What’s the difference between the English major and the Comparative Literature major?

I will give you a partisan opinion. I think a lot of interesting things happen in English departments, but Comparative Literature is much more radical in terms of how literary texts are approached. It spends a lot more time asking the vital question: what is reading? In the past 50 years there was a lot of work done on questions of Literary Theory, particularly in France, but English courses tend to forget these 50 years ever happened. The cutting edge of Comparative Literature tries to get to the heart of what makes literature “literature” – the “literariness of literature.” It’s really important to me to know what literature “is” if I am going to spend my life studying it, so an English major is not for me.

Why did you choose Comparative Literature as your major?

Literary theory is the smartest stuff I’ve ever seen. It is like the best of philosophy and the best of literature put together. I was going to be a philosophy major in a past life, but the philosophy in Comparative Literature is so much more interesting than the stuff I was reading before.

What has been your favorite class in the major so far?

Geoffrey Bennington’s course on the work of Jacques Derrida.

What’s the hardest thing about being a Comparative Literature major?

Doing justice to works of literature and philosophy which I have a deep admiration for, both in their intellectual rigor and political radicality. In the face of a masterpiece, one’s work always seems to come up short.

Are there any perks to being a Comparative Literature major?

Your writing improves a lot. Sometimes you begin to feel as if you are uncovering the secrets of the universe, but this feeling passes quickly.

Is comparative literature all just reading and writing?

Yeah, pretty much.

What are you looking to do, in terms of a career, with your major?

I’m going to be an academic, but I could just as easily, using my comparative literature training, work as a writer or a translator of German.

What role does study abroad play in the major? Do most majors study abroad?

It’s heavily encouraged. I didn’t do it, and it was pretty dumb not to.

If you could create your own class within the major, what would it be? Why?

I’d love a course on the relation and correspondence between Carl Schmidt, Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin. They are philosophers, not writers of literature. But part of Comparative Literature is learning how to read philosophy as well. They all read each other’s work enthusiastically, yet they seem to be so different, as if you couldn’t find more different thinkers than them. I am not a good reader of any of them, but from what I can tell, Schmidt is a conservative Catholic and a Nazi legal theorist, Heidegger is the dominant figure of twentieth century philosophy who himself had an uncomfortable relationship with Nazism and Walter Benjamin was a brilliant thinker of what it means to be ‘modern’ and was also quite anti-Nazi and anti-capitalist. Yet they all “hung out” intellectually. Insane. I want to figure out how that happened.

What is your favorite piece of literature and why? Have you ever gotten to study it in a class?

“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Shelley. I didn’t know what it meant to hope before I read that poem. I’ve never studied it in a class but I’m writing an honor’s thesis chapter on it.

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