Viktor Shklovsky in the TLS and in general

It is quite impossible to grasp the expansiveness of St. Peter’s Basilica—it seems to have no scale. In the open space of the Basilica, far apart from one another stand the colossal statues of angels that one cannot see simultaneously at once.
Viktor Shklovsky, Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar

I’d like to write about Viktor Shklovsky but for reasons that I hope to make at least a little bit clear he’s hard to excerpt and hard to contain, so it might be a task doomed to failure.

This is how a good tour guide showed the Basilica—he told the tourist: “Close your eyes. Now open them and look over there.” The tourist saw the angel’s small figure in the distance. “Now turn around”—and the viewer was suddenly facing the colossus that completely barred his vision. Perspectival depth was perceived through the sculpture. Apparently those who designed the Basilica had foreseen this impression. Baroque decor enhances the perception of the structure’s actual depth. But there are instances when an element becomes the vessel that defines spatial dimension.
(more Bowstring)

Shklovsky, 1893-1984, a Soviet literary critic, is an eminently readable sort of a pre-deconstructionist, and I find an excuse to blog about him from the fact that the latest issue of the TLS features a review article about some reissues of his work and some work related to him ( “Appropriated Fur Coats,” Zinovy Zinik, Times Literary Supplement, 26 July 2013.  Gated, unfortunately).

He conducted most of his long career in the Soviet Union, with ups and downs in his relationship with the regime, as a quote (with maximum doses of ambiguity as well as Shklovskian self-deprecation) from this article sketches out:

Later in life, he joined the chorus of “public indignation” when Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize (having first sent him a private telegram of congratulation).  But one shouldn’t forget… that Shklovsky fearlessly provided [Osip] Mandelstam with a roof and hospitality when the persecuted poet was marooned in Moscow, without a home or legal status. Shklovsky also gave his unequivocal support to another literary genius, the young prose writer Arkady Belinkov, when the latter was arrested for his “anti-Soviet” literary activity in 1944. One wonders how Shklovsky himself survived during the years of the Stalin terror. One explanation for this miracle, we learn, is that he was capable of boring his NKVD interrogators to death with his incessant talk and verbal juggling. There were only two things, he says, which he never learned to write: poems and denunciation. (Zinik)

Somehow, though,  the political pressures on him, no matter how real, how pressing, no matter how much real influence exerted on him didn’t reach the level of degrading the scholarship at least of his major works.

Zinik calls him the ” the tailor-in-chief of Russian Formalism, ” with reference, among other things, to a noteworthy essay of his that relates to Gogol’s story “The Overcoat.” In this essay, he describes how one of his formative influences in his critical profession came up with a revolutionary method of analysing a work of art not as a piece of social criticism or psychological study, but as a construction in which every fictional, or fictitious, image and detail is tailored by the author in accordance with his artistic design. “There used to be an old Russian saying: ‘to build boots'”, Shklovsky remarks. “It is much more difficult to build an overcoat. It consists of various fabrics: the coarse textile, lining cloth, and the collar.” (Zinik)

Shklovsky’s own critical architectures are not so material/mundane as tailoring in my reading.  So frictionless and so substantial; a hyperrationalist with a talent (and penchant) for the poetic apposition.   Bowstring is a remarkable volume. Why doesn’t feel it overwrought or overburdened as he transitions from Greek vases to Eisenstein’s montage technique and  then on to Tolstoy. It’s not a coat and it’s nothing like a coat.  Perhaps instead think a highly engineered aircraft chassis: light, airiness, and titanium.

In comparison to his literary criticism the purely literary work Zoo, or Letters not about Love is not as successful for me.  Zinik, though, calls it his masterpiece.  Let’s let him describe it, then:

 [Zoo] was written in the form of a collection of letters addressed to Elsa Triolet, the sister of Lily Brik (Mayakovsky’s lifelong obsession) and the future wife of Louis Aragon, whom she later converted to Communism. Keeping amorous emotions out of his narrative by burying them in the subtext, Shklovsky tells of how he drifted through boarding houses in the Berlin of White Russian émigrés and Bolshevik fellow travellers (so hilariously depicted by Nabokov in his early prose) and of his difficult decision to return to his homeland.

But for me, when he’s unmoored from the academic trappings he becomes too ethereal in a way that makes me think of  Nabokov, in fact, and how Nabokov’s early work is so lovely it’s almost unreadable– it’s just in a not quite accessible ethereal dimension–  and his important work (both more brilliant and more humane) came later when he was a bit weighed down by the grimly comfortable slog of academic life and middle age and life in the thick-ankled US.

It’s not fair to Shklovsky to excerpt him like this.  Ripped out of his carefully assembled volume, this cascade of art/lit crit prob tips into empty virtuosity for the reader.  This gets to my point up top about his being hard to contain. A master at analyzing structures in art, the frameworks of his own works are purposeful yet delicate.  He isn’t just a show off, I swear, but here he is, showing off a bit indeed but remember it’s just a fragment.  Close your eyes…

And yet philosophers argued about the problems of perspective. It was a contested subject. Let me quote from Plato’s Sophist:

[F]or if artists were to give the true proportions of their fair models, the upper part, which is farther off, would appear to be out of proportion in comparison with the lower, which is nearer; and so they give up the truth in their images and make only the proportions which appear to be beautiful, disregarding the real ones.  

The dialogue is about perspectival diminution and proportions of an edifice. The architect designed the building with particular proportions, particular relations of height and width in mind. The painter that Plato is referring to in his dialogue has diminished the proportions of the building to show depth. The philosopher argues because he considers the creation of the architect-artist to be truthful and authentic, while that of the painter-artist as replicated and false. The artistic reproduction of architecture elicits objection. Here the viewer hasn’t yet accepted the convention of linear perspective.

Plato highly valued symmetry. In order to refute perspectival diminution, he chose paintings of architectural objects that had fixed proportions. The argument apparently went even further. The philosopher suggested depicting not what one saw but what one knew. The old convention appeared to be effective and it took centuries for a replacement to evolve.

The Italian architect, sculptor and architectural theorist Antonio Averlino Filarete wrote:

The ancients, even if they were cultivated and knowledgeable people, didn’t know and never made use of this principle of perspective. And though they knew many good techniques in art, they depicted objects on flat surface without using this principle. One might say: “This method is flawed, for it shows something that does not exist.” This is true, but at the same time this convention is useful in painting because the objects in the painting are not as they are in reality but as a representation of the things that you paint and wish to represent.

What we are observing here is the substantiation of a new convention in the old polemic. Objects in our consciousness exist independently and are associated with one another according to their differences. In painting, they appear in an altered relationship. The argument was about how to depict the parts of a distanced object. The new convention is introduced into consciousness gradually,paragraph by paragraph, as it were.

Finally, Leonardo da Vinci ends the debate. He states in his treatise on painting: “Perspectival diminution teaches that objects will be less discerned the more they are removed from the eye.” He goes on to say that, “If you look at a man who is placed at the distance of a crossbow shot, and you hold the eye of a little needle close to your eye, you will be able to see through it many men, transmitting their images to the eye, and they can all be perceived at the same time in this opening. Therefore, if the man at the distance of a crossbow shot sends to the eye his image and it occupies a small part of the eye of a needle, how can you in such a small figure distinguish or see his nose or mouth or any detail of his body?”

The debate seems to have ended.

But so-called “realistic” sizing and juxtaposition of objects according to their thematic importance still can be seen in children’s drawings. Seryozha, the seven-year-old boy in Chekhov’s short story “At Home,” draws a house, the roof of which has the same height as the soldier in the drawing. The boy’s father says, “A man can’t be taller than a house.” “No, papa!” Seryozha says, looking at his drawing. “If you were to draw the soldier small you would not see his eyes.” “

Ought he to argue with him? From daily observation of his son the prosecutor had become convinced that children, like savages, have their own artistic standpoints and requirements peculiar to them, beyond the grasp of grown-up people.”

Children have their own hierarchies which can be seen through symbolization of objects in their drawings. This doesn’t change and is true even today when they are exposed to photography, film, and television. Children draw objects based on the convention of semantic hierarchy.

Professor Aleksandr Luria of the Psychological Institute in Moscow showed Eisenstein a child’s drawing depicting a wood stove. Eisenstein writes:

Everything is represented in passably accurate relationship and with great care. Firewood. Stove. Chimney. But what are those zigzags in that huge central rectangle? They turn out to be matches. Taking into account the crucial importance of these matches for the depicted process, the child provides a proper scale for them.

The debate hasn’t been resolved in literature either. Objects (their details) are magnified, isolated according to their semantic weight and according to their meaning in a given situation. The “semantic center” is enlarged. Gogol in Taras Bulba describes the Cossacks’ passage through the boundless, desolate, beautiful steppe: “But once Taras pointed out to his sons a small black speck far away in the grass, saying, ‘Look, boys! There gallops a Tatar!’ The tiny mustached head fixed its narrow eyes straight upon them, from the distance, sniffing the air like a greyhound, then disappeared, like a stag, on perceiving that there were thirteen of them.”

The Tatar is Taras Bulba’s rival. Noticing the rider’s posture on the horse, the Cossack already sees the difference between them.

He paints on the invisible “mustache” and “narrow eyes” once he recognizes the rider.

Literature selects axial centers on its own by invoking their metonymic descriptions, or, in other words, by referencing objects or clues connected contiguously.


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