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  Philologica 7 (2001/2002)  


(On the Genesis of the Early Formalists’ Ideology)




Boris Mixailovich Ejxenbaum’s classic article, How Gogol’’s “The Overcoat” is Made (1919), which, to a large extent, predetermined the ideology of Russian formalism, did not at all develop out of the critic’s direct observation of the text. In order to explain the genesis of the central tenet (that Gogol’’s story develops from a pun or play on words, rather than idea or plot) we should return to the study of sound repetition which had been published by Osip Maksimovich Brik two years earlier. Ejxenbaum applied to prose what Brik said about poetry: “<...> elements of image and sound creativity coexist simultaneously, while each individual work of art is a result of the two heterogeneous poetic intentions”.

One of the most important sources of this conception was indicated by Brik himself, who (following Aleksandr Veselovskij) quotes Charles Robert Richet (1850—1935): “If poets were open, they would acknowledge that not only does rhyme not impede their creativity, but, on the contrary, it prompts their poems, and acts as a support, rather than a hindrance. If I were allowed to put it thus, I would say that the mind works using puns, while memory is the art of creating puns, which lead to the sought-for idea”. Richet was a poet, a playwright, a historian, but, first and foremost, he was a physiologist. He was interested in the problem of psychophysical automatism which was then fashionable. The thought processes of the poet, who relies on word play, rather than ideas could serve an example of such automatism.

Another important source of the formalist doctrine was the Petit traité de poésie française by Théodore de Banville, whose ideas are laid out in detail in Jean-Marie Guyau’s Problèmes de l’esthétique contemporaine (it is worth noting that Viktor Shklovskij cited the Russian translation of this book). Banville repeats, in various guises, that, as Guyau put it, “the poet has no ideas in his brain, but only assonances, rhymes, puns; these puns besiege him and suggest ideas or something like ideas”.



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