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Comparative Literature

Sarah M. Pourciau ’98

Assistant Professor of German, Princeton University

Somewhere along the path of my undergraduate quest for an unquestionable truth, I got hung up on words. I had initially planned to spend my first year of college indulging a taste for religious philosophy before moving on to a major in mathematics. Everything about the idea seemed right: The cleanliness of mathematics had always appealed to me; I was good at logic and liked proofs; no one was pushing me to study anything particularly “useful”; I wouldn’t have to do any lab work (there is no one on earth more likely to unintentionally sabotage a perfectly well-designed experiment than I); I wouldn’t have to take any more language courses (I felt profoundly stupid in Spanish and couldn’t wait for the final semester of my language requirement to be over); both my parents and my adviser were pleased. But it was not to be. 

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll name as the definitive turning point a graduate seminar in the comparative literature department on the relationship of literature to truth—a course I really had no right to be taking at all (I was a sophomore who had never read a single work of literary theory), and in which I sat silently for most of the semester, while the graduate students around me engaged in intense discussions about texts by Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust. The point wasn’t so much what I learned, although, having known nothing at all going in, I had no choice but to learn a great deal, and fast. The point was that the whole perspective of the course was new. The idea of literary truth provided me with a kind of retroactive justification for the mysterious weight I had always and unquestioningly associated with the act of reading—but that it had never before occurred to me to take seriously.

A flip of a coin

From that point on, events moved quickly. A few weeks into the course I went to my undergraduate adviser and told him I wanted to major in comparative literature. He looked concerned. He explained that comparative literature requires competence in two foreign languages, and asked me whether I felt competent in Spanish. I said that I didn’t, and he looked even more concerned. Undeterred, I went to talk to the chair of the comparative literature department, who was, at the time, the legendary Dante scholar Robert Hollander. I described my newfound passion, explained that I didn’t think I could come up with a second foreign language quickly enough to declare a major, and asked whether there was any way around the double language requirement. Professor Hollander said no. He gave me a little speech I have never forgotten, about how reading in translation is like studying the back of a tapestry—a speech he’d probably given to uncountable students before me—and I went home to flip a coin. (Heads, German; tails, French.) I started German the next morning, mid-semester, and at the risk of stating the supremely obvious, it changed my life.

I am now back at Princeton as an assistant professor of German, specializing in German philosophy and German Jewish intellectual history. I spend every summer and all other available nonteaching time in Berlin, and am passionately committed to my schizophrenic, two-continent lifestyle. At the moment, I’m on research leave, finishing a book about the intersection of language and philosophy. (I’m in Berlin as I write this.) But I love teaching every bit as much as I love writing and am incredibly fortunate to be doing both for an institution that values the former just as highly as it does the latter. The thought that I might one day have the kind of impact on my own students that my teachers at Princeton had on me—by introducing them to a domain of previously undreamed-of intellectual excitement, or by challenging them to overcome long-entrenched anxieties—this is the thought that thrills me professionally, day in and day out. 

There is nothing in the world I would rather be doing.