Friday, February 25, 2011

Regrettable Discoveries

In a moment of obsessiveness, I thought perhaps it would be a good plan to get up to date on exactly which dissertations I had downloaded (over the past couple of years or so) for future reading. After all, most of them have file titles made up solely of numbers, which is not very informative at first glance.
The danger inherent in a project like this, of course, is that one can't resist starting to read, and it would be better to read and grade student papers, or read something for fun. But when I saw that one of these dissertations had a chapter on Devětsil, I didn't see how there could be any harm in reading just that one chapter, in case I learned something new and exciting.
Yet I am feeling unhappy rather than excited. While overall the chapter has reasonable things to say--it deals with Devětsil as a precursor to the main topic of the dissertation, which I will refrain from mentioning here as a courtesy to the author--it is riddled with unfortunate factual errors.
First off, the author calls surrealism a late phase of Devětsil. This is either backwards or just wrong, depending on how you think Prague surrealism came to be. While the original Prague surrealist group did more or less emerge from the ashes of Devětsil, the two groups were not the same. Nezval liked to claim that Devětsil was an embryonic stage of Prague surrealism, as when in 1934 he told Jindřich Chalupecký that Poetism (an aspect of Devětsil thought) was "latent surrealism." Very few members of Devětsil, however, became surrealists. Devětsil was over and disbanded by the time the Prague surrealist group formed.
Next, the author calls Josef Váchal a Devětsil poet. This startled me considerably. Váchal was a writer as well as an artist, but he was pretty independent and for that matter really the wrong generation to belong to Devětsil. Váchal was born in 1884 and the vast majority of Devětsil members were born around 1900. Váchal was more of a Symbolist or Decadent. It is possible that the dissertation author's source on Váchal was misleading (there is plenty of incorrect information published in English on Czech modernists), but it would not have been difficult to look up a well-known figure like Váchal, especially if one reads Czech, which apparently the author does.
The next unfortunate moment involved the author's failure to pick up on 1920s popular culture references. Namely, that the Jiří Voskovec picture poem Skyscraped Doug refers to Douglas Fairbanks. I don't think that this would have bothered me unduly had it been a lone bit of ignorance; I certainly don't claim to know what everything in Skyscraped Doug is all about either. But Douglas Fairbanks was an honorary Devětsil member and the photo in the lower right corner is definitely of him, never mind that I couldn't say what the precise source of the photo was or if the work refers to a specific Fairbanks film. The author was puzzled why "Doug" would appear, and this is something that shouldn't have been hard to track down.
Alas, the muddling goes on. Jan Mukařovský is identified as a poet as well as a member of the Prague Linguistic Circle. Reading that, I thought "Did I somehow fail to notice that Mukařovský was a poet?" However, a quick jaunt around the internet suggested that if Mukařovský ever wrote a line of poetry, it was probably during his teens. Oh well. The author then confuses Jan Neruda with Pablo Neruda by stating that Mukařovský's quotation of F.X. Šalda's words about Jan Neruda at the beginning of "Poetic language as a Functional Language and as a material" was Mukařovský's praise of Pablo Neruda's poetry. I'm sorry to say this, but we both read the same page in English in the volume On Poetic Language (1976) and even if it might be all right to naively confuse the dead Czech writer (subject of Mukařovský's academic thesis) with Mukařovský Chilean contemporary, it's pretty sloppy to take the Šalda quote, which Mukařovský uses in discussing poetic use of unlovely language, for Mukařovský praising anyone.
I didn't notice any other errors in the Devětsil chapter, fortunately. I hope the author was more careful in checking the bulk of the dissertation, because it's on a topic I'd like to learn more about.
And I certainly hope that no one reading my own dissertation is finding any lamentable obvious errors of fact there. I daresay there are probably a few, but I hope they are few and forgivable.


  1. Pablo Neruda got his surname from Jan Neruda but mixing up those two is a riddle to me.
    Maybe you want to have a look at my blog, just started but i'm trying to be more active in the future.

  2. Thanks, it looks like an interesting blog!

    I suspect that all too many people don't know the difference between the two Nerudas, even though it is well known that Pablo took the surname from Jan.