Friday, March 22, 2013

Roman Jakobson

The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of Romanticism and symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledge, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonym which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called realistic trend, which belongs to an intermediary state between the decline of Romanticism and the rise of symbolism and is opposed to both.

--Roman Jakobson

In "The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles" (1956), Russian linguist and theoretician Roman Jakobson claims that a polarity exists between the concepts of metaphor and metonym and begins his piece with a discussion of aphasia to show how the language centers which deal with metaphor and metonym in the human mind are indeed separated.

After discussing the polarity that exists between metaphor and metonym, Jakobson further argues that the literary school of Romanticism is tied to metaphor and that of Realism (or Social Realism) is tied to the metonymic, and illustrates his point by evoking Anna Karenina [specifically Tolstoy's focus on A.'s handbag when she suicides] and War and Peace [examining a section where Tolstoy dedicates an overabundance of page space to the description of facial hair].  Aside from references to Russian literature, Jakobson also devotes a few sentences to film and briefly outlines how his "pole" theory is seen in the work of D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin.

In concluding, Jakobson points out that the use of metaphor by the artists of Romanticism has received much critical attention, but the similar relationship between realism and metonym has been largely ignored.

Although discussions of metaphor and metonym have become somewhat passe in contemporary literary theoretical discourse, what continues to make "The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles" an interesting and important read is the way Jakobson combines literary, linguistic, and medical/scientific discourse in his truly interdisciplinary piece.    

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