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Welcome to World Lit
Comparative literature once limited its comparisons to the Western tradition. An experimental course in world literature is trying to give students a glimpse of a whole new world of literary traditions—from Akkadian to Zulu.

In 1835, British statesman Thomas Macaulay remarked that “I have never found [a scholar] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literatures of India and Arabia.” Vilashini Cooppan, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale, is fond of quoting Macaulay’s proclamation as representative of the attitude that has for centuries prevailed in the study of literature. She respectfully disagrees.

Cooppan and Professor Michael Holquist are now in the midst of teaching an innovative course in “World Literatures” that Holquist calls a “wind tunnel for trying out ideas of how to compare literatures.” Organized by the comparative literature department and featuring works from both Western and non-Western literary traditions, the two-term course is challenging a pair of conservative assumptions about literature: that non-Western literatures are of lesser value or relevance, and that literature must be read and studied in its original language, not in translation.


“In many cases, the people discussing the text actually translated the text.”

Like Directed Studies, the interdisciplinary course that traces the history of Western history, philosophy, and literature; or English 129, the introductory course that first crossed the boundaries of Europe’s national literatures in the 1960s, World Literatures is an experiment in how to give students—particularly freshmen—a broad introduction to the humanities. But while DS and 129 emphasize the European tradition, World Literatures has taken on the formidable task of bringing students the whole world in a single course.

To do this—and there is skepticism that it can be done, even among those who are sympathetic with the course’s multicultural aims—requires a way of teaching different from most introductory courses. While the idea of adding non-Western traditions to the field of comparative literature is gaining currency, “there is not—and cannot be—such a thing as a professor of world literature,” as Holquist puts it. Instead, the twice-weekly lectures in the course are given by a succession of guest lecturers drawn from the University’s language and literature departments. The choice of readings was influenced by the organizers’ insistence that all the works be taught by people with an intimate knowledge of them. “No text is ever discussed without the input of someone who knows the language and culture,” says Holquist. “In many cases, the people discussing the text actually translated the text.”

So when Japanese literature professor Edward Kamens lectures on 10th-century Buddhist tales, he can discuss nuances that might be otherwise lost in translation—since he authored the translation himself. And Near East languages and literatures professor William Hallo can speak with equal confidence on the Akkadian wisdom literature he translated. It is only due to Yale’s strength in many kinds of literature that such a course is possible at all, says Cooppan. “Rarely do you find the kind of expert assembly we have here,” she says.

The result is a course that gives students an unprecedented glimpse of literary traditions that they could otherwise only know through a succession of courses in several different departments. Students familiar with the gender war between men and women writers in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, can learn that such strife was notably absent among the Chinese literati, as East Asian languages and literature professor Kang-i Sun Chang explains in her lecture on Chinese classical poetry. “Chinese men have been extraordinarily supportive of women poets,” says Chang. “Female literacy was encouraged in the upper class. The literati liked to marry learned women and exchange poems with them.” Chang says that some 3,000 anthologies of women poets were published in China in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Yale is not alone in its efforts to create such a course. Before settling on a format and syllabus, Cooppan researched a number of new courses around the country that attempt to survey the world’s literatures. “Princeton is developing a course, and several other universities already have them,” says Cooppan. “But our model is unique in that we don’t attempt to cover everything from beginning to end. And unlike the other courses, we emphasize genre, just as English 129 does.” The course is divided into units that compare examples of sacred and “wisdom” literatures (i.e. Confucius or Proverbs), poetry, drama, epics, and novels from different literary traditions. So instead of moving strictly chronologically or geographically over the year, students in effect circle the globe during each unit, comparing the Koran, the Bible, and Confucius (among others) in the first unit, or Romantic poetry and African praise poetry in the second.

This organization helps to emphasize the course’s central point, Cooppan explains. “The course has to tell a story about literature as a system of interrelated texts. So we read the story of Job in the Bible along with the Akkadian story that preceded it. And we look at the Sanskrit animal fables that influenced Chaucer and Grimm.” The selection of readings was also made to support this point about international connections and to make a coherent course of study, rather than simply to represent the best of each culture.

Not everyone is satisfied with this approach. One student, who by and large liked the course, nevertheless complained that it is “much more about internationalism than about great literatures.” The student felt that quality was sometimes sacrificed in favor of international relevance, citing as an example the choice to include Bertolt Brecht’s experiments with Japanese No drama instead of his more celebrated Threepenny Opera.

Still, the course’s readings reveal a pattern of cultural borrowing over the centuries and show how each culture adapts stories to its own world view, bending and distorting the narrative in a manner that critic Harold Bloom calls “creative misprision.” In a discussion section in November, students talked their way through an analysis of the similarities and differences between Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood and its source play, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. By the hour’s end, they had figured out that while Shakespeare’s play embraces a linear, cause-and-effect narrative characteristic of Western thought, the film offers a more Eastern interpretation: The action is part of an inevitable cycle.

At a time when talk of “globalization” permeates nearly every field of endeavor, the new course shows that literature has been negotiating national borders and language barriers since civilization began—and that a completely original story is rare indeed. “If there’s anything we’ve learned in this class so far,” says Holquist, “it’s that there is very little that is immaculate or pure in literature.”

Such comparisons were just what Vilashini Cooppan had in mind when she first proposed this course. A 1988 graduate of Yale College, Cooppan got a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford before returning to Yale in 1997. A specialist in post-colonial literature, she represents an increasing international awareness in comparative literature, a field that was founded to identify distinctions and links among European literary traditions.

“All comp lit departments are in search of the core of what might be the study of comp lit in the 21st century,” says Holquist. “The old Eurocentric models, which had to do with simple-minded studies in comparison and studies of influences, have been on the wane, and the idea that there is a world system larger than what we have been studying has been dawning only gradually.”

Cooppan convinced Holquist that, in his words, “if comparative literature was to play its role as a place to think about literature without national identities, it was time to do World Literature. We knew we could offer an educationally responsible course with a different canon.” In doing so, Holquist drew on his own experience with the 1960s “Literature X” course, which looked at narratives ranging from Homer to comic books and which led to the creation of the literature major. (The course continues today as Literature 120, “Fiction and the Forms of Narrative.”) He also saw parallels between this course and English 129. “That course was founded with the goal of making undergraduates more cosmopolitan in a 1950s way,” he says. “Now we have a much more globalized view.”

Holquist and Cooppan developed a plan for a course that would draw on faculty from other departments in addition to their own, and they began looking for volunteers. Some of the faculty they approached were skeptical about the breadth Cooppan and Holquist were suggesting, but signed on anyway, in part out of an intellectual interest and in part because they saw the course as a way to give students a taste of what is available in their departments.

“For me, it’s stimulating and engaging to teach students who are being introduced to Japanese literature not out of interest in Japanese per se but out of an interest in literature,” says Edward Kamens. “It’s a quite enterprising student who will wander into one of our courses. So if there are ways we can make our material interesting not just as an 'area study,' but as part of literary study, I’m eager to participate.”

The group of faculty that agreed to teach in the course met several times in the spring to help develop a syllabus and format. Given the limited time and the ambitious scope of the course, this was easier said than done—professors were asked to prepare 40-minute lectures on material they might devote weeks to in their own classes. (The classes are 50 minutes long, but Cooppan or Holquist give a ten-minute introduction to each lecture in order to provide continuity and emphasize ongoing themes.) While there was some grumbling about the necessary brevity, the participants eventually agreed—if reluctantly—that it was possible to distill their knowledge of their specialty into a short lecture. “Everything can achieve its proper level of abstraction,” says Paul Fry, a professor of English who is one of the course’s lecturers.

With a syllabus in place, the next step was to ensure that the teachers wouldn’t outnumber the students. Cooppan and Holquist took the unusual step of sending a letter to all incoming freshmen informing them about the course. The reaction was so-so: The course survived shopping period with an enrollment of 68 people, 70 percent of them freshmen. Holquist says he had hoped for more, but recognizes that the course’s reading list is daunting. “We can’t be accused of pandering,” he says. “We were reading Sumerian wisdom literature during shopping period.”

The students who did take the course were attracted by the diversity of the readings. “I shopped this class and English 129, and I liked the syllabus for this one better,” says Mariko Hirose, a freshman from Japan who spent a year at Andover before coming to Yale. “There were a lot of readings there I probably couldn’t have found on my own.”

Similarly, freshman Rebecca Kelly, who came to Yale from the Brearley School in New York, says she has “always wanted to take a course that didn’t focus just on Western literature but that didn’t exclude the West. In school we read exclusively Western literature, so this course has definitely given me a different perspective on the idea of literature as a worldwide phenomenon.”

But not everyone was enthusiastic about the course: Its enrollment dropped in half between the first term and the second. Cooppan says that such a drop is not unusual, given the hard choices students must make among courses. (English 129 also loses a large number of students second term.)

Some students also say they were frustrated by the ambitious scope of the course. The most common complaint is that because the works are so diverse, it takes each lecturer an inordinate amount of time to explain the context of the works that are being discussed, leaving little time to talk about the text itself. In theory, the weekly discussion sections are supposed to allow for closer examination of the text, but students say that an hour is not sufficient to talk about a week’s worth of often wildly diverse material.

Holquist recognizes this problem. “There is a danger that the formal aspects can be given short shrift,” he says. “The presiding spirits of comp lit have always emphasized close reading, and we want to make sure that aspect is not ignored.” After getting early feedback from students about this problem, Holquist and Cooppan asked the subsequent lecturers to spend part of their time on a reading of a particular text.

In part, the lack of attention to form may be attributed to the difficulty of teaching works in translation. “It’s much easier to talk about themes and plot structures,” says Kamens. “Those are more easily conveyed through translation. But I feel an obligation to convey a sense of the work in its original language by focusing on specific details. The translation might mask features that are part of what defines the work.”

This difficulty leads some academics to question the very idea of teaching in translation, but Holquist says it is worth doing. “In comp lit culture, reading in translation is a big no-no,” he says. “But we understand that education is a process and that there are different levels at which people encounter the same text. We hope people will be moved to look more deeply and that we will inspire them to go further.”

The other most common complaint from students is about the relative paucity of African literature—the first term includes a lecture on South African “praise poetry” and another on an African adaptation of the Bacchae. “We do less African literature than I’d like to see,” agrees Holquist. “I’d like to see us do more with oral traditions as well. The question about the difference between written and spoken literature is an interesting one.”

But Cooppan and Holquist have gladly listened to these criticisms of the course from both faculty and students. During the first term, they held meetings outside of class time where students could voice their opinions; changes were sometimes made on the basis of these meetings. They view the course as a work in progress, and anticipate a great deal of change from year to year. World Literature will be watched closely by a department that is itself still figuring out where its future lies.

But regardless of whether it changes the nature of comparative literature, the course has already broadened some minds. Freshman Becca Kelly says she has already resolved to study more about India and the Sanskrit tradition. Macaulay may be spinning in his grave, but the map of the literary world seems to be getting inevitably larger.  the end


What in the World?
Readings for Literature 141, World Literatures (with lecturers in parentheses)

Scripture & Wisdom Literatures

Worship & Wisdom in the Ancient Near East
(William Hallo)

Folk Wisdom & Traditional Narrative in Ancient India
(Hugh Flick)

Wise Governance & Wit in the Animal Fable
(Howard Bloch)

The Koran as a Challenge for Arabic Literature
(Beatrice Greundler)

Confucianism & Taoism in Ancient China
(Kang-i Sun Chang)

Japanese Buddhist Tales
(Edward Kamens)

Contemporary Versions of Wisdom Literature
(Michael Holquist)

Lyric Poetry

Love Lyrics of the Ancient Near East
(William Hallo)

The Lyric Tradition of Classical Greece & Rome
(Gregory Nagy)

Japanese Classical Poetry
(Edward Kamens)

Chinese Classical Poetry
(Kang-i Sun Chang)

The Early Islamic Love Lyric
(Beatrice Greundler)

The Love Song in Medieval Europe
(Maria Rosa Menocal)

Renaissance Lyric
(David Quint)

Romanticism as a Transnational Movement
(Paul Fry)

National Poetry & the Dream of a National Language
(Michael Holquist)

Ibero-American Modernism
(K. David Jackson)

Oral Tradition & Southern African Praise Poetry
(Sandra Sanneh)


The Aesthetics of Sanskrit Drama
(Hugh Flick)

Tragedy & its Translations: From Greece to Africa
(Ann Biersteker)

Tragedy & its Translations: From England to Japan
(Murray Biggs)

Japanese No Drama
(Edward Kamens)

Asian Aesthetics in German Drama
(Cyrus Hamlin)

Evam Indrajit: East or West?
(Murray Biggs)


The Odyssey
(Vilashini Cooppan, Michael Holquist)

Caribbean Odysseys of the 20th Century
(Vilashini Cooppan)

The Ramayana
(Hugh Flick)

The Song of Roland
(Howard Bloch)

The Lusiads
(David Quint)

The Epic of Sundiata
(Vilashini Cooppan)


Lazarillo de Tormes
(David Quint)

(Vilashini Cooppan)

The Tale of Genji
(Edward Kamens)

Le Pere Goirot
(Peter Brooks, Michael Holquist, Vilashini Cooppan)

Invisible Man
(Vera Kutzinski, Michael Holquist, Vilashini Cooppan)

How the Steel Was Tempered
(Michael Holquist)

Devil on the Cross
(Vilashini Cooppan)

The Harp & the Shadow
(Michael Holquist)

Between Two Worlds
(Vilashini Cooppan)



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