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December 26, 2005 by AK

M.L. & B.M.

The 20th century produced two outstanding Russian scholars of the same name, Gasparov. Mikhail L. Gasparov, the linguist, translator and literary scholar, died in Moscow last month. Boris M. Gasparov, a culturologist if I may call him so, teaches at Berkeley. I have recently read one of the latter’s excellent articles on Bulgakov — a surprisingly convincing one, given by skepticism for literary and “cultural” studies. This is what The Moscow Times has to say about B.M.Gasparov:

Trained in linguistics, literature, semiotics and music, actively engaged throughout the 1970s with the circle of independent-minded cultural historians and semioticians around Yury Lotman at Tartu University, Estonia, he brought to the University of California at Berkeley and then to Columbia University a breadth of knowledge and scholarly styles unmatched in American Slavic studies since the days of the legendary structural linguist Roman Jakobson.

(On a side note, there was nothing specifically Estonian to the Tartu school — the Baltic republics simply enjoyed a degree of scholarly freedom under the Soviets, in contrast to Russia proper.)

Then comes the best part:

For 20 years, Gasparov’s studies of Alexander Pushkin, Russian and pan-European Romanticism, historical linguistics and cultural semiotics have helped create in the United States an alternative, non-Marxist model of cultural studies — one closer to that luminescent Russian academic discipline, “culturology.” Kulturologiya, especially as Lotman practiced it, is a speculative human science anchored firmly in empirical data and unburdened by strident politics. Most importantly, it is governed by that warm, mobile, creative understanding of “code” — not a Morse code, not a password, but a flexible mechanism for interrelating the common denominators of a given culture — that marks the best Russian thought about the humanities.

In other words, a scholar should prefer common sense to Marxist clichés? Surprise, surprise!


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