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Deeper Than Simple Enjoyment

A visit with Timothy Langen, Associate Professor of Russian

By Tammy Ritterskamp
Published: - Topics: literature language Russian

Serendipity led Tim Langen, Associate Professor of Russian, to his research field. A language requirement in college caught him at a crossroads; pondering the possibilities, he decided that “French, German, and Spanish seemed too familiar, and Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic maybe seemed too foreign. Russian seemed just distant enough and just close enough.” He soon discovered that he enjoyed studying the language and so decided to major in Russian history and literature, a combination that allowed him to connect two fields he cared about.

By way of providing background for his research program, Langen highlights his philosophy as a scholar of the humanities. For example, he cites three major reasons to study literature and the humanities in a deeper way, to go beyond simple enjoyment. First, he says, looking at works that people have created provides a “great opportunity to think about what is important in human existence—individuals, human life, social life, and history.” Fields in the humanities confront this challenge from various angles, encouraging people “to examine things that they care about very closely and say what makes them good, or bad, or exactly how they could be done differently.”

Literary studies also reveal how works are put together. The message conveyed in a story can be simple or complicated as a result of various factors involved: “the particular arrangement of words, sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes margins, lines, or rhythms, in which that message is embedded.” Langen emphasizes that “there’s something special about those words and those messages being arranged in that particular way.” He illustrates the concept further with the example of a film: “[It] could be really good or it could be really bad as a result of a whole bunch of tiny details that you might not notice when you watch the movie for the first time. But those details (if they really do make the difference between good and bad) must be important, and if you want to understand your own relation to these things—movies or books—you have to ask yourself, ‘Why do I think this is put together in this way? Why deliver this message this way? How does the message affect the presentation? How does the presentation affect the message?’” Without asking those kinds of questions, he observes, “we can’t really understand why we care about the things we care about.”

Another compelling reason to study foreign literature in particular is that it “helps us exercise the essential skill of putting ourselves in someone else’s position.” When reading a novel it becomes necessary to think about yourself from a character’s or even the author’s perspective. As Langen explains, “you may feel sympathy for a character and you may feel sympathy for an author; you can have sort of a polyphony where you sympathize with various characters and the author at the same time and feel conflict among them.” From that perspective “it is especially good to study material produced by cultures other than our own because that sort of sympathetic ability doesn’t only pertain to other people, but also to other cultures and other sets of assumptions.”

Langen got his first opportunity to apply this approach via two research collaborations. While in graduate school he translated and edited an anthology, Eight Twentieth-Century Russian Plays (2000), with Justin Weir. This collection includes plays representative of a wide spectrum of Russian drama, in order to allow readers to come in contact with the many different forms characteristic of Russian culture. Toward that end the volume includes symbolist, mystical, propagandistic, and socialist realist plays. Another collaboration resulted in an article entitled “Music and Poetry: The Case of Shostakovich and Blok” co-authored with his brother, Jesse Langen, a musician, music historian, and theorist. This piece looks at how Dmitry Shostakovich composed seven songs based on poems written by Alexander Blok. Langen’s article addresses questions like the following: “Why does he use the kind of scales he uses – different pitches, different combinations in these songs; and how do those choices relate to the subject matter of the poems?” Langen considers himself fortunate to have been involved in these joint efforts. Collaboration in the humanities, he says regretfully, happens less frequently than in the natural and social science fields.

His most recent publication is The Stony Dance: Unity and Gesture in Andrey Bely’s Petersburg (2005), a book about a novel by the Russian symbolist author that Langen describes as “a modernist Russian novel that tries not just to tell a story about a person and a family, but also to make the reader think about the process of reading and how the novel is put together.” Highlighting a few of his discoveries about the strategy and structure of this important work, Langen observes that “one reason has to do with [Bely’s] interest in epistemology—how do we know things or on what basis can we claim to know things?” A novelist can make the answer appealing for readers, he goes on: “Why it is that you know that the guy on page 22 is the same guy as the guy on page 14? [Bely] assumes that it might be interesting for you to notice your own ‘coming to learn’ things.” Bely was also interested in the etymology of the word “symbol”—the creation of something new out of two things that are cast together: “When you see these fragments in the novel, when you see them coalesce into different groups as you keep reading the novel, that’s another kind of experience Bely wants to give you—to contemplate the nature of the unity or wholeness as you read that novel.” Based on interpretations such as these, Langen concludes that Petersburg is a self-reflexive and open novel that forces readers to cooperate in creating its own meaning.

Langen is presently gearing up for his next big project, which will focus on late nineteenth-century Russian intellectual history. He is not yet sure precisely what he will discover, although he has a rough idea: “Russian thinkers, especially Russians of the mid-nineteenth century, are famous for bold statements. The group of people I’m studying in the 1890s were trying to impose a discipline on Russian thought where you don’t just get to say something because it sounds cool; you have to restrain your claims according to some rules. The [approaches] I’m especially interested in are different versions of what you could call social science or humanities with some kind of scientific claim. People thought of literary studies as something you could do scientifically.” In pursuing these ideas Langen will be asking such questions as: ”What were the rules for responsible, scholarly discourse? What do you get to say if you’re a philosopher, or what do you get to say if you’re an economist or literary critic? And how can you prove it? What do you have to read? Do you get to just say things that seem true to you, or do you have to refer to all kinds of earlier, relevant works by other scholars?” Like any effective researcher, Langen knows that his investigation will take its own course, and that course can’t be exactly charted in advance. “That’s where I’m going with this for now. But we’ll see,” he cautions realistically, “it could turn out entirely differently.”