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The Master Linguist


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.1 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.2

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 of culture. He was anything but a narrow specialist, and he combined, to an unusual degree, a passion for scientific exactitude, for precision and clarity of thought, with an equal passion for Slavic literature, history, and folklore, avant-garde painting and poetry, and the technique of the cinema. Readers of his work will be constantly surprised by the breadth of his range of reference, and by the startling ingeniousness of a mind capable of seeing relationships that nobody had previously suspected to exist. It is little wonder that, touching as he did on so many fields (and even creating the new discipline of neurolinguistics), the name of Jakobson should gradually have become known far beyond the field of his major professional preoccupation.

Some of Jakobson’s fame, to be sure, may be attributed to historical chance. It was an accident, but a very happy one, that he was teaching in the same École Libre des Hautes Études, founded in New York during the last war by French and Belgian refugees, where Lévi-Strauss was also giving courses in anthropology. Each attended the other’s lectures, and Lévi-Strauss, as a result, began to see how Jakobson’s linguistic views could help him to solve some of the anthropological problems he was then wrestling with.3 It was this encounter that gave birth to French structuralism.

Before very long structural linguistics was projected into the limelight as the key science for our time, whose postulates could furnish a new foundation for the study of culture much as Darwinian evolution had done for the latter half of the nineteenth century. Such an influence would scarcely have been possible, however, if Jakobson had not already worked out his linguistic theories at a philosophical level that made their general implications readily apparent. And Jakobson himself, in addition to his researches on linguistics, carried on a steady activity all his life as a cultural essayist and literary critic, whose writings are accessible to an audience of nonspecialists, and whose theories raise fundamental issues in aesthetics and literary criticism. Indeed, during his last years he devoted much of his attention to applying linguistics to the interpretation of poetry, and this effort gave rise to more public controversy than perhaps any other feature of his activity.

Certainly one of the major reasons for Jakobson’s impressive scope, and his openness to the widest cultural perspectives, was his early contact with the explosion of Russian avant-garde art in the first quarter of the present century. Much to the astonishment—and perhaps amusement—of his staider scientific colleagues, the mature Jakobson always attributed the highest importance to his immersion in this bohemian climate when he was a young man; and he continues to do so in the present book. When not much older than an adolescent, he had been an intimate friend of the mysterious and vagabond Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov (whom he continued to call “the greatest Russian poet of our century”), a poet who had not only sought “the philosopher’s stone” by creating neologisms that would transform all Slavic words into one another, but also dreamed of finding “the unity of world languages in general.”4 Much better known was another close friend, Vladimir Mayakovsky, who, for a time before his suicide, came to be regarded almost as the Bard of the Bolshevik revolution. Jakobson was equally intimate with the Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich and other young experimental painters then at the start of distinguished careers, such as Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova.

Jakobson remained faithful to these companions of his youth: in an informative afterword, Pomorska includes a vivid portrait of his visits, when he returned to the Soviet Union after 1956 as an international celebrity, to the last survivor of the Futurist group, Alexis Kruchenykh, with whom the twenty-year-old Jakobson had once published a joint volume of poetry under a pseudonym, and with a punning title. Kruchenykh was then living in abject poverty in Moscow, but remained an impenitent Futurist to the end, continuing to incarnate some of the jesting, irreverent, high-spirited, but at the same time intensely dedicated atmosphere of the bygone years before the First World War.

Those were the years, Jakobson recalls, when “Russian Futurist poetry… was beginning to take hold”; and this “blossoming of modern Russian poetry followed the remarkable developments of modern painting, in particular French postimpressionism and its crowning achievement, Cubism.” Russian culture at this time, as Jakobson rightly observes, had “acquired a truly worldwide significance”; it was not only imitating Western developments, but carrying them forward along original lines. Moreover, the Russians were beginning to think about these problems theoretically to a much greater extent than their European counterparts, and to place them in a broad scientific-philosophical frame. In an interview given in 1978 to a French questioner, Jakobson stressed precisely this point. The French avant-garde of the 1920s, he said, had been pursuing much the same artistic path as the Russians; but while the French “limited themselves to the arts and literature,” the aspirations of the Russian avant-garde also “flowed into science.”5

Jakobson may well have been thinking of himself here, and of the anomalies of his own career, but his remark is more than just another example of the retrospective illusion. For if we turn back to his article “Futurism” (1919), a defiantly youthful manifesto in the aggressive style of Futurist polemics, we find a defense of Cubism coupled with extensive quotations from two Russian expounders of Einstein’s theory of relativity.6 Since time and space no longer had fixed determinants, and the category of substance had lost all meaning, reality could only be represented, as the Cubists were showing it, from multiple points of view simultaneously. Remembering those exciting days, Jakobson here comments:

Such important experiments as non-objective abstract painting and “supraconscious” (zaumnyj) verbal art, by respectively cancelling the represented or designated object, strikingly raised the problem of the nature and significance of the elements that exercise a semantic function in spatial figures on the one hand, and in language on the other.

It was from this cultural climate that Jakobson took his point of departure, and his first important work—a study of Khlebnikov’s linguistic innovations—contained one of the most intransigent declarations of early Russian Formalism. “Poetry,” he declared, “is language in its aesthetic function,” which means that it is “nothing other than an enunciation aiming at expression” and controlled solely by its own immanent laws. In poetry, the function of language as communication is reduced to a minimum, since poetry “is indifferent with regard to the object of the enunciation.” These words represent Jakobson’s recasting, in terms of linguistics, of the attitude toward language common to much modern experimental poetry, at least beginning with Mallarmé (whose work Jakobson knew and loved, and who is cited twice in this essay). And it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that, in some sense, he spent much of his formidable intellectual energy attempting to provide the formalist aesthetics of modernism with scientific respectability.

Jakobson emigrated to Czechoslovakia in 1920, and there became one of the animators of the famous Prague Linguistic Circle. His distinctive linguistic theories were developed during these years, and the direction they took was clearly an outgrowth of his previous poetic orientation. Traditional linguistics at that time, except for the work of a few isolated precursors such as Saussure and Baudouin de Courtenay, the Polish linguist teaching in Russia, had been concerned either with tracing historically the form of language changes, or with analyzing the physiological basis of sound production (phonetics). “They studied language,” Jakobson wrote in Six Lectures, “but never stopped to ask how it satisfies cultural needs.” As an erstwhile Russian Futurist, Jakobson was also fascinated with the sound level of language—but of course from an entirely different point of view. For him, the sound level of language was important primarily as a shaper of poetic significance.

As a result, his next important work—a study of the differences between the metric systems of Czech and Russian poetry—

  1. 1

    Tzvetan Todorov, “L’Héritage formaliste,” in Robert Georgin et al., Jakobson, cahiers cistre no. 5 (Lausanne: Editions L’Age d’Homme, 1978), p. 51.

  2. 2

    Georges Charbonnier, Entretiens avec Claude Lévi-Strauss (Paris, 1969; first published, 1961); Raymond Aron; Le Spectateur engagé: entretiens avec JeanLouis Missika et Dominique Wolton (Paris: Julliard, 1981).

  3. 3

    Jakobson’s course has recently been published in English: Roman Jakobson, Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning, translated by John Mepham (MIT Press, 1978).

  4. 4

    Cited in Vahad D. Barooshian, Russian Cubo-Futurism, 1910-1930 (Mouton, 1974), pp. 11-12.

  5. 5

    R. and R. Georgin, “Entretien avec Roman Jakobson,” in Jakobson, cahiers cistre no. 5, pp. 11-12.

  6. 6

    Jakobson’s Selected Writings have been published in six large volumes, and in the original language of composition, by Mouton in The Hague, but are so expensive that no ordinary book buyer can afford them. Smaller selections of his work in translation have appeared in numerous languages. I shall be using the French Questions de Poétique (Paris, 1973), translated by various hands and edited by Tzvetan Todorov, as well as the Essais de linguistique générale, translated by Nicholas Ruwet (Paris, 1963).

    It is scandalous that American publishers, especially university presses, have not seen fit to make Jakobson’s less technical writings available in one or two reasonably priced volumes. The MIT Press (he taught there for many years) is to be congratulated for issuing Six Lectures; but even here, if one judges by the publishing history, the French took the initiative in prying the volume loose from its author.

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