In Search of Lost Plots: On Viktor Shklovsky

By Jonathan FoltzOctober 24, 2012

In Search of Lost Plots: On Viktor Shklovsky

“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 Russia, reprisals were inevitable. For his opposition to the Bolshevik party, Shklovsky was forced into hiding, then into exile. He wrote about these experiences in his extraordinarily bleak, hallucinatory war memoir, which he called (after Laurence Sterne) A Sentimental Journey. The masses, he wrote in that volume, “escaped into Bolshevism the way a man hides from life in a psychosis.” This observation did not make him any new friends. In 1923, Leon Trotsky rejected the “formal method,” branding Shklovsky a “learned monk” and “frank passéist” whose ideas constitute an “unmistakable symptom of intellectual decline.” “[H]ere we no longer have a glove of history turned inside out,” Trotsky’s withering critique continues, “but the skin torn from the separate fingers, dried out to a degree of complete abstraction…”

Of course, intellectual controversy is often a sign of conceptual good health. Shklovsky’s friend and colleague, Boris Eichenbaum, once wrote that “few undertake to praise Shklovsky in print, because all who write … must first emancipate themselves from him. They rail against him as against the injustice of fate.” No one is likely to say such things anymore. Today, Shklovsky’s texts remain just as challenging and imposing, but, whatever else they are, they are no longer unavoidable.

The waning of Shklovsky’s reputation is lamentable, but it has also bequeathed to his writings a rekindled interest and intelligibility. Reading Shklovsky today, we no longer need to be preoccupied with the aim of his arguments, which have been discredited long ago anyway. What remains is the bewildering dexterity of his thought, so heedless of historical period or nationality, a tidal movement of comparison that pushes us onto startling pockets of insight. “[One] should have expected the history of ‘imagistic art,’” Shklovsky writes in a famous essay from his 1925 collection Theory of Prose,

to consist of a history of changes in imagery. But we find that images change very little; from century to century, from nation to nation, from poet to poet, they flow on without changing. Images belong to no one: they are “the Lord’s.” [...] Images are given to poets: the ability to remember them is more important than the ability to create them.

Statements like this are the hallmark of a thinker working so far beyond the advisable confines of the knowable that it seems petty to quibble with his reasoning. We are no longer caught up with the originality of one poet over another, with movements or schools, or the calculus of innovation that separates good poetry from bad. Literature, instead, offers a compressed record of our exposure to an inherited world and a sedimentary history of our powerlessness to choose it. Shakespeare’s rose is not the same as Stein’s, but they are both rearrangements of the inescapably commonplace, inadvertent artifacts of an embarrassment at the condition of being earthbound.


Shklovsky is a master of this kind of insightful but moony speculation, which begins life as taxonomy but finishes as myth. It is a skill that is conspicuously on display in both Bowstring and Energy of Delusion. Originally published in 1970 and 1981 respectively, these books were written at a time when the tenets of Russian formalism were just being superseded by the advent of new theoretical approaches like structuralism and post-structuralism. But these books are not the theoretical retrenchments one might expect; they are each surprisingly personal and experimental in form, works of uncommon density and craft that revel in the calculated pleasures of irony and delay, repetition and allegory. Both texts, but especially Bowstring, are just as much exercises in storytelling as they are clinical examinations of its laws.

Narrative, for Shklovsky, is not a way to communicate ideas, but a way to expose ideas to the contradictions that work on them from all sides, to “renew thought and disrupt the sclerosis of concepts,” as he puts it. Perhaps this is why Shklovsky spends so much time summarizing the stories of others. Hence, in Energy of Delusion, Chekhov’s aesthetics can be glossed simply by retelling the plot of his story, “An Avenger,” in a skeletal form. Chekhov’s reasoning, Shklovsky writes, is “the reasoning of a person whose wife has been unfaithful”:

He wants to kill his wife.
H goes to buy a pistol.
They offer him a variety of pistols.
But then he begins to think.
Kill her?
Or maybe it’s better to kill himself?
Or maybe kill both of them?
But he starts talking to the seller.
Then he doesn’t know how to leave the store.
As a result he ends up buying a net for catching birds that he doesn’t need.

The story, thus reduced to ten thin sentences, shows how Chekhov construes tragedy as the reluctant acceptance of a timid and unlivable indignity. Shklovsky doesn’t so much analyze the story — he doesn’t, for instance, employ what we would call “close reading” — as his bare description of the plot anatomizes it, denuding Chekhov’s tale of its realist aura in order to expose the story’s dorsal structure: “the negation of the ordinary through the ordinary.”

This is a violent, inventive way of reading that routinely funnels the action of whole novels into a few jagged sentences, as if it were Shklovsky’s goal to translate the problems of modern literature into the clipped, allegorical idiom of Gilgamesh. The result is a caustic minimalism that can often make his ruminations on the mutation of literary forms across time sound like an unlikely bedtime story. Tolstoy’s favorite fairy tale, Shklovsky tells us, is about someone’s attempt to describe light to the blind.

They are told that light is like milk. They respond: does it mean that it flows like milk? They are told that light is like snow. They respond: does that mean it is cold like snow? They are told that light is like paper. They respond: does that mean that it rustles like paper?

Shklovsky’s lesson here is that there is a basic roughness at the heart of narrative. The simplest experience is inexplicable and takes on strange proportions when you try to communicate it to someone who doesn’t have it already in mind, drawing around it a cloud of adjacent fantasies. Details in literature are “detonators” of the habitual. This is because, as Shklovsky observes, “comparison draws the world closer and the world as a whole becomes unrecognizable. […] dissimilarity pushes, as it were, the comparable objects apart.” Literature is full of light that “rustles like paper,” experience that has been hardened and disordered — Shklovsky would have said “defamiliarized” — by an incantatory strangeness of expression.


It is no accident that Shklovsky’s writing often resembles a mix of literary theory and fairy-tale. The Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, in The Prison-House of Language, suggests that the folkloric tendencies of Russian formalism was born of the need to establish universal, timeless laws for literary activity. Folk-tales are easy targets for this kind of analysis, he writes, because they “have a kind of atemporal and object-like unity,” unlike novels, which are born of the messiness of history. This is a sensible criticism, but it does not quite explain the function of folkloric language in Shklovsky’s writing, which despite its ring of archaism has more to do with his ties to Constructivism and the Russian avant-garde. This is what Shklovsky meant in The Third Factory (1926) when he espoused the advent of a literature without plot: “It goes without saying that plot oriented prose still exists and will continue to exist,” he wrote in a moment of unjustified optimism, “but it has been consigned to the attic.” What he believed might replace plot is a modern reinvention of the anecdote, “a story consisting of separate facts tenuously connected. […] [In the anecdote,] the conflict — or, rather, alternation — of perception from one aspect of a work to another — can be traced easily.” Anecdotal thinking, because it is partial and discontinuous, allows events and ideas to bristle against each other, to revise and contest one another through collision.

It is in this formal investment in the anecdote that Shklovsky is perhaps closest to his approximate contemporary Walter Benjamin, whose gnomic mix of fable and philosophy has long enchanted readers. Shklovsky’s prose, though, is emptied of the mysticism that makes Benjamin’s writing rich with the impenetrable. The proper response to Shklovsky’s fragments is not exegesis, but compilation and synthesis — one ought to gather them, the way private investigators gather clippings from different newspapers. Shklovsky’s texts are scattered and disjunctive, marked on every page by the “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction” that Edward Said (and Adorno before him) identified as the hallmark of “late style.” The “caesuras, the sudden discontinuities” of thought which Adorno identified in Beethoven’s late work were for Shklovsky a lifelong compositional strategy, a way to dramatize the conflictual relationships of literary history through juxtaposition; but they are also an expression of time’s delirium. “Youth boldly projects its piers far into the future,” Shklovsky writes in the preface to Bowstring, “then finds them, not in the same place [...] I reflect, write, piece things together, then keep rearranging them; I do only what I can do. These are old pathways. I hope to intersect them.”

Allow me to make a blunt observation: most literary criticism is explanatory in nature; great care is taken to show how nuanced conclusions may be drawn from the meticulous scrutiny of evidence. Neither Bowstring nor Energy of Delusion work this way. Shklovsky interrupts himself continually; he compiles evidence obsessively but refrains from analyzing it; his conclusions are dropped throughout the text like stray coins which one is lucky enough to happen upon by accident. In one instance, he seeks to clarify a point about Tolstoy by retelling a scene from Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, but stops before fully describing the scene (in which Chaplin invites a woman to dine with him and she doesn’t appear). A hundred pages later, he picks up where he left off as if no time had passed. It is as though Shklovsky is just as interested in breaking up his thoughts as in substantiating them. He cuts his discussions into fragments and threads them through the book, so that, as we read, we come upon many unexpected intersections. This approach imbues literary theory with the digressive thickness of literature itself, though occasionally the ordering principle borders on the arbitrary. Sometimes Shklovsky seems to be taunting the reader: “I can put this sentence anywhere I like in my book,” he writes at one point, “in fact, I’ll put it right here or anywhere — it’s like when a person is headed somewhere without having an address.”

The most available model for this kind of assemblage is, of course, cinematic montage, and the reader will not be surprised to learn that Shklovsky’s background in cinema is extensive. The author of many theoretical articles on film, along with one monograph, Literature and Cinematography (also published in English by Dalkey), Shklovsky also worked for years as a screenwriter for directors like Lev Kuleshov and Abram Room. Ironically, Shklovsky was initially skeptical of montage; in Literature and Cinematography he tried to argue that the discontinuous nature of cinematic motion disqualified it as art. Fifty years later, in Bowstring, he defines art solely through the rubric of discontinuity. The film theory he draws from is not his own, but that of the great director Sergei Eisenstein, who wrote that film montage is a “formation, born from the collision of contradictions, the capturing force of which grows in its intensiveness through newer and newer spheres of affective reactions of the perceiver.” In Bowstring, Shklovsky turns Eisenstein’s comments on cinematic juxtaposition into a guiding aesthetic axiom: “The basis of every art form is always conflict,” he writes in one passage. In another: “Myths do not flow through the pipes of history; they change and splinter, they contrast and refute one another. The similar turns out to be the dissimilar.“

This is not as convoluted an idea as it may sound: in essence, Shklovsky is simply saying that cultures and values change, and soon the literature of the past can grow to be illegible. But the forms of the past persist even when they have grown obsolete. “Old literature inhabits new literature as if without permission,” he writes in Energy of Delusion. “It exists like a magnetic field that has undergone changes after a catastrophe above ground.” Whenever writers misread their predecessors, when they revive an old genre, or find contradictions in previously established plots, Shklovsky suggests, they stumble onto the historical character of form. Tolstoy dreamt of retelling the biblical story of Joseph. Thomas Mann actually did this, in Joseph and his Brothers, but misinterpreted its meaning (“Occasionally it is hard to turn the pages,” Shklovsky laments) because he forgot to create anything new or antithetical. A more dynamic adaptation of the past, like the “mythic method” of Joyce’s Ulysses, would not be afraid to disturb the sanctity of tradition with the profanity of contemporary life. Every thorough reconfiguration of literary form is also a rearrangement of “the possibilities of proposed human relations”:

Humanity moves in contradictions, in its ascent, through the palpability of change, the change of systems, the change of functions in old rituals and social constructs. Humanity moves and consciousness changes. The history of literature is a record of the change of consciousness.

It would be difficult to argue with this last statement. Indeed, the single-mindedness and the simplicity of Shklovsky’s thesis is astounding; rarely does anyone linger at such length on the consequences of literature’s trans-historical, trans-cultural movement.


Comparable, perhaps, only to the scope of Erich Auerbach’s magisterial Mimesis, Bowstring pursues its focus through a bewildering array of examples, touching on everything from Homer and Tolstoy, Pushkin and Plato, Dante and the Russian Futurists, to the fairy tale, the films of Antonioni, the “semantic hierarchy” of children’s drawings, and the formal structure of jokes at which one only laughs “as though out of duty.” Yet it is also a kind of memoir. (A more conventional memoir, Mayakovsky and His Circle, was written in 1941 and published in English in 1972.) Steeped in the poetry of the arcane as well as the poetry of the commonplace, Shklovsky’s Bowstring is an examination of the life and death of literary forms that is also a reflection on his own advancing age: literary history in its most deciduous sense. “Youth and friends are gone,” he writes in the preface, “there is almost no one I can write letters or show manuscripts to. The leaves have been falling, and not just this past autumn. Leaves fall surreptitiously here, almost unnoticed, like words change in a language.”

Shklovsky’s personal recollections, pitched somewhere between biography, autobiography and literary criticism, suggest that reading and friendship are related tasks that become difficult in the drift of history. “There are names of people in my old phone book that I can’t call anymore. But names don’t get erased.” In his accounts of departed friends, memory mixes unlikely experiences with an indiscriminate hand, creating strange points of contact between the literary life and the shopping list. “We had very little food,” we read in the section on his collaborations with Eichenbaum, “the bread was variegated, kind of tousled, mixed with straw. You could only eat it if you were distracted by something else.” Of his youth with Tynjanov, he remembers that Yuri’s apartment was “spacious, empty, and full of light. He didn’t have any books yet […] and when I came to visit my friend, I would hang my coat on the light switch—there were no hangers.” Other memories intrude, but they are broken up and scattered in clipped sentences, creating moments of unsentimental confession. “I enrolled as a volunteer [as an army instructor] out of confusion,” he writes at one point, “I used leave passes to sleep at home.”

The self-referential aspect of Shklovsky’s writing gives his theory of literary time added sting because he understands that it is impossible to stand apart from history. This resigned awareness also means that he is not ashamed if some of his opinions sound unfashionable. Bowstring ends with an unexpected critique of the modern “antinovel,” a category in which Shklovsky includes Kafka’s novels as well as the films of Antonioni and Fellini. Like the ending of L’Eclisse (in which “the world of material things has devoured the living beings”) or of Blow-Up (with its mimed tennis match, an impotent “game without a ball”), Shklovsky fears that modern narrative has relinquished the common heritage of “heroic action.” “Irony doesn’t help anymore,” he writes. “The hero […] has been cut off from the world. He has been sealed in a barrel, like Prince Gvidon, and cast into the sea. He feels the cadence of the waves but he can’t see anything.” We do not need to accept this anxiety; Shklovsky himself feels how ridiculous it is for him to express an opinion about such things. “There comes a time in every man’s life when he renounces whatever is fashionable, considering it a mistake, and stays in his old, narrow pants and old-fashioned hat […] The new skirts are too short for me.” In other words, by acknowledging the contentlessness of his critique of the present, Shklovsky aims to give added support to his theory of history.

Perhaps he is correct to relinquish the premise of timely critique. We are now far enough removed from the debates which Shklovsky entered that his polemics would require footnotes to be understood. Because of this distance, the rightness or wrongness of his opinions matters less. We have an opportunity, thanks in part to the tireless efforts of the Dalkey Archive, to grant Viktor Shklovsky a reprieve from the locked rooms of Russian Formalism to which he is habitually consigned. The appearance of these two books, unique in the enormity of their ambitions and the intellectual restlessness of their prose, is a good omen that the final word on the longevity of Shklovsky’s thought has yet to be written. The works of the past, as he continually claimed, only grow old if they cease to be used.


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LARB Contributor

Jonathan Foltz is an assistant professor at Boston University, where he teaches modernist literature and film. His writing has appeared in Modernism/modernityScreen, and Not Coming to a Theater Near You. He is the author of The Novel After Film, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.


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