Mr Blaz Zabel
Member of the Department of Classics and Ancient History
Research Project: Homeric Epic and World Literature: A Comparative Study of Method
The main research question of my dissertation is the relationship between classical and world literature. I will investigate this relationship with a particular focus on Homer and concentrating on following questions: how does the study of classical literature, especially Homeric poetry, relate to the study of world literature? What worlds do different reading practices of classical literature create? And especially, how do our decisions about what we read, as well as how we read it, influence conceptions of the world itself? In this regard, my dissertation is an attempt to rethink the role of classical literature and scholarship in view of challenges posed to literary studies by postcolonialism and world literature studies. While postcolonialism insists that scholarship should focus on traditionally under-represented literatures (mostly those not part of the Western canon), world literature, as a field, attempts to conceptualise literature in a global, democratic and all- embracing perspective. The question that has not yet been thoroughly investigated, however, is what kind of a position classical literature occupies in this postcolonial, global world literature.
The above questions are tackled by looking at three key moments in past and present scholarship, comparing approaches to Homeric scholarship and world literature. The dissertation is thus divided into three parts, each dedicated to a particular method in which world and classical literatures have been studied: the historical approach, the comparative approach, and the study of literary influences. In the first chapter, I discuss how the first theoretician of world literature, J. W. Goethe, understood the relation between classical and world literature. As I demonstrate, Goethe conceived world literature as a transnational literary exchange in which nations learn from each other, producing literature that is still specifically national, but is shaped against the transnational. His understanding of classical literature and Homer, however, was quite different: he conceived it as an unreachable, untimely ideal towards which all literatures should strive, world literature included. While world literature thus has to be regarded as historical, Homeric poetry is its unhistorical ideal and model. F. A. Wolf, in stark contrast, promoted a historical investigation of Homeric poetry. He was influenced mainly by Biblical studies, transporting the idea of textual criticism to Homer, thus arguing that both texts are products of a particular historical context. In this way, Wolf opened Homeric scholarship to possible comparisons that were historically grounded. Because they were contemporaries and knew each other, there is a rich body of material here that illuminates the discussions and tensions between Goethe and Wolf.
In the second part, I focus on Irish classicist H. M. Posnett, who published the first book on comparative literature in the English language. In his work, Posnett proposed a historical- comparative approach to literature. He argued that in order to gain further knowledge about a particular literature in its social and historical context, we should compare it with other literatures produced in similar social contexts. By introducing this comparative methodology, Posnett thus promoted a world in which there are many specific literatures (including many classical literatures) each belonging to a particular socio-historical context. Through his influence on the early American school of comparative literature, these ideas were also filtered to Parry and subsequently to his successors. Parry's project of researching South Slavic oral poetry shares some of Posnett's methodological assumptions: he proposed gaining further historical knowledge about Homeric poetry by comparing it to a poetry which, he argues, is shaped by similar social constraints, such as the demands of oral composition, and re-composition, in performance. Even though Parry's comparative approach was focused primarily on gaining new knowledge about Homer, it paved the way for wide ranging comparative approaches to oral-traditional poetry, as exemplified in the works of Lord, Finnegan, and Foley, among others.
The third part of my dissertation investigates the ways in which world literature is built through connection rather than comparison. First, I discuss how literary influences are conceptualised in traditional French comparative literature and how they are criticised after the second world war by René Wellek and René Étiemble. I then research ideas about literary influence in Homeric studies, especially in the pioneering works of Burkert and West, but also in present discussions about Homeric poetry and Near Eastern literatures by Currie, Bacharova and Haubold. I argue that the scholarship of Burkert, West and Currie makes use of a traditional paradigm of the literary influence as used by the French school of comparative literature. Just as Wellek and Étiemble criticise traditional comparative literature, similar objections can be raised against Burkert's, West's and Currie's work, i.e. that such readings move us away from attempting to understand literature, especially away from understanding Near Eastern literatures in their own cultural context. On the other hand, Haubold's comparative approach attempts to grasp literature in its local and trans-local context. As I will argue, however, this can be just a first step towards a more global understanding of Homeric literature since such research, although it assists in decentralising Homeric poetry in the Western canon, nevertheless remains part of the Western scholarly tradition.
In my dissertation I thus intend to demonstrate that every reading of classical literature is always also a reading of world literature. What varies, however, is how this world literature is conceived, in other words, what kind of a world the choices of which literature we read and how we read it help to construct. Homer can be read as a model for world literatures, as a historical document, as a founding figure of Western literary tradition, or as one of the many classical works of world literature. All these readings project specific understandings of world literature and perceptions of what constitutes the world. At the same time, none of these readings are (yet) truly global. The challenge for the future of classics thus remains the same as the challenge for the future of literary studies: finding a way to read literature in a global perspective.
Academia Page: http://durham.academia.edu/BlazZabel