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  • The Comparative Journeys: Essays on Literature and Religion East and West
  • Deberniere J. Torrey (bio)
The Comparative Journeys: Essays on Literature and Religion East and West. By Anthony C. Yu. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 427 pp. Cloth $50.00.

The categories given in the subtitle of this volume reflect the cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural proficiency that lies behind the work for which Anthony Yu is most well known: Journey to the West, a four-volume English [End Page 387] translation of the Chinese classic 西遊記 (Xiyouji). Much in the way that an exhibit of an artist's lesser-known works might reveal the development of the knowledge and skill that produced a masterpiece, this collection of sixteen essays spanning four decades reveals the breadth, expertise, and attentiveness that would both produce and be enhanced by a thirteen-year project of interpreting an ancient text of great complexity and recreating it in a language completely unrelated—linguistically or culturally—to the original.

From close readings of passages from Aeschylus, Milton, and Dante, to a comparison of the treatment of names in Cratylus and Xunzi, to a reinterpretation of the cryptic first sentence of the 道德經 (Daodejing) and an application of traditional Chinese thought to the issue of human rights, the essays collected here correspond to what Erik Ziolkowski identifies as the three overlapping divisions of Yu's oeuvre: Western literature and religion, the classical Chinese tradition, and East/West comparative projects.1 Furthermore, by beginning with analyses primarily relevant only to the text and its surrounding scholarship and ending with the application of scholarship to broader social issues, the volume also documents a scholar's development into a public intellectual.

In the preface, Yu traces part of his own experience of traversing cultures, recalling his moving from Hong Kong to the United States to begin university, and describes how his awareness of the interrelatedness of religion and literature became "one way to comprehend the linkage and diversity of Western letters" (xiv). Yu expounds on this interrelation in his opening essay, discussing literature in its role as "testimony" in the Greek and Christian traditions, and the applicability of literary methods to religious texts. In the next three chapters, this interplay between literary analysis and the testimony of the text comes to bear in Yu's interpretations: Prometheus Bound, as "a mandate of change" dramatized by the transformations of both Prometheus and Zeus, offers a "daring vision of a new humanity and a new God" (48). Adam's path to humanity in Milton's Paradise Lost is fulfilled through his union with Eve, a communion that also manifests the imago dei. Milton's particular ordering of the temptations in Paradise Regained emphasizes Christ's self-emptying as the ultimate coup against Satan.

A short piece, "Problems and Prospects in Chinese-Western Literary Relations," serves as a transition from this treatment of Western texts to the more comparative and Eastern bent of the remaining essays. In this piece, Yu challenges the idea that Chinese texts should be spared the scrutiny of Western concepts, observing that "the use of the more peculiarly Western critical concepts and categories in the study of Chinese literature is no more inappropriate than the classical scholar's use of modern techniques [End Page 388] and methods for his study of ancient materials" (102). However, lest such a proposal invite convenient default to a Western reference point, he also suggests that the ill-fated attempt to find in Chinese literature the kind of "explicit religious commitment and concern" that one finds in Dante, Milton, and Donne has perhaps created an impediment to the exploration of the particular manifestations of religion in Chinese literature by Western scholars.

It is, in fact, the religious dimension that Yu highlights in several subsequent chapters that draw from his work on Xiyouji, popularly read as an adventure story. A comparison between Dante's Commedia and Xiyouji reveals that the latter is likewise an allegory "in which the central drama of its protagonist's 'approach to God' unfolds within the interplay of the literal and figurative dimensions of the work" (140). The literal figure of the Buddhist monk protagonist, Xuanzang, overlies the deeper symbolism...


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