Dec 032015

Aashish Kaul


Les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère. — Marcel Proust

Beautiful books are written in a kind of foreign language. There is already in this adage of Proust the notion of ‘making strange’ that was to be espoused by the Russian Formalists some years later. Proust may or may not be the best example to discuss the Russian Formalists, for he both validates and annuls their thesis, but in this instance there remains a commonality that may, for the time being, be enough to eclipse their differences.

For the Formalists, obsessed as they were to develop a more scientific basis for literary studies and make them an autonomous and specific discipline, it became necessary to exclude all mimetic and expressive definitions of literature. To see a literary work as an expression of its author’s personality led inevitably (and unacceptably) to biography and psychology, while to regard it as a picture of a given society led in turn (equally undesirably) to history, politics, or sociology.[1] What remained, therefore, was the peculiar nature of a literary work itself, and it was this peculiarity that the Formalists made the basis of literary scrutiny, a peculiarity which could be distinguished from any other material and which lent a literary work its especial aura or quality. The Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky began with the idea that art refreshes our sense of life and experience. ‘If we examine,’ he wrote:

the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual, it also becomes automatic. So eventually all our skills and experiences function unconsciously — automatically…. And so held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war…. And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art…. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant (italics in original).[2]

Subsequent developments in theories about literature and the creative process may make Shklovsky’s observation look obvious, but they hardly obscure its truth. And would not Proust give his whole-hearted assent to this idea! — Proust, who poured all his later life into composing a seemingly endless book with the sole aim of granting the reader a few visions of pure perception amidst the deadening whorls of habit, that dull inviolability which Beckett memorably called ‘the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.’[3]

The kind of enstrangement that Shklovsky advocates, namely, the one achieved by complicating form, is also at work in Proust, as it is at work in Joyce, in Virginia Woolf, in Faulkner — Borges wrote his stories as if they were expository pieces, while his essays repeatedly adopted styles and themes more suitable for fiction (though Shklovsky’s models are markedly older: Cervantes, Tolstoy, Sterne, Dickens). These formal/technical devices are for Shklovsky and others the very means of achieving ‘defamiliarization’ in a work of literature, and the final triumph of art over dull, automatized life. Literature, as Ezra Pound said, is news that remains news. But what is unfamiliar may become familiar, worn thin, itself automatized, with use and passage of time. So techniques and devices were needed to be perpetually juggled, some foregrounded over others for a period of time, to keep literariness alive across epochs.

Another kind of dialectic is at work here: the opposition between automation and defamiliarization. Having banished the author, having dispelled the biography, psychology, and historicity of a work, the Formalists were left simply with devices, and this could only lead to the astonishing pronouncement that there were in truth no authors, but only literary works (for example, Osip Brik, in ‘The so-called formal method’ (1923): ‘Opojaz proposes that there are no poets or literary figures, there is poetry and literature.’ He claimed rather provocatively that Eugene Onegin would have been written even if Pushkin had never existed, just as America would have been discovered without Columbus.). To be able to make a science of literary scrutiny, it was for them essential to mount a two-pronged attack: to demolish, in one stroke, the Romantic notion of the author as a vessel of divine inspiration and the utterly spurious, if deeply ingrained, distinction between form and content. Now the author was no longer either a visionary or a genius, but merely an artisan who arranged and rearranged material available at his or her disposal. The author’s job was to know about literature, the history of literature, the knowledge and skill in handling devices that made a work literary, and what he or she knew of life or reality was quite irrelevant.[4]

Shklovsky1 PSViktor Shklovsky

But psychology, biography, and the historic situation cannot be subtracted so easily from a given work; they are the very factors which make the rearrangement of material striking and novel in each case. For although a man’s life does not explain his work, the two are nevertheless connected. The truth, says Merleau-Ponty in his essay ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’, is that ‘this work to be done called for this life’. It is therefore impossible to separate creative liberty from the peculiar incidents that shape an artistic life:

If I am a certain project from birth, the given and the created are indistinguishable in me, and it is therefore impossible to name a single gesture which is merely hereditary or innate, a single gesture which is not spontaneous — but also impossible to name a single gesture which is absolutely new in regard to that way of being in the world which, from the very beginning, is myself. There is no difference between saying that our life is completely constructed and that it is completely given. If there is a true liberty, it can only come about in the course of our life by our going beyond our original situation and yet not ceasing to be the same…. In every life, one’s birth and one’s past define categories or basic dimensions which do not impose any particular act but which can be found in all…. Thus it is true both that the life of an author can teach us nothing and that — if we know how to interpret it — we can find everything in it, since it opens onto his work…. We never get away from our life. We never see our ideas or our freedom face to face.[5]

Then again, the muse was not the invention of the Romantics alone; she visited Homer and Virgil, too, was already Dante’s Beatrice, was the nature-song of the Tang poets in Classical China, touched Rilke in dreams. She is always there because she is not a phantasm, but only the mind’s effort to reify the wonder it feels, in creative, palpable moments, at its own ability to rearrange the lava flow of sensory data toward imaginative and artistic ends. Or perhaps she is but a place of negativity, not belonging to either the mind or language, for, as Giorgio Agamben tells us, ‘muse was the name the Greeks gave to the experience of the ungraspability of the originary place of the poetic word.’[6]


What makes a work defamiliar, that is to say literary or artistic, beyond the play of devices, then, is a certain ‘poeticity’ as Roman Jakobson called it. This poeticity, per Jakobson, was like oil in cooking; it cannot be consumed of its own, but when used as an ingredient in cooking other foods, it changes their taste completely.

In Sanskrit literature, in Indian classical music and other art forms, too, there appears a notion quite similar to Jakobson’s — that of the rasas. Quite literally, rasa means ‘juice’ or ‘nectar’, but what is really hinted at is that quality of a given work which evokes a particular mood in its reader or audience. In other words, it is the poeticity that lends a work its especial charm or atmosphere, and makes it unlike anything else one has experienced, foreign, rare, glittering like a jewel.

It is, then, the atmosphere of a literary work that makes its language feel foreign, unfamiliar, distant. This is the reason behind Proust’s paradoxical assertion. We could, of course, find another resolution, a Bakhtinian resolution, to this Proustian oddity, whereby it is a word’s internal dialogism, separate from its ability to form a concept of its object, that has the power to shape style: ‘The prose artist elevates the social heteroglossia surrounding objects into an image that has finished contours, an image completely shot through with dialogized overtones; he creates artistically calculated nuances on all the fundamental voices and tones of this heteroglossia’.[7] And so the greater the artistic nuances on the fundamental social tones of a language, the more foreign or unfamiliar will be the prose they generate.

Similar, too, is the belief of the Spanish writer Javier Marías, who once observed in an interview that what counts the most in a novel — and what we remember the most — is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves for a few hours or a few days. The prime aspect of a novel, said Marías, is its setting, which of itself is a secondary issue.[8]

javier-mariasJavier Marías

Roman Ingarden is in agreement. In any literary work, he writes, there are metaphysical qualities or ‘essences’ which can neither be found in objects nor psychic states, but instead are revealed, in complex or disparate situations or events, as the overall atmosphere which penetrates and illumines everything with its light. An essential function, then, of objective situations in a literary work is the manifestation of such metaphysical qualities. Such manifestation, however, does not arise purely from objects or situations, but emerges from the structure of the work, from its organic unity. Metaphysical qualities are merely held in readiness — they are not manifested in the work, but rather in its concretization through the act of reading.[9]

Essences, poeticity, atmosphere. These qualities are difficult to segregate in practice since, as Ingarden states, they can neither be found in objects nor psychic states, but emerge from the structure of the work and the act of reading. And so any reader of, say, Wuthering Heights or The Trial is aware of the presence of these qualities, without necessarily being able to draw a tally of all the places in the text where they are made manifest. In Joseph Roth’s late work The Emperor’s Tomb, for instance, the inconsistencies and compositional flaws are redeemed by these very essences that Ingarden speaks of, by the muted melancholy and nostalgia of the novel’s atmosphere.

The Australian writer Beverley Farmer, for example, expertly mixes formal and metaphysical qualities in her palimpsestic work A Body of Water. Early in the book she gives a description of a cove near her house, a description which, because it is so truly phenomenological, creates an effect of both enstrangement and existential depth:

My first summer in this place. So hot and still a day, and I spent it on the sand, the cliff-shadow advancing over me, and now and then went to lie in one of the channels between the pale rocks and was washed cold…. Sometimes at twilight the water in the pools east of the pier went dark with a grey-brown glint, a half-light inside it; and at the same time the rocks at the rim were grey and water-blue. Until it was too dark to see, water was rock and rock water….  Sandstone is honeycomb in this still afternoon sun, pitted with swallows’ nests. All this beach is the same colour — sand, rock and rock pool. The small mouse-shrieks of swallows skim and soar. The wave-shaped, whale-shaped headland is dark in the spray of the western sky…. My footprints flatten the crisp arrowheads left by gulls. At the high tide mark, along the hairline of the marram grass, clumps of feathers, all hollowed out, clench empty beaks and claws.[10]


The emphasis on essences, poeticity, atmosphere in the discourse surrounding literary works is a direct result of the fusion of form and content. Every form produces its own idea, its own vision of the world, observed Octavio Paz. ‘Form has meaning, and in the realm of art only form possesses meaning; content stems from form, and not otherwise.’[11] Tzvetan Todorov, while using an essentially Structuralist vocabulary, makes the same point: ‘Every work possesses a structure, which is the articulation of elements derived from the different categories of literary discourse; and this structure is at the same time the locus of the meaning’.[12]

Writing near the later stages of the Russian Formalist and Modernist revolutions in literature, E.M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, first published in 1927, while still lingering over concepts like ‘story’, ‘plot’, ‘flat and round characters’ into which modernist works had bored deep holes, acknowledged that in moving from ‘story’ to ‘plot’, the novel acquired a complexity favourable to the creation of ‘value’.[13] Now this ‘value’ cannot be found in plain narrative, but can only arise from the whole complex structure and is dependent on what Forster refers to as ‘pattern and rhythm’.[14] The novel has to be an aesthetic object and ‘rhythm’ helps toward this end. Rhythm cannot be imposed from outside and is not available to writers who plan their books beforehand. It must grow with and inside the narrative. Forster ultimately explains its effects as being analogous to those of music. In the triumph of plot over story, in the musical effects of pattern and rhythm creating value in the novel, we see again the Formalist preoccupation with literary devices, Jakobson’s poeticity, Ingarden’s metaphysical qualities. Julio Cortázar in his novel Hopscotch sums it up beautifully:

Why am I writing this? I have no clear ideas, I do not even have ideas. There are tugs, impulses, blocks, and everything is looking for a form, then rhythm comes into play and I write within that rhythm, I write by it, moved by it and not by that thing they call thought and which turns out prose, literature, or what have you. First there is a confused situation, which can only be defined by words; I start out from this half-shadow and if what I mean (if what is meant) has sufficient strength, the swing begins at once, a rhythmic swaying that draws me to the surface, lights everything up, conjugates this confused material and the one who suffers it into a clear third somehow fateful level: sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, book. This swaying, this swing in which confused material goes about taking shape, is for me the only certainty of its necessity, because no sooner does it stop than I understand that I no longer have anything to say. And it is also the only reward for my work: to feel that what I have written is like the back of a cat as it is being petted, with sparks and an arching in cadence. In that way by writing I go down into the volcano, I approach the Mothers, I connect with the Center — whatever it may be. Writing is sketching my mandala and at the same time going through it, inventing purification by purifying one’s self; the task of a poor white shaman in nylon socks.[15]

Julio CortázarJulio Cortázar, via Wikimedia Commons

As I have stated elsewhere, Cortázar is hinting at several things here. Among them is the foregrounding of rhythm, form, devices over story or characters. It is rhythm that structures a book, page by page, sentence upon sentence, and not the desire to mimic ‘reality’ or relate a tale that comes to the writer altogether whole from the very start; it is rhythm, too, that word by word creates the story from barely noticeable mental or physical impulses and ideas, and that leaves behind writing which is ‘like the back of a cat as it is being petted, with sparks and an arching in cadence’. Yet another is the notion of writing as a purifying rite, not dissimilar to Shklovsky’s comment above: ‘the perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity’.

Cortázar tells us that the search for form enables rhythm to come into play, and that he writes from within this rhythm. For the American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, this fact alone would be enough to classify Cortázar as a true modern writer, distinguished from those he refers to as late modernists and postmodernists, because, for Jameson, form, in the case of modernist writers, is never given in advance but is generated experimentally in the encounter, leading to formations that could never have been predicted, unlike the late modernists and their successors, to whom the structure of the form was known in advance (since the likes of Cortázar, Proust, and Joyce had already discovered it for them) and to which the ‘raw empiricities of content’ could then be made to submit.[16] Jameson arrives at this observation at the end of a long and nuanced thesis, which is well beyond our scope to explore here, but even assuming that the break modernism signified with an earlier world was anywhere as paradigmatic and total as Jameson would have us believe, I am unsure if it could be applied so readily and consistently to all writers working in the latter period. For barring the more superficial cases, it is difficult to say with any certainty whether form and content arise together or separately in any given work. Indeed, in the more formidable works, they must out of creative necessity arise in unison.

When content fades into form, the fictional reality becomes fluid and dynamic; it is not something given, hard and raw, that a writer need merely ornament and make palatable with his or her craft. Any moral or social purpose, indeed the characters and their story, gives way to the process itself. A book like Forster’s discussing ‘flat and round characters’ would be inconceivable today, simply because, as Todorov states, novels do not imitate reality but create it:

Although we no longer refer to literature in terms of imitation, we still have trouble getting rid of a certain way of looking at fiction; inscribed in our speech habits, it is a vision through which we perceive the novel in terms of representation, or the transposition of a reality that exists prior to it. This attitude would be problematic even if it did not attempt to describe the creative process. When it refers to the text itself, it is sheer distortion. What exists first and foremost is the text itself, and nothing but the text. Only by subjecting the text to a particular type of reading do we construct, from our reading, an imaginary universe. Novels do not imitate reality; they create it…. [Similarly,] the fictional character is a segment of the spatio-temporal universe represented in the text, nothing more; he/she comes into existence the moment referential linguistic forms (proper names, certain nominal syntagms, personal pronouns) appear in a text regarding an anthropomorphic being. In and of itself the fictional character has no content…. But, as soon as psychological determinism appears in the text, the fictional character becomes endowed with character: he acts in a certain way, because he is shy, weak, courageous, etc.…. Character, then, can be an effect of reading; there exists a kind of reading to which every text can be subjected. But in fact, the effect is not arbitrary; it is no accident that character exists in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel and not in Greek tragedy or the folktale. A text always contains within itself directions for its own consumption.[17]

It is not a coincidence, then, that as content fades into form, and the fictional reality becomes fluid, the novel sheds its old skin, loses some of its neatness or artefact-ness (although this is not to deny the uniqueness of the fictional world, which is dependent on the uniqueness of the artistic consciousness); its personages abandon their literary rigidity, begin to distrust their own qualities to become, surprisingly, not less but more human and lifelike, as in the case of Robert Musil’s hero Ulrich, in the cunningly titled great modernist work, The Man Without Qualities.

This is the great heritage of modernism. Characters are not described to make them ‘round’ or believable, but to make them contextual in the larger narrative of the work. (Did not Chekhov himself believe that human character is essentially flat, and it is life instead that is complex?) Writing is an attempt to understand one’s position in the world, to find a relevance for one’s past, one’s memories in the forever-becoming present and an impersonal, abstract (or absurd) future. Most modern-day writers emphasize the structure of the work and the unity of its various parts that respond to an internal necessity rather than outward reality. Very often, a writer’s choice of a subject, together with the style and perspective he or she employs to express this subject, is enough to show where his or her affinities lie. And choosing an aesthetic itself amounts to a moral act, for, as Georg Lukács puts it, ‘the ethical intention in the case of the novel is an effective structural element of the work itself.’[18]

As the artistic vision turns more personal, it withdraws from the common ideas of social and moral exchange and the general categories we ascribe to reality, and the more singular it becomes, the closer it comes to defining reality in a clear, specific manner, away from the shared perception of the mass. The creative process in its coming into being and becoming is deeply personal, and needs the gift from the otherworldly, the aesthetic thrust that creates in the receiver a feeling of transcendence. The emotion it produces is a little outside words, even though emanating from them, like laughter. In such cases, the fictive world makes no effort to mimic the ‘real’, but engenders an entirely new, unfamiliar version, in the process defeating it.

But this defeat, or as Lukács calls it, self-destruction of reality, is of an entirely intellectual nature and is not immediately evident in a poetic or sensuous way. Genuine interiority, he writes, turns ideas of life into ideals, and the inability of the outside world, which is a stranger to ideals and enemy of interiority, to achieve an appearance of completeness within the novel can only be overcome when it becomes the focus of the artist’s mood or reflection.[19]

Hugo von HofmannsthalHugo von Hoffmannsthal

Fredric Jameson, on the other hand, has argued that this ‘enstrangement’ and obsession with form that makes the artefact preferable to reality is the result of late capitalism turning modernism into ideology and the crowning of aesthetic autonomy over life and experience in the midst of humanity, that is to say, history,[20] but in truth the twin notion that a book is a vision of the world and at the same time a thing added to the world is perhaps at least as old as the printing press. Don Quixote, for example, would not exist in the absence of this crucial theme. Much later than Cervantes but also much before the beginnings of modernism, in a fictional fragment, The Rose and The Desk, Hugo von Hofmannsthal could write:

I know that flowers don’t fall by themselves out of open windows. Especially not at night. But that’s neither here nor there. Briefly, the red rose was suddenly lying on the white snow of the street in front of my black patent-leather shoes. It was very dark, like velvet, still slim, not yet opened, and entirely without scent in the cold. I took it home with me, put it in a tiny Japanese vase on my desk and went to sleep. A short while later I was wide awake. There was a faint glow in the room, not from the moon but from starlight. I felt the scent of the heated rose wafting toward me as I breathed, and I heard a low voice. It was the porcelain rose of the old Vienna inkstand, which had something to say. “He has absolutely no feeling for style anymore,” it said, “no taste at all.” It meant me. “Otherwise he couldn’t possibly have put such a thing next to me.” It meant the living rose.[21]

—Aashish Kaul


Aashish Kaul completed his doctoral studies at the University of Sydney. He is the author of A Dream of Horses & Other Stories (2014) and The Queen’s Play (2015).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Ann Jefferson and David Robey, eds. Modern Literary Theory – A Comparative Introduction. London: Batsford, 1986. p 27.
  2. Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. trans. B Sher. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991. pp. 4-6.
  3. Samuel Beckett, Proust. New York: Grove Press, 1957. p. 8.
  4. Jefferson and Robey, pp. 31-34.
  5. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Basic Writings. ed. T Baldwin. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. pp. 284-89. See also, Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. trans. R Howard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975. pp. 151-53.
  6. Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity. trans. K Pinkus and M Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. p. 78.
  7. MM Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. trans. C Emerson and M Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982. pp. 278-79, see also, pp. 298-99.
  8. Javier Marías, ‘Eight Questions for Javier Marías’, Voyage Along the Horizon. trans. K Cordero. San Francisco: Believer Books, 2006. pp. 175-82.
  9. Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art. trans. G Grabowicz. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973. pp. 290-96.
  10. Beverley Farmer, A Body of Water. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1990. pp. 4-6.
  11. Octavio Paz, Alternating Currents. trans. H Lane. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990. p. 6.
  12. Todorov, 1975, p. 141.
  13. E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. London: Penguin, 2005. pp. xiv, 86-87.
  14. Forster, pp. xv, 134-50.
  15. Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch. trans. G Rabassa. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. p. 402.
  16. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity. London: Verso, 2012. p. 208.
  17. Tzvetan Todorov, ‘Reading as Construction’ in Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy, eds. Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996. pp. 259, 266-67. See also, Todorov, 1975, pp. 54, 93-95.
  18. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel. trans. A Bostock. London: Merlin Press, 1971. p. 72.
  19. Lukács, p. 79.
  20. Jameson, pp. 176-79.
  21. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings. trans. J Rotenberg. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005. p. 49.

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