Across Literary and Linguistic Diversities

Essays on Comparative Literature

by Goethe Society of India (Volume editor) Madhu Sahni (Volume editor) Mazumdar Shaswati (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection X, 202 Pages


Comparative literary studies face new challenges today in a world marked by the migration of people, languages, ideas and texts across diverse and increasingly porous borders. The field is restricted by conventional notions of comparativism born in the era of nationalism and colonialism. However, scholars are now provoked to rethink these notions as a result of the social, economic and political forces that drive the contemporary world, which simultaneously draw it into an ever tighter global network and create new, or reassert persisting, lines of division.
What are the conceptual and methodological questions that must engage our attention if comparativism, as recent debates suggest, has to revive its critical potential and chart afresh the future of literary studies? The essays in this volume attempt to rethink comparison in this context through theoretical reflections and concrete comparative analyses. They investigate similarities and differences, connections and references, across diverse literary and linguistic cultures in Indian, German and other European literatures.
This volume is the 2014 Yearbook of the Goethe Society of India.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • Goethe Society of India
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • ‚Weltliteratur‘ heute. Begriffswandel im Zeichen neuer Kommunikationsmöglichkeiten
  • Myths of culture: Notes on theory and practice of transculturality
  • World literary spacing: Contemporary verse novels across the Anglosphere
  • ‘Doing’ comparativism: Some reflections on the works of two Indian comparatists
  • ‘World Literature’ and the methodology of Comparative Literature: An analysis
  • Handelsgeschäfte und Revolte. Indien-Bezüge in Ludwig Tiecks Novelle Des Lebens Überfluß
  • The location of the spiritual: Narcissus in an early fragment of Mahesh Elkunchwar
  • Von gewalttätigen Vätern und systematischer Gewalt. Bernward Vespers Die Reise und Bret Easton Ellis᾽ Lunar Park
  • Das Erinnern und das Schreiben über das Fremde in der Fremde in einem komparatistischen Rahmen. Die Literarische Welt, Erinnerungen
  • Die Bilder der Macht und die Macht der Bilder. Muslime als indische Minderheit im Spiegel der Politik und des Kinos
  • Gegensätze in Ingeborg Bachmanns Der Gute Gott von Manhattan
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

← viii | ix → Preface

We are happy to present to you the Goethe Society of India’s Yearbook 2013 titled Across Literary and Linguistic Diversities: Essays on Comparative Literature. The hard work and efforts of the Secretary, Madhu Sahni, and Vice President, Shaswati Mazumdar, made the publication of this volume possible. We are happy to be publishing the papers of our annual seminar with an international publishing house this year and hope that through this endeavour our Yearbook will reach more German libraries and more readers.

I would like to thank the Director of Max Mueller Bhavan (Goethe Institute) New Delhi, Heiko Sievers, and Markus Biechele, Language Director at the Goethe Institute, New Delhi for their continuing generous financial support, which made the publication of this volume possible. The Goethe Society of India would also like to thank Leonie Krafzik, Jharna Basu, Karin Rausch and Thomas Schwarz for their help towards this volume.

This year the Goethe Society of India has instituted a translation prize for translations of short texts by Goethe into Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam. We request all our young members to participate in the competition.

We welcome suggestions for future publications. Please allow me to say that an academic society like the Goethe Society of India can achieve success only if its members are active and work towards achieving the goal of the society.



Methods of analysis explicitly or implicitly premised on comparison are central to reflections on contemporary societies and cultures. This is not surprising given the increasing migration of people, along with their social and cultural practices, languages, ideas and texts, across national, continental and other borders, the social and cultural changes that such migration has generated and the political responses it has evoked. Contemporary debates about the future of literary studies, in particular, have felt compelled by this incessant process to call into question the narrow confines and dominant perspectives within which literature largely continues to be studied. But they have also raised questions about comparative literature as it has largely been practised since its formal inception as a discipline in the nineteenth century. Though conceived under the sign of Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur, the discipline remained permeated in its practice by the zeitgeist of nationalism, colonialism and imperialism, even as it took as its point of departure the study of literature in more than one language. Comparison thus often became complicit with ideologies of conquest and domination, of power and privilege, and of establishing hierarchical taxonomies rather than engaging with linguistic and literary diversity in the universal spirit of Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur. Today’s debates are therefore preoccupied with the question of how to free the practice of comparative literature from its inherited predilections and make it a critical tool for current times.

Rethinking comparativism necessitates rethinking its purpose, which is why the conference on which this volume is largely based was titled ‘Comparing to what purpose?’ The idea behind this title was to look more closely at the reasons why we undertake or should undertake a comparative approach in research as well as in teaching and learning and the methods ← 1 | 2 → that we might adopt for this purpose. Two further observations informed the endeavour: one, that there is a discernible and pertinent tendency among researchers in German Studies in India, perhaps also in literary studies in general, to choose topics that call for comparison; two, the growing importance of translation and of translation studies, no doubt also spurred on by the increased movement of people across borders.

In India comparative literature emerged under and as a response to colonial rule. Rabindranath Tagore, when invited in 1907 by the recently constituted Jatiya Shiksa Parishad (National Council of Education) to speak on the subject in Calcutta, titled his lecture Visva-Sahitya (World Literature) and emphasized that he had done so deliberately: ‘I have been called upon to discuss a subject to which you have given the English name of Comparative Literature. Let me call it World Literature in Bengali.’1 The noted comparatist Sisir Kumar Das sees this lecture as the first pronouncement by an Indian writer on comparative literature. In this lecture, the inherent tension between ‘comparative literature’ and ‘world literature’ acquired an added dimension, that of a context defined by the social, economic and cultural consequences of colonial rule. As Sheldon Pollock reminds us, systematic comparative philology found ‘its origins at the very time and place of colonial contact, in late eighteenth-century Calcutta’, and ‘we sometimes forget that nineteenth-century Europe was the high-water mark of historical-comparative studies across virtually all disciplines – ethnology, history, law, literature, mythology, religion.’ Such projects ‘were linked to the age of discovery and colonialism, and comparativism itself to the self-understanding of European supremacy’.2 Comparative literature and comparativism in general therefore assumed certain norms against which it compared similarities and differences between literary, cultural, social or historical phenomena from different languages, cultures ← 2 | 3 → and societies and saw its task in establishing deficiencies or deviations from the assumed norms.

In the Indian context, at once defined by subjection to colonial rule as well as great linguistic and cultural diversity, the significance of Tagore’s insistence on conflating ‘comparative literature’ with Visva-Sahitya cannot be missed. The Jatiya Shiksha Parishad had invited Tagore as part of its effort to challenge colonial policy and the colonial English education system with an alternate education system using the local vernacular (Bengali) as the medium of instruction. The colonial administration had only recently enforced the Partition of Bengal into two administrative areas, an Eastern predominantly Muslim one and a Western predominantly Hindu one. It is significant that Tagore’s argument was directed as much against the divisive policies and the parochial arrogance of the colonial rulers as it was against local provincialism.

If then there is rethinking about the field of comparative literature today, it is essentially thinking about how to overcome the tension and methodological problems that Tagore’s juxtaposition of Visva-Sahitya to comparative literature suggests. How can we resolve this tension in a manner that is consistent with the universalism of Weltliteratur or Visva-Sahitya without disregarding the contexts that overshadow and imperil literary communication? This tension continues to pose a challenge in current postcolonial and global times, riven as they are by the heritage of the past and the crises of the present. Those participating in these ongoing debates have proposed various responses to the problem. A few of these responses suffice to indicate the significantly differing perspectives and the difficulties involved in such an exercise.

The Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock argues that while comparative literature is the discipline most obviously committed to comparison, it is a cognitive necessity that it is present overtly or latently in all the human sciences, that ‘making literature and making meaning are both inherently comparative activities’. Despite this, he finds that there has been no serious reflection on the comparative method. He concludes that there is no particular method that can be laid down for comparativism to arrive at scientific truth, but he simultaneously identifies certain common approaches that he believes should be eschewed in order to avoid scientific falsehood. One ← 3 | 4 → of these is when the comparisons underlying thinking remain unreflected, rather than becoming part of the process of analysis and interpretation. Another is the tendency to naturalize or reify the unit of analysis or methodological nationalism. Pollock pleads for what he calls comparison without hegemony, a practice that would need to be supported by continuous reflection on the role of comparison in underwriting historical forms of domination. Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist, sees comparison as heuristically useful but underlines that certain conventional ways of posing comparative questions are potentially problematic, in particular when a supposedly bounded entity such as the nation-state, race or ethnicity is taken as the unit of analysis and its increasingly blurred boundedness is unreflectively taken as naturally given. This is what has been referred to as methodological nationalism, methodological racialism or methodological ethnicism, and he sees it as a problem in comparativism. Brubaker argues for going beyond comparativism while continuing to use comparison as a tool.3

According to Franco Moretti, comparative literature has not lived up to its beginnings, with its focus having remained largely limited to Western Europe, and it is time to return to the old ambition of world literature. But as he argues ‘world literature is not an object, it’s a problem, and a problem that asks for a new critical method.’ He proposes that we view the various literatures in different languages as one literature or one world literary system (of inter-related literatures); but one which is profoundly unequal.4 The task of literary studies would then be to establish this interrelatedness and ‘to be a thorn in the side, a permanent intellectual challenge to national literatures’.5 In the social sciences, a parallel approach, from which Moretti borrows for his project of world literature, may be seen in Immanuel Wallerstein’s concept of world-systems analysis and the comparative analysis of different parts of the world within the overarching ← 4 | 5 → framework of the rise of the modern capitalist world economy, a system simultaneously characterized by global expansion and unequal development. Globalization as seen from this macroperspective is not a recent phenomenon but one that is a characteristic feature of the modern world and beneath its ubiquitous celebratory usage in contemporary times lies the deep crisis of this world-system. What consequences follow from this understanding for ‘comparative’ or ‘world’ literature and for the future of literary studies? Moretti advocates what he calls distant reading as a mode of apprehending literary developments on a world scale.6 His approach takes the help of digital technologies to analyse vast databases of literary works in order to study literary trends across nations and continents and over relatively long historical periods with the objective of identifying moments of change in literary forms/genres and their possible internal and external causes. Though undoubtedly insightful in itself, Moretti’s approach has raised more questions than it has answered and drawn a number of responses.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who has been arguing for some time for a revival of comparative literature, albeit in a new form, emphatically advocates a concept of close reading that takes as its point of departure the lack of a level playing field – an unstated assumption of conventional comparativism, both in terms of the languages and literatures of the world and of the phenomenon of globalization which she associates with contemporary capitalism and its financial and imperialist drive to impose its hegemony over the globe. She proposes that the new comparative literature must ‘persistently and repeatedly undermine and undo the tendency of the dominant to appropriate the emergent’7 and insists that this cannot be done without the in-depth study of languages, in particular those that are presently non-existent in or at the periphery of comparative literary studies. Such deep learning of languages should aim at generating a simulacrum of ← 5 | 6 → what Spivak calls lingual memory, thereby proffering access to ‘the entire interior network of the language’ with ‘all its possibility of articulations’.8 Translation, accompanying this process, should be seen as an active process of interpretation, as in fact ‘the most intimate act of reading’. Spivak simultaneously proposes the concept of planetarity – as a utopian task – as a counter to globalization with its hegemonic and exploitative drive. We should see ourselves, she argues, as planetary subjects rather than as global agents, with a responsibility to play a role in humanizing the planet, a task which she sets for the humanities in general and for the new comparative literature in particular. Ideally, the texts so far historically located at the periphery should become the point of departure of this planetarity and the radical epistemic shift that this would entail would first have to be imagined by the new comparative literature.

How do we relate the global and the local, the macroscopic and the microscopic? Wai Chee Dimock proposes two conceptual shifts. Firstly, she advocates a spatial and temporal expansion of the object of study to cover the entire globe and all of human history, in which she particularly emphasizes the slow tempo of what she has variously called supranational, planetary or deep time.9 The actors in this planetary space-time continuum differ from the fast-paced protagonists of globalization in that they move slowly and far less decisively and literature is seen as the most important of such actors, whose space and time coordinates cannot be fixed since it tends to spread and disperse on both axes in unpredictable directions. Time so conceived is, according to Dimock, denationalized space that makes possible a new mapping of literary processes, one that is not grounded in a specific territory or in a historical periodization based on such a territory. The second conceptual shift focuses on identifying the minute details that make up the big picture in such a manner that is not inimical to the concept of planetary time. For this, Dimock borrows the concept ← 6 | 7 → of fractal from mathematics, a concept that replaces the regular and clean shapes of Euclidean geometry with irregular and fragmented patterns. These irregular, rough or grainy details only become increasingly visible as the scale of vision becomes increasingly smaller: ‘Scalar opposites here generate a dialectic that makes the global an effect of the grainy.’10 Applying the concepts of planetary time and fractals to literary history offers a way to integrate the very large and the very small, the macroscopic and the microscopic. One way to begin such rethinking of literary history could be, as Dimock suggests, the study of genres. Conceived not according to rigid taxonomic laws but rather as literary forms that can be interconnected through family resemblances, kinship ties, or affinities, genre may be seen as ‘a provisional set that will always be bent and pulled and stretched by its many subsets’.11

Comparing two entities leaves out of its ambit the subject who compares and his/her location. This is Walter Mignolo’s fundamental critique of the comparative method and he argues that this has its origins in the emergence of the method in a Europe engaged in colonizing other parts of the world. Mignolo therefore redefines comparison as a triangular business that not only includes the two objects but also the subject who compares. The location from which this subject undertakes comparison largely continues, in Mignolo’s critique, to be in Europe (or the Western world). He argues that while the content and imperial control of the enunciation has changed in recent times, the locus of enunciation, based on Western principles of knowledge, has not. This knowledge system works ‘precisely by disavowing and absorbing differences’12 and is manifested in ‘a tendency to manage knowledge in a single story’.13 Decolonizing comparative studies means to decolonize key concepts, including the comparative method ← 7 | 8 → itself, and the knowledge system that vests them with universality. Instead of comparison, Mignolo advocates the analysis of entanglements within the colonial knowledge system.

While the approaches outlined above propose far-reaching changes that seek to undo in different ways the unreflected premises and prejudices of the comparative method, others have drawn attention to more limited and modest uses of comparison as an analytical tool that can help to destabilize conventional or reified ways of thinking and thereby illuminate hitherto unseen or unnoticed elements. A few examples may suffice to suggest the spectrum of possibilities in such an endeavour. Comparing the incomparable, even across vast spatial and temporal distances, is an approach advocated by the historian Marcel Detienne with the purpose of letting one society illuminate another.14 Reciprocal defamiliarization is an idea proposed by R. Radhakrishnan, in order that both entities being compared can problematize each other and undo the existing structures of domination that generally bind them together.15 Last but not least is Emily Apter’s concept of the translation zone which she sees as a zone of language wars reflecting larger geopolitical conflicts and as one of engagement between views ranging from ‘Nothing is translatable’ to ‘Everything is translatable’.16 Apter invests in this zone the possibilities of developing a new comparative literature through theoretical reflection and the practice of translation.

The essays in this volume may be seen as a contribution to this ongoing discussion. They emerged largely from a conference in February 2013 in Delhi on Comparative Literature (Comparing to what purpose?). However, in keeping with the idea of a Yearbook, other essays have also been included which reflect the research interests of Germanists in India. While the Goethe Society of India aims at fostering an interest in the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in particular and German literature in ← 8 | 9 → general, the idea of the Goethean Weltliteratur compels an engagement with other literatures and disciplines. Essays in this volume are written not only by Gemanists, but also by scholars of Comparative Literature, English Literature and Film Studies.


X, 202
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
comparativism division literary studies migration
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. X, 202 pp.

Biographical notes

Goethe Society of India (Volume editor) Madhu Sahni (Volume editor) Mazumdar Shaswati (Volume editor)


Title: Across Literary and Linguistic Diversities