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  Philologica 7 (2001/2002)  


(Boris Iarxo vs Iurij Tynianov
in Their Views of the Nature and Semantics of Verse)




M. V. Akimova’s paper on Iarxo’s polemic with Tynianov’s conception of verse language might give the impression of something not being said. While reconstructing the picture of an irreconcilable struggle between different trends in Russian “formalism”, the scholar is inclined to shy away from evaluation of the two parties and seems to consider such evaluation to be incompatible with the principles of research. However, the readers are not so rigorous: they usually want to know “who is more valuable for mother-history” (as Maiakovskij put it) — or, at least, who is more valuable from the historian’s point of view. In the situation of Iarxo and Tynianov, the desire to understand who is right is even more natural, for, firstly, this was a dispute between Russia’s leading theoreticians of literature in the twentieth century, and, secondly, this disagreement concerned the fundamental issues of the study of verse. This is the reason why I must take it upon myself to evaluate the historical situation; and I will inevitably measure the value of the past from the standpoint of ideal (cf. H. Rickert’s Die Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie).

In my opinion, Iarxo was almost always right in the details, but wrong on the main point, while Tynianov, in reverse, approximated to the truth on the main point, but was very often wrong in the details. Iarxo displayed well-founded dissatisfaction with Tynianov’s way of presenting his ideas and material: in his private notes he wrote of his opponent’s “illogicality of thought”, “slovenliness in expressions” and even his “particular idiocy”. Although a defect in reasoning does not necessarily invalidate the conclusions, an obscure and tangled style cannot be regarded as an insignificant minor shortcoming of Tynianov’s book. This was Iarxo’s point, who considered “scientism” to be “the property of exposition rather than of cognition”. To Iarxo, the “illogicality”, “lack of clarity” and “groundlessness” of Tynianov’s assertions made them exceed the bounds of science as such; I believe one should rather say that it was up to students of literature to make many of them scientific.

To replace Tynianov’s unscientific truths, his opponent proposed scientific errors. His statistical method of “differentiating” verse from prose lead to ridiculous conclusions: Iarxo considered vers libre to be prose, as well as Puškin’s verse tale of Balda, and did not hesitate in calling Andrej Belyj’s metrical prose verse. Elsewhere I have had occasion to explain why I cannot accept as satisfactory Tynianov’s interpretation of poetic speech as compulsorily divided into relatively short segments (lines), but this conception is, to all appearances, easier to “think through” to the truth than Iarxo’s quasi-definition, which inevitably leads to a dead-end.

I extend this evaluation to the both scholars’ impact on the study of the semantics of verse. Iarxo was right: a verse construction as such is unable to impart a new meaning to the word. But the significance of the word can be increased: it can be emphasized by means of verse. Thus, in the following fragment from “Onegin’s Sketch-Book”, Pushkin, using syntactic enjambements, emphasizes the “weightiness” of the pronouns vsio and vse, which would not have a remarkable role in prose, where they would be written down in continuo:

<...> Za chto? — za rezkij razgovor
Za legkomyslennoe mnen’e
O vsem; za kolkoe prezren’e
Ko vsem; odnako zh eto vzdor

(= <...> For what? — for brusque conversation, // For careless opinion // Of everything; for caustic contempt // For everyone; but this is nonsense, though).

The place of the word in the poetic line can affect not only its significance, but also its lexical meaning. As sometimes happens, a position within verse construction brings to the foreground a meaning of the lexeme, which cannot emerge (without pauses and emphatic intonation) in a prosaic text with the same sequence of word forms:

Ia prishel, ona spala,
Poprosil, ona dala...
Dva solenyx ogurca
I pollitrovochku vinca

(= I came, she was sleeping, // I asked, she gave me <‘entered into sexual intercourse’>... // Two pickled gherkins // And half litre bottle of wine). The three dots added by the editors of the chastushka seem superfluous: to “awaken” the double-entendre in the verb dala, the illusion of syntactic and metric completeness is sufficient, supported by the context (she was sleeping). In prose, the same syntactic construction does not allow for frivolous hints (...she gave me two pickled gherkins...).



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