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Angus Nicholls (Queen Mary University of London)

Angus Nicholls (Queen Mary University of London)

Angus Nicholls (Queen Mary University of London)
Image Credit: Soe Tjen Marching

Fellow in Research Area 3: "Future Perfect"

May 2024

The Science of Comparative Literature in 'Global' German Thought: A Nineteenth-Century Story

In the Anglophone research literature, comparative literature is often traced back to the work of mid-twentieth-century émigré central European scholars working in the USA, among them Erich Auerbach, René Wellek and Leo Spitzer. However, comparative literature emerged in both the USA and in western Europe during the final decades of the nineteenth century. These late-nineteenth-century origins reveal a nascent discipline under the influence of other comparative would-be sciences, including comparative philology, comparative religion, folklore studies and anthropology. The strong focus on comparative philology in German-speaking Europe meant that German-language thinkers were innovators on questions of cultural comparison during the mid- to late nineteenth century. These comparative methods were in turn exported both to other parts of Europe and to the USA.

This project examines four German-language thinkers who were 'global' in one or more of several senses: in having a global impact; in writing in or being translated into languages other than German; or in elaborating theories with global pretentions (in some cases they did all three of these things). They are: Goethe and his idea of Weltliteratur; the Oxford scholar Max Müller and his interrelated 'sciences' of comparative mythology and comparative religion; the Cluj-based scholar Hugo von Meltzl, editor of the first journal for comparative literature in the world, the Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarum (1877); and the German-American Franz Boas' early work on anthropology, including his activity as co-editor of the Journal of American Folklore (1888). During his time at the Freie Universität, Nicholls' focus will be on Max Müller's monumental anthology of Asian religious texts translated into English: The Sacred Books of the East (50 vols., 1879-1910). Nicholls' hypothesis is that because religion mattered in the nineteenth century in ways that secular literature did not, comparative religion functioned as an important crucible for questions of comparison and canon formation.

Angus Nicholls is Professor of Comparative Literature and German at Queen Mary University of London. Nicholls works at the intersections between literary studies, philosophy and other humanities disciplines such as critical theory, anthropology and psychoanalysis, and his work is mostly concerned with the German and Anglophone traditions from the late eighteenth century through to the twentieth century. His publications include Goethe’s Concept of the Daemonic: After the Ancients (2006), Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth-Century German Thought (co-edited with Martin Liebscher, 2010), Myth and the Human Sciences: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Myth (2015) and Friedrich Max Müller and the Role of Philology in Victorian Thought (co-edited with John R. Davis, 2017). He was formerly co-editor of two refereed journals: Publications of the English Goethe Society (Routledge) and History of the Human Sciences (Sage). His current focus is the early history of comparative literature in nineteenth-century German-speaking Europe.