Milan Terlunen responds to Katarzyna Bartoszynska

Katarzyna Bartoszynska notes that Auyoung challenges literary scholarship’s established terminology of “form” and “content.” She also challenges established values placed on those terms.

Literary scholars have long resisted staking a claim to expertise on the “what” (i.e. content) of literary works, instead stressing the “how” (form). After all, many people know what happens in Anna Karenina (or can look it up on Wikipedia), so expertise comes from attending to how the content is delivered. To Bartoszynska it “seems insufficient” to call the “level of meaning” Auyoung examines “content”. The well-established assumption is that “content” is crude, clumsy, simple, even simplistic, whereas “form” is subtle, precise, complex and nuanced.

In 1948, the scholar Mark Schorer put it very explicitly: “to speak of content as such is not to speak of art at all, but of experience; it is only when we speak of […] the form […] that we speak as critics.”[1] As such, Schorer lamented that “The novel is still read as though its content has some value in itself.”

But is the level of “content” really so artistically insufficient? Auyoung amply demonstrates how rich and complex the mere “experience” of “content” can be. As a result, I’m tempted to say that what we need is not a new vocabulary between form and content, but instead a more expansive conception of “content” itself. As Bartoszynska notes, what’s important in Tolstoy is not that “a button is removed” just anyhow, it’s the “peculiar motion” of twisting; yet, as Auyoung’s study of translations shows, there are multiple wordings that can convey this nuance of manner. Would we value content more highly if we saw it as encompassing the how as well as the what?

[1] “Technique as Discovery,” The Hudson Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 67.

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