“We cannot get away with generalizations here.”
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.