Saturday, July 2, 2011

'Complayt, Comp. Lit or Complete' Or 'What the *#$% is Comparative Literature and Why are They Saying such Awe(Ful/some) Things About It?

The word 'complayt' is a colloquial Gujarati word which signifies perfection and completeness of the job done or to be done as in 'kaam complayt'.  The word, of course, is borrowed from English. I noticed the pun on 'Comp. Lit' and 'complete' ( in the sense of being finished), in the sly word-play of Jacques Derrida in his lectures delivered at Yale University in 1979-80 published as ' Who or What Is Compared? The Concept of Comparative Literature and the Theoretical Problems of Translation' in the Winter and Spring 2008 Issue of Discourse (translated by Eric Prenowitz). Derrida astutely points out the hackneyed and facile binary of' 'life' and 'death' seems to haunt the theoretical discussions on comparative literature. This was well two-and-half decade before Derrida's translator and postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak declared Death of the Discipline in 2004 and Susan Bassnett's contention that the emerging discipline of translation studies will eclipse comparative literature. Haun Saussy report on the health of the discipline in America in 2006 declares,"Comparative literature has, in a sense, won its battles. It has never been received in the American university ". Reports of the death or rebirth or renewal of the discipline are rather tedious, as is the agonized navel gazing regarding its own methodology. The skepticism regarding its foundations is as old as the discipline itself. Derrida's critique is aimed at the universalist- imperialist ambitions of comparative literature as manifested in its 'encyclopediac' nature, which he compares with the figure of Prof. Pangloss, an optimistic scholar, in Voltaire's Candide.

The earliest attempts to establish 'Comp.Lit' were often met with dismissive hostility. Rene Wellek cites Lane Cooper of Cornell University who said that Comparative Literature was a “bogus term” that “makes neither sense nor syntax.” “You might as well permit yourself to say ‘comparative potatoes’ or ‘comparative husks.’” Croce in 1903 saw it as a non-subject and the efforts to establish it as a separate discipline were futile. Croce saw it as methodology which was part of the effort to arrive at complete explanation of a literary work in the context of the 'universal literary history'. If something is a methodology, it cannot be a discipline in its own right. The skepticism regarding the discipline has persisted throughout the period of what Rene Wellek called the 'Crisis' of comparative literature. 

Personally, I don't think 'Comparative Literature' is either a distinct discipline or a distinct methodology. It is rather an alternative conception of literature. Instead of the mono-literary studies which see a single literature as something organic, static and autonomous, 'comparative literature'  conceives literature as essentially heterogeneous, dynamic and open ended cultural phenomenon, which can be understood only in the context of a complex network of historical relationships which cut across cultures, languages, places, periods and even media. Though comparative literature may be struggling to find itself as a distinct discipline, this alternative conception of literature has gained wide acceptance in serious literary research, thanks to the explosion of 'Theory' in the later half of the twentieth century. It is is in this sense, that Saussy feels that comparative literature has won its battles. Saussy feels that comparative literature is selfless, meaing that it has no unique or distinct identity as well as in the sense of its generosity. It doesn't, for instance, demand a small tax from English literature departments, every time they quote Spitzer, Auererbach, Wellek, Spivak or de Man. This discipline, Saussy thinks, is an 'anonymous universal doner' to mono-literary studies.

In the Indian context, scholars like Sisir Kumar Das, Amiya Dev, Chandra Mohan, GN Devy , Sujit Mukherjee and Avadhesh Kumar Singh have tireless promoted 'Comp. Lit' as the only true way of studying Indian literature in a multillingual and multi cultural context such as ours. I believe this is the only way you study ANY literature, not just 'Indian Literature', meaningfully in our country. Even when the Birje-Patils and V.Y. Kantaks of the yore wrote about Shakespeare, they were reading Shakespeare as Indians- they couldn't possible read him as native speakers. Consciously or unconsciously, they were already practicing comparative literature. When we 'teach' Jane Austen to the undergrads, we are actually doing comparative literature. How else can the things 'coming out' or 'curtsy' in Jane Austen make any sense to the Indians? Is not teaching of literature in India, an inherently comparative practice?

This year, when we at the Department of English of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda are introducing comparative literature as a core paper at the post graduate level for the first time, you-know- who will be the instructor. Susan Bassnett says that people start in different people but soon find themselves moving towards 'comp.lit' . Though my  journey towards 'comp. lit' as a discipline officially began with my doctoral research in translation studies at the beginning of the new millennium, I was already 'doing it' when I was translating excerpts from Macbeth and Savitri during my undergrad years. I was already 'doing it' when I was reading Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, Sherlock Holmes and Adventures of Tintin as an Indian teenager, from a specific cultural, historical and social location. Though it was unconscious, the location had distinctly shaped my perception and reception of these texts.  It was during my doctoral research into translation, where I translated poetry of a great Gujarati poet of the fifteenth century- Narsinh Mehta into English for my thesis-by-translation that I was 'self-consciously' a comparatistic. I remember Prof. Kimbahune who recommended Dionyz Durisin, a major Slovak comparitist and gifted me a photocopy of Durisin's important book Theory of Literary Comparatistics (1984). Prof Kimbahune believed, and quite rightly so, that the theories of the East European scholars like Durisin are more relevant to the Indian context. Durisin's notions of 'interliterariness' and interliterary processes provide a critical and more useful alternative to the influential positivist French School framework of ' influence studies' based on the 'binary' system.

Bassnett believed that translation studies would eclipse comparative literature. I, however, believe that translation studies should eclipse all literary studies in India . After all, I think, we as Indians are essentially translated people,living in a translated culture, eating translated food, wearing translated clothes, watching translated movies, studying translated texts and using translated ideas. Translation studies as a inter-discipline investigating the complex phenomenon and the processes  of intercultural transfer and transformation would be one of the most important disciplines in the age of globalization where the global and the local are continuously translating each other at a rapid speed. This rapid and mutual transformation would be resulting in a 'world culture' probably which would neither be fully global nor local  and connected by information technology networks and satellite media. Translation studies will be able to tell us how this world culture is shaping up and why.

Consider the case for the word 'complayt' in colloquial Gujarati. It is an example of what JC Catford in his famous A Linguistic Theory of Translation (1965) calls ' transference' , and a form  lexical borrowing which though is used in more or less same semantic field but in an entirely different register and context. These are the processes which make our languages. Languages, after all, are our cultures and are who we are. And then they are also who we can be.

In an era where the mourning for 'death of Indian languages' is quite intense, translation studies will demonstrate how new languages are being born everywhere. These new languages will be our languages of the future. As academicians mourn the death of Marathi or Gujarati or Bengali, newer and newer Marathis and Gujaratis and Bengalis are being born  outside the academia. What is translation, after all, but creation of a new language, a language which is neither the 'source/original' nor is it 'target'. As newer and newer languages are born ' between' languages- translation studies will provide us with tools to study contemporary cultures. I don't think the cultural studies will swallow translation studies, I am afraid, it will be the other way round. Translation studies will have to 'complayt' the work started by cultural studies,literary studies and comparative literature.........

Watch my video on comparative literature as research method

1 comment:

Hemang Ashwinkumar Desai said...

The metaphor of conjoint twins at loggerheads with each other perhaps best explains the problematic relationship that Comparative Literature and translation have shared right since the first serious conceptualization of the former’s theoretical framework by the Romantics in Europe. It might come as a staggering idiocy to common sense that the phenomenon of translation has remained on the periphery of comparative literary studies in spite of the glaring identicalities involving the work both a comparatist and a translator undertake i.e. rewriting the text and enhancing the cross-cultural interaction and mutually enriching dialogue. The height of the paradox is that while the comparatist is lauded for interpreting the virtuosity of a foreign text, though he might not worry about making that text available to his native readership, the translator is brought to book on the suspicion of disfiguring the sacred text, though he approaches the original with unparalleled vengeance and commitment. Conservatives in the field of comparative literary studies, who have been inimical to the participation of translation studies in the formation of extensive framework for their discipline, “are precisely those who are in practice devoted to the idea of comparative literature limited to (Western) Europe and its historical dependencies, no matter what their theoretical pronouncements may be.” (Lefevere, ibid.)