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  • The Comparative Perspective on Literature: Approaches to Theory and Practice
  • Gregory Lucente
Clayton Koelb and Susan Noakes, eds. The Comparative Perspective on Literature: Approaches to Theory and Practice. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. 386 pp. $42.50 cloth; pb. $12.95.

The central questions that this collection of essays raises in its entirety are broached by the editors at the outset of their Introduction: what is comparative literature as a discipline in today's changing intellectual environment, and, by implication, is there really such a thing as "the comparative perspective" on literature and [End Page 847] literary studies? Although each of these questions has a venerable lineage dating back at least to the nineteenth century, in this context it is probably best to concentrate on the evidence offered by the present volume itself. Initially, one might suspect that the responses to questions such as these would divide fairly neatly along generational lines, but as the volume progresses, this does not turn out to be the case. True, there are obvious differences in critical presuppositions and critical temperament between several of the more traditional "elder" comparatists here (Lowry Nelson, A. Owen Aldridge, Ulrich Weisstein, the late Frank Warnke) and their younger colleagues (Wlad Godzich, Samuel Weber, Margaret Ferguson, Susan Suleiman, and others). But the division of opinions, explicit and implicit, as to whether comparative literature can be said to function either as a unified perspective or as a unified discipline actually runs along another line, one that has more to do with questions of totality and stability than widi questions of generation or academic experience. In brief, the opposition lies between those who see comparative literature as a broad yet unified subject matter with a viable appeal to some sort of stable set of interests or beliefs to ground their views (be these the belletristic notions of art and human imagination characterizing "literature" itself, as for Nelson; the grand panoply of international literary relations in a Goethean vision of "world literature," as for Warnke; or the relation between literature and other arts and institutions, as for Weisstein and the legal scholar Richard Weisberg), and those who doubt that any such grounding is possible (most notably Samuel Weber, to whose contribution we shall return, but also, in varying degrees, Wlad Godzich and Jonathan Culler).

Although the editors' general optimism and dieir organization of dieir material into four discreet subdivisions ("Comparative Literature Today," "Historical and International Contexts," "Literary Criticism and Other Disciplines," and "Comparative Perspectives on Current Critical Issues") tend to lessen the impact of this basic disagreement, the question is significant in both historical and contemporary terms, and it may best be approached through consideration of Weber's essay at the conclusion of Part One, "The Foundering of Aesthetics: Thoughts on the Current State of Comparative Literature." Weber's principal intention is to contrast the opinion of René Wellek as to what aesthetics in general and comparative literature in particular are all about with the thought of a subsequent Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale, Paul de Man. By focusing on a pair of often discussed essays by Wellek and de Man as well as on the philosophical fulcrum used by each of them—Kant's work on die aesthetic—Weber demonstrates the extent to which Wellek's defense, via Kant, of what Wellek terms the severely endangered "concept of art as one of the distinct activities of man, as the subject matter of our discipline," is put in question not only by de Man's rigorous critique of the category, or better, the "nondomain," of the aesthetic but also by the very writings of Kant himself. As Weber points out, when Kant reworks his notion of desire in regard to aesthetics in The Critique of Judgment, desire can no longer be excluded from the experience of pleasure in aesthetic judgment (as something that causes the existence of what it represents and thus demonstates its interest in reality). Rather, desire entails not an object as such but a relation of representations to their realization.

This reflexive element of desire within Kant's third Critique knocks the supports out from under the sort of objectified, totalizing view of literature that Wellek...


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