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Comparing the Literatures: Contemporary Perspectives

12–13, Spring 2022 – Fall 2022
Issue Editors:
Amir Eshel, Galili Shahar, Vered K. Shemtov

This article revisits Johann Gottfried Herder’s 1773 essay on Shakespeare. What makes Herder’s critical essay remarkable, it argues, is not just that it models the nominalist and culturalist outlook that would go on to have far-reaching implications for the history of comparative literature and related disciplines, but also that it recognizes the existential consequences of adopting the thoroughgoing culturalist and historicist self-image that it promotes. Herder’s meditation on cultural finitude in Shakespeare flows directly from his insistence that human beings are social and historical creatures and carries important lessons for the interpretive humanities today.

The following article is a comparative reading of medieval Othering in the context of monsters and maskhs. While monsters had an integral role in defining the non-Christian Other in the West, maskhs played a similar role in the East. The article suggests that understanding the meaning, function, and interaction of monsters and maskhs in the Middle Ages contributes to further understanding the concept of medieval Othering that can still be noticed even in today’s world.

Animals in the 1948 War carry secrets hidden in plain sight. In this essay we employ a shift that is related to ecocriticism and animal studies to examine stories of the 1948 War, seeking the language and imaginings of, and about, animals of Palestine for untold aspects of its story. We ask how the depiction of animals in Palestinian and Israeli literatures helps us understand other dimensions of space, life, and death in Palestine/Israel and their narratives of 1948. Reading in works by S. Yizhar, Emile Habiby, and Anton Shammas, it appears animals hold a humanistic message for all living things, a message that continues to be passed on from generation to generation, even if only in whispers.

In this article, I contrast two types of transnationalism — regionalism and cosmopolitanism — as they feature in David Damrosch’s Comparing the Literatures. I do so by assessing Damrosch’s arguments on the comparability of magical realism and by teasing out their implications for the book’s larger aims. I am interested in Damrosch’s arguments to the extent that they exemplify what I believe is an unexamined assumption of some of the major voices in the transnational turn, especially in the field of global modernism.

If the actions of K. — who arrives as a stranger at the village and pretends to be the land surveyor — are taken seriously, The Castle has to be read as a theater play in which the protagonist is trying to achieve a role that was never made for him. When K. tries to create his own reality through speech acts and thus starts a fight with the center of meaning production — with the castle — he himself becomes the allegory of a minor, that means a revolutionary, writing. This article aims to accomplish a reading of Kafka’s novel that reveals aspects of its relation to world theater as well as to the minor Yiddish theater — comparing The Castle with Kafka’s diary entries in which he wrote down his observances of the performances of the Yiddish theater group which took place in 1911 and 1912 in Prague cafés ten years before Kafka began writing the novel.

The novels of emigration during the French Revolution written by female authors such as Stéphanie de Genlis, Adélaïde de Souza, Isabelle de Charrière, and Claire de Duras constitute a corpus that highlights the notion of hospitality and broadens the scope of its meanings. This article argues that the link between emigration and hospitality is a choice related, among other things, to the female authors’ condition in the literary field of their time — i.e., their struggle for professional recognition is an institutional fact determining in many ways their writing choices and practices. It explains, among other things, the critical sensitivity of the multiple aspects of hospitality as it is deployed in the novels of emigration written by women. The term of “­literary scene,” borrowed from Judith Schlanger, considers the corpus presented here as a historical scenario impacting the “situations of speech,” and therefore it contributes by identifying the thematic and narrative specificity of a “local” corpus and reflecting on a more global literary phenomenon. By circumscribing a particular literary framework, this article explores the convergence points between the émigré condition and the importance of the environmental qualities of hospitality in the fiction of the female author at the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Thus, it aims to shed light on the specificity of emigration novels written by women.

This essay takes the standpoint of a specialist of Chinese literature to consider the question of what kind of knowledge literary studies produces. I believe that confronting this question head-on is critical to our discipline’s renewal. Moving between the personal and the theoretical, I suggest that anthropology can provide useful tools in making sense of politically and culturally distant texts in the age of world literature. To illustrate my point, I revisit the question of flat characters in traditional Chinese fiction in light of new research in the anthropology of mind. In the end, I propose that literary studies move toward the “new humanities” in order to make itself relevant to broader constituencies.

Literature is conventionally thought to consist of two complementary, comprehensive categories: poetry and prose. The first part of this essay argues this to be a contingent Western construct which goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and seeks to demonstrate that it indeed is not to be found in the neighboring ancient literary cultures of biblical Hebrew and early Islamic Arabic. The second part suggests that this difference is correlated to these cultures’ conceptions of the language of their god(s), a suggestion which can be seen to complement Erich Auerbach’s argument in Mimesis regarding the separation and mixture of styles in antiquity.

This article is an attempt to shed new light on dictionaries in the context of comparative literature, thinking of them not only as a tool necessary for working in the field, but as an object worthy of the field’s imaginative, interpretive, and cross-­cultural methods. As a starting point, we focus on the strange case of Holocaust-Yiddish dictionaries. Seeming outliers of lexicography, these texts challenge us to recognize the ethical, emotional, and even spiritual potency of the genre. Inspired by these challenges, we then revisit a diverse set of prominent dictionary texts: the Oxford English Dictionary, an interwar lexicon of Yiddish jargon, the Chinese Erya, and the Hebrew-Arabic Ha-Egron. This comparative journey reveals a productive tension within the genre: while the dictionary promises to organize and categorize language, it can often reveal that which is unknowable in speech and in experience.

The current essay suggests a form of reading inspired by both the sense of smell and the phenomenon of smell. It is composed of two theoretical parts. The first aims at formulating a comparative model deriving from the conceptual history of smell and from its attributes as a physical phenomenon. The second theoretical part examines the peculiar materiality of smell as part of an atmosphere and the possible implications it might have on the link/rupture between literature and life. Finally, it brings the theory into practice, reading a story from the Israeli literary canon, attempting to air it and present alternatives to its familiar, canonical readings and interpretations.

This article considers how a literature that travels between languages and cultures challenges dominant narrations of gender variance by undermining a stable sense of time and place. Tracing what I call a temporality “out of sync” in Yiddish-language writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” [“Yentl der Yeshive Bokher”], I contend that his work suspends contemporary medical categorizations of transness: it is through the entanglement of the temporal outlandishness of Yiddish demons with rabbinic as well as early-twentieth century sexological accounts of gender variance that the story disrupts the logic of progress inherent in mid-twentieth-century understandings of the medico-juridical category of “transsexuality.” Reading temporal disjunction and resistance to categorize transness in “Yentl” as a means to question the diagnosability of gender variance in the first place, this perspective configurates transness as a space of possibility at the intersections of temporal, linguistic, and geographical migrations.

This paper examines the circus setting in Hebrew literature as a supra­national theme that expresses the worldly in literature. Focusing on three circus stories by Hebrew modernist author Gershon Shofman, the paper stresses a distinct concept of physical power and its political implications. It suggests that through this power concept, the circus phenomenon lends a worldly perspective to Shofman’s twentieth-­century Hebrew literature, which is usually read in a national context.

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to comparative literature.

Editorial Board

Vered Karti Shemtov, Dibur Editor-in-Chief
Yotam Popliker, Dibur Executive Editor
Chen Bar-Itzhak, Dibur Editor
Chen Edelsburg, Dibur Curated Editor


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Dibur is made possible by grants from:

  • Stuart R. Epstein, California
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University