Formalism / Idealism: Comparative Literary History, 1860-1960

April 7-8, 2015

University of Chicago Center in Paris, 6 rue Thomas Mann, 75013 Paris.


Session I: Paradigms of Comparison

11:40-12:20 Michael Silk (King’s College, London), “Art, Life, and Comparison: Nietzsche and Matthew Arnold”

12:20-1:00 Boris Maslov (Comparative Literature, University of Chicago) “Comparative Literature and Universal History”

1:00-1:40 Lunch

Session II: Reflecting on Literary Form in the Late 19th Century Paris

1:40-2:20 Haun Saussy (Comparative Literature, University of Chicago), " La conversion de Brunetière. Du fait divers à l'exemple."

2:20-3:00 Paolo Tortonese (Université Sorbonne nouvelle – Paris 3), "Zola, experimentation and verisimilitude"

3:00-4:40 Break

Session III: Literary Hermeneutics in German Idealism

4:40-5:20 Carlos Spoerhase (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin), "Escaping the hermeneutic circle: Dilthey's 'idealer Gehalt' and his idea of the literary draft"

5:20-6:00 Jula Wildberger (American University of Paris), " ‘To understand each phenomenon as it intended itself’: Hermann Fraenkel as a Historian of Mentalities”


Session IV: Theorizing Literary Kinds

11:40-12:20 Serge Zenkine (Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow), “Mimetic Classes, Dynamic Evolution, and the Theory of Genre”

12:20-1:00 Céline Trautmann-Waller (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3), “André Jolles: from antique aesthetics to literary comparison, or morphology as a special kind of formalism”

1:00-1:40 Lunch

Session V: What Was to Be Done with the Novel in the mid-20th Century

1:40-2:20 Olga Solovieva (Social Thought, University of Chicago), “Form and Formlessness in Thomas Mann’s ‘Goethe and Tolstoy’.”

2:20-3:00 Sandra Janssen (University of Geneva), “Idealism as Formalism? How Extremes Meet in Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil

3:00-4:20 Break

Session VI: The Rise of Literary Theory in Eastern Europe

4:20-5:00 Joe Feinberg (Philosophy Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague), "Structure as Process: Bedřich Václavek's Theory of Folklorization"

5:00-5:40 Alexander Dmitriev (National Research University, Higher School of Economics, Moscow), “Literary History as\or Literary Evolution: René Wellek in Prague”

6:40-6:20 Jessica Merrill (Stanford University), “From the Language of Poetry to Poetic Language: The Emergence of a Concept in Early Russian Formalism” 

Information on Background Readings


Comparison between texts and traditions is invariably predicated on a set of unspoken assumptions that, at different historical moments, are seen as either intrinsic or extrinsic to literary scholarship. Guiding principles that were once seen as “philosophical” may later appear to be “political”; what was “moral” or “didactic” may be unmasked as “nationalist”; and descriptions that seemed “scientific” and specific to literary studies are often revealed as uncritical importations from other fields. Moreover, the floruit of comparative literary history, roughly datable to 1860-1960, fell at a period marked by intellectual and ideological flux, as emergent academic literary scholarship, molded by empiricism and evolutionism, responded to other disciplines that put forward theories of “form” (such as art history and psychology) as well as to paradigms fundamentally inimical to positivism (such as Hegelianism, Neo-Thomism or Lebensphilosophie).

The proposed colloquium at the Paris Center at the University of Chicago will make a case that the practice and theory of comparative literature in the 21st century must be accompanied by ongoing reflection on the history of the discipline.  In particular, the participants will ponder the following questions: how did Formalism (attention to artistic form, either atomized or holistic) coexist with Idealism (defined provisionally as resistance to positivism, empiricism, and even to “rationalism”) in different varieties of comparative literary history, as instantiated by these and other scholars? What kind of insight might a reconfiguration of the field that examines (rather than merely instantiating) the tension of Formalism/Idealism provide into the history of literary scholarship which customarily is divided into separate schools (literary evolutionism, Russian Formalism, Czech and French structuralism, New Criticism)? In what ways may the dilemmas of the age of the “splendeurs et misères” of comparative literature reflect on the discipline’s recent agendas?

The international colloquium will bring together scholars from the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, the UK, and the US.


The language of the conference will be English. Each presenter will deliver a half-hour lecture, as well as pre-circulate a relevant primary text, in English or French, approximately 20-30 printed pages long. (The presenter’s paper itself need not be pre-circulated.) The ensuing discussion will focus on both the primary text and the presentation. The colloquium will thus operate as a workshop, inviting not only a wide-ranging scholarly dialogue but also immediate engagement with documents, whether well-known or forgotten, from the history of the discipline. The conference will be of interest to a wide range of scholars of literature who teach and work in Paris, as well as graduate students working in the fields of Classics, Comparative Literature, and Slavic, and/or interested in the history of literary theory.

Convened by Boris Maslov (Comparative Literature), Haun Saussy (Comparative Literature, East Asian, Social Thought)

Conference participants

Alexander Dmitriev (National Research University, Higher School of Economics, Moscow)

Joe Feinberg (Philosophy Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague)

Sandra Janssen (University of Geneva)

Boris Maslov (Comparative Literature, University of Chicago)

Jessica Merrill (Stanford University)

Haun Saussy (Comparative Literature, University of Chicago)

Michael Silk (King’s College, London)

Carlos Spoerhase (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin)

Paolo Tortonese (Université Sorbonne nouvelle – Paris 3)

Céline Trautmann-Waller (Université Sorbonne nouvelle – Paris 3)

Jula Wildberger (American University of Paris)

Serge Zenkine (Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow)