By Rachel Park
Whenever I tell anyone that I am majoring in Comparative Literature, I inevitably get the question: “You mean English? What’s Comparative Literature? Do you just, like, compare stuff?” Of course, comparing is a fundamental aspect of the major, but for me, it is the implications of the very act of comparison that embody the nuances of Comparative Literature. Comparing, by definition, requires more than one – a view that includes an “other” – and by simply expanding the myopic vision of just one language and culture, I believe that Comparative Literature touches upon a vein in humanity that is inaccessible otherwise. Frantz Fanon once said that “Parler une langue; c’est assumer une culture” “To speak a language is to carry the weight of an entire culture”. To study literature in its native language is to study a particular culture, to empathize with a particular moment in history in the world. Comparative literature, in my opinion, is irrefutable proof that language is far more than just a means of conveying basic meaning or messages. Language carries the weight of society and history, insinuating power relationships, mediating interactions between human beings, shaping and determining what is said and preserved.
Yet in the midst of the numerous languages in the world, I believe that our ability to study them, to translate, to understand tongues that are not our own, speaks to a universal humanity and capacity for empathy that is essential to our very essence as humans. Studying literature in different languages allows for an understanding of cultures and societies that we would otherwise never have been exposed to. Comparative literature is exactly what it sounds like – comparing literature of different cultures – but beyond that, comparative literature is insight into the human condition, empathy with those separated from us by time and space, and a means of closing the chasm between individuals to realize that despite everything, we are all not so different after all.