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A Great Explorer

Selected Writings, Volume IV

by Roman Jakobson
Mouton, 751 pp., 75 guilders

To anyone who values literary scholarship and likes to see it well done, the achievement of Roman Jakobson brings assurance and comfort. Not only is the volume of his oeuvre unusually large, far larger than almost any other scholar could have done, but it covers several fields and handles them all in depth with an eye both for the interest and the significance of details and for the general patterns which emerge from them. In this volume, the fourth of his Selected Writings, Jakobson has brought together a large number of articles on “Slavic Epic Studies.” This has always been one of his leading interests, and he has probably done more in this field than any living man. He formed a love for it in childhood, pursued it under inspiring teachers at the university, and has never, despite other competing claims on his time and energy, relaxed his affection for it.

The large number of articles in this book shows how carefully and systematically he has explored a vast area, and how many new branches of a large subject he has discovered and examined and put into order. The articles are written variously in Russian, German, French, and English, and cover many aspects of the traditional literature of the Slavs. We call it “literature,” but one of its chief claims on our attention is that usually it was not written to be read but composed orally to be heard. Such was the art of words in all countries before the introduction of writing, and in many after it, especially when writing was reserved for such matters as sacred texts and legal documents. This art lives by tradition, by being passed from mouth to mouth. Its contents vary from folk tales and fairy tales to heroic epic and heroic romance. If Jakobson’s main material comes from Russia, he is equally at home with material from other Slavic peoples, and derives a special strength from seeing them all in a wide context in which comparative methods are used with skill, economy, and judgment, not as an amusing game but as a means to explain and illustrate why some kinds of literature have taken this or that form.

A SUBSTANTIAL PART of this volume is occupied by a number of papers on the unique and fascinating work, The Tale of Igor’s Raid. This, Jakobson maintains, was composed in 1187 about events which took place in 1185, and is the authentic voice of Kievan Russia before its destruction by the Mongols in the disastrous battle of Kalka in 1224. It tells with much brilliance of an unsuccessful raid on the Polovcians and of its successful sequel. In date it is a little later than the Chanson de Roland, as we know it from the Oxford manuscript, and a little earlier than the long romantic Georgian epic, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin by Shot’ha Rusty’ hveli. It comes from a Russia which had not yet been cut off from Western Europe by the Tatars, and it is the product not of popular art but of courtly skill. Russia was still in touch with the Norsemen on one side and with Byzantium on the other. This age has left visible monuments in churches, tombs, mosaics, and paintings, but of pure literature it has left almost nothing but the Tale. When Kiev was destroyed in 1240, its doings passed into legend and provided characters and stories for innumerable byliny, or epic lays, which preserved a heroic past for a Russia enslaved by the Tatars. Such lays were kept alive in an oral tradition, which centered them on Prince Vladimir, as in other countries they were centered on Roland or King Arthur. Such lays are still composed, and though the tradition has grown thin with the centuries, it has its beginnings in Kievan Russia and in such pieces as The Tale of Igor’s Raid.

Kiev has left no other literary monument comparable to the Tale. It tells its story very much in its own way, and its fine and careful art shows that a considerable tradition already lies behind it. The author refers to a predecessor, who had somewhat different methods and is called Boyan, and the very economy of the narrative suggests that bards have learned not to be too discursive. Of works like it we have no relics at all, and we can only guess what has been lost. No doubt such loss was more or less inevitable in an age when literature was very seldom written down but recited orally, and so liable to vanish if the tradition of reciters and patrons ceased, as it must have done after the Tatar conquests. Even if a work were written down, it would all too easily be lost in the chances of invasion. Russia did not begin to recover until the victory of Dmitri Donskoy at Kulikovo in 1378, and until then lacked the conditions necessary for a flourishing literature. Instead of developing rich shapes comparable to those into which epic was transformed in Western Europe, medieval Russia was isolated in chaos and poverty. When at last recovery came, she was two or three centuries behind. The Tale survives and bears witness both to what has been lost and to what might have been written but never was. Though the byliny treat a heroic Russia as it was seen across long years of privation, the Tale presents it as it actually was.

THE SURVIVAL of such a work is almost unaccountable, and inevitably scholars have asked how it happened. Until modern philology began to probe the matter, it looked fairly simple. The original manuscript of the Tale, which was itself copied from an earlier version, was burned in the fire of Moscow in 1812. Fortunately a few copies had been made of it not long before and were and are still available. From these all modern editions are derived. But these copies, made at a time when Slavic medieval scholarship hardly existed, had grave defects. The copyists had made them from a text which had no punctuation and no divisions between words or lines. It was only natural to provide punctuation and to separate the words from each other. But the process was extremely difficult and led to many mistakes. The first editors were bemused by echoes of Ossian and by romantic fancies from Germany, and these inevitably made them refashion the text of the Tale and put into it much that can never have been there. When-modern scholars came to look at the text in a critical spirit, it showed some odd anomalies—much that was clearly ancient was mixed up with much that looked quite recent. From this has arisen a controversy at once dramatic and prolonged, and though scholars are to some degree still divided, there is no doubt where Jakobson stands or of what he has done to argue his case.

Relying on the first texts, which were indubitably corrupted by romanticized readings, certain scholars, of whom the most distinguished and most adventurous was André Mazon, declared that the Tale was not medieval at all but an “Ossianic” work of the eighteenth century. At the start this might have stirred some doubt, for no other “Ossianic” work has anything approaching the liveliness and realism of the Tale; but this was explained on the reasonable ground that, when the Russians borrow some literary form from Western Europe, they transfigure it completely, as Dostoevsky transfigured Dickens and turned Steerforth into Stavrogin. What these scholars marked was not so much the high quality of the Tale as many small linguistic points, which were claimed to be quite modern and entirely suited to the eighteenth century. They included words alleged to be of modern or foreign origin, solecisms, inappropriate imagery, echoes of the late medieval Zadonschina, obscurities caused by the “Ossianic” approach to the past. In the absence of any real parallel to the Tale in the twelfth century, it seemed quite likely that it was a much more recent composition, which betrayed its date in many small points of style.

The destruction of this theory has been one of Jakobson’s most striking achievements. He based his main case on a series of proofs that many of the oddities, which were thought to come from the eighteenth century, did in fact, do so, but were introduced into the text by the first editors. A careful reconstruction of the lost text demanded an enormous knowledge and critical sense, but Jakobson succeeded in doing it, and it is reproduced with a full commentary and translation in this book. Once the wrong readings have been removed, the case for the eighteenth century almost disappears. Step by step Jakobson breaks down the specious arguments adduced for it, and his great learning gives force at every point to his deadly forays.

The articles on the Tale of Igor’s Raid form a center from which many other themes radiate. In particular are various chapters on the metric of Slavic verse. In the longest of these, “Studies in Comparative Metrics,” Jakobson relates a whole range of Slavic verse-forms to a single system which includes Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Bulgarian, and Jugoslav, and shows their ultimate interrelations and possibly their common origin. In this he shows how different they are from the more regular verse-forms to which we are accustomed. But though their rules may not be very strict, they certainly exist, and their apparent laxity comes from their long use for oral and often improvised recitation. They use no rhyme, no alliteration, no parallelism; they do not have even a fixed number of accentuated or long syllables, but they have rules of shape and balance, and it is these which Jakobson elucidates so skillfully. Even the Jugoslav ten-syllable lines in “falling rhythm” is much freer than we have been brought up to expect, and if we compare the various Slavic systems with the Greek hexameter, we are again amazed how the Greeks achieved effects which were never even attempted in other countries.

THE RANGE OF THIS BOOK is so vast that we can only touch on one or two other matters of general interest. Such is the charming chapter, “On Russian Fairy Tales.” Jakobson examines their social background in country villages, where they are still popular. This too is a traditional oral art, honored almost as much as epic songs, and a Russian proverb says: “The song is beautiful through its harmony, and the tale through its narrative composition.” They have their own ritual for introduction; at the conclusion the storyteller neatly brings back his audience to common day with such words as “This is the end of my tale, and now I would not mind having a glass of vodka.” Sometimes they tell of men, sometimes of animals. Some of them are cast in almost a heroic tone, others are what Jakobson calls “novelettes and anecdotes.” Something of the kind must have existed in Greece in the classical and pre-classical ages, though few traces of it survive. But animal tales like those ascribed to Aesop and anecdotes attributed to historical characters by Herodotus cannot have been very different in their main outlines from these Russian tales, and their humble origin would explain why they have not survived.

This book is meant for scholars. It has almost no literary “criticism” in the sense in which the word is now commonly used. Jakobson does not issue judgments on the works which he studies, but he would not have studied them if he did not have a real love for them. For him the whole of this Slavic world, revealed in its traditional literature, is something that calls for full sympathy and understanding, and it is not likely to be understood unless a full apparatus of scholarship is applied to it. Excellent work on his subjects is being done in the USSR and Jakobson is well up in it, but perhaps he has gained by working for many years in exile. In the USSR some of these matters, notably that of the authenticity of The Tale of Igor’s Raid, are not permissible matters of discussion, but in the United States they are, and though Jakobson ends by holding the official Soviet view, he has reached it by his own fine scholarship and in the process greatly enriched our knowledge of the subject.

This book gives a special pleasure because it shows a powerful mind at work over a wide range of themes. Jakobson never shirks a difficulty, and enjoys the discovery of a new one so much that he may try to solve it. He has entirely altered our conception of Russian literature and Russian civilization by showing that the present has after all a direct descent from Kievan Russia, which neither the Tatars nor the Communists have destroyed. These intervening centuries were not entirely lost or wrapped in darkness, but have set their mark on popular oral literature and in their humble way kept alive some memories of a glorious past. Jakobson sees his subjects in a wide setting and is well aware of what help he can get from a judicious use of comparisons, but in this he gains much of his strength from his command of details. When Pasternak wrote:

Almighty god of details,
Almighty god of love!

he found the words to describe Jakobson’s way of work. It is a delight to see it in action and to know that such scholars still exist.

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