Viktor Shklovsky has long been one of my favorite literary theorists, and this year is the hundredth anniversary of his writing his most famous essay, «Искусство как приём» [Art as Device]. The TLS has published a fine essay by Alexandra Berlina (editor and translator of the forthcoming Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader) to commemorate the occasion:
“What we call art exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make a stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the method of art is ostranenie [making strange]”, proclaims Viktor Shklovsky’s best-known essay, “Art as Device” (“Iskusstvo kak priyom”), written one hundred years ago, and published in 1917.
When I say “essay”, I mean a cross between an article and a manifesto. And when I say “published”, I mean that Shklovsky had it printed on what looked like toilet paper, along with articles by other hot-headed students who believed they had found new ways of understanding literature. Following the new fashion for abbreviations, they christened their circle “OPOYAZ”, short for “Society for the Study of Poetic Language”. When others disparagingly called them formalists, they proudly took up the label. There never was a formal beginning to formalism, but the group formed around Shklovsky in 1916. This year, then, celebrates the twinned centenary of both the OPOYAZ and ostranenie – a concept that is often misunderstood as a mere textual game, when it is actually about making life more real, both in its joys and in its horrors.
In English, ostranenie is known as “defamiliarization”, “e(n)strangement”, “making strange” or “foregrounding”, all of which have the potential to confuse. Being estranged from, say, one’s wife is the emotional opposite of the reconnection through wonder that is ostranenie. One might also think of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt; though he was probably inspired by the Russian theorist, the German playwright believed in restraining feelings in order to promote critical thought. Shklovsky, on the other hand, saw thought as inseparable from emotion. (As it happens, contemporary cognitive science agrees.) To avoid such confusions, I will stick to the original term. Not that it is correct: it should have been ostrannenie, from the Russian strannyi, strange. But orthography was not one of Shklovsky’s fortes, and, as he put it decades later, the neologism “went off with one ‘n,’ to roam the world like a dog with an ear cut off”. The word is strange to Russian speakers, too – which is arguably a good thing, considering what it means.
I never realized the word should have been остраннение, with two н’s; it looks strange to me, which is obviously appropriate. Berlina goes on to discuss the backgrounds of the concept as well as of Shklovsky and his circle:
When a scholar claims that “acute experience” of the world is to be found in literature, one might suspect that his real life consists largely of book dust. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Shklovsky. Actually, to call him “a scholar” is misleading: while most of his life was dedicated to literary and film studies, he was also a fiction writer and the protagonist of other people’s novels, instructor of an armoured division and professor at the Art History Institute in Petrograd (both without any formal qualification), revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, the patriarch and enfant terrible of formalism, the chairman and cheerleader of the OPOYAZ.
The OPOYAZniks met in hungry Petrograd (not St Petersburg anymore, not Leningrad yet) and discussed the laws of world literature until dawn coloured the icy room. When this room was filled, knee-deep, with water, they sat on the backs of chairs. They didn’t retain this luxury for long: one member – often Shklovsky – would be responsible for chopping furniture and feeding the stove. Books burned, too, but gave little warmth. Despite the hunger and cold, these young people were exhilarated. They believed they were creating not a new kind of literary scholarship, but literary science. They took their work seriously – but they also had fun. Imagine them singing their jocular hymn, with its punning refrain “Ave Shklovsky, ave Victor, / formalituri te salutant!”, and stanzas such as the following:
“Love, just as any other object,
is known to us with all its vices.
But passion, from a formal viewpoint,
is just convergence of devices.”
They sang, they argued, they published, and in between led rather unscholarly lives. Shklovsky wrote while fighting in the First World War, participating in the February Revolution and trying to stage an anti-Bolshevik coup. He wrote while hiding in a mental ward and while starving in Petrograd; while torn between an unrelenting love-object in Berlin and an imprisoned wife in Russia. He even wrote while convalescing in a hospital: a bomb had gone off as he was trying to defuse it.
She talks about Swift, Twain, Vonnegut, and Martin Amis, among other practitioners, and explains how the idea spread:
It was only in 1965 that “Art as Device” was read in the West, translated into French by Tzvetan Todorov, and into English by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Other languages followed suit, and Shklovsky’s ideas became part of the critical toolkit, spreading by osmosis, usually without mention of his name. While his young self was resurrected in foreign languages he never learned, Shklovsky remained shut off from the world. “I doubt that most of us who were enthusiasts of the handful of essays available in the West were aware that he was not only still alive, but still publishing”, writes one of the early Shklovskians, David Gorman. Having already influenced Jakobson, Mikhail Bakhtin and Yury Lotman, Shklovsky’s work went on to inspire readers who did not speak Russian, such as Umberto Eco with his A Theory of Semiotics. Via Guy Cook, ostranenie entered linguistics and cognitive science as “schema refreshment”. The idea of cognitive renewal is now widespread in psychology, used in approaches such as “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy” and “schema-focused therapy”. The twenty-first century has seen a new surge of interest in ostranenie: a special double issue of Poetics Today (2005/2006) connected the concept to thinkers ranging from Hannah Arendt to Michael Holquist, and a collection of essays, Ostrannenie (sic), in 2010, illuminates its importance for film studies. The international conference “A Hundred Years of Ostranenie”, scheduled for this year, has attracted submissions not only from literary and film scholars, but also from anthropologists and philosophers.
Read the whole thing; I’ll close with what is for obvious reasons one of my favorite bits from the Shklovsky essay:
Let me illustrate. I’m walking along the street and I see a man walking ahead of me wearing a hat. Suddenly, he drops a package. I call out to him: “Hey, you with the hat, you dropped a package!” This is an example of a purely prosaic use of an image. A second example. Several men are standing at attention. The platoon leader notices that one of the men is standing awkwardly, against army regulations. So he yells at him: “Hey, clean up your act, you crumpled hat!” This image is a poetic trope. (In one case the word hat serves as a metonymy, while in the other example we’re dealing with a metaphor. And yet I’m really concerned here with something else.)
Поясняю примером. Я иду по улице и вижу, что идущий впереди меня человек в шляпе выронил пакет. Я окликаю его: „эй, шляпа, пакет потерял“. Это пример образа — тропа чисто прозаического. Другой пример. В строю стоят несколько человек. Взводный видя, что один из них стоит плохо, не по-людски, говорит ему: „эй, шляпа, как стоишь“;. Это образ — троп поэтический. (В одном случае слово шляпа была метонимией, в другом метафорой. Но обращаю внимание не на это).
(I wish the translator had rendered по-людски properly as, e.g., “not the way normal human beings do it” rather than blanding it out as “against army regulations” — the ostranenie is lost!)