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Literary Criticism and Scholarship

Russian Criticism and Scholarship

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One of the salient features of modern literary criticism is the proliferation of schools, approaches, and methodologies. In his cross-cultural survey made in 1961, the eminent scholar of comparative literature René Wellek was able to distinguish six “main trends” especially characteristic of the era, ranging from psychoanalytic to myth criticism. As for twentieth-century Russian literary criticism, it was shaped in the main by two divergent, and often opposing, forces—the vitality of the “modern” movement in the arts and, throughout the Soviet period, the privileged status of Marxist or quasi-Marxist perspectives. While many of the figures mentioned in this article have recognizably Jewish names, any connection between their background and the critical methodologies that they championed seems to be tenuous at best.

The school of Russian literary criticism most closely allied with the Russian poetic avant-garde became known as Russian formalism. Viewed in a broader perspective, the formalist movement appears to be an early manifestation of the trend toward structural analysis of literature and art. It was launched in the second decade of the twentieth century, flourished in the 1920s, and was forcibly suppressed in 1930. Its leading exponents were unorthodox linguists and students of literature such as Boris Eikhenbaum (1886–1957), Roman Jakobson (1896–1982), Viktor Shklovskii (1893–1984), Boris Tomashevskii (1894–1957), and Iurii Tynianov (1894–1943). The main stronghold of the Russian formalist movement was the Petrograd Obshchestvo Izucheniia Poeticheskogo Iazyka (Society for the Study of Poetic Language; Opoiaz [commonly spelled Opoyaz]), founded in 1915.

Formalists viewed literature as a verbal art rather than a reflection of reality or a battleground of ideas. They were more interested in the poetry than in the poet, in the actual works than in their alleged causes or effects. In their determination to delimit literary studies from contiguous fields such as psychology, sociology, or intellectual history, formalist theoreticians were primarily concerned with the distinguishing features of literature. “The subject of literary scholarship,” wrote Jakobson in an early study, “is not literature in its totality, but literariness (literaturnost’), i.e., that which makes a given work a work of literature” (Noveiskaia russkaia poeziia; 1921). Moreover, the focus of “literariness” was to be sought not in an author’s or the readers’ psyche but in the work itself, or, more specifically, in the artistic devices peculiar to imaginative writing.

To Jakobson and Shklovskii, literature was a unique mode of discourse, characterized by “the orientation toward the medium” or “the focus on the mode of expression.” In literary art, it was argued, especially in poetry, language is not simply a vehicle of communication. From a mere proxy for the object, the word becomes an object in its own right, an autonomous source of pleasure as multiple devices at the poet’s disposal—rhythm, meter, euphony—converge upon the verbal sign to bring out its complex texture. Artistic prose, conceded the Formalists, lacks the tight organization of language that marks verse; it works in larger verbal blocks. Yet the difference is not one of kind but of degree. Narrative fiction has its own intricate patterns of tension and balance, its own parallels and contrasts. The events or the “motifs” that constitute the basic story material, or, in Formalist parlance, add up to the “fable,” are not simply related; they are mediated through narrative techniques and organized into a “plot” for maximum aesthetic effect.

The blatant one-sidedness of the formalist tenets was accentuated by the strident polemical style that marked intellectual debate in the first years of the Revolution; partly deliberate overstatements made the formalist position still more vulnerable than it might have been otherwise. The mid-1920s saw a full-fledged Marxist-Leninist offensive against the Opoiaz, sparked by no less a figure than Leon Trotsky in his provocative collection of essays Literatura i revoliutsiia (Literature and Revolution; 1923). While repudiating formalist aesthetics, the Communist chieftain was not altogether unappreciative of “some formalist research.” The attitude of the first Soviet commissar of education, Anatolii Lunacharskii (1875–1933), otherwise known for his relative broadmindedness, was unremittingly hostile. So was the stance of the prolific Marxist literary historian Petr Kogan (1872–1932), who prided himself on “never having had time for literary form”; he found the preoccupation with highly technical analyses of poetic language a symptom of “distasteful aesthetic gourmandise.”

Some Marxist critics were less dismissive. Writing in the new-futurist journal Lef, Aleksandr Tseitlin (1901–1962) granted the legitimacy, indeed the usefulness, of close analyses of literary texts, provided by the formalists. To be sure, he argued, only historical materialism could yield a larger view, an act of synthesis. “But interpretation has to be preceded by description.”

If the formalist challenge compelled the Marxists to acknowledge the limitations of their modus operandi, the reverse is equally true. While Eikhenbaum’s and Shklovskii’s attempts to reconcile the Formalist and the sociological approaches had at times an ad hoc, makeshift quality, the movement’s most rigorous spokespersons Roman Jakobson and Iurii Tynianov sought, in the joint statement “Problemy izucheniia literatury i iazyka” (Problems in the Study of Literature and Language; 1928), a way out of the methodological crisis by repudiating both doctrinaire Formalism and reductive sociologism.

Yet the rapidly deteriorating cultural climate left little room for experimentation. In 1929 and 1930 the debate was rudely called to a halt. With the tug of war between the ideologically strident Na Postu (On Guard) faction led by Leopol’d Averbakh (1903–1939) and the more flexible and humane brand of Marxism championed by Aleksandr Voronskii (1884–1943) becoming a thing of the past, Formalism was bound to be stigmatized as false and reactionary. Soviet letters were moving inexorably toward the single canon of Socialist Realism, an increasingly meaningless concept subject to endless bureaucratic manipulation rather than a genuine basis for literary judgment. (A Polish wit defined Socialist Realism as “that brand of naturalism which is currently favored by the Central Committee.”)

If during the Stalin era literary theorizing became increasingly a matter of intellectual shadowboxing, literary-historical research was often quite useful and practical criticism not uniformly bleak. Essays by Veniamin Goffenshefer and Isaak Lezhnev (1892–1955) on Mikhail Sholokhov and Iurii Iuzovskii’s (1902–1964) studies on Maksim Gorky’s drama were relatively unhackneyed and occasionally perceptive. However, Vladimir Ermilov’s slick manipulation of the nineteenth-century Russian masters in service of the shifting party line was more typical.

In the wake of the autocrat’s death, as brutal persecution of independent-minded intellectuals gave way to a somewhat more permissive cultural atmosphere, unaccredited approaches and relatively heterodox emphases were afforded some latitude. Mikhail Bakhtin (1896–1975), who had made his debut in the late twenties as author of a seminal book on Dostoevsky built around the concept of a “polyphonic” (many-voiced) novel, brought out an expanded version of the earlier study, Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics; 1963). Ever since this revival, Bakhtin has been increasingly recognized both at home and abroad as an original literary theorist and philosopher of language. No less important was the activity of the group of younger scholars such as Viacheslav Ivanov, Boris Uspenskii, and above all, Iurii Lotman (1922–1993), professor of Russian literature at the University of Tartu (Estonia). His Lektsii po struktural’noi poetike (Lectures on Structural Poetics; 1968) and Struktura khudozhestvennogo teksta (Structure of the Artistic Text; 1970) hark back to the creative symbiosis of linguistics and literary theory that marked the best of Russian Formalism even as they exemplified later developments in Soviet semantics.

Systematic concern with poetics and indebtedness to Formalist heritage inform the work of two eminent Leningrad literary scholars—Efim Etkind (1918–1990), a wide-ranging comparatist best known as an authority on translating verse, and Lidiia Ginsburg (1902–1990), a worthy heir to her teacher, Iurii Tynianov.

Finally, few serious students of Russian literature, whatever their methodological persuasion, will fail to recognize the achievement of Andrei Siniavskii (1925–1997) as one of the high points of recent Russian criticism. His “underground” essay “Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm” (On Socialist Realism; 1960) is a remarkable cultural diagnosis; his full-length introduction to a 1965 collection of Pasternak’s verse is an encounter between a major poet and a first-rate critical intelligence.

Suggested Reading

Mikhail Bakhtin, Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo (Moscow, 1963); Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine (New Haven, 1981); Iurii Lotman, Struktura khudozhestvennogo teksta (Moscow, 1970); Andrei Siniavskii (Abram Terts), On Socialist Realism (New York, 1960); Jurij Striedter, Literary Structure, Evolution, and Value: Russian Formalism and Czech Structuralism Reconsidered (Cambridge, Mass., 1989); Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (New York, 1925).