Victor Shklovsky

Victor Shklovsky was born in St, Petersburg, Russia, on 12th January, 1893. After finishing his education at the University of St. Petersburg he established the Society for the Study of Poetic Language.

Shklovsky wrote about literature and influenced a generation of young writers in Russia. This included the Serapion Brothers a group that included Nickolai Tikhonov, Mikhail Slonimski, Vsevolod Ivanov and Konstantin Fedin. The Serapions insisted on the right to create a literature that was independent of political ideology. This brought them into conflict with the Soviet government and resulted in them having difficulty getting their work published.

In 1923 Shklovsky went to live in Germany where he published the novels, A Sentimental Journey (1923) and Zoo (1923). He was persuaded to return to the Soviet Union and afterwards tended to concentrate on literary criticism. This included the books such as On the Theory of Prose (1925) and The Technique of the Writer's Craft (1928).

In these books Shklovsky argued that "literature is a collection of stylistic and formal devices that force the reader to view the world afresh by presenting old ideas or mundane experiences in new, unusual ways". He uses the example of coloured glasses on our perception of a landscape. The coloured glasses distort, but also arouses a curiosity that makes the landscape totally new and different.

Under pressure from the Soviet authorities, Shklovsky attempted to embrace socialist realism in essays such as Monument to a Scholarly Error (1930).

Victor Shklovsky died in Moscow on 8th December, 1984.

February 5, 2013

In the preface to her book of interviews with Viktor Shklovsky, the Italian writer and translator Serena Vitale describes her third meeting with the aged founder of Russian Formalism&mdashstill curious and spry, &ldquolike an 86-year-old boy&rdquo&mdashin his cramped, two-room Moscow apartment. It was 1978, and Vitale&rsquos Russian friends, she recalls, regarded Shklovsky as a relic. They had not forgiven him for bowing to official pressure almost forty years earlier and recanting Formalism&rsquos most impetuous, insurrectionary and implicitly anti-Soviet precepts: namely, that art is untethered to dogma, state or any apparent &ldquocontent&rdquo and that, as he once put it, &ldquoa writer should never be yoked to a trellis and forced to salute.&rdquo When Vitale asked him why young Russians considered him &ldquoa writer, so to speak, of the establishment,&rdquo the blood left Shklovsky&rsquos face. He shook his cane and, yelling, kicked her out into the cold.

A Hunt for Optimism
By Viktor Shklovsky.
Buy this book

Witness to an Era.
By Serena Vitale.
Buy this book

It&rsquos not hard to imagine how badly Vitale&rsquos question must have wounded Shklovsky in his dotage. This was, after all, the same Shklovsky who had waged an artistic revolution&mdashone that paralleled but did not always coincide with the Bolsheviks&rsquo&mdashwith no less at stake than the liberation of human consciousness the same Shklovsky who had seen at least two brothers and most of his friends (an illustrious literary crew including Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Yevgeny Zamyatin) disappeared, executed, or driven to suicide or exile by the Soviet establishment the same Shklovsky who had twice been injured in battle fighting for a revolution that had already begun to hunt and humiliate him who endured cold and hunger and exile and squirmed through years of silence under the censor&rsquos heavy thumb the same Shklovsky who spent most of his intellectual life championing the emancipatory power of the novel and fighting to blast it&mdashand all of literature and even, yikes, reality&mdashout of subservience to a host of dumb and arbitrary masters.

The establishment, him! Shklovsky had from the start fought for a notion of art directly opposed to socialist realist pieties, one that hinged on the need to push beyond established models, to make things strange so that we might see the world afresh in its cruelty and splendor. He had been at odds not just with the bureaucratic state that congealed in the wake of the revolution, but with stasis itself, with the crust that the world of things deposits on our senses, with routine&rsquos unending murder of the real. Innovation must occur in art, Shklovsky had written as recently as 1970, &ldquobecause humanity fights for the expansion of its right to life, for the right to search and attain new kinds of happiness.&rdquo But age had mellowed the insurrectionist. Shklovsky called Vitale a few hours later to apologize: &ldquoMy God, I made you cry, forgive this crabby old man.&rdquo

In the West, Shklovsky would suffer a different shame: not tameness but oblivion. Formalism would survive here mainly as an academic epithet, shorthand for overindulgent abstraction and inattention to the tug and shove of history. The cultural Cold War guaranteed that even Shklovsky&rsquos most important work would go untranslated into English until a few years before Vitale knocked on his apartment door (even now, only ten of his several dozen books are available in English), and that the school of thought he founded would remain largely consigned to footnotes, an arcane Slavic parallel to the prim American New Criticism of the 1940s and &rsquo50s or the sexier French structuralism of the decade that followed.

For the last twelve years, Dalkey Archive Press&mdashwhich in 1990 published Shklovsky&rsquos early critical masterpiece Theory of Prose (1925)&mdashhas been devotedly rescuing Shklovsky&rsquos works from the void at a rate of about one volume every other year, publishing new editions of some and reissuing out-of-print translations of others. These last two years brought a flurry. In 2011, Dalkey published the extraordinary late theoretical work, Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar (1970), followed this fall by Vitale&rsquos book of interviews, originally published in Italian in 1979, and by Shklovsky&rsquos unclassifiable&mdashwe have his permission, so let&rsquos call it a novel&mdashA Hunt for Optimism (1931).

What emerges from these works is a group portrait of Shklovsky&rsquos Formalism&mdasheven the name dries the mouth&mdashthat bears little resemblance to any school of literary criticism that has arisen in the West in the last century or, well, ever. It was born not in the academy but out of the literary avant-garde and alongside the Russian Revolution. Ironically, given the Formalists&rsquo insistence on literature&rsquos divorce from worldly events, it arose without even a hair&rsquos distance from the tumult that rocked Europe for most of the early twentieth century. When the revolution erupted in February 1917&mdash&ldquoit was like Easter,&rdquo Shklovsky would recall, &ldquoa joyous, naïve, disorderly carnival paradise&rdquo&mdashhe was already an insurrectionist, though of a different sort from Lenin or Trotsky. Years later, when Vitale asked him what the revolution had meant to him, Shklovsky would answer, &ldquothe dictatorship of art. The freedom of art.&rdquo

At the beginning of the 1910s, Shklovsky had befriended the young Futurist poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky and, while still a student, had become the Futurists&rsquo theoretical champion. The world was sick and palsied&mdashwho can now deny it?&mdashso thoroughly smothered in vestigial tradition and used-up forms that it couldn&rsquot even be properly perceived. &ldquoDo something undreamed-of,&rdquo demanded Khlebnikov, &ldquostrictly new, you horses pulling the hearse of the world!&rdquo Out of the radical poetics of the Futurists, Shklovsky and a few comrades founded Opoyaz (an acronym for &ldquoSociety for the Study of Poetic Language&rdquo), the nucleus of the critical movement that would later be called Russian Formalism, in the kitchen of an abandoned St. Petersburg apartment.

When the uprising began, Shklovsky, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, rushed to join. &ldquoWe felt like it was the end and the beginning of the world,&rdquo he would tell Vitale. &ldquoOur heads were clear, our eyes were fresh. And hope. What hope? No less and no more than of rebuilding the entire world.&rdquo Shklovsky volunteered for the Austrian front World War I was still grinding on, and the czar&rsquos army had become a revolutionary force overnight. He would soon endure the misery of the trenches, be shot in the stomach, and survive to return to Petersburg and accept a posting in Persia, which was then occupied by Russia, where he nearly died in a pogrom: a half-Jew, he fought off Cossack troops in defense of local merchants. He witnessed all the stupidities of imperial domination. &ldquoWe squeezed and choked,&rdquo he wrote, &ldquobut found the corpse inedible.&rdquo

Much of this is recorded in Shklovsky&rsquos memoir&mdashif that&rsquos the right word: like most of his texts, it confounds conventional genre categories. His A Sentimental Journey (1923) takes its title and at least some of its stylistic bravado from the novel of the same name by Shklovsky&rsquos literary hero, Laurence Sterne. Written in short, staccato bursts as events were unfolding&mdash&ldquoI&rsquom writing while on guard with a rifle between my legs. It doesn&rsquot get in my way&rdquo&mdashit goes on to recount Shklovsky&rsquos return to Petersburg in time to greet the arrival of famine and the early terrors wreaked by the Bolsheviks&rsquo secret police. He joined a Socialist Revolutionary conspiracy to re-establish the Constituent Assembly, which the Bolsheviks had dissolved. It failed. His comrades were arrested and killed. His brother Nikolai was arrested and killed. Shklovsky went into hiding, all the while writing an essay on the theme &ldquoThe Connection Between Plot Devices and General Stylistic Devices,&rdquo and a book then titled Plot as a Stylistic Phenomenon.

The civil war raged on. Another brother, Evgeny, was arrested and killed. &ldquoEither the Whites or the Reds killed him,&rdquo Shklovsky wrote. &ldquoI don&rsquot remember which.&rdquo Wanted by the Bolsheviks and traveling under a false passport, he re-enlisted in the Red Army. The revolution was still the only thing worth fighting for. He made it to Moscow, where Maxim Gorky smoothed over his problems with the regime (a function the older novelist would be fated to fulfill time and again), freeing Shklovsky to rejoin his old Opoyaz comrades in Petersburg. Food was scarce and the winter fierce. They kept writing, burning furniture and books to stay alive. &ldquoBooks burn very badly,&rdquo Shklovsky later wrote. &ldquoThey create a lot of ashes.&rdquo Shklovsky&rsquos sister died of illness, his aunt of hunger. White armies besieged the city. He took up arms again and joined a demolition squad. A bomb blew up in his hands. &ldquoI hardly had time for a fleeting thought about my book, Plot as a Stylistic Phenomenon. Who would write it now?&rdquo

Shklovsky would live to publish that book in 1925 under the title Theory of Prose, but not before his Socialist Revolutionary past again became a dangerous liability, forcing him to flee to Berlin, where he joined a growing colony of Russian exiles, finished the memoir and, on the verge of breakdown, fell in love with a beautiful and brilliant émigré named Elsa Triolet, who did not love him back. Triolet, who would go on to marry the French surrealist Louis Aragon and to become a celebrated novelist in France, was the sister of Lili Brik, the longtime lover, muse and primary tormentor of Shklovsky&rsquos good friend Mayakovsky.

Shklovsky made a book of it, an odd epistolary novel titled Zoo, or Letters Not About Love (1923): Triolet had allowed him to write to her on the condition that he not mention love. The constraint proved productive. Zoo is a brilliant, unhinged and tortured work, with little of the romance and all of the self-laceration that marked Mayakovsky&rsquos poems for Lili Brik. &ldquoI was bound to be broken while abroad and I found myself a love that would do the job,&rdquo Shklovsky wrote. Triolet had little to do with it. (Her own letters, several of which he included in Zoo, suggest she knew as much.) Despite its double bluff, Zoo is less about Shklovsky&rsquos love for Triolet than it is about the pain of exile, the heartbreak of the revolution and, of course, about art, about writing, about being a book.

The latter is in some large part the subject of all of Shklovsky&rsquos works. &ldquoThis book is an attempt to go outside the framework of the ordinary novel,&rdquo Shklovsky confesses in Zoo. &ldquoWriting it is physically painful.&rdquo Even in his anguish, Shklovsky couldn&rsquot help but play. Letter Nineteen&mdash&ldquoWhich is not to be read&rdquo&mdashis crossed out with big red Xs, a nod to the typographic high jinks of that giddiest and most self-conscious of novels, Sterne&rsquos Tristram Shandy. Employing a narrative strategy of purposeful digression, A Sentimental Journey toys with a similar range of Sterne-ish tricks. Shklovsky interrupts one long detour (on the gas and oil lines of one variety of rotary engine) by pointing out that &ldquoThis whole digression is built on the device which in my &lsquopoetics&rsquo is called retardation.&rdquo That intrusion is itself based in another device, which elsewhere in Shklovsky&rsquos poetics is called &ldquobaring the device.&rdquo

These and other sundry obstacles, all of them oriented toward rupturing the smooth flow of narrative, are tools in the service of what Shklovsky called ostranenie, which is variously translated as &ldquoestrangement,&rdquo &ldquodefamiliarization&rdquo or simply &ldquomaking strange.&rdquo In Theory of Prose, Shklovsky would distinguish between &ldquorecognition&rdquo and &ldquoseeing.&rdquo Ordinary perception falls into the former category: we don&rsquot see objects so much as recognize them according to pre-existing patterns of thought. The world arrives &ldquoprepackaged&rdquo and passes us by without a graze. &ldquoAnd so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war.&rdquo

The point for Shklovsky was to find a way to shake ourselves out of this collective stupor so that we might see the world in all its startling brightness and, presumably, act on what we see. (An unacknowledged politics hides behind Shklovsky&rsquos poetics, a quasi-anarchist insistence on permanent revolt, but that is an argument for another essay.) For this, &ldquoman has been given the tool of art,&rdquo which&mdashand this is where ostranenie comes in&mdashemploys various tactics to defamiliarize the world, to allow us to see it as if for the first time. If it is anything, art is oppositional and insurrectionary, and literature an authorial conspiracy to overthrow anachronistic modes of thought. &ldquoArt,&rdquo Shklovsky wrote in A Sentimental Journey, &ldquois fundamentally ironic and destructive. It revitalizes the world.&rdquo

This position leads him to some surprising places: first, to a notion of literary change based on rupture rather than influence and inheritance. Art changes not out of fashion or habit, but because it must. New forms are created when the old ones become as sclerotic as the ones they replaced. (No wonder Shklovsky made the Bolsheviks edgy.) Second, the practice of literary criticism involves a quest for ostranenie that parallels the artist&rsquos. (In 1972, the Marxist literary theorist Frederic Jameson would somewhat snidely call Shklovsky&rsquos critical works, of which he had not read many, &ldquolittle more than an endless set of variations&rdquo on the idea of ostranenie.) If the critic is to see the object of his study sufficiently to analyze its workings, he must &ldquoextricate&rdquo it &ldquofrom the cluster of associations in which it is bound.&rdquo So while language may be subject to all the usual social and economic forces, literature, if it is to be seen at all, must be looked at on its lonesome.

From there, Shklovsky leaps a few wide boulevards and, post-extrication, tosses out all the scraps from which the work emerged: &ldquoNo more of the real world impinges upon a work of art than the reality of India impinges upon the game of chess,&rdquo he wrote in Theory of Prose with characteristic modernist élan. This means that any erstwhile &ldquocontent&rdquo we might imagine clinging to the work (whatever a book is ostensibly &ldquoabout&rdquo) is no more than a function of &ldquoform,&rdquo of whatever combination of stylistic devices the author has brought to bear. Plot is mere structural play.

If this sounds counterintuitive, it was&mdashand remains&mdashan intensely fruitful insight. Shklovsky&rsquos audacity gave him the freedom to take apart Cervantes and Sterne, Gogol and Tolstoy, with a brilliance that still dazzles ninety years later. And it allowed works of literature to become visible, not as natural objects like fingernails or trees, but as complex creatures of artifice, as purposeful forms of play. This notion did not go down smoothly. As the &rsquo20s dragged on and Soviet aesthetic attitudes became more rigid, art had only two options: it could be an organic growth of proletarian consciousness, or counterrevolutionary poison. Shklovsky&rsquos Formalism made him, in the words of an unnamed KGB interrogator quoted by Vitale, &ldquoan enemy of the real world and [of] socialist realism in literature.&rdquo

More than ever, the real world needs committed enemies. The half-joking observation by Croatian essayist Dubravka Ugresic&mdashthat socialist realism lives on in what she called &ldquocontemporary market literature&rdquo&mdashhas only grown more apt and less funny since she made it a few years ago. The swelling MFA- industrial complex and the now almost entirely monopolized corporate publishing market enforce their edicts with no more flexibility than the bureaucratic state: novels must be peopled with &ldquomotivated&rdquo and &ldquodimensional&rdquo characters, &ldquobelievable&rdquo plotlines, something called &ldquoresolution,&rdquo and other such sparkly ghosts. Ignoring centuries of literary whimsy, 91 percent of American MFA students&mdashI base that figure on my own informal polling&mdashand a similar proportion of mainstream book reviewers regard the novel as a type of window tasked with representing the real.

But literature, the young Shklovsky insists, is its own planet, bound by the rules that it creates. &ldquoArt,&rdquo he wrote in Zoo, &ldquoif it can be compared to a window at all, is only a sketched window.&rdquo Its point is not to accurately reflect this same old cruddy, shrink-wrapped world, but to steal us new sets of eyes, to forge new and unimagined senses. This is art&rsquos one virtue, its promise and delight. And the novel, call it dead or alive, is not a thing among things of a certain weight and size, obliged to obey established formulae. It is a weird box of almost bottomless openness, a compact revolution in a cloth and cardboard binding. Or, if you prefer, in pixels.

In his exuberance, Shklovsky allowed himself some blind spots. He had complained in A Sentimental Journey that his co-revolutionists, the Bolsheviks, believed &ldquothat it&rsquos the design that matters, not the building material&hellip. They couldn&rsquot understand the anarchy of life, its subconscious.&rdquo He was unable to level the same criticism against his own work, to realize that he had cast himself adrift. If the purpose of ostranenie was to perceive the world anew, Shklovsky had kept on pushing and tossed the world away. It&rsquos hard to blame him. By 1919, he had already sensed the danger of art&rsquos subservience to the state: the banner of art, he insisted, &ldquohas never reflected the color of the flag over the city fortress.&rdquo It would soon enough.

In the fall of 1923, Shklovsky received an amnesty (again thanks in part to Gorky) and returned to Moscow from Berlin. Seven years later, he would be forced to recant the more radical tenets of Formalism in an essay grandly titled &ldquoMonument to a Scientific Error,&rdquo which, as far as I can tell, has not been published in English translation. Echoes of that disavowal still hum through Mayakovsky and His Circle, written a decade later, in 1940, ten years after Mayakovsky&rsquos suicide. (The book was Shklovsky&rsquos attempt to rescue his friend&rsquos legacy from the froth of revolutionary kitsch it had gathered following his postmortem lionization by Stalin.) &ldquoI had an incorrect theory,&rdquo Shklovsky conceded, perhaps with something less than full sincerity. &ldquoThe only excuse, or rather comment, that I can make, is that I still bear many very real wounds from that time.&rdquo

But Shklovsky lived long enough (outliving many of his persecutors) to do some rethinking. By the time Vitale knocked at his door in 1978, he had published Bowstring, in which he displayed an earnest effort to sort through the contradictions of his youth. &ldquoBack then I used to say that art had no content, that it was devoid of emotion,&rdquo he marvels, &ldquowhile at the same time I wrote books that bled.&rdquo Through analyses of Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Rabelais, Updike (yes, him) and, as always, Sterne, Cervantes and Tolstoy, he lays out a heretical, softer and less formal Formalism. Ostranenie, Shklovsky writes, &ldquocan be established only by including the notion of &lsquothe world&rsquo in its meaning. This term simultaneously assumes the existence of a so-called content.&rdquo He holds tight, though, to the importance of contradiction, anachronism, disharmony, which provide the needed tension from which art derives its powers. &ldquoIf one can say that imagination is better than reality, art is even better,&rdquo he explained to Vitale, &ldquobecause it&rsquos the dream of every structure&rsquos collapse and at the same time the dream of the construction of new structures.&rdquo

&ldquoA crooked road, a road in which the foot feels acutely the stones beneath it, a road that turns back on itself&mdashthis is the road of art,&rdquo Shklovsky wrote in Theory of Prose. At the end of that decade, still a young man and very much in the thick of things, he began work on A Hunt for Optimism. The next year, 1930, brought Mayakovsky&rsquos suicide and the publication of Shklovsky&rsquos recantation, a bullet of sorts fired into his own temple. The book is thus a raw one, almost throbbing with grief, a collection of anecdotes, aphorisms and more experimental forms. An early tale told via unattributed dialogue in a state registry office prefigures by more than a half-century Vladimir Sorokin&rsquos The Queue (1983), in which latter-day Muscovites wait in an endless line for shoes or jeans or maybe jackets (no one seems to know). A late section on Mayakovsky interweaves the poet&rsquos verses with others by Khlebnikov and Alexander Blok and from various Gypsy ballads: not so much a montage as a mash-up, and a mournful one.

Themes emerge: betrayal, interrogation, exile, anachronism, loss. Every betrayal is a double betrayal. The cheating wife is enraged at her husband&rsquos infidelity. The exile returns and finds his home a foreign country. Or he can&rsquot return: &ldquoimagine that you have moved from Moscow to the moon and that it&rsquos stifling there. And then you find out suddenly there, on the moon, that you have been forbidden forever to return to Moscow and that they have rented your apartment to someone else.&rdquo Some fragments feature recognizable avatars of Shklovsky. (&ldquoIt&rsquos very difficult to speak through a mask. Only a few can play themselves without it.&rdquo) The prince of Siam is sent to Russia for military training he falls in love with a Russian girl and brings her home to Siam, where she is poisoned. Marco Polo lingers on his deathbed a priest promises that if he repents and admits his tales of China were all lies, &ldquowe won&rsquot burn your books, for which you are still guilty in front of Venice, because it&rsquos not good to tell everyone about other countries and the roads that lead to them.&rdquo Fiction has its virtues: he doesn&rsquot do it.

The book proceeds in exemplary Shklovskian style: sudden breaks short, one-sentence paragraphs flashes of authorial self-consciousness. Part III is titled &ldquoThe middle of the book or thereabout.&rdquo Its first chapter is the &ldquoPreface to the Middle of the Book.&rdquo The language is so precise that it&rsquos almost skeletal. The similes startle: &ldquoThe road keeps turning. The turns throw back the highway like a roll of fabric on the counter.&rdquo Many of the stories take place in the outer reaches of the Soviet Union, on collective farms and in desolate villages where the shocks of modernity hit hardest. Bridges are being built. Swamps are being drained. Long-isolated ethnicities are assimilating, &ldquoif not to each other then to something else.&rdquo That something else is on the march. Its feet are big. It tramples everything. A second person bursts right in: &ldquoO friend. My dear friend, please cough if you are alive.&rdquo

None of it adds up. But that&rsquos OK, that&rsquos the whole point, that&rsquos what we&rsquore doing here, even if it hurts. Especially when it hurts. Shklovsky reassures us:

Unity, reader, is in the person who is looking at his changing country and building new forms of art so they can convey life&hellip
&emsp&emsp&emspBrowse through our works, look for a point of view, and if you can find it, then there is your unity.
&emsp&emsp&emspI was unable to find it.

Ben Ehrenreich wrote here most recently on Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, in &ldquoThe Ravaging Nothing.&rdquo

Ben Ehrenreich Ben Ehrenreich’s most recent book, The Way to the Spring, is based on his reporting from the West Bank. His next book, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time, will be published in July by Counterpoint Press.

The Formalist Reformation | Review of Viktor Shklovsky’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar — Bruce Stone

But we should remember that Shklovsky attributed a deeply humane and benevolent purpose to the virtuosic machinery of literature: he argued that, by unhinging our habits of cognition, literature refreshes human perception, revitalizes the experience of being alive. —Bruce Stone

V iktor Shklovsky’s name has become synonymous with the Russian Formalist movement that he helped to found in the early decades of the 20 th century. With a series of landmark papers, he taught generations of readers that, in the art of literature, content simply doesn’t matter. Form, rather, is where it’s at—the defining feature of the literary work and the singular determinant of its status AS art. He showed us that Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, for example, is structured as a series of elaborate digressions, which sabotage the narrative momentum—a principle he called retardation. He analyzed Cervantes’ Don Quixote, not to expose its roots in 17 th century Spain, but to uncover its concatenating plot, with each of the Don’s new adventures linked tenuously to the preceding, something like a chain of cut-out-paper figures holding hands. He revealed the manner in which Tolstoy rendered familiar concepts, like property ownership, unfamiliar by narrating events from the vantage point of a horse: this technique he dubbed estrangement. For Shklovsky, literary works were not documents of social history or human psychology they were neither comedies nor tragedies. Instead, they were best understood as language experiments devised to tactically derange our notions of life and of literature. To everyone except writers of fiction and poetry, this position sounds distressingly inhuman, painfully mechanical, regrettably ahistorical, perhaps even philosophically bogus. And indeed, these are some of the very charges that have been leveled against Formalist poetics from the start. But we should remember that Shklovsky attributed a deeply humane and benevolent purpose to the virtuosic machinery of literature: he argued that, by unhinging our habits of cognition, literature refreshes human perception, revitalizes the experience of being alive.

For many North American readers, this is the Shklovsky we know, a Shklovsky we remember, a literary insurrectionist who resides, under lock and key, in a narrow chamber of the past. As it happens, history has contributed to Shklovsky’s temporal incarceration. Born in 1893, Shklovsky’s intellectual coming of age coincided with the sparking of the Soviet revolution, and the Party politics of the era proved hostile to the subversive, cheerfully antisocial poetics of the Formalists. Although Shklovsky lived through both World Wars, endured two periods of punitive exile, and survived into his nineties—working steadily all the while—he essentially disappeared from view. Much of his work sat relatively idle for years, awaiting publication outside the Soviet Union. For all intents and purposes, Shklovsky has remained under intellectual quarantine, marooned on an island gulag, a casualty of Cold-War power politics that essentially retarded the course of his career and limited his role on the world stage of literary criticism and theory.

Dalkey Archive Press has undertaken the project of publishing, for the first time in English, much of the maturing Shklovsky’s output: Knight’s Move (2005), Energy of Delusion (2007), Literature and Cinematography (2009), and now Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar (2011) have all been published in the last decade. And we greet the arrival of these works with joy, gratitude and some trepidation, as if we were welcoming home a family member long absent due to calamity, presumed dead: an Odysseus, an Elle, a Crusoe.

Bowstring was first published in 1970, and the Shklovsky writing this work bears a passing resemblance to the one we remember. But deep changes have been wrought in the man, and the book reads as a revision, inclining to a recantation, of several of his most influential ideas. The text is strange: encyclopedic in scope, promiscuous in genre, willfully disjunctive and aphoristic in style, often frustrating and intermittently scintillating. Reading Bowstring isn’t always a thrill ride. However, for anyone interested in the legacy of Formalism—which includes everything that we conceive of as craft instruction in creative writing—the publication of this book is profoundly consequential. It shows us the evolution of Shklovsky’s thought, a momentous instance of theoretical rapprochement, reconciling the Formalist vision with the views of skeptics. Further, in aggregate, the work is a manifesto of sorts—a little wistful, a bit opaque—about the purpose and processes of literature. This alone suggests that readers of every stripe should consult Bowstring. The book allows us to take the measure of latter-day Formalism, and, like all great books, it takes the measure of us.


Shklovsky tells us directly what he’s up to in Bowstring, but he does so haphazardly, often ambushing readers with summations of purpose. In the course of a chapter titled “The Unity of Structures,” he remarks, “I am writing this book to refute the very convincing and ingeniously articulated idea of art censorship carried out by Tolstoy, and to refute his relationship and methods of crossing things out.” Never mind, for the moment, the problem of unpacking the sense of the last clause (his relationship?). Shklovsky doesn’t tell us that he is referring here, presumably, to Tolstoy’s own manifesto, “What is Art?” (1897), in which the writer cites the capacity for emotional communion as the defining feature of literature. Perhaps Shklovsky feels that clarification is unnecessary, but he also chooses not to prosecute this disagreement in a linear and explicit fashion. Rather, Shklovsky counters Tolstoy (whom he reveres, naturally, as an artist and countryman) by indirection he mounts a cumulative assault that emerges as he careers idiosyncratically through the annals of world literature. In fact, the entire first half of the book feels evasive—it’s hard to follow the thread, despite these nudges from the author. But in the second half of the book, the fireworks start to fly, the cannons boom, and we better understand the rhyme and reason of Bowstring. Very near the end, Shklovsky writes, acknowledging the text’s chaotic nature, “I am trying to remain within the limits of a single work, but the purpose of my book is an attempt to grasp the mobility of the literary work and the multiplicity of its meanings.” We come to see that this is exactly what Shklovsky has wrought.

To capture the “mobility of the literary work,” Shklovsky casts a wide net, touching—at times glancingly—on everything from the epic of Gilgamesh to John Updike’s The Centaur, from Rabelais and Cervantes to Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. He discusses fairy tales and parables, Shakespeare and Pushkin, ancient Hindu sacred narratives, and he also comments on techniques in painting and cinema. On occasion, we’re privy to the jotted marginalia of V.I. Lenin, reading Hegel, and of Tolstoy, on Shakespeare. It’s a dazzling array of material, all of which is relevant to his task, certainly. Yet the sheer variety and abundance of Shklovsky’s interests gives you a taste of the scattershot method of the book. The course of a page might span centuries and continents, and thus, the writer often articulates his conclusions arcanely, and not always convincingly. In Bowstring, you will encounter more one-sentence paragraphs than perhaps in any other work of literary theory since Friedrich Schlegel’s Fragments, and such paragraphs, as a rule, cohere only loosely and implicitly. For example, in a chapter on Shakespeare, one of the book’s weaker moments, Shklovsky says this about Othello:

The astonishing thing for Shakespeare is not that Desdemona fell in love with he Moor, but why the Moor didn’t trust her love. Why did he believe in Iago’s words, blindly accepting the petty rumor and its intended malevolence, yet didn’t believe in simple love?

This new meaning of inequality is Shakespeare’s own discovery.

Shylock is a villain to Shakespeare.

In this run of paragraphs, Shklovsky skips from Othello to The Merchant of Venice to, eventually, Romeo and Juliet, only grazing the evidence that shores up his assessment. To be fair, the surrounding pages help to flesh in some of the support for Shklovky’s conclusions however, Shklovsky does very little of this explanatory work for the reader. His compositional method is one of willful juxtaposition, strategically withholding the connective tissue that binds the observations together in the manner of a conventional argument.

Astute readers will notice already that the humanistic tenor of Shklovsky’s analysis bears little resemblance to the mechanistic cerebrations of hard-core Formalism (simple love?!). For now, suffice it to say that, with regard to the book’s argumentative armature, Shklovsky knows exactly what he’s doing he takes the trouble to “lay bare” his chosen device (a phrase Shklovsky coined) as he discusses the technique of cinematic montage, drawing on the work of Sergei Eisenstein. The montage, with its atemporal juxtapositions and its implicit logic, is exactly the figure for Shklovsky’s method in this book. He stacks his observations side by side, rapidly shifting the focus, often requiring readers to infer the connections—rather like a man laying out cards in a game of Solitaire. Conveniently and quite brilliantly, this method reflects the writer’s newfound vision of literature. For example, Shklovsky finds the technique of “vertical montage” at work in Crime and Punishment (he sketches a list of competing thematic conflicts), and he also arrives at the conclusion that what is true of the internal components of a single work is also true of the body of world literature. Near the end of Bowstring, he summarizes his position plainly: “I think that every work of art, as a link in a self-abnegating process, is juxtaposed against other works of art.”

This stylistic agenda yields a work that is disjunctive, sharply contrapuntal, even giddily discontinuous. However, readers are richly compensated for their pains as virtually every page of Bowstring contains a radiant apothegm, a one-sentence koan of arresting power. Of the fairy tale, he writes, for example, “The heroes of folklore are strewn with ashes of sorrow, they are sprinkled with the salt of difficult paths—journeys in the sea.” These accesses of poetry are also evident in the book’s Prologue and Epilogue, passages of terse, descriptive lyricism that disclose, in microcosm, something of the writer’s grand vision:

Nightingales sang below my window, or maybe they weren’t nightingales at all.

They don’t care that they have been exhausted in poetry they don’t know that they’ve been refuted.

Then spring comes. Trees bloom one after the other, nightingales sing and crows caw.

Someone even heard the blackbirds. They imitate other birds.

The nightingales are still on their way.


Shklovsky’s sympathy for those outmoded nightingales reveals a deep vein in Bowstring, its concern with the persistence of the past. But Shklovsky himself acknowledges that this is hardly new, and in fact, Bowstring ultimately proffers conclusions that seem eerily familiar. For example, Shklovsky cites Heraclitus, offering a glimpse of his position regarding the interpretation of individual works: Many readers “do not understand how that which differs from itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre.” Here, we feel the resonance of Bowstring’s title: the power, the beauty, the functionality and the very existence of literary works depend upon conflict and contradiction, a tension between opposing elements. And later, Shklovsky writes, “Let me remind you of this book’s subject: it is trying to prove that at the basis of every artistic work, every stage in artistic construction, lie similar principles of revealing the contradictions, that the artistic processes of various epochs and nations are universal in this phenomenon and hence comprehensible to us.” This premise sounds a lot like party-line New Criticism, the British and American critical movement most closely linked to Formalism both historically and ideologically. In “The Language of Paradox,” Cleanth Brooks outlines a virtually identical set of conclusions about literary structures and their universality he argues that irreducible contradiction (or paradox) is the structural principle that organizes all great works of art. Shklovsky and Brooks are unlikely bedfellows, even now, and Shklovsky does add some new wrinkles to this theoretical position. But since Shklovsky never cites Brooks, or references New Critics, it remains possible that he’s simply unaware of the proximity of their vantage points.

What’s new in Shklovsky stems from the remnants of his rehabilitated Formalism and his emphasis on genre conventions. Shklovsky argues, albeit obliquely, that art evolves through a process of generic mutation: genre conventions eventually grow stale, and new writers explode those conventions through a process of comparative juxtaposition. And this is the upshot of Bowstring’s subtitle, On the Dissimilarity of the Similar: new works of art preserve the outmoded genre conventions, even as they subvert them—“The similar turns out to be dissimilar.” Perhaps the clearest snapshot of Shklovsky’s revised interpretive method arrives in his analysis of Alexander Pushkin’s short poem “I Loved You Once.” Shklovsky offers a long quotation from Roman Jakobson’s Formalist reading of the poem, a paragraph dense with linguistic jargon that says virtually nothing about the poem’s ostensible content. To this interpretation Shklovsky remarks, “It seems that this analysis didn’t bring the poem any closer to the reader.” And Shklovsky goes on to show how the poetic “content” inevitably bleeds into Jakobson’s analysis, ultimately leading Shklovsky to deal more fully with the poem’s theme, its content, and its relation to matters of form and technique. He notes the way the love poem draws on the conventions of classical rhetoric to find its form, producing an unusual combination, a linguistic fusion of the public and the private, the impersonal and the personal, the high and the low, the old and the new. Shklovsky summarizes his assessment: “The poet’s forceful, imageless and as if unfinished address to the woman is an example of a unique negative form, which in this instance becomes especially powerful.”

In Bowstring, Shklovsky seriously modifies, and in some cases disavows, many of the core principles that constitute Formalist theory. Of the one-time divorcing of form and content, Shklovsky now writes, “We mustn’t separate the plot-evental structure of the work from its verbal structure. They don’t coincide but they are correlated.” Elsewhere, he puts the matter more bluntly: “A long time ago I declared something rashly. I said that a work of art is the ‘sum total of its devices.’ I said it so long ago that I can only remember the refutation.” What is this if not a direct recantation of the traditional Formalist distinction between fabula (plot-evental structure, or content) and suzhet (verbal structure, or form)? It’s a little like Prometheus renouncing the gift of fire.

Similarly, Shklovsky speaks of “the notion of estrangement,” a central tenet of Formalist theory, as if it belonged to another time: “There used to be an old term—ostranenie or estrangement.” Granted, he doesn’t turn fully or consistently apostate on this or other points. For example, he still considers the literary character—and the writer him or herself—as a “person out of place,” a person with a strained perception of the world, alienated from the ordinary, essentially estranged. And old-school Formalism still informs his analyses at one point, he describes the plot structures of “realist” narratives as approximating a “dashed line”—that is, containing gaps in the chronology to omit irrelevant intervals (very few narratives are strictly continuous). And he sounds very much like his old self, paraphrasing his insights in “The Resurrection of the Word” (1914), when he remarks on the artistic project of poets like Pushkin, “It’s true, they use only words, but those are extraordinary words that are felt through the mouth, that renew thought and disrupt the sclerosis of concepts.” The similar and the dissimilar coexist here, too.

However, Shklovsky discusses very candidly the faulty premises on which he had founded his interpretive house. On the matter of defamiliarization, or estrangement, which he had said restores the sensation of life, he writes, “I should have asked myself: what exactly are you going to estrange if art doesn’t express the conditions of reality? Sterne, Tolstoy were trying to return the sensation of what?” In this regard, Bowstring is truly jaw-dropping. Shklovsky reflects on his early work and renders an unequivocal verdict: first-wave Formalism was terminally, almost comically, flawed.


In large part, the recuperation of fabula and the modification of estrangement require Shklovsky to account for the historicity of literary texts, their relations to their immediate historical contexts. And this he does. He discusses Don Quixote, in part, as a period piece: “the difference between the actions of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is social.” Elsewhere, he invokes (repeatedly) a quote from Albert Einstein that asserts the primacy of experience over language, as if we can know the world and its phenomena firsthand, unmediated by words and forms. These are huge, perhaps heretical, concessions from a card-carrying Formalist, and though Shklovsky consistently writes, in this fashion, with hat in hand, his heart sometimes appears to be elsewhere, not engaged in the work. He often deals with history in the most cursory and brittle fashion, offering sweeping generalizations about places and eras. Even so, it seems that, in the English-speaking world, Formalism can never really be the same in the wake of Bowstring’s publication.

The tendency to historicize and contextualize is evident not just in Shklovsky’s textual analysis it’s also woven more thoroughly into the fabric of Bowstring. Among the layers of Shklovsky’s textual montage, he veers twice into biography, narrating the lives and deaths of two colleagues: Boris Eichenbaum, who wrote a famous paper “How Gogol’s Overcoat Is Made,” and Yuri Tynjanov, who wrote the less-well-known Archaists and Innovators. Eichenbaum, we learn, died under absurd circumstances, immediately following the delivery of a lecture that flopped (he expires in his chair in the audience). Tynjanov died progressively of multiple sclerosis, an eerie revelation if we recall Shklovsky’s pronouncements on poetry.

In both cases, the biographies include descriptions of the Petersburg environs, of landscapes and architecture, of the exigencies of politics and war (the Decembrist uprising, the siege of Leningrad), of the city’s evolution over time. And one gets the sense that Shklovsky is here explicitly linking his theory of literature to the convulsions of history: the two domains behave analogously. Of both the literary work and the city of Petersburg, he writes that it is composed of “systems of systems.” And he might be referring both to texts and to people when he writes, “We live simultaneously in multiple temporal realms.” In the same historicizing spirit, Shklovsky frequently slides into autobiography and sketches something of the root causes that led to his revision of Formalist theory: his own experiences as a writer of fiction and memoir seem to have contributed to his change of heart. He confesses, “Back then I used to say that art had no content, that it was devoid of emotion, while at the same time I wrote books that bled, like A Sentimental Journey and ZOO.”

And it is the merging of life and art, history and textuality, that results in one of Bowstring’s most powerful and beautiful passages. Shklovsky begins the chapter “The Road into the Future and the Past (An Unfinished Story)” by summarizing a manuscript that Tolstoy had abandoned. It’s the story of a military man, a major Verein, riding toward his post on a rainy night, his overcoat “reeking of soap from wetness.” Verein envisions his ideal future, a place with “a wife in a white bonnet, children playing in front of the balcony and picking flowers for papa.” At length, Verein nods off and awakes to find himself residing in the future he had imagined. He enters his house where his wife, out of temper, insists on nursing their two-year-old child (who is too old for such nursing). Then, in a startling turn, without segue or comment, Shklovsky leaps from the story to autobiography, writing,

I have lived a long life, I have seen crowds, been on many roads, and I know what a wet overcoat smells like.

I live simultaneously in the old world and the new.

I have been reading books by Structuralists with interest, difficulty and benefit. I am getting acquainted.

I’m not surprised to appear in the middle of a conversation. Everything is interesting, but forgive the man who has long been absent from theory.

In an instant, we recognize that Tolstoy’s story is an analogue of and proxy for Shklovsky’s own experience. And Shklovsky presses this relation farther he writes,

Here, as before—forty years later—they are still primarily analyzing the poem of course now they have applied mathematics to it, as it was expected a long time ago.

They still haven’t weaned the child from the breast and she’s already grown! The weather is pleasant, but everyone is walking dressed up in academic clothes.

The characters and conflicts of Tolstoy’s story supply Shklovsky with a poignant metaphorical vocabulary for describing his own plight as a theorist. The method, here, is less rigidly juxtapositional than searingly prismatic instead of side-by-side comparison, shimmering palimpsest. And though this chapter concludes, typically, with another rapid and seemingly incongruous turn—as Shklovsky summarizes another tale, this one by Jules Verne—the strategy retains its power. The Verne story illustrates the point that human beings, including literary theorists, are bound to discover that “ideas repeat” on voyages of discovery, without immediately recognizing the fact, we find ourselves retracing our own footsteps. The past and the present, like texts and contexts, are densely interwoven, impossible to disentangle.


Shklovsky’s ambivalent relationship to time helps to explain a comical turn in Bowstring. In a run of short chapters, he prosecutes, almost fifty years too late, a disagreement with Vladimir Propp on the structures of folkloric narratives. Even so, this impulse to grind old axes leads to perhaps the best sustained analyses in the book, as Shklovsky spars impressively with Mikhail Bakhtin and his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics and Rabelais and His World. Ironically, the same charge that Shklovsky levels against Bakhtin’s work might well be leveled at Bowstring: “Bakhtin possesses the attributes of a discoverer and an inventor, but the scope of his generalizations sometimes turns into a sea, engulfing the already-found specificities.”

In the long view, Bowstring delivers joy and pain in nearly equal measure. Among its many beauties, this book shows us something of Shklovsky’s humanity, a kind of avuncular self-consciousness, given to lapses into faux-naif autocommentary: of one of the book’s long block quotations, Shklovsky observes, “I decided to end the quote at the ellipsis—it’s too long, anyway.” But finally, he arrives at conclusions that, while more sound, seem less riveting than those flawed propositions of his radical youth. (Sometimes being right is simply the less interesting alternative.) It might have been enough for him to conclude, as Tzvetan Todorov does when defending Structuralist poetics against the (posthumous) ire of Henry James, that the distinction between form and content, suzhet and fabula, can be a useful fallacy. It allows us to concentrate our attentions in new ways on literary works, to see new facets of their construction, and perhaps this remains the necessary first step before we can synthesize the two poles once more.

Further, in a long chapter on the failings of Thomas Mann’s monolithic Joseph and His Brothers, Shklovsky seems to break character, disappointing our expectations, as he formulates his criticisms in flimsy terms: he says of one episode that it “is treated rather conventionally. It’s inaccurate. It has been needlessly prolonged and it lacks in emotion.” More broadly, he quibbles, “the descriptions in Mann’s novel are too wordy and the characters are too eloquent”—a statement that he follows, bafflingly, with the assertion “Every epoch has its conventions of representation that must be followed.” This sentence, in isolation, is difficult to reconcile with his argument that those conventions are refreshed through subversion and violation.

Perhaps most distressingly, in the book’s penultimate chapter, titled “Return the Ball into the Game,” Shklovsky stakes out a position that is all too familiar to any fiction writer. He bemoans novelists who would write about novel-writing, poets who would write about composing poems—that is, those who make fabula of suzhet, content of form. Shklovsky compares such writers to the characters in Antonioni’s Blow-Up who play tennis without a ball. These writers, the conventional wisdom goes, sap the life from art. There is wisdom in this injunction, naturally, but coming from Shklovsky, it feels like a confession elicited under bare-bulb duress, a defeatist compromise struck between his revolutionary ideas and the precepts of Socialist art.

In the end, the publication of Bowstring is a major literary event. This book radically alters the legacy of Russian Formalism and contains abundant rewards for anyone with a vested interest in the art of literature. And it’s a testament to Shklovsky’s achievement that his own words, on Mann and his multi-volume boondoggle, best summarize the experience of reading Bowstring: “Sometimes [the book] succeeds, other times it fails. Occasionally it is hard to turn the pages. But the path that Mann chose is the path of a person who carries with him not objects but ideas, who does not want to lose the magnitude of the past.”

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing here. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

Viktor Shklovsky

Ao utilizar em "A arte como procedimento" alguns trechos de Tolstói como exemplo do que definiu como processo de "estranhamento", Viktor Chklóvski deu-nos uma chave importante para a compreensão da obra do autor. Mas embora tenha tentado explicar a função geral do estranhamento na literatura, não especificou qual o seu papel em Tolstói. Neste trabalho, refletirei sobre alguns aspectos e passagens da obra do autor, buscando compreender as funções do que nela Chklóvski identificou como "estranhamento", à luz das considerações mais amplas que o crítico desenvolveu em seus ensaios.

When in his essay "Art as Procedure" Viktor Chklovski used some excerpts from Tolstoy as an example of what he defined as a process of "estrangement", he gave us an important key to understand his work. However, while he tried to explain the function of estrangement in literature, he did specify its role in Tolstoy. In this paper, I will reflect on some aspects and passages of the author's work, seeking to understand the functions of what Chklovski identified in it as estrangement, in light of the broader considerations that the critic has developed in his essays.

Viktor Shklovsky

Russianliterary theorist and founder of Opoyaz, one of the two groups (the other was the Moscow Linguistic Circle) which combined to give rise to Russian Formalism. Born in St Petersburg, he attended St Petersburg University, and then entered the army. He fought in World War I, recording his experiences in a memoir, Sentimental'noe puteshestvie, vospominaniia (1923), translated as A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917–22 (1970). A prolific author, Shklovsky wrote studies of Laurence Sterne, Maxim Gorky, and Leo Tolstoy, as well as several semi-autobiographical works. He is best known though for his invention of the concept of ostranenie (‘defamiliarization’ or ‘estrangement’), central to so much of the work of the Russian Formalists. A neologism, it implies two kinds of actions: making strange, and pushing aside. Shklovsky's best-known work, which is also one of the best accounts of ostranenie available, is O teorii prozy (1929), translated as Theory of Prose (1990). Sections of it, especially the key essay ‘Art as device’, were translated in the 1970s, and circulated very widely.

T. Bennett Formalism and Marxism (1979).V. Erlich Russian Formalism: History—Doctrine (1955).


The term "defamiliarization" was first coined in 1917 by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay "Art as Device" (alternate translation: "Art as Technique"). [1] : 209 Shklovsky invented the term as a means to "distinguish poetic from practical language on the basis of the former's perceptibility." [1] : 209 Essentially, he is stating that poetic language is fundamentally different than the language that we use every day because it is more difficult to understand: "Poetic speech is formed speech. Prose is ordinary speech – economical, easy, proper, the goddess of prose [dea prosae] is a goddess of the accurate, facile type, of the "direct" expression of a child." [2] : 20 This difference is the key to the creation of art and the prevention of "over-automatization", which causes an individual to "function as though by formula." [2] : 16

This distinction between artistic language and everyday language, for Shklovsky, applies to all artistic forms:

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. [2] : 16

Thus, defamiliarization serves as a means to force individuals to recognize artistic language:

In studying poetic speech in its phonetic and lexical structure as well as in its characteristic distribution of words and in the characteristic thought structures compounded from the words, we find everywhere the artistic trademark – that is, we find material obviously created to remove the automatism of perception the author's purpose is to create the vision which results from that deautomatized perception. A work is created "artistically" so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception. [2] : 19

This technique is meant to be especially useful in distinguishing poetry from prose, for, as Aristotle said, "poetic language must appear strange and wonderful." [2] : 19

As writer Anaïs Nin discussed in her 1968 book The Novel of the Future:

It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it. [3]

According to literary theorist Uri Margolin:

Defamiliarization of that which is or has become familiar or taken for granted, hence automatically perceived, is the basic function of all devices. And with defamiliarization come both the slowing down and the increased difficulty (impeding) of the process of reading and comprehending and an awareness of the artistic procedures (devices) causing them. [4]

In Romantic poetry Edit

The technique appears in English Romantic poetry, particularly in the poetry of Wordsworth, and was defined in the following way by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria: "To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood to combine the child's sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar . this is the character and privilege of genius."

In Russian literature Edit

To illustrate what he means by defamiliarization, Shklovsky uses examples from Tolstoy, whom he cites as using the technique throughout his works: "The narrator of 'Kholstomer,' for example, is a horse, and it is the horse's point of view (rather than a person's) that makes the content of the story seem unfamiliar." [2] : 16 As a Russian Formalist, many of Shklovsky's examples use Russian authors and Russian dialects: "And currently Maxim Gorky is changing his diction from the old literary language to the new literary colloquialism of Leskov. Ordinary speech and literary language have thereby changed places (see the work of Vyacheslav Ivanov and many others)." [2] : 19-20

Defamiliarization also includes the use of foreign languages within a work. At the time that Shklovsky was writing, there was a change in the use of language in both literature and everyday spoken Russian. As Shklovsky puts it: "Russian literary language, which was originally foreign to Russia, has so permeated the language of the people that it has blended with their conversation. On the other hand, literature has now begun to show a tendency towards the use of dialects and/or barbarisms." [2] : 19

Narrative plots can also be defamiliarized. The Russian formalists distinguished between the fabula or basic story stuff of a narrative and the syuzhet or the formation of the story stuff into a concrete plot. For Shklovsky, the syuzhet is the fabula defamiliarized. Shklovsky cites Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as an example of a story that is defamiliarized by unfamiliar plotting. [5] Sterne uses temporal displacements, digressions, and causal disruptions (e.g., placing the effects before their causes) to slow down the reader’s ability to reassemble the (familiar) story. As a result, the syuzhet “makes strange” the fabula.

Différance Edit

Shklovsky's defamiliarization can also be compared to Jacques Derrida's concept of différance:

What Shklovskij wants to show is that the operation of defamiliarization and its consequent perception in the literary system is like the winding of a watch (the introduction of energy into a physical system): both "originate" difference, change, value, motion, presence. Considered against the general and functional background of Derridian différance, what Shklovsky calls "perception" can be considered a matrix for production of difference. [1] : 212

Since the term différance refers to the dual meanings of the French word difference to mean both "to differ" and "to defer", defamiliarization draws attention to the use of common language in such a way as to alter one's perception of an easily understandable object or concept. The use of defamiliarization both differs and defers, since the use of the technique alters one's perception of a concept (to defer), and forces one to think about the concept in different, often more complex, terms (to differ).

Shklovskij's formulations negate or cancel out the existence/possibility of a "real" perception: variously, by (1) the familiar Formalist denial of a link between literature and life, connoting their status as non-communicating vessels, (2) always, as if compulsively, referring to a real experience in terms of empty, dead, and automatized repetition and recognition, and (3) implicitly locating real perception at an unspecifiable temporally anterior and spatially other place, at a mythic "first time" of naïve experience, the loss of which to automatization is to be restored by aesthetic perceptual fullness. [1] : 218

The Uncanny Edit

The influence of Russian Formalism on twentieth-century art and culture is largely due to the literary technique of defamiliarization or 'making strange', and has also been linked to Freud's notion of the uncanny. [6] In Das Unheimliche ("The Uncanny"), [7] Freud states that "the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar," however, this is not a fear of the unknown, but more of a feeling about something being both strange and familiar. [7] : 220 The connection between ostranenie and the uncanny can be seen where Freud muses on the technique of literary uncanniness: "It is true that the writer creates a kind of uncertainty in us in the beginning by not letting us know, no doubt purposely, whether he is taking us into the real world or into a purely fantastic one of his own creation." [7] : 230 When "the writer pretends to move in the world of common reality," they can situate supernatural events, such as the animation of inanimate objects, in the quotidian, day-to-day reality of the modern world, defamiliarizing the reader and provoking an uncanny feeling. [7] : 250

The Estrangement effect Edit

Defamiliarization has been associated with the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose Verfremdungseffekt ("estrangement effect") was a potent element of his approach to theatre. In fact, as Willett points out, Verfremdungseffekt is "a translation of the Russian critic Viktor Shklovskij's phrase 'Priem Ostranenija', or 'device for making strange'". [8] Brecht, in turn, has been highly influential for artists and film-makers including Jean-Luc Godard and Yvonne Rainer.

Science fiction critic Simon Spiegel, who defines defamiliarization as "the formal-rhetorical act of making the familiar strange (in Shklovsky's sense)," distinguished it from Brecht's estrangement effect. To Spiegel, estrangement is the effect on the reader which can be caused by defamiliarization or through deliberate recontextualization of the familiar. [9]

Victor Shklovsky - History

Shklovsky and His &ldquoMonument to a Scientific Error&rdquo

Viktor Shklovsky, 1930.

Viktor Shklovsky was one of the foremost literary theorists and critics of the twentieth century. In becoming a leader of the school of thought called &ldquoRussian Formalism,&rdquo he exercised immense influence on modern conceptions of literature. He was also a journalist, a screenwriter, an experimental novelist, and a powerful voice against Stalinist oppression of literary culture.

Russian Formalism emerged before the 1917 revolutions, but after the October putsch by the Bolsheviks, it became allied for a time with the avant-garde of the period. Most Formalists admired innovation, but they also thought that every innovation owed a good deal to its predecessors. Sometimes the most modern work found its sources in the distant past. Shklovsky&rsquos essays of the 1910s and 1920s sought to disclose some &ldquouniversal laws&rdquo of art, particularly of prose literature. Influenced by the rise of folklore studies, he scanned the world&rsquos literature looking for storytelling techniques that seemed to migrate from place to place and period to period. &ldquoPlots,&rdquo he once wrote, &ldquoare homeless.&rdquo Shklovsky laid out some basic principles of narrative in the essays collected in Theory of Prose (1925, 1929).

Other Formalists came up with complementary ways of thinking about literature. For example, most Formalists opposed seeing literature as straightforwardly reflecting the social world. But there were differences. Shklovsky thought that any material brought into the literary work would be shaped by the inherent laws of art, like &ldquodefamiliarization.&rdquo For his friend Yury Tynianov, art reshaped the real-world material according to more localized conventions, those of certain genres and periods. A work&rsquos relation to those conventions gave the text its specific identity.

One corollary that Tynianov emphasized was that the same artistic device or form might have very different functions in different epochs. To Shklovsky&rsquos search for universal plot patterns Tynianov counterposed the idea of the shaping role of &ldquothe literary system,&rdquo the various currents at work in a tradition. At one period, a plot based on peasant customs might be treated as comic, whereas in another it might constitute pathetic drama. From this standpoint, it would be hard to write a history of &ldquothe sonnet,&rdquo since that literary form assumed different significance in different milieus.

Many Soviet intellectuals had invoked the Bolshevik versions of Marxism in order to denounce the Formalists, but it seemed that the study of such milieus could lead to properly Marxist analyses of literary history. Tynianov, Boris Eichenbaum, and other Formalists pointed out that once the &ldquoliterary system&rdquo of a time became the center of study, the scholar would have to investigate institutions like publishing, salon gatherings, and other social activities. Those in turn could be related, perhaps in rather indirect ways, to the economic base of a given society.

This rapprochement did not take. By the end of the 1920s pressure had mounted to a ferocious level. Proletarian literary organizations insisted that Shklovsky, Tynianov, and their peers had failed to grant the proper primacy to social, and especially economic, factors in explaining literature. In this atmosphere, Shklovsky published his essay, &ldquoMonument to a Scientific Error,&rdquo in 1930.

It has usually been taken as a sign of capitulation, in which Shklovsky confessed his own research to have been mistaken. Victor Erlich&rsquos standard history of the movement, Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine, describes him as &ldquolosing his nerve.&rdquo But other scholars of Formalism have suggested that the piece might not be a simple abjuration.

Aleksandar Flaker has pointed out that there is evidence, from Shklovsky&rsquos correspondence with Eichenbaum, that in 1929 he was moving closer to Tynianov&rsquos view that parallel or rival &ldquoliterary systems&rdquo shape the history of forms. More assertively, Richard Sheldon argues that Shklovsky had a history of using the rhetoric of surrender as a formal device itself, and of employing metaphors to suggest that he isn&rsquot repudiating his deepest beliefs. As for the &ldquoMonument&rdquo essay, Sheldon makes the case that Shklovsky shrewdly redefines &ldquoFormalism&rdquo as the earliest period of the movement, in order to defend the most recent, more functional version of it. His invocation of Tynianov and Eichenbaum shows that he is casting his lot with them.

Finally, his quotation from Marx could be seen as obeisance to gods now believed in. But it seems just as likely that he wanted to remind the partisans that aspects of the superstructure, like legal practices, change at a rate not synchronized with changes in the economic base. Why not the same with art and literature? Not only economics but social relations shape the development of art, and these aren&rsquot reducible to sheer material conditions. &ldquoAs regards art,&rdquo Marx wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, &ldquoit is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society nor do they therefore to the material substructure.&rdquo

Those who don&rsquot read Russian have not been able to judge the piece because it has not been available in English. This is why I&rsquom happy to post Maria Belodubrovskaya&rsquos translation on our site, for the benefit of all who are interested in seeing Shklovsky&rsquos career whole. Of course it needs to be studied in its many contexts, but at least now we have another piece signed by this brilliant, prolific, and clever thinker.

Erlich, Victor. Russian Formalism: History&mdashDoctrine. Third ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981, p. 136.

Flaker, Aleksandar. &ldquoShklovsky and the History of Literature: A Footnote to Erlich&rsquos Russian Formalism.&rdquo In Russian Formalism: A Retrospective Glance: A Festschrift in Honor of Victor Erlich. Ed. Robert Louis Jackson and Stephen Rudy. New Haven: Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 1985, pp. 57&ndash67.

Sheldon, Richard. &ldquoVictor Shklovsky and the Device of Ostensible Surrender.&rdquo Slavic Review 34, 1 (March 1975): 86&ndash108. Also in Viktor Shklovsky. Third Factory. Ed. and trans. Richard Sheldon. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1977, pp. vii&ndashxxx.

Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. Trans. Benjamin Sher. Champaign, Illinois: Dalkey Archive, 1990. Orig. first ed. 1925, second ed. 1929.

Viktor Shklovsky:
Monument to a Scientific Error
[Pamiatnik nauchnoi oshibke]
Literaturnaia gazeta, no. 4, 27 January 1930, p. 1
Translated by Maria Belodubrovskaya

The heightened attention now directed at the so-called Formal Method and the hostile nature of this attention are easy to explain.

A person who maintains or maintained that class struggle does not extend to literature neutralizes certain sectors of the front by doing so.

It is impossible to say that today&rsquos art lacks social purpose. It also seems natural that research interest in literary history shifts to the most purposeful, publicistic so to speak, periods.

At the same time it turns out that where a neutrality or a lack of social purpose actually existed, that neutrality was actually pursuing its own, strongly directed goals.

At the same time the so-called Formal Method should not be viewed as a reaction against the revolution.

Our initial works appeared in the period between 1914 and 1917.

The Formalists&rsquo initial works were directed at the creation of a typology and morphology of a literary work.

At the nascent stage of scientific literary study, such work was necessary but insufficient, as it constituted not even an anatomy of literary works but a protocol for their autopsy.

To abstract the literary plane from other social planes was a working hypothesis useful for the initial accumulation and systematization of facts.

Engels wrote that when studying nature, history, or human spiritual activity, the student first captures only the general picture of diverse connections and interactions.

&ldquo&hellipBut this conception, however correctly it grasps the general character of the phenomena as a whole, yet is insufficient to explain the separate parts out of which that whole is composed and so long as we do not know these, neither are we clear about the whole itself. In order to learn to know these separate parts, we must take them out of their natural or historic connections, and inquire, in each case separately, into their qualities, their special causes, their operation, etc.&rdquo1

Our error was not that we provisionally separated the literary plane, but that this separation became fixed.

My approach consisted of taking remote examples from literatures of different eras and national contexts and of asserting their aesthetic equivalence. I studied each of these works as a closed system, outside of that system&rsquos correlation with the literary system as a whole and with the primary, culture-forming economic plane.

Empirically, in the process of inquiry into literary phenomena, it became clear that every work exists only against the background of another work and that it can be understood only as part of the literary system.

I incorporated this observation into my work, but failed to draw main conclusions from it.

The emergence of literary forms is a mass social process. Vechera zabavnye [Funny Evenings], Vechera melankholicheskie [Melancholic Evenings], Vechera sel&rsquoskie [Village Evenings], and Vechernie chasy [Evening Hours] have been succeeded by Narezhnyi&rsquos Slavenskie vechera [Slavic Evenings] and Gogol&rsquos Vechera na khutore bliz Dikan&rsquoki [Evenings Near the Village of Dikanka].2

Compare also the accumulation of similar pseudonyms in the poetry of the 1860s: &ldquoDenunciatory Poet,&rdquo &ldquoMornfut Poet,&rdquo &ldquoDark Poet,&rdquo &ldquoNew Poet,&rdquo and even &ldquoNew Poet 2.&rdquo

Boris Eichenbaum attempted a revision of the Formal Method. This revision started with rightly substituting the term &ldquomorphological&rdquo method for the term &ldquoformal&rdquo method. This rid [the method] of the ambiguity in the expression &ldquoformal&rdquo and at the same time described more precisely the method of analysis.
Extremely important works by Yuri Tynianov, who introduced to literary study the concept of literary function (the idea that literary elements have different significance at different times), marked a turning point in the method&rsquos evolution.

Very little remained here of the initial, then aleady naïve definition that a work equals the sum of its devices. Parts of a literary work do not add up but correlate. A literary form seems to be semantically all of one piece, but actually it is semantically quite diverse, even when its formal features seem similar to those in other works.

It became clear that one could not study individual devices in isolation, as all of them correlate with one another and with the literary system as a whole.

This transitional point of view was a difficult one and in my case was accompanied by a number of relapses to the old way of thinking.

The main difficulty was in determining the relationship between the literary plane&mdashand in general between the planes of so-called culture&mdashand the base plane.

In Jules Romains&rsquo novel Donogoo Tonka, a city built as a result of a scientist&rsquos error erects a monument to a scientific error.

I had no desire to stand as a monument to my own error.

This is why I tried to move on to historical-literary work.

My first historical study was the book Material i stil&rsquo v romane L&rsquova Tolstogo &ldquoVoina i mir&rdquo [Material and Style in Leo Tolstoy&rsquos War and Peace].

In this book, I was interested in the laws of deformation of historical material that are determined by the author&rsquos class. Tolstoy&rsquos goal led him to create a nobility agitka [propaganda piece]: to portray the victory of pre-reform Russia by pre-reform means.

Tolstoy&rsquos task was thus to contrast the War of 1812 with the Crimean War.

He wanted to propose not a reform but a retreat.

Tolstoy&rsquos contemporaries grasped this tendency in the novel. Curiously, a caricature in the Iskra magazine (No. 16, 1868) showed Tolstoy writing in front of a fireplace decorated with a statuette of Napoleon&mdashnot Napoleon I but Napoleon III. In the caricature, Tolstoy was shown seated with his back to the viewer. The writer&rsquos face was yet unknown, but his tendency was clear.

Further in the book, I discussed the very important question of the novel&rsquos assimilation of inertial literary forms. I did not show extensively enough in the book (and plan to do it here) that the entire belletristic arsenal employed by Tolstoy and all the novel&rsquos situations had been known before from works of Ushakov (Posledniy is knyazey Korsunskikh), Zagoskin (Roslavlev), Bulgarin (Pyotr Vyzhigin), Vel&rsquotman (Lunatik), and Pert Sumarokov (Kol&rsquotso i zapiska).

However, in Tolstoy&rsquos novel all of these traditional situations have a new function and are presented as interactions derived from the poetics of the school of naturalism. The novel correlates familiar novels in a new way and presents them on a different lexical plane. The author&rsquos intent was not fully realized. Class groupings of readers serve as resonators to a literary work. The author failed in his task to write a novel against raznochintsy [19th century Russian intellectuals not of gentle birth], an anti-reform novel so to speak. The author&rsquos goal failed to coincide with the objective role of his work.

Inquiry into literary evolution should take social context into account and should be complicated by a consideration of various literary trends. Each of these seeps into various class strata to a different extent and is variously recreated anew by these strata.

These premises determined my most recent work on Matvei Komarov, zhitel&rsquo goroda Moskvy [Matvei Komarov, an Inhabitant of the City of Moscow].

I felt that the question of a sudden emergence of Russian prose in the 1830s had not been sufficiently clarified.

As I searched for its origins, I established its connection with 18th-century prose. From Vel&rsquotman through Kashchii Bessmertnii and from Dal&rsquo through the fairytale O vore i buroi korove I came to Mikhail Chekhov. From Tolstoy with his folk tales and his attempts to cater to the muzhik [peasant man] I came to Komarov.

Eighteen-century prose was mass prose. Many books had fairly large print runs and came out in multiple editions. This prose served the lowest stratum of nobility and the merchant class, as well as the part of peasantry that gravitated towards petty bourgeoisie.

The elevation of Russian prose can probably be explained by the elevation of the class it served. Russian prose did not emerge anew in the 1830s it changed its function.

When studying questions such as these, one needs to remember that the rate at which various ideological superstructures evolve does not need to necessarily coincide with the rate at which the base develops.

&ldquo6&hellip the Unequal Development of Material Production and, e.g., that of Art. The concept of progress is on the whole not to be understood in the usual abstract form&hellip However, the really difficult point to be discussed here is how the relations of production as legal relations take part in this uneven development.&rdquo

&ldquoFor example the relation of Roman civil law (this applies in smaller measure to criminal and constitutional law) to modern production.&rdquo3

Thus, for example, many forms of feudal law have remained untouched in bourgeois England. As opposed to this, in France after the revolution the old Roman law was adapted to fit the newest capitalist relations.

At times in literature such adaptation is accomplished through parodying.

Thus, to create denunciatory civic poetry, Nekrasov and Iskra poets (Minaev, Kurochkin, etc.) adapted parodied forms of Pushkin&rsquos and Lermontov&rsquos verse. It is not an individual work or an individual image (obraz) that correlates with the social plane but literature as a system.

One might think that we often label classical precisely those works that have lost their initial purpose and have fully become inertial forms.

Old-time censors understood this very well. Censor Ol&rsquodekop (1841) supported tragedy. He wrote:

&ldquoIn general, similarly to opera and ballet, tragedy can be considered the most harmless branch of dramatic art.&rdquo

&ldquoIf tragedy was given a wider field, the influence of comedy would decrease. The Inspector General will less engage the public that has seen King Lear. Having found in tragedy pleasure of purely literary and artistic sort, the public will be less eager to look for a hint in comedy.&rdquo

It is clear that tragedy, and Greek and Shakespeare tragedy in particular, had a clear social purpose at some point in time. However, later (by Ol&rsquodekop&rsquos time) tragedy became &ldquoliterary pleasure.&rdquo

As we think of the importance of learning from the classics, we undoubtedly need to incorporate into our very conception of classicism its quality as &ldquoliterary pleasure.&rdquo

The emergence of a new form is preceded by the process of quantitative accumulation in the inertial form (in its non-consequential sites, so to speak) of elements that seep from neighboring social planes.

Processes happen through leaps and through the transformation of a deviation into a quality of a new genre. The old form itself exists and remains unchanged formally but changes functionally.

A tolstovka was originally a nobleman&rsquos (hunting) outfit. Both Tolstoy and Turgenev wore this outfit. This same outfit became tolstovka when Tolstoy wore it to social gatherings (in place of a frock coat). Then it was a different outfit, although it remained exactly the same. In the case of a Soviet office worker, tolstovka takes a third form, so to speak it attains the third change in function. The matter is complicated even further by the fact that tolstovka is influenced by the service jacket and the sports coat.

The emergence of a new form does not completely eradicate the inertial form, but changes (usually narrows) its area of application. Thus, the genres of fairy tale and chivalry novel, which have become obsolete as high literature, are shifting to children&rsquos and lubok [popular folk] literatures.

Literary evolution needs to be understood not as a continuous flow and not as an inheritance of certain assets, but as a process that is accompanied by a succession of contesting forms, by a reconception of these forms, and by leaps, breaks, and so forth.

Literature needs to study the continuity of the changing system of means of social impact.

People still think of the Formal Method in terms of its initial stage, when elementary conceptions were being defined, the material was being selected, and the terminology was becoming established.

As far as I am concerned, Formalism is a road already traversed&mdashtraversed and left several stages behind. The most important stage was the shift to taking into account the function of literary form. The only thing left over from the Formal Method is the terminology that is now being used by everybody. Also left over is a series of observations of a technological nature.

But to study literary evolution on the social plane the crude sociological approach is absolutely worthless.

It is essential to turn to the study of the Marxist Method as a whole.

Obviously, I am not declaring myself a Marxist, because one does not join scientific methods. One masters them and one creates them.

1 : F. Engels&rsquos, Razvitie sotsializma ot utopii k nauke (Moscow, 1924), p. 53 [Frederick Engels, The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science]. Trans. note: The exact quotation from Engels reads: &ldquoWhen we contemplate either nature, the history of man, or our own intellectual activity, the first picture presented to us is one of an endless intertwining of mutually connected forces.&rdquo

2 : Trans. note: These titles are translated literally to maintain Shklovksy&rsquos repetition. English titles of these works may vary.

3 : Karl Marx. K kritike politicheskoi economii (PTG, 1922) Trans. note: The quotation appears in Appendix 1 (section 4) of Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.


The Russian Formalists’ concept of “Defamiliarization”, proposed by Viktor Shklovsky in his Art as Technique, refers to the literary device whereby language is used in such a way that ordinary and familiar objects are made to look different. It is a process of transformation where language asserts its power to affect our perception. It is that aspect which differentiates between ordinary usage and poetic usage of language, and imparts a uniqueness to a literary work. While Roman Jakobson described the object of study in literary science as the “literariness” of a work, Jan Mukarovsky emphasized that literariness consists in foregrounding of the linguistic medium, as Viktor Shklovsky described, is to estrange or defamiliarize, by medium. The primary aim of literature, in thus foregrounding its linguistics disrupting the modes of ordinary linguistic discourse, literature strange” the world of everyday perception, and renews the readers’ lost capacity for fresh sensation. A similar technique deployed in drama was “alienation effect” introduced by Bertolt Brecht in his Epic Theatre, to disrupt the passive complacency of the audience and force them into a critical analysis of art as well as the world.

Although the concept of defamiliarization was earlier advocated by the Romantic critic Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria (1817), it was conceived in terms of subject matter and in novelty of expression. The formalists, however, endorse defamiliarization effected by novelty in the usage of formal linguistic devices in poetry, such as rhyme, metre, metaphor, image and symbol. Thus literary language is ordinary language deformed and made strange. Literature, by forcing us into a dramatic awareness of language, refreshes our habitual perceptions and renders objects more perceptible.

Modern Criticism and Theory: Shklovsky

The first thing to say is that Shklovsky is one of the few contributors to this volume whose name I had not encountered before. But I note that he is one of the Russian Formalists, and in all the general surveys of Theory I’ve read, the Formalists tend to be lumped together as a group, so that may be why.

The second thing is that I have had to read this twice to get a handle on what he is saying. This is not because his language (or at least the translation by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis) is particularly difficult, but more, I realised on my return visit, because Shklovsky begins by talking about what his ideas are not, before he moves on to what his ideas are. And the work he is reacting against is far less familiar, and far less intuitively convincing, to me than the views he only gets around to in the second half of the essay.

Shklovsky begins with a statement that brought me up short, he talks about ‘the starting point for the erudite philologist who is beginning to put together some kind of systematic literary theory’ (16). I had got the idea, from the Saussure chapter, that philology was the study of language not of literature, so when did the two begin to coincide? (And checking my Shorter Oxford I see that more recent definitions of philology talk of the love of language and literature, but older definitions are restricted to language, but without dates that mark a transition.) It’s a minor point, probably, but it is exactly the sort of disjunct that makes you want to cry: ‘Hold on, what exactly are we talking about here?’ The essay included here dates from the 1960s, long enough after Saussure’s work for a change in usage to have taken place, but it still makes me feel that there is a gap in the story I am being given.

So we begin with the ideas that Shklovsky is going to repudiate. They come from a Russian theorist of the early years of the 20th century, Alexander Potebnya, whose ideas Shklovsky sums up with two quotations: ‘Without imagery there is no art, and in particular mo poetry’ and ‘Poetry, as well as prose, is first and foremost a special way of thinking and knowing’. These two are put together as: ‘Art is thinking in images’. It may be unfair of me, but even before I checked the reference and found that Potebnya was writing in 1905, I felt that these ideas sprang from the sort of decorative art and imagistic poetry of the Victorian age. Given that I have an antipathy towards such art, I am hardly likely to be sympathetic towards the idea of ‘thinking in images’.

That said, Shklovsky’s opening salvo against these ideas is clumsy, full of repetitions and exclamatory statements, then suddenly he announces that the theory has been long since destroyed. Which makes you wonder what he is raging against, what is the point of of this attack against what now appears to be a straw man? And still the attack goes on. A history of imagistic art should be a history of changes in imagery (should it? changes in use of or approach to imagery, maybe, but not necessarily changes of imagery) and images change little from century to century, from nation to nation (really? Chinese images are often meaningless to a Western audience plays and poems from earlier centuries often have to come laden with footnotes to explain the references being made). Then he adds: ‘A change in imagery is not essential to the development of poetry’ (17 – yes, all this ground covered and I’m only two pages into the essay), and for the first time I feel he is on firm ground, or at least is not relying on unsupported assumptions. He goes on: ‘the artistry attributed to a given work results from the way we perceive it’ (17), as opposed, presumably, to any authorial intent. I’m not sure how far I can go with this (can an artist paint a picture without intent?) but suddenly we seem to be moving into an interesting area.

At last, Shklovsky starts to put forward ideas of his own. Poetic imagery is a way of creating the strongest possible impression, but it is just one rhetorical figure among many used by poetry prose imagery is a means of abstraction, making one characteristic stand for the whole. I’m happy with the first part of that less so with the second. Is he suggesting that metonymy is the only form of prose imagery? But then, he soon starts talking about poetic language and practical language, and I think he is equating prose with practical language as opposed to, say, prose fiction. Though I’m still not happy with this, mostly because I am reluctant to make such a distinction between poetic and practical language: I know a lot of practical language that is full of vivid images, and a lot of poetry that is deliberately plain. For me there is just language, which can be put to use more or less effectively in very different ways for a wide variety of different purposes, but to divide language up the way Shklovsky seems to be doing, suggesting that we use different languages for different purposes, strikes me as counter-productive.

Next, Shklovsky turns to something he calls the law of the economy of creative effort, which he characterises (quoting Alexander Veselovsky) as ‘A satisfactory style is precisely that style which delivers the greatest amount of thought in the fewest words’ (19). This law, he claims, is generally accepted (not by me, taken at face value that would mean Hemingway is a better writer than Dickens and though I like some Hemingway, better at least than I like Dickens, I am not sure this would be a generally approved position). Shklovsky’s problem with it, however, is that it does not distinguish properly between the laws of practical language and the laws of poetic language given my views in the paragraph above, you can imagine my position on this. He suggests that practical language (what we might call prosaic) is distinguished by habituation, we pay little attention to the way something is said so long as we get the gist of what is said. There is, in other words, a sort of unconsciousness associated with our use of prosaic language. I’m not sure that this is necessarily the case, but Shklovsky needs to stress the point in order to set up the contrast with art which ‘exists that one may recover the sensation of life it exists to make one feel things’ (20). In other words, the purpose of art is to make us see things afresh, to enjoy the heightened sensation of encountering something for the first time.

Now we see where this is going. Shklovsky will not use the word, but this is about ‘estrangement’. He illustrates the case with various examples of ‘defamiliarization’ from Tolstoy and others. The purpose of this is to resist the habituation, the ‘automatism of perception’ (27) the author’s purpose is to slow the reader down, to impede the habitual familiarity of language and so provide the pleasure of seeing afresh.

He makes the point that this impediment of poetic language doesn’t necessarily mean difficulty, Pushkin’s ‘trivial’ style seemed difficult in contrast to the ‘elegant’ style that was then more common. Though the suggestion here that an artist might need to alternate between high and low language in order to surprise the reader does not seem a particularly useful take on literature. The article concludes the essay with a brief reference to rhythm the rhythm of prose (which apparently includes song) ‘is an important automatizing element’, whereas poetic rhythm must be necessarily disordered.

I have difficulty with Shklovsky’s distinction between prose and poetry as two different languages even if we stretch the point to say by prose we mean ordinary everyday language and by poetry we mean anything used for artistic purposes (which is emphatically not Shklovsky’s meaning, since he clearly includes song in prose), we are dealing with something that does not make sense to me. I might use poetic flights in very ordinary everyday circumstances, at the same time a poem can very deliberately use language in an ordinary everyday manner. There may be differences between the prosaic and the artistic use of language, but they are on the same sliding scale they are not different entities. And it seems to me that everything Shklovsky argues is built upon the foundation of a difference in poetic language, so if you reject that difference you undercut much else that he is arguing.

Finally the formalist notion of estrangement, or as Shklovsky puts it, ‘defamiliarization’, brings us inevitably to Darko Suvin’s use of the term in his definition of science fiction. I have always been uncomfortable with Suvin’s definition, I have never been able to work out why it to all of science fiction and to nothing that isn’t science fiction. Now I see other problems: Shklovsky’s term is prescriptive, artistic language has to entail estrangement if it is to be artistic Suvin’s term is descriptive: this is how science fiction is furthermore, Shklovsky’s term applies to the way (one form of) language works Suvin’s term applies to a literary genre which may or (since it is mostly prosaic) may not use poetic language. So although Suvin has borrowed the term from the formalists, it seems he is not using it as a formalist.

Watch the video: 11 Essential Facts About Viktor Shklovsky (January 2022).