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The Russian Tradition from Potebnia to Shklovsky, with Some Poets in Between
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The Early Shklovsky, or How It All Becomes Official in the Work of an Actual Critic

What does language theory of this sort look like when it turns up in the work of a critic of the same era? Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) is a perfect example because he shows just how intimate the relations were between poets and critics in this age. In fact, when you place Shklovsky next to writers like Bely and Khlebnikov, you begin to wonder whether the distinction between poet and critic (or, for that matter, between symbolist, Futurist, and Formalist) is all that meaningful. Shklovsky was not a poet, but he was not exclusively a critic either (he wrote novels).

Like so many others, Shklovsky saw himself as a demystifier and a demythifier. Among his earliest writings are an article on Potebnia and one on transrational language, both published for the first time in 1916. They are probably more interesting for what they say about Shklovsky than for what they say about their subject because they both show Shklovsky implicitly defining himself in relation to the recent past and the present. The past and the present for him are exactly the intellectual context I have just been talking about.

The article "On Poetry and Transrational Language" is usually seen as Shklovsky's defense of the theories of the zaumniki . If defending the zaumniki is what Shklovsky thought he was doing, then he certainly went about his task in a strange way. More than half the article is devoted to listing examples of transrational language from traditional literature, where, Shklovsky shows, the authors in question had no intention of writing in anything like transrational language. The point is that transrational language exists (here he apparently is lending support to the Futurists' theories), but not only in its pure form. For the most part, in fact, it exists "in a hidden state, as rhyme existed in ancient verse—alive, but something one was not aware of."[35] Where it does appear in pure form is in the language of mystical sects and in glossolalia. Perhaps this assertion can be construed as validating the Futurists' idea of zaum' by demonstrating that it existed before the term had been invented. At the same time, however, it has the effect of devaluing their discovery. After all, the zaumniki were not claiming to have found something that was already in plain sight; they were claiming to have either


invented or discovered something that no one else had ever known about. When Shklovsky says it was there all the time, but not necessarily in its pure form, he shows that the zaumniki were doing nothing more than supplying a name for an existing phenomenon.

Besides, the whole thrust of the article seems to be toward a theoretical point independent of what the zaumniki were doing. Shklovsky's notion is that language and poetry are mutually determining things, that one can no more say poetry is a phenomenon of language than one can say language is a phenomenon of poetry. Transrational language in its pure state demonstrates this because of the way in which its unrecognizable speech "wants to be language."[36] Shklovsky's thinking goes well beyond anything the zaumniki had done. In its emphasis on the perceptual aspect of language—that is, the tendency of the listener to take sound combinations that do not exist in his or her own lexicon and assimilate them into a structure that is somehow on the verge of meaningfulness—Shklovsky's article looks ahead to the psychoperceptual orientation his work will start to assume in the article "Art as Device."

The article on Potebnia is more aggressive. The curious thing about it is that Shklovsky's critique of Potebnia is based on a misunderstanding and is used to assert a position that is not much different from Potebnia's. Shklovsky outlines his predecessor's theory of the poetic word, referring to the tripartite structure of outer form, image (or inner form), and meaning. He then points out, rightly, that for Potebnia the imaginality (obraznost' ) of a word means its symbolism, which is directly proportional to its poeticality. Shklovsky disagrees. In his opinion what distinguishes poetic language from prosaic language is not images but something he calls the palpability (oscutimost')[o&!;&!;utimost'] of its construction." The poetic image is only one of several means for rendering the construction of language palpable: language can be made palpable as well in its acoustical, pronunciative, or semasiological aspects.[37]

In fact, as Shklovsky saw it, Potebnia was so concerned with images that he committed a cardinal error, which was to argue away the importance of external form. "From the position that 'the clarity of a representation or its absence (that is, the imaginality of a word) cannot be made out in its sounds' and that 'imaginality equals poeticality,'" says Shklovsky, "Potebnia draws the conclusion that the poeticality of a word cannot be made out in the sounds of that word, that external form (sound, rhythm) may be left entirely out of account in a definition of the essence of poetry."[38] Victor Erlich thinks that Shklovsky may have learned about Potebnia from secondhand sources.[39] The suggestion ap-


pears to make sense, for it is difficult to recognize Potebnia in Shklovsky's critique: no one who has read Thought and Language can possibly think that Potebnia ignores outer form since he devotes many pages to the subject of the relation between the outer form and the inner form of a word. Still, Erlich's statement is puzzling since in the critique of Potebnia Shklovsky cites page numbers from Notes on the Theory of Literature . In addition, there is evidence to show that Shklovsky in one of his earliest articles appropriated words and phrases from Potebnia (without citing his source). There is no question, then, that Shklovsky knew Potebnia firsthand; the only question is whether he knew more than a few pages of his work.

Let's return for a moment to the article on Potebnia. Shklovsky's first reproach, that Potebnia was concerned only with images and not with the palpability of language, is just as unfounded as the second, although it is much easier to see why Shklovsky thought this. In fact, it is a flaw in Potebnia's system that makes Shklovsky's statement inaccurate. For what Shklovsky really wishes to see is a doctrine of the self-valued word or word "as such," a doctrine by which poetic language distinguishes itself from prosaic because it calls attention to itself as language . But isn't that exactly the doctrine Potebnia has unwittingly subscribed to, as Bely pointed out in his shrewd critique? Isn't Potebnia's "mysticism of the word itself," as Bely calls it, the very thing Shklovsky would like to see, though he certainly would not like to see it called mysticism?

He also would not have liked to see it be mysticism. But here is where Shklovsky's critique of Potebnia is most interesting. One commentator has suggested that the most important concept of Shklovsky's early career, the concept of ostranenie, arose as a direct result of his misunderstanding of Potebnia.[40] The term is introduced in the 1917 article "Art as Device," where Shklovsky again brings up Potebnia, referring to his theory slightingly as one according to which art is "thinking in images," and then goes on to give a more complete account than previously of the distinction between poetic and prosaic language. Since it is the business of art to give us a perception of things that allows us to see them, not just recognize them, an must use the technique of "making strange" (ostranenie ), showing things in a new and different way, so that the perceiver "sees" them as if for the first time. Poetic language, which is the medium of verbal art, has the responsibility of promoting this type of vision, and it does so above all if words themselves are used in surprising and different ways, so that they call attention to themselves. Thus poetic language differs from prosaic in that prosaic language has become


automatized; its constituent words are not noticed in and for themselves but simply exist to point to their objects and then disappear.[41]

In "Art as Device" Shklovsky has dressed up his ideas in the garb of scientific respectability by discussing language in the context of something that sounds like perceptual psychology. But what he is presenting is not fundamentally different from what he had said three years earlier, even before the Potebnia study, in an article titled "The Resurrection of the Word." There Shklovsky had made the same distinction between recognizing and seeing as modes of perception associated, respectively, with prose and poetry. The same appeal is made to restore the word to a position of value by using words that call attention to themselves as words. Hence the "resurrection" promised in the title. What is striking about the article, however, is how much Shklovsky's style resembles that of Potebnia and Potebnia's successors. Yet this is not surprising, because Shklovsky, without telling us, has borrowed a great deal of material for his article from Potebnia and other sources close to Potebnia.

The basic ideas are the same as in Potebnia. Potebnia had seen the process by which poetic language becomes prosaic as one of increasing abstraction. So does Shklovsky. Potebnia had talked about the objectivity of poetic language, meaning its nearness to sensual perception. Shklovsky speaks of the disappearance from consciousness of everything that is habitual, including prosaic language. And, most important of all, Potebnia had based the whole thing on a myth. Again, so does Shklovsky. Here is how Shklovsky begins his article:

The creation of words is man's most ancient [drevnejsim[*] form of poetic creation. Today, words are dead, and language resembles a cemetery, whereas the word that had just come into being was imaginal and full of life [zivo[*] - obrazno ]. Every word in its basis [osnova ] is a trope. For example, the word "moon" [mesjac ]: the original [pervonacal'noe][pervona&!;al'noe] meaning of this word was "measurer." . . . And often, when one succeeds in reaching the image that had formed the basis of a word but that has been lost, obliterated, one is amazed at its beauty, a beauty that once was but is no more.[42]

Sound familiar? It should, because it is the same myth of original purity that Potebnia had found himself irresistibly drawn to. The same words and themes are there. There is talk of origins and tremendous separation in time. Shklovsky even uses the favored adjective to describe the linguistic Eden, pervonacal'nyj[*] (from pervyj, "first," and nacalo[*] , "beginning"), Potebnia had used this word repeatedly in his own evocations of the myth of origins (as had Bely).


A great deal of the material Shklovsky uses in "The Resurrection of the Word" is borrowed, and an examination of his sources shows how dependent he was on the Potebnian myth. In one instance he borrows from exactly the same page of Potebnia's Notes on the Theory of Literature as Bely had done in the second part of "The Magic of Words": the introductory section to Potebnia's lengthy discussion of literary tropes. Shklovsky casually mentions the commonly used metaphor "foot of a mountain" (podosva[*] gory ),[43] but he does not tell us that this is the very same example that Potebnia had used to illustrate the notion of metaphor.[44] Bely's adaptation of that page from Potebnia had included an analysis of an expression containing the word mesjac (moon) (S, pp. 443–46; SE, pp. 106–8); mesjac is the first example Shklovsky gives of a word whose original (Potebnia would say etymological) meaning is more poetic than its current one. Perhaps Shklovsky was borrowing from Bely, too.

Most of Shklovsky's borrowings, however, are from another nineteenth-century linguist, a contemporary of Potebnia named Aleksandr Nikolaevich Veselovsky (1838–1906). In 1895, four years after the death of Potebnia, Veselovsky had published an article titled "From the History of the Epithet."[45] This is where Shklovsky gets a great many of the examples he uses to illustrate his point about poetic language.[46] For instance, in a discussion of poetic figures that through continued use have lost their vividness, Shklovsky mentions the epithets in the common Russian expressions solnce jasnoe (bright sun), belyj svet (white world), and grjazi topucie[*] (mucky mud), all of which appear in Veselovsky's article as examples of what Veselovsky calls tautological epithets.[47] When Shklovsky then talks about epithets that have become so habitual that they are used even in contexts where they don't make sense, he uses the following examples: the "white hands" (belye ruki ) belonging to a Moor in a Serbian epic; "my true love," used in English ballads of both faithful and unfaithful lovers; the "starry sky" to which Nestor, in the Iliad, extends his hands in broad daylight; and a fragment of folk poetry, which Shklovsky misquotes.[48] All examples come directly from Veselovsky.[49] This second group of examples in Veselovsky occurs in a discussion of what Veselovsky terms the oblivion of the real sense (zabvenie real'nogo smysla) of the epithet. Oblivion results in petrification (okamenenie), the phenomenon where an expression has become so hardened through habitual use that it survives in the most contradictory of contexts for the simple reason that it is no longer noticed by speaker or


listener. These are really the same concepts Shklovsky is using in "The Resurrection of the Word," except that Shklovsky prefers terms like renewal and rebirth .

But there is more to this story, and it shows that something strange is going on. Most accounts of nineteenth-century Russian linguistics and philology make a great deal of the difference between Potebnia and Veselovsky. Veselovsky is usually cited as the less psychologically inclined of the two, the more inductive, the more concerned with depersonalized facts of literary production. Since he sought to deny the importance of individual creativity in literary production, viewing it as a vast, historical process definable in terms of "formulas," he is seen as the precursor to the "antipsychological" tendencies of the early Formalists.[50] And since Shklovsky has borrowed most heavily from Veselovsky, we might be tempted to think that his theoretical inclination would be toward the more sober and inductive methodology of Veselovsky rather than toward Potebnia's image-based, psychological system.

The odd thing, however, is that Veselovsky has apparently done some borrowing of his own, for in the pages Shklovsky has drawn from, virtually every example Veselovsky cites in support of his discussion appears also in precisely the same few pages of Potebnia we have been talking about. Some examples thus appear in all three writers: the passage from the Iliad describing Nestor, the "white hands" from the Serbian epic, and "mucky mud," to cite only three.[51]

If Veselovsky's examples are the same as Potebnia's, it seems to be because in this essay his concepts are the same, too. Potebnia, on one of the pages from which Veselovsky has borrowed examples, speaks of certain epithets that are tautological, then mentions the oblivion (zabvenie ) of the representation (predstavlenie ) and its renewal.[52] The next page contains Potebnia's list of permanent (postojannye) epithets. Veselovsky, too, refers to the permanence (postojanstvo) of certain epithets. The point is that the subject is the same in all three writers. All three are speaking of a central, vivid element that a word loses as it is subjected to continued use. In the pages in question Potebnia calls the element the representation (predstavlenie ) and links it up with the word's etymological root; Veselovsky calls it the word's real sense; and Shklovsky, unabashedly using the terminology of Potebnia, calls it the word's inner form.

Thus three years after "The Resurrection of the Word," when Shklovsky comes to talk of ostranenie as a technique (priem ) for restoring the


vitality of language, his point of departure is the same as in the earlier essay, namely, the feeling that ordinary language has suffered the loss of a vital element. The solution is really the same too, namely, the proposal of a means for restoring the capacity of the poetic word to make things concrete and visible instead of just recognizable.

Does all this mean that Shklovsky has nothing new to say and is merely a helpless victim of an age-old mythical tradition? By no means. As for Bely and the avant-garde theorists, what is new is largely a question of emphasis. Shklovsky's insistence on the distinction between seeing and recognizing suggests a move away from grounding the old poetry-prose distinction in language itself. The Formalist critic in 1917 is distinctly uncomfortable with a theory of language that unhesitatingly ascribes the difference between an everyday form of language and an aesthetically valued one to something contained in language. Much more solid is the notion that the difference is located in the mechanisms by which the subject perceives language.

After Shklovsky the field will open up to all kinds of new methodologies purporting to help define poetic language in the most objective and nonmystical of terms. Other Formalist critics will wrestle with the problem of defining verse language. Above all, there will be Jakobson's definition of poetic language in terms of the distinction between figures of speech: metaphor, where concepts are substituted for each other along the "vertical" axis of selection, and metonymy, where the substitution takes place along the "horizontal" axis of combination.[53] The later theories are surely not free from the charge of mysticism that can be leveled at the Russian tradition inaugurated by Potebnia. But there is no doubt that for all his tendencies to move the emphasis from language itself to perceptual phenomena in the listener, Shklovsky is still very much in the grips of the old tradition. The tendencies are just that—tendencies. And Shklovsky is perfectly at home in the milieu I've been describing, just as Jakobson will be a few years later, having partially broken with the past but still perpetuating the myth about himself that there is no myth.


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