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Comparative Literature #2 :The “Formalists” and what we owe to them

S. Satish Kumar
Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University

In the previous article we had tried to arrive at defining Comparative Literature but that, as it appears, is a question that presently remains to be answered satisfactorily or rather conclusively. So be it. Before we move towards the possibility or impossibility of defining Comparative Literature (this vacillating tone is obviously sarcastic) there are some debts that we (and by this one means anybody who claims to study Literature) must acknowledge for they have long been taken for granted. One such debt the study of Literature in recent times seems to leave by and large unacknowledged is to the “Formalists” or the Formalist movement.

Now, who were these “Formalists” and what were they all about? The “Formalists” were, as we know, a group of scholars who came together because they shared similar theoretical interests. The roots of this movement though go back to the late 1800s it made most impact only in the years immediately preceding the October Revolution and for a few years after it. As Tony Bennett explains, the term movement might be slightly misleading because they were not a unified school of thought that was working towards the realisation of a manifesto. Again the name they were and are known by was not one of their own choosing but was an uncomplimentary label applied to them by those who opposed them.[1] The “Formalists” did however operate out of two organisations namely The Moscow Linguistic Circle founded in 1915 which was headed by Roman Jakobson and OPOJAZ or The Society for the Study of Poetic Language founded in 1916 by Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum and Jurij Tynjanov and was housed in what was then Petrograd. These were the only two bodies that formed the organizational bases of Formalism.[2] As far as the question of a manifesto was concerned for a long time the goals outlined by Viktor Shklovsky in his path-breaking essay ‘Art as Technique’, were considered by all those attached to the OPOJAZ, as the guiding principles of their enterprise.[3] Both these organisations were respectively concerned with what their names suggested; the OPOJAZ with the study of Poetic Language and the Moscow Linguistic Circle more with the study of Linguistics. But both organisations however argued for the study of Literature on scientific footing with rules and procedures peculiar to the field of inquiry.

Now, the ramifications of an argument of this kind are much more far reaching than it seems, which is not to say that the study of Literature before the “Formalists” was not considered a valid or fruitful exercise but rather this, in arguing for a scientific study of Literature and Art they sought to eliminate all practices that were extraneous to the object of studying Art and Literature. The object of studying Literature in the opinion of the “Formalists” was literariness. There is a simple way of explaining this and how it qualifies as scientific. Let us consider Physics for a moment; Physics as that branch of Natural Philosophy that deals with matter and its motion. Thus in apprehending physis or nature we notice the existence of matter and following from there we observe that matter is qualified by its extension in space and we also observe that matter is capable of motion. Now, by observing matter and motion what Physics has sought to do was to furnish an explanation for the process leading up to the event of motion in other words explaining what makes motion possible. Thus Physics like all other sciences starts with an observation; the apprehension of a phenomenon and from the phenomenon/occurrence/event it moves towards the understanding of that which makes the said phenomenon/occurrence/event possible. Based on this we arrive at a law which theoretically correlates event and cause. Thus motion is made possible and characterised by the force that causes it. Similarly, Literature is made possible and characterised by the quality of literariness. In this way one might say that the “Formalist” engagement with Literature was perhaps “scientific” and maybe even philosophical. Philosophical because it contemplates the nature and by nature we mean the very essence or that which is essential to Literature; literariness. The “Formalists” sought to study the qualities that make a work literary.

The “Formalists” (in this case Shklovsky to be specific) identified certain characteristic features of language use that make a piece of writing literary. One such feature of Poetic Language is “Ostranenie” or defamiliarisation; the process by which the known or the mundane object is made unfamiliar. As Shkolvsky explains his essay ‘Art as Technique’ that the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar and thereby increasing the length of their perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of the object; the object is not important.[4] Art, according to Shklovsky, functions by undercutting the habitualisation of perception. Usually once we are acquainted with an object, its name, its nature, purpose and function our perception of it gets habitualised, i.e. we don’t need to give it even a glance let alone a second glance to know its presence. To use a very run-in-the-mill example: we pass, while looking out of a car, along the side of a road several daffodils. Let us assume we do not know what a daffodil is, so we enquire of the person sitting next to us as to the nature of these flowers we see at the side of the road and we are informed that they are daffodils. Thence, we look at one, we look at another, we look at a whole row of daffodils and our perception of them becomes automatic in the sense that we are no longer called upon to observe them carefully in order to know that they are daffodils. Though it be highly unlikely, let us assume that we haven’t read Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, thus the reading of this poem makes daffodils unfamiliar, for in our perception of them not once have they danced and this unfamiliarity causes us to dwell on the image of the daffodils, thus prolonging their perception. I could have used several other examples that in all honesty would have been less absurd, but I selected Wordsworth considering the degree of habitualisation the apprehension his works enjoy in the minds of all those even marginally acquainted with English Literature. One very direct example of defamiliarisation also cited by Shklovsky is the way in which the act of sexual intercourse is represented in art and one needn’t go as far as the Decameron, think of the way in which songs in Hindi films of yester years were picturised, a kiss between the hero and heroine used to be shown by the coming together of two flowers (usually sunflowers). Classical Tamil and Sanskrit literature also abound in images used as stand-ins for the act of coitus, such as the elephant and the watering hole or the bee trapped inside a closed lotus flower. Thus, when Homer says ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, we perceive the dawn of day in a way we have never done before. The phrase itself impedes the automatism of perception forcing us to dwell longer on the experience of dawn. This is the “artness” of art.

The “Formalists” gave to the study of Literature a certain degree of autonomy. This, taken to the extent of art for the sake of art alone or literature for the sake of literature alone is what has at times brought about their harshest critiques. While this may have been true of Shklovsky’s almost provocative stances regarding the autonomy of art in his early writings, but this demand for autonomy certainly runs deeper than it is usually given credit for. The “Formalists” did not believe that Art existed in a vacuum, untouched by the realities that surrounded it. This is the usual misunderstanding that they fall victim to. They merely sought to explore the workings of the machine that was Literature. The study of extraneous detail like the history of the author or the times he/she lived in, whether he/she had had a tossed salad or a medium rare steak on the eve of writing a poem etc. were only useful in as much as they better inform our understanding and appreciation of the work at hand. They in no way advocated a static view of Literature, as Erlich points out in his essay on Russian Formalism that in the later years the “Formalists”, especially the likes of Tomashevsky and Tynjanov laid greater emphasis on the fluidity and complexity of the literary process as opposed to only vindicating new trends.[5] They did not believe in the idea of a literary work being a mine of sociological and historical information on the period it was composed and the person who composed it. They rather chose to give the literary work paramount priority in the enterprise of literary studies. Shouldn’t that be the case? We are certainly not encouraged to find out why Newton went to sit under an apple tree. What we are encouraged to focus on while studying the law of gravitation in Physics is the law of gravitation, extraneous details like whether or not Newton went to sit under the apple tree because he was still sulking about his dispute with Leibniz and not exactly considered of any importance to the study of Physics. The “Formalists” believed in the study of Literature as system and the objective of studying this system would logically be to understand the components that make up this system and the interrelations between these component parts.

This certainly does, as Victor Erlich explains in another essay, resemble several trends within literary studies in America leading up to “New Criticism”, but a direct contact between Russian Formalism and literary studies in America before the Second World War would seem highly unlikely.[6] In fact the most conclusive link we find between Russian Formalism and literary studies in America is its mention in Rene Wellek’s and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature. There is also Roman Jakobson’s presence in American Academia after the War and his association with Harvard that further strengthens the “Formalist” connection, but these are mere facts and only give us a physical/factual sense of the sojourns that Russian Formalism made. It is not actually important that the “Formalists” thought of and arrived at what the “New Critics” were only gradually beginning to get their heads around. What is important however is what they have given us in terms of approaches to literary studies. While the work of the “Formalists” does not exactly form a cohesive theory, but as the saying goes they sure did have a hold of the business end of the stick. The insistence on “close readings” that Comparative Literature is credited for or the persistent emphasis we at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, lay on the “from below” approach following Dr. Dev’s example (and turn of phrase), can all be traced back, one way or another, directly or indirectly, to the work of the “Formalists”.[7] We as students and practitioners of Comparative Literature must acknowledge not only a debt to the “Formalists”, but also recognise in them a kindredness of spirit. Our beliefs as Comparatists are no different from theirs as far as the autonomy of literary scholarship are concerned. They also believed in extending this autonomy to the idea of Literature beyond the narrow confines of the national and parochial. The significance of the work and agenda of the “Formalists” is summed-up in one’s opinion by Shklovsky’s famous pronouncement:

“Art was always free of life and its colour never reflected the colour of the flag which waved over the fortress of the city.”[8]

[1]See Toni Bennett’s Formalism and Marxism, (London and New York: Routledge,2003),15


[3]Viktor Shklovsky’s ‘Art as Technique’ was first published in 1917 for one such website carrying an English translation see, http://www.scribd.com/doc/59802934/Shklovsky-Victor-1965-1917-Art-as-Technique (accessed 06/11/2012, 10:16 am)

[4]See Shklovsky’s ‘Art as Technique’

[5]See Victor Erlich’s ‘Russian Formalism’ in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1973) pp. 627-638 Jstore Web 09/08/2011 04:15

[6]See Victor Erlich’s ‘Russian Formalism- In Perspective’ in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol.-13, No. 2 (Dec. 1954) pp. 215-225 Jstore Web 09/08/2011 04:16

[7]See Amiya Dev’s ‘Literery History from Below’ in Amiya Dev and Sisir Kr. Das ed. Comparative Literature Theory and Practice (New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1989) 319-327

[8]See Erlich’s ‘Russian Formalism’, 634

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