Letter: Steiner's deficient description, comparatively speaking

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The Independent Online
Sir: George Steiner ('An art of understanding', 12 October) opens virtually new ground in this country in his effort to define, by way of history and current outlook, the purposes and nature of comparative literature. It is appropriate that he should have done so at Oxford, but I am forced to recall the Oxford of 40 years ago, where, upon being introduced to a don in English, I was asked with an unmistakable sneer, 'and what do you compare, Professor McCormick?'.

Professor Steiner's definition of what it is we compare is personal to him, as he remarks. It is seriously deficient, I fear, as an attempt to define that discipline to a large university audience. It is unfortunate and wrong to maintain that comparative literature came into being with the Dreyfus affair, or with Baldensperger's dessicated study of Goethe in 1905. It is also unfortunate and wrong to imply so forcefully that exiled Jews wrote the texts of modern comparative study. To do so is to violate a principle that every comparative scholar I know holds to: that one does not read literature nationalistically nor from any other ideological or theological standpoint.

The very word 'Jewish' takes us to a minefield on which I do not care to tread, but George Steiner leads the way. No decent scholar cares whether a man is a Jew or a Bhuddist; but a small list of 20th-century non-Jewish writers of highest distinction appears called for, a list I could wish George Steiner himself had presented. What, then, about Unamuno in Spain, Croce in Italy, Santayana on two continents, A. O. Lovejoy in the US; Rene Wellek, Czech-born but long in the US; Francis Fergusson, also in the US?

Historically, comparative literature was listed by the Sorbonne in the 1840s, and by Harvard shortly thereafter: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow occupied the first chair. By definition, medieval studies have always been comparative in practice, if not in name.

I wish Professor Steiner well in his Oxford visits, but can any Briton really accept that the First World War was 'a European civil war?'

Yours faithfully, JOHN McCORMICK Hovingham, York 13 October The author is Professor emeritus, Comparative Literature, Rutgers University, New Jersey.