Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Caryl Emerson reviews The Origins of Russian Literary Theory

Jessica Merrill. The Origins of Russian Literary Theory:  Folklore, Philology, Form Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2022. 312 pp.

Review by Caryl Emerson

Jessica Merrill’s ambition in this confident, intricate revisionary study is to rid us of several short and careless received wisdoms about Russian Formalism. These misconceptions include, first, that its origin and essence were “structuralist,” part of the twentieth-century “‘linguistic turn’” prompted by Ferdinand de Saussure (that myth was cemented in place retroactively by later historians of the Formalist movement, which was never as new or ex nihilo as its avant-garde allies claimed) (p. 4). Second is the assumption that Formalism, in its quest to be scientific (that is, to avoid both the engaged civic criticism of the radical Russian positivists and the otherworldliness of the Symbolists), analyzed individual texts isolated from their makers and environments.  And third, Merrill argues that Formalism has been unfairly slotted into the sealed-off, mechanistic pole of an “‘intrinsic versus extrinsic’” model for literary study (that polarity arose only in the post-World War II climate of New Criticism, French Structuralism, and the heady pioneering days of information theory) (p. 36). As she shows, the Russian Formalist pursuit of disciplinary autonomy was never hostile to such “extrinsic” domains as psychologism or comparative philology. On the contrary, both Petrograd and Moscow Formalism emerged from these mainstream academic fields.  

The professional study of literature in the Russian Empire began in the mid-ninteenth century and was grounded in a “philological paradigm” with two distinct wings.  Both were indebted to the German professoriat (p. 3). One wing, classical philology, recuperated ancient written texts and strove for authenticity. The other wing, comparative philology, was inspired by Wilhelm von Humboldt’s theory of language as energy rather than essence, multiple performances rather than fixed texts. Championed in Russia and Ukraine by Alexander Veselovsky (1838–1906) and Alexander Potebnia (1835–1891), comparative philology dealt with cross-cultural myth, migratory legends, shared Indo-European grammatical structures and oral poetic form. Neither wing, classical or comparative, studied individual literary genius in the present. Masterworks by Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were covered by journalists or lay philosophers. Veselovsky insisted that individual creativity was a mystery beyond the reach of the objective researcher. Only popular mass forms, with their numerous variants and collective authorship over many generations, could provide enough data for the scholar to hazard positing a “regularity,” a shifting pattern, a rule, which was the minimum for respectable scholarship (p. 4). Anything else risked being labeled opinion or mere personal taste. Thus Merrill’s book is doing that difficult thing: a history of institutions.  The field of American Slavic knows several senior scholars who excel at it—Irina Paperno, William Mills Todd III, Katerina Clark—but for most of us, our comfort zone lies with faces, singular personalities, and artworks that begin and end.

Institutions are not faceless, however. They are peopled by performers. The unsung hero of Merrill’s book, that which links the avant-garde poetic bard and the collective mind, is folklore. Merrill applies this term to all products and worldviews of the “folk”—in Russian, narod—a Romantic-era, faintly nationalistic category that embraces preindustrial, pre-print culture and, in the twentieth century, a patchwork of antielitist, antibourgeois virtues foisted on the peasantry and barely-urbanized workers by the Bolshevik leadership (p. 17). Formalists paid great attention to orality, “‘the living word,’” and not only because the print industry collapsed during the devastation of the civil war (p. 14). Dialectology research in the Moscow Linguistic Circle (the topic of Chapter Four) was based on listening and recording before any attempts were made at systematization. The new regime sponsored egalitarian research projects: what rhetorical or artistic devices did Lenin use to persuade the peasants? A modern poet like Vladimir Mayakovsky could “perform” a mass voice, as long as there was a chorus and a dialogic context (p. 81). A theorist of prose like Viktor Shklovsky could flourish in comparative philological studies—even as a monolingual—because he didn’t feel the need to know the languages of the originals he wrote about. Similar to folklore variants, translations, it seems, became even more information-bearing, more authentic, once the “unique genius” aspect of the text was removed (p. 80). Shklovsky’s focus on the larger dynamic shape of narrative—his models of circular and stepped construction, each of which resolves differently the hydraulic forward pressure of plot and its tantalizing delays—assumed that the psychological responses to these narrative frameworks were human universals. And this too was appealing to the Bolsheviks, who harbored internationalist ambitions of their own.

My personal take-away lesson from Merrill’s excellent book is connected to that lifelong preoccupation of mine, Mikhail Bakhtin. What is he, where does he come from?  A classicist, deeply at home in two dead languages and three living ones, with all the tools and skill sets that the classical wing of the philological paradigm expects of a scholar. But he’s intermittently smitten by the comparative myth-and-folklore option—not in a narrow nationalist spirit, of course, but something grander, more cosmic. Bakhtin will dredge up all the energetic verbal gestures that human communities have in common, down to the guffaw and the carnivalesque grunt. But—and this is key—unlike both sides of Merrill’s philological paradigm, Bakhtin insists that it is harder than we think to snuff out orality. It burrows into the written word, dominates every aspect of novels, comes to life when our ears least expect it.