Comparative literature is an interdisciplinary field engaged with the study of global literature or literary output across borders, nations, time periods, genres, forms and themes. It views literary texts as both being the product of a specific language and culture and as a universal phenomenon transcending national and cultural boundaries and timeframes. Students and academics attempt to define the fundamental characteristics of literature, but also view it in the broader context of history, social changes and philosophical thought. Academics compare and contrast literary works of different languages and cultures, but also focus on works produced by different nations and cultures that share a common language.
Comparative literature specialists, also called "comparatists," are people with interest and expertise in languages and an extensive knowledge in literary criticism, theory and traditions. They are also proficient in arts, history, culture and religion. Comparative literature involves complex, multilingual and eclectic studies mixing the national and the international perspective. Historically, comparative literature has shifted from narrow, selective studies on European masterpieces and works of former colonial powers to more eclectic and multidisciplinary research — moving from a Eurocentric outlook to a global one, including minority literatures. However, some comparative literature departments and research centers at international universities stick to the traditions of literary history and criticism, while others are more influenced by post-modern philosophy such as the post-structuralism of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and by anthropological studies. Studies also focus on the relation between literature and folklore and myths. Russian philologist Fyodor Buslaev (1818-1898), for example, represented the mythological school of comparative literature.
The origins of comparative literature can be traced back to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1827 concept of Weltliteratur (world literature) and to philology, which combines linguistics, history and literary studies. Transylvanian scholar Hugo Meltzl, the chief editor of the first journal of comparative literature Acta Comparrationis Litteratum Universarum, and Irish scholar Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett, the author of Comparative Literature (1886), have been largely referred to as the pioneers of the discipline. Meltzl founded his journal in 1877 together with his colleague Samuel Brassai, with the ambition of challenging the dominant role of Germany in cultural and academic exchange, as well as the literary nationalism of the European powers, by expanding the field to other cultures (namely China) and to literatures of smaller nations, notably Hungary. The journal was printed in ten languages and the polyglot focus was maintained through editorial board members from European countries, including Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and the Netherlands, as well as from the US, India, Egypt, Japan and Australia. Meltzl and Brassai also worked to promote oral and folk studies as they sought to break the domination of great powers and include smaller nations and less commonly spoken languages into literary studies.
From the start of the 20th century until World War II the field was dominated by the empirical and positivist perspective offering detailed historical research, tracing the historical origins and influences in literary texts. After WWII, Hungarian scholar and lecturer at the Free University Berlin, Peter Szondi (1929–1971) gave a significant push to German comparative literature studies. He led the Institute for General and Comparative Literature at the university contributing to the development of literary hermeneutics (interpretation) and the modern theory of drama. Szondi also invited prominent scholars to deliver speeches and lectures including French philosopher and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, American literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman and Czech-American comparative literary critic Rene Wellek. Later, the post-war approach brought back the cosmopolitan ideas of Goethe and Posnett and regained earlier focus on literary criticism and the search for common truths in literary models transcending time and place. The field is now characterized by the proliferation of modern cultural studies, which no longer encompass only Western Europe and Anglo-American literature but work from all over the world.
In her book Death of a Discipline Indian literary critic and theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (born 1942) declares the end of the traditional Europe- and US- focused comparative literature advocating a new field that constantly crosses borders, embraces linguistic and cultural diversity, and encourages text reading in their original language. Another renown scholar, Susan Bassnett (born 1945), claims that comparative literature and translation studies complement each other with the latter increasing the mobility of texts. Yet the three main international conferences in comparative literature after WWII – in 1965, 1975 and 1993, largely mirror the highly challenging and multifocal nature of the discipline along with the theoretical rigidity and linguistic incongruity while still seeking to redefine its major goals.