Viktor Shklovsky and the horror behind ostranenie

“What we call art exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make a stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the method of art isostranenie [making strange]”, proclaims Viktor Shklovsky’s best-known essay, “Art as Device” (“Iskusstvo kak priyom”), written one hundred years ago, and published in 1917.
When I say “essay”, I mean a cross between an article and a manifesto. And when I say “published”, I mean that Shklovsky had it printed on what looked like toilet paper, along with articles by other hot-headed students who believed they had found new ways of understanding literature. Following the new fashion for abbreviations, they christened their circle “OPOYAZ”, short for “Society for the Study of Poetic Language”. When others disparagingly called them formalists, they proudly took up the label. There never was a formal beginning to formalism, but the group formed around Shklovsky in 1916. This year, then, celebrates the twinned centenary of both the OPOYAZ and ostranenie – a concept that is often misunderstood as a mere textual game, when it is actually about making life more real, both in its joys and in its horrors.
In English, ostranenie is known as “defamiliarization”, “e(n)strangement”, “making strange” or “foregrounding”, all of which have the potential to confuse. Being estranged from, say, one’s wife is the emotional opposite of the reconnection through wonder that is ostranenie. One might also think of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt; though he was probably inspired by the Russian theorist, the German playwright believed in restraining feelings in order to promote critical thought. Shklovsky, on the other hand, saw thought as inseparable from emotion. (As it happens, contemporary cognitive science agrees.) To avoid such confusions, I will stick to the original term. Not that it is correct: it should have been ostrannenie, from the Russian strannyi, strange. But orthography was not one of Shklovsky’s fortes, and, as he put it decades later, the neologism “went off with one ‘n,’ to roam the world like a dog with an ear cut off”. The word is strange to Russian speakers, too – which is arguably a good thing, considering what it means.
But what does it mean? Shklovsky’s seventy years as a scholar and his penchant for self-contradiction (it was his method of thinking, his Socratic monologue) conspire against a clear-cut and complete definition. He used ostranenie to describe devices as well as their effects, the text as well as the mind. Sticking with the latter, we can define ostranenie as a cognitive-emotional state, the renewed awareness produced when the habitual is depicted in an unusual way. What is habitual differs from reader to reader, from spectator to spectator. The intended effect can fail to manifest itself; conversely, one can experience ostranenie where it was not intended: say, reading a description of one’s country written by an astonished foreigner. There are a great many ways of making things strange – for instance, adopting the perspectives of aliens and animals; naming directly what is usually couched in euphemisms; or describing in minute detail what is usually summed up in a single word.
Most of the examples cited in “Art as Device” are taken from Leo Tolstoy; his short story “Strider” (“Kholstomer”), written from the perspective of a horse, is an exercise in ostranenie from start to finish. Here, for example, is how the equine narrator perceives the notion of property:
“[Humans] love not so much the possibility of doing or not doing something as the possibility of talking about different things using certain words, on which they agree beforehand. Such are the words ‘my’ and ‘mine,’ which they use to talk about different things, creatures, topics, and even about land, about people, and about horses. They agree that only one person may say ‘mine’ about any particular thing. And the one who says ‘mine’ about the greatest number of things, in this game whose rules they’ve made up among themselves, is considered the happiest.”
(All translations are mine). The social criticism involved here is typical of the examples Shklovsky selects – yet ostranenie is often presented as an escapist concept concerned with texts in a vacuum.
The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms states that formalism “deliberately disregard[s] the content of literary works”; many critics believe that it also disregards the reader. But it is the reader’s renewed experience of the “content” which constitutes ostranenie. Yes, the young Shklovsky said that “a world juxtaposed to a world, a cat juxtaposed to a stone – they are equal”, but this is an understandable counter-reaction to an establishment that regarded ideological content as the measure of literary quality – as it did before the Revolution, and (with different intentions and greater intensity) thereafter. Even at its inception in 1916 and more explicitly later, ostranenie is not a formal exercise but a way of seeing the world. As Shklovsky put it in Energy of Delusion, sixty-five years after he first coined the concept, “Ostranenie is astonishment at the world, its acute experience. This term can only be made a fixture if it includes the notion of ‘the world’. Moreover, this term presupposes the existence of so-called content, the content being defined as the decelerated careful contemplation of the world”.
When a scholar claims that “acute experience” of the world is to be found in literature, one might suspect that his real life consists largely of book dust. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Shklovsky. Actually, to call him “a scholar” is misleading: while most of his life was dedicated to literary and film studies, he was also a fiction writer and the protagonist of other people’s novels, instructor of an armoured division and professor at the Art History Institute in Petrograd (both without any formal qualification), revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, the patriarch and enfant terrible of formalism, the chairman and cheerleader of the OPOYAZ.
The OPOYAZniks met in hungry Petrograd (not St Petersburg anymore, not Leningrad yet) and discussed the laws of world literature until dawn coloured the icy room. When this room was filled, knee-deep, with water, they sat on the backs of chairs. They didn’t retain this luxury for long: one member – often Shklovsky – would be responsible for chopping furniture and feeding the stove. Books burned, too, but gave little warmth. Despite the hunger and cold, these young people were exhilarated. They believed they were creating not a new kind of literary scholarship, but literary science. They took their work seriously – but they also had fun. Imagine them singing their jocular hymn, with its punning refrain “Ave Shklovsky, ave Victor, / formalituri te salutant!”, and stanzas such as the following:
“Love, just as any other object,
is known to us with all its vices.
But passion, from a formal viewpoint,
is just convergence of devices.”
They sang, they argued, they published, and in between led rather unscholarly lives. Shklovsky wrote while fighting in the First World War, participating in the February Revolution and trying to stage an anti-Bolshevik coup. He wrote while hiding in a mental ward and while starving in Petrograd; while torn between an unrelenting love-object in Berlin and an imprisoned wife in Russia. He even wrote while convalescing in a hospital: a bomb had gone off as he was trying to defuse it.
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