Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Irish Literature Is Not Comparative Literature

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Irish Literature Is Not Comparative Literature

Article excerpt

Irish literature exists as a dual entity. It was composed in two languages.

Thomas Kinsella, The Dual Tradition

MY TITLE HERE IS AN HOMAGE TO E. D. BLODGETT'S 1988 essay "Canadian Literature Is Comparative Literature." Published in College English, it argues that studies of Canadian literature worthy of the name need to acknowledge the comparative essence of the exercise, acknowledge not only that Canadian literature exists in many languages but is also formed by multiple cultural communities. Blodgett's essay is a pithy summary of what has become known as "Comparative Canadian Literature." Although Clement Moisan lamented in 1969 that "il n'existe pas encore d'etudes comparees des deux litteratures du Canada" [comparative studies of the two literatures of Canada do not yet exist] (20-21), by the 1970s and 80s, such studies had become more common. The best-known examples in French are Moisan's Poesie des frontieres: Etude comparee des poesies canadienne et quebecoise (1979) and Comparaison et raison: Essais sur l'histoire et l'institution des litteratures canadienne et quebecoise (1987); in English they are Blodgett's own 1982 book Configuration: Essays on the Canadian Literatures and Ronald Sutherland's books Second Image: Comparative Studies in Quebec/Canadian Literature (1971) and The New Hero: Essays in Comparative Quebec/Canadian Literature (1977). Blodgett's most recent book, the meta-historical Five Part Invention (published in 2004; see Esc 30:2,161-64, for Tracy Ware's review), is very much in the tradition of this body of Comparative Canadian Literature. These are some of the real high points of the Canadian literary criticism of the 70s and 80s, embodying a critical ethic that is textually engaged, culturally aware, and linguistically pluralist. And they lead to very exciting developments in Canadian intellectual life; Moisan is a distinguished literary historian and until recently headed up the Centre de recherche en litterature quebecoise at Universite Laval in Quebec City, Blodgett helped to found both the Canadian Comparative Literature Association and its journal the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature /Revue canadienne de litterature comparee (both of which remain committed to making Canadian literature part of world literature, and doing so in a way that is multi-lingual), and Sutherland was instrumental in creating and developing a graduate program in Canadian Comparative Literature at Universite de Sherbrooke.

It is tempting, then, to think of this work as a potential model for Irish literature. These sorts of "Comparative" studies seemed to be what Declan Kiberd was calling for in his 1982 manifesto "Writers in Quarantine? The Case for Irish Studies," published in The Crane Bag. He insisted there that a reasonable Irish Studies needed to be bilingual, so that its practitioners could deal with texts in both Irish and English in a way that recognized that they were basically part of the same tradition. (1) This essay shares a great deal with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's call for a Comparative Literature that integrated the best aspects of Area Studies. Writing in Death of A Discipline, the book-length version of her 2000 Wellek Library lectures, she called for a next step that "would work to make the traditional linguistic sophistication of Comparative Literature supplement Area Studies (and history, anthropology, political theory and sociology) by approaching the language of the other not only as a 'field' language. [...] We must take the languages of the Southern Hemisphere as active cultural media rather than as objects of cultural study by the sanctioned ignorance of the metropolitan migrant" (8). This sort of sanctioned ignorance is a recurring complaint of Irish-language activists, who often feel they are portrayed as toiling in some arcane, eccentric pursuit, whereas everyone knows that the real action is in English (even though Article 8 of the Constitution of Ireland specifically identifies Irish as the first language of the Republic). …

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