Suggestions Towards a Theory of Folklore (review)
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Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 486

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Suggestions Towards a Theory of Folklore. By Vilmos Voigt. Preface by Alan Dundes. (Budapest: Mundus Hungarian University Press, 1999. Pp. 409, 12 illustrations, introductory note, bibliography, index of names.)

In Hungary, the long, honorable tradition of scholarly folkloristics marks folklore and its study as perfectly distinct. No scholar understands that distinctiveness better than Vilmos Voigt, longtime chair of the folklore department at Loránd Eötvös University, in Budapest. Ceaselessly active in international conferences, he deserves still more recognition. The twenty-five articles (originally published from 1969 to 1992) in this book are addressed to fellow folklorists and chosen from a prolific output; they all point to directions for future folklorists. Most are very short: they condense huge amounts of reading and always lead toward terse remarks on what has been and could be done. With its enormous range of reference, the book is well titled. It suggests a systematic theory of folklore, or at least of folk literature, that has not yet come into being.

That theory proposes, with Bogatyrev and Jakobson, that folklore is "a special form of creative art" (p. 27) made by admirable creators (pp. 193-200). Folk literature must be distinguished from literary art and from simple oral communication (though how the separation is to be made remains problematic; p. 70). At some periods in the author's thinking, at least, folklore is "the whole social consciousness of the subjected classes in a class-society" (p. 221, with references to other occurrences of this formulation). Genre in folklore, which requires accurate definition, is prior to the item: it "incorporates the traditions, the frames indispensable to the creation, performing, reception and transmission of the works of folklore, and is the most important means also of social 'control'" (p. 73). The hierarchy of genres is determined by social factors (p. 74). For folktale, the most important research is to reconstruct the history of the genre (pp. 135-41, a prodigious survey of research). Interpretation of folklore up to now has followed behind literary interpretation (p. 298). A receiver's spontaneous interpretation of a tale is its "meaning"; the scholar's interpretation moves into semantics or semiotic.

A reader should begin with the twentieth paper in the collection, "La Belle Dame sans Merci," on heart-stealing, which connects with the work of David Hufford and Gábor Klaniczay and brilliantly illustrates the sweep of comparative folkloristics. Another paper shows Vilmos Voigt to have been a pioneer in studying "folklorism," which he systematically presents on the basis of his clear separation between folklore and nonfolklore (pp. 185-92). His work on structuralism discusses all the challenges: the segmentation of the material, transformational rules within a genre, accounting for variability, and the multiplicity of levels. It even speculates about the correlation between structural analysis and the existence of narrative universals (pp. 76-91). In short, the number and variety of this author's topics and references reflects a formidably ambitious idea of folklore, which we could well embrace.

Lee Haring
Emeritus, Brooklyn College