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New York 2018

Plots in Time: A Symposium on Historical Poetics

Columbia University, 1201 International Affairs Bldg

December 10, 2018, 10:30-5:00


Conference program

Conference agenda

In his 1870 inaugural lecture, introducing the methods and aims of the comparative study of world literature, Alexander Veselovsky described his own experience as reader of fiction:


“There is no story or novel whose situations do not call to our minds similar ones which we have met in other instances perhaps somewhat modified and with different names. The plots [intrigi] currently used among novelists boil down to a small number which may be easily reduced to a still smaller number of more general types: scenes of love and hate, struggles and persecutions are monotonously [odnoobrazno]

found in novel and novella, in legend and fairy tale, or, rather, they accompany us monotonously from the mythical fairy tale to the novella and the legend and down to the contemporary novel” (1967 [1870], 41).


Veselovsky would return to this idea, hoping to extend the method of Historical Poetics to the study of plot [siuzhet]. This was the subject of his unfinished “Poetics of plots,” [“Poetika siuzhetov”] published posthumously in 1913. Here Veselovsky argued that it was not sufficient to produce indices of plot situations (e.g. Georges Polti’s 36 situations dramatiques, 1895), but that the question demanded a closer examination of the nature of plot [siuzhetnost’]: what, Veselovsky asked, are a plot’s component parts, and how are they organized? These questions inspired seminal work by Viktor Shklovsky (1925) and Vladimir Propp (1928), which has shaped the field of narratology for decades.


Veselovsky was also interested in the idea that plots encode particular historical value systems. As he writes in “Poetics of plots”: “Plots are complex schemas, which in their figurative imagery generalize specific acts of human life and psychology . . . This generalization contains an evaluation of the action, either positive or negative” (539). As a result, when a plot is transferred from one cultural sphere to another, these values can be transmitted as well: “along with the ideal content [ideal’noe soderzhanie] the plot [siuzhetnost’] which articulates this [content] is adopted as well” (541). This idea was developed by Mikhail Bakhtin, who used the idea of the chronotope to describe how a particular historical consciousness can be encoded in different narrative forms (e.g. adventure novels, biography).


The “Plots in Time” symposium is an invitation to return to Veselovsky’s fruitful questions. For example, how does Historical Poetics define a ‘plot’? What is does mean to say that a plot can travel? What aspects of narrative are we talking about when we say that a plot reappears in a new context? Veselovsky worked with the basic concepts of ‘motiv’ and ‘siuzhet’: what is the relationship between these, or between what could be called the content and structure of narrative?



Andrea Ghidoni (University of Macerata)

Kate Holland (University of Toronto)

Ilya Kliger (New York University)

Boris Maslov (University of Oslo)

Jessica Merrill (Columbia University)

Vladyslav Prostevichus (Lithuanian Bridges)

Victoria Somoff (Dartmouth College)




Works Cited:


Alexander Veselovsky, “On the Methods and Aims of Literary History as a Science.” Trans. Harry Weber. Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 16 (1967): 33-42.

—-. “Poetika siuzhetov,” Izbrannoe: istoricheskaia poetika (St. Petersburg: Universitetskaia kniga 2011), 535-652.


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