Presented by: Jeffrey Niedermaier
Abstract: The Wakan rōeishū (Collection of Japanese and Chinese resonant verse, 1010s) is an anthology of some eight-hundred passages that juxtaposes Japanese vernacular “songs” (uta or waka) with fragments of poems and prose written in Chinese by writers from Japan and China alike (kanshibun). It is organized according to a quasi-encyclopedic schema of topics. Pathbreaking in its emplacement on a unitary conceptual plane of autochthonous verbal arts alongside a cosmopolitan tradition of belles lettres whose origins lay overseas, the work wielded enormous influence on some nine centuries of literary, artistic, calligraphic, and pedagogical activity in Japan. Most conspicuously, it paved the way for later Japanese-Chinese topical juxtapositions in several anthologies, verse-composition contests, and linked verse. Creators of these latter-day hybrid works took the Wakan rōeishū as their lodestar. They aligned themselves with the anthology’s comparative praxis of bringing together select segments of two belletristic traditions of blatantly incommensurate origins “under the terse control of topic headings” (Denecke 2014) in order to ferret out new insights through what has been described as a “game of conceptual hide-and-seek” (jeu de cache-cache conceptuel; Robert 2015).
In this paper, I present an outline of this particular practice of East-East comparative literature avant la lettre launched by the Wakan rōeishū. I proceed to invite future practitioners of a “comparative global humanities,” regardless of area of expertise, to reimagine their own work as partaking in its genealogy. We endeavor to undertake humanistic comparison in a way that is newly sensitive to nonmodern and nonwestern cultural activity. It behooves us, therefore, not only to make novel comparisons of nonmodern, nonwestern subject matter, but also to emulate and identify with nonmodern, nonwestern modes of negotiating incommensurability and irreducible plurality. (I will consider a few other plurilingual, hybrid works from Southwest Asia, Mesoamerica, and elsewhere as well.)
Emulation of a nonwestern comparative practice would be a step towards displacing a default western one that is overdetermined and entrenched. Whether working inside or outside of the institutionalized discipline of comparative literature, practitioners of literary comparison have situated themselves more or less wittingly in the genealogy of Aristotle and his Poetics. For noteworthy examples inside the comparative-literature field, one could cite Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946) and Earl Miner’s Comparative Poetics (1990). But even comparisons undertaken outside that field habitually avail themselves of concepts and categories imported from formalism, which lies directly downstream of Poetics via Propp, Jakobson, Todorov, and others. In nonwestern contexts, this imaginary (and sometimes unconscious) Aristotelian legacy engenders a handwringing, eurocentric comparative logic of “ellipsis” (Denecke 2014) that is impelled to compensate for or justify the lack of, say, “lyric” in China or “tragedy” in the Arab umma (Cf. Kilito 2002). This is a side effect of Poetics’ reliance on cultural commensurability and linguistic homogeneity to effectuate its comparative praxis. This reliance, in turn, renders it wanting as a solitary paradigm for the “comparative global humanities” we envision—and makes the plurilingual topical juxtapositions of the Wakan rōeishū, by contrast, seem more apt as one alternative praxis among many.
In Mimesis, Auerbach reports that he found “success and profit in a method which consists in letting myself be guided by a few motifs which I have worked out . . . and in trying them out on a series of texts which have become familiar and vital to me in the course of my philological activity.” Unbeknownst to him, his efforts share affinity with the comparative practice of topical juxtaposition advanced in the scrolls of the Wakan rōeishū. In a sense, this paper is an exercise in dislodging a singular, Hellenic Poetics from its hegemonic place in humanistic comparison and making way for the hybrid, plurilingual, and plural poetics from elsewhere as alternative constellations for the “comparative global humanities.”