CL History Back to the Beginnings: Notes on Comparative Literature in Central and Eastern Europe

Irene Sywenky


Comparative Literature is a discipline that has always been inclined to self-scrutiny and an ongoing introspective reflection. The 2004 ACLA State of the Discipline Report (Saussy), in many ways a definitive moment in taking stock of the last couple of decades, is no different in this respect. However, it is interesting to note that Central and Eastern Europe makes some brief but noticeable appearances in various contributions to the collection as the leading scholars in the field look back at the past and re-evaluate the present. Thus, Haun Saussy, in the opening paragraphs of his “origin-story,” while acknowledging that “all literature has always been comparative, watered by many streams” (5), identifies the Central European scholar and editor Hugo Meltzl as one of the three patrons of the discipline (along with Germaine de Staël and Goethe) (6). Katie Trumpener, in her discussion of the rise of comparative ethnomusicology in Central and Eastern Europe, comments that

since the 1930s, a disproportionate share of North America’s most distinguished theorists and practitioners of comparative literature have come from these parts of Europe. Yet because of the implicit geopolitics of the field (and of European notions of where high culture really takes place), these scholars had largely made themselves over into polymathic experts on Western Europe. If very occasionally they referred back to Central or Eastern European materials, they tended to do so with a gesture of slight apology for the necessary obscurity of such references. (192)

In yet another essay of the report, reflecting on the place of post-totalitarian Central and Eastern Europe in today’s Comparative Literature discipline, Caryl Emerson contends that

the region is intuitively ‘comparative.’ In Eastern Europe, one town would commonly speak several native languages, belong to two or three empires in the course of a single generation, and assume most of its residents to be hybrids who carried the dividing-lines of nationality within their selves. [...] Exile, displacement, multi-languagedness, heteroglossia, outsideness to oneself and thus a taste for irony, the constant crossing of borders and the absence of a tranquil, organic, homogenized center that belongs to you alone: all these Bakhtinian virtues and prerequisites for genuine dialogue have long been endemic to Central Europe. (203-04)                    

The legacy of Central and Eastern Europe in the tradition of comparative literary and cultural studies has many implications for the field, and it is not coincidental that the pioneering efforts to establish the discipline came from the margins – geographical, geopolitical and institutional. It is this de-centeredness of European historical peripheries that was in many ways crucial to fostering the comparatist mindset. While the construct of Central and Eastern Europe has always been part of the evolving geopolitical hierarchies in Europe, the historical power gradation in the region was further complicated by imperial structures, where the significance of the East-West relationship and power play within Europe itself acquired meanings no less and, perhaps, more complex and subtle than within the more traditional dichotomy of Europe and Asia. The imperial context of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires stimulated intercultural contact – thus generating continuous border-crossings, linguistic transgressions, unhomeliness and cultural displacement – but also necessarily restricted and suppressed colonial discourses and the growth of national(ist) mythologies. While Goethe’s concept of Weltliteratur acknowledged the importance of studying other European and non-European literatures, it did so from the perspective of core Europe. In the context of the nineteenth-century great-power nationalisms, a comparative approach, while being essentially centrifugal, also allowed for centripetal movement toward the centre within peripheral cultures – a look back at itself, albeit often through the comparative prism of the dominant cultures.

It is still not common knowledge that the first journal of comparative literature was founded by Hugo Meltzl de Lomnitz, a Transylvanian philologist fluent in German, Hungarian and Romanian. Upon completion of his education in Germany, Meltzl returned to Hungary to take the position of the chair in German Language and Literature at the University of Kolozsvár (today the city of Cluj in Romania) and establish Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarum (Zeitschrift für vergleichende Literatur,1877-88). Although it may be both futile and counter-productive to search for the roots of the discipline in specific names and texts, it is doubtless that Acta constituted an important institutionalizing moment in the history of Comparative Literature.

In his programmatic “Vorläufige Aufgaben der vergleichenden Literatur” (“The Present Tasks of Comparative Literature”), Meltzl outlined the principles of what he refers to as a “slowly emerging discipline of the future” (56). He was keenly aware that, following Goethe’s general (and ill-defined) proposal for Weltliteratur, the field was in need of clear foundations and a formal apparatus to provide a framework for the growing discipline; his journal provided a forum for an intellectual exchange, “a meeting place of authors, translators and philosophers of all nations” (57), thus setting a venue for an establishment of a scholarly community, intrinsic to any discipline. Indeed, the editorial board of Acta included scholars from the countries of all parts of Europe, the USA and Australia, as well as Egypt, Turkey, India and Japan.

Although the reason for writing “The Present Tasks” was the fact that the publication had been commonly mistaken for a philological one (and Meltzl was very keen on emphasizing the difference between the strongly nationalistic contemporary philology and Comparative Literature), he was also aware that the journal, “being the very first such effort in this area” (56), needed a more thorough disciplinary justification. While the two main principles of Comparative Literature established by Meltzl are those of translation and polyglottism (e.g., the necessary balance of intercultural transfer and dissemination and of due emphasis on the study of original texts), he also proposed a number of other important premises. One of them is a close relation between literature and language, “the latter being substantially subservient to the former” (56); rooted in the Romantic philosophy of language, this premise anticipates the later East European formalist engagement of structural linguistics in the studies of the text and the phenomenon of literariness. Another aspect postulated by Meltzl was the inherent interdisciplinarity of comparative literary studies where “Comparative Literature touches upon the fields of philosophy, esthetics, even ethnology and anthropology” (56), thus acknowledging the complexity of the textual phenomenon and situating it at the locus of universal philosophical concerns, production, reception and a set of other socio-cultural problems. The last important point is articulated by the editor of Acta as “the reform of literary history (56, emphasis in the original). Rejecting the positivist methodologies dominating literary histories of the nineteenth century, which emphasized socio-political historical chronologies, fact/data gathering and causal relational and philological analyses, Meltzl implicitly postulates comparative literary histories based on a study of literary phenomena proper. Proposing literary histories as a productive tool for global comparative literary studies, he calls for the development and inclusion of literary translation projects as a necessary constituent element of any literary history. Reflecting in retrospect on the importance of literary histories to our discipline, Eva Kushner comments that

comparative literary history is not a mere panorama; it attempts not only to describe but also to understand the linkage of literary works among themselves, and in particular the relative stability of certain patterns or tradition. […] Furthermore, comparative literary history, while centering upon transformations that occur from literary work to literary work or more precisely from feature to feature, also takes into account the successive readings of past works as another aspect of literary change; it is the works and readings together that beget a space of their own, today seen as ‘intertextuality.’ (78-79)

It is this kind of a new, or ‘reformed,’ comparative literary history that Meltzl saw as an inherent part of the comparative literature project as a discipline. The key principles and tasks of Comparative Literature as advanced in Acta laid a foundation for the next generation of comparatists and formed a mediating link between Romantic and twentieth-century literary theory.

Meltzl’s publication displays a common-at-the-time dialectic between the national and the cosmopolitan. While theorizing the importance of polyglottism, he is careful to note that it has nothing to do with “foggy, ‘cosmopolitanizing’ theories” (59) of the time and is quick to state the importance of the value of nationality to the individuality of a people: “a people, be it ever so insignificant politically, is and will remain, from the standpoint of Comparative Literature, as important as the largest nation” (60). Warning against the “unhealthy ‘national principle,’” Meltzl critiques the national limitations of his contemporaries’ concept of world literature – “today every nation demands its own ‘world literature’ without quite knowing what is meant by it” (60) – and the big nations’ underlying political ambitions that were exemplified by Goethe, who “conceive[d] of his ‘Weltliteratur’ as basically, or even exclusively (German) translation, which for him was an end in itself” (58). The anti-imperial platform of Acta is clearly articulated in Meltzl’s commentary, from the “comparative-polyglot standpoint” (60), on the 16 May 1876 decree of the Censorship Office of the Russian Ministry of Interior Affairs, which banned the literary use of the Ukrainian language; condemning the colonial cultural politics of Russia, he further states that “the willful extinction of a human species (or its literature, which amounts to the same thing) should be impossible” (ibid.). However, for all the open-mindedness of the journal’s editorial group, the multilingual Acta did not publish in any Slavic languages, which was likely a nod to the European geopolitical hierarchy that had been in place since at least the Renaissance.

Meltzl’s Acta never acquired a wide circulation, and its publication came to an end in 1888. By that time, a new journal claiming similar goals had already appeared in Berlin – Max Koch’s Zeitschrift für vergleichende Literaturgeschichte (Journal of comparative literary history), founded in 1887. Although the new publication seemed similar to Meltzl’s project, it emphasized the national importance of comparative studies and was subordinated mainly to the promotion of German literature and scholarship (see Damrosch). In many ways, Meltzl’s proposal for Comparative Literature proved difficult, if not impossible, in the European political and cultural context of the time; his support of smaller literatures, inherently subversive and oppositional, was not a popular cause in the nationalist-oriented academic circles of the key European nation states. In his analysis of Meltzl’s Acta, David Damrosch commented on the dissolution of the Hungarian publication: “It is ironic […] that his journal’s impact was limited in his own time, and not only because of the polyglottism that would have made the journal difficult for many readers. Equally serious was the growth of comparative study in France and Germany, for the scholars located in these great powers had little of Meltzl’s interest in the literatures of smaller nations – and less interest still in working with scholars in those nations” (109). Acta thus provided not only an early model for the discipline of Comparative Literature, but also one of the many examples of the workings of politics in the academic institution.

In the context of the nineteenth century, the Russian philologist and folklore scholar Fyodor Buslaev was one of the contributors to the development of comparative literary studies in Eastern Europe. Profoundly influenced by the Romantic philosophy of Herder and folklore scholarship of Jacob Grimm, Buslaev further developed the idea of interrelation between literature and language. His most prominent disciple was Aleksandr Veselovsky, who was characterized by the Soviet Russian literary comparatist Viktor Zhirmunsky as “[t]he most outstanding representative of comparative literary studies in European and Russian scholarship of the nineteenth century” (84, my translation). The author of more than 280 articles and books, Veselovsky worked in the area of medieval literature and folklore, Renaissance, Romanticism and historical poetics. Although remaining mainly positivist in his methodology, Veselovsky’s contribution to the examination of the role of the Byzantine Empire in the folkloric and literary influences on Europe and East-West relations remains important. During this time the comparative study of the vast material of Slavic literatures gains importance. Thus, the Russian literary scholar Aleksandr Pypin produced Istoriia slavianskikh literatur in 1865 and the Bulgarian I. Ivanov Istoriia na slavianskiie literature in 1896 (both translated as History of Slavic Literatures; for more on comparative studies in Slavic literatures see Mozejko).

Apart from the development of the disciplinary premises and the institutional framework of Comparative Literature, Central and Eastern European scholarship made an important contribution in terms of methodological tools and conceptual apparatus that in many ways were key to comparative literary studies. The two Russian Formalist groups which were active between 1914 and the 1930s – Obshchestvo Izucheniia Poeticheskogo Yazyka (OPOJAZ; Society for the Study of Poetic Language) in St. Petersburg and the Linguistic Circle in Moscow – were instrumental in developing the basis for the new, revolutionary literary criticism. The ideas of Russian Formalists Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov, Vladimir Propp, Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Vladimir Voloshynov and early Mikhail Bakhtin focused on the artifact of literary work, both as a social product and a text. Their concepts of literariness, poetic language, literary devices, literary system, literary evolution and aesthetics, among others, proposed certain basic common models of the production and function of literature that surpassed the relevance of national contexts and were endemic to comparative analyses. Their reconciliation of the Saussurian opposition of synchrony and diachrony opened a new dialectic approach to the negotiation of the evolutionary/historical and systemic aspects of literary phenomena (see Matejka and Pomorska; also, Emerson 207, Kushner 94-95).

Taking this further, Galin Tihanov, in his outline of the emergence of modern literary theory, traces the birth of the main ideas and premises of today’s theory – which have important implications for comparative literary studies – to East-Central Europe. He proposes that it was Zhirmunsky, with his expertise in Romanticism and poetics, who set the scene for Formalist inquiry (423). Tihanov also contends that the “golden age” of literary theory of the 1960s-70s would not have been possible without the intellectual developments in Russia, Bohemia, Hungary and Poland during the inter-war period (416). Thus, French structuralism was made possible through the contributions of the Prague Linguistic Circle and the formulations of the principles of phonology by Nikolai Trubetskoi and Jakobson in the 1930s; the prominent comparative theorist René Wellek was part of this group. Narratological theory in its many variations was built on the premises of Propp’s Morfologiia skazki (Morphology of the Folktale, 1928). Many aspects of reception theory were anticipated by the Prague Linguistic Circle, specifically Felix Vodi?ka’s work. Marxist literary theory was influenced by György Lukács’s work in the 1930s. Tihanov suggests that this birth of modern theory happened within a set of specific scholarly, cultural and socio-political conditions, such as dissatisfaction with the older methodologies of literary scholarship, disillusionment with positivism and the disintegration of established philosophical paradigms. Among other factors, Tihanov proposes the emergence of the new artistic practices of the Avant-garde and the growing popularity of various meta-discourses such as Marxism and phenomenology that became influential in literary studies. The intellectual climate was enhanced by the émigré and exilic cultures that contributed to the heterocultural and polyglot environments, increased mobility within international academic and artistic circles and thus stimulated the flow and exchange of ideas. Later in the 1960s and 1970s, Lithuanian-born Algirdas Greimas, Bulgarian-born Tzvetan Todorov and Julia Kristeva made a profound impact on the development of continental theory, specifically semiotics, narratology, Marxist theory, structuralism and post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and feminism. It was also Kristeva who both introduced Bakhtin’s scholarship – largely comparative in nature – to the West and further developed some of his ideas (e.g., Kristeva’s theory of intertextuality).

In post-WWII Central and Eastern Europe, two developments are of particular interest: the Tartu-Moscow semiotic school, founded in Soviet Estonia by Yuri Lotman, and the Slovak/Bratislava school of interliterariness, led by Dionýz Durišin. Both schools gained an international reputation and had a significant impact on the shaping of the theory and practice of comparative literary and cultural studies in Europe and beyond. Lotman and his team developed semiotic approaches to cultural analysis and worked with the idea of the signifying system of culture as a secondary modelling system; in the 1980s, he also developed the concept of semiosphere. Lotman’s work can be situated primarily in the area of ‘culturology’ (cultural studies) with specific contributions to the study of literature, film, communication, information, science, history and cultural memory (see, for example, his Universe of the Mind). The school’s journal Sign Systems Studies, established as early as 1964 and published by Tartu University Press, was produced originally in Russian (Trudy po znakovym sistemam) and then in English since 1998. In Bratislava during the 1970s and onwards, Durišin developed the theory of interliterariness as a “basic and essential quality of literature in an international and inter-ethnic context and ontological determination” and as a key concept for comparative literature (Gálik 35). Durišin’s scholarship focuses on interliterary communities, phenomena of biliterarity and multi-literarity, and evolutionary processes in literature; his interdisciplinary study of world literature as a dynamic space of interliterary units includes approaches of political science, ethnology and cultural geography (see also Koprda). Durišin’s work also includes important contributions to the theory and history of Comparative Literature (see Z dejín a teórie literárnej komparatistiky, Teória literárnej komparatistiky and Osobitné medziliterárne spolocenstvá 6. Pojmy a princípy).

While this brief outline cannot provide a comprehensive overview of the history of Comparative Literature in Central and Eastern Europe and give credit to various developments within specific national scholarly traditions in the region, it attempts to show that the complex political and cultural history of Central and Eastern Europe provided a fertile intellectual environment for the formation of a scholarly mentality – linguistic, philosophical, cultural, political – necessary for the advancement of comparatism as a value, a principle and a methodology. The key names and developments discussed here were either an integral part of the history of Comparative Literature or catalysts for important paradigm shifts that shaped the discipline of Comparative Literature for the twenty-first century. 


Works Cited


Damrosch, David. “Rebirth of a Discipline: The Global Origins of Comparative Studies.” Comparative Critical Studies 3.1-2 (2006): 99-112. Print.

Durišin, Dionýz. Osobitné medziliterárne spolocenstvá 6. Pojmy a princípy. [Specific Interliterary Communities: Concepts and Principles. 6 volumes.] Bratislava: SAV, 1987-1993. Print.

---. Teória literárnej komparatistiky. [Theory of Comparative Literature.] Bratislava: Slovenský spisovatel’, 1975. Print.

---. Z dejín a teórie literárnej komparatistiky.[From History and Theory of Comparative Literary Studies.] Bratislava: SAV, 1970. Print.

Emerson, Caryl. “Answering for Central and Eastern Europe.” Saussy. 203-11. Print.

Gálik, Marián. “Interliterariness as a Concept in Comparative Literature”. Comparative Literature and Comparative Cultural Studies. Ed. Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 2003. 34-44. Print.

Janaszek-Ivanicková, Halina, ed. The Horizons of Contemporary Slavic Comparative Literature Studies. Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Elipsa, 2007. Print.

Koprda, Pavol. “Dionýz Durišin: From the History of Literary Monuments to the History of Evolutionary Principles.” Janaszek-Ivanicková. 61-69. Print.

Kushner, Eva. Through the Living Prism: Itineraries in Comparative Literature. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2001. Print.

Lotman, Yuri. Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Introd. Umberto Eco. Trans. Ann Shukman. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001. Print.

Matejka, Ladislav, and Krystyna Pomorska, ed. Readingsin Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971. Print.

Meltzl de Lomnitz, Hugo. “Present Tasks of Comparative Literature.” [1877] Comparative Literature: The Early Years. Ed. Hans-Joachim Schulz and Phillip H. Rhein. Chapel: The U of North Carolina P, 1973. 53-62. Print.

Mozejko, Edward. “Jeszcze raz w sprawie tzw. ‘Porównawczych literatur slowianskich’.” Canadian Contributions to the Seventh International Congress of Slavists, Warsaw, August 21-27, 1973.Ed. Zbigniew Folejewski. The Hague and Paris: Moutin, 1973. 121-38. Print.

Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. Print.

Tihanov, Galin. “The Birth of Modern Literary Theory in East-Central Europe.” History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe. Junctures and Disjunctures in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Vol. 1. Ed. Marcel Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2004. 416-23. Print.

Trumpener, Katie. “World Music, World Literature: A Geopolitical View.” Saussy. 185-202. Print.

Zhirmunsky, Viktor. Sravnitel’noe literaturovedenie. [Comparative Literary Studies.] Leningrad: Nauka, 1979. Print.




Irene Sywenky is Assistant Professor (Comparative Literature Program and Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies) and Graduate Coordinator (Comparative Literature Program) at the University of Alberta.



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