The name “Viktor Shklovsky” comes up a lot at this site (I’m guilty of mentioning it in perhaps half of my posts), and one might wonder why the man and his work matters. Below, I’ll try and lay out what Viktor Shklovsky has done for me, and what he might be able to do for you, too! Because Shklovsky might be the single most interesting and, above all else, useful critic I’ve ever encountered…
I don’t remember when I first read Theory of Prose (which was published in Russian in 1925); it was sometime between 2000 and 2003, when I was a student at Illinois State University. I remember that Robert McLaughlin gave us the essay “Art as Device” in one of his classes. And my mentor, Curtis White, constantly encouraged me to read Shklovsky (along with Hegel, Marx, Adorno, and Frank Kermode). Also, between 2002 and 2003 I worked for Dalkey Archive Press, the publisher of Benjamin Sher’s English translation of Theory of Prose (1991). So I read it “sometime around then.”
When I moved to Thailand in 2003, Theory of Prose was one of the few books I took with me (another was David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art, a work heavily indebted to Shklovsky). For the next two years, I did little else beside ride buses and boats around Bangkok, reading and rereading those two books (while listening to Cat Power—speaking of whom, let’s recruit her for a little background music…).
What did this reading do for me? And why might you care?
Let’s start at the start. Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was one of the founders of the intellectual movement we today call Russian Formalism (along with Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Vladimir Propp, Yuri Tynianov, others). Broadly speaking, they wanted to understand artworks by breaking them down into their constituent parts, or devices (“priem”)—what we might call tropes or techniques or mechanisms. Different members of this circle studied different devices, and there was not always a clear consensus as to which devices mattered the most. Rather, what unified the Russian Formalists was their dedication to identifying devices, and to explaining how they worked in concert with one another—as well as how those arrangements changed over time. (Forgive me this oversimplification.)
Here is one such example: they distinguished between a narrative’s fabula (story) and syuzhet (presentation). The two need not line up exactly. If someone asks you what the movie Fight Club (1999) “is about,” you might say, “Well, it’s about a guy (Edward Norton) who invents an alternate persona, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), in order to give himself the courage to break out of his mundane white collar existence.” But of course that’s not at all how Fight Club presents itself to the audience. The narrative’s presentation begins at its climax, which is interrupted, and only then proceeds to the the story’s chronological beginning. From that point on, the film contains a mix of chronologically-ordered scenes and bits of narrative exposition (Northon’s voiceover) that allow us, ultimately, to return to and understand the climax, which is then resolved in the final minutes of the movie. Furthermore, the narration conceals from us for most of the film’s running time the fact that Tyler Durden is the psychological creation of the nameless narrator/protagonist.
Formalism helps us explain this kind of narrative phenomenon. By separating story from presentation, we can begin to speak of them independently from one another, as well as to understand how they relate. From this follows many other concepts: for instance, we can see how exposition is back story that gets related (narrated) in the narrative present, whereas a flashback is a scene that’s chronologically embedded in the narrative present. And so on. (I just taught an eight-week creative writing workshop at StoryStudio Chicago, and the lectures I gave, and the creative writing exercises I designed, and the ways in which I analyzed and workshopped my students’ papers, were all largely derived from Shklovsky.)
Today, it’s common to hear that there’s a difference between what a story is about, and how it is told. Roger Ebert, for instance, regularly says words to that effect:
I should like Hal Hartley’s “Flirt” a lot more than I do, since it illustrates one of my favorite mantras: “A film is not about what it is about, but how it is about it.” A good film or a bad film can be made about anything. Therefore, to dismiss (or praise) a film solely because of its subject matter, it is not necessary to see it. That is why people who make statements beginning with the words “I don’t like films about. . .” are idiots, or censors.
That distinction can be traced back to Shklovsky and the other Russian Formalists. (Ebert is of course a good friend of David Bordwell’s, whom he’s called “our best writer on the cinema.” Ebert also occasionally makes use of the concept of ASL, or Average Shot Length—see his Great Movies write-up on Annie Hall; ASL is a formalist critical approach to cinema invented by Barry Salt, and popularized by Bordwell and Thompson.)
(If this story/style distinction sounds something like the argument that Raymond Queneau is making in Exercises in Style (1947/1958)…it is! Although I don’t know whether Queneau was directly influenced by Shklovsky.)
In other words, Shklovsky and the other Russian Formalists gave us ways of understanding how narratives are artificial things, assembled from many different conventional pieces or devices—and how the results may themselves be more or less conventional. These pieces tend to be inherited, as do the ways of assembling them. (I’m also fond of quoting from Roman Jakobson’s essay “The Dominant,” which describes how the essential character of a work of art—the way it feels, more or less—is the product of one or more devices dominating all of the others. So, for example, in a work of Language Poetry, it’s important that the writer obey the principle of parataxis—or at least avoid syllogisms; all other aspects of the poem then proceed from adhering to that one dominant device.)
Before I read Theory of Prose, I didn’t really know how to construct narratives; I’d been struggling to write a novel for about six years. After I read ToP (several times), I understood how to do that, as well as everything that Curt had been trying to teach me in workshop. And that enabled me to write my first novel, as well as other novels. What’s more, I now had a method and a vocabulary to explain how other narratives had been constructed; thus, I could formally analyze them and see how they “worked.” From there, I could criticize those narratives, or imitate aspects of them, or simply enjoy comprehending them more thoroughly. Nearly ten years later, I’ve yet to encounter a narrative—any narrative, in any narrative medium—that can’t be understood or explained in terms of Shklovsky’s analysis. Which strikes me as pretty powerful!
…Obviously one doesn’t need to read Shklovsky to arrive in a similar place (able to write and understand narratives). In my own case, however, I found Theory of Prose the single most productive text in this regard. And I think others could learn the same thing from it. I’m a very pragmatic person, and tend not to have any interest in theory unless I can use it to do actual things in my everyday life. Shklovsky is among the most practical theorists I’ve ever encountered. (It would of course be an understatement to say that many others have found Shklovsky similarly useful.)
So ToP can help us understand and write narratives. But the book goes much farther than that. Some accuse Russian Formalism of being “cold” and “uninterested in the social”; the opposite is actually true. Shklovsky is very much interested in narrative’s social aspects, and in the social importance of all art. Why should we make art, and devote so much time to analyzing it, if we don’t understand why we make it, and like it? In other words, Shklovsky wants formalist analysis to be something more than just theory—he wants to use it to demonstrate how and why telling narratives is essential to being human.
Shklovsky does this in the very first chapter of Theory of Prose, “Art as Device” (sometimes also translated as “Art as Technique”—this is that word “priem”—”прием”—which turns out to have many different meanings in Russian—including chess strategy! …but let’s not get too distracted). Here’s how it happens. First, Shklovsky relates a passage from Tolstoy’s diary, in which the author, after dusting his living room, can’t remember whether he’s dusted his sofa or not. Tolstoy then wonders how much of one’s life is lived unconsciously: “if the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been” (5).
Shklovsky next argues that there is a distinction between “recognition” (“automatized perception”) and “seeing.” Recognition occurs when you look at things without seeing them—when your surroundings have become so familiar that you tune them out. Seeing, by contrast, happens when something causes you to look again, and to regard a thing as though for the first time. An example: I’ve lived in Chicago for over six years, and have ridden the CTA Blue Line constantly during that time, and only about a year ago did I actually see the wood paneling lining the inside of the train cars.
Having established this distinction, Shklovsky wonders how we might escape recognition, and return to seeing. He proceeds to say (and this passage from Theory of Prose is probably its most quoted):
And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war. [...] And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to its fullest.” (5–6)
Art is art because it shakes us out of our complacency, and reminds us that we are alive, and that things don’t have to be the way they are. Anything is possible, despite the fact that we routinely convince ourselves that many things are, in fact, not possible—that the world is the way we’ve inherited it, and that nothing can change. It is the job of the artist to live outside of prescribed reality. Art becomes experimental living.
This is why I have written elsewhere on this site that Christopher Nolan is an artless filmmaker. In Inception and elsewhere (I just watched Batman Begins again, god help me), Nolan reduces his technique to the most instantly familiar, the most comprehensible and understandable, the most formulaic. He aspires to recognition, not seeing. … For more on this topic, see this series of posts:
- Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception
- Art as Device, and Device (When it Works) as Miracle
- Scott Pilgrim vs. Inception for the Future of the Cinematic Imagination
- More on Inception: Shot Economy and 1 + 1 = 1
They—and the majority of my writing at this site—are pure applied Shklovsky.
OK, let’s now try to connect Shklovsky’s argument that art is enstrangement (or “defamiliarization”; the Russian word is “ostranenie,” or “остранение”) with a Formalist understanding of narrative. The following is one of my favorite examples. Traditionally, Western narratives follow the patterning laid out by Gustav Freytag:
It’s a matter of convention that the climax is followed by the denouement—the falling action. This is as true in the cinema as it is in novels and short stories; we could think of hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands, of works that obey that structure.
It caused quite a sensation. People were shocked by that film, by how it ended. (The “FIN” that appears over the last, frozen shot is akin to a good slap in the face.) (People were of course shocked by other aspects of the film as well, such as its borrowings from Italian neo-realist cinema.) It helped launch the French New Wave (1959–1967), and many of its aspects—devices—became heavily imitated. Lots of other filmmakers began ending their movies that way—until stopping right at the climax became something of a cliche of European art cinema.
(Something similar happened in US literature. Recently I was teaching the Raymond Carver collection Short Cuts (1993). And the first time my students read one of those stories—it didn’t matter whether it was “Neighbors” or “Vitamins” or “Will You Please Be Quiet Please?”—they were surprised by the lack of denouement, the way the story stopped so abruptly, right in the middle of the climax. But after they’d read a few more of the stories, they became accustomed to this aspect of the writing; they began to expect it as one of Carver’s “signature moves.” And ever since Carver, many realist writers have imitated that move, that device, until the point where it’s become something of a cliche of North American realist short story writing.)
Once that move became a cliche, ending the film (or the story) right at its climax was no longer an artistic thing to do. That device had become “familiar,” expected, conventional—automatic. And so artists then had to find something else to do, at the ending or elsewhere, to help audiences “see” films again as spaces for potential, not obligation.
All of this is to say, Shklovsky is supremely interested in why some works of art feel fresh and alive, while others feel dead and dated. He is chasing desperately after the sensations of life and possibility, which to him are fundamental aspects of being human—he wants, ultimately, to not live that unconscious life that never was. And he wants to explain why some (narrative) artworks produce those feelings, and others don’t. And he explains that difference in formalist terms.
Which is why Shklovsky is so valuable. He’s not the only one, of course, who can explain this; before I read Theory of Prose, I had read writings by the Situationist International, who used their own enstranging devices (détournement, the dérive) to escape the deadening, routine obligations of modern urban life. And I’d read John Cage’s Silence (1961), who had his own favorite devices (chance, indeterminacy) “to affirm [...] life, not to bring order out of chaos or to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord” (95, italics mine).
Shklovsky helped me understand how narrative writing could be a part of that same basic human desire. Which is to say, he showed me how to do what I’d wanted to do ever since I was a child: write artistic narratives.
[What he didn't show me how to do is proofread my own writing—ugh! I've updated this post for typos and the sake of clarity.]