Comparative Literary Criticism in the Context of Globalization


 Nowadays globalization has taken the shape of the central problem of various scholarly debates. The problem that rouses my interest concerns the relation of the theoretical analysis of national literatures and literary criticism, to the process of globalization. May we introduce the term “literature without frontiers”, and what is the relation of the theory of literature to the discourse “without frontiers”? 

Literary discourse constantly changes its attitude to the concept of “frontier”. The most significant example is the beginning of the 20th century: a multi-interpretational space was created, which was reunited by the principle of interdisciplinary studies. The multi-interpretative and inter-disciplinary methods quickly spread at the level of various national literatures, while methodological regulation of the process became the prerogative of comparative studies.

 The activation of the comparative method eventuated in the rapprochement of national literatures, while during the current process of globalization it provoked the already urgent question whether literature has national frontiers. I hold the opinion that the comparative studies go beyond the boundaries of national characteristics and establish the rate if integration of different national cultures and literatures on condition of preserving their cultural identity.


 Key words: globalization, comparative studies, national novel.


 The world community today lives in a period of minimization of frontiers, when the concept of time and space acquires an all but conditional meaning, while globalization appears to us as the most urgent and frequently quoted term.

            Today, having encompassed the political, social and cultural spheres of life, globalization has taken the shape of the central problem of various scholarly debates: at authoritative gatherings of scholars, issues of globalization and globalize world, extreme and moderate globalism and of course, anti-globalist movements, are discussed constantly.

            The problem that rouses my interest concerns the relation of the theoretical analysis of national literatures and literary process to the process of globalization. May we introduce the term “literature without frontiers”, or what does “without frontiers” imply, and what is the relation of the theory of literature to the discourse “without frontiers”? 

            If we examine the developmental history of literary discourse from the Early Classical period to present-day literary thought, we shall become convinced that it constantly changes its attitude to the concept of “frontier”. The dynamic trend of this line is unequivocal expansion. The frontiers of literary communication expand not only at the level of basic aesthetic principles but at that of individual textual structures as well, such as plot, subject, composition, etc. This trend of literary development finds perfect reflection on the methodological plane. The theoretical conceptualization of a “literary frontier” differs at various stages of the development of literature, obviously determined by the specificity of the current literary process.

            From this standpoint, the analysis of text, which created and still creates differing models of theoretical study of literature, from the beginning to the theoretical schools of the 20th century, has gone through more than one significant stage.

            Normative and rhetorical criticism obviously constitutes the starting-point. The interpretative position, worked out in the early classical epoch, assumed the form of an ordered theoretical system: Aristotle, Horace, Quintilian, Cicero and others created epochal works from the standpoint of text-analysis. The “concept of frontier” was then applied rigorously enough, since typological conceptualization of literature, as well as of literary genre, was synchronous, being based on formulated literary conventions. T. Kent points out: “Formulated literary convention is prescriptive and rule bound. . . It corresponds to the static or synchronic elements of a text that may be codified” (Kent 1986:37,38). The function of formulated literary conventions is to outline a specific text within a specific genre and literary system. Such characteristics give an opportunity to set poetical rules of any literary genre and, in case of violation of these rules, to trace the development and changes of literary process. Hence we may assume that formulated literary conventions reflect changes of a literary process but are not enough to describe the causes giving rise to these changes. The search for causes is the prerogative of unformulated literary conventions. As Kent admits: “Formulated literary conventions alone cannot help us describe how change occurs. A discussion of literary change or diachronicity must focus on the nature of the unformulated literary conventions” (Kent 1986:38).

            Unlike formulated literary conventions, unformulated conventions are far from being prescriptive. They are significantly related to the process of change in a broad cultural context; accordingly, they correspond to the dynamic, diachronic interpretation of text: any literary event gains historical meaning only if it is associated with other important events and processes, occurring within the concrete time and space. Thus, it is feasible to search for the reasons of changes of the literary process in a broad spectrum of historical and cultural context. Such a diachronic approach recognizes the expansion of frontiers of literary discourse as necessary.

            The trend of expansion of the frontiers of literary discourse received an impulse in the Middle Ages and came to the fore in the Renaissance period.

            In the Middle Ages the canonical tone of classical period criticism was superseded by the method of allegorical exegetics. The interpretative theory of “saying in a different way”, set forth in Christian thought, found itself at variance with the basic propositions of classical poetics, especially with the theory of adulterated plot. The interpretative strategy of allegorical exegetics was manifested in the methodology of invariant reading of text, mainly biblical; this obviously outlined a broad context of the European Christian world as the scene of action. The introduction of invariant reading of text led to the establishment of a culture of interpretative diversity. But the process was obvious both within general European Christian society and outside its boundaries as well. Through translation communications it became available to different geographical, cultural and social systems, which rendered the boundaries of national literatures appreciably flexible.

            The notion of “literary boundary” wanes further in the Renaissance period, which was unequivocally linked to the conceptualization of the literary process in the diachronic aspect. Literature gradually shifted to the crossroad of different aesthetic, historical, cultural and social changes. H. Dubrow offers an interesting observation:  “The extraordinary social mobility of European Renaissance society encouraged and implicitly vindicated a concomitant sense of generic mobility” (Dubrow 1982:60). I concur with the critic’s stand and believe that Renaissance poetics (the Italian and English schools of criticism), failing to check the penetration of activated social developments into the literary system, highlighted the significance of extra-literary factors in regulating intra-literary processes: literature represented an artistic link of historical happenings and models. As a result, the Renaissance discourse extended on European scale and national literatures flourishing under various historical models became valuably involved in the cultural concept of the Renaissance.

            However, the innovative trend of the literary thought of the Renaissance period was diverted to a conservative channel – quite artificially at that – by the poetics of the Neoclassical period, whose main characteristic was imitation of the literary laws of the classical period and, accordingly, to synchronic principles of vision.

            The critical thought of the period of Romanticism (Herder, Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, Shelley, Hugo), as well as the romantic literature itself, implements almost revolutionary innovations in literary-theoretical thought. A decisive role is played by the introduction of a spiritual-psychological model of interpretation, on the one hand, and by the revival of the extra-literary interpretation method, on the other. Accordingly, the literary-theoretical thought of the period of romanticism displayed not only synchronic but diachronic potentialities of conceptualization of literary categories, which was mentioned extremely well by critics of the post-romantic period.

            The criticism of the post-romantic period closely linked the problem of defining literary categories and processes to the question of social-historical and cultural definition. Literary discourse and literary genre were conceptualized as a permanently developing system, depending on a broad spectrum of historical and cultural context. The process of conceptual rapprochement of various national literatures was still in evidence.

            But the most important stage for literary discourse and broadening of text analysis came in the 20th century. The world became complicated and so did literary discourse. It is safe to claim now that at the turn of the19th century into the 20th a radical change was effected in the perspective of literary vision: the position of “looking outward” was superseded by “looking inward”. A remarkable diversity and abundance of literary-theoretical thought of the 20th century followed in the wake of this basic change. Theoretical schools arose side by side, resting on differing conceptual foundations: neo-criticism, Russian Formalism, M. Bakhtin’s dialogic criticism, Structuralism, semiotic school, later – psychoanalysis, American “New Criticism”, etc. This resulted in a kind of multi-interpretation space which at first sight had more differences than similarities. But this was only at first sight. The term that doubtless unites 20th-century literary and theoretical schools and trends, placing them under a single umbrella, as it were, is interdisciplinary studies. True, all theoretical schools had their related discipline, some philosophy, some aesthetics, some linguistics, ethics or mathematics, and some - several of these simultaneously, but the principle was common: literary theory clearly took the path of inter-disciplinary studies. The most important gain of interdisciplinary studies was a wide approach to the text in active link with related disciplines, which meant an analysis based on conceptual parallels, or the creation of a general humanitarian research space. The multi-interpretative and inter-disciplinary methods, worked out in European and American literary criticism space quickly spread at the level of various national literatures, while methodological regulation of the process became the prerogative of comparative studies. The activation of the comparative method eventuated in the rapprochement of national literatures, while during the current process of globalization it provoked the already urgent question whether literature has national frontiers.

            Each national literature derives from a strengthened model of national memory, expressed in the form of specific archetypes. The language alone, geographical location or citizenship can not be regarded as a dominant determinant of a writer’s nationality. The dominant determiner should rather be considered a memory, within which the writer’s consciousness arises and forms. From this viewpoint it is interesting to recall the experience of emigrant writers’ literature.

            The literature of emigrant writers, unlike the writers that work in their national environment, is created beyond their national frontiers. The concept of frontier is extremely flexible. The writer leaves the environment familiar to him to continue his creative life in conditions of an alien environment. If we bear in mind the fact that language is a means of writing, we shall readily perceive the linguistic dilemma the emigrant writer faces: one way is to continue writing in his native language (Bunin, early Nabokov, and others), another way is to move to a different language plane (later Nabokov, Gibran Khalil Gibran, Chinghiz Aitmatov, and others). In the former case he risks alienating his own work to the new societal environment, but preserve the tendency of linguistic integration with his native literature. In the latter case the writer adjusts to the new societal milieu, but creates a literary distance with his native literary discourse. To what extent does the linguistic model or geographical location alone determine the writer’s national identity? Does a writer turn into one of a different nationality along with changing the linguistic model or environment?

Vladimir Nabokov – one of the most global authors - evinced an extremely cautious attitude to this issue. “There is no doubt, that Nabokov feels as tragic loss the conspiracy of history that deprived him of his native Russia, and that brought him in middle life to doing his life’s work in a language that is not that of his first dreams”, admits Herbert Gold, who  interviewed Vladimir Nabokov in 1967 (The Paris Review 1967:2). In the same interview, to the question “Do you consider yourself an American?”, Nabokov replies: ‘Yes, I do. I am as American as April in Arizona. The flora, the fauna, the air of the western states, are my links with Asiatic and Arctic Russia. Of course, I owe too much to the Russian language and landscape to be emotionally involved in, say, American regional literature, or Indian dances, or pumpkin pie on a spiritual plane; but I do feel a suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride when I show my green USA passport at European frontiers” (The Paris Review 1967:9). Earlier, in the interview with Alfred Appel JR. (1966), Nabokov claimed: “The art of the writer – this is his genuine passport” (Voprosy Literatury 1988:163). His art as “Catalogue Raisonnee” (Nosik 1995:537) of his roots was deeply connected with Russia and Russian literature tradition, but contained enormous “different other streams” (Nosik 1995:537) as well.

Extending the discourse, we may assume that language alone or environment cannot be a determiner of a writer’s identity. The roots of identity go deeper: a text is not only a linguistic or geographical fragment but a valuable reconstruction of national memory. It is the reconstruction of memory that is the definer of the identity of all emigrant writers irrespective of whether their working language is foreign or native: text is considered to be a reflection of archetypes. “Frontier” in this case loses material significance, shifting to the conceptual plane. However, definition of one’s identity does not imply isolation or self-isolation. This is even impossible in the modern global world, in which the roots are important along with the “different other streams”, whereas literary and cultural systems are transparent and conceptually and culturally intertwined. I believe comparative studies is the only methodology that theoretically correctly reflects these most involved processes, seeking to solve the problem of “literary frontiers” in an appropriate way.

            Comparative studies implies not an analysis of individual national literatures through their juxtaposition, but implementation of that universal method that conceptualizes a concrete literary work in general perspective or, leaving the boundaries of national characteristics, it determines the extent of integration of national cultures and literatures, only on condition of preservation of their cultural identity. The aesthetic perspective of this process may be defined as coming close to one another. Analogies without contact ensure synthesis of concrete texts in a special literary model. In this case, the global trend of literary-theoretical analytical thought addresses the identification of the literary foundations of a writer’s works.

A dialogue between literatures is logically transformed into an intercultural dialogue. Accordingly, literary theory has more or less overcome:

  1. Analysis of different poetic problems at the level of a single text;

  2. Analysis of different texts at the level of a single methodology;

  3. Analysis of different methodologies at the level of a single literary system.

Today, in the period of globalization, an urgent theme of theoretical thought is conceptualization of a literary system in cultural perspective, or:

  1. Analysis of a literary system at the level of general cultural regularities characteristic of the period;

  2. Analysis of various literary systems at the level of a single cultural model;

  3. Analysis of a literary system at the level of intersection of different cultural models.

Proceeding from the above, we may conclude that comparative studies or comparative literary criticism, which has no frontiers per se, acts under condition of observation of the boundaries of national literatures. Yet boundaries do exist – rather conceptual than visual, but essentially important. Although we live in the period of globalization, questioning the existence of a national literature may be ascribed only to extreme globalization. National literature retains its own individuality while it retains its memory. Comparative literary criticism reflects this involved process with maximum precision, moving freely within the boundaries of national characteristics and beyond its boundaries. It creates the possibilities of mutual communication and integration of different national cultures and literatures, only on condition of preserving cultural identity.


Dubrow, H. (1982). Genre. London and NewYork: Methuen.

Kent, T. (1986). Interpretation and Genre. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press. London and Toronto: Associated University Press.

Nosik, B. (1995). The World and Art of Vladimir Nabokov (first Russian biography). Moscow: Penati Publishing House.

The Paris Review. No. 41, Summer-Fall 1967. (;

Voprosy Literatury (Problems of Literature. Russian-language literary magazine). No. 10, 1988


Translated from Georgian into English by Ariane Chanturia     



  Irma Ratiani