- The Shock of the OldLocating Innovation in Ancient Traditions
Yigal Bronner, David Dean Shulman, and Gary A. Tubb’s Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kāvya Literature aims to disturb some long-established views on Sanskrit literature—namely, that it became over the course of its long history “monolithic, self-replicating, and ultimately sterile.”1 To an outsider to the Sanskrit tradition like myself, a specialist in Chinese literature of the centuries around the turn of the first millennium CE, this goal seems both laudable—overturning received wisdom about premodern literary cultures is a goal many of us share—and daunting, even in an 800-page book. The volume does not attempt a comprehensive literary historical narrative of the tradition, but rather offers us new explorations of core texts that focus, as the title explains, on innovation—daring verbal techniques, conceptual leaps, and new relationships that were forged among texts and writers. Yet from the perspective of the longue durée of Chinese literary history, the problem of Sanskrit literature’s monolithic reputation is very familiar: in a tradition that venerated classical texts and precedents, in which literary experiments could be personally risky, elite genres and styles were slow to change and incentives for innovation difficult to find, let alone justify theoretically. The sociopolitical underpinnings of this conservatism are easier to identify in the Chinese case—the outsized role of literary composition in the civil service examination system is one well-known influence—and less visible in the Sanskrit tradition before the end of the first millennium CE, because of the scarcity of sources outside the primary literary texts. But in both traditions true literary change was often masked by superficial formal resemblances (fixed meters and poetic forms, for example, used for centuries) and the repetition of content (familiar stories, standard plots, and conventional figures).
Although the editors of the volume explicitly state that this series of “pilot studies, sometimes the first serious interpretative essays of major kāvya works” is not intended to be a comprehensive literary history (26), the volume is arranged chronologically and produces, in the end, coherently linked snapshots in a literary historical narrative, if one with gaps and silences. Interestingly, this choice to focus on the granularity of the tradition may make it more, not less open to readers from other fields, in part because of the contributors’ sensitivity to the difficulty of the task, signaled by that preposition “toward” in the title. As a literary historian, I see three scholarly moves in the volume that suggest some fruitful comparative conversation with the medieval Chinese tradition (roughly 200 CE–900 CE, or from the end of the Han through the end of the Tang dynasties) in the areas of literary theory, methodology, and historical analysis. First is the challenge of framing innovation-within-tradition as a positive achievement; second, the rewards of close-reading highly technical and dense literary texts with an eye to newness and fresh conceptions in the history of aesthetics; and finally, how turning towards the sociopolitical contexts of specific literary innovations sheds light on the complex relationship of power and cultural change in premodern societies. Innovations and Turning Points gives those of us outside the field models for innovative scholarship as well as new avenues for comparative study of Chinese and Sanskrit literatures.
It should be acknowledged that this book is not for the faint of heart—one requires a basic foundation in South Asian history, Sanskrit poetics, and the literary canon in order to follow some of the knotty textual analyses and discussions of literary antecedents. However, scholars without Sanskrit are fortunate that more and more of this material has become available in English in recent decades. Familiarity with translations of Sanskrit classics from the Clay Library and the Murty Library is helpful, as well as some reading in other useful texts, such as Daniel Ingalls’s Sanskrit Poetry from Vidyākara’s “Treasury” (1968), Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of Gods in the World of Men (2009) and his recent A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics (2016), and the edited volume South Asian Texts in History: Critical Engagements with Sheldon Pollock...