Bowstring

Image and Riddles: An excerpt

Viktor Shklovsky

Photograph by Sherman Ong

About Riddles and the Baring of Conflict in the Habitual

Hegel wrote in his Lectures on Fine Art that "the riddle belongs to conscious symbolism." What is the riddle's answer? It is derivation of meaning. According to Hegel, the riddle consists of "individual traits of character and properties drawn from the otherwise known external world and, as in nature and in externality generally, lying there scattered outside one another, they are associated together in a disparate and therefore striking way. As a result they lack a subject embracing them together [as predicates] into a unity . . ." This disparity of signs hinders the immediate solution as to which whole they all belong to.
 In veiling the whole, the riddle forces us to rearrange the signs of a given object, thus showing the possibility of diversity, the possibility to combine the previously irreconcilable in new semantic arrangements.
 The great realist Sancho Panza said that he would rather be given the answer first and the riddle afterwards.
 But Sancho Panza amused himself by constructing his own riddles and then solving them himself.
 His short term of governorship itself appears to be a program of solving riddles. The riddles and their solutions are folkloric.
 The trials of Tom Canty, whom Mark Twain turned from pauper to prince, also represent a collection of folkloric riddles and solutions of a free simpleton. Tom learns the great art of solving riddles in Offal Court, one of the poorest districts of London.
 Folkloric riddle solvers—the paupers and the peasants, sometimes turn out to be great decipherers and mystery solvers when they appear on the hill where the great decipherer Solomon's throne was buried.
 We are great or insignificant not in and of ourselves, but because sometimes we stand on the foundations of the past.
 The task of the solution is to renew meaning through a rearrangement of signs. As we solve the riddle, we reposition the signs and get excited over the fact that before we didn't know the meaning of disunity. The assembled object is something that we recognize. So the riddle is a pretext of the excitement of recognition. But the riddle usually has two answers. The first one is a literal solution, but it is wrong. The second one is the true answer.
 The riddle that the Sphinx posed to Oedipus was the following: What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?
 The difficulty of putting the proposed clues together and solving the riddle is that there are creatures with two legs (humans and birds) and four legs (mammals and some reptiles) but there are no creatures with three legs—it's a confusing question. This is precisely how a lock is made with winding pins; it is quite impossible to open it with a lock pick.
 The answer to the riddle is man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and walks with a cane in old age.
 The answer is slightly deceitful because the cane is equated to a limb.
 The riddle often has two answers—both are correct but one is illicit, as it were. Russian ethnographer Dmitri Sadovnikov in his famous collection of riddles wrote that almost all the "lock-and-key" riddles had a double meaning, and that some of them were quite impossible to include in the collection. Since the percentage of such riddles was large, he safely concluded that they were rather widespread.
 Many riddles unfold into whole fairy tales. The Belarusian collection by Yevdokim Romanov includes many such fairy tales. We can also find them in Russian bylinas (legendary epic tales). A woman, unrecognized by her husband, asks him a question. She is dressed as a foreign consul; she is in a man's suit. She offers to her husband a number of metaphorically erotic riddles. He is unable to solve them. Two meanings are offered simultaneously—they exist side by side—as though competing with one another, one complementing the other.
 Occasionally riddles will have only one unique answer. For example, Samson, after slaying the lion notices that a swarm of bees have nested in the carcass of the lion and made honey. He gives some to his parents and then proposes a riddle to the Philistines: "Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet" (Judges 14:14).
 The eater and the strong is the lion and the something sweet is the honey. The passage uses the classic form of a riddle but it has no solution, or more precisely—it has only one literal solution.
 Then there are the so-called detective stories, which are in essence multi-level and complex riddles. We are given various clues that can be connected in numerous ways; the correct combination of clues and traces lead us to the criminal. First, the investigation is led by a police detective who is unsuccessful. Oftentimes the villain gives the police a false lead. Then Dr. Watson tries to solve the crime and gets it all wrong. Finally the riddle is solved, let's say, by Sherlock Holmes.
 Many of these detective stories are immaterial, insubstantial, so to speak; they are formulaic crosswords without any true content, that is to say—content that is typically found in the folkloric riddle. They lack in semantic nuance.
 Anyone can be a murderer in Agatha Christie: the lines of investigation do not conflict, they are monosemantic, as it were.
 But there are other kinds of ingenious riddle solvers. For instance, who killed Fyodor Karamazov—his eldest son Dmitri or someone else? Everyone is confused. It turns out that it was Pavel Smerdyakov but the middle son Ivan was somewhat guilty, too.
 There can be yet another type of riddle. It is made known from the very beginning that Raskolnikov murdered the pawnbroker. It is described how he prepares for the murder and how he kills her. The reason why he kills her is unknown. That's explained in his article. Raskolnikov kills not because he is starving, although he is a poor, hungry student. He believes that there are certain individuals who have the right to commit crimes and be the judges of their own actions, and he wants to find out whether he is one of those extraordinary, willful individuals. And Raskolnikov's punishment is his inner disappointment. He solves his own riddle, simultaneously resolving the question whether there is a person who is allowed everything. His character is juxtaposed against Svidrigailov who doesn't even doubt that he is allowed everything, but who commits suicide nonetheless, not being able to withstand the uselessness of the answer. One can do anything, but there is no purpose.
 Let's return to the folkloric riddle. The signs of an object are disassembled, analyzed, and after a few obstacles reassembled into a whole. But artistic compositions show the fallacy of simple solutions. The doors into the world are unlocked not as they ought to be unlocked. The world is unjust and mankind is too reserved.
 Kafka has a short story about a man who is standing in front of the gates and is afraid to enter. He thinks that the entrance is forbidden. The gates finally close and the guard tells him: "These gates were intended only for you."
 The man wasn't able to accomplish his main purpose. He is as though the opposite of Raskolnikov.
 I would like to move on to a more complex phenomenon. Let me remind you of this book's subject: it is trying to prove that at the basis of every artistic work, every stage in artistic construction, lie similar principles of revealing the contradictions, that the artistic processes of various epochs and nations are universal in this phenomenon and hence comprehensible to us.
 Let's turn now to Tolstoy's Resurrection.
 I was a young man trying to publish my first poorly written stories. I went to a certain press where the old editor—his last name, I think, was Karyshev—told me how Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy had offended him. Tolstoy published Resurrection, the plot of which he had borrowed, or according to Karyshev, had stolen from the unknown writer. He wanted to sue Tolstoy but all the courts refused his case. Those who had read both works—the work of Karyshev and the work of Tolstoy published in Niva—told him that they were very similar, but that his was bad and Tolstoy's was good.
 I know, and evidently so does the reader, that Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy took the main plot not from Karyshev but from Anatoli Koni who told him about a young man who, as a juror, was present at a trial and found out that the defendant, a prostitute, was a woman whom he had once seduced. The conflict here is the following: a person is judging another person whom he has ruined, in other words, he is judging the crime that he has committed—a rather ordinary crime.
 The ordinary becomes tragic.
 Tolstoy's characters have nothing in common with the Japanese. They belong to a different culture. What then amazed them in his book? Certainly not the fact that Katyusha was a prostitute, they have a different view on that subject. They were astonished that Katyusha loved Nekhlyudov yet refused to marry the aristocrat for the very reason that she loved him. The door unlocked for them at a different turn of the key, love turned out to be something else—something beyond possession.
 The script for the film Resurrection was written by the talented screenwriter Yevgeni Gabrilovich and it was directed by Mikhail Schweitzer. The film in two parts included almost all of the action that took place if not in Tolstoy then in Karyshev. The actress playing the prostitute was a pretty young woman, and it was sad, even deplorable that she had been seduced. The film followed the novel's storyline. But in Tolstoy, Maslova's tragedy and the novel's conflict are not merely suggesting that Nekhlyudov seduced the girl and then gave her money.
 After working hard on the Koni story, Tolstoy clarified for himself that Katyusha was the light and the rest were shadows. What helped him to enlighten the misconception of Katyusha and then grasp her character? What helped elucidate the shadows—the darkness of life, its falsehood?
 Her fate represented the inhumanity of society in which Tolstoy lived.
 I once coined and introduced the term estrangement.
 In its construction, estrangement is similar to the riddle: it is based on the rearrangement of an object's signs. But in Tolstoy, the main function of estrangement is conscience.
 Tolstoy often illuminates objects as if seen for the very first time not by naming them, but by characterizing them. For instance, in one of his descriptions he doesn't name the tree but writes: "a leafy tree with brilliantly white trunk and branches."
 He is talking about a birch tree—it can't be anything else—but it is described as if by someone who has never seen this kind of tree and who is surprised by its unusual form.
 In February 1857, Tolstoy records in his diary: "Andersen's fairy tale about the new clothes. The task of literature and the word is to make everyone believe what the child is saying."
 He is talking about "The Emperor's New Clothes." The world must be shown without its familiar associations: the grandeur of ceremony must not hide the fact that a naked person is at its head.
 The next entry is from the beginning of March. His diary entries are closely linked to one another: "One's pride and contempt for others, who has to carry out the vile role of a monarch, is similar to the pride and freedom of a prostitute."
 This entry serves as a clue for understanding Resurrection. The question is not whether Nekhlyudov seduced the girl and turned her into a prostitute.
 The implication here is that the so-called "decent" people surrounding Katyusha in Tolstoy's mind are much like the proud prostitute; this comparison with the prostitute allows us to perceive them differently.
 Tolstoy writes about this very directly.
 Nekhlyudov arrives at the prison to see Katyusha. He is shocked: "What astonished him most was that Katyusha was not ashamed of her position—not the position of a prisoner (she was ashamed of that), but her position as a prostitute. She seemed satisfied, even proud of it."
 Tolstoy develops the situation in great detail.
 The prosecutor, superintendents, Nekhlyudov's mother, painted by the famous portraitist in her impressive décolleté, the ladies who flirt with Nekhlyudov, the pederast who sits in the governor general's office in Siberia, the lawyer, the people to whom Nekhlyudov appeals for help, the head of the prison, and the priest who performs an incomprehensible service, incomprehensible for everyone, including himself, but nonetheless a seemingly proper service, made proper by faithful habit—all of these people are the true Katyusha Maslovas—and she is perhaps the least of a prostitute compared to all of them.
 These traits of prostitution are drawn to expose and condemn the world of banality.
 The artistic image taken as something that we call "type" (type means impression, look up the word typography in the dictionary) is the keystone of the arch, marked with a special sign. The archetypal image of this novel is the falsehood of life, its illegitimate righteousness. The habitual is prostituted. The "lawful" becomes criminal in comparison with the ruined life of the prostitute, Katyusha, who was called Lyubov (Love) in the "house
of tolerance."
 Tolstoy was approaching the device, which I called "estrangement" in 1915, from afar. As early as in The Cossacks, Yeroshka dismisses the life of the Russian gentry, calling it "false." Lev Nikolaevich spent many years after that writing "Strider," in which human life is described from the perspective of a horse. And things such as property, love, man's right to hurt another man—all of it was strange and absurd. As a result, human life turned out to be a meaningless graveyard where people methodically buried decomposing corpses in splendid boxes.
 A prostitute is the most abject creature in the world. She is the main hero of the book, the novel's love story is based on her. She destroys everything that surrounds her.
 Katyusha Maslova is attractive. But in his initial sketches Tolstoy wanted to portray the prostitute with a deformed nose. But he didn't. It was impossible. Besides, the details of her image, like the azure blue tint of the whites and the slight squint in her eyes, dark as black currants—had been decided from the very beginning. These features were necessary to recognize what is beautiful, poignant, and precise.
 The image that a literary work is based on has multiple meanings and is contradictory like the image of Achilles who weeps for his friend: he plays the lyre, mutilates the dead body of his enemy, but then welcomes his enemy's father, offers him dinner, and mourns with him—this type of a stereoscopic, round character is more suitable for an epic than a one-dimensional character.
 I am talking within the limits of a single, though broad, convention here.
 For Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, Achilles's tears after his first loss are only an excusable exception. Boileau-Despréaux never mentions any of the other contradictions.
 Contradictions arise in Russian epics too, but not in fairy tales.
 The heroes of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, and the foundations of their compositions are also based on contradiction. However, it is seldom in Gogol—he accentuates contradiction through the narrative voice.
 Human beings are contradictory.
 But Akaki Akakievich becomes human only in his delirium, after he turns into a ghost.

translated from the Russian by Shushan Avagyan


This essay has been excerpted from Bowstring by Viktor Shklovsky, now available from Dalkey Archive Press.



Read translator’s note

Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was a leading figure in the Russian Formalist movement of the 1910s and 1920s. His work has had a profound impact on twentieth-century Russian literature and on literary criticism throughout the world. Many of his books have been translated into English and are available from Dalkey Archive Press.

Shushan Avagyan (b. 1976) is a literary translator working on her PhD in comparative literature at Illinois State University and residing in Yerevan. She is the translator from Russian of Energy of Delusion and Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar by Viktor Shklovsky (Dalkey Archive), and from Armenian I Want to Live: Poems of Shushanik Kurghinian (AIWA).


"Myths do not flow through the pipes of history," writes Shklovsky, "they change and splinter, they contrast and refute one another. The similar turns out to be dissimilar." Published in Moscow in 1970 and appearing in English translation for the first time, Bowstring is a seminal work, in which Shklovsky redefines estrangement (ostranenie) as a device of the literary comparatist—the "person out of place," who has turned up in a period where he does not belong and who must search for meaning with a strained sensibility. The book's title comes from Heraclitus: "They do not understand how that which differs from itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre." Comparison, in this sense, does not involve the assimilation of someone else's "otherness"—rather, it catalyzes one's own "otherness" and the otherness of one's own language. As Shklovsky experiments with different genres, employing a technique of textual montage, he mixes autobiography, biography, memoir, history, and literary criticism in a book that boldly refutes mechanical repetition, mediocrity, and cultural parochialism in the name of art that dares to be different and innovative. Bowstring is a brilliant and provocative book that spares no one in its unapologetic project to free art from conventionality.

The following excerpt is from a chapter on image and riddles, and is representative of Shklovsky's style of writing. He never tires from digressing from one subject to another and demands that the reader follow his excursus, in this section, on the plot as riddle and the "stereoscopic" (round) character. His prose moves in staccato sentences and short paragraphs that are montaged in seemingly disconnected and contradictory ways. The riddling sentences of Bowstring, then, materialize contradiction both as a style of writing and a state of being.


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