First, hats off to Paul Losensky, previous chair of Comparative Literature. He did a heroic job getting us through the pandemic (to this point) and also overseeing three complete moves of our department as Ballantine Hall was renovated, first to one side of the building, then to another, and finally to our new home! We now have handsome new quarters on the sixth floor of Ballantine Hall, with offices stretching from BH 642 down the eastern wing of the building, replete with meeting rooms, space for graduate students, and the latest home of the Horst Frenz Library.
Letter from the Chair
I hope you will come to visit us when you are in Bloomington. Our main office is very comfortable too, and we have a book cabinet filled with published writings by Comparative Literature faculty over the years, located near a comfortable couch for browsing. Sarah Shin has taken great trouble to reorganize our amazingly varied departmental writings, so by all means feel free to stop in and thumb through our collected works.
The pandemic continued to cast shadows over the university in the winter of 2022, though things gradually started to improve. The faculty also voted to increase graduate stipends, using our precious Pasko bequest, a wonderful gift that came to Comparative Literature during Paul Losensky’s term as chair.
Granted, the pandemic period has been tough on the university but we are coming back to life. Toward the end of March, we begin a series of three memorable public events. First, Carlos Colmenares Gil came out from the University of California at Irvine to speak about Venezuelan and Brazilian writers, contextualizing two fresh voices from Latin America, Igor Barreto and Carolina Maria de Jesus, unpacking their work within the context of their urban cultural environments. This was our first public event since the covid pandemic. I was reminded of that great moment in Beethoven’s Fidelio, when the prisoner finally came out for some air. Faculty and students attended and we all listened together to a live presentation in one room for the first time in many, many months.
A few weeks later, we hosted the first Albert Wertheim Memorial Lecture in two years. It was given by Matthew Isaac Cohen, who offered an intriguing talk entitled “Come Like Shadows So Depart: Notes Toward a Global History of Shadow Theatre.” As the university as a whole started to show signs of life, the ever-resourceful Stephanie Klausing could only find one space, the elegant Federal Room in the IMU. Stephanie and Sarah Shin also managed to get refreshments there at the last moment, and for the first time in almost two years the Comparative Literature community was able to share some food and drink.
Finally, Professor José Pedro Serra, visiting from the University of Lisbon, spoke at our annual spring party, which took place in the University Club. His presentation, which included penetrating comments on tragedy written over thousands of years, was entitled “Shadows and Dreams: Tragedy and Language in Fernando Pessoa’s The Mariner.” It was fascinating to hear how all of this contemplative thinking on tragedy tied into the writing of the renowned Portuguese writer.
It is true that two of our distinguished speakers mentioned shadows. But they brought us back into the light of intellectual life, as experienced by human beings sitting together in a live setting (not on Zoom, thankfully) with their fine lectures.
What a variety of provocative topics! These presentations ranged from South America, out to Indonesia, and finally to Pessoa, one the greatest modern writers of Portugal, exploring how his voice related to the ancient Greco-Roman concepts of tragedy.
But now let’s take a look at what some of our graduate students are doing. I’d like to acknowledge the recipients of our recently developed departmental fellowships and the generosity of the donors that has made it all happen. Our first recipient of the Newman Family Fellowship is Meaghan Murphy, who is researching ancient Roman conspiracy theory in relation to contemporary American conspiracy theory. She is investigating how narratives from these different periods “maintain similar reference points and construction across time.” Our first Fogg Highsmith Award recipient, Yilin La, who has to come from China to do her doctoral work with us, is researching the poetics of prayer in George Herbert and Emily Dickinson, and her intrigue with the comparative poetics of Islamic and Christian traditions continues. Alan Reisner has been awarded the Stallknecht Fellowship for his dissertation research. He is developing a theory of myth based on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. He will be in Paris next year as part of our Nanterre exchange program for graduate students. He plans to consult with Luc Brisson, a highly respected French scholar who happens to be an emeritus director of the CNRS, a distinguished French research institute, and also an alumnus of Nanterre. Brisson has also written on the connections between Gödel and myth theory, but Alan plans to also branch out into new applications based on his unique knowledge of Japanese literature and culture.
This is a stunning array of varied intellectual projects pertaining to comparative literature. I can’t wait to hear more about their work.
I have been thinking a lot about the breadth and flexibility of Comparative Literature, enabling us all to study literature without the usual confines of disciplinary walls and linguistic strictures. All of the awards and lectures I’ve described above have helped me appreciate our field all the more.
What other discipline could offer such breadth?
The comparative literature community, so diverse and so full of intellectual riches, really ought to stay in touch. I hope all colleagues, current and emeriti, and all alumni, far and wide, will send news.
We would love to hear from you.
David M. Hertz
Chair and Professor, Comparative Literature