Thursday, July 19, 2012

New Formalism and the Short Story--Part II: New Criticism and Russian Formalism

Although I have no intention of including these summaries of the development of literary criticism in the twentieth century as an introduction to my book on the short story, I do feel it is necessary to go over this material for my own benefit (and perhaps for the interests of my blog readers), if for no other reason than to provide some context for my own approach to the short story. 

Such a critical context is especially crucial since some key assumptions of my approach have been scorned by university professors and academic critics in the past few decades, namely “formalism” and “genre” study--not to mention the fact that the short story itself has never been considered a worthy subject for “serious” critical analysis.  Although I am not writing the book for high level academic critics, who still seem professionally committed to some nebulous and ill-defined idea of “theory” and “culture,” I still must make my book acceptable to them--at least, (most horrid word in the academic lexicon), not critically “na├»ve.”

In preparation for an examination of the so-called “New Formalism,” what follows is a brief summary of some of the key concepts of the “old Formalism,” or the old “New Criticism,” or what some call “Contextualism”—concepts that I still find valuable for reading the short story.

The New Critics not only insisted that the literary work was independent of the writer, they also felt that the work was independent of the reader.  One had to be careful not to impose his or her own values on the work, but to allow it to establish its own rules for being read.  The assumption was that the work was a highly unified object that communicated something significant about human experience by the very choice, arrangement, and balance of its individual parts; the reader could discover this meaning by reference to nothing more than the poem itself.

However, although the New Critics thus argued strongly against both the "Intentional Fallacy" and the "Affective Fallacy," they should not be confused with the "art for art's sake" belief commonly associated with poets and critics of the late 19th century in England and Europe.  New Critics were indeed interested in the content or theme of the work. It is just that they felt that the work’s theme was too complex to be some discursive idea purposely placed within the work by the author that could be plucked out by the reader like a raisin from a cake.  The Anglo-American Formalists felt that literature reveals truth in a way substantially different from other discursive forms.  Whereas science focuses on truth in terms of abstractions or generalities, literature deals with truth in terms of concreteness. Because experience is more complex than the abstractions of scientific language will allow for, literature is more "true" and more "complex" in its use of language than science.

According to W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., the complexity of a work's form is an indication of the sophistication of its content.  And in a central essay on the subject entitled  "The Language of Paradox," Cleanth Brooks argued that whereas the scientist wants to freeze language into widely-agreed upon denotations, poetry is always breaking up these agreements in perpetually new ways.  The primary device for achieving this constant break up is metaphor, and metaphor, argued the New Critics, is by its very nature always ironic and paradoxical.  Thus the values sought after in poetry by the New Critics were those of complexity, irony, tension, and paradox.

The New Criticism's method of getting at the meaning of literary works was so powerful between the 1930's and the 1950's that it dominated college English classes all across the United States.  And indeed for all its theoretical statements it was less a theory of literature than a method of interpreting individual literary works.  It had little to say about what characterized literature in general or what relationships existed among literary works either past or present; it only spoke strongly about how to explicate an individual poem or story.  Ironically, this shortcoming was criticized by a book published in 1949 that is perhaps the high point of Anglo-American Formalism--Rene Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature.

Although Wellek and Warren were indeed more committed to Formalist criticism than to any other mode of critical thought outlined in their survey of critical approaches, they also were aware that the New Criticism had failed to understand literature as a whole.  In what should have been a foreshadowing of the critical invasion of structuralist and phenomenological approaches twenty later, Wellek and Warren summarized and cited many European efforts to develop a unified theory of literature.  However, because many of these efforts were still not translated into English and because of the firmness with which New Criticism had hold of the English and American Humanities intellectual establishment and academic community, these new ideas about a poetics of literature were not to gain much recognition until the late 1960's.

It is an interesting coincidence of modern literary theory that while T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards were laying down the basis for the brand of Anglo-American Formalism that was to dominate criticism up through the 1950's, a group of critics in Russia were working independently to develop a body of Formalist principles of literature which was not to become highly influential until the 1960's and 1970's.  The major work of the Russian Formalists grew out of two groups of critics--the Petersburg Opoyaz group and the Moscow Linguistic Circle.

            When Formalist approaches to literature were politically discouraged in Russia in the late 1920's, Roman Jakobson, an important member of the Moscow group, left Russia to become a founding member of what was to be known as the Prague Linguistic Circle. As a result, Jakobson is the crucial connecting link between Formalism of the 1920's and Structuralism of the 1960's.  Another important member of the Prague group, Rene Wellek, has already been mentioned as being partially responsible for introducing some Russian Formalist ideas to American critics in 1948 in Theory of Literature.

Like the Anglo-American New Critics, the Russian Formalists were primarily concerned with determining the principles by which literature could be distinguished from non-literature.  And the central principle, as expressed in a 1917 essay by Victor Shklovsky entitled "Art as Technique," was that of "defamiliarization," or the process of "making strange."  According to Shklovsky, as human perception becomes habitual it becomes automatic and our thought processes become abbreviated and algebraic until we attend to the world of objects only as abstract shapes.  Art, however, says Shklovsky, exists so that we can recover the "sensation" of life which has been lost to habit and abstraction.  The way that art does this is to use literary conventions, or "devices," to make objects "unfamiliar" and thus to increase the difficulty and length of perception, for perception is an aesthetic end in itself. The purpose of art, insisted Shklovsky, in what is perhaps the key assertion of the Russian Formalists, is to experience the "artfullness" of the object; the object, that is, the work's referential content, is not so important.

The theories of the Russian Formalists have had important implications for the study of literary history, for the study of the structure of fiction, and for the study of genre.  For example, the notion of literary "devices" or "conventions" made it possible for critics to talk about literary history as the evolution of genres.   Poetic forms, argues Roman Jakobson, evolve as a result of shifts in the relationships between the components that make up a generic system.  Historical shifts take place when elements that were once considered primary become secondary in this hierarchical system or when elements that were once taken seriously are parodied by "foregrounding" or "laying bare" the devices that communicated them.

The Russian Formalist focus on purely literary devices is what primarily distinguishes it from Anglo-American Formalism.  Whereas the New Critics were primarily interested in how technique revealed the thematic aspect of individual literary works, the Russian Formalists were often interested in technique for its own sake.  For example, one of the most famous Russian Formalist essays on an individual work, Boris Eichenbaum's essay "The Making of Gogol's Overcoat," clearly illustrates the difference between the two Formalist schools.  Whereas the American Formalists would be interested in how the technique of the story reflects the ironic theme of Gogol's story, Eichenbaum argued that Gogol did not wish to present a certain type of theme or content; rather he simply used the theme of the little man at the mercy of incomprehensible social forces as an excuse to create a literary style based on a particular kind of Russian folktale.

In short, whereas for the American Formalists the technique of the work existed for the sake of discovering its theme, for the Russian Formalists, the theme of the work existed simply to make possible the author's "play" with technique.  For this reason, the Russian Formalists were drawn to works in which the technique was particularly obvious, works which bared their devices and thus referred to their own process of being written.  Thus, for the Russian Formalists, the 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy, which frequently calls the reader's attention to the fact that he or she is reading a novel instead of observing a mirror image of reality, is the most typical and most novelistic of all novels, for it takes as its subject matter the process of story-telling itself.

However, the Russian Formalists’ notion that perhaps gave most impetus to the Structuralist movement of the 1960's and 1970's was their approach to the study of fiction as a structure of individual motifs.  According to Formalists Boris Eichenbaum and Boris Tomashevsky, when approaching fiction one must make an initial distinction between the series of events which a writer takes as his subject matter and the specific structure that results when the writer presents the completed piece of fiction to the reader.  Although one may be tempted to think of both these series of events as the same, the former is merely the raw material, whereas the latter is the transformation of the raw material by means of purely literary conventions or devices.  The former concept has been often translated as fabula or "story," whereas the latter concept is referred to as sjuzet or "plot."

The second Russian Formalist notion of fictional structure that later proved highly influential is the notion of a "motif" as being the smallest particle of thematic material in a story.  Such motifs, the irreducible building blocks of a story, are contained within individual sentences, e.g. "the boy left home," "he met an old man," "they entered a cave," etc.  Whereas the fabula is merely the aggregate of these motifs in a causal-chronological order, the sjuzet is the organization of the motifs in strategically justifiable ways that the Russian Formalists call "motivation."

This approach means that a group of works hypothetically of the same type or genre can be broken down into their various motifs or smallest meaningful particles.  Then these particles can be rearranged in terms of their similarity of function or purpose so that more general similarities of the structure of the genre as a whole can be determined. Basically, this is what the Russian critic Vladimir Propp did in his influential study Morphology of the Folktale, which, although first published in 1928, did not become well-known until translated into English in 1958.  Working with a limited number of folktales or fairy tales, Propp broke the tales down into units based on their shared motifs.  He argued that different motifs describe different actions or "functions" that re-occur in the tales even though the characters and their attributes may differ. Although there may be numerous motifs in Russian fairy tales, Propp argued there were only thirty-one different functions in such tales.  Such an approach to the study of the generic elements of fiction became one of the central approaches of 1960's and 1970's Structuralism.

Next:  Structuralism, Reader Response, and Deconstruction

1 comment:

Tim Love said...

Thanks for putting this retrospective together. I'm curious about how, or if, theory affects practitioners, and whether there's a time lag. Does Theory influence student writers directly, or does Theory affect the zeitgeist, making editors more likely to take on certain types of writing that would have existed whatever the current fashion? If another ‪Donald Barthelme‬ ‪came along now, would s/he have a chance in ‬The New Yorker?