ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 7

 - Russian Formalism


In this lecture, Professor Paul Fry explores the works of major Russian formalists reviewed in an essay by Boris Eikhenbaum. He begins by distinguishing Russian formalism from hermeneutics. Eikhenbaum’s dependency on core ideas of Marxist and Darwinian philosophies of struggle and evolution is explained. Formalism’s scientific language and methodical aspirations are discussed. Crucial formalist distinctions between plot and story, practical and poetic language, and literature and literariness are clarified.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 7 - Russian Formalism

Chapter 1. Introduction to the Russian Formalist Tradition [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: All right. So today we start a sequence which takes us through deconstruction, and it’s a sequence which has genuine coherence. That is to say, these are figures all of whom are attentive to each other’s thought, draw on each other, and build from the materials that we’re going to start covering toward a certain–not a certain end, but toward a moment in which the materials of the tradition seem to be undermined, actually, in deconstruction, but in which they are still prominent and set the terms of debate. The relationship between the Russian formalists and the work of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, which we’ll be taking up on Thursday, is a complex one. I’m going to say certain things about it, and you may find yourselves discussing this relationship in section.

I think much will come clear when we actually get into what’s called “structuralism” and you read the essay by Roman Jakobson called “Linguistics and Poetics,” Jakobson having spent the early part of his career as a card-carrying member of OPOJAZ, the journal of the Russian formalists; and then who, owing to various forces that I’ll be talking about, emigrated first to Prague, Czechoslovakia where he joined a linguistic circle, which in a variety of ways proved to be the origin of what’s called structuralism. Then, of course, he moved on to Paris where he knew Claude Levi-Strauss and influenced him and, ultimately, to the United States. The essay, “Linguistics and Poetics,” which you’ll be reading next week, I think will give you perhaps a clearer sense of the way in which the Russian formalists’ work, and the work of Saussure–the foundational work of Saussure–in the General Course in Linguistics amalgamates in ways that are profoundly fruitful and influential for the subsequent course of structuralist and deconstructionist thinking.

So today we begin thinking about the Russian formalists, but I also do want to think of them as kicking off a tradition which, just in order to place them–vis-à-vis what you’ve been reading and hearing about already, one can say something like this about this tradition: it differs markedly from, and it’s opposed to, hermeneutics in this one particular. It’s one that is maybe initially counterintuitive but actually, I think, is rather important once you begin to think about it. Hermeneutics is, well, more or less by nature and by definition, interested in meaning. That is to say, the arts of interpretation are used for the purpose of discovering, uncovering, and arriving at meaning. Very frequently, as is the case in Gadamer, this meaning is called “the subject matter”: that is to say, what–in thinking about literature in terms of form and content, let’s say–we’d call “content.” So in any case, hermeneutics is devoted to the discovery of meaning, and the art that it’s concerned with is the art of interpretation.

Well, the Russian formalists differed very sharply in this regard because what they’re interested in is precisely the way in which “literariness,” as they call it–the devices of literariness–can be deployed so as to impede, to interfere with, and to hinder our arrival at meaning. If, in other words, hermeneutics is devoted to the possibility of communication and of understanding, the Russian formalists are interested in that special aspect of verbal communication called “literariness,” which actually interferes with these very processes of communication and understanding. The roughening of the surface–celebrated by Shklovsky as a form of “defamiliarization”–is what slows us down, what gets in the way of our arriving at meaning, and does so for a variety of reasons that the formalists are engaged to attend to.

Now you may take note of the fact that what I’m saying isn’t completely convincing, perhaps, to those who have been reading the New Critics and Wolfgang Iser and have noticed that they, too, are very interested in the ways in which literariness does involve special techniques and devices that slow us down. In other words, replacing the shortest distance between two points that we experience in a practical message, “literariness,” as the formalists call it, or “poetic language,” as they also sometimes call it and as the New Critics certainly call it, slows us down. It creates as a distance between two points, rather than a straight line, an arabesque. In other words, it makes us pause over what we’re reading. It gets in the way of arriving too quickly at meaning, if indeed one arrives at meaning at all. The formalists are uniquely concerned, however, with the way in which literature is put together. Those titles that Eikhenbaum keeps talking about–How Don Quixote was MadeHow Gogol’s Overcoat was Made–reflect the preoccupation of the Russian formalists with how literature is put together. In other words, whereas the New Critics and Wolfgang Iser are interested in the roughening of form, they’re interested in it for hermeneutic purposes. It slows us down, yes, but this slowing down is a means of enriching what we finally grasp to be the meaning of a text. So they are still engaged in the hermeneutic enterprise in interpretation.

The formalists are really relatively indifferent to questions of meaning and to questions of interpretation. They’re interested in what they call “science.” They’re interested in structure. They’re interested, in other words, in the way a text is put together. That is, I think, essentially the difference between what we have been talking about so far, even though there have been a variety of outlooks, and what we are talking about now. Temporarily, as we advance through the syllabus, we’re bracketing or suspending our interest in meaning and focusing instead on how something is made.

Take, for example, Tony the Tow Truck. I mentioned that an interesting phenomenon in Tony, the text of Tony, is the tripartition of the “t” sound: “Tony,” “tow,” “truck.” Just after we read in the text, “Tony the Tow Truck,” we encounter a triadic or triple encounter with vehicles: Neato, Speedy, Bumpy. In other words, there’s a three-ness which appears at a variety of levels in the text of Tony the Tow Truck which exactly corresponds to the aphorism of Osip Brik quoted by Eikhenbaum in your text: “repetition in verse is analogous to tautology in folklore.”

Now we have uncovered something about the form, the structure, of Tony the Tow Truck in saying this, but we haven’t discovered or uncovered a thing about the meaning of Tony the Tow Truck. Nothing follows from this really–I think–rather interesting observation that there’s a kind of pervasiveness of triadicity. Nothing follows from this observation about the actual meaning of the text. Now if you’re clever enough maybe you could [laughs] parlay it into a sense of the meaning of the text. Who knows? Maybe we’ll try on some other occasion, but for the moment I think you can see that in making remarks of this kind about a text one has shifted the attention from meaning to structure. It’s in that context that most of the observations we encounter in Russian formalism need to be understood.

Chapter 2. Boris Eikhenbaum [00:09:22]

Now the stress on taxonomy–in other words, the stress on the relationship among parts, the understanding of the various parts of the literary texts as “devices,” which is to say, interrelated one with the others–this emphasis on taxonomy is one of the ways in which the formalists insist that what they’re doing is scientific. Nobody can possibly miss in reading Eikhenbaum’s rhetorically rather bizarre essay his obsession with struggle, with the fight, and with doing battle. You go on and say to yourself, “Good heavens. It’s just talk about literature. [laughs] Relax. [laughs] It can’t be that important.” But for Eikhenbaum, there’s obviously a lot at stake. I’ll try to give you some social and historical reasons why this is the case, but in the meantime what he’s struggling for is important to recognize, too.

In the very first sentence of the essay, you read the expression “the struggle for science”– an interesting formulation, “the struggle for science.” Now obviously, the struggle takes place against the backdrop of completely undisciplined and unsystematic thinking which Eikhenbaum identifies as the typical thinking of the universities, of the academy. It’s a pretty state of affairs, in his view, when the most rigorous thinking that’s being done about literature is being done in popular journals. That’s part of the struggle, undoubtedly, but another part of the struggle is simply to reach some means, to break through to some means of understanding the thing that you’re talking about. You want to talk about it systematically, but how can you talk about anything systematically if you don’t know what it is? You need to pin down an object of study, a first principle from which other principles can emerge, and part of the process is to say, “Hey, it’s not literature we’re talking about. Who knows what literature is? Nobody’s really ever known what literature is.” What we’re talking about is literariness–that is to say, certain devices that we can identify that perform a certain function–and maybe out of the identification of these devices, to evolve a theory that’s more widespread.

Now I use the word “evolve” deliberately. In the backdrop, in the background, of that expression, “struggle for science,” there are two key figures. The first is obviously Marx against the backdrop of the first great Socialist Revolution which eventually resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when the Russian formalist movement was at its height. Against the backdrop of Marx’s thought pervading not just Russian life but beginning to pervade Russian government–against this backdrop, the idea of struggle, as in class struggle, is going to predominate. Eikhenbaum in this culture will be using such a word advisedly, almost familiarly, but at the same time it’s very interesting that the kind of science he’s thinking about is not just any science. You’ll see this more and more clearly as you read through the text and as we talk about it. It’s Darwinian science and it’s very interesting that Darwin, as much as Marx, is all about struggle: the struggle for survival, the struggle for dominance. Notice the importance–and we’ll come back to it– of the word “dominant”: “the dominant” in the thinking of the Russian formalists and the struggle for dominance among species in a habitat. So in literature you have something like–if you think in terms of literary evolution as Jurij Tynjanov does in the essay that the passage on your sheet concludes–if you think in those terms, you think about literary history itself as a sequence of changes in which devices and aspects of the literary text struggle for dominance within and over against other devices.

So it is simultaneously in his very first sentence a Marxist and a Darwinian vocabulary that Eikhenbaum is invoking, and that’s what partly accounts for the strenuousness of his rhetoric. There is the backdrop of class struggle which is understood as crucial. There is the fermentation of Darwinian thought, which at the same time is understood as crucial. A great deal is at stake, and if those disorganized, unsystematic academics aren’t attuned to the importance of these struggles–right, class struggle, the struggle for science, science as the science of struggle–if they aren’t attuned to these currents, these contemporary currents, that’s just another way of showing how irrelevant and obsolete they are.

Now “The Theory of the Formal Method,” Eikhenbaum’s essay that you’ve read for today, was written in 1927. In other words, it was written directly in the aftermath of a bombshell published by Leon Trotsky called Literature and Revolutionin 1926. Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution is a brilliant book, an attack on many things and a defense of certain other things, but in particular and very painfully an attack on the formalists. Trotsky argues that the preoccupation with form in and for itself is a kind of aestheticism–something, by the way, which Eikhenbaum denies during the course of his text–a kind of aestheticism, turning its back on history and turning its back precisely on class struggle. Trotsky is not simple-minded in his literary taste, and he doesn’t just sort of spontaneously insist that everybody has to write socialist realism. That doesn’t, by the way, happen until 1934 when it became a kind of pronouncement of necessity at the International Soviet Writers Conference on that occasion.

In the meantime, Trotsky’s book is a shot fired across the bow of those forms of “aestheticism”–quote, unquote–which can be understood as self-involved, self-preoccupied, and indifferent to history and class struggle. It’s 1927. Things are changing. It’s been ten years since the Revolution. There is a kind of taking hold of society and government by increasingly bureaucratized and strict forms of surveillance and management of social matters. Whether and to what extent the Russian formalists and their allies, the Futurists–among them Mayakovsky and others–felt a kind of antagonism or growing threat from the government is not wholly clear to me. It’s been disputed and one doesn’t know for sure. There is still a tremendous amount of intellectual ferment and excitement in the capitals of Russia. This is not a wasteland of thought by any means, and the Russian formalists are an important part of what’s going on. Nevertheless, Trotsky’s book is a provocation. It’s a challenge, and Eikhenbaum’s essay that you read for today is in part–to a degree that it can’t really come out and talk about, or doesn’t want to come out and talk about it–a response to Trotsky’s book.

So there were criticisms in the air–but obviously he doesn’t want to say much about that. There’s one way in which he does talk about it, though. That is the marvelous exchange between the ethnographic critic Veselovsky and Shklovsky of 1917, which I’ll return to; but for the most part, he stays away, seems at least to stay away, from the provocation and simply defends the right of the formalists to exist and the integrity of what they’re doing. The obvious “enemies”–and of course, this is Eikhenbaum’s language, so one needn’t wince away from using it–the obvious enemies, in this case, are figures like Potebnya the academician, who in a way defended the premises of the Symbolists, which was the other very lively group of antagonists to the formalists–to the effect that poetry is all about imagery. It’s all about patterns of thought. In the case of the Symbolists, it’s thought arising from the unconscious and being reinforced by sound and by language; so that language is subsidiary to imagery and thought, a kind of handmaiden of it–the vessel, in other words, into which the energies of symbolic thought are poured. It’s this basic antagonism, this difference of opinion, that Eikhenbaum wants to focus on and, indeed, does focus on.

Chapter 3. Criticism of Perception: Defamiliarization [00:20:02]

At the same time, there is a feeling, somehow there is a feeling–and it’s very clear in an essay by Jakobson called “The Generation that Squandered its Poets”–of something like bureaucratization that’s taking hold, something like the an atmosphere in which our perceptions of the things around us become automated. Shklovsky in particular is very much preoccupied with the sense of the automatization or automism–I much prefer the latter word–of perception, the way in which we no longer really see what’s around us. I quoted the other day Wallace Stevens saying that poetry should “make the visible a little hard to see.” By the same token, Shklovsky insists, and his colleagues insist, that the business of the roughening of surface by means of various modes of literariness is to defamiliarize automated perceptions; to make us suddenly see again, to see the nature of the language that we’re using, and, indeed, also to see–this is very clear, by the way, in the essay “Literature as Technique” in your anthology that I recommended that you read–at the same to see the world itself anew by means of devices of language that tear the film away from our eyes.

So defamiliarization, against the backdrop of a kind of gray uniformity that Jakobson in his essay on “The Generation that Squandered its Poets” called “byt”–I don’t know how to pronounce that. I don’t know a word of Russian, and so I actually try to avoid using the rather well-known Russian equivalents for these terms because I feel like an idiot. Yes, I see them in the text just as anybody else does, but since I don’t really know what they mean except by means of the translation, why should I use them? But in any case, this is a well-known term used by Jakobson in this essay which is, like all such terms that somehow wander into other languages, difficult to translate. That’s why they wander into other languages. It means something like a kind of dulled grayness or ordinariness of life. It’s that backdrop–it’s that sense of bureaucratized existence–that defamiliarization has, to a certain extent, the ideological purpose of dispelling and undermining. One has to recognize, in other words, that this motive, this motive force, stands behind the work of the Russian formalists, so that the claim to be strictly scientific needs to be hedged a little bit as a return of the aesthetic, or a return of value, understood as the insistence that life doesn’t need to be all that dull. That really is implicit [laughs] in the Russian formalist viewpoint.

Literariness, then. What is literariness? It is those aspects of a text, the way in which those devices of a text that call themselves to our attention, are new: that is to say, the way in which they shake up perception through the fact that we’re not used to seeing them. In a way, this call for that which is new is worldwide; at the same time you have Ezra Pound among the high Modernists in the West saying, “Make it new,” as his slogan. You have the various observations of Eliot and Joyce and others, whom I cited last time in talking about the background to the New Criticism–all of them insisting on the necessity of difficulty, of novelty, of coming to terms with the immediacy of one’s particular circumstances, and of getting away from that which is familiar and ordinary and vague. It is a transnational idea, in other words, which nevertheless has, obviously, certain specific applications depending on where it is. The newness that the Russian formalists are interested in is not just any newness. It has to do particularly with the palpable or roughened form of that which defamiliarizes.

Chapter 4. Poetic Language and Practical Language [00:24:51]

Now how do we understand this form? “Form” as opposed to what? This is a crucial issue for the Russian formalists, which they handle very boldly. Part of their platform is that everything is form. There is no distinction, in other words, between form and content. That’s the fundamental mistake, as they see it, that their enemies of various kinds make in their understanding, in their approach to literature. But, you know, the formalists’ own basic distinctions are dualistic, aren’t they: the distinction between poetic and practical language, the distinction between plot and story, the distinction between rhythm and meter? In all of these cases, you’re tempted to say, “Well, gee. One of those must be form [laughs] and the other must be content–in particular, obviously “plot” and “story” where “plot” is the constructedness of the text and the “story” is what the text is about. Doesn’t that sound a lot like form and content?” Well, I actually think the Russian formalists can be defended against the charge that, unbeknownst to themselves, they fall back in to form-content distinctions by insisting on this variety of dualities. I want to spend a little time suggesting and developing the way in which that defense could be undertaken.

Poetic and practical language: you’ve already been hearing this in I.A. Richards and in the New Critics. While the New Critics, in a variety of ways, insist that form is meaning, form is content and so on, they’re still not really breaking down the distinction between form and content. There’s an obvious sense in which they understand poetic language to be that in which form is predominant and practical language to be that in which content is predominant, but the Russian formalists see it in a slightly different way. Content is a function–or let me say practical language, the purpose, in other words, of communicating facts or of communicating at all, which we associate with practical language–is a function of poetic language. That is to say, it coexists with poetic language. It is an aspect of a text, the way in which it does communicate in other words, which has to be understood as existing in a dynamic, functional relationship with those aspects of the text in which literariness is dominant. It’s not a question, in other words, of poetry or of a novel being somehow or another strictly a matter of poetic language. In poetry or the novel, you can argue that the poetic function–and this is the term Jakobson will ultimately use for it in his essay, “Linguistics and Poetics”–that the poetic function is the dominant; but that’s not to say that practical language is absent or that it doesn’t have its own function.

By the way, if we begin by talking about poetic and practical language, we’re beginning where the Russian formalists began. As Eikhenbaum explains, in 1914 the first publication of their journal was entirely devoted to poetic sound, to the way in which sound seems, indeed is, not merely subservient to the elaboration of sense. One of the things, by the way, that Eikhenbaum does in passing is remind us that we should be on our guard against thinking that sound is onomatopoetic–that is, that it reflects the meaning of what it’s talking about. When I say “pigeon,” I don’t really seem to have any particular sense of an onomatopoetic word, but if I use the Latin, pipio, which means “to chirp,” all of a sudden I say, “Oh, that’s onomatopoetic.” Well, the formalists and also Saussure–this is one of the most important links between the formalists and Saussure–are very carefully on their guard against supposing that sound, that the ways in which we hear language, is onomatopoetic because that would suggest once again, in keeping with Symbolist ideas, that sound was subservient to meaning. The importance of the earliest work of the Russian formalists was the establishment of the idea that sound goes its own way and is not subservient to anything, that it is a device independent of, though interacting with, other devices, and that it doesn’t exist for the purpose of elucidating anything. In fact, it exists, amazingly, in order to hinder understanding in the kinds of texts that we’re inclined to call “poetic.” It’s repetitive; it’s anti-economical; it’s retardant.

Chapter 5. Device as a Function [00:30:30]

Language of this source is a device, and in relation to other devices it’s called a “function.” We call it a function. That is to say it has a function; it has a function within our understanding of the way in which a text has structure. Every aspect of the structure of the text can be understood as having a function.

Take, for example, “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” Now this is an example of a text in which alliteration is plainly predominant. It is repetitive, and we understand it to be somehow different from the ordinary way in which a fact is communicated; but if we are not Russian formalists, we’re tempted to say, “Well, it’s a mnemotechnic device introduced for the purpose of–that is to say, it’s subservient to–the communication of a fact.” By the way, I’ve never known whether it is a fact. [laughs] A lot of mountains are rainy. [laughs] The Pyrenees I suppose are dry. I really have no idea whether it’s a fact, and it’s not important in My Fair Lady whether it’s a fact. What’s important in My Fair Lady is to repeat the repetitiousness of verse–[spoken with heavy emphasis on rhythm] “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain”–in terms of the tautology of the plot. Eliza Doolittle tries repeatedly to say that but, just like Neato and Speedy failing or being unwilling to push Tony out of his problem, so Eliza repeatedly says [with a cockney accent], “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” That’s not good enough, and so the repetition in the plot reinforces the repetition of the sound in question. Whether or not it’s a fact is completely immaterial to Eliza, it’s completely immaterial to Henry Higgins, and it’s completely immaterial to the outcome of My Fair Lady. What’s important in My Fair Lady is the functionality of repetition in the transformation of the principal character into a lady, right? So in formalist terms, that’s the way we have to understand what, if we weren’t formalists, we would suppose, as I say, to be a mnemotechnical device for the purpose of communicating something about the weather in Spain. Right? I think it’s interesting to think in those terms about the relationship among devices.

Now the point is that yes–and this is what emerged from subsequent thought in the Russian formalist movement–the first wave or phase had to do strictly with sound, but then they began to say, “Well, what about this notion of device? What about the way in which–maybe the best thing to do if we’re going to avoid keeping once and again and again and again falling in to the trap of making one aspect of the text subservient to other aspects, merely there for the purpose of reinforcing content–if we’re going to avoid doing this, if we’re going to see the text as a text that has a structure, hadn’t we better say that everything in it is form, that everything in it is a device? How are we going to do that? Because it would certainly seem that texts refer to things.”

Well, yes, they do, so why don’t we call that to which they refer–for example, in the case of socialist realism or indeed realism of any kind, why don’t we call that to which they refer the “society function”? Why don’t we say, “Oh, yeah, in a certain kind of text, the dominant device in that text is referentiality, is the way in which the real world is hooked onto and that can be understood as a device with respect to other devices.” It becomes, at certain moments in the evolution of forms according to the Russian formalists, the dominant. You see, this is the way in which you avoid the form-content distinction. You say, “Oh, so-called content. What other people call content is a device like any other, and it engages in the struggle for dominance with all the other devices that one can identify as aspects of literature.”

Chapter 6. Plot and Story [00:35:36]

Take the distinction between plot and story. There you would really think the formalists are on thin ice. Plot, yes, we all agree that’s the constructed-ness of the story. That’s the way the story is put together, how the overcoat is made, and so on. But story, that’s what the plot is about, and if that’s what the plot is about, how can we avoid calling it content? Well, it’s very interesting. In the first place, notice that sometimes story can be the dominant in obviously formal terms. I think of that story that all of you have probably read in school, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It’s a list of the contents of the knapsack of a soldier during the Vietnam War, just a list of the contents. Of course, all these items in the knapsack are evocative and what they do is they suggest a plot. By the end of the story, in other words, there is implied a plot. It’s just the opposite of the usual relationship between plot and story. Ordinarily, a plot constructs something which is implied–that is to say, that which happens, that which we can talk about in paraphrase or as a subject matter outside the text–but here in O’Brien’s story, you’re given the subject matter. The subject matter itself becomes the dominant device, and it implies in your imagination a way to construct it, but the way to construct it is not the dominant. The way to construct it is something that’s up to you. What’s the dominant in the text is just the stuff, the stuff in his knapsack listed with as little implication as possible. So that’s an instance of the way in which you can see the relationship between plot and story as a relationship of devices, even though it’s awfully tempting to say, “Oh, the story’s just the content and the plot’s the form”–but no. The formalists don’t want to keep that distinction for the reasons that I have been trying to develop.

Any device can be the dominant at a given moment in the development of literary history. Any device can be the dominant. In Hiawatha, Longfellow’s Hiawatha, meter is the device. You know how it goes. Well, in Tennyson sound is the device, “the murmurous haunt”–oh, I have no memory at all today. I’m mixing it up with a line of Keats, and I’m going to say something else about Keats. I’ll just tell you that Tennyson thought the two most beautiful words in the English language were “cellar door” and that audible beauty was his preoccupation in the making of poetry. So we can say that the dominant device in Tennyson’s poetry, as in much Victorian poetry–certainly Swinburne’s–is sound, and in Keats we can say that the dominant device is imagery, with his famous emphasis on synesthesia and the way in which the various senses merge in the evocation of images.

In other words, of course the academicians and the Symbolists were obsessed with imagery, but that’s not to say that a Russian formalist can’t deal with imagery. In a certain poet, the image, the image patterns, can certainly be recognized as the dominant device. That would probably be the case, for example, with Keats. In Gertrude Stein, the dominant is repetition undoubtedly. In Wordsworth or Joyce or Woolf, the dominant is perhaps not formal. Think of the feeling that Wordsworth’s blank verse just kind of disappears into prose. I don’t think that’s quite true, but there’s a general feeling that, as Matthew Arnold said, Wordsworth has no style. In Wordsworth or Joyce or Woolf, the dominant is the interiority of consciousness–that is, the way in which what we call stream of consciousness or the inwardness of thought motivates–this is another word that you encounter in Eikhenbaum’s essay–motivates everything else that goes on in the text. In other words, an enormous variety of aspects of literature, understood as “literariness,” can become the dominant.

Now as soon as we start talking about things like the dominant, we are also aware of the evanescence of dominance. What is culinary in one generation–and here I’m alluding to a passage quoted by Eikhenbaum–for example, the devices of crime fiction prior to the work of Dostoyevsky, become absolutely central. He’s thinking primarily of Crime and Punishment, but this is true of other works of Dostoyevsky as well, so that the devices of the dime-store detective novel actually then become the motivating dominant of a mainstream literary form, but then they in turn run their course and are replaced by some other dominant. In other words, once you start thinking about the evanescence of dominance, you’re also thinking about literary history.

Chapter 7. The Literary as Historiography [00:41:25]

One of the most false charges–and it was a charge leveled by Trotsky among many others against the Russian formalists–is that they ignore history, the same charge so often leveled against the New Critics. They don’t at all ignore history. Almost from the beginning, but increasingly during the twenties, they turned their attention to the problems of literary historiography, and they said some rather bracing things about it. In your text on page 012, the left-hand column–I’ll keep referring to those stamped numbers, the left-hand side of your Tyco [copy center] text–we find Eikhenbaum evoking an exchange of opinion between the ethnographic critic Veselovsky and Victor Shklovsky:

He [Shklovsky] [Eikhenbaum says, a third of the way down] had encountered Veselovsky’s formula, a formula broadly based on the ethnographic principle that “the purpose of new form is to express new content [new content, in other words, being those social and historical and environmental forces that oblige literary techniques to change]…

That’s the “ethnographic” position. That’s the word used. It is obviously also the materialist, or, social position. History produces literature; and not just literary history, but social history, produces literature. Shklovsky disagreed and he decided to advance a completely different point of view.

The work of art arises from a background of other works and through association with them. The form of a work of art is defined by its relation to other works of art to forms existing prior to it… Not only parody [parody, by the way, is a very, very broad term in Russian formalist thought, in a way simply meaning change–that is to say, the way in which one text inevitably riffs on another text in elaborating its own devices and emphases and in search of a new kind of dominance], but also any kind of work of art is created parallel to and opposed to some kind of form. The purpose of new form is not to express new content, but to change an old form which has lost its aesthetic quality [that is to say, lost its power to defamiliarize, lost its power to take the film away from our eyes].

Now this–as you think about it, you say to yourself, That’s all very bracing and daring but Veselovsky is right. [laughs] We know literature is produced by historical forces. What does it mean, a new form comes about only to replace an old form which has ceased to be aesthetically viable? How does that happen? You know, you’ve got to appeal to social forces if you’re going to talk about change. That really does seem to me to be the spontaneous conclusion we are inclined to draw. That’s why I gave you (to offset this conclusion) the extraordinary passage on your sheet, the end of Tynjanov’s “On Literary Evolution,” written also 1927, written also, in other words, in response to Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution. This is what Tynjanov says:

In formalist historiography, the prime significance of major social factors is not at all discarded. [In other words, we’re not just playing a game here. We, too, understand the relevance of what we call “the society function.”] Rather it must be elucidated in its full extent through the problem of the evolution of literature. This is in contrast to the establishment of the direct influence of major social factors [and here comes the amazing part of this utterance, which I think is truly remarkable] which replaces the study of evolution of literature with the study of the modification of literary works, that is to say their deformation.

You see the distinction. In natural selection, certain things happen. There is mutation. New genes emerge as dominant, no longer recessive or latent, and organisms change. That’s evolution, but organisms change against a backdrop–you know, organisms are changing like crazy. In comes the prehensile thumb, and the next thing you know you get a colossal earthquake, and the possessor of the prehensile thumb disappears from the earth–which is to say, very possibly the human species will never develop. That’s the modification of a form. It strikes me that it’s a remarkable distinction. You will get in any period spontaneously the sorts of impulses that bring about socialist realism, but if you have a ukase from above telling you that if you’re going to write, it has to be socialist realism, that’s a modification. That is the modification of what would and does evolve in and of itself within an understanding of literary historiography.

The distinction, it seems to me, is compelling. The only objection to be made to it perhaps indeed is that much of the time, it’s just more trouble than it’s worth to enforce it. It would drive us into such baroque circumlocutions and avoidances of the obvious to say, “Oh, social factors have nothing to do with this,” [laughs] that we might as well just sort of–not give the distinction up, because I think it’s very important always to have it in the back of our minds. It’s important in Darwinian terms to have it in the back of our minds, and that’s what Tynjanov is insisting on. That’s why he calls his essay “On Literary Evolution,” not literary “revolution” but literary “evolution.” I think it’s terribly important to keep the distinction in the back of our minds even if we find it, in practical terms, well nigh impossible and possibly even in many contexts a waste of time to be perpetually enforcing it. It is nevertheless a distinction that does exist, once you think about it, that deserves to exist and deserves to be remembered when we think about the variety of ways in which literary history can be written.

Now I’m going to stop there. Time’s up. There is a little more to say, I think, and certainly the possible ways in which Russian formalism is subject to critique need quickly to be passed in review. We’ll do all this next time before we get into Saussure. 

[end of transcript]

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