Thursday, March 03, 2011

"The tautology hut"

My flight from LaGuardia to Rochester last night was delayed, and I didn't arrive at the Inn on Broadway until after midnight. Now I am ensconced in my hotel room mentally readying myself for the graduate seminar I'll conduct at noon and the lecture later in the day.

A passage I love, from Jakobson's essay "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances" (in addition to the informal seminar for the grad students, I was also asked to recommend to them a couple short pieces of critical reading - I chose this piece and Roland Barthes' "The Reality Effect," another favorite of mine, not because I will speak about them directly but because they seem to me two such compelling instances of the delights of non-historicist work in literary studies):
In manipulating these two kinds of connection (similarity and contiguity) in both their aspects (positional and semantic) -- selecting, combining, and ranking them -- an individual exhibits his personal style, his verbal predilections and preferences.

In verbal art the intersection of these two elements is especially pronounced. Rich material for the study of this relationship is to be found in verse patterns which require a compulsory PARALLELISM between adjacent lines, for example in Biblical poetry or in the Finnic and, to some extent, the Russian oral traditions. This provides an objective criterion of what in the given speech community acts as a correspondence. Since on any verbal level -- morphemic, lexical, syntactic, and phraseological -- either of these two relations (similarity and contiguity) can appear -- and each in either of two aspects, an impressive range of possible configurations is created. Either of the two gravitational poles may preval. In Russian lyrical songs, for example, metaphoric constructions predominate, while in the heroic epics the metonymic way is preponderant.

In poetry there are various motives which determine the choice between these alternants. The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of romanticism and symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledged, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called 'realistic' trend, which belongs to an intermediary stage between the decline of romanticism and the rise of symbolism and is opposed to both. Following the path of contiguous relationships, the realist author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. He is fond of synecdochic details. In the scene of Anna Karenina's suicide Tolstoy's artistic attention is focused on the heroine's handbag; and in War and Peace the synecdoches "hair on the upper lip" and "bare shoulders" are used by the same writer to stand for the female charactesr to whom these features belong.

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