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Early 20th-century literary critics Joseph Collins, Hermann Hesse, and Percy Lubbock concluded that the pages of a book present a succession of moments that the reader visualizes and reinterprets. They feared that few would actually commit themselves to memory, and that most were likely to soon disappear. As you turn these pages, you will (re)discover the value of the literary canon through the Self. My objective is to examine how the Self is formed, lost, and regained through creative strategies that confront and define its shapes and distortions on nearly every page of a canonical work. You can consider Confronting / Defining the Self: Formation and Dissolution of the ‘I’ from La Fayette to Grass as offering an apology for the study of literature and the humanities in an era when technology and commerce dominate our consciousness, drive our daily expectations, and shape our career goals.

Abstract

This essay addresses the question of how Comparative Literature contributes to a sense of being at home in the world. Comparative Literature is today more than ever a ‘peculiar’ discipline. It is better understood as an inter-discipline or a trans-discipline, maybe even a meta-discipline, for it has no clear text corpus, no distinct methodology, no identifiable center of inquiry. Perhaps because of this heterogeneity it can fit into our culturally heterogeneous world anywhere and can provide ‘knowledge for living.’ Recent reflections on the nature of world literature and Comparative Literature’s relation to it have begun to redirect our attention back to literariness itself. Critical to this move is a double consciousness of being in the world but not just in the cultural world one physically inhabits. Double consciousness makes possible multiple windows on the world that ‘neither trap the world as our (only) home nor render the world as radically other.’ It involves a basic form of cognitive processing and aesthetic experience. What changes with the introduction of a work of literature to different world ‘cultures’ is the local perspective (texture, tone, attunement, shading) of its new language, not the essence of the original meaning or its literary quality, at least in a successful translation attuned to affective aesthetics. The problem of ‘virulent centrisms,’ I argue, is not necessarily an attribute of ‘coercive’ qualities of a canonical work itself but is rather the result of the faulty reception of that aspirational work. My argument about being at home in the world is anchored in the notion of the ideal (or at least, ‘envisioned’) reader, on the one hand, and on the Enlightenment principles of educability and humanitas, on the other. The best aesthetic writers from around the world address our common humanity regardless of cultural or ethnic coloration. Yet the aesthetic experience of their products requires astute readers unbound by territory and marked by mental mobility that allows openness to imagined and communicative communities. A theoretical discourse should not be valued because it allows new readings; rather it should be valued because it can explain why a particular text is considered canonical. Eurocentrism is re-examined from this perspective. Exemplary cases considered here are Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel.

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