Literary Theory in Practice: Rethinking Tynianov’s The Wax Figure

Viktoria Ivleva, Vassar College

In a letter to Viktor Shklovskii, Tynianov anticipates the future interaction of theory and literature: “Ia dumaiu, chto belletristika na istoricheskom materiale teper’ skoro vsia proidet, i budet belletristika na teorii. U nas nastupaet teoreticheskoe vremia.” [I think that belles-lettres based on historical material will soon cease to exist, and belles-lettres based on theory will take their place. An age of theory is on the way] (Iampol’skii, 1986). Indeed, Tynianov himself pioneers the application of his theoretical discoveries to literature. Many scholars admit that Tynianov employs formalistic devices in his historical prose and that his literary and scholarly works are interconnected (Berkovskii, Bliumbaum, Eikhenbaum, M. L. Gasparov, Ginzburg, Stepanov, Andrew Wachtel). Furthermore Tynianov oftentimes employs historical metaphors to describe the literary process. In his collection of articles Arkhaisty i novatory [Archaists and Innovators], he describes literary evolution in such physical and historical terms as inertia, the struggle of traditions and innovations, and the influence of old canons on emerging genres.

In this paper I will discuss Tynianov’s The Wax Figure in light of his ideas about tradition and innovations as outlined in Arkhaisty i novatory. I will analyze the figure of Peter I as a dying canon that Rastrelli revives in the form of parody; likewise, I will interpret the interactions of various literary characters with Peter I as a struggle to free themselves from an old tradition. This collision affects various strata of life and manifests itself in different styles. The struggle between a dying canon and rising voices whose goal is to liberate themselves from the oppression of previous tradition is exemplified, on the one hand, by Peter I, and on the other hand, by Catherine I, Iaguzhinskii, Duke Izhorskii, market people, and Iakov.

The wax master Iakov and his brother, the soldier Mikhalko, can be interpreted as parts of the canon that Peter I embodies: one of these parts, personified by the soldier Mikhalko, is dying; the other one, epitomized by Iakov, emerges from the struggle with the dying tradition. I will argue that by changing from an abnormal human being into a normal one, Iakov attempts to find his place in the literary and historical process.