Freedom and the humanities - Extending the "we-feeling"

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Institutional Communication Service

25 April 2022

The interview series Reflections on Freedom continues. A look at the humanities in collaboration with ISI, USI Institute of Italian Studies.
After Professors Prandi and Baioni, today, Marco Maggi, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Theory of Literature and Director of the Master in Italian Language, Literature and Civilisation, talks about what it means to extend the "we feeling" and delves into the importance of being able to observe literature across cultures.

Professor Maggi, first of all, what is comparative literature and what does it have to do with freedom?

Comparative literature (though in Italian, I prefer to use the plural "letterature") studies, in a historical and critical key, the relationships between works of literature across cultures and the aspects that unite and differentiate them. Today the field of comparative literature has extended to include the entire world, reversing the idea of Weltliteratur foreshadowed by Goethe and relaunched in the twentieth century by Erich Auerbach. Among the perspectives adopted by the comparatist to investigate identities and differences between the works of literature of the world, there is traditionally the study of themes, genres, forms, currents and movements. Lately, the study of the relationships between literature and other media, codes, and expressive languages has been dramatically extended.

For some time, it was believed that this study field dealt with freedom, and allowed us to trace its upward trajectory in history. But rather, it has to do with the extent that, by exercising patient observation of identities and differences, continuities and discrepancies, it teaches complexity, the awareness of which is an indispensable prelude to freedom understood as responsible commitment.

When we talk about literature across cultures, what do we mean?

Literature is among the most important organ of the living memory of cultures. It is mainly due to its nature as "language facts" and the central role the latter plays in defining cultures. The critic George Steiner wrote that, for the Jewish people, the homeland is the text (Our Homeland, the Text). With the necessary adaptations, this statement can be extended to all cultures.

Comparative literature operates in this complex domain by adopting a perspective that a colleague of the University of Lausanne, Ute Heidmann, defines as dialogical and differential. Today such perspective is concerned not only with what is common across cultures (this has been the pre-eminent interest of comparative studies in the second half of the twentieth century) but also with what differentiates works of literature, and above all, diversity and multiplicity within the same national traditions. It can be a prelude to a more conscious encounter between cultures, especially starting from the awareness of the debt that each has contracted over time with the others.

What is the "right" way to approach comparative literature?

I do not think there is a "right" way to approach comparative literature: it would be a claim that contradicts the dialogical attitude I mentioned earlier. It is instead a matter of finding the most fruitful stance so that, as Walter Benjamin wrote, the border can become a threshold. It is not, in fact, a question of blurring the border, understood as a diversity of languages, traditions and forms, but rather of opening up spaces to foster encounter.

From my point of view, the study of the transnational diffusion of texts, along the lines of what was once called "fortuna", is particularly fruitful. This approach has the advantage of preserving the centrality of the text and, therefore, of the language and the differences between languages. At the same time, as another critic, Martin Eisner, has argued, it combines historicism and formalism, sensitivity to the historical reality of literary relations and openness to more free comparisons between texts. Finally (and this is the new element with respect to research on the more traditional "fortuna"), it has a "retroactive value", as Massimo Fusillo has defined it, which allows us to shed new light on the so-called "source-text".

In what way, in your opinion, also in the light of recent events, is it possible to "extend the we-feeling"?

The phrase is by a great 20th-century comparatist, Claudio Guillén, and it seems to me, in the framework of the considerations made so far, that it retains its validity.

Comparative literature can "extend the we-feeling"; above all, I would like to point out that it can extend it in depth, rather than in scope, as awareness and knowledge of the plurality that, to a greater or lesser extent, inhabits all literature and cultures.

I would refer to a current event linked to the tragic circumstances of the war in Ukraine. As is well known, the day after the invasion by the Russian army, the rector of an Italian university hastened to suspend a series of lectures dedicated to Dostoevsky. To many, myself included, this gesture appeared to be an unfair attribution of faults to literature or roots of faults, which almost certainly have their causes elsewhere. No one, however, has thought through the consequences of this gesture: how much of ourselves do we lose by erasing Dostoevsky from university courses? The Russian novelist was inspired by the Italian civilisation of criminal law: Prestuplénie i nakazànie, the title traditionally translated as Crime and Punishment, is, in fact, precisely the title of the first Russian translation (1803) of Cesare Beccaria's Dei delitti e delle pene. More importantly, novels such as "The Brothers Karamazov" have been decisive for the growth of writers such as Pirandello or Ungaretti and, no less important, of countless Italian readers.

Comparative literature contributes to extending the we-felling of the plurality that inhabits both our own and all literary traditions.

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