Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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December 10, 2007
Victor Erlich

His passing, approx. a week+1/2 ago, seems to have gone pretty much unmentioned in the press, etc. -- aside from in the New Haven Register and, with the greatest amount of biographical detail, here.

A very interesting review of his 2006 memoir, Child of a Turbulent Century, is here.

His horizon-expanding (for English/non-Russian speakers/readers, anyway) Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine is on Google Books but, of course, with lots of pages inaccessible there.

Maybe the book is one of those that had an influence that reached beyond its name recognition, such that everyone who read it went on to "form a band," so to speak. For example, a dissertation that remarks on its influence on the Bay Area Language poets, Ron Silliman, etc., is here (.pdf). Meanwhile, another dissertation that purports to build on Erlich's book to "inquire" into Le Corbusier's Venice Hotel project is here (.pdf).

Below are some bits from Erlich's book about Formalism that seem to be non-existent on-line.

The first bunch is from the chapter entitled "Marxism versus Formalism." The next bunch is from the chapter entitled "Stock-Taking." I tell you this to provide additional information for your use in determining whether to skip them.

Soviet Marxist literary theorizing of the twenties was not a monolithic body of thought. At the time when a bona fide methodological discussion was still possible, the Marxian approach to literature proved susceptible of widely divergent interpretations. . . .

To borrow an apt metaphor from A. Kazin [from On Native Grounds (1942)], dialectical materialism became a vast filing-cabilnet the particular compartments of which were still waiting to be filled with appropriate studies. The state of the 'compartments,' reserved for the study of literature, hinged largely on the Marxist critic's resourcefulness and acumen, on the degree of flexibility and common sense he was prone to exhibit in applying the Marxian tenets to his particular disclipline.

Thus, as long as it was possible to disagree openly on fundamentals, the heated controversy as to what represented the truly Marxist conception of literature raged unabated. . . .

By focussing sharply on the specific aims and methods of literary scholarship, the Formalists had induced their Marxian opponents to get off the high horse of dialectical generalizations and take a stand on concrete problems connected with literary studies.


In the course of their brief and turbulent career, the Formalists laid themselves open to many attacks. They could be irritatingly flippant or unnecessarily abstruse; they were often extravagant, far-fetched, over-ingenious. But they were never dull or derivative, irrelevant or stuffy. Their hardboiled, technical lingo notwithstanding, they were motivated by a genuine devotion to literature and a deep-seated respect for the integrity of artistic vision. In the face of the trend toward bureaucratic regimentation, they tried to cultivate such untimely virtues as ingenuity, wit, and critical intransigence. It was hardly their fault that they did not succeed.

Today, when Soviet criticism is in the grip of tame mediocrity and humorless dogmatism, it is a refreshing experience to look back on the irreverance, the gaiety, and the acumen of the Formalist writings.

Note that Erlich wrote the above for a book that was released in its first edition in 1955.

One has a hard time reading the above and not admiring Erlich for the brave task that he seemed to set for himself: to make sense of work that often had been made deliberately strange by its creators, and then to bore through the likely misconceptions or prejudices of mid-century American readers, and their lack of contextual information about obscure, bygone Soviet culture, to explain and popularize the stuff.

Erlich seemed to let no one off the hook: not Formalists, not Marxists, not the minds of the 1920s or the 1950s, nor his readers, or to sit idly and fail to call them on lazy, short-cut thinking, while also maintaining a spirit of intellectual generosity.

On some days, one can wonder whether we are still trying to catch up to what folks like the Formalists were talking about -- to the extent we even (can) understand them.

On other days, the material discussed in Russian Formalism seems all the harder to reach now, at an even greater cultural and historical remove. The first jump is from Soviet Union, 1917/the early 1920's USA, 1955. Even more water has passed under the bridge between 1955 and today.

Here, for example, is a sense of some layering that has been since interposed, from Erlich's 1973 review of Frederick Jameson's The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism:
The trouble with this well-written, well-informed, and wide-ranging book, to put it bluntly, is that is succumbs intermittently to the elaborate pretentiousness which marks much of the current talk about Structuralism and semiotics on the Left Bank. . . .

It is a measure of Jameson's overresponsiveness to the intellectual Zeitgeist that he has some difficulty discriminating between the meaningful and the nearly meaningless, between an actual "transcoding" and a mere translation of a platitude into the modish lingo.
from Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 34, issue 3 (Sept. 1973)

And that was written in the Zeitgeist of over thirty years ago. Now, we have even more layers of historical crud, correction and counter-correction to dig through.


Shklovsky's "Art as Device"

Khlebnikov's "Slap in the Face of Public Taste"