Comparative Everything

Geoffrey Strickland

  • Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook edited by E.S. Shaffer
    Cambridge, 327 pp, £12.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 521 22296 6

It is not the fault of the contributors to this volume, or even of the editor, if it reminds one of Dr Johnson’s objection to the yoking together by violence of heterogeneous ideas. Comparative Criticism is a product of comparative literature, the first chair of which was created for Francesco De Sanctis in Naples in 1871 in recognition of his services to literary history and the cause of the Risorgimento. René Wellek, appropriately, in this first volume commissioned by the British Comparative Literature Association, contributes an article on De Sanctis’ understanding of what could be meant by ‘realism’. ‘Comparative literature’, as the term was used in the 19th century, seems to have been part of the study of civilisation and to have expressed the 19th-century interest in the distinctiveness of national cultures. Mme de Staël, A.W. Schlegel and Sismondi are among its virtual originators. The usefulness of the original term derived from a passionate and often politically-motivated interest in national peculiarities and aspirations. (It obviously never occurred to De Sanctis, as a cultured European, that the study of literature could ever be confined to that of a single language.) The interest failed to survive two major European wars, and the term is today so loose in its application as to be – on the evidence of this volume, for example – almost unusable. Without some strong common directing interest, the field of comparative literature is bound to seem as vast as the human imagination, and there are bound to be within it many different kinds of specialist. If this volume lacks any obvious raison d’être, it is because this heterogeneity is made all the more conspicuous by their appearing between the same hard covers.

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