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  • One Comparative Literature?"Birth" of a Discipline in French-Egyptian Translation, 1810-1834
  • Shaden M. Tageldin (bio)

Comparative literature keeps forgetting itself in incomparability Rather than concede that it might owe its life to radically translational beginnings, it prefers to assign its conception to ever-shifting—yet always monocentric—"origins." Indeed, while Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has boldly announced the field's "death" (at least in the guise in which many profess it today), the jury is still out on—and still deliberating—its exact date and place of "birth."1 Natalie Melas dates the institutionalization of comparative literature to 1871 in the United States, when Charles Chauncey Shackford gave the first known U.S. lecture on the field; Haun Saussy to 1877 in Central Europe, when Hugo Meltzl de Lomnitz published his "Vorläufige Aufgaben der vergleichenden Literatur" ["The Present Tasks of Comparative Literature"]; Emily Apter, in turn, to the spatiotemporally unmarked "postwar period"—presumably a "world" and time that the Second World War spawned and named.2 To be sure, none of these scholars take the "origins" they posit for granted. Saussy unabashedly proclaims his account of comparative literature's beginnings an "origin-story" and tells us that he is "manufacturing a mythology" of explanation, conceding that "all literature has always been comparative, watered by many streams."3 Melas—to her credit—acknowledges the limitations of her study, noting that the institutional context she addresses is, "like that of [her] sources, almost exclusively American" and reminding her readers that comparative literature has other histories.4 And Apter, intent on dislocating the "postwar" genealogy that has "assigned Europe the lion's share of critical attention and shortchanged non-Western literatures," insists that "comparative literature was in principle [End Page 417] global from its inception."5 Although she proposes the philological praxis of Leo Spitzer in pre-Second World War Istanbul as an alternative "origin" for the increasingly globalized forms of comparative literature we profess today, Apter notes that even Spitzer's famed "seminar in Istanbul was obviously not an inaugural or unique example of global comparatism," for "the idea is as old as that of culture itself, and extremely widespread."6 The very title of Apter's essay dubs her reorigination of the field in 1933 Istanbul an "invention," scare quotes warning away those of us who might dare to fix the birth of the discipline at last.

Still, Saussy and Apter tacitly maintain the originality of their origin stories. Saussy defends his claim that the field originated in 1877 by insisting that pre-1877 uses of the term "comparative literature" do not "indicate a method or an elaborate theoretical justification."7 For Apter, in turn, Istanbul is "the city in which [comparative literature] took disciplinary form."8 Intimating that Spitzer's seminar took the field back to the drawing board, beginning it anew—"it furnished the blueprint," she writes, "for departments of comparative literature established in the postwar period"—Apter dubs the Spitzer-Auerbach period in Istanbul "the disciplinary prehistory of comparative literature" and the duo's collaborations with Turkish students "the in vitro paradigm of a genuinely globalized comparative literature," in each case pronouncing Istanbul the embryonic (prehistoric, in vitro) origin of the full-fledged comparatist baby.9 Ultimately she drops even the scare quotes that qualify "invention" in her title, arguing that "it was the volatile crossing of Turkish language politics with European philological humanism that produced the conditions conducive to the invention of comparative literature as a global discipline" and that "Spitzer's invention of comparative literature in Istanbul transformed philology into something recognizable today as the psychic life of transnational humanism."10

Melas perceptively roots what I will call the perpetual process of reorigination in comparative literature in its practitioners' "amnesia," their "selective omission and disregard."11 Apter agrees. "In globalizing literary studies," she writes, "there is a selective forgetting of ways in which early comparative literature was always and already globalized."12 So formulated, comparative literature becomes, paradoxically, akin to Ernest Renan's nation: remembered—indeed re-membered—in forgetting, the product of a daily plebiscite that banishes to the margins of oblivion "origins" either unwelcome or uninteresting to the dominant narrative of the...


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