If by no other measure than sheer longevity and productivity, Roman Jakobson would have to be counted among the most significant figures in literary study of the twentieth century. A precocious student of languages as a youth, he was among the founders of the Moscow Linguistic Circle in 1915 and a supporter of its St. Petersburg counterpart, the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOJAZ), established the following year. A decade later, he would be among the originators of a similar group in Prague. Ferociously learned, possessed of prodigious energy, and above all single-mindedly committed to the project of establishing methodologically sound bases for the study of literature, Jakobson labored tirelessly from his teens to his death at age eighty-six to discover the secrets of literary language and codify them into principles that could stand the test of science.
Why literature? Jakobson’s training in Oriental languages might well have led to a distinguished career in linguistics, and indeed, his contributions to certain branches of that discipline (notably phonology) are far from negligible. As a teenager Jakobson circulated among the literary and artistic avant-garde of prerevolutionary Russia. It was in this milieu that his tastes and, one might also say, his convictions were largely formed. To comprehend Jakobson’s long career, remarkable despite the range of topics and disciplines on which he wrote and for its unwavering commitment to a limited number of guiding principles, one should bear in mind his formation by the aesthetic practice of high modernism that dominated the cultural scene in the twilight of the Romanov dynasty and remained vital through the early years following the Bolshevik Revolution.
The opening three essays in Language in Literature illustrate the young Jakobson’s frank partisanship for the avant-garde. Assessing contemporary movements such as Dadaism and Futurism, he throws down the gauntlet most directly in a short, polemical piece written in 1921, “On Realism in Art.” It ends with the following tart sarcasm that sets the agenda, if not necessarily the tone, for virtually all of his major work to follow:A term once used in American slang to denote a socially inept person was “turkey.” There are probably “turkeys” in Turkey, and there are doubtless men named Harry who are blessed with great amounts of hair. But we should not jump to conclusions concerning the social aptitudes of the Turks or the hairiness of men named Harry. This “commandment” is self-evident to the point of imbecility, yet those who speak of artistic realism continually sin against it.
In perhaps his most famous essay, “Linguistics and Poetics,” the matter is put more technically, but the underlying idea is the same: “Poeticalness is not a supplementation of discourse with rhetorical adornment but a total reevaluation of the discourse and of all its components whatsoever.” In another place, Jakobson writes:Poeticity is present when the word is felt as a word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion, when words and their composition, their meaning, their external and inner form, acquire a weight and value of their own instead of referring indifferently to reality.
All these formulations confirm that from his youth in Moscow through his maturity in interwar Prague and into old age in the United States, Jakobson never significantly wavered from the Formalist creed.
The complications, indeed the impasse, encountered by the early Formalists when they attempted to account for the evolutionary potential in literature—the manifest tendency for styles and techniques to alter from one epoch to another—were glimpsed early by Jakobson. His and Yury Tynyanov’s 1928 theses, “Problems in the Study of Language and Literature,” focus on the difficulties with admirable clarity and economy. Merely to recognize a problem, however, is not yet to solve it. What remains after all the brilliance and the erudition that marked Jakobson’s entire career is a set of problems which he saw at an early point but never overcame. Why was this so?
Two passages from the Jakobson-Tynyanov theses establish the fundamental problematic. On the one hand:The history of literature (art), being simultaneous with other historical series, is characterized, as is each of these series, by a complex network of specific structural laws. Without an elucidation of these laws, it is impossible to establish in a scientific manner the correlation between the literary series and other historical series.
This statement establishes the basis of what is elsewhere called “the autonomy of the aesthetic function.” At the same time:A disclosure of the immanent laws of the history of literature (and...
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