Comparative Literature: Its Implications for Yemeni learners of English [Archives:2006/1006/Education]

December 11 2006

Dr Ayid Sharyan
Associate Professor
Department of English,
Faculty of Education, Sana'a University, Sana'a
[email protected]

Oh, East is East, and West is West

and never the twain shall meet


This line from the poet Rudyard Kipling highlights the saliency of comparison which has been the time-honoured practice of examining things whether in literature, anthropology, politics, religion, linguistics and so on. Comparison involves ways of examining things by someone. It intends to bring out similar and dissimilar things; to unite more than divide; to find unity in diversity; to develop a sense of tolerance. In literature it seeks to discover bonds and ties in the apparently dissimilar literary works, pertaining to two societies, two cultures across time. This sort of comparative survey is known as comparative literature.

Comparative studies attempt to demonstrate that different fields of knowledge relate to each other in one way or the other. CL as an academic discipline is based on comparison like any other field that employs comparison.CL is concerned with the relationship between genres of literature rooted in two cultures. One culture may be a giver the other one a receiver. (Al-Qamri, 1991).

Many questions arise relating to Comparative Literature (hence CL). Why do I compare two literatures? Is it a branch of literary history or literary criticism? Is it a way of studying literature that transcends its nationality and takes it to the level of internationality? If one accepts the view that CL is a literature that is beyond national literature, does CL look at some literature as high, sophisticated, superior and the other as vulgar, inferior? Does CL limit masterpieces of the world to Western culture?

One also needs to ask what are the criteria that determine the elements of CL. Does it fall in the domain of language or culture? Is there any scope to incorporate CL in the English curriculum in Yemen?

Comparative Literature:

Theoretical Background

For some critics like T.S. Eliot, literature is to be seen and examined only by comparison with other literary works. For instance he said in his article “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that 'No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetics, not merely historical, criticism.'

Literature,obviously, is not created in isolation. If it is related in some way or the other to other writers then the proper way of studying it is to examine each literary text against another either in the same culture or from other culture/s. Without CL it will be difficult to understand Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) Very often Poe uses some words that sound like Arabic as titles for his poems, e.g. Al Araaf, Ulalume, Israfel, Eulalie. Most of the time, these words are used to refer to his late wife.

Whether CL should focus on the life of the author and his relation to other writers at the same age is a much debated question..

CL gets its importance from several contemporary social and scientific developments: globalisation, democracy, interaction of cultures, business transaction and so forth. As an academic discipline, CL has various ramifications. It has been perceived as a branch of literary history that studies the relationships among nations and writers. CL relates between writers who write similar things in their writings but differ in their culture and language. It looks for universalities in literature. It pays no attention to barriers of language, nation, race, ideas, and biases. It looks at literature as the product of humanity (Wazzan, 1985:15). According to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, CL 'aims at the study of literary works and traditions of more than one nation or language'. CL, thus, permits fuller understating of international literary movements and affiliations. CL crosses frontiers in search of cross-cultural correspondences (Drabble, 2000: 225). CL can also be seen as the comparison of one literature with other spheres of human expression, e.g. science, religion, arts, music, philosophy, psychology, etc. Unlike CL, national literatures like Arabic or English are defined linguistically and nationally.

CL clearly involves more than one language or culture. At least two writers are studied where similarities and contrasts are involved. CL is associated with the mutual influence of literary trends, forms, thoughts, themes, situations and characters in more than one culture. CL is tied to cultural links that connect different nations culturally, intellectually and socially.

Basically comparative literature has an 'interdisciplinary' 'trans-national' approach. It crosses linguistic, ethnic, and political boundaries (Bassnett 1993). The reading is not within a single literature, but making associations, connections and similarities with great open space of literature with a capital L. Comparative literature has made world literature commonsense for people all over the world. People hear of Rubaiyat Omar Khayyam, Arabian Nights, Naguib Mahfouz's novels, Goethe's Faust, Dostoevsky's, Fluabert's Madame Bovary, Ibsen's A Doll's House, Crime and Punishment, Cervantes Don Quixote (1605), Shakespeare's tragedies, etc. This has been made easier by marketing of books, availability of translations and comparative literature studies that promote understandings and encourage sharing commonalties.

Comparative Literature In Practice

Teaching methods in literature are not so clear as they are in other fields such as language (e.g. grammar translation method, direct method, audio-visual method, communicative approach, etc). One may ask how CL can be applied to teaching English to Yemeni Learners or Arab learners for that matter.

A literary work can be compared from the point of view of themes and motifs. Like character analysis, theme allows grouping of literary texts regardless of their background. Forms of literature such as ode, ballad, autobiographies, pastoral poems, adventures, comedy, tragedy, elegies, didactic, etc. as well as structural, sense and sound devices including myth, legend, irony, parody, burlesque, fable, parable, allegories, symbols, metaphor, simile, personification, alliteration, assonance, consonance also permit comparison .Jabar, 1983: 44-45).

For instance, to discuss the story of Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart is to link it to “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939):

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Similar to this is the origin of Shaw's Arms and the Man and Hemingway's For whom the Bell Tolls for these titles are taken from John Donne (1572-1631) and Virgil (70-19 BC) respectively. To teach the twentieth century novel Forster's A Passage To India is to mention Whitman's “Passage to India”. While Whitman's poem is optimistic, Forester's novel ends with a bleak tone: every thing [horses, mountains, earth, sky, etc.] said in their hundred voices, 'No, not yet o, not there.'

One finds some relation between Ibsen and G.B. Shaw. Some would study the influence of T.S. Eliot on W.H. Auden or Pound on Eliot. Others may study the influence of Coleridge on Wordsworth. A comparatist finds similarities as between Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Alive Son of Awake) by Ibn al-Taufil (1100?-1185; Higria 494?-581) and Defoe's Robison Crusoe but it needs some kind of documentation and scholarly studies. A comparatist may study the Romantic Movement in Europe and its influence on the Arabic World or the study of Puritanism and its influence on literature in Britain and America. But these studies are not directly relevant a teacher of literature for Arab students.

A more plausible topic is to investigate the relationship between an Arab writer and a foreign writer. For example, Naguib Mahfouz (1911- ), Egyptian author, and Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) can be compared on the basis of their naturalistic viewpoints. What binds the two is the naturalistic mode of presentation of their characters, their attitude towards environment, heredity and the gloomy view of life. One finds this is clear in Naguib Mahfouz's bidaya wa nihaia (1945; The Beginning and the End) or al-thulathiyya (The Trilogy 1957) and Sister Carrie (1900). Like Mahfouz's novels, Dreiser recounts in Sister Carrie the story of a small-town girl who moves to Chicago and eventually becomes a Broadway star in New York City. The novel depicts explicit treatment of sexual issues. Khat, a short story by Dreiser, similarly recounts a gloomy setting (Hodidah, Yemen); it tells the story of a beggar who is a khat addict. He runs after money only to satisfy his basic drive for Khat. Mahfouz's novels can be compared also with Steinbeck's novels. One can explore the linkages between Steinbeck and Mahfouz through the analysis of their major novels: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, Zuqaq al midaq (1947; Midaq Alley), al-liss wal kilab (trans. The Thief and the Dogs) and Miramar (Miramar). The two novelists project the plight of the oppressed class in their works.(Sharyan, 2000). The former presents America during the Great Depression (the end of 1929 until the early 1940s) and the latter presents the migration of Yemenis particularly during the Imam'a period.

Adultery and sacred marital commitments as a theme can be found in the writings of different backgrounds such as Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), Hawthorne (1804-1864), Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Naguib Mahfouz (1911-). A comparative study can examine adultery in the four cultural backgrounds. Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), the father of realistic fiction in France, portrays the dissatisfaction of Emma in Madame Bovary (1857). He delineates the specific reality of the main characters and the historical period. Emma the heroine feels disappointed by Charles Bovary as a dull husband. She is charmed by Rodolphe and Leon with whom she had affairs. Emma commits suicide by swallowing arsenic and dies a horrible death. Tolstoy (1828-1910), the Russian novelist, presents an identical context. Like Emma, Anna in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1875-1877) is torn between her dull marriage and a passionate affair with Vronsky, a dashing soldier for whom she gives up everything. In the end, Anna suffers a tragic fate. A similar theme is to be found in Hawthorne (1804-1864), the Puritan novelist. Hester Prynne, the heroine, in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) is a tale of sin and redemption. It is set in the Puritan Boston of 1600s. The heroine was exiled for adultery. Sheis made to wear a red “A” on her dress. Her lover remains silent about their passion. Mahfouz's Zuqaq al midaq (1947; Midaq Alley) depicts the misery of Hamida, the heroine, who went to the brothel instead of marrying Abbas, the barber. For a comparatist, these novels offer an extraordinary insight into the norms and behaviors of varied societies. Nevertheless, these norms, though varied, are universals..

Such studies represent a particular worldview though with specific local colour. Arabic and English literatures are differentiated in all kinds of ways- linguistically, geographically, historically, aesthetically. But 'similarities and commonalties' is what binds this kind of studies..

Arabic Literature and the West

The relation between Arabic literature and the West began as early as the crusades that took place from 1095 to 1270. Later the West came back in 18th and 19th century as colonizers to countries like Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Libya Morocco, Tunisia, etc. A number of western writers like Hugo, Shelley and Wordsworth admired the East. The first serious attempt to understand Arabic literature was by the British Orientalist Fort William who was in Calcutta, India. The poetical translations from Arabic were introduced to him by Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866), the German scholar. Though self-educated in Oriental languages, he introduced his German readers to Arabic. Goethe (1749-1832), the German Romantic poet, novelist, playwright, and natural philosopher had introduced the eastern literature in his enchanting poems, West stlicher Divan (1819; “Divan of West and East”) a collection which was the first response to the aesthetic appreciation of the character of Oriental poetry by an acknowledged master of European studies (Divan of West and East; trans. Abulrhaman Badawi). Some of the Arabic literature crept into Europe with the translations (1704) of the fairy tales The Thousand and One Nights: collection of Oriental stories whose tales of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sindbad the Sailor have almost become part of Western folklore. These tales provided abundant raw material for many a Western writers' plays, novels, stories, or poems about the Islamic East (Encyclopedia Britannica). In the 20th century a number of Arabic scholars as Taha Husian were influenced either through their study in the West or through exposure to translation of master world literature like Naguib Mahfouz, Abbas Alaqad and Mohammad Hussein Haykal.

The Arabic culture has its distinct origin. For example, the novel is not totally new to Arabic literature as some assume. (Some think that Muhammad Hussein Haykal's Zaynab (1913) is the first novel in Arabic Literature (Somekh, 1973). The novel which can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in other parts of Europe has some prototypes in classical Arabic literature: Alf laylah wa laylah (Arabian Nights), Ibn al-Muqaffa's fables of Kalila wa Dimna, Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Alive Son of Awake) (a philosophical story), and al maqamat (a type of narrative that was popular during the Abbasid Period both in the east and west of the Islamic Empire at that time).