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The Russian Tradition from Potebnia to Shklovsky, with Some Poets in Between
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Aleksandr Potebnia:
From Myth to Science—
And Back Again

The history of the modern tradition in Russia can safely be said to begin with the Ukrainian-born philologist Aleksandr Potebnia (1835—1891). Until the 1980s few people in the West paid much attention to Potebnia's role in the history of modern language theory and criticism. He customarily received a few pages in historical accounts of Russian Formalism and even Russian symbolism. Victor Erlich mentioned him decades ago in the book that introduced the English-speaking world to Russian Formalism.[1] A voluminous, more recent study of Russian Formalism, in German, contains one fairly long discussion of Potebnia and numerous brief references to him.[2] There have been sporadic articles on him both in the Soviet Union and in the West,[3] though generally not in widely read journals, and there have even been a few books on him published in the Soviet Union.[4] In the 1980s, however, Potebnia began to attract some attention in the West, owing in large part to the surge of interest in early twentieth-century Russian language theory and psycholinguistics, and in 1986 a full-length book in English on Potebnia was published.[5]

The work that established the outline of Potebnia's thought for his entire career was a collection of articles called Mysl' i jazyk (Thought and Language). It was published in 1862, the year Potebnia turned twenty-seven. His purpose in this book was to take Humboldt's work


as a point of departure, correct certain of Humboldt's misconceptions, and explore an area left unclear in Humboldt, namely, the relation between thought and language. As Potebnia sees it, a satisfactory account of this relation is precisely where his contemporaries and immediate predecessors are most deficient. Potebnia devotes the second and third articles of his collection to the work of Humboldt and two of his successors, Karl Friedrich Becker (1775–1849) and August Schleicher (1821–1868), showing how the system of each of these linguists collapses on this point. Both Becker and Schleicher focus on the problem of whether thought precedes language or language precedes thought, but, as Potebnia sees it, both assert one position only to contradict it unwittingly later on.[6] Humboldt is not much better on this count, in Potebnia's estimation, because although he does not actually contradict himself, he certainly leaves the matter confused. Thought and language simply do not coincide in any simple formula, Potebnia points out, and Humboldt does not seem to have been aware of that.[7]

The thought-language problem itself is not exactly the point here since Potebnia's impact on succeeding generations had little to do with this issue. It has more to do with the progress of the myths I have been talking about. But there is a matter of chronology in Potebnia's discussions of his immediate predecessors that is fascinating because it partially explains why his impact on Bely and subsequent thinkers was what it was. Potebnia reduces the flaws in Becker's thinking to a contemptuous phrase, referring to the German linguist's "fruitless formalism."[8] The whole problem in Becker and Schleicher appears to be a lack of logical and scientific rigor, as the contradictions in their arguments demonstrate.

If Potebnia had waited another ten years or so, however, he would have been much less likely to fault Schleicher for lack of methodological rigor. Schleicher's most important contribution to the history of linguistics was his Darwinian Theory and Linguistic Science, published in 1873. Ernst Cassirer assigns this book a cardinal position in the same transitional phase of the history of linguistics that Humboldt belongs to. Schleicher's book, in Cassirer's view, represents the last step needed after Humboldt "to dissolve linguistics completely into natural science and linguistic laws into pure natural laws."[9] Schleicher's book was a vigorous assertion of positivism in the study of languages and resolved the earlier thought-language issue by proposing a doctrinaire monism that denied the independence of thought or spirit from matter.

Potebnia formed his theory in the late 1850s largely in response to


recent developments in language philosophy and did not change it substantially for the rest of his career. The date is crucial because ten years later the picture would have been very different, and chances are that his thought would not have taken the direction it did had he started writing then. If Potebnia's view of language is infused with a particular type of mythic thinking, it is no doubt partly because of this circumstance. Later thinkers like Bely owed their conception of language in no small measure to this accident in the history of linguistics.

The most important impulse Potebnia gave to modern literary aesthetics was his redefinition of inner form, which profoundly affected his own version of the poetry-prose distinction. The notion of inner form arises in the context of a psycholinguistic distinction that is central to Potebnia's doctrine. In a section on "the language of feeling and the language of thought" Potebnia distinguishes between the two cognitive processes of understanding and association. Understanding of language takes place when sound precedes meaning; association takes place when meaning precedes sound. Understanding is thus a sort of immediate, necessary apprehension of the meaning of language, whereas association promotes only an indirect apprehension through the assignment of purely conventional meanings to signs. Inner form is relevant only to understanding, not to association, because it is directly tied to human thought. "The inner form of a word," says Potebnia, "is the relation of the content of thought to consciousness; it shows how man's own thought represents itself to him."[10]

What does this statement mean? Potebnia tells us in the most concrete terms, by making yet another distinction. A word whose inner form is in evidence is one whose meaning is objective, as opposed to one whose meaning is subjective . Words accessible to the understanding have objective meanings since the meaning is simply there, whereas words apprehensible only through association are subjective since listeners must rely on their own subjective faculties to supply a meaning. What, then, is an objective meaning? Easy: it is the "closest etymological" one. Thus the Russian word for table, stol, has an objective meaning because it contains the Slavic root /STL/, "to spread." The presence of this root confers on the word stol a kind of immediate meaningfulness and thus makes it objectively understandable to a speaker of Russian.[11] In a word like this the inner form is successfully joined to the outer form, or the sound of the word.

Of course, this theory sounds glib and naive today. But Potebnia has done something extraordinary: he has attempted to take the Humbold-


tian notion of inner form and bolster it firmly on a "scientific" foundation of philology, thus making concrete what had been vague and intangible in his German predecessor. But at the same time, apparently without knowing it, he has replaced Humboldt's truly original contribution to the philosophy of language, namely the energeia concept, with the old myth of origins. Potebnia thus claims the existence of a state of primeval purity and thinks that because it has been identified with scientifically established etymological roots, it won't be seen as mystical or mythical.

But mystical and mythical is just what it is, and the person who noticed this was Andrei Bely. In a review article of Potebnia's Thought and Language published in 1910, Bely pointed to the most prominent paradox of Potebnia's system. He shows how Potebnia's notion of the relation between inner and outer form leads to a view of the ideal word that privileges the artistic over the ordinary, since the ideal word for Potebnia, containing as it does an inherent, objective meaning, must necessarily be an autonomous entity, a symbol. "This conclusion," Bely says, "again and again brings [Potebnia] back to the poet-romantic's dream of an unexpressed, fluid, momentary, and rationally incommunicable meaning that shines through as if from the depths of every word. Behind the cover of its ordinary sense the word conceals inside itself a primevalelemental, magical-active force. . . . From linguistics, grammar, and the psychology of verbal symbols Potebnia arrives at the assertion of a mysticism of the word itself."[12]

Bely's comment is valuable for two reasons. The first is simply the shrewdness he shows in calling attention to a pitfall in Potebnia's thinking. The second is the light he sheds, perhaps unwittingly, on Potebnia's historical role. Bely finds it shockingly contradictory that Potebnia should take as a point of departure the supposedly scientific disciplines of linguistics, grammar, and psychology and arrive from them at a position as mystical as his doctrine of inner form.

But from our perspective this contradiction is exactly what is so important in Potebnia. Potebnia was apparently convinced that his emphasis on the thought-language problem and his psycholinguistic foundation were a timely corrective to the least scientific aspects of Humboldt's theory. He was not willing to consider himself a part of the romantic legacy in language philosophy that unabashedly espoused mystico-mythical ideas. And if, as Bely accurately noticed, Potebnia ended up regressively asserting a mythical tradition even older than Humboldt's, this is only an indication to us that he is a transitional figure.


He is a perfect example of the process I have described because he subscribes at once wholeheartedly and unwittingly to one of the oldest myths in existence but views himself as rejecting all myth. To a significant extent for Potebnia, the myth—beyond the actual myth of origins—is that there is no myth.

The Poetry-Prose Distinction

Since there is no myth and, consequently, no murky, unscientific conceptual framework, Potebnia blithely makes his way from his conception of inner form to a poetry-prose distinction that will be adopted in many significant respects by even the most formalistic of subsequent Russian linguists, critics, and aestheticians. In the last article in Thought and Language Potebnia systematizes his conception of inner form and gives it more clarity. He now speaks of words as containing three elements: outer form, which is defined as the "articulate sound"; content; and inner form, which he unabashedly defines as the "closest etymological meaning" (Mysl' ijazyk, p. 134). What does this system have to do with poetry? The successful unity of sound and meaning is the "form" of poetic production, Potebnia says. The force responsible for creating this unity, the "third link," is none other than inner form (p. 138). Now inner form is also the symbolic meaning of a word, by which Potebnia means the meaning that is directly accessible. Symbolic meaning, or "symbolism," is the province of poetic language, as Potebnia says at the beginning of the article. "Poeticity," he had said, is the symbolism of language, whereas "prosaicity" is the "oblivion of inner form" (p. 134).

There are profound analogies, according to Potebnia, between words and art. Art, like language, is a means for the creation of thought, and its goal, like that of the word, is to produce a certain subjective mood (nastroenie) in both creator and perceiver. Art, because it is an active, creative force, is a form of energeia, just like language (p. 143). But not all language, of course: only poetic language enjoys the privileged status that makes it analogous to art. There is an excellent reason for this, too. The privileging of poetry does not arise from an arbitrary decision that judges it superior to prose. Poetry is privileged because it is earlier . We have here the myth of origins all over again, and Potebnia easily slips into a Rousseauistic mode of evocation to make his point. Everything is "first," "in the beginning," back in a mythic past of perfect linguistic transparency. "The first word is poetry," says Potebnia; this is why poetry precedes all the other arts. "The most perfect words of folk poetry


date back to a time when people would not have been in a condition either to conceive of or to produce anything worthy of the name of paintings or statues." "In the beginning the word and poetry concentrated within themselves the entire aesthetic life of the people" (p. 150).

Poetry precedes not only all other forms of art but all other forms of speech as well. So primal is poetry, in fact, that the "late" division between poetry and prose can be said to arise from poetry itself (p. 152). The distinction comes about as a result of a gradual process of loss over time. Poetic language is language still imbued with inner form, whereas prosaic language develops in proportion to the loss of inner form. Inner form is lost as the objectivity of language (that is, objectivity understood in Potebnia's sense) gives way increasingly to abstraction. With the rise of abstraction in a word comes its increasing distance from sensual perception. This distance, incidentally, is why prosaic language tends to be the domain of science: prose is given to analyzing reality, whereas poetry seizes reality directly in its sensible manifestations, says Potebnia, loosely translating from Humboldt (p. 152).

Potebnia's opposition thus not only sets up poetry in a favored position of mythic purity but also specifically ties aesthetic value to poeticity and, by extension, to the myth of origin. A poetic word is valued in direct proportion to its symbolism, which means its inner form, which means its proximity to a primal state, which means its proximity to its own etymological root. And the corollary is that the more abstract a word, the more detached from its origin, the more intellectual effort required to discern its meaning, the less poetic and, consequently, the less aesthetically valued it is.

The Word Is the Work

Since primal language is poetry, and since poetry is at the root of art, it follows that there is a fundamental analogy between art and language, artworks and words.[13] Put one way, in fact, there really is no difference between a word and an artwork, since the word (poetic, of course) is art. But the analogy works on the level of specifics, too: the artwork in general contains the same three moments as the word, namely outer form, inner form, and content, and these three moments interact in the name of the same function for the artwork as for the word, namely the creation of thought.[14]

Thus the word, in its strict sense as a discrete lexical unit of meaning, is a kind of microcosm of the larger artwork of which it might form a


part. As long as the word is a poetic one, the same propositions that are true of the word are true of the artwork. The artwork, by implication, functions like a symbol in the way the word does. And it stands in the same relation to the world as the word does: like the word, it creates something that was not there before, it is energeia rather than ergon, and, as a consequence, it contains more than what the speaker or artist put into it.

In one way this kind of thinking sounds perfectly trite and entirely unworthy of anyone's attention. After all, isn't the lack of distinction between individual lexical units and the broader units of meaning in language more a regressive idea than a progressive one? Ancient cultures did not distinguish sharply between the individual word, of the sort that we expect to find listed in a dictionary, and speech or utterance. In those days (and in oral cultures today, I'm told), the only parts of language that really are perceived as intrinsically discrete are proper names.

But Potebnia is pointing to something that really is new and something that will be prominently featured in the following generation or two. Apart from the mythic aspects of Potebnia's theories, apart from the silly idea that the inner essence of a word is nothing more than the word's Slavic or Indo-European root, Potebnia's conception carries a level of philosophical complexity that merits attention. He sees the act of speaking as a deeply relational act, one that touches each of a complex of coordinates without actually rendering any one of them or being identical to any one of them. These coordinates are things like the word (as lexical item, "articulate sound"), the image or concept, the speaker, and the world, with inner form as a kind of pure (but only vaguely defined) mediating function. That is to say, the word is a structure of relations, and this is the source of its analogy to the larger units of language and, ultimately, to works of art composed of language. Words, phrases, language, poems—all these things are there in our perception as relational complexes. In a literal sense they are nowhere, and yet they truly have the power to create a "somewhere."

The notion of symbol will serve to designate this class of things for Andrei Bely. When he comes along to define symbols, he does so in a way that makes it impossible to determine whether he is talking about words, poems, specific figures of poetic speech, or, for that matter, signifying objects in the very broadest sense of the term. This is not only because Bely has decided to return to an archaic notion of language as logos, where logos can mean, as it did in Greek, a range of things from discrete utterances to language broadly conceived. It is also because Be-


ly's interest transcends the limited philological subject of words as lexical items. He is concerned with a much more modern subject, and that is meaning, specifically its structure and function. But it is Potebnia, standing on the border between the realm of linguistic myth and the realm of modern science and functionalism, who had set the stage. And to judge from what he had to say about his predecessor, Bely knew it.

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