Making Strange: On Victor Shklovsky
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 “estrangement,” “defamiliarization” or simply “making strange.” In Theory of Prose, Shklovsky would distinguish between “recognition” and “seeing.” Ordinary perception falls into the former category: we don’t see objects so much as recognize them according to pre-existing patterns of thought. The world arrives “prepackaged” and passes us by without a graze. “And 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.”
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’s poetics, a quasi-anarchist insistence on permanent revolt, but that is an argument for another essay.) For this, “man has been given the tool of art,” which—and this is where ostranenie comes in—employs 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. “Art,” Shklovsky wrote in A Sentimental Journey, “is fundamentally ironic and destructive. It revitalizes the world.”
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’s. (In 1972, the Marxist literary theorist Frederic Jameson would somewhat snidely call Shklovsky’s critical works, of which he had not read many, “little more than an endless set of variations” on the idea of ostranenie.) If the critic is to see the object of his study sufficiently to analyze its workings, he must “extricate” it “from the cluster of associations in which it is bound.” 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: “No more of the real world impinges upon a work of art than the reality of India impinges upon the game of chess,” he wrote in Theory of Prose with characteristic modernist élan. This means that any erstwhile “content” we might imagine clinging to the work (whatever a book is ostensibly “about”) is no more than a function of “form,” of whatever combination of stylistic devices the author has brought to bear. Plot is mere structural play.
If this sounds counterintuitive, it was—and remains—an intensely fruitful insight. Shklovsky’s 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 ’20s 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’s Formalism made him, in the words of an unnamed KGB interrogator quoted by Vitale, “an enemy of the real world and [of] socialist realism in literature.”
* * *
More than ever, the real world needs committed enemies. The half-joking observation by Croatian essayist Dubravka Ugresic—that socialist realism lives on in what she called “contemporary market literature”—has only grown more apt and less funny since she made it a few years ago. The swelling MFA-â¨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 “motivated” and “dimensional” characters, “believable” plotlines, something called “resolution,” and other such sparkly ghosts. Ignoring centuries of literary whimsy, 91 percent of American MFA students—I base that figure on my own informal polling—and 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. “Art,” he wrote in Zoo, “if it can be compared to a window at all, is only a sketched window.” 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’s 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 “that it’s the design that matters, not the building material…. They couldn’t understand the anarchy of life, its subconscious.” 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’s hard to blame him. By 1919, he had already sensed the danger of art’s subservience to the state: the banner of art, he insisted, “has never reflected the color of the flag over the city fortress.” It would soon enough.