Blesok no. 112, March-April, 2017

Comparative Literature, World Literature and Ethical Literary Criticism. Literature’s “Infra-Other”

Jüri Talvet

Does ethical literary criticism mean the (only) righteous and correct one?

Since the term “ethical literary criticism” has been launched and is spreading among the world community of humanities scholars, it transparently hides a seed of ambiguity. It is because the adjective “ethical” itself is ambivalent. On the one hand, it denotes activities related to moral or ethical questions. Beyond any doubt, re-orientating cultural and literary research towards discussing questions related to ethics has been the main goal of the recently founded IAELC (International Association for Ethical Literary Criticism, founded in Yichan, China, in 2012).
         Yet, on the other hand it has become a commonplace to use “ethical” as a synonym of “correct”, “just”, “righteous” – in the sense of behavior or activity corresponding to certain established and accepted moral norms. A younger scholar belonging to the postmodern generation asked me: “Once you know beforehand what type of criticism and literature is ethical, what is the meaning of such research? Would criticism and literary creation not lose their sense altogether, if the goals are so explicit and transparent?”
          It would be in vain to start to explain that the meaning of “ethical” in the sense of “morally righteous” is misleading and erroneous. Once it has been included in most dictionaries and spread in the minds of broader communities, such an understanding must be accepted.
         Similar to ethical literary criticism (hereinafter abbreviated as ELC), we cannot ignore ambiguities related to other terms involved in my topic. Thus, comparative literature (hereinafter abbreviated as CL) is more than often understood as aimed at making a comparison between two or more literary works. Or on the contrary, in the recent decade the much-exploited term of interdisciplinary studies seems to denote relating literature and literary studies to other fields of research, such as history, sociology, politics, economics, biosciences, and other issues. As for world literature (hereinafter abbreviated as WL), it has often been imagined as a closed and defined canon established once and forever by the scholars of “major” and “leading” nations. Or, on the contrary, it has been identified with the truly unapproachable corpus of universally created literary, meta-literary, as well as non-literary texts.
         We certainly cannot deny anybody the right to understand, interpret and also to question terms that at least to some extent have been consecrated in our containers of knowledge – universal dictionaries and encyclopedias.
    The moral function and challenge of ELC, CL and WL

    Yet, what we surely can do is accentuate and ground some aspects of the terms and phenomena we consider more important than others. When determining the nucleuses and dominants of the fields of ELC, CL and WL, the first criterion for me would be discerning functions that the mentioned fields could aspire to cover and meet more completely than other branches or areas of research. My personal intuition and experience foretell me that moral function would strongly stand out in this context.
         Since 19th-century positivist philosophies, the highest goal of science has been to describe and interpret objectively, starting from concrete and measurable data, the natural world. Any transcendence to God and the supernatural has been denied, while subjective and personal approaches have been criticized from the standpoint of science. The interference of moral criteria has been seen rather as a disturbance, a trouble-maker.
         As the natural and technical sciences developed and triumphed, producing miraculous changes in societies, called the “progress of civilization”, the same principle of a claimed objectivity became to be ever more applied to humanities, including history as well as literary history.
         However, the stumble-block in achieving tangible progress in this enterprise was that the object of research in humanities appeared to be rebellious, capricious, passionate and not at all measurable in physical and mathematical terms. It explains at least in part the failure of the 20th century structuralism. It could not cope with the living and ever changing object. The schemes, models and structures built and shaped by structural scholars were nice, but the most original part of literary creation nearly always managed to escape their grasp by means of individuality, subjectivity and personality.
         The deception was then reflected in post-structuralism. The current initiated in the 1980s may still have some influence, but its first charm seems to be rapidly fading. In my opinion, its nihilist theoretical seeds strongly contradicted the nature of primary literary creation itself. Postmodern theory clearly underestimated literature’s role and function both in society and our individual lives. Thus, one of the claims of postmodernism was that lofty aesthetic and philosophical aspirations of modernist writers were old-fashioned and that literature could hardly aspire to more than simply rewriting already existing previous texts, in the paradigm of intertextuality. Literature became viewed as just one more product in the profit-orientated market economy. Furthermore, it was claimed that authors or writers were incapable of knowing the true value of their work, as the value was really created by the meta-textual-theoretical genius of criticism, rather than by the original authors themselves.
         There was thus a transparent attempt to bridle primary literary creation and make it submissively follow the theoretical precepts and signals emitted above all from Parisian and US academia and then echoed by numerous adepts both in the centric and peripheral areas. Ethical or moral categories seldom entered that reign; these were considered as something ingenuous, inferior, if not altogether inappropriate for intellectual-theoretical reasoning.
         Differently from the linguistic-rhetorical line, the sociological trend (thus, postcolonial scholarship, gender studies) did pay attention to ethical questions, but its scope was mainly limited to the exterior contours of literary creation. Individuality and especially the aesthetic dimension of a creative act often became consciously neglected.
    The challenge to fill axiological-ethical voids, and the “other”

    My conclusion from the above is that in the present world as it is, with its endless violence, wars, economic as well as ecological crisis, there is an obvious void in social as well as private axiology. The void in humanities becomes above all visible, as contrasted with a continuity of primary literary creation around the world, once with more, once with less luck aspiring to novelty (originality) of expression and imagery. There is continuity also in the fact that practically every outstanding literary work of our days and the recent past, by discussing fundamental axiological relations and attitudes, reveals its strong ethical or moral nucleus.
         Contrary to this continuity in primary literary creation, literary and cultural scholarship under the banner of postmodernism has greatly failed to meet one of its principal functions and tasks: to explain the axiology as well as moral-spiritual dimension of literary works. Instead, scholars waste a lot of their energy discussing different formal aspects in works of mass and trivial literature, as if trying to convince us that higher goals of literary creation have become obsolete.
         Building up an axiology in which spiritual values are involved can hardly be achieved without ethics. The wide complex of axiology, as well as ethics, seems to have intrinsic liaison with the ontology of “self” and “other” and the ever-vital need of reaching a kind of a dialogue or elementary understanding between both. Ideally it would presuppose a “self’s” admittance of the “other” as a different “self”, and the traditional “other” developing its conscience as a “self”.
         The history of the existing canon of WL provides vastest imaginable opportunities to discuss interrelations between “Self” and “other”. Quite surely one could speculate and reason about different “selves” as well as varying “others”. Thus, Francesco Petrarch in his treatise Secretum (mid-14th century), written in the form of an intense dispute between Franciscus and Augustinus, exposed a conflict of his interior “self”, driven at the same time by divine love and love to an earthy young noblewoman. Michel de Montaigne in his essays written in the final phase of the European Renaissance demonstrated eloquently that a human person’s reason-based “self” is nothing definite, as it changes under the impact of varying circumstances and depends fundamentally on habits and traditions of different places and stages of age. Baltasar Gracián in his Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (the mid-17th century, or the mature European Baroque) – a collection of philosophic miniatures – exposed in an admirable psychological detail different male logics clashing in power rivalry, something that has never been absent from the world of politics, West or East, past and present. And so on.
         Yet my purpose in the following is to center on the relationship between “self” and “other” in the most radical sense, in which the former (“self”) appears as a historical derivate of predominantly male reasoning, representing political-economical-military power structures, vastly relying on the advances of science and technology, while the latter (“other”), represents the generic otherness (womankind), the ethnical-linguistic “other” (the world’s peripheral and minority nations and nationalities), as well as the racially or socially oppressed and deprived “other”. The common feature of this traditional “other”, with all its sub-species, is that it has not been capable or willing to adapt to the historical “progress” envisaged and planned first and foremost by the Western power centers. Instead and on the contrary, that “other” has been a natural ally in resisting the kind of “progress” of which the essence would be to destroy the natural basis of life on the earth, in the name of power ambitions and materialistic greed.
    The changing and continuous “other” of literary creation in the past and present

    A lot has changed in the world since the times when most infamous humiliation of the traditional “other” was a norm. Western centers, with its writers, philosophers, intellectuals and culturally creative people in the vanguard, have definitely contributed to the painful but gradually expanding process of democratization. Let me provide some examples of the (cultural) history of Estonia, my own native country, a minority and peripheral nation par excellence.
         The father of Kristian Jaak Peterson (1801-1822), whom we in Estonia celebrate as the first autochthonous poet of a major significance, by a happy miracle managed to escape serfdom, to which our forefathers were fettered during long centuries by Baltic-German landlords, with the benediction and approval of the Russian tsarist empire. Peterson thus grew up in the first generation of the Estonians liberated from serfdom. He was among the first autochthonous students of the University of Tartu, excelling in linguistics, philosophy and poetry. During his unjustly short lifespan he managed to publish only fruits of his linguistic research. His poetry started to be published posthumously a hundred years after his birth. For the first time it was collected in a book in 1922, thus on Peterson’s death centenary.
         Although totally belated and irreparably fallen out of the “Western canon”, now at the start of the 21st century we have become to understand that Peterson was actually a forerunner to Walt Whitman, as he wrote his poetry exclusively without end-rhymes, in free verse. He prophetically defended the diversity of culture as an extension of nature’s diversity and praised the beauty and poetic capacity of his native Estonian language. In his pastoral odes and eclogues, he showed friendship and love that transcended gender barriers and taboos, of simple Estonian shepherd boys and girls. (Undusk 2012: 11-29, 103-122, Talvet 2015: 7-22)
         My other example of literary creation with a similarly strong moral nucleus, as could be found in the work of the founders of Estonian national literature, K. J. Peterson, F. R. Kreutzwald, comes – maybe surprisingly – from China, from the era that in the West under the dictate of its centers has been called “postmodern” (from the 1980s to the early 21st century). It is inspired by my recent translation into Estonian of a poetry selection by Jidi Majia (born in 1961; his first personal anthology appeared in 1992; by today his poetry has been translated into a number of Western languages, including two selections in English translation: Time (2006), translated by Yang Zongze, and Shade of Our Mountain Range (2014), translated by Denis Mair (Jidi Majia 2006, 2014).
         Jidi Majia’s poetry is originally written in Chinese, in free verse without end-rhymes. Its moral nucleus is the same as Walt Whitman’s. It is the defense and praise of natural diversity of cultures and peoples, the bio-totality and natural-telluric integrity as the very source and basis of human existence. However, differently from Whitman, the son of a big nation (by today, one of the world superpowers and principal “centers”), Jidi Majia’s pathos does not derive from the greatness of a super-nation, but, on the contrary, is almost exclusively devoted to the traditions, history, culture and spiritual values of his native ethnical minority nationality (one among so many “others” in China), the Yi nation.
         Yis whose population, according to different sources, varies between two and six million people do not have their own autonomous region. Besides their historical center in the southern part of the Sichuan province, the Yis live dispersed also in other nearby provinces.
         Jidi Majia’s poetry is thus written from the basic position of a historically humiliated and neglected “other”, the smaller and weaker whose existence and culture (above all in the (post)modern socio-economical turn of globalization) is destined to be pushed to the verge of extinction. Jidi’s poetry is not really a cry of protest against historical injustice towards his own nation, the Yi, but he addresses at the same time all other numerous smaller nations, who in so many parts of the earth have shared the same fate in a distant as well as the recent history.
         My country Estonia has fared somewhat better, at least since the collapse of the Soviet empire, at the end of the 20th century. Yet the roots of historical wounds are exactly the same as those of the Yi people. Philosophically, the closest to Jidi is our Estonian poet Juhan Liiv (1864-1913). The younger generation of Liiv’s contemporary Estonian writers would have liked to see him as a forerunner of symbolism (or the early modernism) – the fashion that came from the Western centers, especially from France. Liiv rejected it and assumed a thoroughly independent existentialist position, combined with holistic philosophy of life’s spiritual integrity, in which all parts of nature, the smallest and weakest included, are equally indispensable for life’s continuation.
         Both for Jidi and Liiv the highest moral goal for a nationality, as an individual, would be embodied in its freedom to be fully conscious of its identity, to represent and provide continuity to its traditions, language and culture. At the same time, both advocate for a dialogue and a symbiotic relationship of that traditional “other”, their native minority nation and culture with all other nations and cultures, small and big.
         Within the respective contour of the ethnic-linguistic “other”, both poets, Liiv and Jidi, make stand forth the generic “other”, woman, as the bearer of highest moral values of a nation, such as love, generosity of soul, faithfulness, tenderness, infinite self-sacrifice, peacefulness and the fullest possible harmony with nature.
    The “infra-other” of literary creativity

    As the question goes about literary scholarship and criticism, in all cases concerning CL, WL and ELC one should not neglect one more “other” – if not an inalienable “self” – within any literary creation and poetics as such. I would say it comprises literary creativity’s infra-ontology, despite the fact that under the pressure of different times and socio-historical circumstances its position has varied. That “other” is the aesthetic dimension of a literary work. I can hardly imagine or mention any masterpiece of WL either in its active, passive or potential canon, that would have failed to bind its philosophy with a search of a proper aesthetics, capable of generating ideas in the way that they are not perceived as mere thoughts, but are just felt as something that concerns the individual life of a receiver, or the very self of a receiving culture.
         “Aesthetics” derives from “senses”. One could claim that any act of great literary creation has been “ethical” in the sense that it has conveyed ideas melted in and mixed with senses, or to say more exactly, beyond mere intellect or reason it has captured in an image simultaneously ideas and feelings through senses, thus representing the world and human existence in its totality and making its message audible to the widest possible public, including all varieties of the “other”. In other words, it has captured and conveyed significant fragments of life in sensually shaped poetic images, thus avoiding to degenerate into a mere brainwork.
         Deprived of the aesthetic aspect, ELC would easily lose its identity, and become a field dominated by “noospheric” ratiocinations, without much if any contact with the “other”.
         Among basic “infra-others” of literature, metaphoric image in its unrepeated genuineness has always been the main distinction and at the same time the axiological nucleus of literary works. A metaphor conveys sensuousness by its very nature, as its source is establishing analogy between two or more natural-concrete and sensually perceived objects. Thus, its highest imaginable concentration of metaphors in the work of William Shakespeare or Federico García Lorca is to all likelihood the special feature that makes moral-philosophical conflicts stand forth with an extraordinary expressiveness. In these greatest creators, poetical image never degenerates into an idea of morality forcefully imposed on reality – a feature generally perceived as moralization. On the contrary, a high metaphorical concentration has not at all become anything obsolete or “overcome” in our contemporary poetics. One could claim that original metaphoric imagery has in fact continuously provided the measure for permanent value in any literary creation. In the context of the above mentioned “peripheral” poets of minor nationalities, both Juhan Liiv and Jidi Majia excel by metaphorical intensity of their philosophically orientated poetry.
     In all literary creation, a parallel “infra-other”, rivalling metaphor, but definitely less intensive in its effect, has been the application of allegorical or allegorically shaped image. In general, allegory is just the opposite of metaphor: it means a forceful imposition of some idea, and very often of morality in the sense of righteous or correct behavior, in accordance with established norms, to a society or a community. For that reason, allegory was highly popular in the late European Medieval literature, as well as in the Baroque. The 20th-century expressionism provided allegory with novel individual features, but the essence was still the same. The ideas of a creator, more than often echoing some contemporary political-ideological current or trend, were forcefully imposed onto natural reality.
         Allegory is thus definitely closer-related to the traditional reason-based “self”, than metaphor. The latter could be viewed as a part of literature’s “infra-other”, representing a strive for natural-biological-generic “otherness”, for freedom and independence, and the individual.
         Yet even within the general framework of allegory, the greatest writers of WL have managed to create admirable works expanding allegory’s traditional limits and introducing in its reign powerful metaphorical images. Thus, Baltasar Gracián, being at the same time one of the outstanding European thinkers and a principal aesthetic theorist of the Baroque, wrote a curious allegorical-symbolist novel El criticón (1651-1657), perhaps a forerunner of the modern intellectual-cultural novel. Its allegory, saturated with witty philosophical comparisons and puns, as well as a constant play of intermingling the rational-cultural and the sensual-natural, is by far closer to modern sensibility, ever open to ambiguities, than John Bunyan’s well-known The Pilgrim’s Progress, published some ten years after Gracián’s novel.
         In the same fashion, one of the miracles of the Baroque theatre is Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play, El gran teatro del mundo (The Great Theatre of the World). The one-act theatrical genre of auto sacramental strongly limits its expression. The play is exemplarily allegorical – thus a descendent of the late medieval moralité genre, having among its characters, devoid of any individual concreteness, such as World, Author (God), King, Richman, Poor, Beauty, Child and Voice, among others. Yet Calderón managed to bring to the theatre scene indeed the entire world and to reflect in World’s monologues the major stages of the human history, corresponding to Bible’s vision and predicaments, as well as every individual’s existential life limits, from birth to tomb. Calderón’s vision loses its abstractness because it is caught between the limits of any individual human life, with its basic passions and aspirations, nobleness and misery.
         The same can be said about the work of many posterior creators, including the Estonian Juhan Liiv, contemporary of early modernism, and the Yi poet Jidi Majia, coeval of postmodernism. Both can be seen as rebels against the dominating social ideology as well as the aesthetic current of their time, with its origin in the Western centers. Both have a strong propensity to a philosophical vision of the world, as the imperative of ideas is powerful in both.
         Yet even when Liiv and Jidi apply allegorically shaped imagery in their poems, they find means by which they manage to escape monologues of an omniscient “self”. Instead they catch moments of life in its contrasts, contradiction, change and ambiguity, all of which have to do with sensuous shades of the total image. For me, Liiv has among his outstanding achievements a longer poem without title (its first line beginning: “Kes see vahib vainu päälta…”), a semi-allegorized vision of the advent of spring. Written in a rhythm pattern very close to the traditional Finno-Ugrian folk-poetry, Liiv’s poem
[1] shows by means of a series of metaphoric images the triumph of Spring, in its supreme beauty and at the same time its sexual cruelty (something that is constantly present, for instance, in the telluric-tragic poems of the Andalusian Federico García Lorca).
         In a greater part of his poetry, Garcia Lorca was inspired by late medieval Spanish romances and lyrical folk-song, of which the most notable feature is a loose assonant rhyme, the famous Spanish rima asonante. Juhan Liiv did not apply in most of his poems Estonian (that is, Finno-Ugrian) folksong’s metrics – which does not have rhyme in the traditional sense, but instead forms repetitive sounds by artificial word-endings, relying heavily on alliterations. However, in the above-mentioned poem about spring’s advent as well as in some other allegorized poems, like for instance “Mure” (Anxiety) he indeed showed a masterful use the Finno-Ugrian folksong’s rhythm pattern.
         Curiously enough, the Yi poet Jidi Majia, whose poetry is basically written in free unrhymed verse and has thus followed Western poetics in the vain of Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda and many others, achieves an analogous wonderful magic blend of metaphorical allegory (or allegorized metaphor) in his poem titled “Folksong” (which by its use of repetition is also close to ancient traditional poetry, either Chinese, Yi, Spanish or Estonian), insofar as its imagery is utterly concrete and sensual (thus in a way contradicting the essence of allegory).
         “Poetry” in Jidi’s poem is an allegorized character, embodying and symbolizing love: first a human being, presumably a maid, in the rapture of love, with the traditional harp kouxian in her hand. Then in the next stanza it becomes sheep (picked out for copulating – sexual domination by the leader ram). Finally, she is a maid in despair, because human love is much more subtle than mere sexual intercourse. Thus, the poem alludes by its ending to the male tyranny, one of the main causes and sources of tragedy both in nature and in history.




Kõik rahvas on turult koju tulnud
    mu luule aga ei ole tagasi tulnud
    Teda nähti
    õhtuhämus teeristil
    kuldne suupill kouxian käes
    Lambad on mäenõlvalt alla tulnud
    mu luule aga ei ole tagasi tulnud
    Juhtoinas ei lasknud teda kordagi silmist
    kui päike loojus
    Mu luule silmitses veritsevaid mäenõlvu
    hoides tagasi pisaraid
    süda sees murtud
    Naabrid magavad juba kõik
    mu luule aga ei ole tagasi tulnud
    Istun värava ette maha ja ootan teda
    Kuis saaksin unustada sellist õhtut?!
    (Jidi Majia 2016: 24-25)


    Folks have all come home from market
    But my poem has not come back
    It was seen drunk
    Pacing heavy-heartedly
    With a golden mouth harp in hand
    Under eaves of a house
    Near a crossroads at dusk
    Sheep have come down from the hillside
    But my poem has not come back
    The lead ram caught sight of it
    As the sun edged downward
    It was watching the bleeding hills
    It was past the point of weeping
    Grieving to itself
    The neighbors are all asleep
    But my poem has not come home
    I sit at a gate to watch for it
    How could I forget that night?!
    (Jidi Majia 2014: 9)

    To summarize the above: literary creation as the object of CL, WL and ELC has nearly always achieved its highest perfection by forming a strong moral nucleus in discussing the relations of the traditional “self” with the traditional “other”. More than often it has taking the side of the weaker – the neglected, the humiliated, the suppressed, the suffering. There is little reason to suppose that the moral criteria of outstanding literary creation would have changed in our time (or would change in the future).
         The primary task of all scholars of the mentioned three fields, as far as I can see it, would be to explicate the moral nucleus of literary processes and works. At the same time, only by fully including in its discussion the “infra-other” (or aesthetics), CL and ELC can hope to explain satisfactorily why this or that work has been able to make its philosophic message audible far beyond the limited lifetime and the country of origin of their creators, or in other words, why some works have deserved (and should deserve) to enter in the canon of WL and others have failed to do it. The best prepared for this arduous task are quite surely CL scholars, if ever they manage to maintain on the horizon of their studies the “other” in the radical sense, instead of reducing it to a mere fragment of the traditional “self”. There is no reason why CL scholars should not include in their area of research ELC. By doing it they can only corroborate the position of CL in the world’s academia, responding at the same time to one of the major challenges of humanities in our contemporary world.

    Jidi Majia. 2006. Time. Trans. By Yang Zongze. Yunnan: Yunnan People’s Publishing House.
    Jidi Majia. 2014. Shade of Our Mountain Range. Selected Poems. Trans. By Denis Mair. Cape Town: Uhuru Design Studio.
    Jidi Majia. 2016. 时 间. Aeg. Trans. By Jüri Talvet, revised by Taimi Paves. Tallinn: Ars Orientalis.
    Liiv, Juhan. 2013. Snow Drifts, I Sing. Selected Poems. Ed. By Jüri Talvet, trans. By Jüri Talvet and H. L. Hix. Toronto: Guernica.
    Talvet, J. 2015. Culture in the European East-Baltic Periphery: Embarrassed Coexistence of Fashion, Officialism and Resistance. The Estonian Case of K. J. Peterson. – Interlitteraria. 20/1. The Changing Baltics. Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 7-22.
    Undusk, J. 2012. Eesti Pindaros. K. J. Petersoni oodide vaimuloolisest taustast. – Keel jaKirjandus, 1, 11-29; 2, 103-122.


1. The mentioned poem was published for the first time almost half a century after Liiv’s death, in 1953. It has not yet been translated into English or any other foreign language – the obvious fate of a significant part of poetry created originally in minority or minor languages. For the most comprehensive selection in English translation of Liiv’s poetry to date, see Liiv 2013.

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