Interdisciplinary alter–natives in Comparative Literature by E.V. Ramakrishnan
Ramakrishnan, E.V., ed. Interdisciplinary alter–natives in Comparative Literature. New Delhi: SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2013. 251 pp.
Comparative literature emerged as a discipline in the West in the nineteenth century. In her essay “What is Comparative Literature today?”, Susan Bassnett has defined the discipline as one that involves the study of texts across cultures, discipline concerned with patterns of connection in literatures across both time and space. Literary scholars across the globe have tried to define Comparative Literature as a discipline and arrived at numerous models of this discipline’s ideal approach and scope. The primary reason for this multifaceted view of Comparative Literature is its overlapping relationship with fields of literary studies like Translation Studies, World Literature, Cultural Studies, and so on. This happens to be one of the many issues E.V. Ramakrishnan deals with in his book Interdisciplinary alter-natives in Comparative Literature. The book is divided into five sections and contains nineteen essays, eighteen of which were originally presented in the Tenth conference of Comparative Literature Association of India (CLAI) held at Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar and have been edited by E.V. Ramakrishnan. A reader can trace a progressive movement in the book in terms of time and space with each section mirroring Comparative Literature’s own temporal and spatial engagements with respect to the study of specific literatures. In his essay Ramakrishnan cites the work of various comparatists, like René Wellek, and claims that Comparative Literature as it exists today cannot contribute to a universal history of literary production or a holistic study of literatures across cultures unless it is reinvented and freed from the parochialism of Europe.
The first section of the book consists of two essays written by Ramakrishnan and Harish Trivedi. In the first essay entitled “Comparative Literature: Changing Paradigms,” Ramakrishnan foregrounds the Eurocentric nature of the discipline and its failure to accommodate sufficient works from African and Asian literary traditions so as to present a holistic study of literature. He expresses the view that the discipline must be reinvented to address the inequality of power relations in the world. Ramakrishnan recommends an understanding of this process of othering. The popular theme of European literature has mostly been the development of the individual rather than the intricate workings of society but in this essay Ramakrishnan argues that imagination cannot be conceived in individual terms alone; one must understand the shared world of ideas which affects our thinking at every point. Therefore he suggests that Comparative Literature needs to move away from an individual-centred view of the text towards a community-centred view of literature in order to remedy the crisis that the discipline is facing at present. Comparative Literature has endeavoured to encourage most of the anthologies to include token representations from non-European cultures. Ramakrishnan explains that this becomes highly misleading because there are no guidelines available to deal with the issues specific to those cultures. He cites Sisir Kumar Das’s lecture during the CLAI conference in 2011 to explain the dialectic between power and literary representation in order to bring out this power relation with respect to Indian Literature. The hegemony in Indian society based on caste, religion and gender is one such issue that will be reproduced in literary representation if one only replicates a ‘brahminic’ view of Indian Literature. As one moves from the general category of World Literature to literature specific to a culture or community, this problem regarding representation of power relations arises.
In “Comparative Literature, World Literature and Indian Literature: Concepts and Models,” Harish Trivedi talks extensively about the Winternitz model of Indian Literature which is based solely on Sanskrit Literature and diminishes the significance of literatures written in the modern Indian languages. This representation ties in nicely with Das’s point about the hegemonic structure in the representation of Indian Literature. In this essay the reader encounters various models of World Literature by David Damrosch, Franco Moretti and Vilashini Cooppan. This section also brings out the tokenization of classics by tying bits of them up with popular fiction: an extract from Gilgamesh quoted in Star Trek, excerpts from Mahabharata in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1980). Harish Trivedi asserts that this is not World Literature but just a “dumbing down” of classics to serve the purpose of a “desperately beseeching presentism” (24). Sujit Mukherjee’s models of Comparative Literature, the ‘Hindustani’ and ‘Bharatiya’ which were essentially Nationalistic were challenged by the integrationist model proposed by Sisir K. Das. In the end, Sheldon Pollock’s Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia (2003) is deemed the finest endeavour conceived out of post-structuralist study. Thus the models provided by Das and Pollock emerge as two divergent models of the history of Indian Literature.
The essays in this section thus talk about the shifting paradigms of Comparative Literature as a discipline, one that tries to incorporate the literary, cultural and political aspects. Ramakrishnan is seen to agree with the model of Comparative Literature proposed by Gayatri Spivak which demands a shift from the global, which tends to homogenise the planetary, a system that truly liberates the disciplines by offering visions of alterity. One may say that the introductory essay written by Ramakrishnan is truly a condensed form of his vision of Comparative Literature, not unlike the structure of the book itself; Interdisciplinary is a tapestry woven out of the various threads and opinions of comparatists and literary scholars, of past and present.
The second section “World Literature and Comparative Literature: A Dialogue” begins with the predicament of Comparative Literature which needs to be redefined in the manner suggested by Spivak if it is to survive. The vague universalism in the idea of World Literature as expressed by Goethe and Rabindranath Tagore is discussed in this section. In T.S. Satyanath’s essay “World Literature in the context of Indian Literatures,” it transpires that Tagore’s model of World Literature (‘Viswa Sahitya’) accommodates the Comparative Literature component of universalism which fits in nicely with the concept of cosmopolitanism (‘Viswa-manava’).
In the first essay “Literary History in a Global Age: The Legacy of Sisir Kumar Das,” David Damrosch concludes that the history proposed by Das twenty years ago and also the recent progressive anti-Eurocentric models of literary history are still inflected in their deep structure by European norms. P.P. Raveendranin, in his essay “Literature as Supermarket: Mapping World Literature Today,” brings out the dilemma faced by World Literature as a discipline paradoxically self-situated in an international culture yet also threatened by oppositional works derived from marginalized cultures. The essay “The Subaltern Can Speak: Letters from the Trenches and Across the Black Waters” by Dorothy Figueira speaks extensively on the different ways to interpret cross-cultural encounters. She compares the letters written by Indian soldiers stationed in Belgium and France during the First World War with the fictional narrative depicting their experiences in Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Across the Black Waters (1939). The Indian soldiers portrayed in the novel are mute victimized entities who are awaiting their inevitable fate; however, in the real letters, one can discern a constant flow of progressive thinking and lively spirits in these soldiers. They were open to new experiences and did not face a crisis of faith as portrayed by Anand in his novel written two decades later. The sepoys’ letters even suggest that there can be cross-cultural understanding even if there are quite a few challenges. Figueira explains that this major difference in the portrayal of the soldiers is because of the influence of the Thirties Movement. The idea expounded in this movement was that the individual is powerless and incapable of offering anything other than mute resistance to a system until he is able to revolt against it.
One can infer that hermeneutic consciousness also comes into play in the colonial reshaping and framing of some of the ancient manuscripts of India, as explained in the subsequent sections of this book. The third section brings out the construction of a canon in relation to the figure of Rabindranath Tagore. In “Tagore as World Literature” Amiya Dev relies on what literary luminaries like Jibanananda Das and Buddhadeva Bose have said about the centripetal pull exerted by Tagore with respect to Bengali Literature. This section helps to bring out Tagore as the Bengali: the Indian and the universalist. In the first essay, Balaji Ranganathan explores the problems of Orientalist Representation with respect to Gita Govinda. The organic hybridity of the composite art form found in the text is subjected to the gaze of an Orientalist and his representation suffers from exotification of objects and the use of overt rationality which characterizes the period of Enlightenment. The glory of Indian Art has been portrayed as a thing of the past as is clearly discernible in the statements made by William Jones, where he remarks that the art which flourished in ancient India had faded “for the want of due culture” (186). The same goes for translations of Manusamhita, as Piyali Sen Ghosh points out in her essay. Thus from the time in which Jones was writing to the present day, little has changed; Indian Literature continues to be viewed though the Western gaze. This flawed representation of the other is what is criticized in most of the essays in this book.
Literary critics and scholars have often tried to analyze the local and the universal in Art. For example, Octavio Paz argues that a work of art is like a detached image that grows despite its detachment precisely because it is attached to one spot and one moment. The essays present in the final section of this book, “Creative Responses to Region and Resistance,” correspond to this idea. This book presents the representation of the caste system in Indian Literature and thus shows how the local elements manifest themselves in literature which is considered to be universal. The hierarchical structure that assigns antagonistic places to Brahmins and Khsatriyas is discussed in the works of many foreign and Indian scholars. In his essay “A Vision of India’s History,” Rabindranath Tagore says that often the conservative spirit of India is misread by critics and is attributed to the trade artifice of a self-serving priestcraft. He says that there was no racial difference between the Brahmin and the Khsatriyas; they were merely representatives of two different functions of the body politic. They have in fact cooperated throughout Indian history.
The essays presented in this book explore the many theories regarding Comparative Literature, refute the claims of certain traditional scholars and reinforce the models proposed by a few recent scholars to redress and reinvent this discipline. The essays also echo Hugo Meltzl’s principle of polyglottism—likening minor languages to endangered species, and emphasizing that the literary academia should give equal attention to the world’s folk poetry as well as to major literary masterpieces. Therefore, this book provides a reader with a thorough understanding of the role of Comparative Literature, an accurate mapping of Indian Literature with respect to World Literature, the danger of reworking facts into fiction, and the issues of Orientalism that crop up in the translations of ancient manuscripts.
Anand, Mulk Raj. Across the Black Waters. New Delhi: Orient, 2008. Print.
Bassnett, Susan. Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. Print.
Meltzl, Hugo. The Princeton sourcebook in Comparative Literature. Princeton UP, 2009. Print.
Paz, Octavio. Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature. Trans. Helen Lane. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1991. Print.
Tagore, Rabindranath. A Vision of India’s History. English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, V 3: A Miscellany. Calcutta: SahityaAkademi, 1996. Print.
Sulagna Chowdhury is presently pursuing a Master’s degree in English Literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She has attended the Modernism in British and Irish Literature and Scottish Literature courses offered as a part of the Text and Context course at the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School (SUISS) 2013 held at the University of Edinburgh as a Charles Wallace scholar (Charles Wallace India Trust).