Russian Formalism

Aspects of Russian Formalism from Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983)

Russian Formalism is a literary school of thought that emerged in Russia in the years before 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and flourished throughout the 1920s, until it was silenced by Stalinism. It consisted of a militant, polemical group of critics, including Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Osip Brik, Yury Tynyanon, Boris Eichenbaun, and Boris Tomashevsky. These Formalists celebrated the scientific spirit of the age and rejected its predecessors who followed quasi-mystical symbolic doctrines. Using the scientific approach, the Formalists drew attention to the material reality of the literary text. They separated literature from pseudo-religion, psychology, sociology, etc. and described it as a particular organization of language. For example, Roman Jakobson explained Literature as an ‘organised violence committed on ordinary speech’. Thus, Literature, in the Formalists’ view had its own reality with its own laws, structures and devices.

The Formalists propounded that a literary work was primarily a material fact. It was constituted of words. The Formalists made this claim as they analysed literary works through the prism of linguistics. Therefore, the content of the literary text was sidelined as emphasis was placed upon the formal aspects of literature. In their worldview, literature consisted of arbitrary assemblage of certain ‘devices’ or ‘functions’, all of which were inter-related. These ‘functions’ included sound, imagery, rhythm, rhyme, metre, narrative technique, etc. So, in essence, the content of the text was only a motivation that occasioned the exercise of certain formal elements.

Terry Eagleton shares his understanding of Russian Formalism and its worldview on Literature in Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). He states:

Literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech.

By reading Literature in this light, the Formalists propounded that Literature had an ‘estranging’ or a ‘defamiliarising’ effect, as it ‘deformed’ ordinary language. Since it was a language ‘made strange’, reading it also rendered the world around us unfamiliar. Paradoxically, the same estranging language made the readers more aware of the real world that surrounded them and that they mostly took for granted. In this way, Literature had a significant role in renewing people’s perceptions of ordinary objects as well as their habitual responses to reality. Thus, through Literature, people could experience the norms of everyday living more intimately.

Even though this literary criticism seems quite convincing, yet it is not completely flawless. It must be pointed out that there does not exist a single ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ language. As Eagleton remarks, language, as ‘a common currency shared by all members of society, is an illusion’. It is a fact, well established by many linguists, that language, even within itself, is subject to variation, vis-à-vis class, region, gender, status, etc. Also, within the same community, the norms of a language experience considerable changes over time. Therefore, it is evident that one person’s norm may be another’s deviation.

The differentiation in language according to socio-historical context was recognized by the Formalists too. They also conceded that Literature was estranging only against a certain normative linguistic background, and a change in this could result in a literary text being ceased to be considered literary. In this context, one could argue that in their attempt to define Literature, the Formalists actually ended up defining ‘literariness’, which was also not an eternally given property.

Nevertheless, the Formalists upheld the axiom of their theory, that ‘making strange’ was the essence of the literary. However, the concept of the novel written in prose would contradict this definition. Thus, one could conclude that the Formalists, in talking about the estranging effect of language in a literary text, mostly considered only poetry to be the true form of literature. Even while analyzing prose writing, these literary theorists delved only into the realm of devices of simile, metaphors, imagery, etc.

In conclusion, the Formalists operated within the domain of formal devices of language present in a literary text and believed that the idea of the real world could be grasped better by losing oneself in the moment of complete estrangement from the mundane and the familiar.

(c) Tejaswita Payal 2016


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