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Russian formalism and Estonian literature

A formalist essay



The 19th century following the industrial revolution developed into a technological era, which evoked humanist protest in arts (symbolism, decadence) as well as humanities (Freud, anthropology). Literary theory was also affected as scientific logic borrowed from technology was applied to human semiotic and figurative thinking (Saussure, Wölfflin). Russian formalists had to overcome two traditions in the 19th-century literary studies, namely, a positivist adherence to facts and vulgar psychologism, neither having to do with a work of literature. Their studies addressed the author, the person behind the text. However, for them the author was not so much a person of flesh and blood who happened to write the book as an intrinsic function of the text, the voice talking to (not with) the reader. (The author-reader dialogue was still beyond the interest of the formalists of 1914−1928.) This led to the development of such terms as „text intonation” and „perception about the author”. The artistic integrity of the text, previously explained in terms of composition, came to be defined as unity of the perception about the author, while a work of literature was described as an episode open at both ends, yet held together by the same unity (Vinogradov on Akhmatova). Formalism expired when it turned out that its underlying logic of binary oppositions that sufficed for describing the lower elementary levels of the text failed to work for the artistic qualities revealed on higher structural levels. Nevertheless, Russian Formalism remains a mandatory basic course of scientifically grounded Literary Studies.