Comparative Literature in Ireland and Worldwide an Interview with Professor Declan Kiberd

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Q: I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about Comparative Literature generally. Comparative Literature has been called an 'indiscipline' rather than a discipline per se. It's a very loose area. So my first question to you is: what are the attractions of this 'indiscipline' to you as a scholar and as a writer?

A: Well, all literary study is inherently comparative. The book you are reading now is, in your own mind, in constant comparison with lots of earlier books you've read. And that's true within a language (you might be reading a book written at the present moment which deals with pain or laughter, and you'd compare it with the book written six hundred years ago). In a wider sense than that, of course, what we mean strictly by Comp. Lit. is a comparison and contrast between literatures of different languages. But actually, I think, across time, and even within language, the practice of Comparative Literature is just as vital, and it's something we all do anyway, though we don't call it that. Comp. Lit. as practiced by great exponents like Spitzer and Auerbach often involved the study by way of comparison of texts from two or three cognate languages. Say, a Germanist like Auerbach was very, very interested in French and in Italian (part of this has to do with his formation in World War I, the sense he had of not really wanting to go along with the anti-French jingoism of his childhood and youth), and if you look at his book Mimesis, he focuses more on French than on any other authors. So, one of the great attractions of Comp. Lit. in that sense is the way in which it repairs the damaging effects of political conflict and opens people out to multiple narratives. But of course, then you have to say, it's also rather confined. They are usually dealing with cognate languages and literatures, and they are usually dealing with genres whose basic forms they already understand in terms of their own source literature. I mean, one of the fascinations is the realisation that all identity is dialogic, that even the emergence of the Irish Literary Revival is based on sustained acts of comparison. For instance, the Cuchulainn and Red Branch Knight stories are really a kind of Irish equivalent to the Arthuriad in England, or the emphasis on the sense of place in Gaelic poetry in some ways is comparable to the sense of place in Romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge. The very way in which Ireland was 'invented' as a culture a hundred years ago is a sustained act of comparison with England, but it's also, of course, an act of homage to a culture whose political representatives those Revivalists are fighting. You know, someone like Pearse loved Wordsworth, modelled himself on Matthew Arnold, yet he leads a military action against the British presence. The fascination for me is that Pearse himself was a comparativist, as well as being a nationalist--one because he was the other. Acton said that exile is the 'cradle of nationality' and that Irish people discovered they were Irish by making constant acts of comparison. But this is true, of say, Goethe: he said that he couldn't hate the adjoining peoples, because so much of his culture depended on reading their books. And Wilde used that quote in explaining his own love of English literature. So, I think, in a way, all writers are comparativists. They sometimes feel a deeper sense of affinity with writers from other languages and nations than with previous writers in their own tradition, and they will always go where the magnetism dictates.

As you said, "all writers are comparativists". Would you consider Joyce as particularly representative of comparativist writing? You speak, for example, of the multiculturalist strand in Ulysses, with its, as you say in your latest book, "infusions from many national and spiritual traditions". Do you think that Ireland is perhaps a particularly apt place for exploring Comp. Lit.?

Well, the tradition of migration and exile is so strong in Irish writing, and that is the tradition that underpins Comparative Literature as a practice. …