Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot


Viktor Shklovsky,translated by Shushan Avagyan, Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (Dalkey Archive Press, £9.99)

Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984) made his claim to what was to become world fame (among literary theorists, at least) at the age of 24. ‘Art as Device’  (or ‘technique’), a short article which is still his best-known work, was published in 1917, marking the start of a feverishly fruitful decade in Russian literary studies through the work of a group of young scholars who became known as the Russian Formalists.

The Formalist movement consisted of two groups, the Petersburg-based OPOYAZ (the Society for the Study of Poetic Language, of which Shklovsky was a founder) and the Moscow based Moscow Linguistic Circle (founded in 1915 by, Roman Jakobson). Between 1914 and 1929 (when Formalists, like many others in Russia, had to abandon hope of a non-Marxist thought under the onset of Stalinist terror), these young men and their colleagues produced a body of work on literary theory that is still unmatched. Their passionate investigations into the inner workings of literary texts was driven by their combative spirit, collaborative friendships, and a conviction that literary studies should be an autonomous science. In a sense, they founded literary theory as a discipline.

Shklovsky was responsible for coining a term which in many studies of the movement represents Formalism’s core idea. In ‘Art as Device’, Shklovsky developed the idea of ostranenie or ‘estrangement’ as the main mechanism behind literary creation. His definition even made its way into a David Lodge novel: ‘Habit devours objects, clothes, furniture, one’s wife and the fear of war … Art exists to help us recover the sensation of life.’

The extravagance of this formulation is representative of the man himself. In an article published in one of the two volumes the prestigious journal Poetics Today recently devoted to Shklovsky and his idea of ostranenie, Caryl Emerson called Shklovsky ‘something of a daredevil and dandy in real life’, ‘brash, secular, as succinct as an aphorism, and enamoured of Futurism, modernity, fast machines, and the efficiency of the device.’  Half-Jewish and only a quarter Russian, Shklovsky and other Jewish Formalists, Roman Jakobson and Boris Eikhenbaum, stood at an odd angle to Russian culture; profoundly in and of it, in the precarious manner of assimilated Central European Jews of the time. Even though in Soviet Russia the Formalists found Stalinism by far the biggest danger, Shklovsky was aware of the anti-Semitic tendencies in Russian culture, noting, for example, the ‘transrational anti-Semitism’ of his fellow soldiers in the First World War, who only ‘forgave’ his Jewishness because of the bravery which cost him two severe wounds and won him the Georgian Cross.

He was as brave and impulsive as an essayist as he was as a soldier. Extravagant and prone to making outrageous claims in fragmented, poetic essays rather than writing carefully weighted scholarly articles, Shklovsky was never going to become a straight-forward, hugely respected academic figure like fellow Formalist Roman Jakobson. Instead, Shklovsky was and remained the enfant terrible, the master of the odd viewpoint and of the unexpected, brilliant, unaccountable generalisation.

Two of his early statements perfectly encapsulate this tendency to see oddity and to say odd things; the first is from his article on Rozanov and the second from an article on plot:

‘The legacy that is passed on from one literary generation to the next moves not from father to son but from uncle to nephew.’

‘Shakespeare was as undisturbed by the unreality of the literary work as a chess player is undisturbed by the fact that a knight can only move obliquely on the board.’

The move of a knight on the chess-board, which Shklovsky thought representative of the process of literary creation, was also his own trademark, in both stylistic choice and tendency of thought. Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (here in its first English translation) develops  the theme of the sideways move and the concept of ostranenie. It is a study of Tolstoy’s intertextuality and of the relationship between historical context and literary plot. Shklovsky saw literary form as inextricably linked to the artist’s world-view; form in many ways determined literary possiblity. The search for truth for him is effectively the search for new forms through which fresh ways of looking at the world can be expressed, and in this late work he elaborated this idea through the concept of ‘energy of delusion’.

Shklovsky borrows this phrase from one of Tolstoy’s letters, where it was used to describe the necessity of a writer’s belief in himself and the importance of his own task. However, he modifies it to mean the sideways move of the search for the truth, which starts off going in one direction, but then has to go through many twists and turns to avoid staid truths and old clichés and arrive at something new. For habit, as Shklovsky had said already as a young man, dulls the sensation of life; we get lost on ‘the usual paths’ we take, and have to ‘tear’ ourselves ‘away from home’ in order to fully grasp the possibilities open to us. Literary works, ‘conceived with a view to disrupting harmony’, born out of the feverish, twisting search for truth, are fully representative of the ‘open-ended nature of human fate and the unpredictability of finding answers’. To illustrate this, Shklovsky looks at the history of love plot in European literature from Boccaccio onwards, viewing it as a refraction of the changing views on adultery and fidelity, on male and female morals. He shows how this long tradition is replayed again in Tolstoy’s novels, how he takes ideas and fragments of plots from his predecessors, and moulds them and remoulds them until something urgently new is created out of the old material. Beginnings and endings are crucial, argues Shklovsky; the former should never be straightforward (just as Anna Karenina begins sideways, focusing on the Oblonsky family), and the latter should never be final, simply because life never reaches the point of unchanging, harmonious equilibrium. In this context Shklovsky mentions Tolstoy’s dissatisfaction with novels that end with marriage; for Tolstoy, this was simply wrong because ‘a wedding is only the set-up, and certainly not the resolution of a conflict.’

There is a conflict of ideas present in Shklovsky’s own work, and perhaps this tension drove him forward, and led him to re-examine his early work in old age. The young Formalist Shklovsky championed literature’s independence from life, which appears to contradict the later assertion that literature is didactic. To argue that a novel, a play, a poem has only an internal logic that bears no relationship to the external world appears to deny any meaningful link between literature and life. Yet his concepts ostranenie and ‘energy of delusion’ both demonstrate the literary work’s potential to transform life by transforming our ways of thinking.That is why Shklovsky can write: ‘I’m not writing a manual for young fiction writers about how to open or close their prose works. Life will teach them that.’ And the unsaid qualification to this freely presents itself: life will teach them that if they stay aware of the movement of life, of the world and of human thought. And if he is right that ‘Russian literature, great Russian literature, doesn’t have endings,’ then his subject matter is perfectly suited to his purpose.

There is something profoundly touching, as well as wildly marvellous in this book. Occasional memoir-like touches (such as the image of Aleksandr Blok sitting on a windowsill during a reading by Gorky or his recollections of Mayakovsky’s love for Lilya Brik) are piercingly moving; even more so are the playful references to old age in a book so youthful in spirit. The scope of his familiarity with the great works of literature and European culture, and the deep sense of being at home in them, is breathtaking. The searching, fragmented, at times deeply lyrical, digression-led style of writing is like a dance to which the reader is invited, circling around the idea of life as movement and of human thought as always incomplete, finding new examples of it and new ways of expressing it. And a wonderful dance partner he is, this old Viktor Shklovsky, witty and self-deprecating and wise in a way only people who have known wars, revolutions, political terrors and Mayakovsky can be wise. Few works of literary scholarship contain passages such as this address to the reader:

I wish you happiness.

I wish you restlessness,

alarming dreams.

And a yearning for the future.

So long.

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