- Small Philology and Large Philology
Edited by Yigal Bronner, David Dean Shulman, and Gary A. Tubb
New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014
816 pp., $39.95 (cloth)
Even as the humanities shrink in public estimation and university support, and broad competence erodes in the languages that constitute some 90 percent of the literary humanities—the literatures of the non-West up to 1800—a new day in global classical literary studies seems to be dawning. In a gloomy moment one might attribute this counterintuitive trend to anxiety in the face of a looming catastrophe, as in the Indian vision of apocalypse, where day is brightest—with two suns rising at dawn—before the final night. But whatever its cause, a dynamic reengagement with the classics is clearly in evidence.
Just in the past decade the scholarly world has welcomed a trove of major collaborative histories of non-Western, in particular premodern non-Western, literature. Off the top of my head I can think of one of African and Caribbean literature, two of Japanese, three of Chinese, a vast multivolume history of Arabic literature, and an even vaster one of Persian, aside from innovative, single-author works on more restricted periods.1 In addition, new series of classical literature have recently been founded that aspire to make major texts in new translations available to the general no less than the scholarly public: the Library of Arabic Literature (New York University Press, 2012); the Murty Classical Library of India (Harvard University Press, 2014); the Library of Chinese Humanities (De Gruyter, 2015); and the Library of Judeo-Arabic Literature (Brigham Young/University of Chicago Press, 2017). And that is just literary histories and editions. The range of important new monographic work in the field is equally impressive. [End Page 122]
The ambitious new synthesis of classical Indian literature under review here, Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kāvya Literature (ITP), certainly fits this trend. The book represents an attempt to think—across time, space, language, and genre—about the ways that kavya, the Sanskrit term for expressive writing in general, grew and changed over some two thousand years. It does this not in the usual way of literary histories, rethinking eras and areas and audiences. The major periodizations, for example, which have in fact become scholarly consensus only in the past decade or so, largely structure the book’s exposition: the origin of an entirely new form of expressivity—written expressivity—in the last centuries before the Common Era; a continuous and highly reflexive development through the first millennium and into the second; and an early modern moment, where regional-language literatures, from Gujarat to Tibet to Java, are newly invented, often by adopting the transregional paradigm of Sanskrit (a process that is chronologically, linguistically, and even politically parallel to what occurred in early modern Europe). Where ITP itself innovates and marks a turning point for the study of South Asian literature is the method of analysis: close reading of the texts them-selves—insightful and accomplished in a manner almost without precedent in the field—and the revelation of historically innovative artistry.
While not itself explicitly comparative, ITP, by its careful exhumation of the key characteristics of a classical literary tradition, implicitly issues a strong invitation to comparison to classicists from other regions. Indeed, that this can be taken as an invitation at all comes from a second powerful impulse, in addition to a renewal of interest in the classical, that marks the contemporary literary humanities: a revitalization of the theory and practice of comparativism but now on a global scale. Even as European comparative literature itself has stopped comparing and the very idea of global forms of consciousness and culture have come under attack from nationalists everywhere from India to Turkey to the UK and US, the need for making sense of literary life as a planetary whole, of finding new sources of solidarity by way of thinking difference together...