Day 202: “Even dreams must be concrete.”

I came across Viktor Shklovsky’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar (originally published in 1970, this edition translated into English by Shushan Avagyan and published in 2011) while looking for a particular essay of Shklovsky’s to assign to my undergraduates.

I ordered the book because I’ve been thinking about similes lately, and the book’s title made me think that it might have something to say about them.

It doesn’t, really, but it has something to say about almost everything else, delivered in the form of sphinx-like epigrammatic pronouncements.

On many of the book’s pages, paragraph breaks separate each sentence, the way they do here.

I thought I’d try out this formatting style to see if it imbues my own words with the aura of profundity that Shklovsky’s words emanate.

It doesn’t seem to, but that’s OK.

This post is really just a collection of those sentences that made a strong impression on me.

They are arranged in the order they appear in the book.


From the preface:

These are old pathways. I hope to intersect them.”

“Nightingales sang below my window, or maybe they weren’t nightingales at all.

They don’t care that they have been exhausted in poetry; they don’t know that they’ve been refuted” (4).

On Tristram Shandy:

“Life evolves in a thread of knots that gets more and more tangled. The narrative segments are intentionally dislocated and rearranged, so the knots become the characters, as it were” (25).

On the digital humanities, avant la lettre:

“Today we have such a multitude of fairy tales that it is quite impossible to try and make sense of them. We certainly can’t retain them in memory, and there won’t be enough index cards. We could create an enormous cybernetic machine, but what should it be programmed to do?” (167)

On the art of narration:

“Art has its direction and purposefulness, which does not coincide with the aspect of how interesting the work is, but rather how skillfully the story is arrested or delayed” (276).

On art and wondering:

“Science avoids the act of wondering, it tries to overcome the element of surprise. Art preserves it” (284).

On litotes, lyric poetry, and love:

“In rhetoric, litotes is a figure of speech that is the opposite of hyperbole. Pushkin spoke about a family, the members of which were becoming so small that soon one had to lick a finger in order to pick up one of them. That’s an example of litotes.

But there is another kind of litotes that intentionally understates something or implies that it is lesser in significance than it really is. If you are freezing but instead tell your neighbor (because you don’t want to worry him) that you are cold, then that’s a litotes.

The soldiers uses to sing during campaigns in the Caucasus:

‘In one word, it’s hard,

It’s certainly not easy,

By the way—it’s fine.’

This is a litotes.

When one is in love, one is often obliged to speak about it indirectly. If lyric poetry—all of it—is not a trope, then it is dissident speech.

The litotic plot in Pushkin’s poem [Eugene Onegin] is that a man is trying to persuade himself that his love has faded. In reality, it hasn’t (295-6).

On metaphor:

           In a metaphor, one object is compared to another, but it’s not confined in it as in a prison and it doesn’t replace the other.

The metaphor turns our knowledge of the subject as a stoker turns pieces of coal in a firebox with his tongs” (362).

On myths:

“Myths in human memory are like tools in a smithy—they are made for work, not for storage” (374).

On his changing views of form and content over time:

“I refuted the idea of content in art when I was young, thinking that it was pure form … Back then I used to say that art had no content, that it was devoid of emotion, while at the same time I wrote books that bled, like A Sentimental Journey and ZOO. The latter was also called Letters Not About Love because it was a book about love” (440).

On being an aging critic:

            “There comes a time in every man’s life when he renounces whatever is fashionable, considering it a mistake, and stays in his old, narrow pants and old-fashioned hat.

I have been studying the history of art for a long time now and I know.

The new skirts are too short for me” (442).

On rethinking the significance of ostranenie (estrangement):

“I should have asked myself: what exactly are you going to estrange if art doesn’t express the conditions of reality? Sterne, Tolstoy were trying to return the sensation of what?” (442-3)

On concreteness:

“[E]ven Dulcinea del Toboso couldn’t exist for Don Quixote without an exact address. Even dreams must be concrete” (446)

On the difference between the lack of endings in Sterne and Pushkin:

“The Sternean ending is the rejection of the principle of closure.

Pushkin’s ending in Eugene Onegin is the sad mark of the impossibility to tell the truth about the fate of the hero among his friends” (452).

On returning the ball to the game:

“[T]he photographer [at the end of Antonioni’s film Blowup] 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 …

… 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 the record of achievement” (464).

In conclusion:

Regarding the ending—

I don’t like that word.

There will be no ending” (467).