Dusting off the Couch, or Discovering What Is Art in “Art as Device”

Viktor Šklovskij’s 1917 manifesto “Art As Device” set off, or at least announced, a debate on the relationship between art and life that quickly came to dominate aesthetic debates in Europe, Russia, and America. Conventional wisdom has it that Šklovskij’s article declared and gave grounds for an ontological division between art and life, between the realm of the aesthetic and “byt.” As Šklovskij famously put it later, blood [krov′] is not bloody in poetry, it just rhymes with love [ljubov′].

There are, however, reasons in the article itself to question this interpretation of Šklovskij’s theory. In an otherwise extremely laconic, fifteen-page article, Šklovskij quotes from Lev Tolstoj repeatedly and at length: his 1897 diary, Kreutzer Sonata “Xolstomer,” his publicistic texts of the 1890s, and War and Peace. Direct citation of Tolstoj’s writings accounts for nearly 25% of the article, not including Šklovskij’s commentary on the quotes. In fact, with the exception of a quick mention of Hamsun and Gogol′, all of Šklovskij’s examples of “what is art” are taken from Tolstoj. There is something perverse, and worthy of investigation, in the fact that the leading theorist of a movement supposedly devoted to the scientific and dispassionate research of pure aesthetics as embodied in modern poetry cites so much Tolstoj, and not just Tolstoj the Prose Artist, but also Tolstoj the Prophet who constantly railed against art’s improper divorce from moral and social issues.

My paper will investigate this Tolstoj-Šklovskij connection in three ways. First, by contextualizing Tolstoj’s influence on Šklovskij, and by extension, on all of the avant-garde of the teens and early twenties of this century. Second, by demonstrating the ways in which Šklovskij adapted certain of Tolstoj’s notions of art, most notably the ideas that art is an infectious “disease” and that art offers an alternative to the epistemological methods of science. And third, by closely analyzing several key passages of “Art As Device” to reveal their hidden or alternative meanings, meanings that are usually overlooked because scholars tend to be predisposed to received readings of Šklovskij’s manifesto.

(This article is an already-written part of my dissertation that argues for Tolstoj’s place at the head of the avant-garde.)