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ACLA 2012

American Comparative Literature Annual Conference

(Brown University, March 29-April 1, 2012)


A three-day seminar on

Historical Poetics: Crisis, Change and the Longue-Durée


Building on (and simultaneously constituting) the tradition of “historical poetics” with its commitment to the broader world-historical purview as well as to the close analysis of literary form, participants will develop the insights of such literary theorists as Alexander Veselovsky, Mikhail Bakhtin, Northrop Frye and Fredric Jameson among others, in order to address a number of questions on the nature of continuity and crisis within the literary process: What is the relationship between immanent literary-historical processes and wider socio-historical trends? What are some fruitful approaches to the exploration of socio-historical sedimentation within literary form? How are literary forms imported to and received within historical contexts distinct from and even inimical to those in which the form came into being (or became dominant) to begin with? How can we productively juxtapose radical/revolutionary change in literary form vs. slow/evolutionary change that has traditionally been the focus of historical poetics? And, in a more self-reflexive mode, what philosophies of history are presupposed by specific assumptions about the way in which literary change occurs? Proposals treating these and other related questions within and across all national languages and literary traditions are welcome.





Siraj Ahmed (English and Comparative Literature, Lehman College, CUNY)

Historicism and Colonialism

Since the nineteenth century, philology has governed critical method in the humanities. The scholarship on method argues that philology rose to prominence because of its claims to scientific authority inside the research university. My paper questions our received ideas about the development of contemporary critical method by studying its colonial history. My hypothesis is that the authority of philology is the effect less of scientific progress than of the construction of colonial law and the consequent transformation of indigenous life around the world. Because it enforced a Western philological understanding of native languages, literatures, and religious practices, colonial law was responsible for producing a fundamental rupture in the terms by which societies around the world understood their traditions. By returning critical method to its colonial history, my paper intends to help reframe current debates about the future of postcolonial studies, comparative literature, and the humanities. Throughout his scholarly career and more urgently near its end, Edward Said advocated Erich Auerbach’s philological approach as a model for future literary studies. Once we recognize the extent to which colonial law was the matrix of modern philology, we will see the limits of the comparatist model offered by Auerbach and Said. The privilege they accorded historical method presupposes the obsolescence and indeed extinction of approaches to language and literature not founded on historicism. If we follow this model, precisely when we think our method has escaped the ideologies of colonial modernity, it will be imprisoned in them only more intractably than before.


Don Fette (Comparative Literature, University of Chicago)

“Already with thee!”  Pindaric Subjectivities in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”

This essay seeks to discover a permutation of the problem of Pindaric choral subjectivity in Keats’s poetical theory of negative capability and his theory’s expression in “Ode to a Nightingale.”  The poem seems to share with Pindar what has been referred to as “first-person problems” – problems with the identity of the persona loquens in a given poem.  A central part of this problem for Pindar stems from the fact that his poems were performed: there is, on the one hand, a poet who authors the poem and, on the other, a chorus performing it.  Thus when the word “I” appears, it is not always clear who the “I” refers to – the authorial “I” of the poet or the performative “I” of the chorus.  In this essay, I propose that this inveterate problem gets transformed in Keats in large part because the distinction between composition and performance is effectually collapsed in modern poetry.  This compression allows Keats to internalize a problem originally rooted in externality: the problem of the speaker for Keats devolves upon the subjectivity of the poet himself.  The problem changes slightly in Keats, roughly from “Who is speaking in the poem?” to “Who is speaking?”  I base this assessment on an examination of the status of first-personal poetic subjectivity in Keats’s “Nightingale” ode. By connecting Pindaric subjectivity with Keatsian, I seek to better understand how his work operates beyond the limits of its immediate socio-historical context.


Mila Nazyrova (Ohio University)

Northrop Frye’s Romantic Mode and the Reception of Pastoral in the Russian Silver Age

The notion of pastoral is perhaps the most elusive and protean phenomenon in both literature and the visual arts. The question of its historical continuity depends on how we define pastoral and what we regard as its archetypal medium: song, poetic text, image, dance, mime, ritual or perhaps some combination of these. Most definitions of pastoral assume that it creates some literary meanings that can be translated, if necessary, into different artistic media: they generalize upon certain literary characteristics in an attempt to cover the entire plurality of pastoral forms. Thus pastoral has been defined by the presence of specific thematic constituents (shepherds, the locus amoenus) or stylistic principles (the fusion of the simple and the sophisticated in William Empson) or meanings and ideas (freedom and liberation in Renato Poggioli); or by introducing more complex concepts that combine a variety of characteristics, such as a chronotope, or a code (or a variant of this: a code that entails re-writing, as suggested by Mathilde Skoie), or a symbol-prototype—a representative anecdote (Paul Alpers). However, these definitions do not take into account the nature of pastoral mimesis, which features many instances of borrowed images, as well as wholesale borrowings (e.g., singing someone else’s song), clichés, quotations, and imitative re-creations of images/pictures in different media (e.g., literature or dance). If one takes these practices to be constitutive of the pastoral, then one could seriously question the focus on discourse and meaning that characterizes most definitions of pastoral.  What happens in many pastoral works may be more of a showing or incorporating of  the object or artifact—a “re-enactment” whereby the image does not express the meaning of, say, a song or a landscape, but actually becomes them or,  in Ken Hiltner’s words, “points” to them. And one might also question to what extent the pastoral author creates (or undergoes) these “re-enactments” with conscious awareness.

This paper discusses the significance of Northrop Frye’s notion of the romantic mode for understanding the historical continuity of the pastoral. (In this presentation I will not differentiate between the romantic elegiac and romantic idyllic, since they are simply the tragic and comic variants of the same mode.) In Frye’s understanding, the modes, or constitutive elementary plots of literature, are “displaced myths” (Hamilton) which display the hero’s power of action along with the mutual correlation of powers, or mutual capacity for action, between the hero and the environment. In the romantic mode, the hero is very close to a god or semi-god, as he is capable of miraculous actions, while the environment is characterized by a slight suspension of the laws of nature and thus allows for miraculous effects. I will show that this notion of the romantic is an adequate description of the recurrent picture that appears not only in pastoral literature but also in art: the picture of the singer/piper who sings/plays a magical song to nature.

However, Frye’s notion of the romantic could also be applied to various literary forms, such as the fairy tale, legend, or romance. How can it then be so precise and accurate in describing the archetypal pastoral scene? I would like to demonstrate that Frye’s romantic mode should be viewed as a model that reinforces the special principle of mimesis found in pastoral, since by a unique coincidence, it is based upon this principle itself. I will argue that Frye’s reasoning is indebted to Giambattista Vico’s idea about the poetic principle of myth creation, according to which concrete images and corporeal objects are employed in creating more abstract meanings by means of a transfer (as in onomatopoeia, for example). By the same argument, I will suggest that Frye’s notion of romantic myth is partially based (even if unconsciously) on the image of the powerful singer—the representation of Orpheus entrancing and moving the rocks and trees with his magical song in Virgil’s Georgics, 4.507-510.

As I see it, Frye’s romantic mode is instrumental in singling out a solid and continuous body of texts and artifacts that, similarly to the principle embodied in Frye’s definition, both incorporate the image of the magical pastoral singer and generalize on it in interpreting it through a collision of powers between the hero and nature.  I will use examples from classical and fin de siècle pastoral literature and art to demonstrate how the iconic pastoral image of singing a pastoral song/playing pastoral music introduces a node of tension in the power relationship between the musician and his/her environment and how various thematic and meaningful contents are being attached to or created by this relationship in further generalizing through the history of pastoral.


Kate Holland (Slavic, University of Toronto)

From the Prehistory of Russian Novel Theory: Veselovsky, Dostoevsky and the Modern Novel’s Roots in Folklore and Legend

My paper explores parallels between Alexandr Veselovsky’s early works on medieval Christian legends (1870-1890) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s experiments with pre-modern and folk narrative genres in The Brothers Karamazov (1878-1880). Having started out as a scholar of comparative folklore working on common motifs and topoi in medieval Jewish, Muslim and Christian tales and legends, Veselovsky spent much of the middle part of his career studying the diffusion of Christian legends in the Byzantine period and their afterlife in contemporary Slavic folklore. Influenced by his contemporary Friedrich Spielhagen’s pioneering studies on the novel, in 1886-1888 he published “From the History of the Novel and the Tale [Povest’], framing his work on the Byzantine tale as part of a broad attempt to trace the prehistory of the modern novel. At the same time Dostoevsky was experimenting with different genres of Christian legend in The Brothers Karamazov in an attempt to transform the novel’s own genre possibilities. He saw the Russian novel as practiced by his contemporaries as a fallen genre, a legacy of the Petrine schism. The Brothers Karamazov represents his attempt to redeem the genre by revealing its roots in pre-modern and vernacular religious genres such as hagiography, apocryphal legends and folktales.


Virginia Jackson (English, UC Irvine) and Yopie Prins (English and Comparative Literature, University of Michigan)

Historical Poetics in Nineteenth-Century England and America

For the last five years, a group of scholars who work primarily in nineteenth-century British and American poetics has been meeting to discuss what we call “historical poetics.” As two founding members of that group, we would like to participate in this year’s ACLA seminar on “Historical Poetics” in order to ask what the work of Veselovsky and others in a different tradition of “historical poetics” might have to offer to the ways in which we have been thinking about this approach. Originally, we used the phrase in order to describe our interest in histories of reading and thinking about poetry in the nineteenth century—histories that both inform and differ from current critical practices. What we have found is not only the pre-history of twentieth-century Anglo-American poetics, but also an alternative to what have become normative ways of thinking about poetry in academic discourse. Fictions of the speaker, notions of meter and free verse, stories of folk “origins,” and the racialization of those fictions, figures, and origins have all become more visible to us. We would like to speak together for about fifteen minutes about the work that our group has been doing and then we would like to take fifteen additional minutes to each present an example of our approach to “historical poetics” (so, thirty minutes in all). We look forward to discussing the similarities in and differences between various historical and national views of generic transformation.


Ilya Kliger (Russian, NYU)

On Genre Memory: The Example of Tragic Realism

This paper takes as its point of departure debates about the place of the tragic in nineteenth-century narrative, and in modern literature more generally. George Steiner’s famous assertion of the death of tragedy will be discussed alongside Raymond Williams’s book-length response. Erich Auerbach’s coinage “tragic realism” will be explored briefly as well. Ultimately, however, it is through the prism of historical poetics – as represented by the works of Aleksandr Veselovsky, Olga Freidenberg, Mikhail Bakhtin, Walter Burkert, Northrop Frye, and Fredric Jameson among others – that I will address the question of the persistence of tragic form in modern narrative. Most broadly conceived, then, this paper attempts to understand some of the ways in which “history” is invoked in theorizations of historical poetics, especially when it comes to positing the persistence of particular forms through time.


Judith Levy (California State University, Fullerton)

A Labyrinthine Reality: Striving Towards an Unattainable History

“I am not interested in what one man may transmit to other men; like the philosopher, I think that nothing is communicable by the art of writing.” –Borges, “The House of Asterion” For ages, the story of the Minotaur has been retold: Pasiphae’s lustful relations with a Cretan bull conceived a child who was half-man, half-bull, whose violent nature gave way to his imprisonment in a labyrinth where he would consume humans as a sacrifice, until one brave man—Theseus—was able to slay him. While the Greek myth portrays the Minotaur to be a beast, Borges’ “The House of Asterion” utilizes the Minotaur’s point of view to turn him into a protagonist. After this well-known story is retold a new light, there are strong ramifications against the conception of storytelling. If one story, told for so long, can be so quickly discredited, how can history retain its legitimacy? Borges’ disruption of an ideal story creates a catastrophe in the common conception of a universal history. In order to question the concept of ideal storytelling, this paper will utilize the theories of Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Lyotard, and Jameson to interrogate literature’s connection to history, time, and language. Through exploring linguistic disruption and disarray in narrative, this paper will posit an endless, labyrinthine conception of reality—one in which no single story can create reality, but in which a multiplicity of stories must be considered, to strive closer to the unattainable truth that is reality.


Boris Maslov (Comparative Literature, University of Chicago)

History and Literary Form: Unraveling Pushkin’s The Blizzard

The question of how history is relevant to understanding literary form can take different shapes. We may ask how history inflects literary form, or how particular literary forms shape the perception of historical events (or indeed the events themselves). Or we may focus on the autonomous development of literary form, describing it as “a history” but refraining from the task of correlating it with other historical narratives. We may observe that particular literary forms tend to favor particular kinds of historical milieu, without making any observations about cause-and-effect relation between the two. We may, further, ask about the extent to which particular literary forms are open or resistant to History, and what their peculiar modes of engaging with it are. Finally, we may seek to combine these questions, asking, for example, how the novel as a form evolves within the (pre-)novelistic tradition even as it responds to local historical conditions, one kind of such response being a particular kind of engagement with history.

Historical poetics has traditionally favored the investigation of genres, styles, or formal devices, thereby often reducing particular texts to the status of instantiations of a more general literary phenomenon. Nevertheless, precisely by virtue of its interest in what exceeds the unity of a single literary artifact, historical poetics may be seen to imply a distinctive textual hermeneutics, that is, distinctive principles of analyzing particular texts. The aim of the talk is to explicate/formulate these principles in a test reading of a canonical text, Pushkin’s The Blizzard (1830). In particular, I will seek to show that, on analogy with many social phenomena, a literary text contains within it diverse strata of meaning which correspond to different layers of formal sedimentation. Some of these reflect inherited – often, residual and occluded – genre patterns (such as, in The Blizzard, fairytale and proverb), while others are indicative of emergent – on occasion, self-consciously innovative – modes of engagement with the historical world (such as fragmentary quotations or belletristic plot patterns). This approach permits us to read literary texts as records of formal change that are also, potentially, indices of historical change, which the text may reflect, comment on, or indeed anticipate.


Scott Mehl (Comparative Literature, University of Chicago)

Literary History in Japan, Before and After Westernization

My paper offers a non-European perspective on the “history” of “literature”–quotation marks necessary because, in the Japanese tradition (my area of study), the ideas of history and literature, influenced as they were by elements of Chinese philosophy, are overturned and revised when Japan is opened to an onrush of European influences in ca. 1853. I would suggest that, while there is no Japanese “literary history” before the arrival of European influence in Japan, there are pre-Westernization texts that describe a Japanese literary canon. By considering one moment in the Japanese reception of a (specific) European idea of “literary history,” I hope to call into question the generality of and the range of applicability of the ideal of a history of “world” literature. My title announces a broad topic, but the paper itself is a focused comparison of two texts. The first, by the scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), is Uiyamabumi (First Steps on the Mountain) (1798), which stands as Norinaga’s answer to his students’ persistent questions: What should we read, and how? Norinaga’s answer is brief and does not aim to be a history, but it offers one vision of how to construct and think about a history of Japanese literature avant la lettre. The second is the Nihon bungaku shi (History of Japanese Literature) (1890), by Mikami Sanji (1865-1939) and Takatsu Kuwasaburō, one of the first Japanese literary histories written on European models, especially Hippolyte Taine’s history of English literature.


Victoria Somoff (Russian, Dartmouth College)

The Poetics of Deferral in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk

My talk is devoted to Poor Folk (1846), Dostoevsky’s remarkably successful literary debut and the only example of a full-scale epistolary novel in modern Russian literature. Dostoevsky introduces a unique variable into the parameters of fictional epistolarity: namely, he removes the traditionally required physical distance between correspondents, and thus the typical letter-writing motivation. In Poor Folk, the participants in the exchange of missives live across the street from one another. In a traditional sentimental love-novel directly engaged by Dostoevsky, physical separation matches the potency of the social distance or hierarchy that in one way or another obstructs the lovers’ union. This discontiguity of space and time motivates the inertia, experienced by characters and readers alike, by which resolution of the conflict is deferred, until some other, however provisional, temporal and spatial circumstances are proposed. In Poor Folk, the elimination of distance between correspondents removes the possibility of such resolution, thereby blocking the inertia of deferral. As a result, the definitive absence of social and natural circumstances potentially enabling the characters’ relationship becomes an operative force of the novel’s development. In particular, this absence arrests the narrator’s own search for that spatial and temporal advantage in relation to the hero, which was constitutive to the narrative organization of Russian fiction in the first half of the 19th century. The narrator’s abdication of his/her axiological “excess” vis-à-vis the hero becomes, in accord with Bakhtin’s pivotal study, a central feature of Dostoevsky’s poetics.


Gabriel Trop (German, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

The Afterlife of Immanence: The Rise and Fall of the German Anacreontic Ode

The flowering of Anacreontic poetry in German-speaking territories in the first half of the eighteenth century and the specific aesthetic value and function of this poetry have been largely overlooked by modern criticism. Anacreontic poets in Halle in the eighteenth century—above all Gleim and Uz—draw on the formal and semantic properties associated with the tradition of the Anacreontea in order to construct an implicit counterpoint to aesthetic doctrines that understand the sensual world as the analog of a divinely-grounded rationality. Instead of fusing the sensual and the transcendent, Anacreontic poetry lingers in the “purely” sensual, in the pleasure of repetition, the immanence of play, and the possibility of imaginative deviation from normativizing patterns of selfhood. The de-transcendentalizing function of the poetic word was later overcome by an opposing movement toward “resacralization” in German poetry of the later eighteenth century, a movement inaugurated by Klopstock but continued by Goethe, Hölderlin, and the German Romantics. Goethe in particular both appropriates and seeks to overcome the celebration of poetic immanence in Anacreontic poetry. In “Anakreons Grab,” Goethe reflects not on the innovation of his own poetic style—his turn from Anacreon to Pindar—but rather, on that which is lost in the drive towards novelty and poetic development. Goethe both annihilates and preserves the legacy of Anacreontic poetry, holding it in the space of an afterlife to be remembered and memorialized rather than deployed as a living, evolving and culturally relevant poetic style.

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