The Theory of Comparative Literature



Director, Institute of Tamil, Sanskrit and other Languages, Madras.


The title “theory” of comparative literature may appear somewhat mystifying. “Theory” here is a term now popularised by American usage for the older one of “principles.” Theory and practice go hand-in-hand and derive mutual reinforcement in any branch of knowledgethe sciences or the humanities.


Comparative literature studies have become a respectable academic discipline today; courses are offered in European, American and Indian universities as well, based on literatures of two languages in original and other texts in translation. There is also a spurt of research dissertations with a comparative orientation in our universities. To name a few at random: Walt Whitman and Subramania Bharati, Shelley and Bharatidasan, Dostoevsky and Conrad, Ramayana and Paradise Lost, the tragic vision of Ilango and Shakespeare, Valluvar and Kabir, Riti literature in Hindi and Sangam literature in Tamil, Meera and Andal, etc. It will be seen that the comparisons extend over distant parts of the world or areas of the Indian sub-continent. The questions that we may now, ask are: what is the background of this new upsurge of interest in this field and what is the nature of the studies undertaken?


Literary Criticism and Comparative Literature


The comparative study of literature begins with the birth of literature itself. We may go further and note that the very process of extending knowledge involves comparison by way of identifying a new thing as similar or related to something older­–process technically called “apperception.”


There is an implied comparison with previous specimens when a new drama or poem or novel is recognised as belonging to a particular variety.            There are more explicit comparisons like those between one author’s early or later works or styles. Such comparisons within the confines of a single literature, go under the rubric of literary criticism. It is only when comparisons cross the boundaries of one literature and enlarge themselves, they are held to become part of “comparative literature” studies. The concept of “comparative literature” has been changing from the nineteenth century. 1


As a Modern Academic Discipline


Comparative literature as a modern academic discipline owes its origin to the general revolution of approaches to the study of the humanities that took place after the Second World War. World societies     were moving closer to one another. Spectacular advances of knowledge in the natural and physical sciences were taking place. Humanists took to the application of new methodologies popularised by science in their own expanding fields of endeavour. As a result, branches of the humanities economics, anthropology, history sociology, psychology, linguistics and the like have developed methods of statistical quantification and vigorous formulation and testing of hypotheses, in tune with their new name of the “social sciences.” New conceptual tools have been used for precision and objectivity of analysis of data, like form”, “function” and “distribution” in linguistics and anthropology. Also the new approaches of the social sciences proceed on inter-disciplinary lines, giving rise to mixed disciplines like mathematical economics, cultural anthropology psycho-linguis­tics and so on, reminding us of chemical physics, physical chemistry, molecular biology, etc. A special application of this inter-­disciplinary technique in the social sciences is the integrated economic, anthropological, sociological, cultural-linguistic study of chosen areas, called “area studies.”


The study of literature, one of the human arts, was naturally greatly affected by the revolutionary approaches of the post-second World War era. Literature which was regarded for ages as insepara­ble from the languages in which it was expressed, came to be recognised as a separate study in the abstract, divested of associated media of expression. (In recent years a similar feature may be noticed in the development of comparative religion.) This development is similar to the abstract study of the nature of languages called “linguistics”, pursued independently without proficiency in the skills of using them. If the linguistician–votary of linguistics – pursuing the science of linguistics need not be a speaker of the respective languages he is analyzing, the comparativist votary of comparative literature – pursuing the study of literature in the abstract across various literatures need not have mastered the respective languages in which the literatures are expressed. Just as the science of linguistics is developed by analysis of individual languages in the medium of one language ­called “meta-language” – the science of literature in the abstract is developed by studying literatures (through translations) in one medium. Such an abstract study facilitates the “confrontation” of the date pertaining to several literatures, the isolation of different and similar features in them and the formulation of conclusions about the over-all human activity of literature governing the data covered.


Along with the comparative study of literatures in the abstract against one another, the use of techniques of other humanistic disciplines like sociology, anthropology and linguistics in analysing the literatures (e. g., social background of novels, cultural syncretism of writers, etc.) may add to the inter-disciplinary dimension of the study. Modern comparative literature studies are thus marked off from their earlier stages by establishing literature in the abstract as a discipline like economics, anthropology and history and pursuing it on inter-disciplinary lines.


Integrative Framework for Comparative Studies


It is a charge usually levelled by critics of comparative literature that comparisons of two literatures merely indicate literary features or facts already obtaining and do not arrive at any new contribution to knowledge worth the name. It is true that in the absence of a governing motivation or a frame-work which integrates statements made, comparisons are not meaningful. Therefore comparative literary studies are organised round certain categories that can provide motivation for inter-literature analyses and function in the manner of frameworks for critical observation. These are: literary themes, types or genres tendencies or influences or movements or periods, styles of expression and literary theories. In the list of university dissertations cited earlier, we find comparisons of authors which may involve themes, types, tendencies and styles as well. To cite more specific examples, a study of the “Song of Songs” in the Bible against the Gita Govinda 2 of Jayadeva may compare variations in setting out erotic love themes between the two lyrics and their styles of expression of the erotic sentiment. A study of the poetry of the heroic age 3 may bring together heroic poetry of different Western as well as Eastern cultures and show the common “period” characteristics of such poetry across literatures all the world over. Along with the “period” characteristics or Zeitgeist, there may be a comparison of the literary type known as the “oral” lyric as practiced in the heroic ages of different people. A consideration of theories about the epic in Western literature and the Mahakavya in Indian literature will be an illustration of literary criticism in a comparative context.


Comparative literature studies may be pursued between literary products of distant cultures (as in the Iliad and the Ramayana or Gita Govinda and Song of Songs cited above) or regional out­puts, nearer each other. We therefore have levels ranging from comparative world literature through comparative European/Asian literature and such like continental units to further level below. The intermediate levels of coverage between world literature and lowest level literatures admit of expansion according to the units taken up.


Comparative world literature studies bring together for a detailed examination typologically similar genres, themes, movements, or periods and theories, irrespective of geographical location. (This is similar to the treatment of structural topologies of languages in linguistics where the most distant languages are brought together on the sole criterion of observed similarities of structural behaviour.) Such studies pursued in an integrated framework of enquiry have to be classed with comparative world religion, world history, sociology, and similar humanistic subjects as an independent discipline.


Area Studies: Indian Literature


The Inter-disciplinary study of literature in the abstract finds a special application, as already stated, in “area studies.” Regions like those of Europe or India display bundles of common cultural and literary features–similar to isoglosses–as they have been welded together into larger entities by historical and geopolitical factors. T. S. Eliot (the most influential poet of the first half of this century) speaks of the European literary tradition “as a simultaneous order” in the following oft-quoted passage. 4 ­–“The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it, the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous whole.” It is worthy of note here that the concept of comparative literature arose in nineteenth century Europe and concerned itself mainly with comparisons based on literatures of European language areas.


If, as Eliot points out, European tradition is a single inheritance displaying the continuity of the European mind, Indian tradition from the Rigveda and the Sangam classics is equally a continuous heritage bearing the imprint of the Indian mind as it has unfolded itself over two millennia. However varied the constituent elements in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Modern Indo-Aryan, Dravidian and Sino-Tibetan languages may appear, they all form part of the totality of a tradition, characteristically Indian. S. H. Vatsyayan, the famous Hindi poet and novelist, recently declared that Indian literature is one though written in many languages. Bharati, our inspired Tamil bard of this century, hails “Bharatmata” as a lady with eighteen tongues. 5


The main thrust of Indian comparative literature studies­–which may also be called Indian literature studies–is to work towards a broad critical framework that takes in its massive sweep all the facts–past, present (and even future anticipations) of the Indian literary situation. The overall pattern of the total Indian tradition that sits at the heart of its infinitely varied manifestations, can be uncovered only by sustained efforts over the years, by scholars who are endowed with discriminating judgment as well as an abundantly sympathetic imagination. Gaps have to be filled in, facts interpreted and ordered with insight into a sequence that escapes grasp at first sight.


Comparative studies of Indian literatures, bringing output in various language-areas together are the best means of high­lighting their common as well as different backgrounds. The genius and achievement of a particular literature will be shown in relief, if considered against its background of shared common features. The profile of the distinctive movements, themes, genres and theories that blended into the mighty literary tradition of India in the past and continue to blend in the present and are likely to blend in future can emerge in all its wealth of detail only by such studies.


Indian literature in its older stages is built around certain common themes, movements, and forms which run like a warp through it, the woof being regional, social, political and economic influences that start new forces and cause variations on the common elements. What Rene and Wellek say about European literature fits in exactly with Indian literature:


“A pervading European convention is modified in each country. There are also centres of radiation in the individual countries and eccentric and individually great figures who set off one national tradition from another. To be able to describe the exact share of the one and the other would amount to knowing much that is worth knowing in the whole of literary history”.6


We may appropriately substitute “Indian” for “European” “region” for “country” and  “regional” for “national” and see the parallel conditions of the two continental literatures.


Many Indian literatures start with adaptations and translations of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata which introduce variations as well on the original themes of these works in Sanskrit. These are perennial sources of investigation, enabling us, for example, to appreciate the excellence of Valmiki or Kamban or Tulsidas or Ranganatha or Krittivasa relative to each other. The Bhagavata religion and the Bhakti movement starting under the imperial Guptas goes underground in North India while we find a Renaissance of the movement later with the Azhvars and Nayanmars in South India which travels westward to Maharashtra and flows into the Hindi-speaking Indo-Gangetic plain and sways eastwards to Bengal as welt as westwards to Gujarat. The names of the great Bhakti singers–the saint integrators of India who, being prophets, were makers of literature as well–are familiar to us all–Nammazlwar, Manikkavacalcar, Tulsidas, Chaitanya Deva and Narsi Mehta, to name only the most prominent. The literatures that have emerged around these holy men are all similar in sharing god-experience but the experience itself is of variegated hues. R. D. Ranade’s books on “Pathway to God” in Hindi/Marathi/Kannada literatures give us an idea of the integrated study of this Bhakti literature.


Forms of our literature like the mahakavya, khandakavya, muktaka, types of drama, etc., as well as theories on these invite comparative study across all our literatures. For example, Sanskrit “alankara­sastra-works as compared with their Hindi counterparts of the Rid period (18th century) show subtle differences which add to the wealth of our literary speculations. The Tamil theory of poetry arising from Sangam literature invites comparison with the tradition of alankarasastra with which it gets allied in later centuries. Vedic concepts, values and ideals as they manifest them­selves in different literatures in common and modified forms, invite comparative study, e. g., Tolkappiyam and Tirukkural in relation to Vedic religion.


            Coming to the modern period of our Indian literatures, we have specially rich material for comparative studies in various forms–the lyric, the short story, the novel, and the dramatic –play ­all of which have arisen from the impact of Western literature and developed in distinct ways of their own, notwithstanding their common origin and moulds. The older forms of literature ­mahakavya, traditional drama, prose romance, etc.,–have also been affected by the Western, notably English, literary models and these invite inter-literature comparisons. The literature of revolt in the modern age has to be seen in the context of the old themes (against which revolt is proclaimed) as treated in earlier literature. Literary products of movements like Gandhism, socialism, humanism, progressivism, communism, experimentalism, existentiahsm, and simple protestation have to be brought into over-all frameworks across literatures.


The support that Indian literature studies can give to our sense of national integration is obvious. With comparisons and analyses, the studies work their way towards ever-increasing understanding of the unity-in-diversity of Indian culture, strengthening the idea of the Indian federation as a unit with regional variations.


Practice of Comparative Literature


I wish to mention briefly some noteworthy points about the demands that comparative literature study, as conceived today, make on its practitioner. As I had pointed out at the outset, haphazard comparisons lead nowhere though there may be flashes of perception in them. One swallow does not make a summer. We have to institute comparisons against a tentative framework or hypothesis which enables co-ordinated collection of data and testing of the correctness of the assumptions implied or otherwise. The areas of comparative study which have been relatively popular are–studies of any literary work against its original (e. g., Shakespeare’s dramas against their sources, Vyasa and his variations, like Panchali Sapatham as treated by Vyasa and Bharati) or as product of certain tendencies (T. S. Eliot’s poetry and French Symbolism); and comparisons of themes (called thematology). The development of modern stylistics has in recent years, brought into the area of comparative literature, studies of styles of different authors or periods against certain norms.


As literature is a social art and criticism has to penetrate into all types of manifestations of this art, the comparativist has to guard himself against likes and dislikes that make their insidious appearance and vitiate proper vision and understanding. An academy of comparative literature recently formed at Madras states that one of its aims is “to make known the glory and grandeur of our literatures to the world through comparative study.” Such an attitude of exaltation of one’s literature is bound to mislead the enquirer and is certainly far from the spirit of objective scientific enquiry that modern social disciplines require. Observations arising from comparing literatures have to be stated on factual lines without insinuations or suggestions of superiorhy and inferiority or national slant, for that matter.


As the number of languages in which a person can attain all-round competence is limited, the comparativist has to work with translations. It is noteworthy that comparative studies of Russian, French, German and English writers are carried on with competent translations in English (e. g., Tolstoy, Dostoevsky translated by Constance Garnett which never make the reader feel that he is reading a translation). Critical enquiries on themes, genres, tendencies and theories may be based on transla­tions, but comparisons of a writer’s manner of expression or stylistic nuances would demand intimate personal knowledge of the languages concerned. Translations which aid comparative literature studies may themselves be analysed as comparisons between the original work in one language and its version, in another; some speak of “transcreations” in place of “translations.” Eliot calls intuitive flashes of translation as “translucencies.”


The practice of comparative literature studies has gained a new dimension with the use of inter-disciplinary techniques like assemblage of statistical data on any point discussed, psycho-analytic points of view, bringing in sociological enquiry methods in discussing backgrounds of literary artifacts, co-ordination of mouis in the theme-studies with concepts from folkloristics and investiga­tion of the experimental content of a writer by critical analysis of his imagery integrating it with the historical and other influences moulding his environment. These techniques are mentioned only illustratively to give an Idea of the variety, subtlety and depth that the studies are developing. Inter-disciplinary techniques may also involve the application of concepts of literary criticism to other allied disciplines.


Why did I mention all these points about practice? Practice wins new conquests for theory and it is to practice that we look for sharpening our theoretical concepts. Every significant research effort adds to or alters, our theories. Comparative literature as an academic study has to be periodically, rewriting its theory or details of its theory in relation to its various levels in response to additions to knowledge being made continually.


Towards a World Sensibility


Just as comparative Indian literature may be viewed as Indian literature in its totality, comparative world literature is identifiable simply with “world literature” or “universal literature.” Com­parative literature, in the ultimate analysis, becomes just literature as “comparative” and “general” literature merge inevitably. Studies of comparative literature or literature as such, lead us to think of literature as a totality whose constituents interact at all points of time regardless of national barriers and to trace the growth and development of literature as such without regard to linguistic distinctions. To quote Rene and Wellek:


“Literary history as a synthesis, literary history on a super-national scale, will have to be written, again. The study of comparative literature in this sense will make high demands on the linguistic proficiencies of our scholars. It asks for a widening of perspectives, a suppression of local and provincial sentiments, not easy to achieve. Yet literature is one, as art and humanity are one…7­


But there is also another aspect which cannot be ignored particularly in modern nations with a resurgent sense of separate identity. As Wellek puts it:


“Comparative literature surely wants to overcome national prejudices and provincialisms but does not therefore ignore or minimise the existence and vitality of different national traditions. We must beware of false and unnecessary choices: We need both national and general (world) literature, we need both literary history and criticism and we need the wide perspective that comparative literature alone can give”. 8


World literature studies confront one national sensibility against another and pool them into a more complex and total sensibility. A total Indian sensibility developed from the pursuit of Indian literature may lead on, or interact with higher levels of sensibility gained from intimacy with the masterpieces of the world. Such an enriched sensibility may be seen already at work in the English language where literary artists endowed with vision, great critics as well in their own right, like Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Joyce have stepped outside Europe to Indian, Japanese and Chinese inspiration for their art. Henry Gifford has suggested that possibly American literature or rather the common literature of all people writing in the English language will provide one approximation to world literature.




1 The term “Comparative literature” has been taken to refer to areas of endeavour like (i) the study of oral literature, especially folk-tale themes and their migration, pursued in Germany and Scandinavian countries (ii) assessment of the “image” of one author in another country, as judged by reviews, periodicals, salons, travellers and “other factors of transmission” mainly practised in France, and (iii) tracing, under the Inspiration of Herbert Spencer’s theory of biological evolution, the origins and development of literature into various forms of the epic, drama and lyric. Besides these approaches, now only of historical interest, “Comparative Literature” may be loosely used for world literature in its totality, and for the masterpieces of the world as well. (Wellek and Warren, Theory of Literature, Penguin, Books. 1980. Chapter 5, Pp. 46-50)

2 For such a study vide J. B. Alphonso-Karkala, “Comparative World Literature”, Nirmala-Sadanand Publishers, Bombay - 34. 1974. Chapter III, pp. 33-51.

3 H. M. and N. K. Chadwick: “The Growth of Literature”, 3 Volumes. (Vol-I deals with the Heroic Age “period”, characteristics;) Cambridge University Press. 1936.

4  “Tradition and Individual Talent.” Collected in T. S. Eliot’s “Selected Essays”. New York. 1932. p. 4.

5 Ceppu mozhi patinettutaiyaal In “enkal taay” (Baaratiyar Kavitaikal) Sakti Karyalayam. 1957. p. 12.

6 Wellek and Warren, op. cit. Chapter 5, p.

7 Ibid, p. 50.

8 Wellek, “Name and Nature of Comparative Literature” Included in “Discriminations”, Vikas Publications. 1970. p. 36.