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“We cannot get away with generalizations here.”

June 3, 2013
Franz Bopp (1791-1867), from Imagines philologorum (1911)

Franz Bopp (1791-1867), from Imagines philologorum (1911)

Aleksandr Veselovskii, writing in 1863, isn’t satisfied with “the history of particular literatures” (442). He wants academics to study “world literature” too, just as they study “world history and general philology” in addition to the history of particular nations and the grammar of particular languages (443).

He also thinks literary history shouldn’t be limited to aesthetic masterpieces (444, 450), but can and should cover written and oral verbal art, high and low culture, everything; he envisions an academic attack on the “nonsense” that is cultural history, with history, philosophy, and other disciplines claiming what is rightfully theirs (444-45). What’s left? “The history of literature is precisely the history of culture” (445).

He sees how overwhelming all this is, but notes that one person wouldn’t have to do all of it (443-44).

My favorite passage (not just because it reminds me of Portuguese Irregular Verbs):

Now it is clear why the history of world literature did not find for itself a permanent department in German universities. If entire books are devoted to the particles μέν and δέ and to the Basque verb for to be, and if people dedicate their entire lives to the study of Dante or the Breton cycle of legends, the history of the literary life of a nation also demands an entire life’s work. To fully understand and appreciate what constitutes a nation’s identity—its distinctiveness—one must become one with the nation; one must live one’s way into it, become acclimated to it, and—if one is not born in its milieu—adopt its peculiarities and its habits. We cannot get away with generalizations here. Conclusions about the integrity of development, about the general character of the life of a nation—if it exists—should be the result of a long series of microscopic tests rather than serve as the point of departure; otherwise, the danger of taking one’s own view as fact lies in wait. (445)

I like “a long series of microscopic tests,” and I think I understand his concerns. Almost any general statement about a whole culture sounds like a foolish exaggeration if not an offensive stereotype, yet treating people as interchangeable people, whose culture of origin predicts nothing about them, is dissatisfying. All that remains is to try to build up patterns by looking at cultural phenomena on a small scale, resigning yourself to finding complexity everywhere.

Other highlights: his argument that important developments in the history of a people come from unpredictable contacts with other peoples, which overwhelm any quasi-physiological internal development (448), and his ideas about recent discoveries in linguistics (like Franz Bopp on Sanskrit and Indo-European) and comparative mythology (448-49).

See A. N. Veselovsky, “Envisioning World Literature in 1863: From the Reports on a Mission Abroad,” ed. Boris Maslov, trans. Jennifer Flaherty, PMLA 128.2 (2013): 439-51 (no link). Veselovskii (1838-1906) was a little younger than Leskov and a little older than N. K. Mikhailovskii and Gleb Uspenskii, and according to Maslov was influential on later Russian theorists like Viktor Shklovskii, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Vladimir Propp.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2013 8:27 am

    Thanks for this; he sounds like a very interesting guy, and I discover from Wikipedia that even though he died in 1906 he had the honor of being attacked by Stalin: “On 14 August 1946 the Central Committee of the Communist Party adopted a resolution specifically condemning ‘kowtowing’ to the bourgeois West by the so-called Veselovskyists.”

  2. June 3, 2013 8:43 am

    I note that Victor Terras writes in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature: “Ironically, at the bottom of all this there may have been a confusion of Alexander Veselovsky with his brother Alexey, a lesser literary scholar, who had indeed published a book entitled Western Influence in Modern Russian Literature (1879-81) in which he had emphasized Russia’s ‘discipleship.'” Interesting that Alexei is the only Veselovsky cited by Billington in The Icon and the Axe.

  3. June 5, 2013 12:14 am

    The things that were worth condemning! Not just scientists and poets, but even long-dead literary historians. I can understand confusing the brothers – I remember having trouble sorting out N. M. Mikhailovskii and the much more famous N. K. Mikhailovskii, both critics who wrote for radical journals. And I had academic libraries and the internet, and cared about the details more than Stalin et al. presumably did.

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