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Dobromir Grigorov


This paper will examine the factors that might justify the definition of norms governing literature in the 60s as normative poetics. Arguments and potential conclusions are based on Czech and Bulgarian literary material. The trasnational importance of the normative is determined by the identical literary and geographical east European borders after the Second World War. Consequently, the choice of material does not limit the validity of the outlined conclusions to these two national literary traditions.

The analysis of normative poetics combines the concerns of contemporary Slavonic studies with the methodology issues related to literary historiography. Its first criterion is based on the function of language within the literary work. Language directs the literary historian towards the search for new factors guiding the development of the literary process. The language criterion questions the historiographic classification of national literatures as a whole. Slavonic literary history still lacks a way of bringing together the scattered trends of national literatures due to their previous splitting up into categories like ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’, ‘official’ and ‘emigrant’.

Exceptions to the above rule are too few in Bulgarian literature and, as a result, the problem is hardly relevant to Bulgarian literary history. Czech literary criticism, on the other hand, has started to ask itself ever more insistently the question whether a literary piece created outside the native cultural space can still be an artistic reflection of the indigenous literary environment. Hagiographic apology does not figure prominently any more in the literary history portrait of the emigrant writer. Publishing plans from the beginning of the 90s aggressively saturated public space mainly by texts written in exile, which naturally led to an increased interest in literary production back home. The a priori belief in the historic literary value and aesthetic function of emigrant literature actually turned tiresome to critics and caused a certain indifference among readers. This development coincided with the bitter experience of many emigrant writers faced with the limited scope of human historical memory. The memory of post-1989 literary history had to accept the proclaimed view that lessons from experiences beyond the native country should be shared at all costs with everyone in order to be well remembered. This double life of literature split, according to its place of origin, into literature in and outside an emigrant environment, cannot serve any more as a criterion to apply in further analytic readings. Singling out literary exiles as an independent object of study does not assist either literary historiography or the outlining the relationship between normative and non-normative art. Post-war east European culture makes us realise that, previous to speaking and writing on non-normative literature, one might (or should) problematise norms as such. This paper, therefore, will attempt to enhance the critical language of literary history, thus aiming at an examination the relationship between norms and literariness in the context of east European literary geography. The term literariness will be used to denote the potential of literature to establish novel aesthetic norms and to transform the existing ones.

The second criterion for systematising normative poetics is the empowerment of proletarian literary criticism between the wars (a process that started in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and in Bulgaria - in 1944). Up until the mid-40s it was unthinkable to identify political power with the sanction of literary criticism: the different languages of various literary manifestos are always a direct consequence of freely stated diverse searches in the field of the literary process. The metalanguages of literary programmes do not come close to the real aims of political institutions. Hence, the term proletarian literature does not always (and all costs) mean courting the literary practices and aesthetic programmes of political life. We shall refer to the differentiated kinds of leftist and proletarian literature as two interconnected and yet differing types of artistic awareness. The public activities of both leftist and proletarian literary criticism exemplify two co-existing concepts of the nature and purpose of literature. In the Bulgarian context, ‘literature of the left is opened in a pluralistic way to socialist revolutionary movements as well as democratic public movements in general’ (Belyaeva 1994: 267). (The quoted examples here are two: the first one being the diametrically opposed types of September literature of Kr. Velkov and Geo Milev, and the second one - the similarities in the poetics of N. Vaptsarov and M. Vulev). The growing autonomy of leftist and proletarian art offers an identical systematisation of the Czech literary process in the 20s and 30s of the twentieth century. The universally valid question on the character of ‘new, proletarian art’ has united writers of different political views. Answers to this question might be found in the key works of poetism in poetry (V. Nezval, J. Seifert and K. Biebl) as well as in the propaganda rhetoric of St. K. Neumann and I. Wolker. Consequently, a monographic study of V. Nezval’s complete works is only possible within the framework of studying the relationship between the literary practices and the public and political activity of the author. The changing programme of the ‘Devetsil’ association in the 20s figures prominently amongst the few examples of launching a uniting formula for a wide circle of poets, writers and painters. Narcissism and political differences have no impact when counterpoised by an aesthetic platform.

It is only in the middle of the 40s and after that literary criticism in both the Bulgarian and Czech environment came into possession of official political power over literary life and took the privileged position of an intermediary between power and the reader. This peculiarity of culture and history in Eastern Europe produced the unsuccessful attempt to remove ideological considerations from the halo of the poet N. Vaptsarov. Merging the writer’s life into the literary process led to the replacement of the normative cliche ‘poet and revolutionary’ by the new ideological rhetoric that resurfaced in the formulation ‘poet and terrorist’. The involvement of literary knowledge with the official political doctrine reached its culmination in the empowerment of literary criticism. The extremely aggressive ideologisation of literary life is directly related to the political involvement of literature. At the end of the 40s Paul Eluard treated the fate of Czech surrealist Zavis Kalandra with shattering indifference. The transnational was victorious despite the insistent defence on the part of Andre Breton. The life of a poet from the surrealist brotherhood turned out to be insignificant and irrelevant when compared to the importance of Ideology. The transnational and the transhistorical aspects of surrealist awareness came into conflict with the purpose of the physical preservation of a poet.

The new functions of literary cognition point at similarities of transnational character. In terms of methodology, the relationship between norms and literariness is linked directly to the process called by H. Gunther instatement (Verstaatlichung) of literature (Gunther, 1984). The next specification is purely chronological: previous to the mid-40s it is only the literature of Soviet Russia that provides an opportunity to examine the process of instatement. It is later that we can observe the shared transnational characteristics of normative poetics in the literary geography of Eastern Europe. The difference between leftist and proletarian art is methodologically functional in specifying the two meanings invested in the term proletarian literature as well. The first meaning might be found in the correlation between literary practice and the selfreflective critical language between the wars. The second meaning has been normatively established and imposed by instated (official) literary criticism. Characterising the normative poetics in the east European literary space from the middle of the 20th c. till the end of the 80s requires going back to official literary theory of that time. Given this context, the interest in the 60s is justified for three reasons. The first one has to do with the explicitly social involvement of literature which, to a certain extent, takes on the functions of a public arena. The second one is related to the increased absorption of various public messages by art so characteristic of the 60s. The third reason is based on literature’s attempt ‘to make up for reality’ (Kratochvil 1995: 78). The literary process in the 60s has been strongly influenced by the existence of mutually contradictory ideological doctrines.

* * *

The present paper does not break new grounds in outlining the disparate non-aesthetic norms that have been imposed on the literature from the second half of the twentieth century. I. Smirnov (1994) and E. Dobrenko (1990) can already offer the results of a search for a new metalanguage to substitute and correct at last the critical paradigm of ideological rhetoric, whose avoidance has provided the third motivating factor governing this text, too. We suggest two reasons which should justify leaving ideological rhetoric as peripheral to our attention. The first one is the inability of that rhetoric to comment on the emergence of literary facts outside the methodology and means of expression of political thought. The second reason refers to the demonstrative politicising of aesthetic norms which makes analysis of artefacts nearly impossible. Within the context of literary criticism, this leads to incapacity to go beyond the level of reproduction. The very name ‘socialist realism’ introduced as early as the 30s contains the conflict between literary versus political normativity. The artistic method canonised in the mid-20s of the 20th century has been studied by the instruments of heterogeneous terminologies. I. Smirnov comments on his reading of the most recent Russian literature as one of the possible approaches to socialist realism. As a result, he can offer us a researcher’s self-identification with regard to familiar metalanguage frameworks: socio-communicative, historico-typological, historico-successive and cognitive criteria (Smirnov 1994: 235).

While searching for a new descriptive and analytical approach to normative poetics, we might discuss the trinity of aesthetic function, norm and value (Mukarovsky, 1994). Mukarovsky’s conclusions are not relevant to us because of their importance to the history of literary theory. On the one hand, Mukarovsky defines the correlation between the aesthetic function of the literary piece, and its permissible other functions. On the other hand, he comments on the social purpose and links of aesthetic norms with regard to other co-existing norms which influence their emergence and transformation. What is important for the analysis of the relation between norm and literariness is that ‘there is always a large set of aesthetic canons at work within the same community’ (Mukarovsky 1966: 35). Given this conclusion, the relationship between norms and literariness in the Czech and Bulgarian context seems to be a private problem for a number of reasons. In the first place, there is the aggressive aspiration of post-war normative poetics towards absolute mandatoriness as a direct consequence of the instatement process. The existence of empowered aesthetic norms indicates the rejection of peaceful co-existence with previously encountered norms. The relative age of the aesthetic norm is the second important conclusion from Jan Mukarovsky’s paper. This criterion is chronological as much as qualitative. It explains the dynamics of the contradiction between newly created and encountered norms. The emergence and enforcement of socialist realism in literature does not prove its relative age as a norm. The genealogy of the ‘new method’ betrays anachronism in its origin: ‘[...] socialist realism in literature as a return to the not particularly young cliche of the realistic novel, or, in other words, to an all too old canon on the decline [...]’ (Mukarovsky 1994: 36). That is, we identify the simultaneous existence of archaic character and new aim in the same norm. The new aesthetic norm gives rise to tension for two reasons: striving after the highest position in the canonical hierarchy as well as the already observed contradiction between function and relative age. From the link between aesthetic canonical hierarchy and the relative age of the norm as its qualitative characteristics it follows that socialist realism emerged as a chronologically new canon resurrecting already used poetics. As a result, its acceptance by literary criticism and the broad reading public is incredibly facilitated and there are hardly any obstructions to its assimilation. The appearance of the new norm removes the possibility that the generation gap might lead to an aesthetic revolution. The connection between social change and the establishing of the socialist realism canon (previous to World War Two in Soviet Russia, and in the wake of it throughout the rest of Eastern Europe) denotes the link between a desire to do away with social differentiation and to unify aesthetic norms. One should also consider the parallelism between the social and the aesthetic realm since it is a prerequisite for the actual development of the literary edifice. The interpretation of parallelism as ‘inevitable automatism’ is unproductive and in order to avoid it, we shall proceed to the second part of our discussion.

* * *

Official Czech literary thought in the 60s of the 20th century indicates an unutilised opportunity for a comment on normative poetics by introducing the relationship between fiction and reality. Official norms attach great significance to the interdependence between real historical prototypes and the dimensions of literary time-space. The tenets of normative literary theory offer an exceptionally narrow space for analysis of the relations between fiction and reality. Institutionalised literary thought limits these relationships to two opposing variations and simplifies the mutual dependence of the two categories by confrontation or identification. It is what we find in the requirement for full similarity to documentary, witness-proof reality and the readers’ expectations for authenticity of the literary text. In many cases the literary work interprets identification with the real as a deliberately searched for rejection of the possibility for the real to be a decisive member in this opposition. Czech prose in the 60s demonstrates an intended play with the authenticity expectations, in this way making topical the problem of its dominant role in the axiology of the receiver. Hesitant value endowment, therefore, is a rejection of specific tenets of the normative poetics.

Reader’s competence and literary norm are two categories which make it possible to describe the impact of imperative poetics in the Czech and Bulgarian context. These two concepts have been preferred for the clear realisation that they might be included in a terminological order which matches the outlined emipiria. On the other hand, we need reminding of the traditional disposition of post-40s Czech thought to structuralism as one possible way of scholarly literary cognition. In the 60s, the social characteristics of this literary school are further complemented by the connotations of a methodological and ideological corrective in a number of discussions (Jankovic, 1992). (This phenomenon has a similar reflection on Bulgarian literary life, too, where structuralism is not a native intellectual product and its absorption depends on the degree of familiarity with French texts). We might recall one of the key concepts in the poetics of socialist realism: the positive character. The positive character’s main purpose in life is to ‘show the reader the aim and demonstrate the means of achieving it’ (Sergeev 1990: 13). The literary work performs an educational function as well, whereas the roles of the literary character and the reader develop within the framework of the relation between mentor and pupil. The study of normative poetics, therefore, is related directly to the reader’s choice of fiction or reality as it governs the relationship between the two. Literary competence is one of two fields where we might systematise the relation between norms and literariness. The other field is limited to literary time and space.

The two options for relating the fictional to the real permitted by normative poetics are combined under the principle of confrontation. Official literary thought castigates any literary attempt that transgresses what is allowed. Artistic time and space have no right of autonomy with regard to their probable or proven prototypes. Favouring the confrontational attitude, i.e. interpreting fiction as an antonym for reality is, according to Iser, a ‘misleading supposition’ (Iser 1976: 88). Iser’s logical progression necessitates the definition of the ‘reality of literature’ problem. He refutes the arguments ‘for’ separating the fictive from the real and placing them in an opposition which presupposes an a priori, incessant confrontation. Iser’s conclusions are not based on the literary material of Slavonic literary thought and yet his work holds validity as a warning within the context of the literary 60s in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia.

The ‘crisis of the big epic’ (Rzounek 1974: 34) exemplifies one of the key premises in the vocabulary of normative literary theory of that time. The crisis origin shows the link of that postulate to the ideas that engage a large proportion of European humanists of the left. Interpreting that formulation by the means of literary history categories is not easily achievable. The mysterious, ill-defined format of the ‘big epic’ intimates at the important role of realist poetics for the establishment of official norm. Critical opinions and artistic texts which interpret realism as anachronism are subjected to ideological castigation. Arguments fluctuate around the central topic of the fight ‘for’ or ‘against’ realism as an artistic method. The examination of normative literary thought covers the study of transformations undergone by premises of Soviet literary criticism of the 30s in the Czech and Bulgarian environment. A comparative reading of any nation-bound critical interpretation and its primary source in Soviet Russia amounts to a comparison between variants and the invariant. A further step will be to outline the nationally specific transformations of normative poetics according to the logic of the national literary process. Slavonic literary history has a lot to offer us in this respect.

Normative literary theory interprets the literary situation defined as crisis by explicit erudition and the well-mastered rhetoric of research writing. One of the reasons for the emergence of a crisis seems to be the author’s refusal to subjugate his individual artistic (cultural, aesthetic, religious, etc.) ideology to the aesthetic norm: a logical consequence of the official political ideology. Not surprisingly, official literary thought has been disappointed at the asocialisation and depoliticisation of the author. It is the disappointment at manifest social and political passivity in literature when literature denies to serve primarily as an educator. Should the literary character manifest verbal or non-verbal social engagement, the didactic character of literature is still different from that of collaborating with official political ideology. Even today Czech prose of the 60s continues to provoke contradictory opinions not only when viewed in a literary context but also in a social and cultural one. The novels of Ludvik Vaculik (The Axe, 1966), I. Skvorecky (The Cowards, 1958, 1964), Ivan Klima (The Hour of Silence, 1963), Ivan Kriz (The Truth of the Fall of Sodom, 1968), Milan Kundera (the Joke, 1967) face the reader with a dilemma to either combine literary fiction with ideological postulates or politicise central tenets of various cultural ideologies. Thirty years later the changing literary competence and social and historical experience of the recipient turned insufficient and cut-and-dry interpretations surfaced again. The awareness of the dependence between the literary text potential to create and impose aesthetic norms, on the one hand, and the normative poetics of the official political doctrine, on the other, is therefore guided by the interpretation of the devices used by literature to achieve its ‘play at fiction and reality’ and assist us in explaining the active attitude of the recipient in the act of reading.

The ‘reality of fiction’ is not necessarily motivated by its potential or real prototype. Hence, the link between fiction and reality cannot be limited to the poles of confrontation or unification. This is one possible criterion for the recognition and singling out of the so called non-normative literature. What other norms were created by literature in the 60s? This is a question awaiting its future answer from literary history. Possible definitions are not likely to require adding the Imaginary (das Imaginaere) as a necessary part to the opposition ‘fiction vs. reality’. The dynamics of the literary process resulting from aggressive normative poetics leads to a strong tension in the relation between norms and literariness. The dominant norm creates the prerequisites for doing away with the norm creating potential of literature and, therefore, presupposes the denial of literature’s autonomy. The above offered contribution on the language of literary history is actually an interpretation of literature’s resisting power. It has been suggested to literary history since, in a diachronic perspective, the norm called socialist realism is but a stage in the development of the literary edifice.




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GÜNTHER, Hans. Die Verstaatlichung der Literatur. Entstehung und Funktionsweise des sozialistisch - realistischen Kanons in der sowjetischen Literatur. Stuttgart, 1984.

СМИРНОВ, Игорь. Психодиахронологика. Психоистория русской литературы от романтизма до наших дней, Москва, 1994.

ДОБРЕНКО, Е. А. (ed.) Избавление от миражей. Соцреализм сегодня. Москва, 1990.

KRATOCHVIL, Jíří. Příběhy príběhů. Brno, 1995, pp. 72-78.

MUKAŘOVSKÝ, Jan. Esteticka funkce, norma a hodnota jako socialni fakty. // Studie z estetiky. Praha, 1966.

JANKOVIČ, Milan. Dilo jako deni smyslu. Praha, 1992.

СЕРГЕЕВ, Евгений. Несколько застарелых вопросов. // Избавление от миражей. Москва, 1990, pp. 6-27.

ISER, Wolfgang. Der Akt des Lesens. München, 1976.

RZOUNEK, Vítězslav. Proti proudu. Praha, 1974.



© Dobromir Grigorov
© E-magazine LiterNet, 19.02.2000, № 2 (3)