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Viktor Shklovsky and the horror behind ostranenie | TLS

Viktor Shklovsky and the horror behind ostranenie


Published: 9 March 2016

Viktor Shklovksy, Peredelkino, 1983 Photograph: Igor Palmin/Writer Pictures

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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 Shklovskys 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, ones wife is the emotional opposite of the reconnection through wonder that is ostranenie. One might also think of Brechts 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 Shklovskys 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.

But what does it mean? Shklovskys seventy years as a scholar and his penchant for self-contradiction (it was his method of thinking, his Socratic monologue) conspire against a clear-cut and complete definition. He used ostranenie to describe devices as well as their effects, the text as well as the mind. Sticking with the latter, we can define ostranenie as a cognitive-emotional state, the renewed awareness produced when the habitual is depicted in an unusual way. What is habitual differs from reader to reader, from spectator to spectator. The intended effect can fail to manifest itself; conversely, one can experience ostranenie where it was not intended: say, reading a description of ones country written by an astonished foreigner. There are a great many ways of making things strange for instance, adopting the perspectives of aliens and animals; naming directly what is usually couched in euphemisms; or describing in minute detail what is usually summed up in a single word.

Most of the examples cited in Art as Device are taken from Leo Tolstoy; his short story Strider (Kholstomer), written from the perspective of a horse, is an exercise in ostranenie from start to finish. Here, for example, is how the equine narrator perceives the notion of property:

[Humans] love not so much the possibility of doing or not doing something as the possibility of talking about different things using certain words, on which they agree beforehand. Such are the words my and mine, which they use to talk about different things, creatures, topics, and even about land, about people, and about horses. They agree that only one person may say mine about any particular thing. And the one who says mine about the greatest number of things, in this game whose rules theyve made up among themselves, is considered the happiest.

(All translations are mine). The social criticism involved here is typical of the examples Shklovsky selects yet ostranenie is often presented as an escapist concept concerned with texts in a vacuum.

The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms states that formalism deliberately disregard[s] the content of literary works; many critics believe that it also disregards the reader. But it is the readers renewed experience of the content which constitutes ostranenie. Yes, the young Shklovsky said that a world juxtaposed to a world, a cat juxtaposed to a stone they are equal, but this is an understandable counter-reaction to an establishment that regarded ideological content as the measure of literary quality as it did before the Revolution, and (with different intentions and greater intensity) thereafter. Even at its inception in 1916 and more explicitly later, ostranenie is not a formal exercise but a way of seeing the world. As Shklovsky put it in Energy of Delusion, sixty-five years after he first coined the concept, Ostranenie is astonishment at the world, its acute experience. This term can only be made a fixture if it includes the notion of the world. Moreover, this term presupposes the existence of so-called content, the content being defined as the decelerated careful contemplation of the world.

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 peoples 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 didnt 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.

My leg and arm were about to be amputated, but then an old doctor came and said: Why the hurry? I could see my body quivering on its bones not trembling, but quivering, as if it was about to boil.

I lay there. They couldnt take out the splinters there were too many. They came out by themselves. There you are, walking and suddenly there is a creaking in your underclothes, a splinter is coming out. You can pull it out with your fingers.

Shklovsky was active in a socialist-revolutionary uprising of whose repeated postponement he said, I think it would have been easier for a woman to go through half a birth and stop than for us to do this. Finally, the attempt took place, and failed. Shklovsky had to go into hiding. I knew a doctor. He arranged a place at a mental hospital for me. He warned me: dont pretend anything, behave the way you always do. Thats quite enough . . . . Another friend, probably his fellow formalist Roman Jakobson, hid him in an archive: If theres a search in the night, rustle and claim youre paper. Perhaps the quip was indeed his friends, but probably it was Shklovskys he was famous for his gallows humour. In 1917, the childrens poet Korney Chukovsky wrote: When telling something terrible, Shklovsky smiles and even laughs. This is very attractive. Luckily, I was wounded, or else Id have shot myself! The bullet went right through his stomach. But making light of ones own wounds is one thing, and learning to ignore death and suffering all around is quite another. Shklovsky wanted to unlearn it, and ostranenie could be a means to do so.

The life-spans of three of Shklovskys siblings made up, in their entirety, fewer years than his own. His sister died of malnutrition in front of her two little daughters; she was twenty-seven. His brother was shot; he was twenty-eight. His stepbrother was killed while helping the wounded; he was thirty. Shklovsky writes:

He cried hard before he died.

It was either the Whites or the Reds who killed him.

I dont remember. I really dont remember.

All of them died when Shklovsky was working on the most detailed version of Art as Device (republished in 1919). In northern Iran, Shklovsky saw children playing football with a severed head. He saw women smearing themselves and their daughters with excrement from head to toe, hoping to escape rape by Russian soldiers; to no avail. He saw these things, and yet he wrote in A Sentimental Journey, the very book in which he describes them I never saw anything terrible. One of his war memories involves a wintry field strewn with corpses; the soldiers, who were used to all this, sat down for a meal, cups balanced on the bodies of the dead. Being used to all this is the key here: Shklovsky was terrified by the lack of terror, in himself and in others. One of his friends, who was imprisoned and condemned to death, wrote to him: I fear only one thing; that theyll tell me to take my boots off; Ive got knee-length lace-up boots, and Im afraid to get tangled in the laces. Shklovsky quotes the letter, pleading: Citizens! Citizens, stop killing! People do not fear death anymore.

The best-known sentence of Shklovskys long scholarly career is Automatization eats things, clothes, furniture, your wife and the fear of war

The best-known sentence of Shklovskys long scholarly career is Automatization eats things, clothes, furniture, your wife and the fear of war and yet the connections between ostranenie and war have hardly been mentioned in a hundred years. In literature, language can be made strange and thus experienced more intensely (similar arguments are to be found in Aristotle). Looking at the familiar as if it were new can also help science (such ideas were voiced by Hume and Schlegel, and natural philosophers before them). Making the usual strange can render neglected beauty beautiful (a central concern of Romanticism). Shklovsky, however, appears to have been the first to observe the way art can transform habitual violence in order to show its horror. He dreaded the drying-up of feeling with which the human psyche can react to atrocity.

Ostranenie in relation to war has been used by pacifist-minded writers for centuries. Shklovsky points out that Tolstoy presents all battles in War and Peace as, first and foremost, strange. When the pain inflicted by humans on humans appears as a source of wonder rather than a self-evident necessity, it can be questioned. Some forms can even be rendered obsolete, as happened to corporal punishment (in some fortunate cultures). Indeed, one of the examples cited by Shklovsky Tolstoys depiction of flogging might not work as ostranenie for us anymore: People who have broken the law are stripped, thrown down on the floor, and beaten on their behinds with sticks. This description was strange to contemporaries because of its superfluity: it stood to reason that criminals would be flogged. Shklovsky adds: I apologize for this disturbing example, but it is typical of Tolstoys way to reach our conscience.

Shklovsky stresses that he uses Tolstoy not because ostranenie is peculiar to him, but because these examples are familiar to his readers. Contrary to the belief of some critics, ostranenie is not a phenomenon unique to Russian literature, nor is it tied to any particular epoch. Whole genres rely on it: for instance, satirical epistolary novels mocking the authors society from an alien perspective, such as the anonymous Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy, Montesquieus Persian Letters, Madame de Graffignys Letters from a Peruvian Woman or, to skip a couple of centuries, Herbert Rosendorfers Letters Back to Ancient China or Mark Twains Letters from the Earth, whose object of satire is not any particular society but mankind. Most of these texts make strange, among other things, war and violence.

The most prominent practitioner of ostranenie in contemporary anglophone literature is perhaps Martin Amis. In his Other People (1981), an amnesiac protagonist, Mary, experiences everything as if for the first time. This being a newspaper article, let us consider her experience of newspapers (admittedly, of a rather different kind): Mr Botham read a dirty sheath of smudged grey paper that came and went every day. It was never called the same thing twice. There were pictures of naked women in it; and on the back pages men but not women could be bought and sold: they cost lots of money. In the centre pages someone called Stan spoke of the battle between cancer and his wife Mildred. Cancer won in the end. Gender issues and clichd phrases are treated with a dose of ostranenie here: Mary sees no difference between selling (the image of) ones body, as do women, and selling ones time, as do men. By saying that cancer won in the end, she brings the hackneyed image of battling a disease to life, even as she announces death.

When Amis makes things strange, one tends to think of Martianism, and indeed Amis championed what later became known as the Martian poetry of Craig Raine and Christopher Reid. It was in the TLS that Blake Morrison first observed that Martianism is an anagram of Martin Amis. However, the label is misleading if disconnected from the larger context: Martianism was not an isolated British literary experiment, but part of the eternal phenomenon of ostranenie. As Amis himself puts it, seeing the world anew, as if it were new, is as old as writing.

So is using this as-if-newness to illuminate human suffering an effect that both Shklovsky, after his war experience, and Amis regard as crucial. In Amiss Other People, a woman undergoing rape doesnt know what is being done to her; she only feels the rapist testing, testing, probing her skin in search of its openings. In Times Arrow (1991), Amis creates ostranenie by making time move backward for the narrator. The world depicted from his perspective more alien than any Martians is historically realist, and includes the Third Reich. He sees Jewish families brought together in front of camps: These familial unions and arranged marriages, known as selections on the ramp, were the regular highpoints of the KZ routine. It is for us to actively reconstruct the truth: the cognitive experience is bottom-up rather than top-down. The innocent narrators who do not know about rape or families torn apart and murdered can make the reader imagine that she, too, had never heard of such things before and shudder, as if learning for the first time what people do to people.

Times Arrow was inspired by a passage in Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), in which a war documentary is watched backwards. Like almost every novel by Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five is awash in ostranenie, much of it concerning war and violence. Bombings, for instance, are the incredible artificial weather that Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they dont want those other Earthlings to inhabit Earth any more. War, of course, is not a prerequisite for violence. Vonneguts Billy Pilgrim contemplated torture and hideous wounds at the beginning and the end of nearly every day of his childhood a crucifix hung over his bed.

Vonnegut, in his turn, was influenced by Mark Twains War Prayer. Ostranenie of war is most needed and most potent when the dominant mood glamorizes belligerence. When people are used to praying for victory, translating such a prayer into a description of its implications can be highly effective: O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain . . ..

Swift, like Twain and Vonnegut after him, makes war and religion strange in one breath. This is how Gulliver describes the usual reasons for war to the Houyhnhnms: Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine. By avoiding the word transubstantiation Swift depicts as absurd what might be otherwise regarded as sublime. So to close the circle does Tolstoy. As Shklovsky writes in Art as Device: This method of seeing things outside of their context led Tolstoy to the ostranenie of rites and dogmas in his late works, replacing the habitual religious terms with usual words the result was strange, monstrous.

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 Shklovskys 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, Shklovskys 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.

Though he was made to retract many of his ideas, and genuinely reconsidered some, Shklovsky never stopped seeing art as our memento vivere. As he puts it in one of his last interviews, Art is continuous astonishment. You cannot function safely while being continuously astonished, just as you cannot walk while concentrating on the movement of every single muscle; automatization is an evolutionary necessity. Desensitization in the face of suffering, too, is a time-honoured psychological mechanism. But if routine is never interrupted, life is not lived.

The anthology Viktor Shklovsky: A reader, edited by Alexandra Berlina, will be published later this year, and will feature the first English translations of his later work on ostranenie.

Alexandra Berlina is the author of Brodsky Translating Brodsky, 2014, and the editor and translator of Viktor Shklovsky: A reader, which is due to be published later this year. She is the organizer of the international conference A Hundred Years of Ostranenie at the University of Erfurt, Germany and has received awards from the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and the Joseph Brodsky/ Stephen Spender Prize.

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