- KavyaProspects for a Comparative Poetics
The volume under consideration here, Yigal Bronner, David Dean Shulman, and Gary A. Tubb’s Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kāvya Literature, is a survey of two millennia of Sanskrit poetry. But it is a survey that knows its limits: “The history of Sanskrit kavya has yet to be written. . . . We may be generations away from such a work.”1 The authors offer us instead a series of what they call “pilot studies,” of themes, authors, genres, and literary cultures, linked by editorial frames and placed in a rough chronological order. There are 781 pages of text.
I write my contribution to this Kitabkhana as a scholar trained in classical Arabic. My only prior acquaintance with Sanskrit was brief graduate school glances at the shelves of the Indl. classification, glances filled with longing and the sense that I had missed an opportunity, on my way to the Arabic books I was still learning to read. Now, as a scholar of comparative literature who has both completed a PhD and read Innovations and Turning Points, my overwhelming feeling is intrigue at the potential for comparative work. Why write a magisterial survey like this, in English, if not to enable conversation with scholars who are not specialists in Sanskrit? Conversely, why read 781 pages of this breadth and depth in English, if one already knows the poetry and is deeply familiar with the tradition? Might scholars of Sanskrit only dip into Innovations and Turning Points for reference, or use it for teaching, or read it in its entirety for a review? These are exaggerated questions, but I am keen to stress that I think this book creates the potential for a comparative conversation between scholars of Sanskrit and scholars trained in other traditions. This is a rare achievement; the problem that comparativists usually face in the European and Anglophone academy is that our conversations stall on the thinness of our knowledge of each other’s traditions outside Europe.
Absent a sense of how a language culture’s conceptual vocabulary works and has developed, absent an orientation to the genres and disciplinary conventions of that language culture, absent a comprehension of the depth, complexity, and historical weight of ideas that have no analogue in the traditions with which one is familiar, comparative conversations tend to stumble. For Arabists, for example, the questions we most often encounter are variants of an assumption that Arabic or Islamic literary culture became stagnant and is dominated by the Quran. My answer is always a mutually unsatisfying, “No, not stagnant at all! And as for the Quran, well yes, to a certain extent, but not quite as you may mean . . .” In order to avoid stumbling when asking and answering questions like this, one needs both parties to the conversation to have read hundreds of pages of sophisticated orientation, surveys that in the case of Arabic must go beyond the tired Orientalist tropes of decline and fetishization that dominated twentieth-century scholarship and still hold sway in popular culture. Innovations and Turning Points provides exactly that prerequisite for Sanskrit poetry. Bronner et al. have their own Sanskrit version of the Arabic trope of Quran-centric decline: “the [untenable] lingering view that Sanskrit poetry is monolithic, self-replicating, and ultimately sterile” (6). They also have their own core conceptual vocabulary [End Page 163] without easy analogue in English: kavya, the word in their title for which their book provides a successful 781-page gloss.
Innovations and Turning Points is comprehensive, successful, and a challenge. It is a call to comparative work, and its challenge is the question “how can we think comparatively about Sanskrit poetry?” We can no longer fall back on the excuse that more orientation is needed. What are the prospects now for comparative poetics?
In order to answer this question, I would like to work through a few options for comparativism, before settling on a tentative suggestion for future comparative poetics. I will structure the options with the help of some (still useful) theory from prior decades: Claudio Guillén (1993), Patrick Hogan and Earl Miner (1996), and Revathi Krishnaswamy (2010). How might a...