Literary Theory and Criticism

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Literary Theory and Criticism


(Russian, literaturovedenie), the study of literature, its origin, nature, and development.

Subject and disciplines. Contemporary literary theory and criticism encompasses a complex and changing group of disciplines. There are three main areas of study: literary theory, the history of literature, and literary criticism in the strict sense (literaturnaia kritika). The theory of literature investigates the general laws of the structure and development of literature. The history of literature studies the literary past as a process or one of the stages of this process. Literary criticism is concerned with the most recent, the “present” state of literature. It also interprets the literature of the past from the standpoint of modern social and artistic aims. Literary criticism in the strict sense is not universally accepted as being part of the scholarly discipline of literary theory and criticism.

The most important part of literary theory and criticism is poetics, the study of the structure of individual works and groups of works, for example, all the works of a particular writer or the works of a literary school or epoch. Poetics may be related to each of the major areas of literary theory and criticism. In literary theory it provides knowledge of the structure of any literary work (general poetics). Within the scope of literary history, historical poetics investigates the development of artistic structures and their elements, such as genres, plots, and stylistic images. The principles of poetics may also be applied in criticism in the strict sense. Stylistics occupies a similar position in literary theory and criticism. Stylistics may be included in literary theory as part of general poetics; here stylistics is the study of one level of the structure, the stylistic and language level. In literary history stylistics treats the language and style of a particular current or school. The stylistic study of contemporary works has almost always been one of the chief functions of literary criticism in the strict sense.

The three spheres of literary theory and criticism are closely related. Criticism, for example, is dependent on information derived from literary history and theory, which in turn take into account and reveal the significance of criticism. Moreover, secondary disciplines have arisen in literary theory and criticism, such as the theory and history of criticism in the strict sense, the history of poetics (as opposed to historical poetics), and the theory of the stylistics of artistic language. The various disciplines within literary theory and criticism also shift from one level to another: thus, criticism becomes material for the history of literature, for historical poetics, and for other studies. In addition to the principal disciplines already mentioned, there are many auxiliary disciplines, such as the study of archives relating to literary theory and criticism, the compilation of bibliographies of literature and criticism, heuristics, paleography, textual criticism and commentary, and the theory and practice of publishing. In the mid-20th century mathematical methods, especially those of statistics, were widely adopted in literary theory and criticism, primarily in prosody, stylistics, textual criticism, and folklore study, where quantifiable structural segments can be isolated more easily. The auxiliary disciplines are an indispensable foundation for the primary disciplines. As they develop and grow increasingly complex, however, they may set independent scholarly goals and acquire independent cultural functions.

Literary theory and criticism is in many ways linked to the humanities, some of which (philosophy, aesthetics) serve as its methodological basis; other branches of the humanities resemble literary theory and criticism in their goals and subject of investigation (folklore studies, art studies) or are related by a general humanistic orientation (history, psychology, sociology). The many links between literary theory and criticism and linguistics are based not only on common material (language as a means of communication and as the raw material of literature) but also on the contiguity of the epistemological functions of words and images and on an analogy between the structure of words and images. The close relation between literary theory and criticism and the other humanities was formerly reflected in the concept of philology as a synthesizing branch of learning, studying culture in all its written manifestations, including literary works. In the mid-20th century the concept of philology suggests the affinity between literary theory and criticism and linguistics; in the strict sense philology denotes textual criticism.

History of schools and trends. Literary theory and criticism originated in early antiquity in the form of mythological concepts, for example, the reflection in myths of the classical differentiation between the arts. Judgments about art are found in such ancient works as the Indian Vedas (tenth to second centuries B.C.), the Chinese Book of Legends (Shu Ching, 12th to fifth centuries B.C.), and the ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey (eighth and seventh centuries B.C.).

In Europe the first concepts of art and literature were developed by the ancient thinkers. Plato dealt with aesthetic problems, including that of the beautiful, from the standpoint of objective idealism and examined the epistemological nature and educational function of art. He also contributed to the theory of art and literature, classifying literature as epic, lyric, or dramatic. Although Aristotle’s works Poetics, Rhetoric, and Metaphysics preserve the general aesthetic approach to art, they introduce several disciplines of literary study, including the theory of literature, stylistics, and especially poetics. Aristotle’s Poetics, containing the first systematic exposition of the fundamentals of poetics, initiated a long tradition of treatises on poetics. As time passed, however, these works became more normative, for example, Horace’s Art of Poetry. Along with classical poetics there developed rhetoric, initially the study of oratory and prose in general, for example, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the works of Isocrates and Cicero, and Quintilian’s The Training of an Orator. The theory of prose and stylistics developed within the framework of rhetoric. The writing of treatises on rhetoric, as well as poetics, continued into modern times; in Russia M. V. Lomonosov published his Short Manual on Eloquence in 1748. Criticism in the strict sense also arose in Europe in antiquity, as may be seen from the early philosophers’ opinions about Homer and the comparison of the tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides in Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs (405 B.C.). Initially, criticism was inseparable not only from other areas of literary study but from art as a whole.

Significant differentiation in literary theory and criticism occurred in the Hellenistic age. During the period of Alexandrian philology (third and second centuries B.C.) literary theory and criticism, along with other studies, broke away from philosophy and formed its own disciplines, including biobibliography (the Tablets of Callimachus, the prototype of the literary encyclopedia), textual criticism to determine the authenticity of a text, and textual commentary and the publication of texts (Zenodotus of Ephesus, Aristophanes of Byzantium, and later Aristarchus of Samothrace). Later, comparative historical studies arose, for example, comparisons of classical works from the standpoint of the sublime and the beginning of the section entitled “Being” in the treatise On the Sublime, written in the first century A.D. by an unidentified author known as Pseudo-Lon-ginus.

Profound concepts of art and literature also developed in the Oriental countries in ancient times. In China the doctrine of the social and educational function of art evolved within Confucianism (Hsiin-tsu, c. 298–238 B.C.). The Taoist school developed an aesthetic theory of the beautiful in conformity with Tao, the universal creative principle (Lao-tzu, sixth and fifth centuries B.C.). In India problems of artistic structure were worked out in relation to theories of the psychological perception of art, called rasa (in Bharata’s Natyasastra, c. fourth century and later treatises), and theories of dhvani, the hidden meaning of works of art (in Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka, ninth century). Primary attention was given to style, that is, to the linguistic realization of artistic effects. In the Oriental countries general theoretical and aesthetic methods (alongside textual analysis and bibliographic work) predominated for many centuries. Research on the historical and evolutionary plane appeared only in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Byzantium and the Latin works of the Western European peoples were the links between ancient and modern literary theory and criticism. Stimulated by the study and collection of ancient works, literary study in Byzantium was primarily concerned with biobibliography and commentary. Important Byzantine works included one of the first European encyclopedic collections of literary works, Photius’ Myriobiblon (ninth century), containing paraphrases and evaluations of literary works; Suidas’ biographic dictionary of ancient authors (c. tenth century); commentaries on Homer, Pindar, and other authors by Johannes Tzetzes (12th century) and Eustathius of Thessalonica (12th century); and a treatise on rhetoric by Michael Psellus (11th century). In Latin works, philological study stressed the writing of compendiums and textbooks on rhetoric. At the same time, within a theological framework and often assimilating Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism, the philosophical and epistemological principles of literary theory and criticism were developed by St. Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries and St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

The Renaissance stimulated the creation of original poetics adapted to local and national conditions. The problem of language, extending beyond stylistics and rhetoric, became the general theoretical problem of establishing modern European languages as legitimate material of poetry. Important works on this subject include Dante’s treatise On Popular Speech (1304–07) and Du Bellay’s Defense and Illustration of the French Language (1549). The right of literary theory and criticism to deal with contemporary artistic phenomena was affirmed in Boccaccio’s lectures on the Divine Comedy and his biography The Life of Dante Alighieri (c. 1360). The moral significance of contemporary literature was the subject of the Englishman P. Sidney’s Defense of Poesie written in 1583. But inasmuch as modern literary theory and criticism was developing out of the “discovery of antiquity,” the Renaissance faced the problem of originality in its full force. Solutions to this problem ranged from attempts to adapt elements of classical poetics to modern literature (the application of the norms of the Aristotelian theory of drama to the epic in T. Tasso’s Discourse on the Art of Poetry, 1587) to the rejection of classical authorities (F. Patrizi’s On Poetry, 1586). The view of the classical genres as “eternal” canons coexisted with the sense of dynamism and incompleteness that was characteristic of the Renaissance. The prevailing tripartite division of man’s history into antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance (the term was first used by G. Vasari in his Lives, 1550) anticipated G. Vico’s theory of cycles and the doctrine of stages of cultural development expressed by the romantics and found in the dialectical philosophical systems of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Beginning in the late 16th century and especially in the age of classicism, the trend toward systematizing artistic laws became more pronounced, and the normative and pragmatic character of artistic theory was emphasized. In his Art of Poetry (1674), N. Boileau relegated general epistemological and aesthetic problems to the background and concentrated on constructing a harmonious poetics imbued with Cartesianism and conceived as a system of genre, stylistic, and linguistic norms. The exclusive and obligatory nature of Boileau’s norms made his treatise and such related works as J. C. Gottsched’s Experiment With a Critical Poetics for Germans (1730) and A. P. Sumarokov’s Epistle on Versification (1748) literary codes. Rationalism also stimulated attempts to achieve a deductive knowledge of art and to reduce all its elements to “one principle,” for example, imitation (C. Batteux’s The Fine Arts Reduced to One General Principle, 1746).

However, the 17th and 18th centuries also saw a strong trend opposing the normative approach to literary types and genres. In defending the mixing of genres S. Johnson pointed to Shakespeare’s works in his Lives of the Most Outstanding English Poets (1779–1781). D. Diderot advocated middle-class drama, a genre between tragedy and comedy. Finally, with E. Joung (Description of Original Works, 1759) and G. E. Lessing (Hamburg Dramaturgy, 1767–69), this tendency grew into an attack on all normative poetics, thus opening the way for the aesthetic and literary theories of the romantics. During the Enlightenment attempts were also made to explain the development of literature in terms of local conditions, particularly environment and climate (J. Dubos, Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting, 1719; writings of Montesquieu and J. J. Winckelmann), which anticipated the later theories of determinism. In the 18th century the first courses in literary history were given, notably G. Tiraboschi’s History of Italian Literature (1772–82), T. War-ton’s History of English Poetry (1774–81), and J. La Harpe’s Lyceum, or Course in Ancient and Modern Literature (1799–1805), based on a historical consideration of the types of poetry.

It is more difficult to date the appearance of literary criticism in the strict sense, which evolved in the course of more than a century, from F. Malherbe, Boileau, and J. Dryden (whom S. Johnson called the father of English criticism) to Lessing, Diderot, J. Marmontel, and N. M. Karamzin, who was the first Russian to include in his magazine a substantial section devoted to criticism and bibliography.

In the late 18th century an important change occurred in European literary thought, shaking the stable hierarchy of artistic values. The inclusion of folklore in the scholarly study of medieval European and Oriental literatures cast doubt on the validity of models, whether classical or Renaissance. There developed a strong sense of the intrinsic merit of artistic criteria of different ages which ought not to be compared. This attitude was best expressed by J. G. Herder in his Shakespeare (1773) and Ideas Toward a Philosophy of Human History (1784–91). The category of the “unique” came to denote the literature of a given people or period, possessing its own measure of perfection. Following J. Hamann in studying the Eastern sources of classical Greek literature and approaching the Bible as an artistic work of a particular age, Herder created the preconditions for the comparative historical method.

The romantic view that different criteria existed developed into the concept of different cultural periods expressing the spirit of a particular people or era. Adhering to the classification of art forms proposed by J. F. Schiller (On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, 1795), the romantics drew a distinction between classical (ancient) and modern (Christian) art forms. Recognizing the impossibility of restoring the classical form, the romantics stressed the endless mutability and capacity for renewal of art (F. Schlegel, Fragments, 1798). A. Schlegel applied this idea to literary history in his Berlin lectures on literature and art (1801–03) and his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1809–11).

However, in establishing modern art as romantic, as imbued with the Christian symbolism of the spiritual and infinite, the romantics imperceptibly, and despite the dialectical tone of their doctrine, restored the category of model (historically medieval art and regionally Oriental art). At the same time, in the idealist philosophical systems, culminating in Hegel’s philosophy, the idea of the development of art was embodied in a phenomenology of artistic forms dialectically replacing each other (Hegel’s symbolic, classical, and romantic forms). The nature of the aesthetic and the distinction between it and the moral and cognitive were established philosophically by I. Kant. The inexhaustible, “symbolic” nature of the artistic image was expounded in philosophical terms by F. Schelling. Another important aspect of Hegel’s philosophy was the right of mediated (discursive-scientific) knowledge to judge artistic phenomena since “art is not so disorderly that it could not lend itself to philosophical elucidation” (Estetika, vol. 1, Moscow, 1968, p. 19); this view stood in opposition to the intuitivist tendencies that prevailed among the romantics.

The philosophical period of literary theory and criticism was a time of large-scale systems conceived as universal knowledge of art (and, more broadly, of all existence), which “crushed” beneath them the history of literature, poetics, and stylistics. The most important aspect of the speculative edifice was the conception of theory as knowledge of the laws of development of the concrete. As a result, the historical aspect of literary theory and criticism often coincided with the theoretical aspect, as N. Stan-kevich noted in his comment about Hegel: “The history of art, considered rationally, is also the theory of art” (Stikhotvoreniia, Tragediia, Proza, Moscow, 1890, p. 179).

A school of “philosophical criticism” represented by D. V. Venevitinov, N. I. Nadezhdin, and to some extent V. G. Belinskii, arose in Russia in the 1820’s and 1830’s, influenced by and growing out of German philosophical systems. The school also asserted the distinctive nature of art and its changing forms, but in response to the vital needs of Russian literature, it devoted special attention to working out the new, realistic form. In the 1840’s, after passing through a philosophical aesthetics phase, Belinskii related this aesthetics to his conception of the civic function of art and to historicism (“social preoccupation”) in an original manner. His series of articles on A. S. Pushkin (1843–46) was essentially the first course devoted to the history of contemporary Russian literature. Belinskii linked his explanation of past phenomena to theoretical problems of realism in art. Despite the differentiation of disciplines that had occurred, the chief form of literary study in Russia (in contrast to Western Europe) and the one which was developing the richest content and incorporating the other branches of learning was precisely philosophical criticism. As N. G. Chernyshevskii noted later, “people who were engaged in aesthetic criticism . . . also did a great deal for the history of literature” (Poln. sobr. soch. vol. 2, 1949, p. 264).

In the first quarter of the 19th century the scope of literary study expanded in the European countries. Many new courses were offered in literary history, notably those of F. Bouterwek in Germany, L. S. Sismondi in Switzerland, and A. Villemin in France. Disciplines arose that studied all aspects of the culture of a particular ethnic group, for example, the Slavic studies of J. Dobrovský, J. Kollár, and P. Šafařik. With the growing interest in literary history, attention shifted from great masters to the entire body of artistic facts and from world literature to the student’s own national literature, for example, G. G. Gervinus’ History of the Poetic National Literature of the Germans (1835–42). In Russian literary studies the place of ancient Russian literature was affirmed; philosophical criticism had not viewed ancient Russian literature as being part of the mainstream of European literary development and had therefore excluded it from its aesthetic system. A greater interest in pre-Petrine literature was shown in M. A. Maksimovich’s History of Ancient Russian Literature (1839), A. V. Nikitenko’s Essay on the History of Russian Literature (1845), and especially S. P. Shevyrev’s History of Russian Literature, Primarily Ancient (1846).

Several methodological schools arose in Europe, cutting across national boundaries. Among the first was the mythological school (its philosophical basis was the works on aesthetics of F. Schelling and the Schlegel brothers). Interest in mythology and folklore symbolism, which had been stimulated by romanticism (F. Creuzer’s The Symbolism and Mythology of the Ancient Peoples, Particularly the Greeks, 1810–12), grew among German mythologists, who discerned an Aryan protomythology (J. Grimm, German Mythology, 1835). The common features of primitive thought as recorded in language and legend were studied. In Russia the mythologist F. I. Buslaev did not restrict himself to studying mythology but traced its historical course, including the interaction of folk poetry and written works. Later the “young mythologists”—M. Müller in England, W. Schwartz in Germany, and A. N. Afanas’ev in Russia—posed the problem of the sources of myth.

Under the influence of another aspect of romantic theory—the view that art was the self-expression of the creative spirit—the biographical method took shape (C. A. Sainte-Beuve, Literary-critical Portraits, vols. 1–5, 1836–39). To some extent the biographical approach was included in all modern literary study, sometimes resembling the method of cultural history and at other times becoming frank impressionism. The biographical method also paved the way for the psychological theories of creativity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the second half of the 19th century the school of cultural history became prominent. It had evolved under the influence of many factors, including the deterministic trends in literary theory and criticism in the preceding century, the romantic interest in national and local “color,” and French historical science (F. Guizot, A. Thierry, and F. O. Mignet). Impressed by the successes of the natural sciences, the school of cultural history attempted to reduce causality and determinism in literary study to precise, tangible factors, such as H. Taine’s triune of race, milieu, and moment (History of English Literature, 1863–64). The traditions of this school were developed by De Sanctis (History of Italian Literature, 1870), W. Scherer (History of German Literature, 1880–83), and M. Meléndez y Pelayo (History of Aesthetic Ideas in Spain, 1883–91). In Russia its adherents included N. S. Tikhonravov, A. N. Pypin, and N. I. Storozhenko. As the cultural history method developed, it not only underrated the artistic nature of literature, which was regarded primarily as a social document, but also revealed strong positivist tendencies that ignored the dialectical method and aesthetic criteria.

In Russian literary theory and criticism the positivist tendencies were opposed by revolutionary-democratic criticism. Drawing on Belinskii’s legacy, revolutionary-democratic criticism attempted to restore the broad philosophical and epistemological context of literary research: “If it is important to collect and study facts, it is equally important to try to grasp their meaning. . . . Thus, the question of what is art and what is poetry cannot but be extremely important” (N. G. Chernyshevskii, Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 2, 1949, p. 6). Asserting the cognitive functions of art, the revolutionary democrats noted that works of art also often “serve to pass judgment on various aspects of life” (ibid., p. 92). N. A. Dobroliubov propounded the concept of “realistic criticism,” whose main principle was the analysis of a literary work, insofar as it was true to life, as a phenomenon of life in order to explain to the reader the spirit and problems of the times. In treating problems of the history of literature and criticism in the strict sense, the revolutionary democrats emphasized the link between the literary process and the social struggle, the interaction and opposition of different social groups, and the progress of the liberation movement (Chernyshevskii’s Essays on the Gogol Period in Russian Literature, 1855–56; Dobroliubov’s On the Degree of Participation of Folk Character in the Development of Russian Literature, 1858).

In the mid-1840’s, the study of folklore and ancient literature gave rise to the comparative historical method. Pypin came close to this method in his Essay on the Literary History of Old Russian Stories and Fairy Tales (1857). Later, T. Benfey (Panchatantra, 1859) proposed the migration theory, attributing the similarity of plots of folk tales not to the common origin of peoples, but to later contacts among peoples and the migration of plots from India. Benfey’s theory stimulated both the historical approach to links among peoples and an interest in such purely poetic elements as plots and characters. However, the theory did not investigate the genesis of the poetic elements and often resulted in random and superficial comparisons. Parallel to the comparative historical school and correcting and elaborating its conclusions, there arose theories attributing the similarity of poetic forms to the uniformity of the human psyche (the ethnopsy-chology school of H. Steinthal and M. Lazarus) and to the animism common to all primitive peoples (E. B. Tylor). These theories in turn became the basis for the Scottish scholar A. Lang’s theory of the spontaneous origin of plots, known as the anthropological theory.

The scholarly work of A. N. Veselovskii was based on the mingling of many 19th-century methodological traditions. Adopting the mythologists’ theory of the myth as the primary form of artistic creation, Veselovskii directed his investigations to concrete comparisons in literary history. Unlike the migration school, however, he raised the question of the preconditions for borrowing, the problem of “countercurrents” in the literature experiencing the influence. Despite the positivistic tinge of his initial position, Veselovskii opened the way for historical-genetic studies of artistic forms. In his Historical Poetics, explaining the “essence of poetry based on its history,” Veselovskii turned to historical reality and investigated the “emotional experience of poetic imagery and the forms expressing it” (Istoricheskaia po-etika, 1940, pp. 53–54). Thus, the subject of historical poetics was established as the study of the development of poetic forms and of the laws by which “a particular social content is embodied in certain inevitable poetic forms,” such as genre, epithet, or plot. A. A. Potebnia approached the problem of imagery from another angle, from the standpoint of the structure of the work of art as a whole (From Lectures on the Theory of Literature, 1894; From Notes on the Theory of Literature, 1905). Potebnia’s study of the analogy between words and images with respect to their social “applications” substantiates the ambiguity of the artistic work, which seems to contain a multiplicity of meanings, and reveals the image’s infinite capacity for renewal in the course of its historical life and the creative role of the reader in this change. Potebnia’s idea of the “inner form” of the word stimulated the dialectical study of the problem of the artistic image and anticipated the later study of poetic structure in relation to its function.

In the last third of the 19th century the method of cultural history was further developed in Western European literary studies through the comparative historical and, especially, the psychological approach (the Frenchman E. Hennequin’s Scholarly Criticism, 1888; G. Brandes’ Principal Currents in Nineteenth-century European Literature, 1873–90). Representatives of the psychological school included W. Wundt, J. Volkelt, R. Müller-Freienfels, Potebnia (to some extent), and D. N. Ov-sianiko-Kulikovskii. The emphasis on comparative historical studies led to the creation of a special discipline, comparative literary theory and criticism (F. Baldensperger and P. Van Tieghem in France). The development of literary theory and criticism became worldwide, breaking down age-old barriers between East and West. The first histories of national literatures appeared in the Oriental countries, notably Haga Yaichi’s Ten Lectures on Japanese Literature (1899) and, somewhat later, histories of Indian literature and Lu Hsin’s Short History of Chinese Prose (1923). This period saw the evolution of systematic literary criticism in the strict sense.

At the turn of the 20th century an antipositivist trend based on idealist premises arose in Western literary theory and criticism. It assumed three principal forms. First, mediated, intellectual knowledge was disparaged in favor of intuitive knowledge as applied to both the creative act and to judgments about art (H. Bergson’s Laughter, 1900). There were attempts not only to reject the system of traditional literary categories (types of poetry, genres) but also to prove that they were fundamentally inapplicable to art. In his Aesthetics (1902), B. Croce stated that all traditional classifications and poetic terminology determined only the external structure of a work, not its artistic value. In bringing intuition into conflict with reason and conceptual judgment, the intuitionists also questioned the scholarly validity of literary theory and criticism.

Second, efforts were made to overcome the superficial determinism of the cultural history school and to construct a classification of literature based on deep-rooted psychological and intellectual distinctions. Such was F. Nietzsche’s polarity of artistic types, derived from the classical gods Apollo and Dionysus: the plastic and musical, the contemplative, mental, form-creating principle as opposed to “vital,” emotional-aesthetic, turbulent, and at the same time tragic elements (The Birth of Tragedy From the Spirit of Music, 1872). Strongly influencing bourgeois and, especially, decadent aesthetics were the late Nietzsche’s irrationalism, his “tragic” relativism denying social and historical progress, and his antirealist notion of “myth-creation” in art. The Geistesgeschichte, or cultural-philosophical, school attempted to explain art in terms of deep-seated processes, above all the merging of the “epoch” (the “historical spirit”) and the “psychic” (the spiritual integrity of the individual). W. Dilthey, the leading representative of Geistesgeschichte posited three basic types of world view and artistic activity (positivists, objective idealists, and dualists). Rendering more concrete the philosophical approach to art, R. Unger considered general philosophical problems to be of lesser importance than such specific problems as fate, freedom and necessity, spirit and nature, and love and death (Philosophical Problems in Recent Literary Studies, 1908). Asserting the primacy of “emotional experience” (as a unity of the “psychic” and the “historical”) in literature and its link with the world view of an epoch, the Geistesgeschichte school ignored the social and class aspects of emotional experience. In developing the principle of histori-cism with respect to the alternation of artistic styles and forms, the school avoided explaining the lawlike regularities of the historical process and tended toward irrationalism and skepticism. It also minimized the importance of artistic structure since art was dissolved in the general world view of an epoch.

Greater attention to form was shown in H. Wölfflin’s theory of the structural differences between the art of the Renaissance and of the baroque (Principles of Art History, 1915), which was subsequently applied to literature by the German theoretician O. Walzel. A shortcoming of this approach was its tendency toward rigid classification, reducing the diversity of literature to one of two forms and exaggerating the spontaneous development of artistic forms.

The third manifestation of the antipositivist tendencies was psychoanalysis (S. Freud), which introduced the unconscious into explanations of art. The of Freudian psychoanalysis yielded meager results, such as explaining an artist’s entire creative work in terms of an “Oedipus complex.” Moreover, the psychoanalytic approach completely ignored social and ideological factors in literature. Applying psychoanalytic principles to art in a different manner, C. G. Jung formulated his theory of the collective unconscious (archetypes) in On the Relationship Between Analytical Psychology and the Literary Work, (1922).

The ritual-mythological school (N. Frye, M. Bodkin) developed under the influence of Jung’s analytical psychology and the ritual-mythological approach to the study of ancient cultures, represented by R. Smith and especially J. Frazer and his followers, the Cambridge school. The exponents of the ritual-mythological approach attempted to identify certain rituals and archetypes of the collective unconscious in the works of all ages, for example, initiation rituals corresponding to the psychological archetypes of birth and death. Similar views were held by E. Bjork in the United States, who attributed the symbolic effect of artistic works to magic rituals. Ritual-mythological criticism promotes study of genres and poetic devices (metaphors, symbols), but in its subordination of literature to myth and ritual, it submerges literary study beneath ethnology and psychoanalysis.

Currents based on existential philosophy occupied a special place in Western literary studies. Attempting to refute the view of history as a phenomenological process, these currents introduced the concept of existential time, to which great works of art correspond (M. Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art, 1935). E. Staiger made time the cornerstone of his classification of artistic styles and types of poetry, in which lyric, epic, and dramatic poetry express, respectively, the past, present, and future (Principles of Poetics, 1946; The Transformation of Style, 1963). Treating poetic works as self-sufficient, self-contained truth and “prophesy,” the existential “interpretation” avoids the traditional genetic approach and removes the work from its social and historical context.

In the 1920’s the formalist school emerged in Russia, reacting against intuitionism and biographic impressionism and against the methods that ignored the distinctive features of art (the school of cultural history). The formalists attempted to transcend the dualism of form and content by proposing a new interrelationship, that of material (something antecedent to the artist) and form (the arrangement of material in the work). Thus they expanded the concept of form, previously reduced to style or randomly chosen elements, to include the arrangement of artistic material as a whole. Such a view of form, however, left no room in the analysis and conception of art for epistemological and philosophical interpretations of art or for social interpretation of artistic phenomena. Through the Prague linguistic circle the formalist school had a significant influence on literary theory and criticism throughout the world, particularly on the “new criticism” and on structuralism, both of which also subscribed to T. S. Eliot’s ideas.

Alongside the further formalization and supplanting of epistemological and aesthetic aspects, there were attempts to bridge the dichotomy of form and content, unresolved by the formalist method, with its neopositivist methodology. First, the artistic work was viewed as a complex system of levels including elements of both content and form (R. Ingarden). Second, attempts were made to create a “system of systems,” that is, principles of interrelationship between the literary and other levels. C. Lévi-Strauss and J. Mukařovský studied the function of form. In the 1960’s there also emerged the sociological approach of L. Gold-mann and P. Macherey, reacting against formalist methods and subjective tendencies. Many of the exponents of this approach related literary phenomena directly to socioeconomic factors.

In general, contemporary literary theory and criticism has failed to resolve such key problems as literature’s relation to public life and the interrelationship between artistic form and content. Contemporary schools of literary theory and criticism in the West include the existential, the sociological, the ritual-mythological, and the structuralist. The various approaches both converge and conflict with one another; for example, the sociological approach tends toward both structuralism and existentialism.

Marxist-Leninist literary studies represented a new stage in the history of modern literary theory and criticism. In accordance with their doctrine of dialectical and historical materialism, Marx and Engels described the basic problems of aesthetics and art. In the Marxist view of art, the crucial factor is the tenet of historical materialism that states that the “mode of production of material life determines the social, political, and intellectual processes of life in general” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 13, p. 7). Like the entire intellectual process of life, aesthetic notions, literature, and art are considered by historical materialism to be the “ideal superstructure” above the real economic base of society (F. Engels, ibid., vol. 20, p. 90). The development of aesthetic ideals cannot be considered apart from the life of society as a whole, as an independent sphere obeying only its internal laws. The development of aesthetic ideals is ultimately determined in the same manner as are all other aspects of the life of society—by the development of material production and by the resulting production relations. However, Marx noted that artistic flowering and the development of society’s material base “by no means correspond to one another” (ibid., vol. 12, p. 736). Whether a social system favors or hinders artistic development, the direction taken by artistic development, and the predominance of particular forms and genres—all are determined not merely by the level of the material base of an epoch but above all by the nature of the epoch’s characteristic social relations: class or nonclass, antagonistic or nonantagonistic, and conducive or hostile to fostering man’s individuality. Marx and Engels also concluded that capitalist production is inimical to art and poetry.

Among works influenced by Marx and Engels were F. Mehring’s The Legend of Lessing (1893) and P. Lafargue’s The Origin of Romanticism (1885–96). Marxist study of literature was fruitfully developed in Russia by G. V. Plekhanov, V. V. Vorovskii, and A. V. Lunacharskii. Plekhanov’s writings on literature include Unaddressed Letters (1899–1900), articles on V. G. Belinskii and N. G. Chernyshevskii, The Proletarian Movement and Bourgeois Art (1905), and Art and Public Life (1912–13). Vorovskii is noted for his articles on the revolutionary democrats, M. Gorky, and the decadents; among Lunacharskii’s works are Marxism and Aesthetics: Dialogue on Art (1905) and Critical and Polemic Studies (1905). Interpreting art from the point of view of historical materialism, Marxist literary study from the outset criticized not only positivist (naturalistic) and subjective-idealist trends in modern literary theory and criticism but also the formalistic and antirealistic aesthetic notions of the decadents. However, as historians of culture and sociologists of art, Plekhanov, Mehring, and Lafargue borrowed extensively from the cultural history school, adopting the idea that literature is linked to social psychology, which they interpreted “from the point of view of the mutual relations and mutual influence of social classes” (G. V. Plekhanov, “A. I. Herzen and Serfdom,” Izbr. filosofskie proizv., vol. 4, 1958, p. 608).

In the second decade of the 20th century, vulgar sociologism developed under the influence of the sociological interpretation of literature. It grew out of a one-sided and incomplete conception of Marxist sociology and became influential in Soviet literary studies in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Opposing vulgar sociologism, Marxist literary theory and criticism demonstrated not only the distinctive nature of art and the laws of its development but also the dialectical conception of the social and historical causality of art and its social function. Fundamental to the Marxist position was the tenet that “only in the final analysis” does the economic base determine the phenomena of intellectual life and that this determining trend can be discerned only as the most general resultant of a “parallelogram” formed by the stress of social forces and influences moving in different directions, not as a mechanical cause-effect link. Equally basic was the thesis of the “relative independence” of ideology.

Lenin’s “In Memory of Herzen” (1912) and his articles on L. N. Tolstoy (1908–11) became vivid examples as well as methodological keys for the dialectical materialist interpretation of the social causality of art and for the struggle against vulgar sociologism. Lenin’s articles emphasized the objective importance of the writer’s works in the class struggle and offered models for the critical study of literature in relation to its epoch. In “Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution” (1908), Lenin wrote: “To identify the great artist with the revolution which he has obviously failed to understand, and from which he obviously stands aloof, may at first sight seem strange and artificial.. . . And if we have before us a really great artist, he must have reflected in his work at least some of the essential aspects of the revolution” (Sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 17, p. 206). According to Lunacharskii, Lenin’s theory of reflection took into account “not so much the writer’s origin as the manner in which he reflects social changes, not so much the author’s subjective attachments and links with a particular social milieu as the extent to which he is objectively representative of a given historical situation” (Stat’i o literature, 1957, p. 41).

One of the complex and vital issues of 20th-century culture was that of cultural heritage. Guidelines for solving this problem in terms of Marxist literary theory and criticism were provided by Lenin’s doctrine of “two national cultures in each national culture” (that of the ruling classes and democratic and socialist culture), as well as by his defense of the cultural heritage of the past, which he developed in the course of his struggle against Proletkult. “Marxism,” he wrote, “far from rejecting the most valuable achievements of the bourgeois epoch has, on the contrary, assimilated and refashioned everything of value in the more than two thousand years of development of human thought and culture” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 41, p. 337).

Lenin’s article “The Party Organization and Party Literature” (1905) recognizes the importance of literature in the social and political life of society. This article became the basis of one of the guiding principles of Marxist literary theory and criticism —the principle of party-mindedness (partiinost’). The key element of this principle is conscious service “to socialism and the toiling millions.” Lenin’s theory of reflection, his principle of partiinost’ in literature, and his doctrine of cultural heritage were fundamental for the creation of the theory of socialist realism.

Contemporary Soviet literary theory and criticism is a science that studies all aspects of literature and its origins and social ties. It studies the distinctive features of word-image artistic thinking, the nature and functions of artistic creativity, and the general and local lawlike regularities of literary history. In recent decades research in poetics has aimed at identifying the form-creating, content aspects of literature. This has brought into focus the problem of the literary work as a complex system to be considered within the framework of a changing historical and social context.

Such an approach, which opposes the atomistic-metaphysical trends of positivist literary theory and criticism, establishes the hierarchical nature of the work’s inner organization and considers its components functionally, in their changing relationships to one another. Greater attention is being given to the mathematical aspects of literary study, and structural-semiotic methods of research are developing. Including artistic phenomena in the social-intellectual process, Soviet literary study investigates the place and functions of literature within other systems— economic, social, and ideological. This enables Soviet literary theory and criticism to overcome the one-sidedness of certain foreign schools, for example, to determine the true role of the mythological and ritual elements in classical and medieval literature. During the 1960’s study of the historical destiny of artistic works—the history of their recognition and the problems of their origin and typology—were set as scholarly goals. Greater attention has been directed to the points of contact and the transitions in artistic epochs, periods, and styles—for example, ancient and Byzantine literature, medieval Latin and modern European literature, the Enlightenment and romanticism, and ancient and modern Russian literature.

Comparative study attempts to go beyond external and occasional similarities and to deal with historically conditioned artistic and, more broadly, general cultural contacts and analogies. The study of literary links in Soviet literary theory and criticism has become a typological study of the uniformity of the literary process, which passes through relatively similar artistic stages in different countries. Textual criticism has expanded considerably, and various types of editions of the Russian classics, including scholarly ones, have been published. The foundations are being laid for the comprehensive study of literature in its relation to other art forms, ideology, and science.

Questions of partiinost’ and national character in literature and theoretical problems of socialist realism are being explored. Many books and collections of articles criticize contemporary bourgeois methodology and revisionist, sectarian, and vulgarizing trends in Marxist literary theory and criticism. Party decisions on ideological questions exert a considerable influence on Soviet literary studies. The 1972 resolution of the Central Committee of the CPSU On Literary-Artistic Criticism emphasizes the importance of criticism in the strict sense (kritika) and of literary theory and criticism (literaturovedenie) in the cultural life of the Soviet people today. Marxist-Leninist doctrine must be applied in thoroughly analyzing the literary process, exposing “the reactionary essence of bourgeois ‘mass culture’ and decadent currents” and struggling against “all types of non-Marxist views of literature and art and revisionist aesthetic conceptions” (Kommunist, 1972, no. 2, p. 14).


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Ob iskusstve, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1967.
Lenin, V. I. O literature i iskusstve, 4th ed. Moscow, 1969.
Veselovskii, A. N. “O metode i zadachakh istorii literatury kak nauki.” In Istoricheskaia poetika. Leningrad, 1940.
Arkhangel’skii, A. S. Vvedenie v istoriiu russkoi literatury, vol. 1. Petrograd, 1916.
Wehrli, M. Obshchee literaturovedenie. Moscow, 1957. (With bibliography; translated from German.)
Sovremennaia kniga po estetike: Antologiia. Moscow, 1957. (Translated from English.)
Teoriia literatury: Osnovnye problemy v istoricheskom osveshchenii [vols. 1–3]. Moscow, 1962–65.
Timofeev, L. I. Osnovy teorii literatury, 4th ed. Moscow, 1971.
Nikolaev, P. A. Vozniknovenie marksistskogo literaturovedeniia v Rossii. Moscow, 1970.
Kayser, W. Das sprachliche Kunstwerk, 12th ed. Berlin-Munich, 1967. (With bibliography.)
Wellek, R., and A. Warren. Theory of Literature, 3rd ed. New York, 1963. (With bibliography.)
Wellek, R. Concepts of Criticism. New York, 1963.
Wellek, R. A History of Modern Criticism, 1750–1950, vols. 1–4. New Haven-London, 1955–66.
Curtius, E. R. Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter, 2nd ed. Bern, 1954.
Markiewicz, H. Główne problemy wiedzy o literaturze, 2nd ed. Kraków, 1966.
IU. V. MANN and K. SH. PEROTOV (20th century literary theory and criticism)
Journals. Periodicals containing information on the literary process and its study, as well as original studies in literary history and theory, are called journals of literary theory and criticism (literaturovedcheskie zhurnaly). Originating in the late 19th century as multifaceted publications, these journals differ from purely bibliographic publications or synopses and from literary magazines, in which sections devoted to criticism and bibliography largely supplement the publication of fiction and which are intended for readers not possessing a specialized knowledge of literary theory and criticism. Akin to journals of literary theory and criticism are the philological journals of scholarly institutions and societies and the literary-political magazines, in which literary articles and surveys are generally of a publicistic nature. In 1971 some 800 journals of this type were published throughout the world; including those publications known as proceedings or archives, the number exceeds 1,400.
The philological disciplines developed rapidly during the Renaissance, and the scholarly information that was regularly published in the 17th century included much that was of a philological nature. The prototypes of the present journal of literary theory and criticism thus initiated Western European and world journalism. Among these prototypes were the summarizing bulletins of the French physician T. Renaudot (1630’s and 1640’s) and the French Journal des savants (founded in 1665) and Nouvelles de la République des lettres (1684–1718). The next stage in the evolution of the journal of literary theory and criticism was the appearance of similar publications in other European countries—C. Thomasius’ Monatsgespräche (1688–90), the first German journal, and The Compleat Library (1692–94) of the English publisher J. Dunton. In the latter, the composition and proportion of the various sections (surveys, studies, criticism, and bibliography) of journals of literary theory and criticism were defined for the first time.
In these publications the word “literature” was broadly interpreted as book learning or philology. Journals devoted to literature appeared a century later, when the distinctive features of verbal art came under investigation and literature gained recognition as a form of social activity. The critical survey, an established part of the journal of literary theory and criticism, took on publicistic overtones in French, English, and Italian journals, such as the Gazette littéraire (1764–66, to which Voltaire and Diderot contributed), and the Memoires secrètes pour servir à l’histoire de la République des lettres (1762–87) in France and La frusta letteraria (1763–65), published by the Italian writer G. Baretti. A philosophical-aesthetic approach to literary questions marked the German journals, including Lessing’s Briefe dieneueste Literatur betreffend (1759–65) and A. W. Schlegel’s Athenäum (1798–1800). Journals that incorporated articles on literary theory and criticism also appeared in Russia and the western hemisphere in the 18th century.
In the 19th century critical surveys and reviews became more common and the presentation of bibliographical information was improved, but articles on specific problems of artistic creativity or literary theory, occupying a central place in 20th-century journals of literary theory and criticism, were seldom encountered. Surveys were usually publicistic and were not restricted to literature, for example, V. G. Belinskii’s surveys, which combined literary study with publicistic eloquence. A number of leading journals combined literary and political concerns, including the Edinburgh Review (1802–1929, Great Britain), Die Wage (1818–21, Germany), edited by L. Boerne, Revue des deux mondes (1829–1944, 1945—France), the United States Magazine and Democratic Review (1837–59, United States), the Russian Vestnik Evropy (1802–30), Teleskop (1831–36), and Moskovskii Telegrafi 1825–34).
Journals of literary theory and criticism in the modern sense appeared at the turn of the 20th century, when the methodological principles of literary study were being worked out. Among these were the Russkii filologicheskii vestnik (1879–1918), the German Euphorion (1894–1951) and Die Literatur (1898–1942), the French Mercure de France (since 1890) and Nouvelle revue française (since 1909), and the Italian Giornale storico della letteratura italiana (since 1883) and Critica (1903–44, 1951—), edited by B. Croce. The journal of literary theory and criticism assumed its final form in the 1920’s and 1930’s. In the West such journals were usually the organ of a group or school, such as T. S. Eliot’s Criterion (1922–39), F. R. Leavis’ Scrutiny (1932–53), and J. Ortega y Gasset’s Gaceta literaria (1927–32).
Among the most important contemporary journals of literary theory and criticism in the West are the Australian Meanjin Quarterly (published since 1941); the Austrian Sprachkunst (since 1970); the American journals American Literature (since 1929), Contemporary Literature (since 1960), and New Literary History (since 1969); the British Critical Quarterly (since 1959); the review of world English-language literature Ariel (since 1970); the West German Poetica (since 1967) and Text und Kritik (since 1963); the Spanish Revista de literatura (since 1952); the general Scandinavian Edda (since 1914); and the Swedish Svensk literaturtideskrift (since 1938).
In the Oriental countries journals of literary theory and criticism appeared only in the 20th century, first in Japan. Among the outstanding journals and magazines today are Kabul (Afghanistan, since 1931), Lotus: Afro-Asian Writing (Egypt, since 1970), Alochna (in Hindi, since 1951), Contemporary Indian Literature (India, since 1960), al-Adab (Lebanon, since 1953), Bungaku (Japan, since 1933), and Outlook (Japan, since 1960).
In the Soviet Union the first journals devoted to literary theory and criticism were established in the 1920’s, notably Na postu (1923–25), Na literaturnom postu (1926–32), and Literatura i marksizm (1928–31). The journals Pechat’ i revoliutsiia (1921—30) and Literaturnyi kritik (1933–40) publicized the achievements of Soviet literary studies as a whole. Today this function is fulfilled by such journals as Voprosy literatury (since 1957), Russkaia literatura (since 1958), Radians’ke literaturoznavstvo (since 1957, Ukrainian SSR), Keel ja kirjandus (since 1958, Estonian SSR), and those appearing in other languages of the Soviet peoples.
Among the most highly regarded journals of literary theory and criticism in the other socialist countries are Literaturna misul (Bulgaria, since 1957), Kritika (Hungary, since 1963), Sinn und Form (German Democratic Republic [GDR], since 1949), Weimarer Beitrage (GDR, since 1955), Twórczość (Poland, since 1945), Ruch literacki (Poland, since 1960), Revista de istoria si teorie literară (Rumania, since 1952), Česká literatura (Czechoslovakia, since 1953), Slovenská literatura (Czechoslovakia, since 1954), and Izraz (Yugoslavia, since 1957).


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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