- The Word Made Self: Russian Writings on Language, 1860–1930
In order to map out the field researched in Thomas Seifrid's The Word Made Self, I would like to recall Nabokov's short story "The Word" (1923). The protagonist dreams that he is in Paradise and addresses an angel with the question that is tormenting him: "What can save my land?" The angel replies by enunciating a single word, one that contains everything, explains everything, and fills the entire being of the protagonist, who cries it out, savoring every syllable. But then comes the moment of awakening: "Oh, Lord — the winter dawn glows greenish in the window, and I remember not what word it was that I shouted."1 Is the quest for an all-embracing, all-redeeming elusive word a matter of a single story or is it a substantial element of the culture which the story refracts?
Seifrid opts for the latter view, a rather "orientalistic" one, to resort to Edward Said's term: Russians "tended to profess a near-religious, if not indeed fetishistic, veneration for the power of language — for the Word" (1). From this standpoint Nabokov's protagonist shares the common Russian belief in the magical power of the word. Seifrid notes that this belief calls for an explanation, and he offers one on the basis of texts which he defines as "Russian writings on language."
The range of primary sources involved in Seifrid's study is highly impressive: Aleksandr Potebnya, Viacheslav Ivanov, Andrei Bely, Viktor Shklovsky, Velemir Khlebnikov, Osip Mandelshtam, Vladimir Ern, Pavel Florensky, Sergei Bulgakov, Gustav Shpet, Aleksei Losev, Lev Vygotsky, Roman Jakobson, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Valentin Voloshinov. I know of no other study in English where the analysis of Russian texts on language has been undertaken on such a scale. The sources belong to different and seemingly incommensurable genres: studies in linguistics side by side with Symbolist and Futurist manifestos, Formalist writings on literary theory next to theological treatises, polemical pieces published in periodicals together with works on the philosophy of language.
Nonetheless — and this is the main claim of the book — these heterogeneous texts bear a relation to each other, being outgrowths of one project; they belong to the same discursive paradigm and are part of a single overarching task — "to provide a model of the self or of selfhood that is grounded in language and that finds in language the prototype for what the self should be" (2–3). Although Seifrid does not spell out what this model is, everything in his book leads one to conclude that the Russian self should be an incarnation of the Divine Word. Accordingly, Seifrid actually claims that, consciously or otherwise, these texts move to reformulate the Patristic-Platonic Orthodox doctrine that identifies Logos [End Page 215] as the Word in concepts used in the Western philosophy of language (the Humboldtian and the phenomenological systems).
Seifrid, accordingly, sees his task as reconstructing the historical sequence of such reformulations. This provides a hierarchical deployment of the texts studied. First come the works which belong to the Russian philosophy of language — a field whose gestation Seifrid localizes in Aleksandr Potebnya's linguistics and some of whose most substantial stages of development he sees primarily in the theology of Florensky and Bulgakov, and then in the phenomenology of Shpet and Losev. The publication dates of the most significant of these authors' works — beginning with the writings of Potebnya (the early 1860s) and ending with those of Losev (of 1927–1930) — form the temporal framework within which the period of Russian intellectual history studied in the book is inscribed. The discussion of these five thinkers (chaps. 1, 3, and 4) accounts for the bulk of The Word Made Self and leads up to the principal conclusions of this book. From this basis, Seifrid takes two glances at works by other authors (chap. 2 and the Conclusion), mainly to note the similarity between their concepts and motifs and those of Potebnya, Florensky, Bulgakov, Shpet, and Losev.
How does Seifrid ground his claim that the idea...