I haven’t kept up with the discipline after its forages into theory, but time was a person “with literature”, which is what a comparatist basically is, had to know at least Latin, without which you were an illiterate; Greek as well, and probably Hebrew, for how are you going to understand the Judeo-Christian tradition if you don’t know the first half. I am schooled in Comparative Literature, but I learned no classical languages. What I’ve read is thanks to translators, my heroes.
I know the classics sustain an ideology of privilege. In my Comp Lit student life I heard Harry Levin lamenting, in his address as president of the American Comparative Literature Association, that students were foregoing Latin and learning Swahili instead. Today that sounds racist, as it already did to this grad student in — when else? — 1968.
I never studied Latin — or Swahili for that matter. And yet I am a comparatist. Of no stature, that’s true; in fact, I left the discipline a long time ago. But I am a child of the classics. I lived in the times of Achilles, as the movie Troy ends saying. The classical era began the times I was born into, something that calls itself Western Civilization. I dive into those stories like Narcissus desiring his own lips.
My parents gave me a young persons’ book collection, El Tesoro de la juventud, a kind of Encyclopedia for kids. It had simplified yet lively retellings of the Greek epics and myths. I was enthralled. Was I primed to love these narratives because I was born into Western culture, that is, into that constructed arc that begins in classical times?
Possibly. For whatever reason I fell hard, as my choice of a sword-and-sandal movie as a cultural reference plainly shows. The world, East and West, North and South, has many mythologies. I’ve been exposed to some. But none resound like the classics. An ordinary man comes home. And still he is Odysseus. I am no less ordinary. And still I am transfixed by Eros. And if I had to choose a goddess I’d choose she who would promise me Helen and launch a thousand ships. We may not always have Paris, but we will always have Venus Aphrodite.