Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Ilya Kliger, Boris Maslov (ed.), Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics. Verbal arts: studies in poetics. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii, 477. ISBN 9780823264858. $65.00.

Reviewed by Wang Xianhua, Sichuan University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The volume under review originated in a conference entitled "Historical Poetics: Past, Present, and Future" held at the University of Chicago in May 2011. In their introduction, the editors, observing that the Russian scholarly tradition of Historical Poetics is under-appreciated in current critical scholarship, particularly in the U.S. (pp. 2-3), make it clear that "one of the ambitions of this volume is to place Historical Poetics more squarely on the intellectual-historical map, thus filling significant gaps in Western engagement with 'Russian Theory'" (p. 1). How this can be achieved on the intellectual-historical map remains to be seen. But the collection, including a selection of early works in Russian here translated for the first time (Chapters 1, 5, 9, 13, 14), makes extremely rewarding reading.

The main body of the volume consists of four parts, each containing four chapters. The arrangement is readily discernible in the table of contents and the titles provided for the parts are meant to serve as thematic threads for the chapters organized under each. In the first part, for instance, "Questioning the Historical, Envisioning a Poetics," the contributions by Victoria Somoff, Leslie Kurke, and Boris Maslov share with the translated classic "From the Introduction to Historical Poetics: Questions and Answers" (pp. 39-64) by Alexander Veselovsky the interest in fundamental questions for the construction of a Historical Poetics as literary theory. Despite some apparent overlap (genre, and Bakhtin, in parts II and IV), thematic consistency largely pertains through the various sections.

Given the fact that the editors have provided a summary for each of the chapters (pp. 21-28), and that literary theory as a research field falls beyond the expertise of this reviewer, I focus only on a selection of chapters that seem to me enlightening. First is the contribution by Nina V. Braginskaya on "Innovation Disguised as Tradition: Commentary and the Genesis of Art Forms" (pp. 172-208). In an "intimidating" (Eric Hayot, Foreword, p. xiii) style with wide-ranging references to Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Chinese ethnographic and literary evidence, Braginskaya successfully argues for the point that in traditional culture, commentary on authoritative texts can turn out to be a mechanism of innovation (p. 177). With her novel definition of commentary as "a coherent (but plotless) verbal text that elucidates another verbal or non-verbal text in a heteroglossic fashion and is lemmatized directly or indirectly" (p. 177, italics original), Braginskaya is able to describe the folk genre of picture storytelling as form of commentary, a "commentary on an image [that] is essentially a universal proto-theatrical form" (p. 190). In different cultural environments, commentary can give rise to "philosophical" inquiry or fictional storytelling (pp. 190-196). This "historical poetics of commentary" undoubtedly will provoke interests well beyond the disciplinary limit of literary theory in the narrow sense.1

Equally of interest to this reviewer is Boris Maslov's chapter on "Metapragmatics, Toposforschung, Marxist Stylistics: Three Extensions of Veselovsky's Historical Poetics" (pp. 128-162). In this chapter, Maslov aims to bring Alexander Veselovsky's insights on the theory of genres, the cross-cultural borrowing of motifs, and the diagnosis of Weltanschauung based on stylistic particulars, into a conversation with later theoretical developments in linguistic anthropology and narrative theory, history of ideas and the study of topoi, and Marxist literary history and stylistics (p. 129). Veselovsky considers the three genera of literature as linguistic givens indifferent to the metaphysics of history, in order to place social and cultural history, rather than humanity's universal progress, in the focus of his Historical Poetics. In Maslov's understanding, this view is in line with Michael Silverstein's theory of metapragmatics that refers to the level of organization of discourse that regiments the meaning of pragmatic markers (pp. 130-139). 2 The recognition that Historical Poetics potentially agrees with a theory that foregrounds universal principles of language use could prompt new, cross-cultural interest in this school of "Russian theory."

My singling out of Braginskaya's and Maslov's contributions is motivated by a pragmatic, even utilitarian purpose. Robert Bird's chapter on "Schematics and Models of Genre: Bakhtin and Soviet Satire" (pp. 429-458) commands attention in a slightly different way. Taking Mikhail Bakhtin's "strangely influential" studies of satire, Bird shows that Bakhtin's theory of satire should be read "neither as empirical generalization based on select data nor as essentializing description of a historical quarry, but as an active intervention in the historical field; that is to say, not as a schema, but as a model"(pp. 431-432). Through illustrative case studies such as the reception of Gulliver's Travels in Soviet society, Bird demonstrates that Bakhtin's interest in satire is part and parcel of a cultural obsession with satirical representation (pp. 436-450). Bakhtinian "satire" was, then, first of all a response to the cultural politics of his day. Historical Poetics, after all, is a model of engaging with reality but not a schema to which a given text may conform or not.

The editors hope to bring the productive insights of Historical Poetics into the context of contemporary humanistic studies (p. 2). Toward this end, there is a special section for "Further Readings in Historical Poetics" following the main text (pp. 459-462), and an extensive index at the end of the book (pp. 467-477). The editorial quality of the volume is excellent.

Table of Contents

Foreword (pp. vii-xvi) by Eric Hayot
Acknowledgements (pp. xvii-xx) by Ilya Kliger and Boris Maslov
Introducing Historical Poetics: History, Experience, Form (pp. 1-36) by Ilya Kliger and Boris Moslav

Part I: Questioning the Historical, Envisioning a Poetics
Chapter 1 From the Introduction to Historical Poetics: Questions and Answers (1894) (pp. 39-64) by Alexander Veselovsky
i 2 Alexander Veselovsky's Historical Poetics vs. Cultural Poetics: Remembering the Future (pp. 65-89) by Victoria Somoff
Chapter 3 Historicist Hermeneutics and Contestatory Ritual Poetics: An Encounter Between Pindaric Epinikion and Attic Tragedy (pp. 90-127) by Leslie Kurke
Chapter 4 Metapragmatics, Toposforschung, Marxist Stylistics: Three Extensions of Veselovsky's Historical Poetics (pp. 128-162) by Boris Maslov

Part II: The Life of Forms: Tradition, Memory, Regeneration
Chapter 5 The Oresteia in the Odyssey (1946) (pp. 165-171) by Olga Freidenberg
Chapter 6 Innovation Disguised as Tradition: Commentary and the Genesis of Art Forms (pp. 172-208) by Nina V. Braginskaya
Chapter 7 A Remnant Poetics: Excavating the Chronotope of the Kurgan (pp. 209-226) by Michael Kunichika
Chapter 8 On "Genre Memory" in Bakhtin (pp. 227-252) by Ilya Kliger

Part III: Comparative Poetics and the Historicity of Experience
Chapter 9 The Age of Sensibility (1904) (pp. 255-273) by Alexander Veselovsky
Chapter 10 Against Ornament: O. M. Freidenberg's Concept of Metaphor in Ancient and Modern Contexts (pp. 274-313) by Richard P. Martin
Chapter 11 Breakfast at Dawn: Alexander Veselovsky and the Poetics of Psychological Biography (pp. 314-339) by Ilya Vinitsky
Chapter 12 From the Prehistory of Russian Novel Theory: Alexander Veselovsky and Fyodor Dostoevsky on the Modern Novel's Roots in Folklore and Legend (pp. 340-366) by Kate Holland

Part IV: Literary Genres in the Longue Durée
Chapter 13 Satire (1940), for the Literary Encyclopedia (pp. 369-391) by Mikhail Bakhtin
Chapter 14 Columbus's Egg, or the Structure of the Novella (1973) (pp. 392-396) by Mikhail Gasparov
Chapter 15 On the Eve of Epic: Did the Chryses Episode in Iliad I Begin Its Life as a Separate Homeric Hymn? (pp. 397-428) by Christopher A. Faraone
Chapter 16 Schematics and Models of Genre: Bakhtin and Soviet Satire (pp. 429-458) by Robert Bird

Further readings in Historical Poetics (pp. 459-462)
List of Contributors (pp. 463-466)
Index (pp. 467-477)


1.   For instance, the cuneiform tradition, which is urgently in need of theoretical reflections in the direction of a Historical Poetics. For a recent philological study in cuneiform commentaries, see Uri Gabbay, The Exegetical Terminology of Akkadian Commentaries. Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 82. Leiden: Brill, 2016.
2.   Michael Silverstein, "Metapragmatic Discourse and Metapragmatic Function," in John A. Lucy ed., Reflexive Language: Reported Speech and Metapragmatics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 33-58.

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