Monument to a Scientific Error

Context N°24

Viktor Shklovsky

In 1930 Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky was finally persuaded, or induced, to reject his theories—long criticized for their disregard for the impact of economic and social forces on literature. Oft-cited, and controversial, his apparent recantation appears here in a translation by Shushan Avagyan.



The recurrent problems facing linguistic science demand a precise theoretical platform and a firm dissociation from the increasing mechanistic tendency to patch the new methodology with the old obsolete methods. They require a firm refusal of the contraband offerings of naïve psychologism and other methodological hand-me-downs in the guise of new methodology.

Furthermore, academic eclecticism (promoted by Zhirmunsky and others) and scholastic “Formalism,” which substitutes analysis for terminology and classification of phenomena, and the repeated attempts to turn literary and linguistic studies from a systematic science into episodic and anecdotal subjects must be rejected.

(From the declaration by Roman Jakobson 
and Yuri Tynjanov in New LEF, 1929.)

The heightened attention now directed at the so-called “Formal” method and the hostility of this attention can be easily explained.

Anyone who claims or has claimed that class struggle does not affect literature thereby neutralizes certain sectors of the front.

It is impossible to talk about a lack of direction in art produced today. And it seems that interest in the study of the history of literature is moving toward the more directional, so to speak, publicistic epochs.
At the same time, it turns out that directionlessness in art—its dislodging from places where it once existed—has also pursued its own rather real and directed aims.

In addition, the so-called “Formal” method cannot be viewed as a reaction to the Revolution. The Formalists’ first works appeared in the interval between 1914 and 1917.

Our first studies aimed to create a typology and morphology of the literary work.

This type of work was necessary in the initial stages of the scientific study of literature, but it was not sufficient, as it was not even the anatomizing of literary works, rather the protocol of their disclosure.
The abstraction of the literary system from other social systems was a working hypothesis that was useful for the initial accumulation and systematization of facts.

Friedrich Engels wrote in Anti-Duhring that when we consider and reflect upon nature at large or upon the history of mankind or even our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions:

But this conception, correctly as it expresses the general character of the picture of appearances as a whole, does not suffice to explain the details of which this picture is made up, and so long as we do not understand these, we do not have a clear idea of the whole picture. In order to understand these details we must detach them from their natural or historical connection and examine each one separately, its nature, special causes, effects, etc.

The error was not in the division of the system, but the crystallization of the division. My error was that I took distant or disparate examples of literature from different epochs and nationalities and proved their aesthetic sameness, i.e., I tried to study literary works as an isolated system, without investigating its correlation with the whole system of literature and the economic base that shapes culture.
The empirical study of literary phenomena showed that every literary work exists only against the background of another work, that it is perceptible only within the literary system.

I inserted this observation into my construction without making any substantial deductions.
The emergence of literary forms is a mass social process. After Amusing Evenings, Melancholic Evenings, Bucolic Evenings, Evening Hours come Narezhny’s Slavonic Evenings and Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.

We can also compare the accumulation of nearly identical pseudonyms in the poetry of the 1860s: “the Exposing Poet,” “the Mournful Poet,” “the Obscure Poet,” “the New Poet,” and even “the New Poet II.”
Boris Eichenbaum tried to revise the formal method. His very first act being to replace the term “formal” with “morphological.” This revision eliminated the ambiguity of the term “formal” and simultaneously pointed at the mode of analysis.

A turning point in the evolution of the method were the extremely important works of Yuri Tynjanov, who introduced into literary studies the concept of the literary function—the variability of the functions of literary elements within time.

Very little was left of the first, rather naïve, definition that a literary work equals the sum of its devices. The parts of a literary work are not summed up, but interrelated. Literary form in its ostensible sameness turns out to be uniform, but not monosemic.

It became clear that it is impossible to study the devices in isolation, as they are all correlated with one another and with the literary system, which in turn is shaped by the base.

This transition was not easy and the old construction recurred in a variety of ways.

The main difficulty was to determine the correlation between the literary system—or between all the systems of so-called “culture”—and the base.


The history of literature (and art), being simultaneous with other historical systems, is characterized, as any other system, by a complex network of specific structural laws. It is impossible to determine in a scientific manner the correlation between the literary system and other historical systems without an elucidation of these laws.

(From the declaration by Roman Jakobson 
and Yuri Tynjanov in New LEF, 1929.)

In a novel by Jules Romains called Donogoo Tonka, the residents of a city built as a result of a geographer’s mistake erect a monument to scientific error.

I do not wish to stand as a monument to my own error.

My first historical book was Material and Style in Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

What interested me in this book was how the author’s social class influenced the laws by which he deformed the historical material. The target Tolstoy set himself led to the creation of a piece of agitprop for the nobility, representing a pre-reform Russia that was victorious through pre-reform means.
Tolstoy’s war of 1812 was contrasted against the Crimean campaign. His was not a proposal for reform, but for reinstatement. Tolstoy’s contemporaries understood this tendency in the novel. It is interesting to note that in a caricature that appeared in the satirical journal Iskra (1868, Issue 16), Tolstoy was depicted writing in front of a fireplace with a statue of Napoleon III (not Napoleon I) on the mantel.

In my study I then focused on the important question of the novel’s appropriation of forms of inertia. I didn’t really demonstrate in my book (I will do so now) how the belletristic arsenal that Tolstoy used, the situations he depicted in the novel, were already seen in the works of Ushakov (The Last of the Korsunsky Princes), Zagoskin (Roslavlev), Bulgarin (Pyotr Vyzhigin), Veltman (The Lunatic), and Sumarokov (The Ring and the Note).

But these traditional situations have a new function in Tolstoy. Along with the reactions to them, they use the poetics of the Natural School, juxtaposing conventional novels in new ways and setting them against a different lexical background. However, the author’s intent was not completely successful. Readers from different social classes are unique resonators of literary works. The author’s intent to write a novel against the raznochintsy, or people of mixed rank, to write an anti-reform novel, as it were, failed.

The study of literary evolution must consider the social context; it must be informed by the examination of the literary movements that disproportionately infiltrate and are variously reproduced by different classes.

These preconditions defined my recent work, Matvei Komarov, Inhabitant of the City of Moscow.
It seemed to me that the question of the sudden emergence of Russian prose in the 1830s had not been sufficiently examined.

Searching for its origins, I traced it back to the prose fiction of the eighteenth century. From Veltman’s Kоshchei the Deathless and from Dal’s fairy tale “About the Thief and the Brown Cow” I came to Chulkov. From Tolstoy’s folk tales and his attempt to champion the peasant I then came to Komarov.
Eighteenth-century prose was characterized by mass production. Many books had a large circulation and were often reprinted. This type of literature was mainly consumed by the lower layers of nobility, by merchants, and by peasants who moved to the city.

The elevation of Russian prose is therefore probably explained by the elevation of the social classes for which it catered. Russian prose of the 1730s didn’t re-emerge, rather, it changed its function.



The concept of a synchronic literary system does not coincide with the naively envisaged concept of a chronological epoch, as it includes not only works of art that are close to each other in time, but also works that are drawn into the orbit of the system from foreign literatures and older epochs. It is not enough to randomly catalog coexisting phenomena; what is important is their hierarchical significance for the given epoch.

(From the declaration by Roman Jakobson 
and Yuri Tynjanov in New LEF, 1929.)

One should remember in the study of these questions that the evolutionary pace of the various ideological superstructures does not necessarily coincide with the pace of development of the base.

Marx noted these inconsistencies in his unfinished introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

6) Unequal relation of the development of material production to, for example, that of art. The concept of progress is generally not to be grasped in the usual abstractness … However, the really difficult point to discuss here is how the relations of production develop unevenly as legal relations. Thus, for example, the relation of Roman civil law (less so for criminal and public law) to modern production.

So it is that, for example, various forms of feudal legislature were fully preserved in bourgeois England. And in France, after the revolution, old Roman laws were adapted to new capitalist relations.

Similarly, Pushkin’s and Lermontov’s verse was adapted and the forms parodied by Nekrasov and the Iskra poets (Minaev, Kurochkin, and others) in order to create exposing civil poetry.

So it can be said that works that have lost their original intent and have become inertial blocks are often called Classical.

The censors from the past understood this very well. The censor, Oldekop (1841) preferred tragedy. He wrote: “Tragedy, like opera or ballet, can be seen as the most benign branch of the performing arts… If we give tragedy a bigger place, the influence of comedy will lessen. The public that has seen King Lear will be less partial to The Inspector General. Having found pure literary and artistic pleasure in tragedy, people will not so readily look for suggestions in comedy.”

We know that tragedy, particularly Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, was radical in its own time. But later (in Oldekop’s era), tragedy became a “literary pleasure.”

So, when studying the significance of Classicism, one must necessarily account for the fact that it is now linked with “literary pleasure.”


A disclosure of the immanent laws of the history of literature (and language) allows the character of each speci­fic change in literary (and linguistic) systems to be determined; however, it does not allow us to explain the pace or the chosen path of evolution when several theoretically possible evolutionary
paths are given… The question of a specific choice of path, or at least the dominant one, can be solved only through an analysis of the correlation between the literary system and other historical systems.

(From the declaration by Roman Jakobson 
and Yuri Tynjanov in New LEF, 1929.)

The emergence of a new form is preceded by a process of agglomeration in the inertial form (in its noncritical parts, so to speak) of elements that filter in from adjacent social systems.

The processes take place through leaps, by turning deviation into a quality of the new genre. The old form, which exists and does not change formally, changes functionally.

The “tolstovka” was originally a nobleman’s garb for hunting. It was worn by both Tolstoy and Turgenev. In his later years, when, instead of a frock coat, Tolstoy started wearing this long-belted shirt in public, it became known as the “tolstovka.” And although it was the same shirt, it was different. The “tolstovka” worn by a Soviet official is its third form, the final change in function. Things are further complicated by the fact that the “tolstovka” is influenced by the “French” jacket (named after the Anglo-Irish Field Marshal John French) and the suit jacket. And based on the history of this garment we could elucidate a very complex social process.

The invention of the new form does not destroy the inertial form, but rather changes (usually restricts) the sphere of its application. Thus, the genres of the fairy tale and chivalric romance have become obsolete in high literature and have moved into the lower spheres of children’s literature and mass culture.
Literary evolution must be understood, not as a continuous flow, or as an inheritance of some property, but rather as a process with leaps and ruptures, in which alternating forms compete with one another and are ascribed new meanings.

Literature must study the continuity of the changing system of modes of social impact.

The general perception of the Formal method has remained in its initial stage, when we were defining the elementary concepts, selecting the material, and establishing the terminology.

Formalism is a trodden path for me, a path along which I have already passed and left several stages behind. The most important stage was the shift to the consideration of the function of literary form. What is left of the Formal method is the terminology, which is now being used by everyone.

To study literary evolution in the context of functionality, one must, in my opinion, become familiar with the Marxist method in its entirety.

Of course, I am not declaring myself a Marxist, because one doesn’t adhere to scientific methods. One masters them and one creates them.

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