- Telling the Story of Literature from Inside OutMethods and Tools for Non-European Poetics
How do we compare the literatures of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, when the very tools through which these literatures are to be engaged have been devised for other purposes? When the chronologies, the typologies, the categories, and the genres were formulated with a view to European literary histories? These questions hurl us toward another abyss: how in rejecting or seeking to transform these tools, as most of us will, do we avoid the trap of nativism or of narrow historicism? How do we move beyond refutation and deprecation to negotiate the complex dialectic of understanding literatures on their own terms while making the most of tools and methods already in general currency? Failing to engage with this dialectic mires us in Eurocentrism. Yet, if we reject the tools available to us and refuse to engage with the discourses in widest currency within our immediate academic spheres, the results we obtain will communicate nothing to the broader world.
Such is the dilemma faced by a work such as Yigal Bronner, David Dean Shulman, and Gary A. Tubb’s Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kāvya Literature. It offers a preliminary history of kavya, the Sanskrit term for literary composition that encompasses poetry and prose, for a world wherein the conceptualization of this subject is as yet in its infancy. It does so through sections focused on specific authors (Kalidasa, Bana), genres (the mahakavya), historical periods (“poets of the new millennium”), and specific geographies (“regional kavyas”). The kavya conceived of here is broadly South Asian rather than Sanskritic, and yet all of its iterations bear the traces of Sanskrit. The editors identify four major sources for writing kavya’s history: “what poets have to say about other poets”; “what poets have to say about their own poetry”; “popular accounts and assessments”; and “the explicit remarks of professional critics and theorists.”1 These four sources constitute the archive, not only of literature, but also of literary criticism and literary theory. These texts are commentaries on other texts, as well as on themselves. They constitute the material of literary scholarship while also exemplifying it, enabling the reader to step back from the text and consider how it has been—and might and should be—read. The words of poets about the work of other poets, about their own work, popular accounts, and the accounts of critics are the core sources available to the would-be kayva chronicler.
For a specialist in the literatures of the Islamic world, particularly Persian and the multilingual Caucasus, the fourfold typology of sources set forth in this volume gives rise to the question of how they can provide a model for writing literary history, and the history of literature’s reflection on itself (otherwise known as literary theory). How does such meta-reflection work for literatures that have yet to be fully integrated within the world literary [End Page 170] canon? I share much common ground with the contributors to this volume: we all struggle against a general condition, wherein the texts and traditions we work on are positioned at the margins of literary studies as a discipline. As Dan Martin rightly complains on the basis of his expertise, “Literature as such does not fill the cultural niche that the academy reserves for Tibet” (567). The terrain of Tibetan literature is instead given over to religious and area studies, with occasional admixtures of history. The same might be said of the literatures of the Caucasus, especially Georgian, but Persian too, to a lesser extent.2 Although this state of affairs may not trouble scholars who do not prioritize the study of literature above everything else, it is immensely frustrating to those of us who were first drawn to the literatures in question in part because of the unique forms of aesthetic experience literary texts specifically—and not historical or religious texts—make available to us.
From the Norton Anthologies to freshman introductory courses to the Cambridge Histories, existing institutions for the study of literature do not treat non-European literatures with the rigor they merit.3...