Theories of Prose: Andrei Belyj's Gogol''s Craftsmanship and Russian Formalism

Christopher Colbath, University of California, Los Angeles

In this paper I discuss Andrej Belyj's use and reappropriation of Russian Formalist critical concepts in his monumental study, Gogol''s Craftsmanship, published posthumously in 1934. Whereas Belyj's contributions to Formalist studies of verse are widely acknowledged, his theories of artistic prose, which are consummately expressed in Gogol''s Craftsmanship, seem to have less in common with Formalism. In fact, the study depends on a formalist vocabulary, which Belyj uses strictly on his own terms.

Andrej Belyj polemicized with the Formalists, particularly in the monumental studies of Gogol', which deals with artistic prose, and of Pushkin, in Rhythm as Dialectic (1928), which treats problems of versification. The Pushkin study in particular develops quantitative theories of verse that Belyj had first formulated in the first decades of the century, that is, before the first studies of the Formalists were conceived. Belyj was the only Symbolist author to whom the Formalists owed a considerable methodological debt. By the late 1920s, Belyj, unlike Baxtin and other early critics of Formalism, was in the unique position of being both a reluctantly acknowledged influence and an adversary of the Formalists.

Belyj wrote Gogol''s Craftsmanship when the experimental energy of the Formalist movement was all but smothered by the nascent Socialist Realism; hence, the book makes critical use of Formalist concepts without the polemical ardor that characterized the Soviet 1920s. For example, Belyj relies on the analytical concept of plot (sjuzhet) which, unlike most of the Formalists, he does not divorce from symbolic meaning.

I examine plot/story (sjuzhet/fabula) in structuralist terms as a binary opposition which engenders meaning, bearing in mind that "meaning" meant different things to Belyi than it did to the Formalists. Belyj retains his metaphysical understanding of the symbol even as he strives for a more rigidly formal and materialist definition of plot than Formalists such as Shklovskij had devised. His analyses of Dead Souls and "The Terrible Vengeance," which assert that in Gogol' details constitute plot, are outgrowths of this radical understanding of plot.

Belyj was in a better position to comprehend the deeply symbolic nature of Gogol''s works. He analyzes every aspect of Gogol''s writings-fiction, autobiography, essays, letters--and strives toward a symbolic core. The details of his methods remain to be investigated; for Belyj seems to eschew the idealist and mystical strains of his pre-revolutionary symbolist criticism. Clearly, however, such strains remain and intermingle with the scientific, linguistic methods borrowed from Formalist critics.