“The claim to imperishability has become obsolete.”
– Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
“It was evening when I started writing this.”
– Viktor Shklovsky, Bowstring
In the realm of ideas, time moves abruptly and (as they are fond of saying in political thrillers) with extreme prejudice. Literary styles lose their potency. Entire schools of thought are routinely surmounted, discredited, or discarded. From time to time, a book manages to outlive its author, but always with adjustments. The words remain, but the pages grow encrusted with history. It becomes difficult to read them — not because the light is dim, but because the world they illuminate has become remote, apocryphal.
Sometimes it happens that an author can live long enough to see this fate befall his own work, and to bear witness to that special form of powerlessness which authorship eventually invites. Viktor Shklovsky’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar and Energy of Delusion — two works of literary theory recently translated and published for the first time in English by the Dalkey Archive Press — are remarkable demonstrations of this kind of melancholy self-awareness. Written in Shklovsky’s old age, they sketch a theory of literary history at a time when his ideas had grown unfashionable. Thrown into the light of the present, these books are more than mere artifacts of time: they are also self-conscious reflections on literature’s relation to its past, and on the way literary forms (genres, plots, tropes) become, as Shklovsky puts it, the “self-abnegating” vessels of their own untimeliness.
The publication of these volumes also gives readers a chance to reevaluate the legacy of Shklovsky’s singular criticism, which has grown dusty with disuse. Shklovsky — a writer who is most famous for his concept of “defamiliarization,” and is typically regarded as the father of Russian formalism — is compulsively footnoted and frequently anthologized. Nevertheless, his work has always had a tenuous stature within the locker room of literary theory. Formalism, it is said between towel-snappings, denies the historical and political character of art; it believes naively that literature is separate from life, that literary language has its own “inner laws,” and that the content of stories doesn’t matter. Art is not about human communication or emotional experiences or ethical awareness. In place of these humanist pieties, it is alleged, formalists like Shklovsky find only the structural dance of literary devices, as arbitrary and impersonal as the moves of chess pieces.
Shklovsky himself never ducked from these polemics. “In art,” he wrote in his landmark Theory of Prose, “blood is not bloody. No, it just rhymes with ‘flood.’” Let the extremity — and the insight — of that statement sink in and you will see how the stridency of Shklovsky’s thinking might sometimes cause people embarrassment. You may also understand why, in the agitprop-prone culture of post-revolutionary Soviet Ru...read more