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Why Study Literature?

The Department of Languages, Literatures, & Cultural Studies offers courses in the literatures and film narratives of the languages which it teaches. Most French Literature courses are taught in French. Literature and film courses in German or Spanish are sometimes taught in the target language and sometimes in English. The Department also offers courses in Comparative Literature taught in English which are listed in the class search web site as LIT courses. Students who are new to Comparative Literature and wish to know more about it should consult the description of this field of study at the end of this document.

The study of Literature brings us into contact with the works judged by the global community as the voices of individuals who best represent the art of writing within their particular culture. Like other arts, literature expresses outstanding creative artistic achievement worthy of note and its value can be measured according to its purely aesthetic merit as a contribution to the world community of artists in their endeavour to create works of beauty. Unlike the other arts, however, the fact that Literature’s tools are words and language has historically extended its purpose in a more direct way to many other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, psychology, political studies, sociology, history and anthropology, to name only a few. As such, Literature occupies the place of a link between the Arts and the Humanities. For those individuals interested in several of the above areas of inquiry in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Literature offers a fascinating crossroads of study which can potentially encompass many of these fields. Its verbal medium has placed literature in the enviable position of having been, as an art form, one of the world’s greatest instigators of revolutionary social change. One need only think of the French writers of the 18th century whose works deeply influenced the French Revolution, although the world’s literatures abound with a multitude of other such examples. Literature not only has the power to change the world, it has in fact done just that throughout the centuries and in every corner of the globe. Since translators have long realized that their craft is a creative process which has the power to modify literary works from their original version, one is forced to recognize the importance of acquiring the necessary tools to fully appreciate and study these works in the original language in which they were written, whenever possible.

According to George Bernard Shaw “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” In keeping with this quote, one need only think of how deeply and negatively our lives would be impacted if there was no music, no film, no visual art, no literature or poetry. The fact that recent research on depression has encouraged the reading of literature as a potential cure for melancholia points to the valuable role which literature and the arts can play as an essential ingredient in a happy life. While many fields are notable for their immediate practical value and will instruct us regarding facts and ways to accomplish different concrete collective goals of value to humanity, it is in the vast and multi-dimensional field of art that many people find works which make life itself pleasurable and worthwhile. We know that everything can be considered an art when it is elevated to the level of excellence and while the world’s occupations, professions and crafts may differ in the degree to which artistic creativity is part of their exercise, the ubiquitous nature of language and words as well as their power in our everyday lives all unite to carve out a very unique and central place for literature as an art form. Literature can be viewed as humanity’s endeavour to elevate the realities, passions and “stuff” of life, which might otherwise be trivialized by their seemingly relentless repetition, to the level of human dignity which such individual and collective “passion plays” deserve.

Students of literature and of literary analysis develop a variety of important critical thinking skills applicable to virtually every domain of life, both private and professional where words and language come into play – i.e. just about every area of life. The study of words and language in their best literary expression is relevant to an ability to analyze all discourses and discursive practices with which we are faced on a daily basis. When one recognizes that power and power relations manifest themselves through language, studying literature can be viewed as one of the central ways through which individuals become “verbally fit”. Such “verbal fitness” empowers individuals to fully understand the nuances and implications of any speech act in terms of power relations, and to be able to respond effectively and in ways which can best help them to navigate the verbal labyrinths which surround their daily lives. 

French, German and Spanish, as well as the Francophone and Hispanic literatures of cultures beyond Europe, combine to represent a veritable powerhouse of literary expression spanning many centuries and countries scattered throughout the world’s continents. As storehouses of the best expression of global human thought, as assessed by the cultures from which they sprang, they offer all students an extensive, exciting and varied field of study which can change their lives in powerful, meaningful and lasting ways.

Comparative Literature

Comparative Literature is the study of the literatures of various countries in their relationship to one another and to their global historical context. Studies in Comparative Literature can encompass a vast interdisciplinary sphere of study via inquiry into the relationship of these literatures to other areas of knowledge in the Humanities, Fine Arts and Social Sciences, such as the Arts, Philosophy, History, Psychology, Sociology, Politics etc. On one hand, it is the comparison of one literature with another or others but it is also the study of a comparison between literatures and other areas of human study and inquiry. 
The study of Comparative Literature is global, transnational and inter-cultural in nature and emphasizes the importance of language, literature, and culture in humanity’s endeavour to understand the human condition. Due to the interdisciplinary and multi-national lens through which it studies its subject matter, it is a field of inquiry which has enormous potential to lead to greater global consciousness and sensitivity to the diversity and nature of cultures and the differences and similarities in their codes, languages, literatures and artistic expression. Contemporary studies in Comparative Literature emphasize a post-colonialist perspective through study of theory and may also compare literary texts to the narratives, artistic works and cultural manifestations of other media and domains such as film, theory, translation, photography, women and gender studies etc.