Viktor Shklovsky said the word is not a shadow.

He wrote:

If we examine the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual it also becomes automatic. So eventually all of our skills and experiences function unconsciously – automatically. […] By means of this algebraic manner of thinking, objects are grasped spatially, in the blink of an eye. We do not see them, we merely recognize them by their primary characteristics. The object passes us, as if it were prepackaged.

For this reason he wanted enstrangement (остранение), to make the stone feel stony. He wanted fresh images, not ones that had been lying on the greengrocer’s table all day.

His book Третья фабрика [Third Factory] is a sort of autobiography: “The first factory was my family and school. The second was Opoyaz. And the third – is processing me now.” It’s full of fresh images — his book will be “dry as a cough,” enforced speech is a red toy elephant squeaking. One of the ongoing images is that of flax (Shklovsky worked at a flax center after returning to the Soviet Union and criticized Gorky for his inaccurate account of the subject in a novel); he compares writers to flax and says “Flax, if it had a voice, would shriek as it’s being processed.”

The first reference to flax is on p. 24 of the translation: “We are flax in the field.”

This seemed vague to me, limp, as if it had been lying on the table all day. I found the Russian original (pdf), and on p. 39 it said “Мы лен на стлище.” What was a стлище? It wasn’t in my dictionaries. But the internet told me: стлище is “место, где расстилают по траве лен или коноплю для приготовления его к дальнейшей обработке (для мочки под дождем или росой),” a place where flax or hemp is spread on the grass to prepare it for further processing, for being soaked in rain or dew. In other words, for retting. A стлище is a rettery. Both are unusual, not very pretty words that mean something very specific. They wake up the reader. Field is a common and pretty word that puts the reader to sleep.

The translator did a disservice. He sold me limp greens that were not what I wanted.


  1. I just got to a really awful bit of translation. Shklovsky writes (addressing Lev Yakubinsky):

    Друг, последовательным марксистом я не сделаюсь и тебе не советую. В нашем деле лучше не последовать, а исследовать. Каламбур, конечно.

    Friend, I’m not going to become a consistent [posledovatel′nym, literally ‘following’] Marxist and I don’t advise you to either. In what we do, it’s better not to follow [posledovat′] but to study [issledovat′]. OK, it’s a pun.

    And here’s how eager-beaver Richard Sheldon renders it:

    I, my friend, am not about to become a hard-and-fast Marxist and I advise you to follow my example. In literature study, the firing line is preferable to the Party line. A pun, needless to say.

    Of course you want to try to produce some sort of pun; I might go with “I’m not going to follow the Marxist line strictly…” But Sheldon creates something that not only badly distorts Shklovsky’s meaning but would have gotten him arrested (and probably eventually shot, when the vegetarian ’20s hardened into the bloody ’30s). What was he thinking??

  2. And a few sentences later he confuses службу ‘job’ for судьбу ‘destiny.’ Sheesh.

  3. David Marjanović says

    a consistent [posledovatel′nym, literally ‘following’] Marxist

    A consequential one?

  4. Yes.

  5. The translator does a bad job on that pun, but can we find a better? It doesn’t seem easy. Perhaps: “I am not going to become a deferential Marxist […] Rather than deference, inference.” Or perhaps: “…a respectful Marxist […]. Respecting is less useful than reflecting.”

  6. A consequential one?

    след – step
    следовать – to follow (imperfective)
    последовать – to follow (perfective)
    исследовать – to explore / research (imperfective)

    последовательный – consistent, consequential
    последовательность – sequence

  7. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Does a field on which flax is spread out to dew-ret count as a rettery?

    The assumption is admittedly consistent with the terse OED definition (“A place in which flax is retted.”). However, the citations start in 1851 and all refer to manufacturing establishments that perform retting by industrial processes, applying heat if not chemical aids. All instances I could find in Google Books also use rettery to mean such a factory and not even a mere retting pond, let alone a meadow used for dew retting.

    All in all, I suspect English lacks a word for стлище. Perhaps freshness could be achieved by focusing on the retting and leaving the meadow implicit: “We are flax laid out to ret.”

  8. It’s uncanny how the too familiar sights of his youth become exotic to us now seemingly without any additional effort. I should add that I was always a fan of the defamiliarization concept, probably from my elementary school years when I used it to make boring subway rides more exciting, pretending that I observe it all through the eyes of a time traveler. More recently I promoted the concept to explain how to interpret music to dance.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    On the pun you could try “hardened” vs. “hardening” Marxist. But maybe it sounds like dialectical constipation.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    Re rettery the German word (this is the factory) is die Flachsröste.

  11. All in all, I suspect English lacks a word for стлище. Perhaps freshness could be achieved by focusing on the retting and leaving the meadow implicit: “We are flax laid out to ret.”


  12. не последовать, а исследовать

    not to follow, but to burrow

  13. Textile Dictionary
    Multi language textile dictionary based on data from Textile technical terminology by Agnes Geijer (ed.), Marta Hoffmann (ed.) published on Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag (1979).

  14. Retting seems to have been done differently in Ulster than in that Normandy picture. Old maps show “bleaching greens” but I have not noticed “retting” mentioned separately.

  15. The only relation to flax I have is to the blue flowers. So the picture of flax laid out to ret doesn’t tell me very much. I’ve googled it, of course, and found some pictures. I also found out about pond retting, and actually I’ve seen that in a documentary before. It stuck because it seemed so weird to me, to put the flax in the water. Anyway, Google tells me pond retting is outdated.

  16. juha: Thanks for that beautiful image!

    mollymooly: That From Flax to Linen page is great; I now have a real sense of how the whole flax thing works.

  17. I now have a real sense of how the whole flax thing works.

    Have a look at this, too!

  18. Apropos blue flowers and people not knowing a thing about flax. Wild flax is a classic spring wildflower here in the Rockies, with celestial blue flowers. I once played on this fact to name our spring tango festival “Flor de lino”, which is both the flax flower in Spanish and the name of a classic tango song, a vals criollo with brooding, complex lyrics by one of tango’s best poets, Homero Expósito. Well, my Argentine “co-conspirator” immediately questioned me, like, are you sure flax has flowers? She suspected that it’s just a marketing ploy, where vegetable oil sellers put a beautiful blue flower picture on the flax oil bottles to sell it better 🙂 As I started reading more on the song to translate it, I immediately learned that its creator had exactly the same doubt, waking up in the dead of the night and calling a friend to check, does flax REALLY have beautiful blue flowers or it’s just a picture used for oil ads! Like does my supposedly poignant parable fall flat????

    Yo la vi florecer, pero un día
    ¡Mandinga la huella que me la llevó!
    Flor de lino se fue
    Y hoy que el campo está en flor,
    ¡Ah, malhaya, me falta su amor…!

  19. cuchuflete says

    No help with Russian translation from me, but a closer look at rettery led me down the garden path to flax processing, which includes these beauties:


    and a desire to order some perennial flax seed.

    Google Images has some fine photos of hatchels, none of which
    are named Sylvia.

  20. Have a look at this, too!

    Thanks for that; I now have an even better sense of how the whole thing works, and I must have heard most of the case forms of pellava. And those flax workers looked so happy!


    You can see all those activities in juha’s documentary.

  21. And those flax workers looked so happy!

    And the women looked vaguely like some relatives of mine.
    And I remember that President Ahtisaari always reminded me of an uncle, and President Halonen of an aunt.

  22. And the documentary has reminded me once again of the similarity between irti/irrottaa and yırtmak, both phonetically and semantically.

  23. well … stl-at’ – to lay flat sheets of something. Applied to:

    – bedsheets or tablecloth
    – hay (especially if you will sleep on it)
    – wooden planks if you will walk on them.

    Most commonly it is a bed: postelit’ postel’ “to make a bed”.

  24. Old Russian verb was stьláti. Then stlát’, with a heavy consonant cluster.
    A form stelít’ was already defeating it 100 years ago. But it was colloquial.

    stlát’, expected 3 person singular stélet
    stelít’, expected 3 person singular stélit

    stélet and stélit sounded identical. As Wiktionary puts it, the infinitive was spelled according to your or your character’s intent, but homophonic personal forms “for convenience” were written as for stlát’.

    I am not sure that Wiktionary is accurate about “for convenience”. if it was, then it was a true feat of prescriptivism:) The colloquial verb won, everyone now says stelít’, and school teachers make children memorize that personal forms of brit’ and stelit’ have irregular “e”.

  25. -ище

    1) occurs in a number of old literary and specialized terms in the senses of “place for something” or just “something for something”. Like topor “axe”, toporishche “axe handle”, this way specialized. Nothing special, just related to traditional crafts. Literary:

    ристалище “tiltyard” (here it correcponds to “yard”)
    зрелище “spectacle” (from “to see”, something for seeing)

    2) in modern Russian used just as augmentative:

    “Ну, бородку-то я, конечно, сбрею… Но умище-то, умище куда девать?”

    An oft-quoted punchline from a joke about a дворник who was asked to shave off his beard because he recembles Lenin too much. The perplexed dvornik says that he will, of course, shave off his beard, but how can he hide his outstanding intellect (um-ishche)?

  26. This suffix (in Serbian form -shte-) surfaced in my freind’s first (almost) contact with Serbian langauge. It was: “Hello, I am Sashka, глумица позоришта” (a girl extending her hand).

    позор in Russian is “shame, disgrace” as wiktionary puts it.
    позорище is either a shameful sight, or a place for this, or just augmentative from the above.
    глумитьcя sounds in Russian identical to глумица. to scoff, to mock in a very evil way.
    глумица is absent from Russian. But if they are smart enough to figure out that it is a noun глумица and not infinitive глумиться (they were) – it is a regular formation, it would mean an evil mocker.

    So, she is Sashka, an evil mocker of the shameful sight. (Here on the poster (oops, here)

  27. PlasticPaddy says

    Re glumits(j)a, I suppose you know that mock has an obsoletish sense of “imitate”.
    Re pozorishte she could have said teatar. The Serbian wikipedia article has etymology for Greek “theatro” but not for pozorishte. Here you have zarit’/zorit’ in Russian to use as a mnemonic.

  28. @PlasticPaddy, I think my freinds guessed the Serbian meaning right (surprisingly), but this development of meaning is absolute classics.

    It was nice to come across it in real life: not merely read in a book a funny fact that “the word for ‘beauty’ in a dialect A means the opposite in a related language B” but actually find yourself (or someone) in a situation where it can cause confusion or raise some eyebrows. “Позорище!!” is widely (and expressively) used in Russian, in the sense “what a shame”. (cf. Strong’s concordance for θέατρον, though I am not sure about “made sport of” )

  29. David Marjanović says

    Pozorrrrrrrrrr is what you say, in Czech, if you want to avoid a collision.

    Speaking of Czech: there’s a book Úžasný svět dinosaurů. I asked: it just means “the wonderful world of the dinosaurs”, no horror implied.

  30. Awful!

  31. PlasticPaddy says

    Producer and director George Stevens did many takes of John Wayne’s single line, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” A rumor has long persisted that at one stage, Stevens pled with Wayne to show more emotion, an overwhelming sense of awe. During the next take, Wayne changed the line to, “Aw, truly this man was the Son of God.”
    Had the apocryphal take been used in the final cut, one could have described the actor’s performance as “truly awful/aweful/Awwful”.

  32. Juha! Thank you for posting that documentary! A wonderful ethnographic record.

  33. Speaking of Czech: there’s a book Úžasný svět dinosaurů. I asked: it just means “the wonderful world of the dinosaurs”, no horror implied.

    Dictionaries gives ἔκστασις, ἔκπληξις for OCS….

    I remembered the prophane xrenet’.
    It is durative, continuous or habitual, perfective is oxrenet’ “to become dick-like”. Surprise, astonishment or just going nuts.

  34. PlasticPaddy says

    to be horseradished [rooted] to the spot.

  35. David Marjanović says

    I once tried to dig up the whole root system of a horseradish plant. I gave up after digging a meter in every direction except up.

  36. Trond Engen says

    Hat: And those flax workers looked so happy!

    Family farm, quite likely. Probably oldfashioned production for the sake of the ethnographic museum, which is why the older generation did the main work and the adult son seemed to be following the lead. This is not criticism. It just goes to show that it was important to have the film made.

    Juha: And the women looked vaguely like some relatives of mine.

    Mine too. The old folks on the farm must have been just a few years older than my paternal grandparents at the time. The old man reminds me of my grandfather when I started following him around on the farm in those adventurous summer holidays in the early seventies.

    The lacking teeth was a surprise to me. Maybe Finland came late to Northern European living standards, or maybe the war had taken its toll also on rural mouth hygiene and dentistry.

  37. Trond Engen says

    Me: at the time

    The time being 1967 according to the website, although that seems a little late for black and white film, at least if it wasn’t made for TV.

  38. Trond Engen:
    “Juha: And the women looked vaguely like some relatives of mine.

    Mine too.”

    My friends once observed than in Rijksmuseum one looks at a portrait and at people looking at the portrait and they look exactly the same.

  39. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    FWIW, Danish lærred = ‘canvas’ is an old compound of lin and ript = ‘piece of fabric’. (Like the E cognate rift, it’s an old participle of rive. It’s not totally obvious to me why that makes sense, but it probably doesn’t have anything to do with rettery).

    (And not linned as I said the other day, that’s just ‘made of flax,’ but it seems the two words have influenced each other).

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