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  • Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics ed. by Ilya Kliger and Boris Maslov
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 in the singular respect that the four fold model of causes (formal, material, efficient, and final) seemed to apply perfectly to things made by art, but stubbornly resisted application to things that came to be by nature. That is to say that Aristotle pulls off one of the most spectacular of all philosophical sleights of hand by treating tragedy, an intentional object, as having its own specific physis, and solves by means of Poetics the problem without which he would have found his pathway to Metaphysics utterly blocked: telos. As things made by art (like houses) do have a teleological cause, that is the very thing that is missing in nature: since Aristotle took the expedient of getting to it by way of an analogy with art. The reductiveness that has marked virtually the entire history of occidental reasoning starts in this move, in the sense that in treating nature as teleological, we end up with no place for literal and actual creation: all must have come from an eternal eidos¸ an intelligible form, as a strictly linear process. But that rational move is one we inevitably make through metaphor.

Veselovsky is most profoundly reductive in his treatment of literary forms as paradoxically both the source of creation and radically disallowing it, as Victoria Somoff deftly illustrates in her perceptive juxtaposition of Veselovsky and Greenblatt, showing that "Veselovsky and Greenblatt provide answers [to the question of innovation] that cancel each other out" (70). But in more complicated cases, the actual practice of reading illustrated in diverse ways in the several essays that undertake shows the sometimes mind-boggling complexity of demonstrating Veselovsky's belief that literary forms are virtually archetypal and indestructible. In two particularly notable sections (one a contemporary essay by Leslie Kurke, "Historicist Hermeneutics and Contestatory Ritual Poetics" (90–113); the other a new translation of Olga Friedenberg's "The Oresteia in the Odyssey" (1946), getting Veselovsky to actually match up with texts illustrates not only the specific problem for reading practices in this volume, but the more general perplexity of contemporary literary studies in struggling with models of historicity and form that simply do not yield to reductive abstract hypotheses. In the first case, as Kurke takes on the problematic crossovers between the Oresteia of Aeschylus and Pindar's Pythian Ode 11, the vexatious detail of chronology (allowing for the moment that we are left guessing on many ancient instances) of whether Pindar's Ode came first (so the conventional chronology would suggest—~476 BCE), or Aeschylus' trilogy was earlier than the conventional chronology would have it—~458 BCE) doesn't even [End Page 419] come up. The simple reason is that the actual relation between the two texts, and the lineage back to Homer is simply swamped by the intrinsic difficulty of sorting out what the two texts we have present when we try to make them intelligible. While one might suggest from the safe distance of not having to demonstrate it that such an outcome is possible, it is very hard to see how Veselovsky's hypothesis is either necessary or even helpful. Every textual example swamps it. The same complication in Friedenberg's lucid commentary on the relation between the Odyssey and the Oresteia shows up, in a much more straightforward demonstration that the problem of reading, considered from the point of hermeneutics or the generation of specific commentary is of an entirely different order of complexity. We may hanker after laws or invariant principles, but they are if anything more misleading than the figural and supple constructions we are trying to make sense of in the first place.

The great virtue of this volume, these reservations notwithstanding, is the return of attention to considerations of form as inescapably historical, and recognizably so, while preserving what I take to be the appeal of otherwise very messy ideological orientations: an insistence on the normative and reflective character of aesthetic works, which provides the enduring motive for reading them, teaching them, and studying them, even (or perhaps mostly) when they present us with extremely complex modes of argument, not in commentaries about the aesthetic forms themselves, but in those forms as themselves primary forms of argument. Particularly notable are the essays by Boris Maslov, Ilya Kliger, Richard Martin, and Ilya Vinitsky, as particularly vigorous instances of drawing forth from the example of Veselovsky effective spurs to a reviving practice. In this respect, though the ambition of this volume to advance Veselovsky as progenitor does not altogether succeed, the project of revitalizing Historical Poetics is very promising. [End Page 420]

Leroy Searle
University of Washington
Leroy Searle

leroy searle is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington in Seattle. His work has concentrated on the history of criticism and theory, intellectual history, and philosophy. With Hazard Adams, he edited Critical Theory since 1965 (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1986) and Critical Theory since Plato, 3rd edition (Belmont: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2005). His work includes contributions to textual studies Voice, Text, and Hypertext: Emerging Practices in Textual Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

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