Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for February 11, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

If you haven't yet done so, send me an electronic version of your original fairy tale!

“Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia! Background on Mussorgsky is widely available - see the Classical Music Pages or Slavist Caryl Emerson's book The Life of Mussorgsky, in Underhill Library, ML410.M97 E42 1999; the piece is actually called “Ivanova noch’ na lysoj gore” ('John's Night on Bald Mountain,' 1867), so it’s more or less the Kupalo festival we read about in Ivanits. Conducted here by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Disney animation. Think about combinations of different art forms in one (- moving images accompanied by music really were a new thing when cartoons started, though perhaps in the past people had watched dancers from a similar perspective, if they already knew the music: ah, I didn’t think they would do that! ah, just what I expected!); watch for pictorial elements that remind you of points from Ivanits, esp. pp. 100-101. There are lots of “Bald Mountains” around Russia and its other Imperial provinces. The images here are largely more Western in appearance.

Pëtr Bogatyrëv and Roman Jakobson (do you know who Jakobson is?) – “Folklore as a Special Form of Creativity” (1929). Quick introduction to Russian Formalism (an essay that stresses the link with linguistics).

The authorship of folklore (Bogatyrëv and Jakobson situate it between linguistics and literature). Russian Formalism developed into Structuralism, largely thanks to Jakobson: strong stress on binaries. Later critical trends still largely known as post-Structuralism.

What is the authors' attitude towards orality versus literacy? Do you agree with their observations on the nature of folklore versus literature?

Main points:

“Naïve realism” of 2nd half of 19th century (positivism?), neo-grammarians, thesis that only idiolect (language of individual) is real language. Saussure pays attention to both langue and parole. So: here B. and J. apply that idea to the creation of folklore.

Sidetrack into elite lit: because it’s much more likely to be published or even just written down in manuscript, it doesn’t disappear with the author’s death and always has POTENTIAL to be rediscovered, reevaluated, and taken as a model in some later era. (Formalists are fascinated by the rising and sinking of various genres of writing, how newly fashionable genres take advantage of the audience's excellent knowledge of the genres that have gotten too worn and familiar, and the way young or innovative writers/cultural producers look into the past for styles or ideas they can oppose to the status quo that they're tired of. (From there, you can segue right into Harold Bloom's "Anxiety of influence" and "strong misreading.")

In folklore, though, the individual creative act (whether it’s composition of a new work of verbal art, or a new style of performance) will die out with its creator at his or her death, or perhaps even before, if the rest of the audience doesn’t like it. P. 37: “for a work of folklore to exist, a group must appropriate and sanction it.” And “in reality, the work only becomes a fact of folklore once it has been accepted by the community.” So (p. 38) propose introducing to folklore science “the differentiation made in linguistics between a change in the linguistic standard and an individual differentiation from the standard, a differentiation which has not only quantitative but also fundamental, qualitative significance.” Folklore as completely analogous to language (langue, all the possibilities a certain code provides, vs parole, actual examples of utterance - could be seen as parallel to the whole system of folktales, with the various characters and plots available, versus a particular performance of a tale or a particular teller's version).

p. 39: folklore is “set specifically toward langue,” that community-generated generality, while literature is towards parole, specificity and an identifiable speaker/author. The role of censorship in folklore: “censorship is imperative and is an indispensable prerequisite for the genesis of works of art.”

In analogy to political economy: lit parallel to “production for the market” and folklore to “production on demand.” (And then popular culture, in which we could place many modern treatments of fairytale plots, is mass production?) A village cobbler would never make a pair of shoes in size X just to have on hand in case someone with size X feet came by, right? (People with odd sizes have to make specialty orders even today.)

So again you have to think of “authors of folklore” in different terms from “authors of literature” – “the ‘folklore poet’ … does not create a ‘new milieu,’ and any intention of transforming the milieu is totally alien to him.” (Well, I say critically, that would presume that there’s no place to introduce change – surely it doesn’t happen only when the milieu decides it prefers some other or new thing, surely sometimes the performer/creator presents something new and unexpected that catches on? – a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Or: an innovation only becomes folklore when it does catch on, is accepted by the milieu.) (In fact there are always points of contact among different ethnic groups and their folklore - intermarriage, travel - which is one of the things that make folklore studies so interesting.)

p. 40: rehabilitating the Romantic conception of oral creativity: distinct from literature, communal character, and comparability with language. But: the Romantics overrated “the genetic independence and originality of folklore.”

Do you know what he means by “gesunkenes Kulturgut” (unhelpfully translated as “submerged cultural value”!)? Elite cultural products overheard by the prince's stableboy and taken home to be told there - or survivals of a court culture once the court has been scattered, say by a Mongol invasion. The issue of who creates folk culture (the elite or the masses) becomes a vexed question in the Soviet period (where you have to say "the masses," of course!). [Remember though that while folk culture is always the property of everyone in the community - everyone can join in a dance, listen to a tale meant for their age and gender, wear the embroidered clothing meant for their age and gender, etc. - the community always recognizes a few specialists who do the best embroidery, sing the best, dance the best, tell tales the best. One village might have two competing "best" ways of doing something, reflecting strong personalities. - SF, comment on B. and J.]

The question of sources “lies beyond the boundaries of folklore studies because of its very nature.” Folklore, again, is a different kind of system from elite culture (about which scholars knew MUCH more in 1929 when this piece was written); how a plot etc. GETS into the system is not B. and J.’s interest here. “What is fundamental to the science of folklore is not the origin and existence of the sources outside of folklore, but the function of appropriation, the selection and the transforma-tion of the appropriated material.” Folklore reproduces, and there’s nothing wrong with that: so does high art (citing, reacting against, recycling plots, etc.). Adaptation as creativity. (And, thus, declaring the question of who originated these plots - peasants or princes? - uninteresting.)

Romantics are also wrong in supposing that only a classless society (“a kind of collective personality with one soul and one Weltanschauung which knows no individual expressions of human activity”) could author folklore. Comparing this to linguistics and ethnography, B. and J. argue that collective creativity need not require a collective mentality – that you can’t be sure there is a collective mentality (…in speech, saying a certain thing doesn’t necessarily mean you think it, right?). They offer the example of a very socially differentiated peasantry in the Moscow region, where even in the 1920s there was a rich, living folklore repertoire.

Oral poetry is also rural, in general, versus urban literature (p. 42). What reasons could you come up with to explain that distinction? How does that change with the introdudction of mass media - first woodcut prints ('lubki'), then newspapers, then radio, then television?

P. 43: They quote Marcel Jousse on “oral rhythmic style” – points a lot like Ong’s. And they propose: “A typology of the forms of folklore must be constructed independently of that of literary forms.” – these are guys from the same group that brought us Vladimir Propp, whom you'll read soon. And then B. and J. go on to propose a set of other tasks that “the science of folklore” may undertake using the appropriate tools and approaches. (Formalism's ambition to make literary study into a science. And indeed, if you're just starting to learn how to study any kind of verbal art, or if you're an experienced scholar just starting to examine one particular work or genre, the tool kit or "cookbook" of Formalism is a great way to get started.)

Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Monday, February 13, 2008.