Anna Balakian on misbegotten intertextuality
in Comparative Literature


Another worry I had a decade ago has deepened. The majority of our Comparatists had a double identity, one in English or in one of the “foreign” languages, and the other as a Comparatist. As in the song “J’ai deux amours” many of our breed had two loves, a national literature and Comparative literature. When priorities were in order, the first loyalty was toward the national literature. In coming of age, Comparative Literature as a full-fledged discipline demands full loyalty and unflinching dedication.

But it is no longer a matter of two loves. The barriers have come down completely and there is total permissiveness in declaring oneself a Comparatist. Virtually every scholar specialized in a national literature has found it convenient to add “and Comparative Literature” to his/her designation and position. Every exercise in intertextuality, random comparison of works in a heterotopic juggling of texts and crossovers becomes a manifestation of Comparative Literature. Sometimes mere surface knowledge of an Oriental language or casual reading of a few non-European works gives claims to East/West Comparative expertise.

We have arrived on dangerous ground. We are threatened on the one hand with a host of scholars crossing over without union cards to participate through our discipline in the newer concepts of interpretation of literature and the study of sociocultural texts within the context of comparative relationships; on the other hand, our numbers are being depleted by the departure of some of our own respected constituents for adventures in the ranks of derivative theoreticians of semiotics, and like a new company of pied pipers of Hamelin they are leading our younger generation over the hills and far away.

To return to the first issue: I am not suggesting that newcomers to our discipline should be kept out or restricted, but they should realize that there is a certain amount of retooling to be done. Surely when a biologist decides to take over the functions of a chemist it is assumed that there would be a certain degree of reeducation. Innovations are what keeps a discipline vigorous and dynamic but each generation cannot reinvent Comparative Literature from scratch.

On the second issue, theoretical dialogue cannot be permitted to tip the balance between discovery of unfamiliar writings and the reinterpretation of generally familiar works. René Wellek’s statement in Chapel Hill in 1958 is still valid: “In literary scholarship theory, criticism, and history collaborate to achieve its central task,” he declared in “The Crisis of Comparative Literature.” In literary criticism related to the national literatures there is more and more writing about less and less. There has occurred an arbitrary sanctification of certain writers to the exclusion of others just as worthy or more so. Authors like Flaubert, Richardson, Proust, Joyce, Sade, Brecht, and more recently Bataille seem to have been wrung dry, when yet another structuralist exegesis or mythopoetic deconstruction comes along. And when these overladen works are submitted to what is called “intertextuality” the resulting relationships are promiscuous and too often devoid of intellectual responsibility, for they make no effort to ascertain the historical, cultural, or even psychological validity of the juxtapositions. The theory of intertextuality is quite the opposite of comparative study in spite of the inclusion of some of these intertextual operations in Conference programs under the heading of Comparative Literature. In the theoretical writing of isolated analyses of immanent textual relationships, the process does not validate itself with fertile demonstrations of creative influences or anti-influences but is content with rapid name-droppings that reinforce the collage character of the juxtapositions. In opposition to the communicating vessels of Comparative Literature studies, eminent new theoreticians, situating themselves within the discipline of Comparative Literature, are committed to the structuralist principle which, according to Genette, distinguishes itself by its lack of consideration for sources and motives.

Many names have been given to our era; one of those I like best is Nathalie Sarraute’s “L’Ere du Soupçon.” Another fitting one might be “L’Ere du Collage.” Collage is the breakdown of interrelationships on all levels, whether ethnic, familial or societal. In the view of the late Roland Barthes, literature is part of that collage. It has no corporal, historical continuity but is the complex graph of the practice of writing. That is the lesson he preached on his entry into the College de France. Caution, it appears, must be taken to avoid the detection of “source” or “influence,” lest we fall into what Barthes has called “the myth of filiation.” But without that sense of filiation we might as well forget Comparative Literature. These intertextual investigations result in a paradoxical situation: fragmentation of knowledge in the very process of searching for a system. A monotonous chiming of “how does it function” never seems to come to grips with its own methodology of mythopoetic viewing of literature. Because if indeed, as some would have us believe, literature is only a complicated form of mythology, the identification of a myth demands the study of interrelationships of events and ensuing works, preliminary to the establishment of the collective base of a typology. The distancing of authors held together by natural associations and the substitution of forced juxtapositions to demonstrate an a priori theory rob literature of its coordinated contents. Let us be reminded of the observation of Northrop Frye in his article, “Literature as Context: Milton’s Lycidas,” which appears in the proceedings of that first meeting of the ICLA in Chapel Hill in 1958: “Where there is comparison there must be some standard by which we can distinguish what is actually comparable from what is analogous. You cannot just lump together an octopus and a spider and a string quartet.”


SOURCE: Balakian, Anna. “How and Why I Became a Comparatist,” in Building a Profession: Autobiographical Perspectives on the History of Comparative Literature in the United States, edited by Lionel Gossman and Mihai I. Spariosu (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 75-87; this excerpt, pp. 84-85.


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