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  • Progress, Comparison, and the Nature of Literary Historyor, Notes from the Children’s Table
  • David Lurie (bio)

When I was young, holiday dinners had unequal seating: one long table for the grownups and a smaller satellite table for the children. The children’s table became progressively less appealing to its older members, who felt their subordination keenly and cocked ears toward the often only half-understood conversation of the adults at the other end of the room. As a nonspecialist, reading this volume—Yigal Bronner, David Shulman, and Gary Tubb’s Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kāvya Literature—reminded me of that mild form of exile. What follows are some of my thoughts as I strained to follow the party-talk of the grownups at the kavya table; half-understood though it was, I listened to it with something approaching the awe and exclusion felt at holiday meals long past.

The sense of awe is heartfelt. Even an outsider immediately grasps the magnitude of what this volume has accomplished: the richness and sophistication of its conception and various individual contributions (twenty-five chapters by twelve authors) are overwhelming. But I also find myself dwelling on feelings of exclusion. This great book creates many opportunities for comparative dialogue with other literary histories, but for the most part it does so inadvertently, and reluctant though I am to cavil about what might have been, I cannot help regretting its failure to address a larger nonspecialist audience. Among the measures that relegate the likes of me to the children’s table: the lack of a general introduction or overview aimed at readers not already familiar with the outlines of kavya literature; extensive use of untranslated and unglossed technical terms (ameliorated somewhat by the index); a general (though by no means universal) reluctance to propose comparisons or discuss theoretical implications of particular cases; and the absence of any time line, glossary, or other ancillary aids for the uninitiated reader. Of course publications aimed at specialist audiences are an essential part of modern humanistic scholarship, and given the massive size of this volume, it is understandable that the editors would choose not to bulk it up further with explanations that would, I concede, be superfluous for most of its readers. And yet I cannot help wondering what this project might have been like if all of us had been invited to sit at the same table.


In 1900 Arthur A. Macdonell wrote that

nearly all the most valuable works of the Vedic, as well as the later period, have within the last fifty years been made accessible in thoroughly trust-worthy editions. . . . Thus in the course of a century the whole range of Sanskrit literature, which in quantity exceeds that of Greece and Rome put together, has been explored. The great bulk of it has been edited, and most of its valuable productions have been translated, by competent hands.1

In 2014, Bronner, Shulman, and Tubb begin the volume under review by stipulating that

the history of Sanskrit kāvya has yet to be written. This book, however, is not a history of Sanskrit kāvya. We may be generations away from such a work. Moreover, by no means are all moments of truly consequential innovation in this tradition addressed or even noticed in the following essays. What we hope to offer is a series of pilot studies . . . arranged in a roughly chronological sequence that highlights structural, thematic, and generic breakthroughs. . . . Within this rather polyphonic chorus, representing voices from nearly two millennia in large parts of Asia, fragments of a central narrative are nonetheless manifest.2

Comparing these prefatory passages, the latter’s greater sophistication is apparent, of course, but what stands out even more is its relative diffidence. Foremost among the specters that haunt Innovations and Turning Points is the notion of progress, and so I find myself wondering, historiographically, at how progress over more than a century [End Page 155] could produce such an apparent loss of confidence. After a certain point in their development, do scholarly communities learn more in order to know less? Or are there other factors behind this reluctance, not only to compile...


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