- Philological Empathy and Textual Gains and Losses
What use is a collection of essays about the history of Sanskrit poetry to me? The question inevitably sounds rhetorical, although I ask it in a very literal and practical way, from the position of someone who studies ancient Greek and Latin as well as classical Chinese literatures, and who dabbles in the theory and history of world literature, but does not know Sanskrit. After reading Yigal Bronner, David Dean Shulman, and Gary A. Tubb’s Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kavyā Literature, I have several answers, corresponding to the various parts of my scholarly life. These essays are immediately useful, indeed invaluable, to me as someone who is actually writing a Global History of Literature, and therefore has an urgent reason to learn more about the Sanskrit literary tradition, whose treatment in European-language works remains somewhat scattershot, with the limited scholarly resources available sometimes erratically targeted, and with many of the existing reference works (many dating to the colonial era) often smacking of the mandarin disapproval of nearly everything in a tradition, with the grudging exception of selected portions of the canon. Simply put, much of what has been written in English to date about Sanskrit literature does little to inspire its readers to delve into the texts themselves, whether by reading translations (which anyway often do not exist, or exist only in musty and unappealing Edwardian versions) or, more dauntingly, by learning the language itself. The essays in this volume do much to correct this imbalance; they take their philological detail seriously and do not make things easy for the nonspecialist (and why should they?), but they do consistently convey the sense that these texts are inherently worth reading, that they can be appreciated, even loved, by readers in our own age who are prepared to immerse themselves in the aesthetic conventions of a different epoch.
As a historian of the literature of the world, I will return again to these essays, both for the rich and complex readings they offer of many important texts, but also for the broader picture of literary history they sketch out in asides here and there, giving the careful reader some sense of the volume and texture of the even larger quantities of text they do not discuss (note, for example, that many of the introductory sketches for the various sections of the volume draw attention to its emphasis on epic works, as opposed to drama or shorter lyric forms). If we are, as the introduction suggests, “generations” away from a comprehensive history of Sanskrit literature, this is nonetheless a very helpful start. But (perhaps wisely) few people write global histories of literature. What, then, is the value of this collection for the nonspecialist who is not seeking out detailed knowledge of the works discussed for its own sake? I’d like to suggest that this volume has value for those interested in the theory of world literature, and in philology, whether in the kind of comparative or World Philology Sheldon Pollock and others have discussed,1 or in the specific contexts of Greek and Latin philology, or early Chinese philology, with which I am more specifically familiar. From the perspective of world literature, I have argued before for the value of collaborative work of various kinds, informal as well as formal, and have suggested in fact that reading the work of other scholars, particularly those in other fields, can be a form of collaboration.2
World literature as a field to date tends to focus on the era of European colonization and of global decolonization that follows, as well as on the languages originating in Europe, even as they spread around the world. It has long been my thesis that the world system thus described is one of many such systems (both theoretically possible and historically encountered) and that the theory and practice of world literature can be enriched immensely by a serious attention to scholarship on other times and places. These essays offer perspectives on alternative models of literary circulation and emulation, particularly Dan Martin’s essay on kavya in Tibet, Thomas M. Hunter’s essay on...