A self diminished to its part becomes a monster.
- Marina Tsvetaeva, 1932
In 1998, the world celebrated the centenary of Sergei M. Eisenstein, famous Russian film director and one of the most radical theoreticians of the new medium. The date was commemorated by several conferences and the publication of Eisenstein’s texts that were previously unpublished and unknown to a wide audience. The appearance of these publications, casting new light on both the theoretical and artistic works of Eisenstein, and the significance of the date called for reflection about Eisenstein’s life – both personal and professional. None of it was ever easy: not his personal life, marked by a tragic tension between the inner necessity to continue his creative work and ever-escalating political and ideological restrictions; or the creation and reception of his projects and films, many of which never came to life and some that did were subsequently destroyed; or the fate of his theoretical work, largely unpublished during his life time and only gradually released from the grip of Soviet authorities after his death.
As Annette Michelson noted in her article, “Eisenstein at 100: Recent Reception and Coming Attractions”: “Questions of reception and scholarship are, as we well know, everywhere subject to political determination.” (1) The fate of Eisenstein before and after the Perestroika, within and outside Russia, demonstrates this persuasively. One very tragic consequence of this is that we have never seen the whole Eisenstein and this can lead to some contra-productive distortions. As Marina Tsvetaeva once said, “A self diminished to its part becomes a monster.” (2)
This article makes a little step towards a more accurate and inclusive depiction of Eisenstein’s theoretical heritage. It traces the history of Eisenstein’s writing of his major theoretical work, Method, and that of its later publication. It also offers a summary account of Method’s major tenets and their importance in Eisenstein’s thought. Finally, it outlines the major shifts in the appropriation of Eisenstein’s theoretical heritage and positions it within the current context of aesthetic theory.
In the period from 1964 to 1971, the selected works from Eisenstein’s theoretical writings were published in Russia in six substantial volumes. However, that was less than half of his theoretical heritage kept in the State Archives of Literature and Arts in Moscow (TsGALI). It took almost thirty years more, and a dramatic change of the political and ideological situation in the country for his unfinished opus magnum, Method, to appear in print in 2002. In this achievement, the critical role of Naum Kleiman, the director of the Moscow Film Museum who presided over Eisenstein’s heritage and has been responsible for most of the Russian publications of Eisenstein, should be acknowledged. Similarly, the contribution of The Eisenstein Centre, particularly its director Alexandr Troshin, cannot be overestimated. In 1988, Troshin founded the only Russian scholarly journal of cinema theory, Kinovedcheskie Zapiski, in which many of Eisenstein’s significant texts belonging to Method and other books have been published over the past 18 years. The efforts of these people, and those of the professional, committed teams behind them, were critical in maintaining continuity in research activity centring on Eisenstein and ensuring the highest standard of scholarship. In doing this, they worked in difficult and often adverse circumstances.
During the Soviet period, Eisenstein’s theoretical writings could not be published in full because they contradicted many of the officially proclaimed Soviet dogmas. Then, in the period immediately following the collapse of the USSR, Eisenstein became an unjust victim of iconoclastic fervour. If, at the height of Stalin’s ideological restrictions, Eisenstein had constantly to defend his position against accusations of leftist petit-bourgeois formalism, during the Perestroika he was accused of being a pragmatic populistically-oriented servant of the communist leaders and of facilitating Soviet propaganda. It took some time for a more measured view to appear. Sadly, this was accompanied by a general fading of interest in the polemics surrounding æsthetics and art, which was being squeezed out of the public domain by the more pressing concerns of the capitalist transformation that engulfed Russia. As a rather sad coda to this development, the Museum of Cinema and the Cinema Centre in Moscow – the home and base of Eisenstein research – were closed in 2005, allegedly because these excellent facilities, which were located in a prestigious area in the centre of the city, could be more profitably used as a casino. Ironically, Russian cultural heritage is now more endangered – not by ideological pressure, but by greed and indifference produced by the culture of rampant capitalism.
The appearance of the first publication of one of Eisenstein’s major works – in its uncensored, uncut form, accompanied by a thoroughly researched commentary – amounts to a major event in our continuous appropriation of Eisenstein. Method reflects the evolution of theoretical thought of ‘late’ Eisenstein underlying a shift visible through those materials that did come to light in the form of speeches and short edited publications since the beginning of the 1930s. This shift can be very generally characterised as a move away from early Eisenstein the constructivist – Eisenstein as a main proponent of montage and disciple of Vsevolod Meyerhold – to Eisenstein the passionate advocate of synæsthesia, Richard Wagner and a unified theory of art. The limited nature of the previously available materials led some cinema historicists to interpret this development as a shift from agitprop formalism to socialist realism, a capitulation in the face of political and ideological pressure. (3) More insightful interpretations, such as the one by Peter Wollen, acknowledge that
although there was a shift, politically modulated as prudence demanded, it was basically driven by developments in his own thinking, as he confronted the new reality of sound and colour as integral components of cinema and reconsidered, in response, his theory of “ecstasy” and “polyphony”. (4)
The shift was also the result of some important theoretical development stimulated by Eisenstein’s research in ethnography, anthropology and psychology, and ongoing study of the works of Lucien Lévi-Bruhl and James Fraser, Otto Rank and Sigmund Freud, Lev Vygotsky and Alexandr Luria.
The work on Method was started by Eisenstein in 1931 while he was in Mexico. It was continued in Moscow in 1940 and intensified in 1943 when he was evacuated to Alma-Ata, where he continued to film Ivan Groznyy (Ivan the Terrible, 1944). The book has never been finished but its ideas were expressed in chapters, parts, fragments and letters, personal discussions with friends (some of them documented) and diary entries (Eisenstein kept a diary on a regular basis throughout his life). Putting them together presented a major challenge for scholars and editors. As Kleiman noted, the first problem was the title. Eisenstein himself, and later cinema historians, used two titles interchangeably: Method and Grundproblem. Eisenstein’s plans for the book, reflecting the development and evolution of his ideas, demonstrate that Method was a much broader concept for him, encompassing a greater selection of texts, while Grundproblem was perceived as a part of Method. On the other hand, Grund problematic was a leading theme and main subject, intrigue and enigma of the whole opus. (5)
A preoccupation with method was central to both Eisenstein the director and Eisenstein the theoretician. It reflected Eisenstein’s main understanding of art’s functions and tasks as a powerful force, having an effect not only on viewers, but on life in general. (6) At the end of 1947, in one of the last preparatory notes for Method, Eisenstein (as if reflecting on his developing understanding of functions of art before his approaching death) wrote:
For me art has never represented “art for art’s sake”. It has never been a project to create something dissimilar to the existing world – “my own world”. Just as well I have never tried to “reflect” the existing world. My aim has always been – using art’s means – impact on thoughts and feelings, impact on psyche and through this impact mould the viewer’s consciousness in a desirable, needed, selected direction. (7)
This statement opens Method in its finally published form as Eisenstein’s manifesto. In accordance with this attitude, Eisenstein formulated the main task of his research as a search for a general method of art that ensures its effectiveness. As early as 1927, he started to reflect on his by then ten-year-long efforts at finding such a method. In a draft for his planned but unwritten book, My Art in Life (the title is significant as it not only reflects the credo of the young director, but also engages into a hidden polemic with Konstantin Sergeevich Stanislavsky’s book, Moia Zhizn’ V Iskusstve (My Life in Art, 1924)), Eisenstein wrote:
Ten years of work on these “damned” questions. On their subordination to the unified method. Si non e vero – e ben trovato [even if it’s not true, it’s well found]. The correctness of that method which is applicable to the whole as well as to its minute details. The first attempt to formulate it into a set of axioms, which would allow to sort out the majority of issues (theoretical and practical) of our profession. (8)
Further entering into polemics with the Russian formalism still influential at that time, and Victor Shklovsky in particular, Eisenstein argued that the overriding aim of theory of art should not be the descriptions of isolated ‘devices’ but a unified ‘method’ which would allow important questions to be raised and resolve them in the process of creating the work of art. This should have a profound and long-lasting, if not eternal, effect. The method for which he was searching should be a general theory of art, in its æsthetic and poetic aspects, which would encompass and inform artistic practice and address the interconnection of art form and style with a range of spectator responses.
Eisenstein believed that history had supplied him with a magic instrument for such a research – film – which he treated as a laboratory for experiments that could reveal the fundamental laws of art. In an article called Proud, written in 1939 for the 20th anniversary of Soviet cinema, Eisenstein explicitly formulated this position:
For every art cinema represents the highest stage, as it were, of the realization of its potentials and tendencies. But moreover, for all the arts, taken together, cinema represents real authentic and final synthesis of all its manifestations; that synthesis which collapsed after the Greeks and which Didero unsuccessfully tried to find in opera, Wagner in musical drama, [Timofei] Scryabin in colour concerts etc. (9)
In elaborating such a method, Grundproblem became central for later Eisenstein. In a very general way, Grundproblem can be defined as a paradoxical coexistence in the work of art of two dimensions: logical and sensuous, cognitive and emotional, rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious. Eisenstein argued that the ‘laws’ of sensuous thought that had first historically emerged on earlier stages of human development continue to operate in the psyche of modern man on an unconscious level.
The engaging appeal of art is determined by its reliance on the archaic, sensuous form of operation. In his draft of a course of lectures on “Psychology of Art”, prepared in 1940, Eisenstein wrote
we translate each logical thesis into the language of sensuous speech, sensuous thought and as a result we get enhanced sensuous effect. And further – you can take for granted that the source of the language of the form is represented by the whole trove of prelogical sensuous thought and there is not a single manifestation of form in art which would not grow from this source – which would not be determined by it entirely. It is a fact, it is a necessity. (10)
The exploration of Grundproblem became, for Eisenstein, an exploration of such archaic forms of thinking and operating. In uncovering the evolutionary sources of such operations, Eisenstein went back in time, not only in human history to the stage of the primitive functioning of cave men, but much deeper: into the biological evolution of Homo Sapiens as a species and the biological evolution of life as such.
Eisenstein argued that using laws of archaic thinking and sensuous thought allows art form to ‘seize’ the viewer when he becomes
doomed to enter the reality of sensuous thought, where he will lose the distinction between subjective and objective, where his capacity to perceive the whole through its part will be heightened (pars pro toto), where colours will be singing and where sounds will acquire shape (synaesthesia), where the word will compel him to react as if the event described by this word did happen in reality (hypnosis). (11)
However, described in such a way, the process of art creation and perception comes alarmingly close to the ‘regress’ – and the danger of such association did worry Eisenstein. Therefore, elaborating his approach further, he put equal emphasis on the logical component that ‘sublates’ the emotional one in an overall effect of the work of art. Art thus combines the conveying of logical content (theme and message) with the use of sensuous thought in the organisation of form. Moreover, art work can be effective only because the artistic form is congruent with properties of the world and of human consciousness: “The basic structure of consciousness is exactly the same in its organization as my formula of two indissolubly united parts as a foundation of dialectical organization of image”, wrote Eisenstein in Method. (12)
The idea of unity was paramount for Eisenstein: “If I were an objective observer, I would say about myself – this author seems to be captivated by one idea, one theme, one sujet.” And the content of this theme is unity itself: “Unity as my leit-motif” (13). He understood it widely and applied it to an astonishing range of phenomena with evolutionary, historical, social and aesthetic aspects. He searched for an organic unity of human beings with their biological origins and their wider natural surroundings; he looked back at the archaic social structure of a society without classes as an ideal model and hoped it could be re-created; he strove to unite previous historical forms and remnants of traditions in the work of art. Eisenstein aspired to create a theory that would provide a unified framework for an understanding of the human mind and the perception/creation of art.
The very style Eisenstein used to elaborate such a theory reflects this basic attitude. As early as 1929, he started to lament that his texts – “all of them – a set of sectors going into different directions around common, determining point of view – method” – could not be published in the shape of a ‘spherical book’. He believed “it would be desirable to establish a possibility for each fragment to relate to every other fragment in space as well – to pass from one to another and back”. (14) Due to this, Eisenstein’s theoretical writings are notoriously difficult to read; his thoughts move with astonishing speed, foraying in a wide range of directions. This is complemented by an extraordinarily broad use of literary sources and references, an eclectic, dense and unexpected combination of material – well and truly a monument to intertextuality. To make the task of the reader even more challenging, multi-lingual Eisenstein switches from one language to another with ease, usually when he refers to materials originally written in another language.
Those features of his theorising have lately become a focus of research attention. To a substantial degree, this was facilitated by the publication of previously unseen material in their original uncut form. In an insightful analysis of Eisenstein’s theoretical thinking, Mikhail Iampolski recently called it “Theory as Quotation” and drew parallels between the development of Eisenstein’s style as a director and the metamorphosis of his theorising:
We can probably define Eisenstein’s entire theoretical adventure as a movement from an initial stage of fragmentary exposition of material (the Constructivist stage of “quotations,” when synthesis is still often lacking) towards a later stage of all-embracing synthesis, characterized by a massive appropriation of the notion of ecstasy; of so-called dialectics; of an interest in nondifferentiation and primordiality […]; and in preconceptual thinking, mythology, and regress. (15)
Similarly, researchers became increasingly interested in Eisenstein’s personality traits, preoccupations and problems, and the role these played in the development of Eisenstein’s theory. Iampolski observed that Eisenstein’s inflated subjectivity led to a close entangling of personal and research interests in Eisenstein’s writings – in fact, Eisenstein used the letter “M” to define fragments belonging either to the Method or to his Memoirs, “consciously creating a zone of indistinction between his biography and his theory” (16). Viacheslav Ivanov devoted a substantial part of his book, Eisenstein’s Aesthetics (17), to Eisenstein’s self-reflection and analysis. Works such as these begin to address a new aspect in Eisenstein research: how Eisenstein used his theory as a tool in his ego-synthesising activity, highlighting the importance of subjective dimension there.
The appropriation of Eisenstein’s heritage shows how its perception, reception and interpretation change with time. Perhaps his complex writings, rich in personal insights and ideas, as well as in their use of secondary sources, remain the basis of such an analysis because they came ahead of their time. It took Roland Barthes’ Elements de Semiologie to appear in 1963 for Eisenstein to be seen as a pioneer of semiotics. After the publication of Viacheslav Ivanov’s Studies in the History of Semiotics in USSR (18), Eisenstein was firmly positioned in the history of semiotics as a follower of Ferdinand de Saussure and predecessor of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Such contextualisation has been seen by some as artificially narrowing the scope of Eisenstein research and potential later appropriation. Edoardo G. Grossi (19) highlighted the point that, while addressing many of the issues traditionally explored by semiotics, Eisenstein’s approach was broader, continuing the rich “Slav scientific tradition” that encompasses cultural anthropology, social psychology, historical ethnography, poetics and theory of art, æsthetics and criticism. However, it is only in light of the shift from structuralist to postructuralist framework that Eisenstein’s shift from a narrow focus on constructivism and montage to broader issues of synæsthesia and sensuous thought became more meaningful for us.
Eisenstein’s emphasis on the role of work of art among other forces, and its attention to the role of history and tradition, also started to resonate with some important ideas of that period. Recent attention to the autobiographical aspects of Eisenstein’s theory and its role in forging Eisenstein’s identity follow not only more open publications, but also postmodern emphasis on the individual’s position in relation to knowledge. However, the beginning of the new millennium might be calling for another approach. As Terry Eagleton (20) suggested recently, a need for a unifying theory can be felt again. Such a theory would need to address the postmodern fragmentation of human being and the various splits within and around it. In this context, Eisenstein’s striving for a unifying framework linking history, human mind and culture can suddenly acquire refreshed pathos.
This article has been refereed.
- Annette Michelson, “Eisenstein at 100: Recent Reception and Coming Attractions”, October, Vol. 88, Spring 1999, p. 71.
- Marina Tsvetaeva, “Isskustvo pri svete sovesti”, in Collected Works (Moscow: Ellis Pan, 1994), Vol. 6, p. 27.
- David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 165.
- Peter Wollen, “Perhaps …”, October, Vol. 88, p. 44.
- Naum Kleiman, “The Eisenstein Problem”, foreword to S. M. Eisenstein Method (Moscow: Museum of Cinema, Eisenstein-Centre, 2002), p. 7.
- Julia Vassilieva, “Eisenstein and his Conception of ‘Aggressive art’”, Kinovedcheskie Zapiski, 3, 1989.
- Eisenstein, Method (Moscow: Museum of Cinema, Eisenstein-Centre, 2002), p. 46. (This and other Eisenstein texts are translated by the author.)
- Eisenstein, “My Art in Life” (1927), in Kinovedcheskie Zapiski 37/37, 1997–8, p. 14.
- Eisenstein, Selected Works (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1969), Vol. 5, p. 85.
- Eisenstein, “Psychology of Art“, in Psycholgia Processov Chudojestvennogo Tvorchestva (Moscow, 1980), p. 195.
- Eisenstein, in TsGALI, fond 1923, 2-247.
- Eisenstein, in TsGALI, fond 1923, 2-256.
- Eisenstein, in TsGALI, fond 1923, 2-250.
- Eisenstein, Montage (Moscow: Museum of Cinema, Eisenstein-Centre, 2000), p. 475.
- Mikhail Iampolski, “Theory as Quotation”, October, Vol. 88, p. 59.
- Ibid, p. 63.
- Viacheslav Ivanov, “Eisenstein’s Aesthetics”, in Isbranye trudi po semiotike i istoryi culturi, Vol. 1 (Moscow: MGU, 1988), pp. 141–378.
- Viacheslav Ivanov, Studies in the History of Semiotics in USSR (Moscow: Science, 1976).
- Edoardo G. Grossi, “Eisenstein as theoretician”, in Ian Christie and Richard Taylor (Eds), Eisenstein Rediscovered (London and New York: Routlege, 1993), pp. 167–76.
- Terry Eagleton, After Theory (London: Penguin Books, 2003).