So now it’s time to move on to:

2: Victor Shklovsky, Art as technique

The first thing to say is that Shklovsky is one of the few contributors to this volume whose name I had not encountered before. But I note that he is one of the Russian Formalists, and in all the general surveys of Theory I’ve read, the Formalists tend to be lumped together as a group, so that may be why.

The second thing is that I have had to read this twice to get a handle on what he is saying. This is not because his language (or at least the translation by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis) is particularly difficult, but more, I realised on my return visit, because Shklovsky begins by talking about what his ideas are not, before he moves on to what his ideas are. And the work he is reacting against is far less familiar, and far less intuitively convincing, to me than the views he only gets around to in the second half of the essay.

Shklovsky begins with a statement that brought me up short, he talks about ‘the starting point for the erudite philologist who is beginning to put together some kind of systematic literary theory’ (16). I had got the idea, from the Saussure chapter, that philology was the study of language not of literature, so when did the two begin to coincide? (And checking my Shorter Oxford I see that more recent definitions of philology talk of the love of language and literature, but older definitions are restricted to language, but without dates that mark a transition.) It’s a minor point, probably, but it is exactly the sort of disjunct that makes you want to cry: ‘Hold on, what exactly are we talking about here?’ The essay included here dates from the 1960s, long enough after Saussure’s work for a change in usage to have taken place, but it still makes me feel that there is a gap in the story I am being given.

So we begin with the ideas that Shklovsky is going to repudiate. They come from a Russian theorist of the early years of the 20th century, Alexander Potebnya, whose ideas Shklovsky sums up with two quotations: ‘Without imagery there is no art, and in particular mo poetry’ and ‘Poetry, as well as prose, is first and foremost a special way of thinking and knowing’. These two are put together as: ‘Art is thinking in images’. It may be unfair of me, but even before I checked the reference and found that Potebnya was writing in 1905, I felt that these ideas sprang from the sort of decorative art and imagistic poetry of the Victorian age. Given that I have an antipathy towards such art, I am hardly likely to be sympathetic towards the idea of ‘thinking in images’.

That said, Shklovsky’s opening salvo against these ideas is clumsy, full of repetitions and exclamatory statements, then suddenly he announces that the theory has been long since destroyed. Which makes you wonder what he is raging against, what is the point of of this attack against what now appears to be a straw man? And still the attack goes on. A history of imagistic art should be a history of changes in imagery (should it? changes in use of or approach to imagery, maybe, but not necessarily changes of imagery); and images change little from century to century, from nation to nation (really? Chinese images are often meaningless to a Western audience; plays and poems from earlier centuries often have to come laden with footnotes to explain the references being made). Then he adds: ‘A change in imagery is not essential to the development of poetry’ (17 – yes, all this ground covered and I’m only two pages into the essay), and for the first time I feel he is on firm ground, or at least is not relying on unsupported assumptions. He goes on: ‘the artistry attributed to a given work results from the way we perceive it’ (17), as opposed, presumably, to any authorial intent. I’m not sure how far I can go with this (can an artist paint a picture without intent?) but suddenly we seem to be moving into an interesting area.

At last, Shklovsky starts to put forward ideas of his own. Poetic imagery is a way of creating the strongest possible impression, but it is just one rhetorical figure among many used by poetry; prose imagery is a means of abstraction, making one characteristic stand for the whole. I’m happy with the first part of that; less so with the second. Is he suggesting that metonymy is the only form of prose imagery? But then, he soon starts talking about poetic language and practical language, and I think he is equating prose with practical language as opposed to, say, prose fiction. Though I’m still not happy with this, mostly because I am reluctant to make such a distinction between poetic and practical language: I know a lot of practical language that is full of vivid images, and a lot of poetry that is deliberately plain. For me there is just language, which can be put to use more or less effectively in very different ways for a wide variety of different purposes, but to divide language up the way Shklovsky seems to be doing, suggesting that we use different languages for different purposes, strikes me as counter-productive.

Next, Shklovsky turns to something he calls the law of the economy of creative effort, which he characterises (quoting Alexander Veselovsky) as ‘A satisfactory style is precisely that style which delivers the greatest amount of thought in the fewest words’ (19). This law, he claims, is generally accepted (not by me, taken at face value that would mean Hemingway is a better writer than Dickens and though I like some Hemingway, better at least than I like Dickens, I am not sure this would be a generally approved position). Shklovsky’s problem with it, however, is that it does not distinguish properly between the laws of practical language and the laws of poetic language; given my views in the paragraph above, you can imagine my position on this. He suggests that practical language (what we might call prosaic) is distinguished by habituation, we pay little attention to the way something is said so long as we get the gist of what is said. There is, in other words, a sort of unconsciousness associated with our use of prosaic language. I’m not sure that this is necessarily the case, but Shklovsky needs to stress the point in order to set up the contrast with art which ‘exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things’ (20). In other words, the purpose of art is to make us see things afresh, to enjoy the heightened sensation of encountering something for the first time.

Now we see where this is going. Shklovsky will not use the word, but this is about ‘estrangement’. He illustrates the case with various examples of ‘defamiliarization’ from Tolstoy and others. The purpose of this is to resist the habituation, the ‘automatism of perception’ (27); the author’s purpose is to slow the reader down, to impede the habitual familiarity of language and so provide the pleasure of seeing afresh.

He makes the point that this impediment of poetic language doesn’t necessarily mean difficulty, Pushkin’s ‘trivial’ style seemed difficult in contrast to the ‘elegant’ style that was then more common. Though the suggestion here that an artist might need to alternate between high and low language in order to surprise the reader does not seem a particularly useful take on literature. The article concludes the essay with a brief reference to rhythm; the rhythm of prose (which apparently includes song) ‘is an important automatizing element’, whereas poetic rhythm must be necessarily disordered.

I have difficulty with Shklovsky’s distinction between prose and poetry as two different languages; even if we stretch the point to say by prose we mean ordinary everyday language and by poetry we mean anything used for artistic purposes (which is emphatically not Shklovsky’s meaning, since he clearly includes song in prose), we are dealing with something that does not make sense to me. I might use poetic flights in very ordinary everyday circumstances, at the same time a poem can very deliberately use language in an ordinary everyday manner. There may be differences between the prosaic and the artistic use of language, but they are on the same sliding scale they are not different entities. And it seems to me that everything Shklovsky argues is built upon the foundation of a difference in poetic language, so if you reject that difference you undercut much else that he is arguing.

Finally the formalist notion of estrangement, or as Shklovsky puts it, ‘defamiliarization’, brings us inevitably to Darko Suvin’s use of the term in his definition of science fiction. I have always been uncomfortable with Suvin’s definition, I have never been able to work out why it to all of science fiction and to nothing that isn’t science fiction. Now I see other problems: Shklovsky’s term is prescriptive, artistic language has to entail estrangement if it is to be artistic; Suvin’s term is descriptive: this is how science fiction is; furthermore, Shklovsky’s term applies to the way (one form of) language works; Suvin’s term applies to a literary genre which may or (since it is mostly prosaic) may not use poetic language. So although Suvin has borrowed the term from the formalists, it seems he is not using it as a formalist.

First published at LiveJournal, 1 April 2009.