An art of understanding: George Steiner examines the rightful place of comparative literature in academic study

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THE HISTORY of comparative literature as a professional and academic discipline is a complex and, in some measure, a sombre one. It is made up of accidents of personal and social circumstance together with larger currents of a cognitive and historical nature. The interactions between these generative elements are so manifold and, at points, opaque as to rebuke any attempt at a brief or confident summation.

A field or manner of study, of reading, of secondary discourse (edition, commentary, critical classification) becomes a visible entity in the modern scholastic-academic edifice when it produces books explicit to itself, when it establishes university chairs, journals and a syllabus. In steps at first tentative and almost unnoticed, comparative literature begins to accede to these criteria around the turn of the century.

Its immediate backdrop is that of Franco-German tensions, particularly in Alsatia and the Rhineland between the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the outbreak of the First World War (which was, as we ought never to forget, a European civil war).

Almost every psychological, geographical and topical aspect I have touched upon is crystallised in the fact that one of the very first books of modern comparative literature in any self-conscious vein should have been Fernand Baldensperger's Goethe en France of 1904. Nor is it an accident that it was from a German reading of French literature and from an endeavour to redefine the Latinitas primary to Europe before divisive nationalism that came such classic work in comparative literature as that of E R Curtius and Leo Spitzer. No less crucial is a related but tragic component.

It is no secret that Jewish scholars or scholars of Jewish origin have played an often preponderant role in the development of comparative literature as an academic-critical pursuit. One is indeed tempted to associate the early history of the subject with the crisis of fact and of mood triggered by the Dreyfus Affair.

Endowed, it would appear, with an unusual facility for languages, compelled to be a frontalier (the grim Swiss word for those who, materially and psychologically, dwell near or astride borders), the 20th-century Jew would be drawn naturally to a comparative view of the secular litera-tures which he treasured but in none of which he was natively or 'by right of national inheritance' altogether at home.

Driven into exile - the masterpiece of modern comparative literature, Auerbach's Mimesis, was written in Turkey by a refugee deprived overnight of his livelihood, first language and library - the Jews (my own teachers) fortunate enough to reach North America would find traditional departments of literature, departments of English first and foremost, barred to them. Thus much of what became comparative literature programmes or departments in American academe arose from marginalisation, from partial social and ethnic exclusion.

Comparative literature therefore carries within it both the virtuosities and the sadness of a certain exile, of an inward diaspora.

In a characteristically American scenario, the pursuit of comparative literature rapidly became professionalised and organisational. Professorships, journals, specialised library resources, doctoral dissertations flourished. This floruit may already be over. With the natural deaths of the refugee-masters, the polyglot requisites, the Greek-Latin and Hebraic background, the obvious necessity, wherever practicable, of reading texts in the original, have ebbed. In too many universities and colleges, comparative literature today is conducted, if at all, nearly entirely via translation.

The amalgamation with threatened departments of modern languages, with 'core courses' on western civilisation and with the new demands for pan-ethnicity, for 'global' studies, lies readily to hand. In more and more curricula, 'comparative literature' has come to signify 'a reading of great books which one ought to have read anyway, preferably in paperback and in the Anglo-American tongue'. Or a resolve, assuredly arguable, to set classics too-long prepotent, too-long dusty beside, often in the boisterous shadow of, the Afro-American, the Chicano, the Amazonian traditions.

More traditional teaching of and research into comparative literature flourishes, at present, in the sometime Communist sphere. Certain centres in Russia and Eastern Europe are among the most productive and convinced. Here again, a natural necessity for the acquisition of languages, a bitter experience of exile, be it internal, an often vexed questioning of historical, linguistic identity, makes of the comparative approach a relevant method.

But prophecies are idle. What can be ventured is this: the instauration of this visiting professorship at Oxford, the hope that a full and professorial programme in comparative literature - and not only European - will follow, do coincide with a time of some uncertainty, potentially fruitful, in this subject.

But is it a subject? Can it distinguish itself from the practices of comparison, of parallel and contrastive readings and reception which I have briefly mentioned and which are a natural part of all informed literacy? Is the comparatist, in any professional, entitled sense a man or woman who will (who should) wake up one morning knowing that he or she, just like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain, has, like all his colleagues, been 'speaking prose'?

The brief replies I want to try and give to this insistent question are bound to be tentative. They are inevitably personal. They cannot hope to speak for this hybrid and protean field as a whole. May Goethe be my guide when he avows, in a Yiddish of Frankfurt provenance, that 'every man prophesies out of his own little book']

In the humanities (proud, sad word), aspirations to systematic definition end, virtually always, in sterile tautology. 'Theory' has its precise meaning and criteria of falsifiability in the sciences. This is not so in the humanities, where claims to the 'theoretical' produce, as we know to our current cost, arrogant jargon. In reference to literary and aesthetic experience and judgement, 'theory' is nothing but subjective intuition or descriptive narrative grown impatient. Pascal reminds us: the sphere of finesse is not that of geometry.

I take comparative literature to be, at best, an exact and exacting art of reading, a style of listening to oral and written acts of language which privileges certain components in these acts. Such components are not neglected in any mode of literary study, but they are, in comparative literature, privileged.

Any reading engages the history and tenets of language. Comparative literature, while alert to the contributions of formal and abstract linguistics, is immersed in, delights in, the prodigal diversity of natural languages. Comparative literature listens and reads after Babel. It posits the intuition, the hypothesis that, far from being a disaster, the multiplicity of human tongues, some twenty thousand of which have at various times been spoken on this small planet, has been the enabling condition of men and women's freedom to perceive, to articulate, to 'redraft' the existential world in manifold freedom.

Each and every language construes the facticity of existential reality, of 'the given' in its own specific way. Each and every window in the house of languages opens on to a different landscape and temporality, to a different segmentation in the spectrum of perceived and classified experience. No language divides time or space exactly as does any other (consider Hebrew verb-tenses, if one can speak of such); no language has identical tabus with any other (hence the profound Don Juanism of making love in different tongues); no language dreams precisely like any other.

The extinction of a language, however remote, however immune to historical- material success or diffusion, is the death of a unique world-view, of a genre or remembrance, of present being and of futurity. A truly dead language is irreplaceable. It closes that which Kierkegaard bade us keep open if our humanity was to evolve: 'the wounds of possibility'. Such closure may, for late 20th-century mass-media and mass- market technocracy, be a triumph. It may facilitate the imperium of the fast-food chain and the news satellite. For the lessening chances of the human spirit, it is destructive.

Jubilant at the intractable diversity of Babel, comparative literature privileges a twofold principle. It aims to elucidate the quiddity, the autonomous core of historical and present 'sense of the world' (Husserl's Weltsinn) in the language and to clarify, so far as is possible, the conditions, the strategies, the limits of reciprocal understanding and misunderstanding as between languages.

In brief, comparative literature is an art of understanding centred in the eventuality and defeats of translation. I have tried to show elsewhere that this process begins within the same language, that individuals, generations, genders, social classes, professions, ideologies, past and present, 'translate' when they would understand any communicative discourse inside their own tongue. This complex, ontologically enigmatic process - how is it that we do understand and decipher one another, even if always imperfectly? - becomes fully visible and crucial interlingually, across language boundaries.

This is an edited extract from George Steiner's inaugural lecture yesterday as Visiting Professor of European Comparative Literature at Oxford University.

(Photograph omitted)