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Comparative Literature and the Pieties

Author(s): Jonathan Culler


Source: Profession, (1986), pp. 30-32
Published by: Modern Language Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25595387
Accessed: 18/06/2010 07:36

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COMPARATIVE LITERATUREAND THE PIETIES

COMPARATIVE literatureisnotoriouslydifficulttode
fine.Perhaps ithas no positive identity,
but, as Ferdinand
de Saussure writes in another context, "its most precise
characteristic is to be what others are not" (162). Com Jonathan Culler
parative literature,then,would be a literarystudy that is
not linked to thepieties of nationalisms (literatureas the try the acme of value. Comparative literature, with its

repository of national genius and monument to national broader vision, exercises a critical demystificatory force

pride). Comparative literature would be most accurately on the cultural pieties of a nation.
defined as literary study that does not take a national lit literature has enlarged its criti
Recently, comparative
erature as the proper unit or focus of analysis but asserts cal scope inways that identify and expose Eurocentric pi
the priority of other sorts of units or entities: literary eties about the nature of "man." The study of women's

genres, literary periods, movements, or styles, or theoret writing reveals the contingencyand partiality of domi
icallydefined problems, such as the readingprocess,mi nantmale traditions.The inclusionof black literature?
mesis, or narrative technique. black women's writing, for example?in discussions of
Such orientations not only lead to a fuller, more ac the novel complicates our association of the novel with
curate knowledge of literaturethando thevague histor the riseof theEuropean bourgeoisie and theassumption
ical schemes that link literatureby centuryto thehistory that the European novel's ways of posing questions about
of a nation; theywork in specificways to demystifythe the insertion of subjects in social experience are the neces
nationalistic uses to which literature is put. Every com sary and crucial ones. ThirdWorld writing helps situate
paratistwill have favoriteexamples of how knowledge of European writings in a larger spectrum of possibilities
other literatures deflates the partisan pretensions of na and impels more perspicacious readings of European
tionalistic critics?how Spanish conceptions of the origi ideologies. Works such as Edward Said's Orientalism have

nality of Cervantes are qualified when he is read in helped identifyformsof cultural racism at work in our
relation to Boccaccio and the tradition of the novella or readings of other cultures and our definition of a West
how the conception ofColeridge as the fountainhead of ern tradition.The Orient in eighteenth-century
English
modern criticism ismodified by thedemonstration that or French literature is a classic comparative subject, but
he got most of his ideas from unacknowledged Germans. now comparative literature involves the study of the
Obviously, comparative literature is not source study production of "theOrient" and the roleof thatconstruc
devoted todebunking literarygenius, but theassociation tion in the construction of Western culture.
of literature with national character is frequently refuted Comparative literature, then, directs critical force at pi
by comparatists' demonstrations that literature comes eties or complacencies based on exclusions of other texts,
from other literatures. other discourses, other peoples. But there is one area in
More important, though, is the way a comparative per which ithas conspicuously failed to liveup to itsEnlight
reminds critics that particular national move enment one area in which
spective heritage, critique has been si
ments are variants that have powerful and attractive lenced. The complicity of comparative literature with
Writers themselves use other liter
alternatives. frequently religion in our own day is a subject that has scarcely been
atures to challenge the assumed preeminence of partic broached but that cries out for attention, not least be
ular schools in their own cultures: Stendhal's Racine et cause religion provides an ideological legitimation for

Shakespeare cites the English example to deflate the many reactionary or repressive forces inAmerica today
pretensions of the classical French theater;T. S. Eliot and thus is arguably a greater danger than the ideologi

champions theFrench symbolists to oppose the claims cal positions comparatists do spend their time attacking.
of the native nineteenth-century tradition of verse, as The complicity of literarystudywith religion takes
other twentieth-centuryEnglish poets have drawn on the different forms, not all of them compatible. Note, for in
haiku and theChinese written character to suggest that stance, that what Northrop Frye's poetics and the New
the literaryvalues linkedwith a particular native tradi Critics' quite different interpretive program share is a re
tion should not be taken forgranted.One might think, spect for religious discourse. Anatomy of Criticism pro
for example, of how knowledge of contemporary Latin motes the idea that comparative literature should
American fiction alters one's view of the achievement of interpret literature in the framework of a basically Chris
the postwar American novel.
I dare say that what led many of us into comparative
literature in the first place was our resentment of narrow The author isClass of 1916 Professor of English and Compara

nationalisms, which found in the literature of one coun tive Literature at Cornell University.

30
tian mythology?a symbolic order structured by oppo Pentateuch. Lowth's De sacra poesi Hebraeorum showed
sitionsderived fromreligiousdiscourse.The New Critics, that the prophetic books were poetical and should be
while insistingon thedistinction between the language regarded as literary expression. Eichorn treated the Bible
of literature and the language of science, frequently cite not just as literaturebut as oriental literature,identify
theparadoxes of religious discourse inarguing that the ingdifferentstrandsfromdifferent periods. Bultmann de
language of poetry is the language of paradox. In the rived from his literary analysis of New Testament
classroom, even critics who do not explicitly identify materials and sources the conclusion that only the say
"Tradition" withChristian values blithelyexplicate liter ings of Jesus are historical: the tales, along with the
ary works in religious terms and assume that any critique frameworkof Gospel history,are a product of themis
of religionwould be inbad taste.Students are taughtnot sionary needs of earlyHellenistic Christianity.Radical
to question the religiousprinciples or values adduced in skepticism, it has been suggested, is a characteristic re

literary interpretation (to argue about religion is imma sult of the literarycriticismof theGospels.
ture). Recently, there has been a striking revival of interest I fear we are in the process of losing this proud heri
in the sacred. Instead of leading the critique of supersti tage of comparative and literary research. Comparative
tion, comparative literature is contributing to the legiti literature in our own day grows pious and works to legiti
mation of religious discourse. Geoffrey Hartman, one of mate rather than criticize and situate religious discourse.
the leadersof themovement to link literaryand religious Most teachers of literature,I dare say,do thework of
studies, has even suggested that literature departments legitimationquite unknowingly,explicating literaturein
should be rechristened "Departments of Mystery religious terms without adopting a critical stance. We may

Management"?perhaps inspired by the fund-raising suc regard religion as a curious, irrelevant survival, all the
cesses of Schools of Management. while honoring theFryes,Hartmans, Blooms, Booths,
It is, on reflection, somewhat surprising that depart and Kenners?our most famous critics?who are in their
ments of comparative literature these days contain peo differentways promoters of religion. I am not objecting
ple with all manner of views?Marxists, Lacanians, to their particular and different approaches to literature
deconstructionists, feminists?but seldom anyone who so much as noting that their work confers a legitimacy

actively attacks religion. Comparatists pride themselves on religionthatcontributesto itsunassailability in the so


on theirquestioning of orthodoxies and ideologies, but cial and political arena. They all encourage respect for,
they characteristically hesitate to produce even the mild rather than critique of, religion and thus contribute to the
est critique of religion, with a curious result. Our students
peculiar and ideologically dangerous American notion
are not much shocked by nihilistic texts of our century? that religious toleration requires one not to mock, criti
critiques of meaning and value do not them? cize, or even discuss other people's
surprise religious beliefs. The
but theycan be profoundly shocked by a good, vigorous political and intellectualhealth of our nation requires, I
eighteenth- or nineteenth-century attack on religion. They submit, that the religious justifications of political po
have not heard anything likethis fromtheirmost radical sitionsand thus religiousdiscourse be as much a subject
professors. Moreover, a striking feature of their culture of debate and critique as other ideological formations
is the absence of current or public antireligious discourse, and discourses. This is a problem that particularly
public critique of religion,or even a vigorous tradition deserves the attention of teachers of literature for, almost
of antireligious satire to keep the sanctimonious in check. alone in universities, we are the ones who explicate and
Yet the critique of religion I the decline to criticize religious conceptions,
is, submit, proudest themes, and doc
heritage of comparative literary studies and perhaps the trines.
one in which
the comparative and liter
region perspective How, then, should we proceed? Doubtless in different
ary criticism demonstrably had a major effect on the ways, as befits our varied interests and talents. What is
thought and discourse of Western culture. At the begin crucial is that we remain alert to the relation of our teach
ning of the eighteenth century, one might say without ing and writing to religious discourse and that we en
greatlyoversimplifying,Protestants took theBible tobe courage a critical attitude. This might involve comparing
theword ofGod; by thebeginning of the twentiethcen Christianitywith othermythologieswhen we teachworks
tury this belief was untenable in intellectual circles. imbuedwith religionor making the sadism and sexism
Responsible for thischangewas the scholars' and critics' of religiousdiscourse an explicitobject of discussion, as
insistence that techniques of textualand critical analy we now tend to do when teaching works containing
sis developed forclassical literaturebe applied to bibli overtly racist language or sexist themes. Perhaps when
cal writings.Both the lowerand higher criticism(textual teaching Paradise Lost we ought not to draw back from
criticism and historical criticism) were based on a com that this account of creation is a myth and in
suggesting
parative principle, thatOld and New Testamentwritings itiatingdiscussion of its implications.When we debate
should be analyzed in the same way as other ancient texts. thepolitics of criticismwe should discuss the relationof
The discovery thatbiblical writings consisted of textual our own practices to the religious discourses abroad in our
strata from different periods undermined, for example, be far more
culture, which may important than the popu
theassumption thatMoses had been the author of the lar question of whether deconstruction is politically

31
progressive or regressive. Above all, we should work to ate the pieties of nations and parties, we ought at least

keep alive the critical,demythologizingforceof contem to examine thecomplicitiesof our teachingand criticism
porary theory?a force that the Geoffrey Hartmans and with the religiousdiscourse that isplayingan increasingly
Rene Girards are busily working to capture and divert to greater role in our political and cultural life.

pious ends. "Down with the priests!" is an unlikely motto


forcomparative literaturethesedays, butwe ought to ask
why this is so and to turnsome of our analytical energies WORK CITED
on our relation to religiousdiscourse and ideology. If the
strength of comparative literature is the broad, suprana Saussure, Ferdinand de. Cours de linguistique ge'ne'rale. Paris:
tional perspective that enables it to transcend and situ Payot, 1967.

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