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ELH 72.2 (2004) 313-322

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Comparative Literature

The Johns Hopkins University

In 1886, Hutcheson Posnett, an Irish socialist lawyer and Professor of Classics and English Literature at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, published a volumeunder the title Comparative Literature for Kegan Paul's pioneering International Scientific Series. It was written to encourage the "establishment of chairs in Comparative Literature at the leading Universities of Great Britain, America and the Australian colonies," and can be said to mark the beginnings of the discipline's academic institutionalization.1

Posnett was not himself primarily a literary scholar. Author of a critique of David Ricardo's theory of rent and a handbook on The Historical Method in Ethics,Jurisprudence, and Political Economy, he was committed to an amalgam of social and historical science which was indebted both to the "comparative method" associated with the legal historian Henry Maine and to the historical sociology of Herbert Spencer. For Spencer, successful social development invariably requires increased functional differentiation and structural complexity as well as increases in size. On this basis, in Comparative Literature Posnett argued that literature must always be understood as a function of social organizations which are themselves (potentially at least) in process. And he used the comparative method to demonstrate that literature has played a key role in the ordered passage of social organizations from filiative groups (clans) to a world community formed by globalized trade, communications, and corporate industrialization (cosmopolitan humanity).

His book was more or less explicitly articulated against the contemporary shibboleths of literary value, including the cult of individual genius, any aesthetics based on the Kantian notion of disinterestedness, the notion of the autonomy of literature as articulated by the French avant garde, and the Arnoldian project for which literature and criticism might help cultivate a civil sensibility against the supposed disorder and crudity of democratic, commercial society. Comparative Literature was a manifesto for literary science and for a particular politics, since Posnett also wished to persuade readers that literary history or "growth," as he put it, has been organized by "the [End Page 313] progressive deepening and widening of [individual] personality" (C, 72). This meant that, at its most successful, contemporary literature could depict and express highly individuated characters and voices who also, paradoxically, represented wide—ultimately transnational—social associations, Walt Whitman (who owned a copy of Posnett's text) being the favoured example of this "democratic individualism" (C, 389).

In sum, Posnett conceived of comparative literature as a social science which, along with the world-literature canon it addresses, forms a basis for the politics of cosmopolitan democratic individualism. It does so not just because literature uniquely articulates those structures through which individuals recognize themselves as connected to and formed by an increasingly wide range of distant social formations, but because the comparative method enables recognition of social and cultural differences and, hence, encourages the dissemination of relativism as well as entry into a single world system. For Henry Maine and the Victorian anthropologists, the comparative method used empirical data on surviving nonmodern societies to construct a stadial account of the history of early social development. For Posnett, it demonstrated how different social structures produce different literatures that might then be judged in relation not to aesthetic universals but to the contemporary advanced society/literature nexus.

In these terms, Posnett's treatment of Arabic, Indian, and Chinese cultures is characteristic. Admitting that he is ignorant of a "literary field so boundless in its wealth of interest," he nonetheless finds in the ancient literatures of Asia a cosmopolitanism less retarded than that of the West of the time, being based on the extraordinary "diversities of language and race" that they had to address as well as on their sensitivity to the nonhuman environment. Nonetheless Posnett's analysis is skewed towards Europe. As a Mainesian, he contends that in Asia "individual life" remained underdeveloped "among the castes and village communities of India or the family system and paternal government of China" (C, 386), so that Asian literatures failed to cross the threshold into democratic individualism even if, in their merging of "personal being" with social...


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