Literature as System: On Yuri Tynianov

By Marjorie PerloffOctober 28, 2021

Literature as System: On Yuri Tynianov

Permanent Evolution: Selected Essays on Literature, Theory and Film by Yuri Tynianov

Among the disciplines that study culture, literary history continues to languish in the position of a colonial territory. On the one hand, it is ruled to a large extent by an individual psychological approach […] whereby the question of authorial psychology unjustifiably supplants the question of literature per se, and the problem of literary evolution is supplanted by that of the genesis of literature. On the other hand, an oversimplified, causal approach to the literary series […] [as a mere byproduct of the] neighboring cultural, social, and “real-life” series.

                        — Yuri Tynianov, “On Literary Evolution” (1927)


IT IS NOW widely admitted — witness the popular Netflix sitcom The Chair — that university departments of literature, whose enrollments have been plummeting for decades, no longer seem to play a meaningful role in the university. Indeed, were it not for Creative Writing, which remains popular (no doubt as a respite from the tech courses most students now pursue), the English department would already be defunct. For what is there to learn about poetry or fiction in a climate where literature is largely understood as personal confession or complaint, clear on its face. Writing poetry or fiction — a phase many of us go through before turning to the things that really matter, like the study of medicine or engineering. Unlike Economics or Psychology or Computer Sciences, literature, by this account, is not a subject to be studied at all.

In this climate, a collection of Yuri Tynianov’s critical essays is especially welcome, and we are indebted to Ainsley Morse and Philip Redko, the editors and translators of Permanent Evolution, for bringing out this first major selection of Tynianov’s scholarship in English. Perhaps the least known but also most provocative of the great Russian Formalist theorists, Tynianov takes as his premise that literary works are part of a larger and distinctive whole with its own laws and family resemblances. It is the critic’s job to cut pathways through this rich and elaborate jungle.

Born in 1894 into a Jewish family from Eastern Latvia, then a province of Russia, Yuri Tynianov came to Petersburg to study at the university and soon made the acquaintance of both the Petersburg and Moscow poets and “Formalist” critics — especially Viktor Shklovsky and Boris Eikhenbaum, who were to form, in 1916, OPOYAZ (the Society for the Study of Poetic Language) in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd, later Leningrad), and Roman Jakobson, one of the leaders of the Moscow Linguistic Circle. From 1921 on, Tynianov taught literary theory at the Institute for Art History in Petersburg. But in 1930, the fateful year of Mayakovsky’s suicide, Tynianov was dismissed from his post as part of the widespread purges initiated by the nascent Stalinist literary establishment. In retirement — he died in 1943 — Tynianov turned to fiction and drama. His best-known novel, The Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar, has recently been translated (by coincidence, twice!) into English.

What distinguishes Tynianov from the better-known Jakobson, whose linguistic and structural bent led him to concentrate on the synchronic aspects of the literary work, is his status as a Comparatist, a historian, and something of an anthropologist. Tynianov’s central interest was in the way literary forms and genres develop, mutate, go underground, and are reborn within the larger literary system. It is that system, rather than the individual works within it, that is the object of literary study: to understand how it works, the student must examine a wide range of works from different literary periods and, ideally, from different cultures, though Tynianov’s chief examples are drawn from Russian literature. The hit-and-miss nature of our own so-called literature major, where one is allowed to study, say, women writers of World War I without much concern for the larger context of war writing, to say nothing of broader national and international literary developments, would thus strike a disciple of Tynianov’s as completely pointless — rather like studying medicine by only investigating a single organ.

From the first, Tynianov’s is thus a systemic theory. The earliest essay in this collection, “Dostoevsky and Gogol (Toward a Theory of Parody),” argues that literary history is never a straight line, but “a departure, a reaction against something — a struggle,” “the destruction of an older whole and the reconfiguration of old elements.” This may sound almost like Harold Bloom’s famed account of the “anxiety of influence,” but for Tynianov, the struggle is less psychological than formal: he shows how Dostoyevsky displaces various Gogolian motifs so as to make them new and adapt them for very different purposes. Style becomes stylization and comedy turns to parody by mechanizing the devices of the earlier text.

The theme of literary history as struggle is developed in a 1922 essay called “The Ode as an Oratorical Genre.” “There is no such thing,” Tynianov declares, “as an individual work in literature.” The work is always part of a “system of literature,” in which the arts are interrelated. Indeed, “[i]f a literary work is torn from the context of one literary system and moved to another, it will take on a different coloring, accumulate different traits, become part of a different genre, and lose its own genre; in other words, its function will migrate.” The “lofty” speech of the 18th-century ode, for example, looks absurd when it resurfaces in 20th-century poetry, or again what is ruled out of lyric poetry as “prose” at one phase of development can later become its central feature. Or, to think in more national terms, consider the reception of Poe by Baudelaire in the mid-19th century: for the French, Poe’s “demonic” verse was taken quite seriously whereas in its native habitat it was considered excessively mannered — indeed, Gothic. The lofty oratorical ode, in any case, went underground in the 19th century, replaced by such less ambitious forms as the epistle and the elegy. But sooner or later, underground forms reassert themselves, taking on new roles appropriate to their literary moment.

One of the great examples of the creation of hybrid genres is Alexander Pushkin’s book-length poem Eugene Onegin. Tynianov has a wonderful essay on its composition and artistry, demonstrating how Pushkin’s great work enchants the reader by constantly shifting gears: just when we become absorbed in the narrative, the verbal play and metrical force push us back, reminding us that the story is an elaborate artifice, a self-conscious construction. Pushkin himself told a friend, “As far as my activities are concerned, I’m not writing a novel, I’m writing a novel in verse — a devilish difference!” And Tynianov gives telling examples of devices used to arrest and charm the reader. The conventional prose device of abbreviating last names by their first letter or ending (e.g., Eliza K., the Countess -ova), for example, acquires a new meaning as a result of having been embedded in verse, as when the abbreviation rhymes with a full word or when an empty line is introduced into the intricately rhymed sonnet-like stanza Pushkin devised for the poem. “The novel’s chapters turned into the cantos [pesni] of an epic poem; a novel that parodies the conventional plot models of novels through compositional play vacillates and becomes intertwined with parodic epic.” Eugene Onegin is thus the ultimate narrative of displacement — a poem in which “hero and heroine appear effectively as parodic shadows.”

The concept of the sonic organization of poetry and prose is, Tynianov believes, “extraordinarily tenuous; a clear dividing line between the two is absent.” At the same time, the felt boundary between the categories of poetry and prose remains in place. “No matter how rhythmically and sonically organized prose might become, it is still not perceived as verse; and for its part, no matter how much a poem may sound like prose, the claim that vers libre is equivalent to prose is nothing more than literary polemics.” The basic distinction Tynianov draws is this: “The deformation of sound through meaning is the constructive principle of prose; the deformation of meaning through sound is the constructive principle of poetry.” I think it still holds. But the Onegin essay goes well beyond such basic dichotomizing. Tynianov’s close analysis of Pushkin’s specific puns, verbal play, syntactic ambiguity, rhyme, and so on make the essay a bravura piece even for the reader who knows no Russian. It lays the groundwork for what is perhaps the most important of Tynianov’s essays included here: “Literary Fact” (1924).

“What is literature?” The essay opens with this all but unanswerable question. Tynianov begins by brushing away “the old-fashioned belief that verbal art refers to absolutely everything that has ever been written.” Used thus broadly, the term becomes meaningless; the converse is also true, as when poetry is narrowly defined as “thinking in images.” Indeed, “[a]ll attempts at a single static definition fail.”

It is the recognition of this simple truth that makes English professors today so nervous and defensive about their field of study. Every other week The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes an essay or two that try to defend the study of literature by making a case for its practical or affective functions: literature is the form of writing that enriches human life, it presents us with characters with whom we can identify, it expresses emotions we share, it is the language of the imagination rather than of mere exposition or argument, and so on. Or again — and this is the big “case” today — literature is the form of writing that gives voice to the marginalized, the hitherto neglected.

But no sooner is one such aspect foregrounded and considered the essence of the literary than someone calls that aspect into question. For — and this is the essay’s most remarkable sentence — “[t]he definitions of literature that proceed from its ‘fundamental’ features run up against living literary fact.” Take the sentence — and this is my own example — “Snow was general all over Ireland.” There is nothing remarkable or “poetic” about this sentence: in a weather report or newspaper column, it would just be taken as information about external conditions. Coming across it near the end of Joyce’s “The Dead,” however, the reader must pause, coming to understand that here the oppressive and overwhelming snow has become a symbol of something larger, more ominous.

“Do not forget,” wrote Wittgenstein in a remark preserved in his Zettel, “that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.” Context is all. And context may be diachronic as well as synchronic. Journals and almanacs, for example, have always been around, but only in the 20th century have they come to be read as “literary works.” Again, the letter, once regarded as a document, in which A communicates with B, is now taken as a literary fact, on a par with the poem or short story. Conversely, the charade, taken quite seriously as a literary genre in the 18th century, has in our own day become just a party game, played for fun rather than literary aspiration. “As it turns out,” writes Tynianov, “it’s not just the borders of literature […] that are fluid; the center itself is fluid as well.”

But “fluid” is not the same thing as anarchic. For Tynianov, in this respect a good Marxist, the literary system evolves dialectically. Until the early 20th century, for example, “poetry” meant metrical composition and a chosen verse form. When “free verse” first came in, it was regarded as liberating and radical, demonstrating as it did that poetry could depend upon rhythm and intonation without counting elements like feet or primary stresses, and certainly without using the strict stanza forms of the sonnet or ottava rima. But once free verse became the norm, as is the case today, the most radical thing might be to write rhyming ballad stanzas or blank verse. The pendulum suddenly swings.

Together with “On Literary Evolution,” the one essay to have been translated for earlier Russian Formalist anthologies, “On Literary Fact” is Tynianov’s most important theoretical statement. But the smaller essays are perhaps even more attractive. A wonderful piece on Modernist poets — from Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky to Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelstam — takes up the cause of lyric poetry, which was experiencing neglect in the early Soviet period when the newly certified Revolution was calling on prose to disseminate its message. The essay “Interlude” (1924) begins:

These days writing about poems is almost as hard as writing them. And writing poems is almost as hard as reading them. Such is the vicious circle of our time. There are fewer and fewer poems being written, and what is really front and center right now is not poems but poets. And this is not nearly as inconsequential as it may seem.

Three years ago prose ordered poetry to leave the premises once and for all. The poets cleared out in a sort of panic, and prose writers moved in and occupied all the empty seats.

In this prose period, the stakes for poetry are all the higher, for it is poetry that is the carrier of transformative language. And Tynianov proceeds to discuss key texts by the poets in question, showing what worked and where a poet like Mayakovsky went wrong.

His hero, as was the case for Roman Jakobson, is Khlebnikov. In a separate essay on the poet (1928), Tynianov is less interested in the zaum, the language of no-sense or nonsense that so preoccupied Khlebnikov’s critics, than in Khlebnikov’s “new way of seeing,” his “vision.” Khlebnikov, Tynianov asserts, “is our only twentieth-century epic poet — an epic that arises from pagan fairy-tale”:

Khlebnikov the theorist became a Lobachevsky of language: rather than bring to light minor deficiencies in old systems, he discovered a new framework based on incidental combinations.

This new, very intimate, nearly infantile vision (“butterfly”) turned out to be a new framework for words and objects. […] The whole point of his theory lies in his having shifted poetry’s center of gravity from questions of sound to the question of meaning. Sounds uncolored by meaning do not exist for him, just as the questions of “meter” and of “theme” do not exist in isolation.

It is Khlebnikov’s language and syntax that are so remarkable. “He is not a collector of words, not a property owner, and not a scandal-mongering wheeler-dealer. Like a scientist, he re-evaluates linguistic dimensions: dialects.” The conflation of high and low creates the element of surprise which is, for Tynianov, at the heart of the literary.

And here a word about the film essays may be apposite. These essays, some written under a pseudonym, represent the critic’s writing at its most genial and relaxed: they are at once playful and daring. The most elaborate of these, “The Foundations of Film” (1927), is an analysis of space/time in cinema, a profound treatment of this new “abstract art” that exploits the “dissolve,” the close-up, montage, and super-imposition, as well as the relation of plot (the structure of the narrative) to fabula (the story itself). Tynianov relates the movement of film — from shot to shot — to poetry’s similar shift from line to line, and he writes brilliantly about such early classics as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925).

In her introduction to Permanent Evolution, Daria Khitrova observes that “Tynianov is not an easy read,” remarking on the looseness of some of the critic’s terminology, as when he talks of film as being “abstract.” I don’t agree. In comparison with most theorists who are fashionable today, Tynianov strikes me as largely accessible, even though he deals with works unfamiliar to most American readers. His theory of literature as system is paradoxically quite flexible, allowing for complexity and difference. His analysis of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the major genres and their inherent rules is remarkably lively and convincing. This collection comes to us at a moment where literary study badly needs a new infusion of adrenaline: how fortunate that Morse and Redko have provided it.


Marjorie Perloff is the author of many books on modern and contemporary poetry and poetics. She is Professor Emerita of English at Stanford University.

LARB Contributor

Marjorie Perloff is the author of many books on modern and contemporary poetry and poetics, including The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, The Futurist Moment, Wittgenstein's Ladder, and Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. Her memoir The Vienna Paradox was published in 2004. She is professor emerita of English at Stanford University.



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