Russian Formalism

download Russian Formalism

of 12

  • date post

  • Category


  • view

  • download


Embed Size (px)

Transcript of Russian Formalism

Russian Formalism: In Perspective Author(s): Victor Erlich Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Dec., 1954), pp. 215-225 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics Stable URL: Accessed: 17/08/2009 20:03Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

The American Society for Aesthetics and Blackwell Publishing are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.


Seen within the context of Russian critical controversy, the Formalist movement is, or appears to be, a largely indigenous phenomenon. But any systematic discussion of the Formalist tenets is likely to suggest striking affinities between some Formalist pronouncements and those of a Jean Cocteau or a Cleanth Brooks, of a William Empson or T. S. Eliot. These analogies cannot be ascribed to actual cross-fertilization. If the evidence of Occidental impact upon the Russian Formalists is very scanty, the Formalist influence on Western criticism was until recently almost nil. The linguistic barriers, as well as the cultural isolation of the Soviet Union, prevented the bulk of Western literary scholars from taking cognizance of the achievement of the Russian Formalist School, indeed of its very existence. The reports on the Russian Formalist School which over the period of the last twenty-five years appeared in Western European or American publications were scarce, brief and more often than not geared to specialized audiences. Three Russian literary scholars, associated directly or indirectly with the Formalist movement, Tomashevski, Voznesenski, and Zhirmunski, told the story briefly in respectively French, German, and English scholarly reviews, devoted to Slavic studies.2 A French-Russian critic, Nina Gourfinkel, strongly influenced by Opoyaz,3tried to sum up the Formalist methodology in Le Monde Slave.4 Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Gourfinkel's account was condensed in a somewhat garbled fashion by a noted French comparatist, Philippe van Tieghem.5 Brief reference to Formalist studies in versification are found in the work of a Dutch linguist and metrist, A. W. De Groot, as well as in Lanz' study The Physical Basis of Rime, and more recently, in an interesting paper of a Belgian student of verse, M. Rutten.61 The following embodies the last chapter of a full-length study of the Russian Formalist movement. The monographwill appear shortly as volume IV in the series Slavic Printings and Reprintings, Mouton Co., the Hague, Holland. 2 Viktor Zhirmunski, "Formprobleme in der russischen Literaturwissenschaft," Zeitschrift fur slavische Philologie, I (1925), 117-152;A. N. Voznesenski, "Die Methodologie der russischen Literaturforschung in den Jahren 1910-1925,"Zeitschriftfur slavische Philologie, IV (1927), 145-162, and V (1928), 175-199; idem, "Problems of Method in the Study of Literature in Russia," Slavonic Review,VI (1927),168-177;Boris Tomashevski, "La nouvelle 6cole d'histoire litt6raire en Russie," Revue des etudes slaves, VII (1928), 226-240. 3This abbreviation represents "Obshchestvo izucheniya poeticheskogo yazyka "i.e., the Russian for "Society for the Study of Poetic Language," the chief stronghold of the Formalist movement. 4Nina Gourfinkel, "Les nouvelles m6thodes d'histoire litt6raire en Russie, "Le Monde Slave, VI (1929), 234-263. 6Philippe van Tieghem, "Tendances nouvelles en histoire litt6raire," Etudes Francaises, No. 22, 1930. 6 Henry Lanz, The Physical Basis of Rime (Stanford, Calif., 1931); M. Rutten, "Dichtkunst en Phonologie," Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Histoire, v. XXVIII (1950), No. 3-4, Brussels, 1950. 215



In this country basic data on Russian Formalismwere providedby Manfred Kridl's informativearticle, publishedin 1944, in The AmericanBookman,7 and by a more linguisticallyoriented paper of William E. Harkins in Word. The authoritativeTheory Literature Wellekand Warren(1949)was the firstfullby of length study to appearin the United States whichattests to a thoroughfamiliarmethity, as well as a substantialagreement,with the Formalist-Structuralist odology. betweenTynyanov and EichenThe similaritiesof approachand formulation or W. K. Wimsatt,Jr., on the other baum on the one hand and CleanthBrooks ratherthan of influence.In fact, the workjust are thus a matter of convergence mentioned-a product of collaborationbetween two mature scholars,differing and in background training-is a good exampleof this. That R6n6Wellek,whose and approachto literaturewas shapedby PragueStructuralism, AustinWarren, couldregisterupon "New Criticism," of a distinguished representative American in literarytheoryand methodology"9 is their meetingin 1939a "largeagreement a testimonyto the affinitybetweentwo parallelcriticalmovements,as well as to the fundamentaluniversalityof scholarship. to Contrary the militantlyparochial"line"now prevailingin the cradleof the the confronting scholarand the solutions Formalistmovement,both the problems Seen as a part of the Russianculat which he arrivesare internationalin scope. tural scene-a reactionagainstSymbolistmetaphysicsand crudesociologism,or a theoreticalmouthpieceof the Futurist movement-Formalismwas, or seemed to be, a specificallyRussian phenomenon.But, while fightinghis local critical battles, the Formalist,often without knowingit, found himselfasking the same in questionsand giving practicallythe same answersas did some of his confreres and the United States. As an organizedmovement, Germany,France,England, a Formalismwas fundamentally native responseto a native challenge.But, as a body of criticalthought,it was part and parcelof that trendtowardthe re-examination of the aim and method which during the first quarter of this century in becamediscernible Europeanliteraryscholarship. a is In this senseRussianFormalism not necessarily thing of the past. "Formalin Russia, and subsequentlyin other Slavic countries, could be ist" activities fiat. But many Formalistinsights outlasted the discontinuedby a bureaucratic purge,as they found a new lease on life in kindredmovementson the totalitarian iron other side of the "Marxist-Leninist" curtain. Viewed in a broaderperspective,Russian Formalismappearsas one of the most vigorousmanifestationsof the recent trend toward the close analysis of in whichfoundearly expression the workof Hanslick, literature-a development and des Walzeland in the Frenchexplication textes, whichin the last two Wolfflin, decadeshas made substantialinroadsin Englishand Americanliterarystudy. The points of contact between the FormalistSchool and the Anglo-American "New Criticism" are especially worth exploring. Indeed, many illuminatingI Manfred Kridl, "Russian Formalism," The American Bookman, (1944), 19-30. William E. Harkins, "Slavic Formalist Theories in Literary Scholarship," VII, Word (August 1951), 177-185. 9 Rend Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York, 1949), p. vi.8





parallels could be drawn between Russian Formalism and the movement which, with T. S. Eliot, shifted emphasis from the poet to poetry,10 which, with John Crowe Ransom, focussed on the "asthetic and characteristic values of literature,"1' and which, with Cleanth Brooks and I. A. Richards, promoted the rigorous discipline of close reading.'2 Not that the differences are any less instructive than the similarities. The "New Criticism" developed in a social and philosophical climate vastly different from that which had given rise to Russian Formalism or to Prague Structuralism. Hence-the wide divergencies in the manner and ideological leanings of the two movements. The typical Formalist was a radical Bohemian, a rebel against authority, seeking to avoid a total commitment in favor of the new regime, but little concerned with the old. The "New Critic," especially his American variant, is more often than not a conservative intellectual, distrustful of the "mass-man," repelled by industrial civilization, looking back nostalgically toward a more stable society and a more binding norm. For Jakobson and Shklovski, the watchword was innovation, for Tate and Ransom-tradition. Anti-academic in the extreme, the Russian Formalists would have little use for Ransom's attempt to confine Their aesthetic "purism," professional criticism within the walls of Academia."3 which they eventually renounced, had more to do with Bohemian extravagances and provocative bravado than with aristocratic aloofness from the profanum vulgus. William Elton distinguished recently between several quite disparate schools of thought, usually bracketed together under the heading of New Criticism.'4 If we acc