The Place of Comparative Literature A personal essay by Luna Beller-Tadiar

“Comparative Literature. The department?”

My friend’s face shows no sign of recognition, a typical response. Then: “Ohhh.” A pause. “So like English?”

A few minutes later I pull open the heavy front door of 451 College St. and nearly crash into the next one — the first door opens onto a window that is in fact another door, itself confusingly set between two more interior windows and a step above ground level. Taped to the warped panes are several curling paper signs: “Please do not press a glass pane to open the door,” reads the first (Times New Roman font, first letter capitalized, period stubbornly in place). “STEP UP,” says another more colloquially. It’s a strange spatial heteroglossia, and in its disorienting complication of something fairly mundane I can’t help but read the entrance as some kind of metaphor for the discipline. Inevitably, I end up taking the access ramp to the left, obviously a later addition, which leads directly to the two corner trash cans before the path veers into the lobby.

Inside, the gleaming wooden bannister no longer gleams; the stairs sink heavily in the center. The place feels not just old but vaguely degraded. Weak florescent lights cast a shadowless nonlight, and someone has covered the floors with thin corporate carpeting, dyed an amalgamation of indistinguishable grays.

These days I head straight up these stairs. I declared the major last year, but only as a senior do I have consistent reason to creak my way upwards to where the faculty members have their dens, hidden behind doors of imposing solid wood. Upstairs even the florescent lights falter; my creaking continues through an eternal twilight. Strange objects are scattered on the several mantelpieces that line the looping hall, contextlessness turning them helplessly into kitsch: a pixely framed print of the New York skyline, labeled “New York, New York”; a small ceramic statue of what might be a monk, if a monk can wear a conniving expression; a diorama of small circular clay dolls, bright red cheeks inappropriately cheery, glued to a background of reed and dried flowers. A few chairs in different styles are scattered around these mantles, presumably for waiting students who never seem to be there. I get the feeling that whoever decorates dentists’ offices made a half-hearted attempt here. But I’m pretty sure it’s just that no one is actually in charge.

If there is a center of organization, however, it’s downstairs. This time I skip the stairs, and turn directly into the main office, a better lit room where Pat Benatar sings defiantly from a tiny beige Wilson sports radio in the corner, the sound low and crackly enough to become comforting ambient noise. No one is behind the decorative metal “LOVE” that sits on the main desk, so I plop myself down in a voluptuous floral armchair and proceed to study the candy options on the cupcake-shaped plate in front of me.

“Oh, hello,” says Mary Jane Stevens as she comes in. She is the administrative coordinator, and it’s her desk I’m across from. “Wait, were you waiting for me?”

I explain that I was, that I was curious about the building and thought she might be the best person to ask. My instinct seems confirmed when I find out that Mary Jane has been with the department for twenty-seven years, and forty-five at Yale.

“People say I must have started when I was 6,” laughs Mary Jane, shaking her head of auburn hair, and indeed she doesn’t look old enough for such a tenure. While she had intended to finish college, she began working for Yale after only a year of school, a fact she delivers with a slight wistfulness. “But you were asking me about the building,” she says quickly when I inquire, and I feel suddenly as if “Yale student” were stamped on my forehead. I think of my grandmother — the white, if Jewish, American one — who did finish college but gave up a number of possible careers to be the housewife to my grandfather’s cardiology. I would have liked to hear Mary Jane’s story.

I don’t press. The printer whirrs loudly. A bespectacled man comes in.

“Hey David,” says Mary Jane.

“Hello Mary Jane,” says David. “Say, do you know if I’m going to be able to get out of here tonight?”

They discuss the upcoming bike race, and the streets that will be blocked off. “I have nothing against bicycle races,” says David, partly to me. “Paul de Man loved them. They ‘only exist as a literary event,’ he said. Because, you know, it’s like, it’s the Tour de France and you’re in some small town and it’s like — here come the bikes! Then —” He makes a motion with his hand — “Whoosh! And that’s it. So your enjoyment of it is all a function of highly developed sports writing.” He pauses. I’m grinning. “Anyway, I have nothing against it. I think it’s great. As long as I can get out of the parking lot.”

“I’m printing out your copies, by the way,” says Mary Jane. “All 800 pages.”

“We just can’t read things on screens at our age,” says David to me, as if to apologize.

Mary Jane tells me that 451 College St. began life in 1909 as a fraternity house and passed through an era as the bursars’ office (“Everyone hated it, because you had to come here to pay your bills. It was all cubicles upstairs.” I imagine this explains the carpeting.). Sixteen years ago it was converted to its current function. I am surprised.

“Well it looks like a frat house if you think about it,” says Mary Jane. I do, but promptly realize I don’t have much to go on in the way of frat house architecture. “You can imagine — a bunch of frat boys on that — that semi-circular thing…”

“Balcony?” I offer, “Veranda?”

“Yeah. Drinking and throwing their cigar butts over the side … ” She trails off.

This I can imagine, and do, vividly. There is a frat house on Lake Place, a few doors down from where Sappho parties have been held in the past few years. On these rare lesbian evenings, I pass there looking gayer than usual, simultaneously wary of the crowd and filled with a vague sadness. Sadness for the girls in their identical skirts and identical crop tops, identical heels and waterfalls of straight blond hair, shiny as if cleaned by Windex. A better world is possible, I want to whisper to them. For the boys I feel no sadness. Perhaps I am simply incurious.

Sometimes I feel like walking into 451 College St. is like going to a Sappho party. There’s the Political Science Department up the hill, shiny and new, or the Yale School of Management, shimmering and secure under its 2.25 million pound glass facade, or even the English Department, buttoned up in the staccato constants of “Linsly-Chittenden Hall,” basking in the glow of sumptuous stained glass … And here we are, unmissed, ignoring the crappy carpet and discussing Latin American film until midnight in the sickly-lit basement. It’s called 451 College because it’s not endowed, explains Mary Jane. No one gave money. So we don’t get a name. And yet — Well it looks like a frat house if you think about it.

After David leaves she opens an adjoining door to reveal a spacious room whose centerpiece is a gleaming wood table made of a dark, heavy-looking wood. On the table is a crystal dish; on this are some paper napkins, printed with a blue Yale crest; finally all of it is crowned with a stack of flimsy plastic cups.

“There’s Paul de Man,” says Mary Jane, pointing to one of the black and white portraits that line the walls. The walls here are a clean cream, uncluttered by the riotous array of posters that stick to the doors upstairs. The portraits, with similar propriety, are evenly spaced, all of them equally sized and identically framed, all of them of white men in suits, names and dates traced underneath in a clean, inky script.

Ah, so this is the remainder of the shrine. The relic, the meeting place, the … chair’s office, Mary Jane clarifies, which explains the desk and the familiar pair of shoes behind the door, as well as the stack of books stamped “Heidegger” in aggressive titular font.

“But you should really ask David about all this. He can tell you about the peeps,” says Mary Jane from the doorway.

“Thanks.” I could ask professor David Quint, but I could also simply Google it — or, in dusty humanities spirit, go to that realm of sanctified knowledge, the library. For despite its current appearances and seeming anonymity among the undergraduate student body, Yale Comparative Literature is a historic name, so much so that in the late seventies the “Yale School” came to refer to its radically disruptive new school of thought. On the heels of yet a previous heyday — the similarly field-altering, if ultimately more conservative appearance of New Criticism in the ’50s — an influential group of Yale thinkers followed Jacques Derrida in his deconstructive turn, all of them creating what came to be known as post-structuralism. These new ideas fundamentally changed the way the West could think about culture, history, art and language — and seemed like a threat to some. Indeed, in a 1986 article in which “the Hermeneutic Mafia” is recorded as an alternative moniker for this group of academics, The New York Times writes that “a dense jungle has grown up around this house of literature […] as if a tropical French colony […] had sprung up from the turf.” The metaphor is closer to apt — and more revealing of the resultant alarm — than the writer was perhaps aware, given both Derrida’s upbringing as a Jew in French Colonial Algeria and the ways postcolonial and feminist theorists would bring out the anti-hegemonic potential they found in his work (though, it should be noted, this last was part of already powerful movements and certainly can’t be credited to those at Yale). It is hard to overstate the impact of these new ideas about texts, language and meaning; the beginning of what we now simply call “Theory,” it was an intellectual watershed whose echoes still resonate in a variety of disciplines today. Many of my friends, I’d guess, aware of it or not, go through their daily lives thinking in ways traceable to this department.

Of course, some of this legacy sticks in an institution; some of it doesn’t. I go in deeper, peering at these people who, New Critic or post-structuralist, all remain white men in suits. Mary Jane’s story is still on my mind, and I wonder, abruptly, where someone like me might have found herself forty-five years ago. Female, mixed-race, queer to boot, one parent a Jew and the other from a former colony? The legacy that cloaks this room is what I’d sometimes like to show my friends, and yet if deconstruction held some seeds of feminist, anticolonial thought then it seems remarkably barren down here. I find myself tense, squirming next to the patent leather shoes and the Heidegger texts (wasn’t he a bit of a Nazi?), skeptical of the monogrammed napkins. In fact, I realize, I prefer it upstairs: I like the disorder, the anarchic furniture, the posters in different languages; I like the tchotchkes on the mantels, tiny portals to the worlds they came from, their traces of elsewheres not entirely lost in their absurdity. Even the lobby I like, its cacophony of entrances and exits making it hard to tell in from out, requiring you to rethink your own placement, disrupting easy lines from A to B.

“We’re gonna have to leave the building in three or four years,” Mary Jane tells me back in her office. The University is building more graduate dorms, and planning to put offices where they used to be. “They’re gonna put all the humanities there. Not all of us”— she says ‘us’—“but most of us. For example I think English is staying where they are.”

Another relocation, and, though she doesn’t say it, I realize: another degradation. In its heyday the department occupied the top of Bingham tower, a faux-gothic rise with stone and iron filigree windows. It still retains the library on the tower’s eighth floor, a sun-drenched space suffused with the scent of old manuscripts and the kind of dust that floats in beams of window-warped sun. “They were gonna try to take that away from us too, but we protested,” she says, and despite Paul de Man staring down at me, I feel a flash of anger at the increasingly corporate University, casting aside its former treasures. Together we look at the wide windows, the trees that wave gently just outside. “I’m just so lucky to have this office,” she says, and the dust fades a little from my vision. The wood seems stained a shade deeper, the sun a touch more golden. She smiles, only a little sadly. “It’s phenomenal.”


Vivek Suri

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