Friday, December 13, 2013

European literature vs. world literature

"Heroes" of European literature
Reading these early comparatists (see previous post, among others) gives me a handle not only on the sources of Fritz Strich's study but also on what Goethe had in mind, the latter being endlessly dissected. For the moment I will remain with the former.

I have mentioned elsewhere that Strich generally does not cite his sources. It is only in the 1957 edition of Goethe and World Literature that he includes a true bibliography. I have gone through many of the studies contained there and have begun to get a feeling for why he embarked on a field that, until Goethe and World Literature, was not a scholarly field as such. In other words, Strich inaugurated the modern study of the subject.

I have discovered in the articles by the early comparatists statements that Strich takes up, if not word for word, certainly concept for concept. Yet, one hesitates to call this plagiarism, as is shown, for instance, in an article by Joseph Texte (on whom I have also posted). According to Texte, in "The Comparative History of Literature" (translated from Revue de philologie francaise et de la litterature [1896]), the requirement for literary production historically (let us say up to the mid-18th century) was precisely based on imitation of ancient literature. In turn, criticism likewise modeled itself on the relationship between work and its source. Thus, literature was plagiaristic, and criticism documented this reliance on models.

The "modern period," as Texte writes, presents a different story; modern writers are indeed more "scrupulous."  Yet, "in imitating more freely, they do not imitate less; moreover, how can one determine their originality if one does not begin by comparing them with their contemporaries, with those by whom every writer, no matter how independent ... is influenced?" Texte is arguing for the relevance of the new field of comparative literature, one of the aims of which is the discovery of such "intellectual relationships." He mentions Taine and his "followers" who would remove the aesthetic element from literary study, by extricating "the personal from each work and the original from each literature."

Tongue twisters
Texte is very brilliant, yet his article made me aware of a problem with this idea of intellectual relationships. While it is a truism, long recognized before the 19th-century comparatists (see Daniel Morhof), that writers in the Western literary tradition before the 18th century were either influenced or consciously modeled their works on earlier models, they were not writing "nationally," even while writing in their respective vernaculars. The formation of "political nationalities" in the modern period, however, especially since "the Revolution," has likewise led to the formation of "intellectual nationalities." As Texte writes: "modern nations did not become consciously aware of their intellectual personality apart from antique imitation until a relatively recent epoch." Thus, the development of comparative literature seems to have been a rearguard action to maintain a humanistic conception of "literature," based on a common intellectual heritage, even as the study of literature in the universities in the 19th century was herding literary study into departments based on "national language."

Picture source: Europe Is Not Dead

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