Reflections on Comparative Literature and English Studies as Independent Disciplines (J. B. Rollins)

The most intense and productive life of culture takes place on the boundaries of its individual areas and not in the places where these areas have become enclosed in their own specificity.

—Mikhail Bakhtin

“Response to a Question from the     Novy Mir Editorial Staff”

To be human is to be intended toward the other.

 —Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Death of a Discipline

I begin with the above epigraphs because they encapsulate the most important difference, as I now see it, between my first published scholarly article and my last; and it is this difference that most helps me trace the stumbling, uncertain path of my own development as a literary scholar over the past thirty-three years while at the same time reflecting on the changes I have witnessed in English Studies and Comparative Literature as independent disciplines.

My first article was strictly American Literature disciplinarian in its New Critical study of an early poem by Robert Lowell, devoting thirty-three manuscript pages to an obsessively close reading of the poem’s opening eight lines.[1] Considered from my current scholarly perspective, it seems an excellent example of what I interpret Bakhtin to have had in mind when he referred to cultural areas that have become “enclosed in their own specificity.” Limiting myself so severely was of course not my conscious purpose at the time but rather a response to what I believed was necessary in order to be published in a top-quality American scholarly journal. I was writing for an audience of specialist scholars dedicated to English Studies, including American Literature, as an independent discipline and for whom writers of other languages were of little import outside the occasional superficial reference.

My most recent scholarly publication, written in collaboration with Chinese/Taiwanese Literature specialist Chiang Paochai,[2] presents an approach much closer to those suggested by Bakhtin and Spivak in which we lurk about the boundaries of two cultures—in my case Taiwanese/Chinese and American—in order to better understand both, an approach whereby each scholar from her/his own cultural/linguistic perspective “intend[s] toward the other.” I see the difference in methodology as momentous, far more fascinating and enriching than that I employed in my microscopic analysis of Lowell. At the same time, it is an approach greatly influenced by the interdisciplinarity many in our profession have embraced over the past thirty years, something I could never have imagined when I wrote that first piece despite having found my way into American Literature studies by way of the French Language and Literature of my first university degree.

From the beginning of my university literary studies, my fascination with all things foreign, and especially language, drew me naturally to comparative studies. On the other hand, whenever I found myself seriously engaged in such research and scholarly writing, I felt somehow dissatisfied, finding the results un-satisfactory for reasons I was unable to clearly identify. Obviously, much of this problem can be explained as a result of my never having undertaken formal studies in Comparative Literature despite the urge to do so. On the other hand, as I look back now, I believe I sensed a level of reductivity no matter how erudite those studies (in the case of scholarly books and articles by well-known comparatists) seemed or how assiduous my own attempts were. My own comparisons always left a gap between the compared works and between their languages/ cultures that I was unable to fill. My current understanding of the limits of any discipline given to the study of literatures produced by cultures/ sub-cultures the scholar has not experienced in depth, and especially works written in languages she/he does not know, has largely liberated me from the impossible task I felt comparative studies imposed. This growing sense of the individual scholar’s limitations has also been crucial to my developing interest in trans-culturalist studies.

My journey from relatively rigid disciplinarity to relatively free-wheeling transculturalism began in earnest at the end of my undergraduate years as a French major at Brigham Young University in the late 1960s. Having decided to continue my studies in English literature rather than French, I became increasingly drawn to comparative studies as I completed undergraduate requirements for a second B.A. in English in order to pursue an M.A. in that discipline. Unfortunately, several of my English professors discouraged my attempts to study the French and English literatures together. “If you want to do Comp Lit,” one declared, “change fields.” Unfortunately, my attempts to do just that were stymied by my lack of a third language, preferably German.[3] Thus I developed a powerful sense of hierarchical distinction between the disciplines of French and English Language and Literature as compared to Comparative Literature, very much BYU’s “glamor” literature program, a distinction that for years would lead me to think of Comparative Literature giants such as Erich Auerbach and René Wellek as godlike creatures hovering over the benighted world of two-language scholars such as myself.

Not to be deterred entirely, I wrote my M.A. thesis on a comparative topic, “The Origins of the Interior Monologue: Sterne to Joyce,” resulting in chapters on French and Russian writers as well as British and American. Although the thesis was well-received by my defense committee, it left me with a frustrating after-taste of reductivity. Every comparison I made seemed superficial and even at times arbitrary. As I prepared to enter Duke University for my Ph.D., however, I dealt with my frustration by focusing more narrowly on the French-British-American vortex leading to modernism, an interest I intended to pursue within the field of Victorian Studies at Duke, not anticipating the disciplinary resistance I would face.

Once at Duke, I filled my schedule with courses in Victorian Literature and French Modernism, accepting without much concern the sidelong glances of English professors who clearly wondered whether I was not, after all, more loyal to the Department of Romance Languages than to the English Department. The separation of disciplines at Duke was yet more rigid than at BYU, and it was made quite clear, when I applied for a tutorship in English, that I would have to make up my mind. All of this transpired, of course, well before the chairmanship of Stanley Fish and his “George Steinbrenner School of Literary Theory,”[4] which would eventually lead more conservative faculty to charge him with making the department into a “hodgepodge” of courses in “whatever” literature or theory rather than retaining the strict sense of disciplinarity I had experienced there. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Fish arrived at Duke only one year before Fredric Jameson became Professor of Comparative Literature there and began developing the celebrated Duke Literature Program, a program I now see would have been heaven for me with its freedom of inquiry into any literature from anywhere and in any language.

Unfortunately, distinctions between disci-plines were so strong during my years at Duke (1970-76) that even within the Department of English one was labeled a British Literature person under the august sway of the former Oxford don Lionel Stevenson or American Literature under the benevolent gaze of Arlin Turner, editor of American Literature. My eventual switch from Victorian to American Literature, after finally throwing over my francophilia, at least on the surface, was taken by some as an outright betrayal.

After completing the Ph.D. and taking positions in traditional English departments where I was clearly labeled “American Literature person,” I received a Fulbright lectureship in Yemen, a move I credit today for the revolution in my scholarly interests and methodology hinted at in the beginning of this essay. My Yemeni experience was so transformative that, given the opportunity to renew the lectureship for a second year, I accepted and took on the advising of a thesis by Mohammed Saad Al-Jumly, an M.A. student working on a comparative study of the modern Yemeni novelist Mohammed Abdul-Wali and John Steinbeck. After he had completed the thesis, we agreed to work on it together for publication in the West, which would take place nearly ten years later after I had arrived in Taiwan.[5]

This first collaborative experience with a scholar from a non-Western culture and language vastly broadened my literary horizons. Having been educated to the prejudice that the only literature worth studying had been produced almost exclusively in Western nations—particularly France, England, and the United States with a sprinkling of major works from Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Russia—along with an occasional grudging nod to Arabia, Persia, and China, I found the veil of ignorance being lifted from my eyes by the remarkably powerful novella of a Yemeni diplomat: They Die Strangers. I learned the truth, as expressed by Anders Pettersson, that “Acquaintance with other cultures’ conceptual schemes will also make it evident that one’s native way of carving up social and material reality is arbitrary, at least in the sense that it could have been very different and still workable” (466).

When I arrived in Taiwan (1995) after several more teaching positions outside the United States—in Tunisia and Malaysia—as well as back inside, I was well-primed for more of the self-othering I had begun to experience in my reading of Yemeni, Tunisian, and Malaysian literature. It was my great fortune to meet, soon after my arrival, Professor Chiang Baochai of the Department of Chinese and Institute of Taiwan Culture at National Chung Cheng University, who proposed a collaboration on Taiwanese literature beginning with Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Li Ang’s The Butchers Wife. As had happened with They Die Strangers, but to an even greater extent, I found myself powerfully affected by writing from a language and culture far more alien to my own than anything I had read in French. Although much of the attraction I felt was based on universalist reactions such as pity and fear for the life and death of Lin Shi, I now believe it was the singularity of the human existences I came to know in Li Ang’s tale that rendered it so transformational to my attitude toward and understanding of literature in general. Contrary to the comparative approach I had tried to help Mohammed Saad with as he wrote his thesis,[6] I felt no desire to compare The Butchers Wife to other fiction I had read, and in fact I found much scholarly work on how Taiwanese writers had been influenced by American writers such as Hemingway and Faulkner relatively unsatisfying. For me, although I could not completely ignore such influences, these writers and their characters seemed far more different than alike. As with Muhammed Abdul-wali, Taiwanese writers were products of a cultural and linguistic world vastly different from that of those American writers, an intriguing world I wanted to know and experience in and of itself as much as possible, albeit in translation.

Concerning translation, I found myself increasingly aware of the impossibility of any English translation, no matter how masterful, fully conveying the world embodied in the Taiwanese/Chinese original. As Spivak has argued, however, the “impossibility of trans-lation” (88) does not render some level of comprehension and acceptance impossible if, in Matt Waggoner’s phrase, we “imagine ourselves as planetary creatures” and “define ourselves with reference to underived alterity, opening us up to an embrace of inexhaustible difference” (140).

It is this difference I have come to treasure most in my studies of Taiwanese and other non-English language literatures. My goal is to express the uniqueness, the singularity of each non-English language work as accurately as possible in my English-language studies, a form of translation itself underpinned by my developing ethic of alterity. At the same time, I must remain ever vigilant against the tendency to be one of those literary scholars, according to David Damrosch, who are carried along on a wave of cultural deracination, philological bankruptcy, and ideological complicity “with the worst tendencies of global capitalism” (456).[7] My collaboration with Dr. Chiang, of course, helps me immeasurably in this vigilance, allowing me to mine her special knowledge of Taiwanese/ Chinese language and culture in order to enrich my understanding of characters and events far beyond what I could achieve alone.

Along with collaborating with scholars whose first language is that of the work at hand, the best method I have found of countering the on-going imposition of a universal system of exchange leading to ever greater hegemony of certain cultures and languages is to read and write about “foreign” literature in a manner suggested by Anders Pettersson: a text “written by a foreign author in a foreign language, responding to specific concerns of a foreign culture and history” should be regarded “as an individual utterance rather than some representative specimen of an entire culture. This is not to deny the importance of cultural representation, but representations are diversified, and no single one can claim to speak for all others” (469). Thus, my continuing difficulty with comparatist studies leads me to develop and apply my own variant of transculturalist theory based on the “othering of the self” suggested by Bakhtin and theorized by activists such as Spivak and Mikhail Epstein who has used the epigraph from Bakhtin with which I began this essay to advocate a “freedom from the ‘prison house of language,’ from incarceration in artificial, self-imposed, self-deified cultural identities.” Transculturalism, he argues, can become the next step in the never-ending human quest for freedoms of all sorts (48),[8] including, I very much hope, deliverance from the disciplinary limitations, against which I and many other literary scholars have been chafing for so many years, be they those of English Studies or Comparative Literature.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. “Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff.” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 1986: 1-9.

Damrosch, David, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Comparative Literature/World Literature: A Discussion with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and David Damrosch.” Comparative Literature Studies 48.4 (2011): 455-85.

Epstein, Mikhail. “The Unasked Question: What Would Bakhtin Say?” Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004): 42-60.

Pettersson, Anders. “Transcultural Literary History: Beyond Constricting Notions of World Literature.” New Literary History 39 (2008): 463-79.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.

Waggoner, Matt. Rev. of Death of a Discipline, by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 6.2 (2005): 130-41.


[1]      “Young Robert Lowell’s Poetics of Revision.” Journal of Modern Literature 7 (1979): 488-504.

[2]      “Dialectical Narrative Strategy and the ‘Angel of History’ in Two Early Stories by Huang Chun-ming.” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 37.2 (2012): 113-37.

[3]      David Damrosch hit the nail squarely on the head when he declared, “Of course, what comparative literature really meant [in the 1960s], first and foremost, was to have a really good accent in French and German. This was the price of admission . . .” (456).

[4]      George Steinbrenner was an owner of the New York Yankees baseball team who became notorious for tempting top players to join the Yankees by offering salaries their original clubs could not match. Fish was thought to have employed similar tactics in attracting to Duke such luminaries as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Henry Louis Gates.

[5]      “Emigration and the Rise of the Novel in Yemen.” World Literature Today 71 (1997): 39-46. Rpt. in Twayne Companion to Contemporary World Literature. Ed. Pamela Antonia Genova. New York: Twayne, 2003. 271-80.

[6]      In rewriting parts of the thesis for publication, we dropped the comparative approach, focusing rather on the uniqueness of the Yemeni experience narrated in They Die Strangers.

[7]      Damrosch later enlarges his expression of these concerns: “the philological one of translation, the methodological one of American specialists presuming to put together world anthologies, and the ideological one of the publishing conglomerates trying to Americanize the world” (457).

[8]      In my current research, I have found a commensurate lust for freedom from linguistic and cultural limitations especially in the work of the Taiwanese poet Hsia Yü.