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  • Comparative Journeys: Essays on Literature and Religion East and West
  • Marianna Benetatou (bio)
Anthony C. Yu . Comparative Journeys: Essays on Literature and Religion East and West. Masters of Chinese Studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. xix, 408 pp. Hardcover $55.00, ISBN 978-0-231-14326-4.

Reading Anthony C. Yu's Comparative Journeys is a cross-cultural and cross-historical-journey with scarce, if any, comparison to previous works of its kind. If a good part of the book primarily addresses the specialist or student of literature and/or religions, the last section broadens the debate to include contemporary issues that can be of interest to all culturally minded persons. This masterpiece of erudition, rigorous analysis, and expert choice of timeless topics consists of a series of essays reflecting the rich academic career of the author. Its subtle architecture becomes more intricate by the very nature of the subject matter, the interconnectedness of literature and religion. As the introductory essay convincingly argues, world literature has played a significant, albeit not always acknowledged, role in crystallizing and implementing religious doctrines. Furthermore, religious inspiration is not always limited to fragmentary references, but, as the subsequent essays abundantly make clear, may take the form of a coherent project where literary appreciation is inextricable from knowledge of a specific religious corpus. The common thread running through the seemingly disparate essays is, as the writer declares right from the beginning, the awareness of change in all its proceedings.

The essays on Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound and Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained explore, by means of thorough textual analysis, change as the universal force that governs humanity and, at least in the first case, divinity alike. The fall may be brutal, controversial, or unjust to the limited human intelligence, but it cannot be an end in itself. It puts in motion the slow process of spiritual education soliciting, by that matter, divine mediation. The final reconciliation with divinity in the now lost Prometheus the Fire Bringer or the promise of redemption [End Page 284] in Paradise Regained points to the salutary effects of change. These essays prefigure a pattern of change illustrated in subsequent chapters, particularly in the final section of the book: The meeting of two alien cultures is never painless or neutral, but it causes tension and sometimes conflict. However, in retrospection, the initially waning side, in the long term, gets the most considerable benefits. Enriched by a salutary contact, it gains impetus to transform the inherent weakness into strength and, thus, faces contemporary challenges in new and innovative ways. Therefore, change brings progress.

Change and transcendence are themes at the core of the next group of essays. Dante's Divina Commedia and Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West (Xiyouji) are compared as prominent and significant examples of literary sacred pilgrimages. Patiently unraveling the sacred allegory behind the exquisite fiction, the author, widely known for his masterful translation of the Journey, brings to light unsuspected and, at first glance, surprising correlations. Avoiding oversimplification for the sake of compatibility, he makes clear that the human quest for transcendence has been interpreted in different contexts according to a referential religious discourse, be it fourteenth-century Christianity or Buddhism tinged by substantial doses of Daoist physiological alchemy. Theology is further enacted in lively episodes structuring the progression of the story and culminating in the final crescendo, the vision of God (Commedia) or enlightenment (Journey). From a strictly theological point of view, the comparison is definitely convincing. However, what is left out of the comparative frame is also worth discussing. For example, the lofty, human-centric and, by many accounts, secular poem of Dante and the fantastic satire of Wu, reveal not only different sensibilities but also different evaluations of religion. The reader may gain further insight into the comparative project by exploring the reasons motivating such a degree of sophistication and the poets' attitude with respect to their individual religious background.

The awareness of change expressed in the fluidity of language is the subject of a seminal essay on Plato's Cratylus and the Xunzi's chapter 22 "On the Right Use of Names." It focuses on the gist...