Briefly About the Antinovel from Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar



Kafka in his antinovels attempts to show the absurdity of life as a whole; nothing is alive in this world or, at least, nothing makes sense. The processes are meaningless, authorities are incomprehensible. Chancelleries and institutions have no boundaries—it is as though the intestines have ruptured and the feces have moved into the peritoneum. The meaninglessness of life has become total. The world is in lockdown. It is like a clock with a bent dial. This notion of the death of time persists in the work of a contemporary artist.

In the beginning of Fellini’s , the camera shows a city tunnel for motor vehicles. Trapped inside their cars, behind windows, people are suffocating from the smell of burning gasoline and lead salts emitting from their idling engines.

The world has come to a contradiction with itself: both the tunnel and the cars are made for speed, so that people can leave the city fast, but some are suffocating as a result of an adverse effect.

The hero wants to fly away, but his friends and the producer capture him with a lasso and drag him back down into the city.

The hero searches for an escape in rural Italy, Catholic Italy, Garibaldi’s Italy.

Everything has been destroyed.

One of the love scenes in the film is enacted by the hero—the film director—for himself. He creates a scenario of a sudden, estranged love affair.

Everything that’s straightforward, ordinary has been exhausted by newspapers and the art of the past.

The heroes of the film are very different, but they are all frightened, they predict the destruction of the Earth, as it were.

The main hero—the film director—is waiting for the end of the world. He builds a huge rocket that is supposed to fly over the Earth, saving a group of chosen individuals.

The rocket cannot go up. There are no cosmic Mountains of Ararat. These are unattainable things, and the film returns to self-replication, popular circus, farce, and old conventional heroes with whom the man who can’t finish his work leaves and passes through the frames of his own film.

I am talking about simple things—about how the construction of books, the construction of old oral stories, not yet bound in books, depends on the paths of humanity, the direction in which humanity moves and what it wants to achieve.

I have seen many films with different endings. I have worked with many film directors. Once in a trattoria in Rome, I met with a well-known film director. He told me that he had been writing that same day (not knowing I was in Rome) on Mayakovsky talking about my path. I have seen many films and I know how difficult their denouements can be, how they are becoming even more complicated, and I know the doubts that Tolstoy expressed at the beginning of the writing of War and Peace, that neither death nor marriage of heroes can serve as an ending. Even the death of one of the heroes can’t be an ending, because the story shifts to the life of other heroes.

In one of the remarkable films by Antonioni, L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), a man and a woman cannot figure out their relationship. The scenes evolve around the stock exchange, where we see the outcomes of bank operations, decisions that have been made and not been carried out. The world of material things has devoured the living beings. The film ends with a shot of water slowly running out of a leak in a barrel.

But this isn’t his most melancholy work. Antonioni has another film that’s more known—Blow-Up (1966), or it can be translated in Russian as “A Shot in Large Scale.” If we were to give a simple synopsis of the film, then this is how it would unfold (have in mind that the evental path, along which I’ll take you, will bring us to a dead end).

A young talented photographer is in search of something sensational. He walks into a park and takes a photograph of a strange woman. Later he makes many blow-ups of the photograph. Suddenly he notices a body lying in the grass under the trees. Then the woman appears again and wants to buy the photograph. A plan is devised to steal the photograph. Everything is disconnected and complicated. Then the photograph disappears. The photographer returns to the park but the body is gone. He goes to see his friends, but they are busy with their own affairs—something that today the film industry calls “sex” for short.

They don’t pay any attention to him and they don’t care about the blow-up—the attempt to sensationalize ends in failure.

On the way, the photographer sees a group of university students dressed in masquerade costumes.

They are playing a game of tennis: we clearly hear the fast, staccato sounds of the ball hitting the racket.

Then we realize that we are watching a mimed match—it’s a game without a ball.

There is no sense, no ball in the game—only the ghost of sound.

Its purpose—the ending has disappeared. Nobody cares about the murder mystery and its solution. It can be used in a newspaper article or in photography, but nothing more. The denouement has vanished. There is no ending . . .

Pasolini’s films end differently. In Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows, 1966), for example, the story evolves around Francis of Assisi who sends his friars to preach Christianity to the birds. The Franciscan friars turn up in the contemporary world.

They successfully preach the commandment of love to the hawks and to the sparrows separately and convert them to Christianity.

But the Christian hawks hunt the Christian sparrows—that’s their nature.

The friars pray. A monastery, involved in the hectic activity of buying and selling of faith, appears around them. The friars leave.

They see terrible things—the meaninglessness and futility of birth and death. They meet different people in a deeply visionary setting, among which: a Chinese man for whom a woman gets a swallow’s nest from the roof of an old house. Their guide through the world of miserable lawlessness of strange tangled pathways is a crow, who has been sent to them by fate. The crow walks sideways, he is searching for something. In the end, the travelers get hungry and they eat the crow.

We have survived millenia, it was not for nothing. We don’t think that crows taste good in soup, we don’t believe in the height of irony of the denouement.

But individual denouements, the denouements of specific incidents change against other juxtaposition-denouements, as it were.

We think more and more expansively.

Conflicts occur not only between separate individuals but also between generations, social systems. Irony doesn’t help any more. It doesn’t save Antonioni, Pasolini, or even Fellini—a talented artist, whose entire film is about how man builds a rocket that is supposed to carry him out of this world into another one.

The journeys of Gilgamesh, who crossed the ocean with a pole, seem difficult to his descendents.

People write poems about writing poems.

Writers write novels about writing novels, film scripts about film scripts.

They are playing a tennis game without a ball, but the journeys of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Pantagruel and even Chichikov must have a purpose.

Return the ball into the game.

Return the heroic deed into life.

Return meaning to the movement—and not to the record of achievement.




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.

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New Elements in the Old Epic (The History of Gilgamesh) from Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar



Let’s renew our path with examples.

Gilgamesh is the hero of the Akkadian epic—of the multi-characteristic stage—who was apparently a historical figure, living nearly three thousand years before the Common Era, at a time when in the lower parts of the Tigris farmers had already learned how to build irrigation canals and had domesticated the donkey but hadn’t yet tamed the horse. Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu journey on foot to commit heroic deeds.

The great king and warrior Gilgamesh lives in a city with strong walls:

        See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.
        Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
        . . . inspect its mighty foundations,
        examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built. (Prologue)

Fired brick was a new invention that was a source of pride.

Gilgamesh, who owns an axe and a knife made of bronze, hears that the gods have created a new hero, Enkidu, who is as strong as himself.

Enkidu, with long hair covering his body, roams all over the wilderness, eats grass, and when he is thirsty drinks water from the waterholes kneeling beside the wild animals. The hunters are terrified of this savage man. Enkidu destroys the traps and frees the trapped animals from the hunter’s holes.

Enkidu’s story is repeated twice.

The unhurried pace of art was not yet burdened by experience. First, the story is told by the narrator, then it’s repeated by the person who has witnessed it: the impediment here is tautological.

Gilgamesh sends the hunter with Shamhat the harlot to meet Enkidu. He instructs Shamhat to strip off her robe and lie by the waterhole.

When Enkidu arrives to the waterhole, he sees her and approaches:

        She used her love-arts, she took his breath
        with her kisses, held nothing back, and showed him
        what a woman is. For seven days
        he stayed erect and made love with her,
        until he had had enough. (Book I)

At last, when he gets up, he realizes that all the animals have left him forever. He realizes that he can no longer run like an animal, his mind “had somehow grown larger.”

Then Shamhat gives Enkidu one of her robes and leads him to a shepherd’s hut:

         “Go ahead, Enkidu. This is food,
        we humans eat and drink this.” Warily
        he tasted the bread. Then he . . . drank seven
        pitchers of the beer. (Book II)

Enkidu is gradually introduced to human civilization, he becomes the protector of hunters and best friend of Gilgamesh. Together they travel to the Cedar Forest where terrible monsters live.

Intimacy with the woman humanizes him. She gives him the knowledge of life, the foreboding premonition of sorrow and death. She tears him away from his flock.

I am reading the epic of Gilgamesh, rereading it and analyzing the repetitions, and I am filled with awe at how people perceived themselves and how they told stories about themselves.

Everything is valued—both Enkidu’s battle against Gilgamesh, and the friends’ journey to the Cedar Forest. They walk side by side, they dig wells, they eat their bread sparingly.

Then they commit deeds and see dreams—the dreams foretell their actions. They commit deeds and then reinterpret them.

And though Shamhat civilizes Enkidu, he curses her for that. He assigns her to live under the shadow of a tavern wall, warm her body by the hearth.

Sleeping in the ashes for warmth is the last place for refuge, it is a place for paupers.

Enkidu curses the harlot with the ultimate curse of homelessness: to become the lover of a homeless man, to roam the streets without a place to rest. But Shamash, the god and protector of Uruk, interjects: “Enkidu, why are you cursing / the priestess Shamhat?”

The god reminds Enkidu that it was Shamhat who gave him beer and bread fit for a king. And Enkidu blesses the harlot.

Scholars have finally learned how to touch and understand the clay tablets that bear the cuneiform script, which appears to have retained the hammered nail marks.

The tablets signified a shift in the change of human relations.

The wedge-shaped impressions on the tablets are arranged differently; sometimes they look like traces left by birds, but in reality they are traces of changing structures.

This is how man’s relationship to the world, the various segmentations of the visible realm change: it is the knowledge of the world through labor and disillusionment.




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.

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.


NOTES
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.