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Skinside Inside: The National Literature Major versus Comparative Literature


Judith Ryan


He killed the noble Mudjovikis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
He, to get the cold side outside.
That's why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.

The Modern Hiawatha

TEACHING foreign literature often feels like wearing mittens inside outside. Trained to think like native speakers of the language concerned, cloning ourselves as closely as possible on the original culture, we teach foreign literature to students who bring to their reading very different assumptions from those at work in the literature itself. Our reluctance to deal with this issue more than marginally—through the occasional telling anecdote, the question answered during or after class, a contrastive pointed or two—is part of another problem that has often seemed so deep-rooted that we are inclined to view it as inevitable: the schism between native speakers and nonnative speakers that had dogged almost every department every graduate program at one time or another.

Now, however, a new kind of problem has emerged, and we would be wise to deal with it before it gets out of hand. This is the rift indicated in my title: the national foreign literature versus comparative literature. We have all encountered this division on the faculty level: teachers with interests in comparative literature are often seen as distracting from the national literature cause, while those who identify more closely with the national literature are regarded as too stodgy and unsophisticated by their comparatist colleagues. Anyone who wants to deal successfully with intra- and interdepartmental politics must be ready to turn the fur side inside or the fur side outside at the drop of a hat—or a mitten.

I had the privilege of spending the spring semester 1990 with unmatched mittens—one fur side inside the one fur side outside. I began to think, not just about the colleagues who were stepping in Mudjovikis's paw prints, but also about the relation between the two disciplines: the national literature and comparative literature. Although few of us today doubt that area studies are an essential component of any foreign language department's offerings, the question remains whether the national literature major should remain an option at all. After all, students interested in literature can always major in English, comparative literature, or what some institutions imply call literature. The national literature major has lived for some time now under the threat of extinction; at best, it seems doomed to become the stepchild of the foreign language family. Can something be done? Is there any way we can equip the foreign literature major to withstand the competition from its formidable cousins, English and comparative literature? And must we simply be resigned to the idea that students of foreign literature will inevitably be less sophisticated than those whose encounters with literature have not been delayed and frustrated by their need to gain mastery of another tongue?

I don't believe we have to accept this situation. Students tend to rise to the challenges set them, and challenging disciplines tend to attract intelligent students. Our task is not to make foreign literature study easy but to offer challenges that students can master and find meaningful.

There are, of course, constraints imposed by the point at which one can successfully study literature in languages of varying degrees of difficulty, but once students can read authentic texts in the original, we can present foreign literature study as an intriguing and sophisticated problem. Literature, after all, dramatizes point of view, showing how ways of seeing and thinking affect individual behavior and social interaction. It invites us to get inside someone else's psyche and to view the world through different eyes; yet, at the same time, by making us acutely aware that we are not really that other person, it forces us to distance ourselves and take a more critical stance toward the character. It foregrounds the very inside-outside problem that lies at the heart of culture study.

These are important arguments for retaining literature as a substantial component of foreign culture study rather than relegating it to the status of mere illustration or decoration. This is not to say that it is wrong to use a poem, a story, or a song as a reward for hard work at grammar or to adduce a piece of literature as a reflection of some aspect of culture. But it would not be right to stop there. We owe our students a more complex understanding of how literature articulates perspectives on social or historical realities.

That obligation naturally entails theorizing more about the nature and function of literature in a given culture and the relation of one culture to another. Our students in fact face a tremendously complex situation: with little conceptual preparation, they have become the readers of texts written for a different audience with different expectations. The insider-outsider relation presupposed by literature in the first place is now doubled: whereas the native reader is simply trying on the mittens of this narrator or that protagonist, the foreign language learner is trying on the mittens of the native reader trying on the mittens of this narrator or that protagonist. To confront this problem more explicitly requires an encounter with theory, but, as James Kincaid says about theory in general, “one either smuggles it in or goes through customs with it openly” (qtd. in Graff 262). Hiawatha's mittens are the fur goods we must urgently need to declare at the border.

We often feel that our students are so hard-pressed to learn the foreign vocabulary and grammar that it would be improper to make them think about literary theory as well. This is true as long as theory is regarded as merely another language into which the literary text may be translated—a Marxist, Freudian, Lacanian, narratological, or semiological language that simply rehearses the text in its own special jargon. But the theoretical discussion I have in mind need not involve an elaborate set of new vocabulary in addition to that of the target language.

Courses in, say, French or German civilization often tend to rely on a relatively simple conception of the relation between literature and culture in which the one is essentially seen as mirroring the other. In a course that must cover a great deal of ground and range over a variety of disciplines, it may not seem harmful to suggest that literature provides only an “image” or an “expression” of the culture from which it emerges. Yet we have long taken it for granted that, even in foreign language classrooms, students can learn that the speaker of a poem is not necessarily the author, that fiction depends on point of view, that it is worth struggling to convey what is mean by complex narrative strategies such as style indirect libre ( erlebte Rede ), which moves into the mind of a fictional character while still retaining third-person forms. It seems but a small step from this kind of problem to the problem of how ideologies are incorporated in literature. Indeed, the inside-outside situation of the foreign language learner provides the ideal context in which to make this issue clear. Many American students understand “ideology” to refer to someone else's wrong-headed views; they are often extremely resistant to the idea that their own views may rest on ideological assumptions that remain invisible to them. Literature is an excellent way to explore the political unconscious, and we can capitalize on the particular situation of the national foreign literature major to demonstrate the workings of ideology in literary texts, to show the most productive and accurate ways of revealing the ideologies operating in a given work, epoch, or culture, and to undertake a critical examination of our own ideological presuppositions.

Unfortunately, few books or articles provide this kind of analysis: few, at least, that are compact, accessible, and jargon-free. We need to watch for them when they appear, to refer our colleagues to them, perhaps sometimes to write them ourselves. We need to construct syllabi that help us show students that culture is not how things are but perceptions of how things are, that history is not what happened but perceptions of what happened. We need to find more ways for students to test their ideas of subjective and objective, ours and theirs, natural and strange, comfortable and unsettling. pressed by students' alarm at the foreignness of foreign texts (“Why is German literature so depressing?”), we have tended to help them discover hidden likenesses rather than confront the estrangement effects that accompany any reading of a foreign literature. We must show our students how they can marshall the irritating and alienating aspects of foreign literature to form a positive strategy, and we must give them the intellectual tools to do so.

What would this project mean is translated into practice? It might mean, on one level, creating a volume of text-oriented essays by good undergraduate teachers who understand these ideological issues and can show how they are manifested in test. It would mean sharing lesson plans and syllabi that introduce the foreign language literature student to the existence of these problems and to strategies for dealing with them.

Most important, it would mean eliminating the distinct civilization and literature tracks that have complicated the structure of many a foreign language department. It would mean making productive the existence of a multiple clientele in our classrooms: not just students interested in literature and students interested in civilization but that vast majority interested in what attracted them to the major in the first place: the foreign language itself. What constitutes this attraction? Surely not simply the satisfaction of mastering an immensely complex set of variables, but much more the possibility of trying on another self, playing a foreign role, becoming for the moment a kind of double agent. We must begin presenting language as a medium that determines the very shape of thought. Our students need to understand that what they are learning is not a mechanical, but a cognitive, skill. A course on a given epoch thus needs to do more than present a certain array of cultural material: it also needs to show, on the one hand, how this material is actively formed by the language in which it is couched, and, on the other hand, to indicate the complexities of the relation between the culture and the literature that is traditionally said to be its expression. If we can rise to the challenge of conveying this complex picture, national language and literature programs will cease to be seen as the stepchildren of literary studies in general.

On another level, we need to help our students explore more explicitly the relation between the foreign literature and their native literature, since this relation also implies that between the foreign culture and their own. Since we cannot simply assume that all undergraduates have an adequate grasp of their own literature, we may have to venture onto terrain formerly considered the special province of the comparative literature program. We make contrastive remarks automatically in certain instances, as when we explain the difference between French and English versification, point out that Brecht reworks John Gay, or note that Goethe's best-known drama is commonly called a poem by German speakers. Such contrasts remain relatively superficial, however. Having cloned ourselves onto native speakers of the target language, we foreign literature teachers often forget how very different our students' horizons of expectation may be We need to step out of our cloned personae from time to time and help our students turn their mittens inside outside. In this way we can demonstrate what we have always claimed—that learning a foreign language and culture helps students better understand their own. An occasional change of vantage point need in no way destroy that special aura, that sense of being initiated into a secret science, that makes learning about foreign literature so appealing.

On yet another level, we can contribute in a very particular way to the discussions about canon formation. Insofar as we are showing our students what it is like to think the foreign language from inside and read the literature on its own terms, we are obliged to teach them the accepted canon of that foreign literature. Nevertheless, our own interests, determined in part by the culture in which we live, make us curious about noncanonical aspects of the foreign literature: writings by women, writings by foreign minorities living in the target culture, writings by colonials, popular literature, dissident literature, and so forth. It is not enough simply to decide for oneself whether to teach predominantly canonical literature, canonical literature with a sprinkling of other literature, a radical revision, or a specifically American version of the foreign literature canon. Whatever we do, we need to open up questions about foreign concepts and our own concepts of canons and the canon in a more explicit way with our students.

All this can be done without resorting to gobbledygook or sending students away to read difficult theoretical texts. The most productive ideas about the relation of history and ideology to literature can be presented briefly and in ordinary language, even in the foreign language. Short texts from the home literature can be commented on, in a word or two, before related texts from the foreign literature are discussed. Students can voice their expectations about a given genre before examples of that genre are read in the foreign literature. Students who like to identify with characters and situations can be led to find an intellectual interest in works with which they either do not wish to or cannot identify. Students can be asked to see what authors and works are cited in literary histories in the target language and to check them against the syllabus of the course they are taking. None of this need take up much time, but all of it reminds them that as students of foreign literature they need to be simultaneously inside and outside.

I do not wish to suggests that foreign literature study should simply merge with comparative literature. On the contrary. students should come to see that the two approaches are very different and that the difference is not merely one between theory, supposedly the domain of comparative literature, and history or culture, supposedly the domain of the foreign language major. The difference lies more fundamentally in the position we adopt toward the literary object: freer-floating in comparative literature, because of the movement among several literatures; more precisely angled in the foreign language program, because of the focus on a single literature. Yet to study a single object involves, explicitly or implicitly, comparing it with what it is not; conversely, to compare two or more objects involves knowing precisely the nature of each. Comparative literature and the foreign literatures are thus not rival, but complementary, enterprises.

More important then any approach to teaching or any revision of the syllabus is a new way of thinking about the place of literature in the national foreign language major. Foreign literature study need not cringe in the face of english and comparative literature. It should begin to present itself, not as a narrow-minded specialization, but as a sophisticated discipline with important theoretical implications whose effect lies precisely in the powerful and compelling way in which it turns our warm and comfortable—sometimes too comfortable—mittens inside outside.


The author is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. This article is based on her presentation at ADFL Seminar East, 7–9 June 1990, in University Park, Pennsylvania.


Works Cited


Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

“The Modern Hiawatha.” A Parody Anthology. Ed. Carolyn Wells. New York: Scribner's, 1910. 120.


© 1991 by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. All Rights Reserved.

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