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Comparative Literature?

Author(s): Haun Saussy

Source: PMLA, Vol. 118, No. 2 (Mar., 2003), pp. 336-341
Published by: Modern Language Association
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theories and






this article should appear in a series so entitled), though theories and

methodologies aplenty occur as part of its typical business. Is there, or can

there be, an object of knowledge identifiable as "comparative literature"?

The Rule of Three

When I began hearing about comparative literature in the middle 1970s,

there was a fairly straightforward means of distinguishing comparative

literature on the university campuses where it was done. The English de-

partment pursued knowledge of language and literature in one language;

the foreign language departments pursued similar studies in two lan-

guages (typically English, assumed to be most students' native lan-

guage, plus the foreign tongue); and comparative literature committees,

programs, or departments carried out literary analysis in at least three

languages at once. The three-language rule identified the discipline as

something apart from English, national-language studies, or studies of

literature in translation; it set up a criterion of eligibility for new en-

trants, thus laying a basis for the discipline's continued social reproduc-

tion; but it did not always specify the three languages or dictate the

substance of what was to be done in them. Now, in geometry three

points make a plane, and three dimensions make a solid; Thirdness, in

Peircean semiotics, makes signifying possible as a mediation between

Firstness and Secondness (Peirce 387-90); but in comparative literature

the effect of adding the magical third element is more elusive.

The third-language hurdle assured, demographically, that compara-

HAUN SAUSSY, author of The Problem of

tive literature programs would not expand to cover all the territory of the

a Chinese Aesthetic (Stanford UP, 1993)

humanities (if anyone was worried about that), but it did not go far toward

and Great Walls of Discourse and Other

answering the question, What is, or is not, comparative literature? The rule

Adventures in Cultural China (Harvard

defined the social membership of comparative literature better than it did

U Asia Center, 2001), is professor of

the object of study. (And even in its influence on membership, the rule
Asian languages and comparative liter-

ature at Stanford University. could be applied inconsistently: for lack of relevant programs or person-



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I I 8.2 2 Haun Saussy 337


ter to production and consumption in every

nel, a student fluent in English and Cantonese, or

country.... The intellectual creations of individ-

in Breton and Quechua, might on many campuses

ual nations become common property. National

be in the same position as a strictly monolingual

one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become

student.) This all made for a fragile discipline,

more and more impossible, and from the numer-

one whose definition depended crucially on the

ous national and local literatures, there arises a C*

definitions of the institutional cells surrounding

world literature. (Marx and Engels 38-39)

it; and in pragmatic terms, this fragility was real-

ized in the status of most comparative literature


Or as the systems theorist Niklas Luhmann

programs as epiphenomenal groupings without

puts it, "Under modem conditions... only one so-

permanent funding. In North America at least,

cial system can exist. Its communicative network

from the 1970s onward, comparative literature


spreads over the globe ... A plurality of possible


found its disciplinary object in, and based its case

worlds has become impossible" (178). If dis-

for institutional independence on, an always con-

tinctions are no longer meaningful, comparison

troversial set of practices known as literary the-

becomes the likening of like and like, a hollow

ory. To hear some people tell it, the comparatists

gesture with a predetermined outcome. Reduced

were no producers, but an army of Soldiers of

to the scale of the university campus, a global

Theory bent on occupying other people's fields

economy of communication makes compara-

and reducing them to tributary status.

tivists of us all, as "national one- sidedness" and the

The intervening years have brought changes

consequent "plurality of possible worlds" become

to comparative literature in all its registers, not

"impossible" even as a scholarly concentration.

least because the neighboring disciplines have

changed. We see more and more bilingual stu-

dents, with instant repercussions on the idea of

Comparative? Literature?

"foreign languages." The departments devoted

So, then, now more than ever: comparative litera-

to "major" languages are increasingly interested

ture? If the specificity of our enterprise is wear-

in and permeable to their less prominent rela-

ing away through its banalization, we need to

tives (ex-colonial creoles, new Englishes, pid-

think once more about what comparatists have

gins, dialects, and sociolects). Languages once

done to see if there is anything for the discipline

considered "less commonly taught" now often

to keep on doing. What were the models for com-

boast higher enrollments than some "more

parative work, and what lessons do they teach

commonly taught" languages. Theoretical ap-

that may still apply in changed circumstances?

proaches have long since naturalized themselves

The name of the field-"comparative"-

in English departments. In comparative litera-

once denoted a method and, behind that method,

ture programs, too, the scope of the term lan-

a theory of how literature was organized. Com-

guage is no longer self-evident: a medium such

parative religion, comparative law, and the other

as film or music now often substitutes for the

comparative disciplines that arose in the nine-

third language. What defined comparative litera-

teenth century under the strange dual patronage

ture twenty-five years ago no longer distin-

of comparative anatomy and comparative philol-

guishes the field, positively or negatively, by

ogy all began as what one might call tree-shaped

reference to its membership or object of study.

disciplines, organizing historical and typologi-

Another menace to comparative literature's

cal diversity into a common historical narrative

fragile identity comes from the very condition that

with many parallel branches. Difference be-

made the discipline possible: cosmopolitanism.

came differentiation, the subject of a historical-

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of developmental account. Through that account,

the world market given a cosmopolitan charac-

morphology became readable as genesis.

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338 Comparative Literature?

Indeed, one of the cornerstones of the de- was needed. Historical studies (influence and re-



velopment of comparative literature in this ception) could carry on in various sections of

the tree without worrying about the existence of

country, E. R. Curtius's European Literature


a trunk. Studies cast in the mode of difference

and the Latin Middle Ages, makes exactly this

sort of claim. Reaching back to a time before and similarity could disregard it, taking for

granted such generally applicable terms as they

the national separation of the languages and

their increasing mutual opacity, Curtius recon- found necessary. "Theory," never a compact


structs a common basis for the major European philosophical system, migrated from case to


literatures in Latin authors and topoi.1 The case or let itself be carried with the broadening

Latin basis was there all along, hidden in the acceptance of certain historical narratives or

"one-sidedness" of the national languages; methodological metaphors.

scholarship restores it to view, elucidating the Perhaps the best thing about comparative

differential paths taken and leading them back literature is its failure to live up to its name. Un-

to the source. Curtius's mode of comparison is a like the other comparative disciplines, this one

is not principally about the relation of sub-

phylogeny. But surely in many other contexts

this would be a naive or impossible way of sidiary phenomena to an original or ancestral

putting one's comparative claim. source. And unlike Aristotelian comparison, it

Although new tools such as genetics and is not about discovering the "third thing" on

ethology confirmed the usefulness of tree- shaped which two other things stand as on a common

comparativism for the biological sciences, in ground of identity. It must then have an unusual

most of the human sciences the narratives pro- logic. Perhaps a "rhizomatic" logic (Deleuze

viding the substantive ground for differentiation and Guattari 6-8)?

sooner or later broke up. General evolutionary

paradigms (as in Maine, Morgan, or Frazer)

In and And

could not be maintained without begging too

many questions about the universal reach of the

Some literary scholars have a penchant for the

categories employed. Only in linguistics, my-

preposition in, some for the conjunction and. In

thology, and manuscript filiation are distal trees

suggests that a reading is a matter of observation

still important argumentative tools. In compara-

and inventory; and, that a reading is a collision.

tive literature, the typological tree of written cul-

A paper titled "Renunciation in Mahabhdrata,

ture was never more than a vestige anyway.

Huckleberry Finn, and Der Rosenkavalier"

Actual comparative studies covered only small

claims to discover a common thread "in" a body

pieces of the literary record, rarely venturing so

of writings; a paper titled "Mansfield Park and A

far afield as to challenge the applicability of the

Theory of Justice" tells you to think about one

discipline's terms; moreover, when widely sepa-

thing in relation to another. Comparative litera-

rated literary traditions were involved, compara-

ture is largely a discipline of the and type. It does

tists wrote as if little could be done to explain (as

its work best as a chain of ands: this relation and

opposed to reciting) the typological differences

that relation and that relation . .. .each and

among the traditions.

modifying the sense of those that came before.

Comparative literature was thus a discipline

The and is comparative literature's answer

with a branching logic, but the branches lacked

to the tree model. Lacking a common substance

a trunk. That trunk might conceivably have been

to which the differences among its objects

furnished by a universal poetics, a historical ori-

might be reduced, comparative literature has

gin of all literary traditions, or an ultimate typo-

grown, not from the roots upward like a tree, but

logical category such as literariness.2 But none

as the International Space Station does, through

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I I 8.2 2
Haun Saussy 339

the lateral construction of linking elements. gether. The job of every comparative literature


Leaving aside Curtius's "Romania," with its ori- book is to find that out, and rarely do two an-


entation toward historical recovery, the model swers coincide. Metalepsis (the positing as ac-


texts of comparative literature link together sets complished of something yet to occur) is the

of examples whose mutual coherence is not ob- structuring trope of these speculative investiga-


vious in advance of their combination. It is as if

tions, which spin the rope before them as they

the reader who asks, "What do X, Y, and Z have walk on it. The willingness to tolerate readings

to do with one another?" could only get the an- that produce, rather than discover, meanings

swer, "Nothing-up to now."

brings a risky, experimental quality to compara-


Erich Auerbach's Mimesis proffers a histor- tive literature and shows why its virtues are in-


ical narrative (the growth of realism) but does

separable from its questionable legitimacy.

not substantively develop realism or give it the

role of a protagonist who might lead the story

The Rule of Three Revisited

toward its outcome. (For that type of story, see

Lukacs.) Rather, Auerbach beckons us to exam-

What might be called a third-language effect

ine a series of sample passages-touchstones-

helps to explain comparative literature's past in-

in historical sequence, each different from the

tellectual affinities and to mark what keeps the

others, each exhibiting a different mode of de-

field open for particular kinds of innovation. The

tail, each contributing indirectly to a mode of

three-language rule precipitated (i.e., contrib-

seeing that is also the critic's (the eye for just

uted to causing without necessarily entailing) a

what makes this text a new turning for literary

kind of questioning that the then-current state of

representation).3 This is and criticism: but read

practice in national-literature programs did not

it as in criticism, and the thing in all the exam-

satisfy, and the moving frontiers of the disci-

ples is a thin thread indeed.

pline should continue responding to similar dis-

In Qian Zhongshu's work, comparability

satisfactions now that so many of comparative

is the point to be made. Recognizing the utter

literature's former specialties have been taken

dominance in Chinese scholarship of the kind of

up by others. One cannot say that it always hap-

literary history that reduces a text to the general

pened, but often and ideally the addition of a

circumstances of its period-and thereby denies

third language made it necessary to appeal to

that the relation between two texts can be any-

theoretical considerations where taste, common

thing but historical-Qian answers this under-

sense, or a shared literary history would have

standing of literature with a model of meaning

told the practitioners of English or a single for-

as open-ended translatability. In a tacit rebuke

eign literature what was significant, beautiful,

to historical determinism, his essays simply jux-

predictable, necessary, or controversial about

tapose passages or motifs from Chinese classi-

their objects of study. Just as Anaxagoras, ac-

cal literature with "equivalents" in Latin, Greek,

cording to Aristotle (1071), attributed the intelli-

English, French, German, and Spanish litera-

gence of human beings to their having hands, so

ture-an empirical but experimental challenge

perhaps in comparative literature the third lan-

to the assumption of Chinese uniqueness.

guage as an organ created its own functions.

Comparative literature books may be as

Most relations of influence that can be for-

elaborately structured as Northrop Frye's Anat-

mulated historically (the original problem for

omy of Criticism or Paul de Man's Allegories of

comparative literature to resolve; see Schulz and

Reading or as loose as Qian Zhongshu's or Leo

Rhein) occur, like the standard model of trans-

Spitzer's essay collections, but they all must

lation, between two poles, with a source and a

raise the question of what glue holds them to-

target. Typological considerations reduce to an

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340 Comparative Literature?


exchange between a type case and a candidate NOTES

token. If a two-language pattern is adequate for

1 On Curtius's vision of a culturally unified Europe, see

formulating and answering most questions of

Menocal 133-37.

2 A tension between folklore or linguistics and literary

historical influence or typological similarity, the

Jc study structures some phases of the field's development. See

third language, like an uninvited guest, points to

the encyclopedic project of Chadwick and Chadwick, mod-


the things that a two-language pattern leaves out.

eled on folklore and diffusionist history; see also the differ-

What is going on, even in a dyadic relation, that a

ing accounts of "literary language" produced by the New

Critics and the inheritors of Slavic linguistics and folklore

dyadic explanation leaves unaccounted for? A

(Ransom; Jakobson).

relation occurs under particular conditions: what

3 On the peculiarities of Mimesis as a historical narra-


are those? What is the relation about; what in it


tion, see the essays in Lerer.

illuminates relations not now under discussion?

In my experience, the third language or field fur-

nishes counterexamples. It frustrates the progress


to universal literature-to the delivery of the

Aristotle. "Parts of Animals." The Complete Works of Aris-

same thing in different languages, ad infinitum.

totle. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Vol. 1. Princeton: Princeton

Because it is precisely not a tertium quid, it keeps

UP, 1984. 994-1086.

things from settling down. The space of this third

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in

Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton:

language-a space analogous to the yet-to-be-

Princeton UP, 1953.

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Chadwick, H. Munro, and N. Kershaw Chadwick. The

trunk-might be held by an indefinite set of enti-

Growth of Literature. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,

ties. Whatever occupies that space mediates less


than it interferes, as signifiers do, and its interfer- Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin

Middle Ages. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Prince-

ence produces something new.

ton UP, 1948.

What is specific to comparative literature,

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as distinguished from investigations into na-

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de Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in

as a single mass, is its propensity to construc-

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and geometers idiomatically cohabit. It would

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic

be a mistake, then, to seek to define comparative

and Religion. Abr. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1951.

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methods; lacking exclusive title to any of these,

Jakobson, Roman. "Linguistics and Poetics." Style in Lan-

it is rather a practice, a way of constructing ob-

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jects. As in surveying, every completion of a tri-


angle makes measurement, and thus conclusive

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lology: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach. Stanford: Stan-

knowledge, possible; but the apex of the trian-

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lumbia UP, 1990.

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to large computational errors and are avoided

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Haun Saussy

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