Jul 082011


The Road into the Future and the Past (An Unfinished Story) from Bowstring
By Viktor Shklovsky

Translated by Shushan Avagyan



In July 1856 Lev Tolstoy was “. . . writing a somewhat fantastic story.”

He wrote only eight pages. They are inserted in a folio made of writing paper. Some of the pages contain separately inscribed phrases above the text representing the plan of the story and how it should develop.

The work was abandoned. Let’s turn the pages and go over the typed text.

“. . . Major Verein rode alone in the night on the road from the Belbek mill to the Inkerman position.”

He was returning from a regimental celebration.

It was raining—gently sprinkling, then the drops would get larger, slanting with the wind, falling heavy and fast as though from invisible trees.

“On the road going south, over the horizon, the black sky often lit up with red streaks of lightning and Verein could hear the rumble of gunshots in Sevastopol. Wrapped in his army overcoat, heavy and reeking of soap from wetness, the major sat hunched on the damp warm saddle, pushing relentlessly his wet slippery heels into the sides of the tired bay cavalry horse.”

Verein is a tall man with long legs and angular back. He is thirty-five and had served in the army for seventeen years, after which he was sent to Sevastopol where he maintained an impeccable record. He spoke perfect French and German, studied Italian, was always busy, and hardly ever had time to get bored. He didn’t take part in the battles.

“The campaign in Crimea had moved him. He considered both sides of the situation: 1) his salary would be much higher during the campaign; 2) he could be killed or maimed for life. And as a result of the second reasoning, he thought about retiring and getting married. He thought long and hard, and decided that before retiring [and] getting married he first had to go on the campaign. From that moment on the dream of family happiness became an inseparable part of his memory and he contemplated it with an exceptionally unusual tenderness. He spent his leisure time in Crimea alone in his tent, smoking a pipe with a gloomy face, staring blankly at one spot and painting pictures of family happiness in his mind: a wife in a white bonnet, children playing in front of the balcony and picking flowers for papa.”

Verein kept on riding.

It was still drizzling. Then the moon came out. The road turned whiter. Verein dozed off for a couple minutes, woke up, looked around and saw an entrance to an alley. The horse went on its own, as if going home. Verein looked at the horse—“It had changed. It was raven-black now, with a thick neck, pointy ears and a long mane.” A dog with a high-pitched squeal started running around them in circles.

“—It’s not good when you don’t listen to your wife, Pyotr Nikolaevich,—a woman said,—I told you that it was going to rain.—Verein recognized the voice of M. N. and realized immediately that she was his wife, but oddly enough he wasn’t surprised. He felt at home and it seemed as though he had been here a long time . . . He walked upstairs. Everything seemed new, yet familiar, awfully familiar and pleasant.”

It appeared that he had had a recent argument with his wife, because she didn’t want to stop nursing their youngest child, a girl who was already two years old. Now they made peace.

“They entered the living room where on the divan sat Verein’s old mother, playing solitaire. She had died eight years ago, now she appeared very old. His older brother sat by the window. He was reading something out loud, by his side stood a boy with curly hair.”

The samovar was waiting for Verein. Everyone else had had their tea.

Time is collapsed in this story.

Tolstoy didn’t know how to move his hero along the grid of time that was both in the present and the future. There were eight years between the time that the major had entered and “Sevastopol time.”

Verein had appeared in the future.

I have lived a long life, I have seen crowds, been on many roads, and I know what a wet overcoat smells like.

I live simultaneously in the old world and the new.

I have been reading books by Structuralists with interest, difficulty, and benefit. I am getting acquainted.

I’m not surprised to appear in the middle of a conversation. Everything is interesting, but forgive the man who has long been absent from theory.

I was going my own way. I have seen my own cloudy sky.

Here, as before—forty years later—they are still primarily analyzing the poem; of course now they have applied mathematics to it, as it was expected a long time ago.

They still haven’t weaned the child from the breast and she’s already grown! The weather is pleasant, but everyone is walking dressed up in academic clothes.

But then again, a man who has just arrived mustn’t argue or act surprised.

Ideas repeat—sometimes after fifty years, sometimes after one hundred years. It is good when they repeat with the knowledge that the path has been partially traversed, that there has already been a spiral turn.

It’s worse when the repetition appears in the form of discovery.

What is even worse is when one cannot accept the discovery out of stubbornness.

Then what follows is something like an ordeal from an old adventure novel.

In a book that we have read in our early childhood—The Adventures of Captain Hatteras by Jules Verne—an expedition going to the North Pole gets lost in a thick fog. Let’s keep in mind that the novel was written more than a century ago, which is why we mustn’t be surprised to find a beautiful volcano in the North Pole. Here the achievements of old physics still invoke amazement, and the description of the winter camp is followed by a quote from the 1596 expedition led by Willem Barentsz. The most important thing for these explorers was always the discovery. The voyages cost a lot of money and, besides, many explorers never returned from the expeditions: Georgi Sedov, Captain Scott, Roald Amundsen, they all died.

Let’s be tolerant toward each other, let’s understand how difficult excursions, simple repetitions of circles, can be and let’s see what innovation they have brought.

Now let’s return to Captain Hatteras. The Captain is traveling with Altamont, an American explorer, Doctor Clawbonny, his loyal friend and an inexhaustible source of scientific knowledge, and his servant-companions, Bell, the carpenter, and Johnson, the boatswain. They get lost and find human traces in the fog, hoping that the footprints belong to Eskimos (because Eskimos don’t count, since they are not discoverers). As they follow the tracks they find a lens from a telescope half-buried in the snow. It becomes evident then that they are following the footsteps of some European explorers. It is disappointing but they have to move forward. When they reach the coast, Doctor Clawbonny climbs a hill to examine the southern horizon and when he puts his telescope to his eye, he can’t see anything. He studies his telescope—the lens is missing. He rushes down to his friends, yelling: “The footprints . . . the troop!”—“Well?” asks Hatteras. “Are they here?”—“No . . . no . . .” says the doctor. “The lens . . . My lens . . . Mine . . .” He shows them his broken instrument and explains that the footprints are theirs: when the men got lost in the fog, they walked in a circle, and came across their own tracks. “Let’s go!” says Hatteras, as though crossing out his old tracks.[1]


I am convinced now that the very fact of perception of art depends upon a comparative juxtaposition of a work of art with the world.

The artist, the poet orients himself in the world with the help of art and introduces into what we call the surrounding world his own artistic perception.

There used to be an old term—ostranenie or estrangement. It is often printed with one “n,” even though the phrase originates from the word strannyi (strange). The term came into usage in 1916 spelled in that particular way.

Often the term is mispronounced or mixed with the word otstranenie, which means moving the world aside.[2]

Ostranenie is the sensation of surprise felt toward the world, a perception of the world with a strained sensitivity. The term can be established only by including the notion of “the world” in its meaning. This term simultaneously assumes the existence of a so-called content, supposing that content is the delayed, close examination of the world.

Let me reiterate what Einstein wrote in his Autobiographical Notes:

I have no doubt but that our thinking goes on for the most
part without use of signs (words) and beyond that to a con-
siderable degree unconsciously. For how, otherwise, should
it happen that sometimes we “wonder” quite spontane-
ously about some experience?

That internal world, the model of the world, created by the artist in order to recognize the world, is formed on the basis of a strained perception, as if through inspiration.

The “act of wondering,” in Einstein’s words, occurs when “an experience comes into conflict with a world of concepts already sufficiently fixed within us.”

Science avoids the act of wondering, it tries to overcome the element of surprise. Art preserves it. In poetry, art uses words and previously invented literary constructions—“structures.” But it overcomes those structures, knocking them down, and renewing them through the very act of surprise.

The most important thing in the analysis of art is never to lose the sensation of art, never lose its palpability, because otherwise the very object of study becomes meaningless, nonexistent.

What OPOYAZ, the Society for Studying Poetic Language, worked on in a systematic yet contradictory fashion was an attempt to analyze, discover the universality of the laws of art.

I wrote in Third Factory:

What is important about the formal method?

Not the fact that the separate parts of a work can be
given various labels.

The important thing is that we approached art systematically. We spoke about art as such. We refused to view it as a reflection. We located the distinctive features of the genus. We began defining the basic tendencies of form. We understood that, in fact, you can distill from works of literature the homogeneous laws that determine their shape.[3]

I have clarified many things for myself, and I have rejected many things. Now I don’t think that it is necessary to begin and end the analysis of a literary work with the study of language and rhythm. I don’t think that definitions in and of themselves are a science.

It is imperative, for example, to approach the analysis of what Dmitri Likhachov modestly called “literary etiquettes” more boldly.

Today they hardly study what once was successfully or rather unsuccessfully called “plot composition”—i.e., the introduction into the analysis of art the study of comparative methods using events that exist outside the realm of art.

It is impossible to work only with structures of art, though the artist, the poet, constantly uses events or objects from real life, arranging them differently and unlike the way they are organized in ordinary life.

A long time ago I declared something rashly. I said that a work of art is the “sum total of its devices.”[4]

I said it so long ago that I can only remember the refutation. Today I think that literature is a system of systems. It seems that the difference between the others in the field and myself is that I think the systems of art primarily reveal the contradictions in phenomena. The phenomenon itself, which exists outside of art, is experienced through the method of exploring various types of contradictions, whereas in art it is experienced mainly through the contradictory collision of structures.

I think that Sevastopol, which major Verein left, and the red streaks of lightning in the sky, the distant rumble of explosions, the drenched horse, and the wet overcoat are just as real as the house, where the hero of the unfinished story arrived.

It seems to me that the artist first separates and extracts a certain set of phenomena from what we call reality, then he tries to newly experience the meaning of those phenomena in the totality of their construction, which must be understood in and of itself, although it is created and exists in the context of the “whole” reality.

I sit down again at the table from which many people have withdrawn. But they didn’t disappear, they simply passed.

The man who has lived long, who has reconsidered many of his ideas, is not free from contradictions even now. Let’s suppose that this is not his only fate.



[1] Jules Verne, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras. Translated by William Butcher. Oxford UP, 2005.

[2] The Russian prefix ot generally signifies a movement from or of something, establishing a relationship of something belonging to or originating from something else from which the first object is being pushed aside, removed, or separated.

[3] Viktor Shklovsky, Third Factory. Translated by Richard Sheldon. Dalkey Archive, 2002.

[4] Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Device” (1917), in Theory of Prose.

—Viktor Shklovsky, Translated by Shushan Avagyan

  One Response to “From Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar — Viktor Shklovsky Translated by Shushan Avagyan”

  1. I’m headed to leave a comment on Bruce’s post above, but I just wanted to say quickly here what a great job Bruce does in his review because there seemed to be almost nothing new in Shklovsky’s own words that Bruce had not already addressed in his review. Still, it’s reassuring to be able to judge a review by personal knowledge of the source.

    The only thing I wanted to highlight is the paragraph where Shklovsky states that the most important thing in the analysis of art is–“never to lose the sensation of art, never lose its palpability, because otherwise the very object of study becomes meaningless, nonexistent.”

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