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Why compare?

The spring semester has officially started. I decide to try something new in my “Global Literature II” courses. As a first day exercise, I have students think about why comparative literature is valuable as a discipline. What’s the use of making connections between all these books written in different times and places? Why not just teach Othello alongside other canonical English texts the way it’s been done for centuries…. texts like Beowolf, Canterbury Tales, Pilgrim’s Progress? It’s a question that’s been addressed since comparative literature emerged as a discipline; it’s also the unifying thread in a volume of essays edited by Rita Felski in 2013, Comparison.

The students, many of whom have never taken a comparative literature course before, come up with impressive reasons. I paraphrase them, make a list on the board, and take a screenshot. Here goes:

To understand our global inheritance
Foster empathy for people from very different cultures
Propel us out of our Eurocentric mindset
Acquire a historical perspective on values we think of as timeless and universal
Recognize that “we’re all human” (subject to the same existential dramas) despite our cultural differences
See the connections between cultures we think of as radically separate…

When I ask, “What’s the danger of comparing?”, however, they’re stumped. My moment to brainstorm a concrete example: “What if I were to call Sadegh Hedayat (author of The Blind Owl, acclaimed Iranian novelist) the Edgar Allan Poe of Iranian letters? What’s problematic about that? Let’s say the two authors were writing contemporaneously: would Edgar Allan Poe ever be called the Sadegh Hedayat of American letters?” Turns out the danger of comparing is not all that different from the danger of not comparing: holding a Eurocentric lens to the rest of the world.

It’s a problem I encounter in many students’ papers, when the reading of a novel set in Duvalier’s Haiti or post-colonial Sudan seems to confirm their own brand of American exceptionalism. How lucky are women in the US: we’re not forced into arranged marriages with men our grandfathers’ ages, we’re not illiterate, we don’t have our virginity tested by our mothers as a rite of passage. How barbaric other countries are towards their women, how much more advanced our country is…..

Women here do have more legal and economic freedoms than in a lot of other places, I can’t argue with that after reading an article in The New Yorker about the custom of stoning “unchaste” women in Iranian villages, but where can we go with that comparison (which ignores, among other things, the global system of inequalities that make it possible for women in Europe and America to enjoy more privileges than women in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East)? When comparisons are not situated in a global framework, when they are hierarchal– she has a better house than me, he’s smarter than her–they lose their relevance. When they require that we rethink our assumptions, then we’re getting somewhere. It’s difficult though, if not impossible, to transcend our own cultural baggage. Biases are not sloughed off simply through the act of reading. Some texts invite us to see through the eyes of the other while leaving us enough freedom to make our own judgments, like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a post 9-11 novel framed as the monologue of a Pakistani man, a “lover of America” who defected from the ranks of its corporate elite, delivered to an American man who sits across the table from him in a cafe in Lahore. But change/Changez (the narrator of Reluctant Fundamentalist) is deeply unsettling for readers reluctant to part with their own fundamentalisms, the core values that define who they are: the American stranger (whose voice we never hear, whom we suspect is a CIA agent) receives Changez’s narration with suspicion. I like to begin the semester with Hamid’s novel because it implicitly addresses the value and potential dangers of thinking comparatively.

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