Introduction to Comparative Literature
“Now, there is a teacher of nuance, literature.” The literary critic Roland Barthes makes this claim in a defence of nuance that will provide us with a point of departure. In this introduction to comparative reading, we will begin with the premise that an appreciation for nuance can be taught, and that the study of literature can sharpen our perception and understanding of nuance.
But what is nuance? How can we learn to read with an eye for poetic subtlety, to listen for slight shifts in a narrator’s tone, or to draw out a critical argument’s implications? What’s the difference between close reading, on the one hand, and overinterpretation, on the other? These questions will guide us as we study some frameworks, including Marxist and psychoanalytic frameworks, for comparative reading. These will then let us consider several other related questions: Does reading across languages and cultures mean sacrificing nuance, or can this kind of reading heighten our awareness of minimal but meaningful differences and changing tonalities? What does it mean to attend to nuance and complexity in a digital age that stifles both, as we often read in, say, denunciations of Twitter? How should we understand appeals to “nuance” that are used to mystify, to prevent us from asking politically fraught questions or making certain kinds of political claims? What about appeals to nuance that serve to shore up social distinctions or to police divisions between “high” and “low” literary forms?
We will study poems, pop songs, films, critical essays, and especially short stories and novels. Assigned texts and films will model different ways of paying attention (or not) and will include works by Samuel Beckett, Samuel Delany, Michelangelo Frammartino, Renee Gladman, Kazuo Ishiguro, Clarice Lispector, Lucrecia Martel, Juan José Saer, and Virginia Woolf, among others. Students will also experiment with a range of approaches to nuance in their own writing.