourses, but its actual history speaks of a perennially problematic field, much less a "unified field" with an attendant unified theory. And Urzidil's and Cortazar's h suggests the simultaneously productive and melancholy precariousness of the comparatist's existence and the uncertainties of ever attaining a tenable fulcrum for leveraging his/her vocation.
In a recent essay in response to the American Comparative Literature Association's 1993 report, "Comparative Literature at the Turn of the Century," Emily Apter refers to this precariousness as an "exilic aura" and to the current debates over the state of the discipline as "a contest for the title of who lays claim to the exilic aura of comparative literature's distinguished past."(5) One can only suppose in such a formulation that the slippage from the experience of displacement and the vicissitudes of exile to an "exilic aura" is analogous to that iteration that goes from tragedy to farce. This may well be so for those to whom the history of exile is merely a textbook entry and an academic pursuit. Unfortunately, a century that began with forced displacements is proving relentless to its very end when it comes to cultural dislocations and actual exilic experiences, ordeals whose intellectual indemnity has more often than not found comparatism as the sole hospitable quarter in the arena of literary studies.
However well intentioned, the academicization of those vicissitudes by way of narrating the course of comparatism does indeed pervert the historical process that led to the emergence of comparative literature in this century in the first place. It does great violence to the actualities of life experience and to the differentiations we would seek to make among diverse human circumstances to lump comparatists into a homogeneous guild and to paint with the same ideologically and culturally monochromatic ("non-German speaking, nonmetropolitan, nonwhite, antipatriarchal" [Apter, 94]) broad brush the diverse individual destinies that ended up in the imaginary homelands of literary comparatism. There is a difference between running for one's life, as in the case of Spitzer, Auerbach, and some of their more recent successors from "postcolonial" regions, on the one hand, and, on the other, those who opt for the preferred emoluments and empyrean platform of the imperial metropolis: "In reading the 'founding fathers' of comparative literature against their postcolonial successors - Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Edward Said, Anthony Apiah, Sara Suleri, V. Y. Mudimbe, Rey Chow and others - I have moved to consider comparative literature as comparative exile" (Apter, 94). There is nary a trace of hinting at comparativity in this homologation of "comparative exile," lest it be the trailing "and others" of the enumeration in contradistinction to this congeries that might well surprise more than one of the enumerated to have been strung on the same sagging thread of two-dimensional puppetry.
Geographic displacement, ideological deterritorialization, cultural peripherality are conditions historically associated with the threshold existence of comparatism and comparatists because, a fortiori, these are the loci where comparison is an implacable necessity. The site of contrapuntal juxtaposition, whether for personal survival or intellectual apprehension and cultural narration, is necessarily liminal. Strong theorization, unmitigated formalism, and uncontextualized exegesis, as well as the essentialist claims of what goes by the shibboleth of cultural studies, purport to offer predominant versions of comparative literature. In the current debate, however, each of these contending discourses stands to compromise the provisional and nomadic margin which is the intellectual site of comparability and counterpoint. Whether in the domain of the multicultural subject or of the defensive legatee of the Western patrimony (and though this distinction be simpleminded and specious in the extreme, it does not inhibit many from forging such reductive antitheses), the essentializing that the contending positions and voices would impose at this time compromise the fragile equilibrium or contrapuntal harmony that is indispensable to comparative culture or, for that matter, to any culture, since the notion of culture is itself so inextricably bound with comparison, with its imbrications, juxtapositions, contrasts, exchanges, and hybridizations.
Global homogenization under the aegis of one or another cultural hegemony is as deleterious to comparatism and culture as are hectoring attempts to assert and authenticate heterogeneities. In either case, the discerning grounds that recognize difference as the felicitous occasion for contrapuntal rapprochement are mitigated by the indifference that issues from the uniformity of globalization, or diminished by the petulant indifference with which the self-authenticators would shield themselves from outside contamination. At the end of a century during which utopian projects have proved calamitous and deadly on a scale never before experienced in human history, both alternatives are perilously utopian. Both possibilities can rightfully claim great promise for furthering the cause of comparative literature by swelling the ranks of refugees and exiles. One would hope, however, that having been instituted and granted a degree of intellectual legitimacy and academic respectability for more than half a century, comparative literature might indeed have managed to assuage somewhat the resounding fury and righteous clamoring of those who would deem themselves incomparable and those who would lay exclusive claim to the sole grounds for comparison, whether these be "multicultural" or "patristic."
Whatever the outcome of the current debates about the role and purview of comparative literature, the comparatist will always dwell in contrapuntal interstices as the unnaturalizable hinternational. Whether in one's own city, like Johannes Urzidil in Prague, or in a city of strangers, like Erich Auerbach in Istanbul and New Haven, the would-be comparatist will invariably find him- or herself somewhat out of place. In a statement readily applicable to this predicament, Theodor Adorno, another inconsolable hinternational, would write, "It is part of morality not to be at home in one's home."(6) Auerbach, for his part, in his reflective essay on dislocation, culture, and self-realization, "Philologie der Weltliteratur," would clue us into the particular form of homelessness requisite for the worldly scholar and accomplished human being when he cites a perennially displaced native of twelfth-century Saxony, Hugo, Abbot of St. Victor, and his Didascalicon: "The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as has native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land [perfectus vero cui mundus totus exilium est]."(7)
Through Urzidil, Auerbach, Adorno, and many others who shared and continue to share their historical predicament in this century, comparative literature acquires a defining significance in the condition of displacement and "foreignness." Our more shrill pronouncements on the nature and current state of the discipline would drown out those defining nuances by eradicating the term foreign altogether, oblivious to the fact that the suppression of a term does not necessarily lead to the eradication of the conditions it may designate or that may underlie its linguistic denotations. One can only wonder whether those who would seek to "expunge the term foreign" might have any idea of what the term or the condition may mean outside the dictionary.(8)
The desirability of such ideal states as "globalization, democratization, and decolonization" (Pratt, 59) cannot be disputed. The real-world actuality that envelops these desiderata, however, belies the naivete of those who would turn them into programmatic indices of a new era and a new age of comparatism, an age that would make it possible to demand the expurgation of the term foreign from our cultural lexicon. The history of comparative literature, and human history in general, teaches us that such utopian desires founder time and again on the baneful realities of human obduracy, thereby making comparatism and cultural counterpoint indispensable. To seek to eradicate foreignness from any cultural or linguistic site is tantamount to a project of universal naturalization, and that, as often as it has been attempted, has only left human tragedies in its wake, especially in our century. If we have learned anything from the history of such attempts and from the comparatism which they spawned, it is that foreignness, and our capacity to persuade everyone of their own foreignness vis-a-vis everyone else, may indeed be the only possibility of salvaging some modicum of civility and tolerant coexistence.
I suspect Adorno may have been alluding to this as a form of ethical imperative when he noted that "it is part of morality not to be at home in one's home." And this may well be the ironic lesson of Urzidil's self-proclamation as a hinternational. Certainly, the current struggles for survival, whether on internecine war fronts or in the petty skirmishes of the academy, teach us that one may come by tolerance and civility with somewhat greater ease as subject of alterity than as agent of authenticity or as embodiment of self-authentication. Or, as Wallace Stevens would have it in the passage from Notes toward a Supreme Fiction which I take as epigraph for these remarks, the only thing that might save a would-be supreme fiction from suprematism or the supremacist may well be the "foreign" site from where the poem springs, a place "not our own and, much more, not / ourselves," though it be "hard" and "in spite of blazoned days."
If there be a difference between the formalists/textualists, on the one hand, and those who champion "cultural studies" as the rightful domain of comparative literature on the other, I would venture that the most productive difference, for comparative literature, between these two postures does not reside in their antithesis as much as in their chiasmus: if legitimation for the proponents of cultural studies comes from the appeal to something called our identity and positionality, that is, who we are, and the textualists/formalists base their authority in the force of what we say and what our canon affirms, the comparatist, inexorably, must dwell, yet again, in that interstice, that juncture where these competing claims cross (and are cross with) each other. In other words, comparative literature must emanate and teach, perforce, from who we are not and from what we do not say, from a locus that it does not claim as its own and a position that is differential to more essentialist and more essential claims.
This is not to say that comparative literature occupies a third bank of a river or a synthetic third position of a dialectic. More in keeping with its history, comparative literature is very much in the fray, though not necessarily of it, reconnoitering the hinterland and peripheral edges where more (self-)centered domains imbricate in contrapuntal play, or in the din of their crossfire. The latest report on the profession issued by the American Comparative Literature Association in 1993 is most telling in this regard, not by what it purports to say necessarily but symptomatically. Its deliberate rage for inclusiveness, its anxious reach to be all things to all people and hospitable to all fields and forms of discourse are a suggestive measure of displacement that, not unlike the exile, seeks a modicum of convivial hospitality, knowing full well that hospitality is destined for strangers and the migrant, the itinerancy that mediates among the cultures, discourses, and domains of others. As comparatists we know that this is an indispensable mediation, of course.
University of Oklahoma
1 Cited by Ivan Klima, The Spirit of Prague and Other Essays, tr. Paul Wilson, London, Granta, 1994, p. 39.
2 On the notion of "field" and comparative literature as a field, see the Kantian discussion by Wlad Godzich in his book The Culture of Literacy, Cambridge (Ma.), Harvard University Press, 1994, chapter 16, "Emergent Literature and the Field of Comparative Literature," pp. 274-92.
3 Julio Cortazar, Rayuela, Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, 1963.
4 Godzich, p. 278.
5 Emily Apter, "Comparative Exile," in Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, ed. Charles Bernheimer, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995, p. 94. The volume includes the text of the ACLA report as well as a number of responses.
6 Cited by Edward Said, "Reflections on Exile," in Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, ed. Marc Robinson, Boston/London, Faber & Faber, 1994, p. 147.
7 Auerbach's essay has been translated as "Philology and Weltliteratur" by M. and E. W. Said, Centennial Review, 13 (Winter 1969). Auerbach's citation occurs on page 17. Hugo of St. Victor's Didascalicon has been translated by Jerome Taylor, New York, Columbia University Press, 1961. The cited passage occurs on page 101.
8 See Mary Louise Pratt, "Comparative Literature and Global Citizenship," in Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, p. 64.
DJELAL KADIR is the Dolores K. and Walter Neustadt Jr. Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oklahoma and Editor of World Literature Today. His latest book is an English edition of Joao Cabral de Melo Nero's Selected Poetry, 1937-1990 (Wesleyan, 1994).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Comparative Literature: States of the Art.|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1995|
|Previous Article:||Colonial Transactions: English Literature and India.|
|Next Article:||'Living in the same place': the old mononationalism and the new comparative literature.|