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New Left Review I/113-114, January-April 1979


Galvano Della Volpe

Settling Accounts with the Russian Formalists

In his highly praised History of Russian Literature, Mirsky delivers a severe judgment on the Russian Formalist Movement (1915—30) which is now once again, at least in the ‘West’, attracting great interest among initiates and laymen alike, whether ‘bourgeois’ or ‘Marxist’. [1] See D. S. Mirsky, Contemporary Russian Literature 1881–1925, New York 1926: Mirsky’s History was published in English in two volumes, of which this forms the second. The subsequent single-volume edition put out during the Cold War was abridged, omitting everything after 1917—including, of course, Mirsky’s views on Formalism. (Translator) According to Mirsky, it was characterized by ‘an exaggerated attention to style, at the expense of “ideas” and “messages”’. Now the recent anthology Théorie de la Littérature, together with the well-known essay by Erlich, permit us to evaluate this judgment, and to settle accounts somewhat with the aestheticians of the Soviet nep period: Shklovsky and company. [2] See Textes des Formalistes Russes, selected, presented and translated by Tzvetan Todorov, with a preface by Roman Jakobson, Paris 1965; and V. Erlich, Russian Formalism, History-Doctrine, third edition, Paris and The Hague 1969. Let us begin with the first text, with the ‘summary’ or general balance-sheet that concludes the historical essay on ‘The Theory of the “Formal Method”’ written in 1925 by Eichenbaum, one of the founders of the Movement. According to the latter, the ‘principal moments in the evolution of the formal method’ were, briefly, the following: 1. ‘Starting out from the initial and summary opposition between poetic and everyday language, we arrived at a functional differentiation of the notion of everyday language . . . and a circumscription of the methods of poetic language’ whereby ‘we began to speak of the need for a rhetoric alongside poetics’. 2. ‘Starting out from the currently accepted general notion of “form”, we arrived at the notion of technique [of literary composition], and hence at the notion of [literary] function.’ 3. ‘Starting out from the opposition between poetic rhythm and metre, and from the notion of rhythm as a constructional factor in the unity of the verse, we arrived at the conception of verse as a particular form of discourse, endowed with its own linguistic (syntactic, lexical and semantic) qualities.’ 4. ‘Starting out from the notion of [literary, artistic] subject as something constructed, we arrived at the notion of material as motivation for and hence as an element participating in [literary] construction, though remaining dependent on the constructive dominant.’ 5. ‘Starting out from the fact we had established the identity of every functional differentiation of technique, we arrived at the question of the evolution of forms, in other words at the problem of how to study literary history.’ [3] Eichenbaum’s essay is included in L. Lemon and M. Reis, Russian Formalist Criticism, Lincoln Nebr. 1965. However, the version given here, as with some of the other passages from Formalist writings quoted below, follows the Todorov French translation used by Della Volpe. Cf. Lemon and Reis, op. cit. pp. 138–9. (Translator)

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