What is Comp Lit?
The discipline of comparative literature has been defined by literary scholars in a myriad of ways. Below are definitions from a wide range of such scholars, including some from the faculty of the Princeton University Department of Comparative Literature.
Some Famous Definitions
“Comparative Literature is the study of literature beyond the confines of one particular country, and the study of the relationships between literature on one hand and other areas of knowledge and belief, such as the arts (e.g. painting, sculpture, architecture, music), philosophy, history, the social sciences, (e.g. politics, economics, sociology), the sciences, religion, etc., on the other. In brief it is the comparison of one literature with another or others, and the comparison of literature with other spheres of human expression.” Henry Remak, Comparative Literature: Method and Perspective (1961)
"Comparative Literature is … the whole study of the whole of literature as far as one’s mind and life can stretch. By its very scope Comparative Literature … is a presumptuous study.” Lowry Nelson, Poetic Confirgurations (1988)
“The premises and protocols characteristic of [comparative literature] are now the daily currency of coursework, publishing, hiring, and coffee-shop discussion. … The ‘transnational’ dimension of literature and culture is universally recognized even by the specialists who not long ago suspected comparatists of dilettantism. .. Comparative teaching and reading take institutional form in an ever-lengthening list of places. … Comparative literature … now … is the first violin that sets the tone for the rest of the orchestra. Our conclusions have become other people’s assumptions.” Haun Saussy, Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (2006)
"Comparative literature is the laboratory or workshop of literary studies, and through them, of the humanities. Comparative literature compares literatures, not only as accumulations of primary works, but as the languages, cultures, histories, traditions, theories, and practices with which those works come." Roland Greene, "Their Generation," Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism (1995)
Some of Our Definitions
"A more transnational, interdisciplinary, and responsive humanities is, I believe, poised to emerge. Underscoring the importance of language, literature, and culture, it can help us better explore our past imaginations of the human condition and engage more fully with the wide range of arts and traditions that now imagine the world in such diverse and sometimes surprising ways. Firmly embraced and energetically taught, such a humanities may well contribute to a new sort of global consciousness, one that would bring a keener sensitivity to the languages, cultures, and peoples of our polyglot planet and begin to draw us all into a broader, more responsive conversation.
To prompt such a humanities, no fields are better suited, it seems to me, than comparative literature and translation. Each is by its very nature transnational and interdisciplinary, and together they suggest a particularly full immersion in the energies of our times. ...
Comparative literature regularly joins literary texts from different languages and cultures. It also regularly connects, say, a poem with dance, a film with the novel, photography with the essay. It even relates different disciplinary languages and modes of thinking."
From Sandra Bermann's Presidential Address to the American Comparative Literature Association in 2009. The full address can be read at Sandra Bermann, “Working in the And Zone: Comparative Literature and Translation,” Comparative Literature 61, no. 4 (2009):432-446
"Ce n'est que par une comparaison que nous connaissons précisément la vérité. . . . Toute connaissance qui ne s'obtient pas par l'intuition simple et pure d'une chose isolée, s'obtient par la comparaison de deux ou plusieurs choses entre elles. Et presque tout le travail de la raison humaine consiste sans doute à rendre cette opération possible" (It is only by way of comparison that we know the truth precisely. . . . All knowledge which is not obtained through the simple and pure intuition of an isolated thing is obtained by the comparison of two or more things among themselves. And almost all the work of human reason consists without doubt in making this operation possible.) Descartes, Regulae ad directionem ingenii (1684) Cited In Claudia Brodsky, “Grounds of Comparison” World Literature Today 69 (1995).
"A rigorous definition of comparative literature should always include the study of texts across languages; this multilingual aspect can only become more crucial to distinguishing comparative literature as national literature departments also develop greater emphases on postcolonial and interdisciplinary studies. In the new Millennium, I hope we will pursue the study of Weltiliteratur in the spirit of Goethe, albeit in ways he could never have imagined: challenging a world order that is already very different from the one his ideas subverted by helping to bring about a cosmopolitan community in which national, disciplinary, and linguistic demarcations may become less rigid." April Alliston, “Looking Backward, Looking Forward: MLA Members Speak.” PMLA. 115, no. 7 (December 2000): 1987.
Some Other Definitions
“L’étude comparative des littératures. Relations des diverses littératures entre elles, actions et réactions simultanées ou successives, influences sociales, esthétiques ou morales qui dérivent du croisement des races et du libre échange des idées” Joseph Texte, Études de Littérature européenne (1898)
"The first World War had made the crisis of European culture obvious. How do cultures, and the historical entities which are their media, arise, grow, and decay? Only a comparative morphology of cultures with exact procedures can hope to answer these questions…. A community of great authors throughout the centuries must be maintained if a kingdom of the mind is to exist at all. But it can only be the community of creative minds. This is a new kind of selection—a canon if you like, but bound only by the idea of beauty, concerning which we know that its forms change and are renewed." Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953) (written at the end of the Second World War)
“In principle, the discipline of Comparative Literature is in toto a method in the study of literature in at least two ways. First, Comparative Literatures means the knowledge of more than one national language and literature, and/or it means the knowledge and application of other disciplines in and for the study of literature and second, Comparative Literature has an ideology of inclusion of the Other, be that a marginal literature in its several meanings of marginality, a genre, various text types, etc. […] Comparative Literature has intrinsically a content and form, which facilitate the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary study of literature and it has a history that substantiated this content and form. Predicated on the borrowing of methods from other disciplines and on the application of the appropriated method to areas of study single-language literary study more often than tends to neglect, the discipline is difficult to define because thus it is fragmented and pluralistic.” Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, Comparative Literature: Theory, Method, Application (1998)
"Any two texts can be compared, but a comparison works when there is a sufficient basis for comparison; that is, a strong number of similarities, which allow us to isolate particular striking, revealing, informing, epiphanic and ultimately untranslatable differences. … These untranslatable differences which are the product of language, culture, history and environment as well as the semi-autonomous evolution of art forms and the talents and experiences of individual artists invariably pronounce themselves in what is called style." Gregory Reid, "A Prolegomenon to Comparative Drama in Canada : In Defense of Binary Studies" (2005)
"I stopped believing that 'theory' had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn't the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?" Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010)