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Passion for language made researcher’s theories stand out

Author  :  Jiang Fei     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2014-09-11

Roman Jakobson was a world-renowned and distinguished structuralism linguist in the 20th century and the founder of modern linguistics and poetics. He experienced triumphs as well as many hardships in his long and storied career. Also, he advanced bravely and insisted on innovation throughout his life. Two cruel world wars, exile from the East to the West and endless political attacks never diminished his passion for scholarship but rather inspired his vigorous creativity in the fields of linguistics, poetics, semiology, mythology, folklore and pathology. Jakobson published more than 650 articles and was praised by Franois Dosse as an academic “decathlete”.

Crossing disciplinary boundaries and integrating science with art were the defining characteristics of Jakobson’s studies. He not only pursued the science of linguistics but also showed a boundless interest in the natural sciences, such as physiology, biology, physics, psychology, medicine and information science. At the same time, he was well read in the fields of literature, painting, music and film and highly accomplished in the arts. No matter how difficult the situation was, Jakobson remained actively involved in the cultural circles where he lived and relentlessly advocated the interaction and comprehensive development of the humanities and natural sciences. Therefore, he received a general recognition and appreciation from his peers in both circles.

Jakobson had the courage to question himself and constantly developed his theories in the general “dialogue”. Moreover, Jakobson never gave himself over to daydreaming nor did he become unrealistic or lose sight of what life means. He not only actively associated with other linguists but also maintained contact with economists, biologists and political activists.

His social communications allowed him to maintain an open and comparative academic vision as well as an all-inclusive insight and mind. Jakobson’s disciple Brown once recalled that whether he was in a private meeting or a lecture, seminar or class to doctoral students, Jakobson often expressed his insights on how to appropriately read difficult texts. Although he spent a great amount of energy and time dealing with these difficult issues, his friends and students found themselves becoming intimate companions with him through these discussions. From my point of view, Jakobson is a scholar who put Mikhail Bakhtin’s “dialogue theory” into real theoretical and living practice and accomplished a tremendous achievement.

He always adhered to a very strict, serious and responsible academic attitude. In 1919, Jakobson prepared an analytical article about a 21-line poem on misfortune and planned to collect it into his Anthology of Poetic Language Theory . But he only regarded this article as a draft and he needed to modify it with more precise linguistic analytical rules. As a result, this article on misfortune was only ultimately collected into his another treatise on the “parallel structure of Russian grammar” in 1966. Jakobson took half a century to accomplish the expansion and modification of a single analytical article. But he elaborated: “In my eyes, even this treatise is only just a draft.” His strict, serious, responsible and calm attitude indeed was the object of admiration and motivated people to think thoroughly.

For life and research, he always remained passionate and vigorous with free spirits. Jakobson admired Vladislav Van ura, a Czech writer, and Van ura’s widow gave a vivid description of Jakobson and her husband’s friendship with him. “Roman Jakobson, of Russian blood, one of the most talented Slavic scholars, was a man with an extraordinary appearance and moral quality. This influential man had a large head with bushy linen hair, and his face was like a Roman god with one squinting eye. But he never worried over his flaws and was always full of energy. When he was speaking, he had encouraging passions and gestures all along. ”


Jiang Fei is from the School of Humanity at Anqing Normal University.


Translated by Zhang Mengying



Editor: Yu Hui

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