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.

In fairness to Elinor Shaffer, the editor, it should be said that she has tried to give some idea of all that ‘comparative literature’ today embraces. So, too, has Paula Clifford in her ‘Bibliography of Comparative Literature in Britain: 1975 and 1976’, though ‘Britain’ here is an approximation, since not all the authors listed are British, nor are all the places of publication. It scarcely matters in these circumstances that one of the best essays in the collection, J.P. Stern’s on Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull in the light of Nietzschean views of metaphor and morality, should be concerned solely with German literature.

It is principally by asking what a literary canon is that the editor has sought to give some sort of shape to her book, though in the process it becomes clear that the canonical principle has become so elastic as to be almost unusable as well. In her respectful but uncompromisingly sensible review of Donald Davie’s Clark Lectures on the literature of the English Dissenting tradition, for example, she complains that his survey amounts to a ‘brilliant piece of canon-making for a day which epitomises criticism in our time’. The contributors to the first section of this volume seem to accept what still survives as the general view of the literary achievements of the Middle Ages, of the French and English theatres and of the German and English 19th-century novels. Mahmond Manzaloui draws attention to the curious parallels between the tragic case-histories of lovers in the Islamic haadith, the Heroides of Ovid and the western courtly romances, and David Swale (all too briefly) discusses the limitations of D.H. Lawrence when read in the light of the German Bildungsroman, with its freedom and spiritual adventurousness which is at the same time related to the sense of a given community: these, however, are minor adjustments to accepted literary history. In Part II, ‘Translation in the Canon of W.H. Auden’, Dr Schaffer’s gloomy account of contemporary attempts to impose some new order on the past turns out to be vindicated.

The Auden commemorated here is the consciously Nordic figure who liked to claim descent from the Icelandic hero of ‘Audunn and the Bear’. Auden provides a convenient pretext for discussing Icelandic and Scandinavian poetry and the career of the poet and pacifist Hans Toller, who committed suicide in 1939 and is mourned in one of Auden’s best-known poems. Harald Ohlendorf’s essay on this elegy is a comprehensive exegesis, including a prose summary and note on the rhyme scheme, though nothing on the peculiar flatness and awkwardness of the poem, its air of piously improvised meditation, which to the admirer, presumably, can seem like the honest bewilderment of a representative modern mind. The volume also includes Auden’s hitherto unpublished translation of the Icelandic ‘Sun King’, the work of a Christian skald in traditional Eddaic form, a vision of the seven heavens and of Lucifer the dragon who waylays the Christian soul. Auden’s flatness here (‘The unpredictable often may/Have sad and cruel results ... ’) is redeemed mainly by his use of something resembling the original alliteration (‘But the same maiden maddened them both ... ’). Together with the extreme grammatical simplicity, this gives the whole translation a kind of whirring resonance which lends itself to parody.

The other main contribution to this section is the translation by Leif Sjöberg and Muriel Rukeyser of Gunnar Ekelöf’s ‘A Mölna Elegy’, a work which, for all its strong personal nostalgia, and despite Ekelöf’s evident desire to relate personal to human history, reads, in this context, like the final reductio ad absurdum of the canonical principle. The poem, on which Ekelöf worked for twenty years, is the ‘attempted reconstruction of a moment’ of illumination during the autumn of 1939 on an island near Stockholm, in which the poet’s own past merges with that of civilised Europe and Asia. Few poems of this length could ever have contained more learned as well as private allusions, and there is no reader who will not be indebted to Sjöberg’s introductory analysis. The poem demands a simultaneous reading of what sound like voices from the poet’s childhood and of obscene Roman graffiti (in some of which the Latin is in Greek script).

We are reminded, as Sjöberg says, of Eliot’s account of ‘tradition’ as an ‘ideal order ... modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art’, and there is perhaps in the lunacy of all this a confused idea of tradition for which Eliot may he largely to blame. It is a confusion whose consequences are apparent both in academic criticism and in the writing of verse. If Ekelöf’s poem brings to mind Eliot’s essay on ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, it also, after all, reminds one in its technique of The Waste Land. The confusion can be identified perhaps as what, in Eliot, is a curious equivocation. The ‘ideal order’, Eliot writes, ‘is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.’ Behind this formulation there may well lie an ill-digested Hegclianism. That Eliot should have read Webster or Marvell through new eyes after discovering Baudelaire, or vice versa, and that his personal view of tradition should have been changed accordingly, makes obvious sense. To say that tradition exists only in the minds of living individuals may also be unexceptionable. Neither proposition on its own, however, is enough to justify Eliot’s account of an ‘order’ which is clearly in his view more than merely personal. If the equivocation between order in the private and public senses went unnoticed, it may well be because Eliot, the sophisticated literary journalist, was acutely conscious, as were his first readers (subscribers to Middleton Murry’s Athenaeum), of a common culture and corresponding sense of order shared by thousands who had received a similar literary education and had a common interest in what was genuinely new. What Eliot meant by his ideal order could easily be taken on trust and assumed to be something more (what exactly could always be examined later) than the conventional prevailing view.

Both the sense of a conventional prevailing view and the reality can be seen today as belonging more and more to the past. The vast expansion of the academic study of literature has coincided – one could say inevitably – with the disappearance of a homogeneous public for new poetry, with its replacement, that is, by groups of poetry fans. It is difficult in these circumstances to think of the cultural order represented by a poem such as Ekelöf’s as other than personal and fortuitous, making the task of the academic with his learned exegesis indispensable.

Perhaps if the editor of this volume is to be criticised at all, it is for not accepting the implications of what she herself recognises as the absence of any commonly accepted view of the achievements of the recent and even remoter past, and hence any criterion for deciding what is, in more than a personal sense, of relative interest. Matthew Arnold is mentioned in her introduction as one of the pioneers of the study of comparative literature, but it is Arnold’s concern with the humane uses of literature, and his impatience, when surveying the past, with anything but the ‘best that has been thought’, that is absent from most of the contributions to this volume, and, as a principle of selection, from the volume as a whole. In Part III there is an admirably condensed and comprehensive survey of translations of Goethe by Michael Hamburger. There is also, for those not in the know, an essay by Richard Gordon on the recent research and polemics in France relating to Greek tragedy and the history of ancient societies. This, incidentally, is the one contribution in which any reference is made to the structuralism of the last twenty years. It is also almost the only contribution which is consciously controversial and argued with a corresponding pertinacity. In this respect, Mr Gordon stands out among the contributors to a volume whose ethos is not so much eclectic – eclecticism is a philosophical principle which needs to be defended as such – as institutional.