The Master Linguist

Dialogues

by Roman Jakobson, by Krystyna Pomorska
MIT Press, 186 pp., $15.00

No scholar of modern times has done more to revitalize the study of what has come to be called “the human sciences”—and particularly the science of language—than Roman Jakobson; and it is good to have this summary of his career, in the form of question-and-answer sessions with his former student and then wife, Krystyna Pomorska. The sessions took place in 1980, two years before Jakobson’s death. First published in French, the dialogues are now made available in English—the language in which Jakobson wrote most of his works after coming to the United States in 1941.

But Jakobson was a formidable polyglot, who published first in his native Russian and could shift easily into French, German, and Czech, among others, as the occasion required. Tzvetan Todorov, who first heard him lecture in Bulgarian, and then got to know him well, has estimated that he could command about twenty languages—all of the Slavic group, all of the Romance group, and most of the Germanic family. Indeed, his writings are so scattered, exist in so many languages, and cover so many disciplines that the condensed overview of his activity offered by the present volume is more than welcome.

All the same, these dialogues are not as illuminating as they might have been—for a perfectly comprehensible and easily forgivable reason. Books composed of conversations with well-known representatives of thought are a form much cultivated by the French, who delight in the thrust and parry of verbal controversy; and these works are at their best when the questioner probes at the weak spots of whatever ideas and positions are being offered. Examples of such successful dialogues, where the subject was forced to stretch or defend his own views, are the conversations between Lévi-Strauss and Georges Charbonnier, or the more recent dialogues between Raymond Aron and two young ex-Maoists who had taken part in the febrile spring uprising of 1968 in Paris.

No such challenge, of course, is posed here to Jakobson by his wife; it is, touchingly, rather the opposite that occurs. For when, occasionally, she feels that he has not given himself enough credit on one or another score, she supplements his account by her own. The result is rather a celebration than a conversation or true dialogue. But since the emphasis remains strictly on Jakobson’s work, which there are reasons enough to celebrate, the tone does not become too adulatory. And since he is allowed to speak at length, and uninterruptedly, on all the phases of his multifarious activities and interests, the book has the additional value of providing some final thoughts on the issues that preoccupied him all his life and have had such momentous consequences for contemporary culture.

Jakobson was, if one must place him in some conventional category, by profession a linguist. But he had a bold and wide-ranging speculative mind, which was constantly seeking to extend the limits of his linguistic inquiries and to examine their relations with other spheres …

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