“Literature With and Without Borders” 有/無國界文學

(ICLA Congress keynote address, Macau, July 2019)

I’ll begin, as I often do, by looking over at what the scientists are doing. Or at what some scientists are doing, as they notice what other scientists have been doing and not doing. My text for this exercise is short and non-technical. It comes, in fact, from the announcement of a talk given recently at the University of Chicago Center in Hong Kong, by one of my colleagues, Nipam Patel who runs the Marine Biology Lab. So although we work at the same institution, thanks to the incredible diversity of academia, a lot separates us. He’s in the water whereas I’m in the air; he’s on the beach for work, whereas I go to the beach on vacation; and there as many other contrasts as you can imagine. Still, I feel that he and I are bothered by the same things. Here is the announcement of his recent talk:

Scientists often depend exclusively on so-called model organisms, such as fruit flies, mice, and frogs, for their research.  While investigation of these animals has led to incredible advances in both basic and translational biology, they represent only a tiny slice of the diversity of life on earth.  Professor Nipam Patel will explore questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals that are studied.

You might be misled by the phrase “model organisms.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the best examples to study, the most exemplary organisms, or the ones other organisms should aspire to emulate. The natural scientists I know are ticklish about questions of value and feel more comfortable concentrating on what is. “Model” is not here a normative term, as often in the humanities (if I say in a letter that my student has written a model dissertation, that’s strong praise and you should hire her right away). The word “model” is used here neutrally to refer to an empirical, historical fact. Organisms become model organisms not because of some intrinsic quality but simply because they have already been studied in depth, they’re well understood, and the results of this research are available for the whole scientific community to explore. The reasons for selecting these organisms come down, usually, not to their utility for pure science, but for other reasons: because of their accessibility (that’s the case for the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, with its mere four sets of chromosomes and its speedy reproductive cycle; it was first identified as a useful laboratory animal in the 1880s) or because of their economic utility to humans. If tobacco and corn were not basic to large profitable industries, I am sure their biology would not be nearly as well-known as it is, and as it happens more is known about tobacco and corn than about almost any plant. Although “model” is used in the natural sciences, as I have said, in a way that does not have the same strong connotations of perfection and desirability as it does in the humanities, there are still some value-based factors behind the choice of objects of study. We value our time, so we should start with organisms that are simply to understand, plentiful, or easy to deal with in a laboratory setting; and because we value things that make our lives possible or enjoyable, or that promise huge fortunes, it’s understandable that we would direct attention selectively toward the plants that serve such functions. 

There’s no problem with the fact that a few organisms get all the attention, as long as we don’t suppose that those are therefore the organisms that deserve all the attention. And Professor Patel’s point is precisely that attention can and should be distributed more widely. To quote the abstract once more: “While investigation of these animals has led to incredible advances in both basic and translational biology, they represent only a tiny slice of the diversity of life on earth. Professor Nipam Patel will explore questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals that are studied.” All right then! Here’s where I climb onto the coattails of my eminent colleague. For we in literary studies too have our “model organisms.” If I say the word “tragedy,” or “lyric,” or “novel,” you will certainly be able to come up with a description or even a definition of those genres, and because you are comparatists, you’ll have more than one example, from more than one period and language, for each; but at the back of our definitions is usually an example held by the people in our subfields to be the typical, or the most rewarding, or the most complete case of the thing we are talking about. Otherwise the conversation we are always having, the comparing and evaluating and appreciating, can’t happen. The model examples of our model examples are easy to locate. For the word tragedy, most of us will think back to Aristotle’s meticulous investigation of that Greek genre which took Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex as the ideal example. For epic, where would we look but in Homer? If, however, we extend our consideration to epics from other times and places, for example Indian or Turkic or Tibetan epics, we’ll soon be discovering the limits of our comparison-case. Not every epic behaves like a Homeric epic, and the differences are not necessarily flaws. It is surprising that, three hundred years and more after regular cultural communication among the educated people of the various continents has been opened, we are still reasoning about epic, lyric, drama, the novel, the Bildungsroman, the pastoral, ekphrasis, and so on, on the basis of a really very small set of examples. As a result, generic definitions are often either brittle or shallow. If you want to talk about the world novel, you have to start from the implication that a novel is something like Quixote or Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace, or else by positing a primordial shift from the epic mode of narration to the novelistic one, or some such gesture that gives you a basis whereupon to recruit your examples. There’s also often a claim of inheritance: the novel of 1800, or the novel in Indonesia, can be explained as an effect of emulation of the novel of 1700 or the novel in Spain, France, or England. The embarrassment is that among the world’s great novels there are quite a few that originate separately from such genealogies, don’t entirely fit the models provided by the traditions that are familiar to people working in European languages, and can in fact call into question the usefulness of the category “novel”: such as the Tale of Genji, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and so forth. This is what I mean by brittleness and shallowness: either your definition of the novel clings so tightly to a few examples that it will break if you try to detach it from them, or it covers all possible instances at the price of saying not very much about them. I’m not very happy about this condition of the critical language, and I’ve tried to deal with it as I can, in the same way many of us do, by putting in modifications. These modifications tend to segregate and specify. A good example is Walter Benjamin’s study, now nearly a hundred years old, on what he called Trauerspiel or “mourning play,” which is translated into English in the title of his famous book as “German Tragic Drama.” From the moment we read those words we know that we are not embarking on a discussion that puts those 17th-century German plays in the lineage of ancient Athenian tragedy, mostly because, put up against those classic examples, the German plays will sound awkward, contorted, corny, even comical. So by affixing a new name to this genre Benjamin could declare their independence from the classical models, and investigate them as a body of works having their own aesthetics, purposes, and effects. 

What is wonderful about this way of proceeding is that, after Benjamin had made strong claims for the singular qualities of these admittedly strange plays, his readers began to see the classical tradition in a different light. You might realize that, in their way, the plays of Aeschylus are Trauerspiele. Seneca might be aiming at effects that the German closet dramatists achieved as well. We see new things in familiar works, non-classical things in classical works. The intensive scrutiny that Benjamin gave to his model organism did in the end bring to literary studies what Professor Patel calls “incredible advances in both basic and translational biology.” Or rather—I quoted a little too much in the literal mode—“incredible advances in both theoretical and programmatic poetics.” Benjamin showed us, through his eccentric choice of model organism, how to value certain kinds of writing, previously undervalued, and how to outline ways of responding to drama that had not been tried yet but that might be exactly what certain writers and audiences needed. 

We all read a lot of dissertations, a lot of manuscripts submitted for journals, a lot of drafts by friends and colleagues. And you know just by being a member of a field what the “model organisms” permitting analysis and generalization in that field are. No one in American literature can escape the necessity of referring to the many analyses, including some classic analyses, of Walden, or Moby-Dick, or The Sound and the Fury. In your apprenticeship as a member of that field you study previous dissections of those corpora in order to learn how to do it yourself on the same or different corpora. No one in Chinese poetry can avoid analyzing Guan juor Qiu xing ba shou or Qian hou Chibi fu, or drawing on the canonical previous interpretations of them. These are the organisms that are best known, and that therefore make possible the smoothest and richest communication among people who share that knowledge. An unintentionally humorous reference to this practice occurs in Goethe’s novel The Sufferings of Young Werther, when Werther and Lotte stand together at the window watching a thunderstorm.

The thunder was passing by and a wonderful rain was falling on the land, filling the warm air with the most refreshing fragrance. She stood there resting on her elbows, gazing deep into the country about us; she looked to the heavens, and at me, and I saw there were tears in her eyes; and she laid her hand on mine and said ‘Klopstock!’ At once I remembered the glorious ode she had in mind…

It takes only one word, one poet’s name, to make a rich and dense communication possible: that’s the value of a shared model organism. It would have been better academic form, however, if she had said “cf. Klopstock.”

(There’s more, but this seemed like a good place to stop.)