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  • Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics ed. by Ilya Kliger and Boris Maslov
  • Leroy Searle (bio)
Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics. Edited by Ilya Kliger and Boris Maslov, foreword by Eric Hayot. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. xvii + 477 pp. Hardcover $65.00.

As Boris Maslov accurately notes, "Alexander Veselovsky's versatile body of work is notably hard to synthesize" and "does not lend itself easily to either systematic summary or piecemeal extraction" (128). This ambitious volume, however, aims at the very least to recover Veselovsky's contributions, related to but not necessarily integrated with more familiar movements in Russian and Soviet formalism and various subsequent models of structuralism. The authors of articles in the volume are members of the "Historical Poetics Working Group," whose 2011 conference at the University of Chicago ("Historical Poetics: Past, Present, and Future") provided the proximal impetus for the volume, but more importantly, represents an on-going effort to reanimate the study of literary history and genre by recovering and reinterpreting Veselovsky's contributions in a contemporary context. Alexander Veselovsky (1838–1906) was primarily concerned with the development of an elaborate theory of poetic form, integrated with an interesting [End Page 417] (but problematic) claim that poetic form is deeply tied to psychological and social processes, treated more as inevitable needs, such that the persistence/recurrence of formal motifs and functions owe their durability to such needs. While readers will quickly recognize similarities in Veselovsky to the more widely circulated work of Vladimir Propp (most notably in The Morphology of the Folk Tale I [1928]), the authors are much more concerned to show the relevance of Veselovsky's work in a range of interesting connections and challenges to more recent approaches to literary history and genre, from Northrop Frye and Baktin to New Historicism and work by Lukàcs and Jameson.

In more general terms, the ambition of these rich and varied studies, extending both forward from Veselovsky to the present and back to antiquity, is to forward in transmissible detail a central premise for "Historical Poetics," namely, that the vitality of issues of literary form and genre does not arise from relatively closed logic or schematic systems, but represent a crucial point of connection between literary production and persistent dilemmas of living. But therein also lies what proves most problematic in the volume as a whole. One might suggest that no small part of the attractiveness of Veselovsky is precisely his relative unfamiliarity, in the sense that something that could be seen as perennial appears to be new—and therefore more promising, particularly in the conceptual murkiness of contemporary literary studies, where we often appear collectively to be stepping on our own feet. The central problem, however, is the marked and recurrent tendency of abstract schemas—which we have been for generations been inclined to call "theory"—to be profoundly reductive, as if our descriptions of significant features of literary texts could be abstracted as if they were at least "law-like" if not actually treated as laws of use for the description and interpretation of observed patterns and regularities. The result is an escalation of abstract rhetoric that frequently serves to mask the effect of drastic and sometimes dogmatic oversimplification. The problem is, of course, as old as Aristotle (and shows up like a bad penny here) in repeating Aristotle's authorizing gesture to treat literary genres as natural kinds—as when, in chapter 4 of Poetics, he treats the form of tragedy as something developing from "capacities" people kept discovering in it, "and after many changes it stopped altering, since it had attained its full growth." (Poetics 1449a-11: "κατὰ μικρὸν ηὐξήθη προαγόντων ὅσον ἐγίγνετο φανερὸν αὐτῆς: καὶ πολλὰς μεταβολὰς μεταβαλοῦσα ἡ τραγῳδία ἐπαύσατο, ἐπεὶ ἔσχε τὴν αὑτῆς φύσιν." In context, Aristotle is showing us the growth of art from our own nature, following the model of transition from dynamis or potential to Energeia/entelechy or actualization, as if we were watching the growth of a teleological nature, physis, emerge as if it were an oak tree. It is [End Page 418] here that the conceptual dilemma of origination and change which verily haunts the volume under review, properly starts—and it is deeply involved with Aristotle's attempt to construct a working model of cause, notoriously fragile...


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