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Paris 2015

Formalism/Idealism: Comparative Literary History, 1860-1960


April 7-8, 2015

University of Chicago Center in Paris



Comparison between texts and traditions is invariably predicated on a set of unspoken assumptions that, at different historical moments, are seen as either intrinsic or extrinsic to literary scholarship. Guiding principles that were once seen as “philosophical” may later appear to be “political”; what was “moral” or “didactic” may be unmasked as “nationalist”; and descriptions that seemed “scientific” and specific to literary studies are often revealed as uncritical importations from other fields. Moreover, the floruit of comparative literary history, roughly datable to 1860-1960, fell at a period marked by intellectual and ideological flux, as emergent academic literary scholarship, molded by empiricism and evolutionism, responded to other disciplines that put forward theories of “form” (such as art history and psychology) as well as to paradigms fundamentally inimical to positivism (such as Hegelianism, Neo-Thomism or Lebensphilosophie).

The proposed colloquium at the Paris Center at the University of Chicago will make a case that the practice and theory of comparative literature in the 21st century must be accompanied by ongoing reflection on the history of the discipline.  In particular, the participants will ponder the following questions: how did Formalism (attention to artistic form, either atomized or holistic) coexist with Idealism (defined provisionally as resistance to positivism, empiricism, and even to “rationalism”) in different varieties of comparative literary history, as instantiated by these and other scholars? What kind of insight might a reconfiguration of the field that examines (rather than merely instantiating) the tension of Formalism/Idealism provide into the history of literary scholarship which customarily is divided into separate schools (literary evolutionism, Russian Formalism, Czech and French structuralism, New Criticism)? In what ways may the dilemmas of the age of the “splendeurs et misères” of comparative literature reflect on the discipline’s recent agendas?

The international colloquium will bring together scholars from the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, the UK, and the US.

Co-sponsored by The University of Chicago Center in Paris, the Franke Institute for the Humanities, the Departments of Comparative Literature, and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.



The language of the conference will be English. Each presenter will deliver a half-hour lecture, as well as pre-circulate a relevant primary text, in English or French, approximately 20-30 printed pages long. (The presenter’s paper itself need not be pre-circulated.) The ensuing discussion will focus on both the primary text and the presentation. The colloquium will thus operate as a workshop, inviting not only a wide-ranging scholarly dialogue but also immediate engagement with documents, whether well-known or forgotten, from the history of the discipline. The conference will be of interest to a wide range of scholars of literature who teach and work in Paris, as well as graduate students working in the fields of Classics, Comparative Literature, and Slavic, and/or interested in the history of literary theory.

Convened by Boris Maslov (Comparative Literature), Haun Saussy (Comparative Literature, East Asian, Social Thought)





List of talks and background readings


Alexander Dmitriev (National Research University, Higher School of Economics, Moscow), “Literary History as\or Literary Evolution: René Wellek in Prague”

Background reading: René Wellek, “The Theory of Literary History” (1936)

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Joe Feinberg (Philosophy Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague), “Structure as Process: Bedřich Václavek’s Theory of Folklorization”

Background reading: Bedřich Václavek, from Writing and Folk Tradition (1938), trans. J. Feinberg

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Sandra Janssen (University of Geneva), “Idealism as Formalism? How Extremes Meet in Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil

Background readings: Hermann Broch, excerpts from “Geist und Zeitgeist” (1934), Commentary on Der Tod des Vergil (1939?), “Hofmannsthal und seine Zeit” (1947/48), “Mythos und Altersstil” (1947).

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Boris Maslov (Comparative Literature, University of Chicago), “Comparative Literature and Universal History”

Background readings: Alexander Veselovsky, “Envisioning World Literature” (1863), an excerpt from “The Introduction to Historical Poetics” (1894); Viktor Zhirmunsky, “On the Study of Comparative Literature” (1967)

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Jessica Merrill (Stanford University), “From the Language of Poetry to Poetic Language: The Emergence of a Concept in Early Russian Formalism”

Background reading: Roman Jakobson, “The Newest Russian Poetry: V. Khlebnikov” (1921 [1919]) [NOT YET AVAILABLE]


Haun Saussy (Comparative Literature, University of Chicago), ” La conversion de Brunetière. Du fait divers à l’exemple.”

Background reading: Ferdinand Brunetière, “Après une visite au Vatican” (1895)

Available online:ès_une_visite_au_Vatican


Michael Silk (King’s College, London), “Art, Life, and Comparison: Nietzsche and Matthew Arnold”

Background readings: Excerpts from Nietzsche, Götzendämmerung (1888); Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864) and “Heinrich Heine” (1863)

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Olga Solovieva (Social Thought, University of Chicago), “Form and Formlessness in Thomas Mann’s ‘Goethe and Tolstoy’.”

Background reading: Thomas Mann, “Goethe and Tolstoy,” pp. 118-137 and 151-159.

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Carlos Spoerhase (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin), “Escaping the hermeneutic circle: Dilthey’s ‘idealer Gehalt’ and his idea of the literary draft”

Background reading: Wilhelm Dilthey, “Archive für Literatur” (1889)

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Paolo Tortonese (Université Sorbonne nouvelle – Paris 3), “Zola, experimentation and verisimilitude”

Background reading: Emile Zola, Le roman experimental (1880)

Available online:


Céline Trautmann-Waller (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3), “André Jolles: from antique aesthetics to literary comparison, or morphology as a special kind of formalism”

Background reading: “Einführung” of André Jolles, Einfache Formen. Legende, Sage, Mythe, Rätsel, Spruch, Kasus, Memorabile, Märchen, Witz (1930).

Available online:


Jula Wildberger (American University of Paris), ” ‘To understand each phenomenon as it intended itself’: Hermann Fraenkel as a Historian of Mentalities”

Background reading: Excerpts from Hermann Fraenkel, Dichtung und Philosophie des frühen Griechentums (1962)

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Serge Zenkine (Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow),”Mimetic Classes, Dynamic Evolution, and the Theory of Genre”

Background reading: Yuri Tynianov, “The Literary Fact” (1929), translated by Ann Shukman

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If you would like to access the readings, please email to obtain the password.

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