Academic journal article The Comparatist

Meeting at the Crossroads: Mapping Worlds and World Literature

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Meeting at the Crossroads: Mapping Worlds and World Literature

Article excerpt

   Me and my buddies we are travelling people
   We like to go down to restaurant row
   Spend those Euro-dollars
   All the way from Washington to Tokyo
   I see them in the airport lounge
   Upon their mother's breast
   They follow me with open eyes
   Their uninvited guest
   Paul Simon, "Born at the Right Time"

We should understand the crossroads. It is the place of mythical and symbolic importance. In Caribbean and African traditions, the crossroads is a guarded sacred place for it is a place of meeting not just of the living, but also of the living and the dead. I have little doubt that our interest in this symbol is related to the idea of intersections, the meeting of cultures, the interaction that happens when various cultures meet. In many ways, by finding in the place of the world of literature a metaphor that speaks of a meeting of people, ideas and cultures as well as a meeting that crosses times and involves the living and the dead, what we are doing is suggesting that the very concept of comparative literature is one marked by exchange, by the quite positive exercise of various cultures coming together.

But these meetings are not all positive. They are meetings that unsettle our comforts, that remind us of what we do not know in as much as they remind us of what we know. In the traditions of Africa and the Caribbean, there is almost always a guardian of the crossroads, someone who is acutely aware of the limitations of human beings in their capacity to find union and positive connection at the crossroads. The guardian is the keeper of the stories, the interpreter of the stories and the teller of the stories. In many ways, we are working with a rich vein of metaphors in this very idea. The guardian is the mapper of the worlds we are speaking of. And it is no accident that the very incarnation of this myth of the crossroads is rooted in a quite ancient tradition of the crossroads, a tradition that crosses so many cultures--one of the few things that we can safely call universal.

The myth of the crossroads raises other fundamental questions that have been raised since the beginning of this enterprise called humanity, and that we have not found a useful answer for. There is a reason why we cannot find an answer. It is because the very process of the questioning is at the heart of the value of this dilemma and it makes what we are engaged with here so important. It tells us that what we do must be done with an openness to the possibility of what can enrich our world, and yet with a deep sense of what the dangers are.

Most of you would know the mythos of the tower of Babel. The circumstance that presents itself in the narrative called Genesis is one that would actually make much of what we do in comparative literature, absolutely redundant. "Now the whole world had one language and a common speech." With their common speech, the people arrived at a profound truth. They determined that if they were able to maintain this singular speech they would be able to dominate and control the world. For some reason, this hubris has come to be seen as a kind of arrogance--a sense of invulnerability borne out of the monolingual power that they possessed. They chose to build a tower to announce their power. God, speaking to himself, determined that this was not a good idea. So his action was to destroy the remarkable tower and create multiple languages, causing confusion among the people. The languages pushed people apart. They went to different areas of the world. Implicit in this moment is something else. It is the suggestion that the enmity of wars and conflicts emerged out of this scattering, this separation which was marked by language.

We might have long debates about the theological and philosophical implications of this narrative, but it would seem more useful to treat it as an encounter with a myth that helps to theorize not so much about how things came to be, but about how things are. …

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