Forward from Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar

I lived once by the river near Chudovo when I was a boy. It was springtime. The bird-cherry trees had finished blooming. At dusk, when the slanting rays of sunlight lit up the forest, the nightingales would start singing.

They would start their song in the crimson light, and continue singing through the short night.

At daybreak, when the sun rose above the bluish lumps of plowed soil, the chaffinch continued the song of nightingales in that quarter-hour when shadows are long. He would pick up their tune. If his song was clear and coherent, people said—the weather is going to be nice.

Am I to sing the song of the chaffinch? And what is he singing now?

I began writing when I was a young man, a university student who didn’t have time to graduate. I was born in 1893, before the Revolution of 1905, but was awoken by the first revolution and anticipation of the new. We knew that the revolution was around the corner, that it would happen soon. In our poems, we tried to guess the date of its arrival. We were waiting for a revolution in the radical changes of which we would partake. We didn’t want to replicate or receive the world as it was, we wanted to understand and change it. But how—we didn’t yet know.

The poetry of Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov—and the new movement in painting—wanted to perceive the world anew and thus changed the sound of the poem itself.

But we saw that we weren’t alone in our arguments. Poets and writers from the past have also tried to speak in new ways because they, too, envisioned things in their own way.

The theory of ostranenie appeared in 1916 [1]. I tried to sum up in it the method of renewing perception and representation of phenomena. Everything was connected with the time period, with pain and inspiration—the world that kept surprising us. At the same time, I wrote in Theory of Prose (1925):

“A literary work is pure form; it is neither a thing nor material but a relationship of materials. And, like any relationship, this one, too, is zero dimensional. Which is why the ratio of a composition is irrelevant, the mathematical value of its numerator or denominator doesn’t matter; what matters is their relationship. Comic or tragic works, well-known or small-scale works—the juxtaposition of a world to another world is equal to the juxtaposition of a cat to a stone.” [2]

There are small fruit flies called Drosophila.

They are remarkable because they have a very short lifespan.

It is possible to follow the crossbreeding between these minute species in an extremely precise and short period of time.

There was a time when we were told: “You study the crossbreeding of Drosophila flies, but they are good for nothing, they don’t produce milk or meat.”

But behind the experiment lie attempts to study the laws of genetics. Here, as Vladimir Mayakovsky once said, “life arises in a completely different context, and you begin to understand the most important things through nonsense.”

If in art we are comparing a cat with another cat, or a flower with another flower, the artistic form as such is not constructed solely in the moment of such crossbreeding; those are merely detonators for triggering much larger explosions, entryways into knowledge, explorations of the new.

By refuting emotion or ideology in art, we are also refuting the knowledge of form, the purpose of knowledge, and the path of experience that leads to the perception of the world.

Form and content then are separated from each other. The brilliant formula is actually a formula of capitulation; it divides the realm of art—destroys the wholeness of perception.

The Drosophila flies are not sent into space for a vacation. They enable the study of how the cosmos affects living organisms.

You can send the cat and flies into the cosmos, but there ought to be a purpose to these expeditions.

Art cognizes by implementing old models in new ways and by creating new ones. Art moves, transforming. It changes its methods, but the past does not cease to exist. Art moves using its old vocabulary and reinterpreting old structures and, at the same time, it seems to be static. It changes fast, changes not for the sake of changing, but to impart the sensation of things in their difference through rearrangement.

1: Shklovsky first used the term ostranenie (estrangement) in his essay “Art as Device” (1917), where he conceptualized it, based on the Aristotlean notion of poetic language, as the defining feature of language in its artistic usage in both verse and prose. As Shklovsky posited, after encountering objects or phenomena several times, the process of recognition switches to an automated mode in our minds and in order to renew perception of the familiar, poetic language must shift the familiar into an unfamiliar semantic axis. The function of estrangement then is to render the familiar in unfamiliar terms in order to return the palpability of the experience on the page by slowing down automated perception and increasing the difficulty of perception by impeding and retarding the process of recognition.

2: Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. From Chapter 9, “Literature without a Plot: Rozanov.” Translated by Benjamin Sher. Dalkey Archive, 1990. Revised by Shushan Avagyan.

Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was a leading figure in the Russian Formalist movement of the 1920s and had a profound effect on twentieth century Russian literature. Several of his books have been translated into English, including Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, Third Factory, Theory of Prose, Energy of Delusion, Literature and Cinematography, and now Bowstring, all published by Dalkey Archive Press. Bowstring was originally published in Moscow in 1970; it is a mix of autobiography, biography, memoir, history, and literary criticism. This is its first appearance in English.

Shushan Avagyan, translator of Energy of Delusion, has also translated the works of Armenian poet S. Kurghinian. She is working on her doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at Illinois State University.