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’.footnote1 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.footnote2 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.’footnote3

Let us note at once the positive aspect, the undeniable historical merit of the Movement, which is implicit in the first and second moments listed above: first and foremost, the strong stand taken against speculative and mystical aesthetics (especially that of the Symbolists) and against the ‘religion’ of Art. Hence the salutary, anti-dogmatic character of their analysis of literary technique, of their ‘empiricism’ (as it has been called). In the candid words of Eichenbaum: ‘We joined battle with the Symbolists to seize poetics from their hands and liberate it from their aesthetic subjectivism . . . and thus bring it back to the path of scientific study of [literary] facts’—in short, having purified it of the ‘ever more predominant philosophical and religious tendencies [read: aesthetic mysticism]’.footnote4

But there is more. Their historical merit is twofold, in so far as their polemical efforts were directed also at undermining the Contentism that prevailed in Russia with the brilliant Belinsky and his followers (from whom can be traced the lignée that stretches, via Plekhanov, right to Lukács, the idol of the latterday Hegelians).footnote5 Hence, against the mystical formalism of the Symbolists, and against the ‘sociological’ contentism of the epigones of Hegelian idealism. In relation to the latter, Tynyanov declared : ‘We are abandoning the sort of [literary] criterion that consisted in calling to account and judging the characters in a novel as if they were living beings’, pure and simple.footnote6 It is in this bold twofold plan of literary battle, in this revolutionary aesthetic programme, that—it seems to us—the real historical significance of the Russian Formalists lies, and hence the reason for the fascination of their current ‘revival’. It remains to be seen how much of this programme has been realized.

Let us consider, in the meantime, the treatment of the fundamental theses on ‘poetics’ (Eichenbaum), or ‘theoretical poetics’ (Tomashevsky), which were outlined in the five ‘moments’ above. ‘We have stated and we insist that the object of the science of literature’, says Eichenbaum, ‘must be to study the specific particularities of literary objects’: in other words, as Jakobson clarifies, not so much literature in its totality as ‘literariness [literaturnost]—that which makes a given work a literary work. Until now, the historians of literature made use of all sources: biography of the author, psychology, politics, philosophy,’ etc. But ‘in order to realize such a principle of specification without having recourse to a speculative aesthetic, it was necessary to confront the literary series with another series of facts, choosing from the multitude of existing series that which, while intersecting with the literary series, nevertheless possessed its own particular function. And the confrontation of poetic with everyday language illustrated this method of ours.’

Jakubinsky, continues Eichenbaum, had effected this confrontation as follows. ‘If the speaking subject utilizes linguistic phenomena for the purely practical purpose of communication, then we are dealing with the system of everyday language (verbal thought), in which the linguistic elements (the sounds, morphemes, etc.) have no autonomous value, and are nothing but a means of communication. But other linguistic systems may be conceived (and in reality exist), in which the practical aim moves to the background (although it does not disappear entirely) and the linguistic elements then acquire an autonomous value.’ ‘Poetic language’ is a system of this kind. Hence the possibility of renewing, in a certain sense, the concept of poetic ‘form’, and that of ‘content’ or the ‘material’. The historian Eichenbaum proceeds: ‘The notion of “form” has acquired a new significance’; it is ‘a dynamic whole’, and can no longer be represented as ‘an envelope’.footnote7 Tynyanov makes this more precise: ‘We have abandoned the famous analogy, that “form is to content as the glass is to the wine”.’ And Tynyanov again, basing himself so far as this last statement is concerned upon the concept of ‘material’ as ‘speech’—or rather ‘everyday language’—and hence ‘equally something formal’, and in no sense an element external to form, can arrive at the brilliant conception of form as ‘correlation and inter-action’ of ‘elements of speech’, or ‘dynamic [verbal] integrity’ which is made explicit as follows in the category of ‘form’ as ‘construction’ or verbal composition, insofar as it is verbal ‘de-formation’.