Making Revolution Strange/r: Viktor Shklovsky and the Bolsheviks
1978. When Serena Vitale, an Italian writer and translator, managed her third meeting with Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984), the proponent of Russian Formalism, she ventured a point-blank query: “How would you explain why the younger generations [in Russia] consider you a writer, so to speak, of the establishment?” the senile yet spry critic turned red and yelled, “Get out of here!”
Vitale's reference to the “establishment” must have reminded Shklovsky of a series of stormy events following 1917 – a curious year that witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution and the publication of Shklovsky's article, “Art as Technique,” which provided impetus to Formalism, the artistic revolution that shook the literary world for a while. The coupling of the two revolutions is telling and ironic. It is telling as the emergence of Russian Formalism, a critical school that foregrounds the liberating power of art, coincided with the Bolshevik Revolution. It is ironic as Shklovsky's presumptuous promotion of making art autonomous surfaced only to confront the Soviet dictates of socialist realism that assert the social functions of art but that sometimes discount aesthetics for the sake of propaganda.
But Vitale's suggestion of conformity to the “establishment” must have also hurt the old Shklovsky who in his youth dared a consistently troubling – neither antagonistic nor obeisant – relation with the political and artistic establishments in both pre- and post-Revolution Russia. At an early age, he had become a part of pre-Revolution Russian Futurism, an anti-establishment literary movement, which brought him close to the poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, who would become the major poet of post-Revolution Soviet Russia. He had fought inWorld War I, become a driving trainer, and had a bomb exploding in his hands. At the same time, in 1916, he had founded OPOYAZ (Society for the Study of Poetic Language), the Petrograd/Leningrad Formalist group. He participated in the “bourgeois” February Revolution in 1917, which succeeded in overthrowing the Tsar; but he also took part in the anti-Bolshevik movements in 1918, which forced him to go into hiding. In 1922, he had to flee Russia for Berlin with an arrest warrant issued against him as a political enemy because of his involvement with the Socialist Revolutionary Party. But the very next year he was back due to the intervention of Maxim Gorky and Mayakovsky. In 1930, it was the same Shklovsky who publicly recanted his formalist precepts while Formalism, deemed by many Bolsheviks “cosmopolitan,” was officially banned in 1936. For the curious souls who were wondering what was wrong with Formalism that it would so perturb post-Revolution Soviet ideologues, here is the one-word answer: ostranenie, that is to say, “defamiliarization” or “estrangement”!
For Shklovsky, art is an emancipatory means, which glides a reader from her/his complacent way of recognizing reality to an enabling way of seeing things. Recognition is an “algebraic” mode of “automatized perception”: due to habituation, we often just recognize a thing as it appears to be without noticing what it is like. On the other hand, seeing is perceiving things “in their entirety.” So, what makes art art (and literature literature) is not what it is ostensibly about; rather, the artistic-literary devices the artist deploys are crucial. Thus, the suicide of a young man can make for an interesting piece of news or an intriguing sonnet, yet, in spite of having the same content, the news and the poem may not have the same theme: news presents the event as just one of the many events on that day, while the poem laments the loss.
What, then, makes news literal, objective, and informative, but renders a poem literary, perceptive, and affective? For Shklovsky, art is art because of its artistic techniques. To be precise, art is technique: “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important.” But what is the use of experiencing this “artfulness”? It shakes us out of our habituated boredom, slavish sluggish complacency, and readymade acceptance, getting us to understand that things are not only as we have perceived them; they can be different; they are different. This experience of difference is what art generates through ostranenie.
Ostranenie is estrangement, i.e. making a thing strange or unfamiliar through literary techniques, so that we are mobilized to look at it again, as if we are seeing it for the first time, developing thereby a high level of awareness and a renewed sensibility. The enormous potential of innovation and freedom it offers both to writer and reader made Russian Formalism instantly popular. During its short yet enthusiastic heyday in the post-Revolution Russia, young Russian scholars and students of philology and literature enthusiastically embraced formalist methods. However (and therefore), the state-centric intellegentsia discovered in Shklovsky a seductive radicalism, which had the potential to destabilize or unpopularize the Bolshevik historical materialistic approach to literature. Consequently, Shklovsky was allegedly subjected to political and public pressure to recant his theory. In 1930, he disavowed Formalism in Literaturnaia Gazetain a public declaration, entitled “Monument to a Scientific Error,” proclaiming: “I do not wish to be a monument to my error.”
So there are reasons why later young Russians found Shklovsky a writer “of the establishment.” But there are people who were suspicious of Shklovsky's renouncement. At the beginning of the Soviet period, Shklovsky was cunning enough to voice his defiance and opposition but by estranging the same through literary devices like irony: for example, as Samuel Eisen enumerated, Shklovsky predicted that what might “ruin” Russian literature was not the renewed conditions of government intervention or harsh censorship, but the writers' idealization and idolization of extra-literary impositions.
So, did the promoter of “estrangement” not estrange his disavowal? For many, Shklovsky's imagery of a monument is a shrewd parallelism, a double-edged irony that Shklovsky claimed Lenin was adept in his 1924 essay, “Lenin as a Decanonizer.” Shklovsky's “Marxist attackers” too, as Boym noted, identified the “textual ambivalences” of the declaration; Boym suggests that he thereby “confused the revolutions” and re-endorsed his “interest in civic freedoms and artistic independence” (Another Freedom 223). Let me use Shklovsky's favorite device of parallelism to summarize his ironic recantation: like Galileo, Shklovsky recanted his theory with a paradoxical whisper, “Eppursimuove” – yet it moves!
What is important to note, and what both the Bolshevik and later Western scholars cared to ignore, is that Shklovskian “estrangement” is estrangement of the world, not estrangement from the world. Not unlike the way Coleridge and Shelley conceptualized the transformative potential of defamiliarization, “estrangement” mobilizes social and individual transformation. It is re/invoking wonder and astonishment, which helps one re-engage with the world. “Estrangement,” often dubbed “bourgeois aesthetic,”is not meant to defamiliarize the socio-political scenario, marshalling one away off a lived reality to some remote lands of forgetfulness; rather it is defamiliarizing the habituated or apparent reality, leading one thereby to refresh one's perception and renew one's performance.
“Estrangement” is not estrangement from politics; it is estranging politics, which might too chillingly but accurately describe the post-Revolution state politics that disillusioned many pro-Revolution writers and artists, ranging from Osip Mandelstam and Sergei Esenin to Mayakovsky and Kazimir Malevich. While the success of the Bolshevik Revolution estranged the naturalized capitalist concept of private ownership as well as the concept of masturbatory high art, the post-Revolution “state art” estranged the way politics and art, the state and the individual interact. Mandelstam phrased this estrangement of state-craft as art precisely thus: “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”
It is, then, valid to surmise that what makes Shklovskian “estrangement” equally appealing and appalling is its endorsement of communication techniques and tactics – both artistic ones and ones deployed for survival – that offer an individual relative autonomy and freedom to see, read, live, survive, even dissent, and transform. This revealing potential of estrangement to make a thing strange, even stranger, is what renders “estrangement” dangerously autonomous!
Is this, then, a major reason why Shklovsky has been severely misunderstood (sometimes deliberately), underrated (in literary criticism), and under-represented (in the curricula)? Not only has his theory of “estrangement” revolutionized the way the arts are viewed, but it has also generated and influenced many later -isms and trends, ranging from Constructivism and Structuralism to Brecht's Verfremdung. Why, then, is he not included in most of the syllabi of the Departments of English in Bangladesh?
Mashrur Shahid Hossain is Associate Professor, Department of English at Jahangirnagar University.