In: KulturPoetik 2007, Heft 2


Ronald Bogue


The Cultural Poetics of Rabelaisian Shandyism
(1) Gerald Gillespie, By Way of Comparison. Reflections on the Theory and Practice of Comparative Literature. Paris: Honoré Champion 2004. 280 pp.
(2) Gerald Gillespie, Echoland: Readings from Humanism to Postmodernism. Brussels: P.I. E.-Peter Lang, 2006. 334 pp.




In these two collections of essays, addresses and reviews, Gerald Gillespie makes the case for a genuinely global study of literature and culture, while offering wide-ranging examples of literary historical analysis in the Western tradition from the Renaissance to postmodernism. An astute reader of individual texts, Gillespie is adept as well at synthetic judgments that bring to bear on each topic the impressive sweep of his considerable knowledge of European and American literature and aesthetic movements. Throughout these essays, Gillespie pays tribute to the generosity and fullness of spirit of the comic tradition in the arts, engaging his subjects with the same wit, irony, satiric relish, self-effacement, energy and good humor of those writers whom he most admires – Rabelais, Cervantes, Grimmelshausen, Sterne, Joyce and Barth. Ever the opponent of pretension and cultural myopia, he demonstrates repeatedly the complexity of thought and experience that make up an artistic tradition, as well as the pressing need for a collaborative study of aesthetic productions across traditions by actual members of diverse social groups, which might counter the unfortunately not uncommon arm-chair musings of dilettante scholars who proffer their ethnocentric views as transcultural aperçus. 

Gerald Gillespie, By Way of Comparison. Reflections on the Theory and Practice of Comparative Literature. Paris: Honoré Champion 2004. 280 pp.

Of the two books, By Way of Comparison is the more theoretical. Gillespie groups the essays in three sections: Examples of Pragmatic Engagement; Mediating the Mediator; and The Global Scope of Comparative Literature Today. In the first section, Gillespie tackles a series of epistemological issues in literary historical hermeneutics. The thesis of the section’s opening essay is that »most twentieth-century modes of literary criticism and history, our immediate heritage, exhibit deep Romantic traces« (p. 18), a theme Gillespie reiterates throughout the book. In Gillespie’s analysis, empiricism develops out of the Renaissance search for certainty in the face of shattered religious institutions and bafflingly diverse discoveries in the natural sciences. The Romantics, while admiring the Renaissance »self-scrutinizing split consciousness« (p. 19) that gives rise to empiricism, seek certainty instead in a grand, mythological, total vision, something expressive of a general mentality. This tension between empirical and mythological impulses, the one latent and the other patent within Romanticism, Gillespie finds in diverse twentieth-century approaches to cultural history. After reviewing the problematic cultural materialism of Marvin Harris, with its distinction between »etic« (essentially empirical, external) and »emic« (internal, mental) analysis, Gillespie observes in Michel Vovelle’s study of mentalities a parallel gesture of recognition of the mythological emic and a similarly unearned triumph of the empirical etic, which itself proves to be largely in the service of a grand, mythological meta-narrative. In Michel Serres Gillespie discerns a more forthright recognition of the mythic status of scientific hypotheses, whereas in Hayden White’s Metahistory and Figural Realism Gillespie uncovers an incoherent cultural relativism, one that posits at once the incommensurably emic nature of social practices and the certainty of a transcultural agenda of vague political activism. In all these instances, the Romantic legacy is evident, largely unacknowledged and imperfectly assimilated.

Other essays in the first section elaborate on this theme of contemporary theory’s Romantic antecedents and its empirical disquiets. In a playful engagement with the »haunted house« of deconstruction, Gillespie traces the spectral rhetoric of its »ghosts of Romanticism past« (p. 30), showing that De Man’s recognition of deconstruction’s Romantic heritage in his Blindness and Insight remains blind to all the ramifications of that heritage, and that Joyce’s treatment of Hamlet’s ghost in Ulysses anticipates the full panoply of deconstructive techniques and insights. In the next essay, Gillespie traces the outlines of nineteenth-century hermeneutics, remarks on the obvious family resemblances »between Derrida’s notion of ›writing‹ and Romantic irony, between Foucault’s notion of mentality stratified in language and post-Romantic organicist views«, and then argues that »we still lack today any adequate supporting framework of empirical studies of the psychology of literary production and consumption« (p. 44). The question of »emic« mentalities and »etic« empirical data arises again as Gillespie addresses the topic of whether a literary history is at all possible. The problem of constructing mental categories sufficient to contain the chaotic mess of experience, Gillespie notes, is one that Sterne explored with gusto in Tristram Shandy, and often efforts to fashion an adequate literary history merely repeat Tristram’s hopeless quest. Yet the empirical must be given its due: 

We may talk all we like about someone who jumped off the roof of a tall building without a parachute; our talk will not alter the fact that this person was smashed on impact with the ground (p. 53).

We are able to discern the difference between the historical Don Carlos and the character in Schiller’s drama, and so, concludes Gillespie, we also are able to develop useful historical accounts of literature, albeit ones that must recognize literature as a self-defining activity that can incorporate its own acts within itself. This issue of the empirical exigencies of a literary history leads Gillespie in another essay to reflect on the relationship between literature and science. Using myth studies as his point of entry, Gillespie notes that from the days of Rabelais Western writers have oscillated in their treatment of myth from an approach via the human sciences to one more humanistic and specifically literary. Is literary study a science, human or otherwise? In some regards it must be, Gillespie argues, lest we fall into the solipsism of some forms of poststructuralism, which promulgate the twin theses »that any object on which cultural studies fixes its attention can be analyzed as a ›constructed‹ entity and that ›progressives‹ must ›empower‹ themselves and others to oppose and even dismantle constructions not to their liking« (p. 67). But that science must be one properly fitted to its object of analysis, and hence in some ways sui generis. Gillespie closes the first section with an insightful review of three literary approaches to interpretation of the Bible: Northrop Frye’s The Great Code, René Girard’s Le bouc émissaire, and Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy. Here again Gillespie finds the Romantic legacy of contemporary theory, as well as the contesting demands of a human science of cultural analysis and a hermeneutic art of reading.

In the third section of By Way of Comparison, Gillespie addresses topics that at first glance might seem germane solely to those within the discipline of comparative literature, but he convincingly shows them to be essential to any analyst of aesthetic and cultural history. As a former president of the International Comparative Literature Association, Gillespie is deeply concerned with the origins and development of comparative literature as a distinct field of study, and he is ideally positioned to provide an account of its present global configuration (one that even practitioners of comparative literature, in their local domains, may not be cognizant of). Cross-cultural literary interpretation, Gillespie reminds us, is »as old as the hills« (p. 192), evident in such texts as Jerome’s Latin translation of Hebrew, Syriac and Greek scriptures and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and hence comparative literature’s disciplinary origin in the late-nineteenth century is but a particular manifestation of a venerable critical practice. The establishment of the ICLA in 1954 as an organization primarily of scholars from Europe and the Americas, and its gradual expansion to include members from Asia, Africa and now most of the world, reflect the larger trend of globalization that affects us so deeply at present, and Gillespie is intent on demonstrating the ways in which the questions debated within comparative literature have anticipated many of the global issues so heatedly discussed in cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and literary theory.

African and Indian comparatists, for example, have long struggled with the issue of globalization in their conception of the discipline’s mission, as they ask themselves whether they should foster cross-cultural analysis solely within their own region, or instead concentrate on the region’s connections with the rest of the world. Diversity, hybridization, border crossing, and identity politics have likewise been concerns addressed for decades in comparative literature, and as Gillespie observes, teams of ICLA scholars have been at work for some time in collaborative projects that represent a genuine transcultural study of literature – an endeavor that many outside the discipline call for and mistakenly claim to be as yet unattempted. In the course of such collaborative efforts, useful tools for multicultural analysis have been fashioned, chief of which for Gillespie are those of polysystems theory, as enunciated by Itamar Even-Zohar and his associates. »The very humbling lesson the international comparatist quickly learns«, notes Gillespie, »is that most of his theorizing colleagues propound ideas quite deeply embedded in their native culture or traded principally with one or two close-cousin culture« (p. 262), and in polysystems theory Gillespie finds an antidote to such ethnocentrism. Rather than focus on ideological commonalities among cultures, polysystems theory adopts primarily formal and heuristic instruments of analysis, treating cultures »not as closed entities but as metamorphosing, somewhat porous semiotic systems whose reportorial configuration is subject both to internal shiftings and to external interferences« (p. 228). The chief advantage of this approach »is that it does not first require that a particular literature or set of literatures serve the individual scholar as the exclusive source of standards on which to base his or her own conclusions or to perceive others’ truth-claims« (p. 228). By detailing the workings of processes »such as the acquisition of literary experience, translation, the internal configuration and shifts of repertories, intersystemic interferences, and the like« (p. 236), polysystems theorists not only avoid the trap of ideological bias but also uncover what may provisionally be designated as universal phenomena, such as »the tendency for a center to emerge and concomitantly a periphery, and for exchanges and movements to occur between them« (p. 250).

The organizing principle of the second section of By Way of Comparison is less clear than the other two, but its three essays are among the finest in the volume. One offers a review of unified theories of the arts, from Schopenhauer to the present. Again, Gillespie discerns strong Romantic strains throughout this history, as he examines the music-oriented philosophy of Schopenhauer, its variations in the thought of Schelling and Pater, and twentieth-century attempts to determine the interrelationship of the arts, especially as they have been affected by the advent of cinema. After offering insightful accounts of Vachel Lindsay’s prescient The Art of the Moving Picture and Suzanne Langer’s still fresh Philosophy in a New Key, Gillespie reviews the efforts of Even-Zohar and Niklas Luhmann to formulate a systems-based comparative theory of the arts, according to which, Gillespie observes with approval, each of the arts is ascribed its distinct and relatively autonomous practices and purposes. In a second essay, Gillespie examines the film Apocalypse Now, brilliantly demonstrating the pervasiveness and intelligence of Coppola’s use of literary allusions, especially those to Eliot’s poetry. And in a third, Gillespie performs an exegetical tour de force as he traces the linguistic complexities of the poem Renga, a collaborative composition across four languages and two aesthetic traditions fashioned by Octavio Paz, Charles Tomlinson, Jacques Roubaud and Edoardo Sanguineti.
Gerald Gillespie, Echoland: Readings from Humanism to Postmodernism. Brussels: P.I. E.-Peter Lang, 2006. 334 pp.

The essays of Echoland may be seen as a continuation of the kind of work represented in the second section of By Way of Comparison – more exegetical than theoretical, each concentrated on a specific domain of literary history, a specific theme, or a specific set of texts. Presented in roughly chronological order, Echoland’s essays consider European and American literature from late Humanism to postmodernism, with an emphasis on intertextual and intercultural relations within carefully observed sociohistorical contexts. The opening essay outlines the »humoristic-encyclopedic tradition« (p. 21) inaugurated by Rabelais, continued in Cervantes and Grimmelshausen, renewed in Fielding, Sterne and Diderot, and given a new twist in John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The principle of play reigns throughout this tradition, its stages of transformation marked first by a striving for universality, then by a recognition of the problematic subject, and finally by an intensification of the thematics of a ludic textuality. What Gillespie ultimately gathers from this tradition is that

humorism enables seeing the attributes of one’s own times as elements in a moving process, and facing what Rabelais long ago depicted in the epochal crisis of the Renaissance: on the one hand, the perplexities of human judgment, but on the other the need for that creative vital spirit which, on a deep level of etymology and history, links the terms humor and human (p. 36).

The second essay details the various incarnations of Don Juan, from Tirso through Molière, Bonaventura, Hoffmann and Grabbe, to Kierkegaard, Galdós and Shaw, with the focus on the ever-renewed and ever-unsuccessful effort to domesticate Don Juan’s sexual energies that marks the tradition. The third reflects on the significance of mountains in Western literature, as represented in Petrarch’s famed account of his ascent of Mt. Ventoux, the Neolatin poet Balde’s salute to the Virgin, Faust’s mountain soliloquy, the Romantic sublime, the Alpine ecstasies of Nietzsche, and the symbolic resonances of Mann’s magic mountain. Despite the diversity of experiences and attitudes evident in these texts, Gillespie concludes that in all of them »the heightening metaphor that attaches to the mountain is found in conjunction with the theme of spiritual struggle, heroic daring, the quest for union with the divine, and inexplicable numinous encounter« (p. 70).

The collection’s fourth essay, one of the longest and finest of the volume, is devoted to the seventeenth-century American poet and satirist Ebenezer Cooke and the uses made of his eccentric works by John Barth in The Sot-Weed Factor. Gillespie deftly shuttles between Restoration poetics and postmodern aesthetics, between the cultures of colonial isolation and contemporary globalization, intent to uncover the specifically American dimension of Cooke’s and Barth’s texts and the ways in which the New World experience instigates and informs the obsessive search for American identity and for a properly American art form, such as the ever-elusive ›great American novel‹. What Gillespie finally celebrates in Barth, and what he observes in Barth’s American predecessors, is their exploitation of the »humoristic tradition in order to create a structure commensurate with the puzzling complexities of the entity which was their subject«, which leads him to conclude that, 

if ever such a chimera as the ›great American novel‹ assumes shape, it will be kin to Rabelais’, and to Cervantes’ and Sterne’s masterworks; it will be broad, undogmatic, ironic and integrative; it will be neither heedless of the fool, rogue, and satyr in man, nor unforgiving; it will be full of that realism whose vis comica permits – through ironic control – a simultaneous review and restructuring of myth (p. 96).

Gillespie’s forays into eighteenth-century literature broach topics not commonly associated with the age of reason – the carnivalesque as witnessed in Wieland, Goethe and Casanova, and the erotic as represented by Hagedorn, Crébillon fils, Diderot, Restif de la Bretonne, Wieland, Cazotte and Goethe – while including as well a fresh treatment of the often examined relationship between Haller and Rousseau and an ingenious analysis of the impact of Hogarth’s art on Bonaventura’s singular Die Nachtwachen. Echoland’s chief contribution to Romantic literary study, in the restricted delineation of the period designation, is an intriguing survey of Romantic appropriations of the figure of Oedipus – hardly the hero customarily associated with the age. In Novalis, Brentano, Eichendorff, Bonaventura, Tieck, Schopenhauer and Hölderlin, Oedipus makes an appearance, in each case a different facet of his fate coming to the fore.

In his essays on late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, Gillespie sketches diverse historical components of the rise of modernism while establishing the continuities of the humoristic tradition that play through such authors as Jarry, Joyce, Kafka, Beckett, Mann, Barth and Donoso. The most striking of his historical studies is a bracing account of the development of railroads in nineteenth-century Europe and America, which yields fresh illumination of the image of the city in texts by Mann, Conrad, Kafka, Dos Passos, and Thomas Wolfe. Of the essays on key modern and postmodern figures, three stand out. Gillespie’s examination of Jarry’s transformation of Faust from Romantic striver to modern pataphysician dexterously differentiates Goethe’s hero from Jarry’s comic counterpart, persuasively arguing that »Jarry’s departure from Goethe displays not disregard for the dramatic tradition, but appreciation of the humoristic novel« (p. 217). Indeed, Gillespie claims, the central significance of Jarry’s pataphysics is that it »is capable of embracing the diverse episodes of the journey much as Pantagruelism reconciles the contradictions and encompasses the encyclopedic diversity of phenomena examined by Rabelais« (p. 218). In a meditation on multilingualism in the high modernist poem and novel, Gillespie finds at work in several writers, but especially Joyce and Pound, two prevailing principles – a Modernist drive to form a meta-narrative in which elements from a constantly expanding repertory of cultural motifs are recycled and refashioned, and a post-Symbolist quest to exploit the potential of the pragmatic, historical and etymological connections buried in words. On the basis of this distinction, Gillespie draws a neat opposition of Ulysses and the Cantos as

two giant counterpoised monuments. In the first, the Modernist drive to achieve a worthy meta-narrative is conditioned and enabled by a post-Symbolist belief in the magical efficacy of liberated language. In the second, the post-Symbolist program to restore authentic language is inseparable from the drive toward a satisfactory meta-narrative (p. 257).

Finally, in a perceptive examination of Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy and José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, Gillespie argues for the two as exemplars of a postmodern mannerism, the mannerism of our present day conveying »thematically and structurally the proposition that the further Western man has probed the basis of identity, the less confident he has grown about its ›reality‹« (p. 270). Gillespie promotes this period designation not simply because it illuminates Barth’s and Donoso’s texts, but also »because it seems important to recognize that mannerism is not an historically isolated phenomenon in Western culture, limited to the European past«. Indeed, Gillespie conjectures at the essay’s conclusion, 

Could the mirroring of forms and comparative anthropologizing by Barth and Donoso manifest a deepening of an older impulse to discard, and an inability any longer to sustain, a unified mythology of personal identity so dear to us Hesperians? Are these moments of manneristic writhing in the mirror and labyrinth perhaps elements of a Vedantic literature that has insinuated itself in our world? (p. 281).

In Echoland and By Way of Comparison, Gillespie explores a prodigious variety of texts and topics, but throughout the books we may discern the influence of two tutelary spirits – Rabelais and Sterne. That influence is manifest in both Gillespie’s theoretical stance and his practice as a critic and writer. From Rabelais Gillespie derives an exuberant encyclopedic perspective, one replete with a voracious, expansive, affirmative will to explore as broadly as possible the domain of experience; and from Sterne he takes a self-reflexive, metatextual stance that playfully tests the limits of hypotheses against the recalcitrant details of empirical data. The Rabelaisian dimension of Gillespie’s theoretical position is evident in his advocacy of a global, transcultural study of literature, informed by a polysystems approach that invites the observation of commonalities without ideological bias; his thought’s Shandyism (to adopt Tristram’s term for his defiantly unmethodical method) is evident in his repeated insistence on the necessity of empirical verification of hypotheses and a systematic distrust of system and grand narrative, such that whatever conclusions a polysystems analysis may draw they will always be deemed provisional and open to correction.

In Gillespie’s critical practice, the Rabelaisian encyclopedic impulse is everywhere apparent as he traces from work to work and period to period a dizzying network of connections. The Shandyan spirit is likewise ubiquitous, in the playful use of language, in the suspicious questioning of hyperbolic theoretical claims, and in the satiric deflation of self-important posturings. The danger of the Rabelaisian method is that the proliferation of connections will become unmanageable, and there are moments in Gillespie’s essays when it is difficult to discern the common thread linking his far-ranging observations. The risk of the Shandyan method is that the satiric barbs will become too pointed, and that an antipathy to pretense will prematurely cut short the full examination of a theorist’s thought. Though rare, there are times when Gillespie’s awareness of the antecedents of a given critical position and his distaste for pretentious claims to originality prompt a wholesale rejection of that position without due appreciation of its genuinely new contributions. But without some risk there can be little gain. And in Gillespie’s enterprise there is always considerable risk, and often a very great deal gained.

Prof. Ronald Bogue, University of Georgia, Comparative Literature Department, Athens, GA 30602, USA; E-Mail: