1.2 A Modern History of Comparative Literature in Poland

Sergiy Yakovenko


After World War II, literary studies in Poland continued to exhibit the positivist calmness of the inter-war period when comparatist projects concentrated primarily on cultural contacts and influences while contributing to a combined methodological approach to the history of foreign and Polish literatures. Institutional indicators of the state of literary studies’ self-awareness as a discipline, the tradition of synonymic naming of university departments as either general or comparative literature, for example, continued to be strong. In fact, a comparative methodology was considered mandatory for any kind of literary studies in Poland. Yet, somehow paradoxically, the term comparative literature was rather unpopular and even disappeared from active usage for a period of time. This was partially due to an overall undetermined academic focus and a threatening accumulation of contactological studies of little scholarly value.[1] Further hindering the progress of comparative literature in Poland was the disciplinary crisis felt throughout the world at that time, as reflected in presentations at the Comparative Literature Congress at Chapel Hill in the late 1950s. Moreover, the reluctance toward comparative literature in Poland intensified with the emergence of a new generation of scholars who furthered structuralism through the 1960s and the 1980s.

During the 1990s, probably the most influential proposals concerning methodology and the state of the discipline were made by Henryk Markiewicz and Jerzy Ziomek. They both dealt with fundamental theoretical issues of comparative literature such as notions of world literature, general literature, national literature, etc. Ziomek repudiated the identification criteria of both national literature and kindred literatures (meaning, first of all, Slavic studies) related by the genetic kinship of languages because this kind of kinship worked only at levels of versification and stylistics. However, his intention was not to deny the value of such bilateral relationships absolutely but to expose the role of historical, political and cultural factors in literary studies. He stated that there were no such things as literary Slavic studies, German studies, Roman studies, etc. and that they were all just convenient clusters for university programs and of little interest for comparative theoretical structures. As a researcher of Polish Renaissance literature (created in various languages and deeply indebted to ancient and biblical legacies), Ziomek prioritized topoi, poetics and stylistics patterns. He proclaimed that world literature (understood as all that has ever been written) was an illusion and such constructions as littérature générale, allgemeine Literaturand Weltliteratur could be useful only as didactic compendia; synchronic conceptions of world literature needed to be reconsidered with respect to areas of cultural kinship and collective memory. Thus, national literature is always a part of a larger unity, a unity that continues to be formed by each of the national literatures from which it is compiled. Ziomek repudiated the term European as inappropriate for Polish literature (because the European unity is also comprised from Latin-American and Anglo-American literatures) and promoted his use of the term abendländiche Literatur (as opposed to westlich), having in mind Mediterranean cultural unity.

By contrast, Halina Janaszek-Ivanicková, who entered the realm of comparative theory and methodology in the 1980s, conceived of comparative literature as universal, integral and interdisciplinary, with the promising ambition to become a “pangramatology of literature” and “absolute literature” (200). This approach clearly presupposed a special status for comparative literature: not in-between but above because comparative literature was neither a part of literary history nor of theory. From this point of view, comparative literature is indispensable for surveying any kind of literary history: either national (with the mandatory context of all historical and cultural phenomena) or world literature (where comparison is a basis for any systematization of periods, trends and genres). Thus, although comparative literature does not possess its own specific methodology, borrowing from theory and literary history or criticism, it penetrates all sorts of literary studies and influences their evolution.

Also in the 1980s, Mieczyslaw Klimowicz led initial attempts to institutionalize comparative literature. First, a comparative section of the Adam Mickiewicz Literary Association, accepted as a member of the World Comparative Literature Association, was created. At the same time, the Comparative Literature Laboratory (also led by Klimowicz) began at Wroclaw University. Further, once Klimowicz became President of Wroclaw University comparative literature was re-established as an academic program. Since then, the institution of comparative literature in Poland has never been seriously questioned.

Surveys of Polish literature in foreign countries have been recognized as one of the practical priorities of Polish comparative literature. Briggita Schulze argues for the mutual benefit of such enterprises, enforced by a foundation of imagological and translation studies, as she sees a yawning lack of works about the key notions of Polish culture and history (with special attention to literature as an accumulator of cultural memory and its translation). There were also many similar suggestions expressed by presenters during a conference entitled Synthesis for Europe held in 2001 in Warsaw. As such, while the institutionalization of comparative literature in Poland gains strength, the disciplinary focal points continue to be negotiated and the potential academic directions varied.

In 2004, Boguslaw Bakula, a scholar from Poznan University, started a new periodic journal, Porównania (Comparisons), which focuses on the problems of comparative literature and interdisciplinary studies. In his description of editorial policy, Bakula suggests a project of the so-called “integral comparative literature” (55) consistent with the “anti-reductional” project of Edward Kasperski (278), which opens comparative literature not only to objects of comparative analysis which are distanced in time and space, but also to other disciplines: arts, history, politics studies, economics, sociology, etc. Trans-disciplinarity sets forth the opportunity to escape the contemporary deadlock of such disciplines as Slavic studies – and even the history of national literatures – that have reached a point of crisis due to the extinction of the ideological circumstances of their emergence. However, Bakula does not suggest the suspension or closure of those disciplines but rather their rethinking within such constructs as the Euro-Atlantic zone, the Central-European region, the Mediterranean culture and so on. In his interpretation, the national discourse, a stream of heterogenic texts which form the ideology of a group not always using only one language (e.g., Poles, Ukrainians and Jews), does not presuppose a nation-centric perspective but one which provides, through permanent dialogue, exchange and conflict, an awareness of its coexistence with other discourses. This approach perfectly reflects and epitomizes David Damrosch’s definition of world literature as a mode of circulation and reading on a scale which goes beyond the bounds of closed-circuit disciplines or national literary canons and establishes the study of comparative literature in Poland as an integral part of the discipline in the world today.


Works Cited


Bakula, Boguslaw. Historia i komparatystyka. Szkice o literaturze i kulturze Europy Srodkowo-Wschodniej XX wieku. Poznan: WUP, 2000. Print.

Janaszek-Ivanicková, Halina. O wspólczesnej komparatystyce literackiej. Warszawa: PWN, 1989. Print.

Kasperski, Edward. “O teorii komparatystyki.” Literatura. Teoria. Metodologia. Ed. Danuta Ulicka. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Dydaktyczne Wydzialu Polonistyki UW, 1998. Print.




Sergiy Yakovenko is a PhD student in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta. He is the author of Romantics, Aesthetes, Nietzscheans: Ukrainian and Polish Literary Criticism of the Early Modernist Period (Kyiv 2006) and Poetics and Anthropology: Essays on Ukrainian and Polish Prose in the 20th Century (Kyiv 2007).



[1] Contactological refers to the search for real contacts between authors of two or more national literatures which usually have much in common historically or geographically, as opposed to typological studies which look for ideological, poetical or genealogical tertium comparationis.



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