Philologist Boris Gasparov, a professor at Columbia University, is writing a book on early German Romanticism and has no plans to return to the history of Russian culture, but describes himself as an »interested reader of Soviet newspapers. In an interview with T-invariant, he explains why the current emigration of intellectuals is more like German in the 1930s than the «philosophical steamroller,» and gives hope that the current everyday «cloaca language« will go away, as «Soviet» Russian once did.
T-invariant: How did you face February 24th? This is our traditional question. You don’t even have to specify the year…
Boris Gasparov: I was in Santiago, Chile, we went for a vacation in the Chilean summer, the first trip after covid. There was a family birthday party, a big family gathered. The kids were playing a noisy game in the yard. And then someone asked: «Do you know what they’re playing?» It turned out to be war between the Russians and the Ukrainians. It was February 24th.
What can I say? I had to go to teach at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, also for the first time since the covid. Naturally, this did not happen. I immediately wrote a letter of resignation and protest against what was going on. I resigned from all of the committees, boards, and councils, and I have not participated in any life in Russia since.
I was one of the creators of the humanitarian program at the St. Petersburg Higher School of Economics. It began in 2015 with incredible success, attracting hundreds of students. There was a huge resonance, and we assembled an international, first-rate team. Now there are very few people left: they have left. And there’s almost no one left in the Moscow program either.
T-i: How did your colleagues and your bosses react to your departure?
BG: Very politely and kindly. The human relations have not been interrupted, but they understand that it is inherently impossible for me to participate in projects in Russia or related to the country.
Boris Mikhailovich Gasparov is a philologist. He was born in 1940 in Rostov-on-Don, where he received his philological education. He graduated from the Gnessin Institute with a degree in musicology. From 1968 to 1980 he worked with Yuri Lotman at the University of Tartu. He is one of the regular authors and editor of «Proceedings on Sign Systems». In 1980 he moved to the United States. He is currently working at Columbia University.
Sergei Averintsev wrote that «Philology is the art of understanding what is said and written.» But for Boris Gasparov, understanding only «said and written» has always been insufficient. He matches music, history and everyday life with the «written». Because the word is in constant communication with them, and only in this way can the meaning of what has been written be clarified. Gasparov covers a tremendous volume of meaning: from the Tale of Igor’s Campaign (in Russian) to the hypothesis of the existence and development of language (in Russian and English) to his reflections on Russian classical music (in English). And within this volume, «the art of understanding spoken and written» gains new strength and depth. Ed. T-invariant.
T-i: We know that you are preparing a new book and it also has nothing to do with Russia. Tell us about it please.
BG: I am very lucky. I can’t imagine how I would go on with my affairs connected with Russian culture now as if nothing had happened. I had a project on the philosophical foundations of socialist realism and other topics. But I absolutely cannot continue this now.
I was quietly preparing a completely different project. It required a long preparatory work, reading a huge amount of sources, scientific literature, mainly German. And it turned out that I was engaged in a project that had nothing to do directly or even indirectly with Russian culture, and was thus therapeutic for me.
What is now called «early romanticism» of the 1790s is very different from the romanticism of the nineteenth century. In Germany, this phenomenon was represented by the Jena Romantic Circle, in which the Schlegel brothers and Novalis played the leading role. I am writing about the philosophical foundations of this direction, about those philosophical principles that put them in opposition, on the one hand, to the Enlightenment rationalism, which was in crisis and was already leaving, and, on the other hand, to the rising tide of idealistic philosophy and late romantic self-consciousness with their reliance on subjective consciousness and on the national tradition. The Jena Romantics were utterly devoid of a nationalistic spirit. They had the typical cosmopolitan self-consciousness of the eighteenth century.
The main idea of the book. What did the Enlightenment and Idealist philosophy have in common? They envisioned a certain abstract image of the cognizing mind as an integral intellectual force that possesses an inner cognitive unity, a purposefulness to cognition. The title of my book is The Subject Dethroned. That is, the subject is driven from the throne on which it has placed itself. My Jena Romantics treat the process of knowing as an entirely human process. It is an endless interweaving, clashing and merging of different minds thinking simultaneously, different ways of thinking. Each individual subject is not a Subject with a capital letter, but an agent of a common cognitive process. His thoughts are never just his thoughts. Other people’s thoughts flow into them, flood them. Whether he is conscious of this or not, whether these people are present nearby or present only in memory. Therefore, the process of cognition can be neither completely purposeful nor unified. This is the idea of the intertwining of an infinite number of alternative lines. Contradictions, deviations from the previously intended path, constantly arise in this process. These are its constitutional properties, not the external noise that disturbs the cognitive mind. Paradoxically, it is in this way that the cognizing mind places itself on an equal footing with the world it cognizes. The world, too, is characterized by collisions, instability, and unreliability. This strategy of cognition perceives the properties of the world it seeks to know, rather than leaving them aside as something alien to it.
The Jena Romantics throughout the nineteenth century and part of the twentieth had the reputation of people who were not all right with logical thinking, who for some reason treated the universal laws of logic, cognition, and the progress of science so frivolously. And in the second half of the twentieth century, with the rise of postmodernism, they suddenly became unusually popular, and they were seen as allies of deconstructivist criticism. Which is partly true. But there are also differences between the early Romanticists and the criticism of the total model of thinking at the end of the twentieth century. Postmodernism spoke of the death of the author in the sense that the author’s work is open to a wide variety of interpretations and they all have the right to exist. The position of Jena philosophy can be described as the «death of the critic. The critic abandons his prerogative to speak from his pedestal and pronounce his judgment. If, roughly speaking, the postmodern self-consciousness tends to believe that «all interpretations are equally good,» in the consciousness of the Jena Romanticists, «all interpretations are equally bad,» that is, they are never self-sufficient. They are internally flawed and contradictory, and their meaning changes subtly to its opposite without the critic himself noticing it. But these cracks and crevices in the facade of the concept are the most valuable: through them one can see the inner springs that guided the cognitive effort. In my work, I am also going to examine these themes in relation to the philosophy of language and the theory of the novel. It will be a lengthy book.
The Jena Romantics were a group of German philosophers, poets, and writers. It included the Schlegel brothers, August Wilhelm and Friedrich, Wilhelm Thieck, and Novalis. The beginning of the Jena circle is usually attributed to 1796, when Friedrich Schlegel came to visit his older brother in Jena. From 1798 to 1800, the brothers published the magazine Ateneum, where many theoretical works were published that substantiated the new direction in art. The end of the Jena circle is usually attributed to the death of Novalis in 1801. They were young and daring. They beat Schiller badly, though they loved Goethe. The Schlegels were rather theorists of the new - romantic - art, which they contrasted with the Enlightenment and classicism. Thicke and Novalis were more like practitioners. Thicke, in particular, wrote the play The Cat in Boots, an example of romantic irony. Novalis’s is the novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which describes the search for the «blue flower» - the romantic ideal. The influence of this circle, which existed for only five years, on the subsequent development of art and philosophy is enormous. Ed. T-invariant.
T-i: Tell us why the new book plays, in your words, a «therapeutic role»
BG: Why I said it was therapeutic for me. Romanticism in general and Jena Romanticism in particular, despite its strong differences from the collective image of the «Romantics,» was and is under suspicion in Germany. It is associated with organicism, which is known to be a sibling of authoritarianism, with the cult of the national spirit. All this does not apply to Schlegel and Novalis at all, but it does not change the matter. It is a sad fact that Germany is still, after almost a hundred years, still not recovering from the 13 years of its history that have taken place. Even now my German colleagues feel uncomfortable talking about romantic philosophy, about the philosophical content of Wagner’s operas, etc. Here’s the Enlightenment - that’s fine! It is true that it is German scholars who have made great efforts to rehabilitate early Romanticism and separate it from late Romanticism, but when it comes to cultural stereotypes born of trauma, things are moving slowly. I am writing my book with an awareness of how deep this trauma is in the German cultural tradition of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And, as if responding to this problem, I am also indirectly dealing with the trauma that is just beginning to open up in Russian life and culture.
T-i: Do you mention the theme of trauma in German society in the new book?
BG: No, that would be tactless of me. I used to teach in Germany. I first went there in the late ’80s. I was struck by young people who were 20 years old in 1989. Their parents were probably young children during the war. But the young people were full of awareness of what a huge moral burden lay on their shoulders. There is probably no such poignancy now, but that spirit in Germany persists. That lightness, the openness to the world that the Jena romantics demonstrate, that’s what I want to emphasize in my book, that’s what I kind of refer to the German culture that’s close to me.
T-i: You don’t want to do Russian culture anymore. Does it mean that after this book you will do anything except Russia too?
BG: It’s hard to make any predictions. So far the works in the queue do not include Russian culture. I’m going to write about music next. Why is that… I just had to give up publishing my lectures on Socialist Realism, which I had a few years ago in Moscow. This work looks strange now. To talk today about these creepy novels, the creepy Stalinist time of the 1930s, as a historical phenomenon that is an interesting subject of study is strange. I thought it was important to show what moved the writers, what brought this literature to life. No writers write simply on command, on a phone call. They always respond creatively to the challenges of the times. That challenge can be fear, but the challenge can also be positive, like wanting to be part of their time. There is no point in dismissing socialist realism as absurd. Why did the socialist realist heroes see all this fairy tale reality as reality? What twist of consciousness was behind it? It’s all worthy of attention. But how to write and reason about it now that the shells are falling?
In my studies of Soviet cultural history, I have proceeded from the premise that this is history. This period ended, and it is interesting for us as a historical epoch which had its foundations, its inner development, its ending, its memory. It was its ending that framed it, and it became possible to study it as a cultural-historical phenomenon. Now there is no such notion, as you understand.
T-i: So history has ceased to be history?
BG: Yes, we see how the Soviet stereotypes of consciousness live and act in a rather horrible way. And we can no longer talk about Socialist Realism as if we were studying the Enlightenment or Romantic era. The ground is gone from under our feet. It is no longer history. And responding publicistically is not my business.
T-i: And yet I don’t understand why such a radical rejection.
BG: I’ll try to explain. It’s really radical, I’m aware of that. I keep watching, although I don’t see anything comforting. This is my personal position, I couldn’t recommend it to anyone else. I have friends in Russia, and human relations continue. But now we are talking about the position of a scientist. My character as a researcher implies empathy toward the subject I am studying. I do not engage with a subject for which I feel alienated and have no desire to understand. There is bound to be a desire to feel a personal appeal, not to impose my ideas about the subject on it, but to try to make sense of how it presents itself and for what reasons. I do not have this attitude toward contemporary Russian reality.
Here is an example. In my youth, when Jacobson and Sossur flourished, we were all Sossurian linguists. And then the endless criticism of structuralism began, in which I took part. And it was at this point that I had a desire to understand what Sossurian philosophy of language consisted in, to see its sources and inner motivations. That is, while I followed the paragraphs of structural linguistics, there was no desire to enter into a dialogue with it.
T-i: And human relations?
BG: I help people who are leaving or who have left. That’s where I’m completely engaged. People still get, unfortunately, mostly temporary places at universities. There is a lot of understanding on the part of universities. There was a fear that I would meet a prejudice: «Enough with the Russians, now we are helping Ukraine. And, indeed, we help Ukraine a lot. But at the same time we still have a lot of contacts with academics and intellectuals from Russia. Two colleagues from Petersburg Vyshka now work for us at Columbia University.
T-i: Your book Language, Memory, Image. The Linguistics of Linguistic Existence» is a kind of answer to Sossur?
BG: When this book came out in 1996, I understood it that way. But then in the 2000s, when I was older, I began to look at the clash between structuralism and its critics as a fact of the history of thought and I became aware of the relativity of all positions and the multiplicity of their sources. Sossur was no longer monolithic to me. I realized that it was our reading, that we were only reading out what we needed at that moment. It is a complex and contradictory phenomenon. In the same way, I wanted to look at the inner contradictions of Pushkin’s time. For me, it is important to feel the subject as a fact of history. I don’t know how to study a river when you’re swimming (or drowning) in it.
Boris Gasparov. «Language, Memory, Image. Linguistics of Language Existence», Moscow, 1996. Boris Gasparov’s book «Language, Memory, Image» deals with «everyday linguistic existence». Gasparov refuses to follow the tenets of structuralism. He says that there is no point in looking for the ideal structure which fully and inconsistently describes language. We need to look closely at how language lives, how it is used by people immersed in a communicative environment. Why are there so many exceptions in any natural language? A language without exceptions would do a much better job of conveying information unambiguously. But natural language is designed to describe a non-linguistic reality that has not yet become a fact of language, but is just becoming, and in this case, errors, reservations, and exceptions are inevitable. According to Gasparov, in «everyday linguistic existence,» we do not use a lexicon composed of words, but communicative fragments (CF) - word combinations consisting of one, two, three, but no more than four lexical units. These word combinations are formed dynamically in the communicative environment and are felt to be stable. According to Gasparov, knowledge of language is not the ability to recall a lexeme and correctly proclose it, but the ability to apply at the right moment a set of QFs related to the communicative situation that has arisen. Ed. T-invariant.
T-i: Did you develop the theme raised in the book «Language, Memory, Image»?
BG: The book was published in 2010 in English (Boris Gasparov. Speech, Memory, and Meaning: Intertextuality in Everyday Language, Berlin/New York, 2010. Ed. T-invariant.) I was not satisfied with it. In it I tried to concentrate on the theory of meaning. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. It is not my intention to turn theory into canon. I’m trying to open up the problem, to show that interesting things open up if you look at it from this angle. That is where my mission ends. And calling someone to follow me… I’m not ready to follow myself. That’s why I jump from one field to another, I do music and the history of thought, particularly romantic thought. But I started doing romance 30 years ago, I started diving back in the ’90s.
It’s just that my heroes (German romantics) are always escaping from a closed cognitive space, from a trap, from the cognitive world built by themselves, even though it is comfortable and convenient to live in it and develop it from inside. They want to escape from it. I think I’m doing the same thing.
T-i: You’re doing it. Here’s an article about counterpoint in Doctor Zhivago. You take terminology and methodology that is not appropriate for analyzing the novel. You have the general line of the party!
BG: Of course I do! It consists in the fact that you don’t want to belong to anything, as soon as it comes up, you want to run away at once. I like that old job, I don’t refuse it. But it is sharp, it hits a target. Now I am closer to what Pasternak took from his studies in philosophy, neo-Kantianism, from his critique of the intellectual complacency of neo-Kantianism, which led him to a position of conscious weakness, awkwardness, illogic. His «suffering» version of modernism is opposed by Mayakovsky: «Art is not a fountain, but a sponge. I am now closer to this spiritual quest of his, rather than to the way Pasternak arranges architectonically all these polyphonic or counterpoint lines in the novel.
Boris Gasparov. Temporal Counterpoint as the Formative Principle of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. In: Literary Leitmotifs. Essays on Russian Literature of the 20th Century, Moscow, Nauka, 1993. In his work Gasparov shows that «accidental», «miraculous» coincidences and encounters in the novel are no more accidental than the consonance of a chord. The characters’ fates and plot lines form a musical counterpoint, and the novel’s time turns out to be non-linear, woven of variations and themes. Ed. T-invariant.
T-i: Historical parallels are, of course, a sly thing. But can we see something useful for us today, for example, in Doctor Zhivago?
BG: We are inside the same incredible chaos. But to me now it seems closer to the consciousness of the German emigrants of the 30s and 40s, rather than the internal or external emigration from the Soviet Union. I had a lot of connections in Russia, I was actively involved in university and academic life. Part of the reason for my harsh reaction is that I perceive what happened as my personal defeat, a terrible, resounding defeat in everything we have been doing for the last 20 years. I’ve been giving it my all, putting off all other plans, this and this book. The result is there. I don’t know what will happen now.
I know that there were people in German emigration who never managed to return to Germany after 1945. Thomas Mann, for example. My favorite German writer is Alfred Döblin. He came to Germany and couldn’t stay there, left. There are many other examples.
Here I have this feeling that I won’t be able to go back to Russia, I will look at people and think about who they were, what they did, what they said «back then» …
T-i: Do you see a parallel between what’s happening today with the German emigration rather than with the Russian emigration during the Civil War in 1917?
BG: Not politically, of course, like they say nowadays, that this is a new fascism. It’s more about the degree of tragedy: this is not some kind of universal catastrophe, but something that has grown out of our lives, before our eyes. The situation that exists now is rather analogous to the one that took place in Germany. Therefore, the trauma in which we live and will live is similar to the ongoing trauma in German culture. We see the destruction not only of our present life, but also of our past. You can no longer look at the past as you used to. Whether you like it or not, your vision is being corrected, you are being carried sideways all the time.
All this talk about Kiev being one thing and Novgorod another. It was unimportant talk until recently. Now it has become a burning problem. Was Kievan Rus the root of Russia? Everything is highlighted differently: the culture, the literature of the 19th century. Hooked on to Pushkin’s unfortunate poems. True, in «Defamers of Russia» he spoke not about the Polish uprising, but about the campaign against Russia in the Paris newspapers. I would like to say that it’s not about this poem or the «Borodino anniversary». But the point, in my opinion, is that in Pushkin, despite the sharp modernity of his thought and artistic consciousness, in human terms one can feel a certain archaism. He is a man of XVIII century, it was hard for him to integrate into XIX century. His personal attitudes, his aristocratic rejection of «not his own people», his game of the landowner, his view of Russia gravitate back to the Catherine era. Zhukovsky and Vyazemsky were more suited to the new century, with its liberal humanism and attention to the individual. Pushkin had the brilliance of the eighteenth century, quite amazing, but alien to a softer humanism. It was because of this human strangeness that he entered Romanticism like a brick thrown into water and posed the romantic problems of language, the inner world of the individual, and memory with such incredible sharpness and cruel criticism of himself, with such an ability to see everything, and himself above all, in moments of fall, from a grotesque perspective, as the Romanticists of the 1820-30s, in general, rather beautifully soulful for all their superficial Byronism, had never dreamed of it. This seems to me more important than the question of whether he was an imperialist or a progressive or whatever. At seventeen, he didn’t blink an eye:
You autocratic psychopath,
You and your throne do I despise!
I watch your doom, your children’s death
With hateful, jubilating eyes.
And «To the Defamers of Russia» is an echo of the 18th century. The abstractness of the 18th century was peculiar to it. How to try to make sense of it all in the current clamor, I have no idea.
T-i: If everything has collapsed all the way back to the history of Kievan Rus’, is it worth doing anything at all in history and culture?
BG: It’s just a metaphor: «everything has collapsed». Such expressions represent our spiritual world as a kind of material object. But the spiritual world is infinitely fluid and does not depend entirely on our will and actions. The spiritual home has no owner. It is like air. And we have no control over how our vision changes when we begin to see things differently, whether we want to or not, and to look at our past from a different angle. The worst thing is to pretend that nothing happened. I have my poetics, my poems, my novel theory, that’s what I do. The rest is unimportant. It’s a losing position.
T-i: To feel the spirit of the era, who and what do you read? What opinion leaders?
BG: I read Radio Liberty, «Meduza» and «MK».
T-i: I did not expect to hear about «Moskovsky Komsomolets».
BG: I’ve always been a very interested reader of Soviet newspapers, to understand the time, its language.
T-i: I can’t help but think of «cloacal language,» a term introduced into the public domain by philologist Hasan Guseinov.
BG: Yes, I remember that polemic. And I see it everywhere, there’s an incredible coarsening of mores going on. The backstreet language is being cultivated. I’m sure it’s not a trend of language in general, but a deliberately cultivated disease, and it will pass with time. Just as the Soviet language went away. It would seem that for 70 years, the language was so poisoned by everything Soviet, not even ideology, but all the idiomatics, the structure of speech, all this spirit. It seemed that it was no longer possible to use this language. But no, they created something new. The same thing is going to happen with this «cloacal language.
I came to America in the 1980s. And I saw that there were no elementary expressions in twentieth-century Russian to describe everyday modern life: banking operations, various partnerships and trusteeships, charity, political life. Sometimes improvised, sometimes borrowed. It took a gigantic collective effort to make all these things everyday facts of language. Much has been accomplished. Language came alive. The downside or side effect of this effort is endless borrowing. But the language will cope with these problems. Some local therapeutic measures are possible. But trying to strategically determine the direction of the language is utopia, and it leads nowhere.
T-i: It turns out that language is much more stable than memory.
BG: Language changes, everyday expressions change. Our mindset is changing. I’ll make a prediction. The Church Slavonic root played a huge role in the Russian language. And modern Russian is flooded with Church Slavonic, many of them modeled on the Greek language. We find them in the most bizarre combinations with international words of Latin origin. By the way, this is what separated Russian and Ukrainian language. Ukrainian literary language shunned heavy Church Slavonic inheritance, and thus a mutual antipathy of the two linguistic consciousnesses arose. Russian looks at the Ukrainian language as a rustic and rustic. And Ukrainian looks at Russian as inflated, heavy-handed and authoritarian-«imperial. The Soviet era was a time of incredibly intensive use of heavyweight Slavicisms, all this archaic idiomatics, religious in origin, flourished in the ideological Soviet discourse, quite coexisting with the international revolutionary rhetoric. Nowadays, all this crudity and deliberate colloquialism of the Russian language works, strangely enough, not only as a minus, but as a plus. All of this makes the language easier. It makes it less pompous and heavily archaic. In general, it is even useful, although it is not very pleasant.
Questions were asked by EVGENY NASYROV, VLADIMIR MIRNY