Comparative Difficulties in the Global Academy

by guest contributor Nicholas Bellinson

[Fu Xi] looking up… observed the images in the heavens and looking down he observed the models in the earth. He looked at how the markings of the birds and animals were appropriate to the earth. Near at hand he took them from his body, and at a distance he took them from things. With these he first made the eight trigrams [written characters]…. (The Classic of Changes, “Commentary on the Appended Phrases,” translated by Edward Shaughnessy with modifications by Jane Geaney)

Adam first gave names to all things with souls, calling each one after its apparent constitution as well as after the role in nature to which it was bound… in that language… which is called Hebrew. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XII.I)

At once, these two legends—one from the Chinese and one from the Christian Latin canon—invite comparison. Did both cultures, we wonder, derive this myth of natural language from a common source, or do the two stories manifest some universally human relationship to language? In my ignorance of Chinese traditions, I have no idea whether the ancestors and immediate offspring of the Fu Xi legend are documented. However, the Western discovery of this story and of the Chinese writing system (thanks to Jesuit missionaries in China) certainly resonated with learned Europeans more because of their own linguistic origin story. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher wrote in his monumental China Illuminated (1667) that

The Chinese place the first invention of letters about three hundred years after the Flood; the first inventor of letters was also a king named Fòhì…. The ancient Chinese obtained their characters from all the things which were presented to their sight, and from the various order and arrangement of these many accumulated things made manifest the concepts in their mind. (VI.i-ii)

Kircher thought that the Chinese were descended from the Egyptians, that the Chinese characters were hieroglyphic, and that both Egyptian and Chinese hieroglyphs encoded imperfect versions of the Edenic knowledge of nature which Adam had used to name the animals and passed on to his descendants. (Leibniz, meanwhile, read the The Classic of Changes and found support for his theory that all human thought could be reduced to binary code.)

Kircher eagerly assimilated a culture with which he had only passing familiarity into his standard universal-historical framework based on the Biblical creation myth; he would do the same with India, Egypt, and any other ancient culture he encountered. Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows how treacherous this temptation can be—and why we bitterly call words that sound similar but mean different things faux amis (“false friends”). The temptation grows with ignorance and distance.

Comparatists working across chasms of space, time, and culture have to take particular care not to fall in. We still both enjoy and criticize the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, in which he compares the immediate style of Homeric epic to the inward style of the Bible. Under the influence of globalization, comparative literary scholars and historians have increasingly undertaken comparisons of entire traditions. Sometimes they give us useful scholarly projects and gatherings—but with more breadth often comes greater superficiality, and correspondingly the need for the academy to insist on greater depth of knowledge. The line between caution and limitation is fine, but worth treading.

I recently attended several sessions of the four-day international workshop “Across Text and Source: Comparative Perspectives in Literary and Historical Theory” at the University of Chicago (where I first heard of Fu Xi). Dr. Ulrich Timme Kragh noted in his opening remarks that, due to the vast range of the participants’ expertise, the organizers had chosen to divide each forty-eight-minute session into two ten-minute “concept papers” followed by discussion—in admitted hopes of “mutual intelligibility.” The primary goal of this event was to reexamine the categories of “text” and “source” using examples from ancient and medieval Asia and Europe (though modern comparanda were adduced on occasion).

“Ambitious” is a gentle word for such a goal. How does one initiate listeners into the mysteries of an alien culture in ten minutes, forty-eight minutes, or four days? I was fascinated to learn from Dr. Ping Wang that the classical Chinese wén (“text,” according to her) literally means a “woven pattern,” much like the English “text” (cf. Latin textus from texo “I weave”)—but the ensuing discussion involved enough disagreement about the exact meaning of wén that I came away without a confident evaluation of the conceptual parallelism between the two words. Participants keenly aware of the structural difficulties facing them sought to disentangle (or perhaps even spin) den roten Faden (“the red thread,” a German phrase for the unifying concept or theme); I wasn’t present for enough of the conference to judge their ultimate success. The obvious gains of such an event are intimations of new material which participants can later investigate in depth: new texts, new ideas, new patterns. I wonder, though, whether these gains come at the prohibitive cost of a certain model of scholarship.

When a medieval Latinist and a classical sinologist discuss similar features of their respective scholarly domains, they will produce a very different kind of comparative work from that of a single scholar who knows both traditions very well. To return to the analogy of foreign languages: translating The Classic of Changes into English would require one fluent reader of both English and classical Chinese, not two distinct speakers of English and classical Chinese. (Occasionally, “translations” have been attempted without knowledge of the language, like Stephen Mitchell’s rewritings of Chinese texts, which have been criticized by “very irate Taoists.”) In general, I’m inclined to think that two comparatists’ heads are not better than one.

To be clear: cultural historians and literary theorists have much to learn from even a superficial acquaintance with other cultures and time periods. In perhaps the most celebrated case of successful comparative work, Milman Parry and Albert Lord derived permanent insights about the Homeric poems’ composition from ethnographic research on modern Slavic bards. Entire fields, like narratology and generic criticism, are highly comparative. Yet because comparatists often emphasize formal similarities and minimize differences, they can seem intentionally superficial and stubborn. It’s not a new point that “close reading” implies a focus deliberately rejected in the comparative approach, but the growing interest in “global” comparative projects occasions a renewed call for caution: studying the intersection of two traditions requires firm prior knowledge of both.

Nicholas Bellinson is a second-year graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He has studied Renaissance literature, art history, and history of science. He is writing his dissertation on Shakespeare.

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