“East and West” and the Concept of Literature

Scientific Essay 2001 37 Pages

German Studies - Comparative Literature


“East and West” and the Concept of Literature

Wolfgang Ruttkowski


By carefully comparing observations made by specialists in Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Western literature concerning problems of literary values, canon-formation, and the concept of literature itself, the author tries to answer some of the most pertinent questions in comparative aesthetics and ethnopoetics, specifically: [i]

Are literatures of radically different cultures comparable regarding literary values ?- Do “universal” literary values exist?- Do literary values remain the same within the development of one culture?- Does the fact that certain works of literature have been valued over centuries indicate that “eternal values” exist?-

Is the concept of literature the same in radically different cultures?- Does it remain the same within the development of one culture?- Are the basic genres (the lyric, epic, and dramatic) comparable?- Are certain analogous phenomena in Indian and Western literature indicative of basic similarities between these literatures?-

Is at least the theory deduced from these literatures similar?- Is a unified theory of literature desirable?- Are literary canons established mainly according to perceived aesthetic values in the selected works?-

If the answer to all of the questions above is NO, wherein lie the basic differences between Eastern and Western literatures?-


In a review of literature on the topic[ii], Anthony C. Yu alerted us to recent attempts at applying Western critical vocabulary to Chinese literature. He defended this method. This makes us aware of two possible perspectives for evaluating literature, i.e., our present (mostly Western) one and a historical reconstruction of ways of viewing works that do not seem to fit our criteria.

We cannot take it for granted that such a “historically adequate” approach is at all possible for “comparative aesthetics” (Eliot Deutsch) or “ethnopoetics” (Tim Ingold). But even if it were, it would not enable us to explain why certain works of literature have been selected and passed on as exemplary, and others not. In some isolated cases, this central problem of canon-formation might be answered historically, if we know enough about the genesis and social surroundings of such works. But we will never be able to explain such choices and traditions with aesthetic criteria[iii], simply because in most cases the process of selection and tradition was not made according to such criteria[iv].

Most critics silently assume that all so called “masterworks” of literature in various cultures and periods have been selected based on more or less the same set of esthetical standards which are merely obscured by all kinds of circumstantial (“cultural”) ballast. Once freed of the latter, their “eternal and universal values” will shine in beautiful self-evidence. - The comparatist experience should teach us precisely the opposite: Firstly, that “masterworks” have not been selected mainly according to esthetic standards, and secondly, that such standards are in any case not the same for sufficiently remote cultures. They even vary within such cultures.

What do we mean by “sufficiently remote” cultures? We mean precisely those cultures that had not yet reached the stage of mutual interaction, exchange, and influence that was meant by Goethe when he coined in 1827 his concept of “World Literature”[v]. As Horst Steinmetz has correctly established, Goethe “meant predominantly European literature” with his concept, not a list of “great books,” comprising Arab, Chinese, Indian, Japanese or Persian ones, as would be taught nowadays at an American college. “World literature is, as a product of economical, historical, and intellectual development, primarily to be defined as a literature which transgresses and wants to transgress national and linguistic barriers from the outset. However, it does not do that because it excels in special literary or other qualities but rather primarily because it reacts to situations in life which increasingly resemble each other, in spite of differing national environments, especially in the so-called capitalist countries.”[vi]

We might just as well say: “sufficiently remote” cultures are those before (or outside) the Western domination in the colonial period. Certainly, there were also other kinds of “cultural colonialism” besides the Western one, e.g., that of the Arab culture in Mogul India and of the Chinese in all of its “satellite states.”- But we are accustomed to distinguishing these “cultural spheres” as a whole, while we are not always aware of the far reach of our own cultural influence. Therefore, we tend to “universalize” our own cultural values.

To complicate matters, we also have to be careful about which stages of development of various cultures we compare. It seems to make sense to only compare literatures of a comparable period. But who is to decide which periods are roughly comparable? When Germany, after the confessional wars, made a first attempt at developing a kind of “national literature,” the Indian “classicism” was long over. When in China the four great lyric poets of the T’ang period wrote their masterworks, the tribes of the Germanic migrations were merely dreaming of unifying into a united “Reich.” Already in the 7th century, the library of the Chinese emperor contained 370 000 scrolls, while two centuries later, in the 9th century, one of the largest collections of the Occident, belonging to the monastery of St Gallen, could only boast of four hundred volumes.


It is not only the quality of esthetical standards that varies widely in different cultures, and within these cultures in various stages of development of these cultures, it is the concept of literature itself, which has to be examined comparatively. We have to ask: What makes (or since when is) literature “literature” in our sense of the concept? The same critics that assume a universal validity of aesthetic standards in all cultures usually also assume that the concept of “literature” means more or less the same wherever we look.

However, Wolfhart Heinrichs[vii] points to the “surprising fact that in classical Arabic there is no comparable concept to ‘literature’” and that “while the concept ‘literature’ in a Western context immediately evokes the popular trinity of epic, lyrical, dramatic, its application to the Arabic high literature yields two deficits (epic and drama), which leaves the third category not particularly effective.”

Not only do variants in its sub-groups cause the concept “literature” to fluctuate, so also do the different meanings it receives from its social embedding. There are various stages of the latter to be observed which Rudolf Arnheim describes well: “In early societies, performers and art makers are so closely integrated in the community that their motivational objectives coincide with those of the group. At first, there may be no distinction between those who supply the arts and those who consume them. Performances of dances and other ceremonies are shared by all for a common purpose, and craft work is contributed by everyone. Even when the arts become specialities reserved for certain individuals, there is in early societies no noticeable distinction between the objectives of the artists and those of the community. Only in ages of individualism such as that of the Renaissance in the Western world do artists cease to be employed artisans like bricklayers or shoemakers and develop their own aesthetic values , which must try to cope with those of monarchal and ecclesiastical princes using their services. [...] In the nineteenth century, the artist, detached from the give-and-take of well-functioning social relations, is typified by isolated loners pursuing their own standard and taste, which more often than not are not shared by the public.”- The situation first described might have been part of the fascination that, for example, the island of Bali exerted on anthropologists and especially artists.

While Arnheim writes about art in general, Terry Eagleton[viii] concentrates on literature only, and at the same time tackles the question of whether aesthetic values are “universal” or “culturally relative.” He recommends dropping once and for all the idea of “literature” as an eternal and immutable category. Anything can be literature and everything that is now seen as indisputably literature might one day not be so any longer. The reason lies in the changeability of value judgements, meaning that the so-called ‘literary canon’ has to be recognized as a construct, which has been built by certain people in a certain time for certain reasons. According to him, a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself independently of what anyone has said or will say about it does not exist. ‘Value’ is a transitive concept: it always means what certain people in specific situations according to certain criteria and in light of certain intentions value highly. The fact that we interpret certain works always to a degree in the light of our own interests - we can, in fact, do nothing else - could be one of the reasons why certain works kept their value over the centuries. It may be that our appreciation does not relate to the ‘same’ work, even though we may think so. ‘Our’ Homer is neither identical with the Homer of the middle ages, nor is ‘our’ Shakespeare the one of his contemporaries; various historical periods have constructed a different Homer and Shakespeare for their own purposes and found in their texts elements of various value, even though these texts were not necessarily the same.-

This last view is not entirely new. It expresses what Goethe called the “incommensurable” of great poetry. It enables different readers of different times to read different things “out of” (or “into”) great works. According to Ingarden, each individual reader has to (re)create the “aesthetic object” by “filling in” the “points of indeterminacy” in the “artistic object.” Homer’s Iliad (the art object) is not the same as our experience of it (the aesthetic object). Our value judgements can only be focused on aesthetic objects (our experience of works) and not on artistic objects. The former change, together with our tastes and with our cultural sensibilities and expectations.

Arnheim and Eagleton are not the only ones who have shown us that different periods within the European cultural sphere completely differed in their artistic ideas and ideals. Karl Aschenbrenner maintains the same opinion, mainly in respect to music, but it can easily be transferred to literature. He regrets that in “our ecumenical age” everyone tries to appreciate everything, and asks whether this “esthetical use” of many things does not inevitably lead to their misuse. He suggests that we should rethink whether our devotion to pure art celebrated since the Renaissance is the only way we can satisfy our “aesthetic instincts.” According to him, we do not have to wait for Marxists to ask ourselves whether the only flag under which art should sail is L’art pour l’art.

Similarly Ulrich Weisstein: “Whether literature is art in the narrow sense of the word may remain unanswered. In late antiquity, as well as in the Middle Ages, it was certainly not an independent, free art, but rather remained tied to the ‘artes’ of the trivium (the basic academic disciplines) of grammar, dialectics and rhetorics.”

Rosario Assunto begins his book on The Theory of Beauty in the Middle Ages with the question of whether one can speak of a medieval aesthetics at all: “Talking about medieval aesthetics we commit an error in using this concept in the strict sense of the word. Medieval thinking does not know yet the combination of the concepts of perception, art, and beauty on which we base the terminus aesthetics since Baumgarten. And even less the idea of art as a subjective human creation [...] What we now call a work of art was for the Middle Ages a thing created for a useful purpose. It did not represent a category of its own merit, qualitatively differing from dresses, tools or weapons (15ff) [...] The moral meaning of a work of art roughly corresponds to what we would call now its promotional appeal. Its allegorical character by which it becomes a metaphor we would call its didactical nature. The difference to our present concept lies in the fact that we consider it to be a deficiency if a work of art is promotional or didactical. At least we pass these qualities in silence when we evaluate a work of art. In the Middle Ages, it was just the opposite.” (21)

Assunto also indicates that the medieval thinkers principally differentiated between the concepts of the Beautiful and Art, quite in contrast to the Renaissance. - By recommending again a strict differentiation between these two concepts (see my articles, 1990.1998, and 2000), we only return to the old and proven.

Finally, we should ask ourselves, in accord with the comparatist Jean Weisgerber, “not only whether a unified theory of literature is possible but also whether it is to be wished for. Are universal categories relevant and accurate enough to describe particulars? [...] Theories may be so abstract as to loose all contact with empirical reality, ‘over-abstraction’ is sometimes of no avail.”


Still, and this is the amazing and seemingly contradictory observation we cannot deny, we do find in the older Eastern cultures many analogous tendencies to some of ours - that is, if we look long enough[ix].- We read, for example, with surprise about a Chinese scholar-writer in the 16th century[x] who (like Herder and young Goethe in Western settings) collected folk songs and even valued them more highly than the artful poems of his colleagues because of their simplicity of language and sincerity of emotions. This, however, was the exception to the rule, as we shall see later

In Indian aesthetics, W. Chaudhury has gone farthest in equating Indian with Western criteria of “poeticity.” He compared (1956) the theory of rasa (to be translated as “moods”) which was firstlaid out by the mythic Brahman sage Bharata before the 3rd century with Aristotle’s concept of catharsis in regards to their psychological effect on the viewer. Later, he tried to demonstrate that Kant’s category of disinterested pleasure [xi] as well as his definition of taste were not new. It is especially interesting for us that Bharata advocated the opinion that all psychological formation has to be subordinated to one main emotional impact, a view that was held by Aristotle for the tragedy.

Even the “autonomous” mode of existence of poetry is hinted at when in rasa-theory two kinds of emotions are differentiated, private ones (related to the poet’s life) and general or fictitious ones, which are supposed to be the true material of poetry.-

Also the theory of empathy, as worked out by Theodor Lipps and Volkelt, had its precursors and in India was partially explained with the deja-vu phenomenon stemming from prior incarnations. Even for Lukacs’s understanding of the typical and the exemplary there are analogies in early Indian theory.

The function of Ingarden’s spots of indeterminacy (Unbestimmtheitsstellen) were anticipated when the evocative character of good poetry was stressed again and again. The soul of good poetry is supposed to be the unspoken. An interesting anticipation of our “thoroughly modern” poetics of deviation (Abweichungspoetik) can be found already around 600 AD in the thoughts of Bhamaha.- The concept of beauty as defined by the last great theoretician of poetics, Jagannatha (17th century), is again strangely similar to that of Kant.

We have to keep in mind, however, that most of the above mentioned criteria are not evaluative ones. They apply to “kitsch” just as well as to “high literature.” They do not help us much for establishing generally valid criteria for evaluating literature. It is the weighting or relative dominance of such criteria within their own traditions which matters.


For a balanced picture we need to emphasize characteristic differences between East and West. To stay with Indian poetics, again and again Western naturalism is rejected. The Indian authority on aesthetics, Coowarasmamy: “We may say indeed, that whenever, if ever, Oriental art reproduces evanescent appearances, textures, or anatomical construction with literal accuracy, this is merely incidental, and represents the least significant part of the work. [...] Because theology was the dominant intellectual passion of the race, oriental art is largely dominated by theology. [...] Oriental art is not concerned with Nature, but with the nature of Nature; in this respect it is nearer to science than to our modern ideas about art. Where modern science uses names and algebraic formulas in establishing its hierarchy of forces, the East has attempted to express its understanding of life by means of precise visual symbols. [...] In this constant reference to types of activity, Oriental art differs essentially from Greek art and its prolongations in Europe.”

Helmut von Glasenapp[xii] stresses, that “the classical poetry of the Indians is a learned one, which presupposes as a condition of its appreciation knowledge of certain rules.” In a survey of the main teachings of Indian critics he makes it evident that they concentrate on stylistic differentiations, which far surpass those of European rhetorics (we shall later see that this does not apply to Japanese criticism).

Herrmann Jacobi’s[xiii] still unsurpassed description, dating from 1910, equally stresses the “scholastic and dialectical character” of all of Indian scholarly literature (and with it of literary criticism) and the tendency of Indian scholars towards abstract conceptualization. We hear the same from a modern specialist, Helmut Hoffmann: “For Indian literature it has to be considered as typical that [...] the borderlines between poetic and scholarly literature remain indistinct. We are not allowed to project Western criteria on either if we do not want to miss the typical character of Indian creativity. [...] The genres of the novel, poetry, and the art epic have in common that they all have to be counted to scholarly literature. The lyrical ‘cry from the heart’ [Urlaut], as we expect it in the West from true poetry since Goethe, is unknown in India. Fixed cliched descriptions [...] are indispensable.” And in regards to the theater, he says: “It must not be overlooked how little ‘dramatic’ in the Western sense Indian theater is. Tragedy is unknown and in our terminology we should rather call Indian plays libretti (which, by the way, also applies to Chinese plays)...”


Chinese drama, which rather should be called “operetta” (or “Singspiel”in German) developed in the 12th century; the novel in the 14th. Both were discussed in early theoretical treatises as fictitious narratives. The first theoretical treatment of plays is especially interested in the sung interludes and their presentation (Dolezelova-Velingerova).

Chinese Ming-dynasty novels were roughly contemporary with German Baroque novels. Both types were written in highly developed cultures, if ever so different ones. Willy R. Berger expresses his scepticism of fruitful comparisons in the following manner: “As much as we wish to agree with Etiemble’s exhortations that Comparative Literature should push beyond mere registration of historical connections towards an esthetical analysis of comparable works, we still have to doubt that a comparison between a Chinese novel of the Ming-dynasty and a European novel of the Baroque period can yield anything besides those abstract ‘conditions sine qua non du poeme’ which equal the Platonic detachment and ubiquity of Staiger’s basic concepts.”



[i] Portions of this article were presented in German at the 10th International Congress of the International Association for Germanic Studies, Sept. 10th to 16th 2000 in Vienna, under the title “Kanon und Wert.” The full German version was published under the title “Kanon und Wert (10 Thesen mit Kommentaren)” in Acta Humanistica et Scientifica Universitatis Sangio Kyotiensis, Foreign Languages and Literature Series No. 28 (Kyoto, Japan, March 2001) 77-119. A different version in German was appeared under the title “Kanon und Wert. Zur Kritik leitender Annahmen. Neun Thesen mit Kommentaren“ in Jahrbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache. Intercultural German Studies Bd. 27 (München: iudicium 2001) 71-103. A different version in English was published in the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics Vol. XXIV, Nos. 1-2 (Sambalpur University, Jyoti Vihar, Orissa, India, 2001) 89-125.

All translations in this article are mine. In order to support my points I had to quote secondary sources more extensivley than I would have preferred. This was necessitated by the topic. No one can be at the same time a specialist in Indian, Chinese, Japanese and various other literatures and read the original source literature of all the scholars that I quoted. For this reason, it would be foolhardy to forego inquiry into comparative questions of the kind I have raised simply for lack of literacy and expertise in multiple languages.

[ii] Yu: “The use of the more peculiarly Western critical concepts and categories in the study of Chinese literature is, in principle, no more inappropriate than the classical scholar’s use of modern techniques and methods for his study of ancient materials. [...] Certainly, the problems of historical and cultural contexts, of linguistic and generic particularities, and of intended audience and effects must be considered, but a serious critic has every right to ask whether novel means may be found and applied in each instance, so that the work of verbal art may be more fully understood and appreciated.”

[iii] Bush: “Certain characteristics of traditional Chinese criticism become clearer in contrast with Western models. For instance, a Western critic might consider political periodization an extrinsic type of classification when applied to the development of the arts, but in China art was generally viewed as an integral part of government and society, and there was no initial distinction between ethical and artistic standards of judgement [...] Rankings of poets in broad groupings are likely to have been influenced by extra-artistic factors such as social position or political career ”

Similarly , Maureen Robertson: “From a modern Western point of view, period schemes borrowed from political and intellectual history are to be termed ‘extrinsic’, not being based on evidence taken exclusively from the art objects themselves. From a traditional Chinese point of view, the political periodization cannot be seen as wholly extrinsic to art history [...] Artistic activity was not felt to take place in isolation from the complex and powerful forces set in motion by the character and authority of individual reigning sovereigns, and periodization by political periods serves not only descriptive but explanatory functions in traditional historical thinking.”

[iv] Comp., Rudolf Lüthe: “Underlying any statement with respect to the value of aesthetic experience lurks a normally not recognized decision of an anthropological order. The notion of man determines any correspondent theory concerning the value of aesthetic experience. Therefore this value is necessarily relative: there are as many valid decisions in respect to value as there are valid ideas of man. This forces us to acknowledge that we cannot finally give the answer to the question: What is the nature of the value attributed to the aesthetic experience? - All we can do is to draw logical conclusions from an accepted concept of man, which we must first decide on.”

[v] Haskell M. Block: “[...] most of us would agree that ‘World Literature’ is not a happy term.”

Comp. Mihaly Szegedy-Maszak: “My perception is that the precise boundaries of Weltliteratur have not been sufficiently fixed. World literature has certainly more to do with different degrees of translatability than with immanent aesthetic values. [...] There are great works of literature which resemble wines that do not travel well.”

[vi] Comp. H.S in: Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 37.

Interesting in this context is the following observation by Anita Silvers: “Ours is by no means the first age to be destabilized by the increasing prominence of multicultural diversity. In the eighteenth century, a similar phenomenon - a florishing engagement with non-European art - accentuated the fragility of the familiar idea of beauty. (It is at this time that the idea of Western culture as a distinct type appears.) To bolster the stability of a public sphere engaged with aesthetic value, eighteenths century convention fashioned an instructive set of models drawn from antiquity, namely a classical Western canon.” We may assume that Silvers refers to the influence China exerted on Europa during the period of Enlightenment.-

[vii] For a more comprehensive discussion from the point of view of “Comparative Aesthetics” which “may contribute to the much-needed understanding of artistic and aesthetic phenomena from a pan-human perspective” comp. Van Damme, Wilfried; his paper contains the more recent relevant literature.

[viii] His thoughts concerning the timeless appeal of Homer should be compared to David Hume’s comments: “The same HOMER who please at ATHENS and ROME two thousand years ago, is still admired at PARIS and LONDON. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory.”

[ix] Pauline Yu begins an important essay with the sentence: “Given the eclectic, syncretic, and nonsystematic nature of most Chinese literary criticism, it is possible to find support for virtually any theory of literature in the works of a particular critic.”

[x] Yuan Hongdao, 1568-1610

[xi] corresponding to T.S. Eliots “impersonality” and Edward Bulloughs ‘Psychical Distance’.

James W. Manns asks: “Even if we were to accept the whole of the Kantian account of beauty, there is room to wonder whether any one of us could ever actually be in a position to certify, ‘Yes, I have now set aside all personal, individuating concerns and have achieved a state of total disinterestedness.’ It may feel that way to us, and yet we may be overlooking the simplest of distractions or attractions that is responsible for the delight we are experiencing.”

As to Kant’s claim, that all people feel similar in regards to taste, Manns suggests that in Kant’s sentence “Our judgements are universalizable because we are like-minded individuals” the word because should be replaced by to the degree that (169). Later he writes: “In all these cases where works of drastically different cultures meet nevertheless with our approval, it must be judged that, however great the apparent differences in overall style of life may be, there are still certain grounds on which a genuine and deep sharing takes place.“(171 f.)

[xii] “These rules in their entirety form a special science, the Alankarasastra, literally ‘the teachings about decoration’ (of poetic discourse), which word used to be translated often as ‘rhetorics’, now more fittingly with ‘poetics’. The oldest manual of Alankara passed down to us is Bharata’s Instructions for the Art of Acting [...], which besides its main topic, theater, also already develops the doctrine of Rasas [...] it most likely stems from the first century after Christ.”

[xiii] “Excelling in abstraction, they always remained children in observation and experimentation. Only in one case were they sharp observers.[...] They succeeded admirably in grammar where they only had to examine their language, and they were in an equally advantageous position in poetics [...] Their school books contain a wealth of carefully selected stanzas. Doctrines are not derived by means of abstract deduction, but rather demonstrated by examples from literature. [...] Formal elegance, surprising or witty phrases, imagery antitheses and rhetorical arabesques are demanded from and found in almost every poem [...] While the detail is dazzling one loses the overview. [...] One does not demand from the poet the creation of new material or that he should at least penetrate an old one with his intellect as to re-create it in a sense [...] Normally, one is content with pleasant arrangement [...] In witty, unconventional phrasing and in poetical decor was seen the essential character of poetry [...] Under the concept of poetic decor was subsumed the whole realm of tropes and figures, alliteration and other sound-figures, as well as comparison, metaphor, hyperbole etc. [...] However, in regards to the latter the Indians were taking specialization to a much greater extreme than we did and subdivided some forms of presentation which we subsume under one name (e.g, comparison), into many special figures. That is how they soon came to differentiate soon 25, later almost 80, and finally over 100 forms of presentation. They never tired of defining them and of finding examples of them in literature or of making them up [...] For a long time, this task was occupying the theoreticians to such a degree that they did not even pose the question of the essence of poetry. They believed that the latter was completely inherent in stylistic excellence and poetical figures.”


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West” Concept Literature




Title: “East and West” and the Concept of Literature