Harlequin's politics

"But if we had been asked, who are you for – Kaedin, Kornilov, or the Bolsheviks, Task and I would have chosen the Bolsheviks.  However, in a certain comedy, the harlequin was asked, Do you prefer to be hanged or quartered? He answered, I prefer soup.”

Viktor Shklovsky is a hard writer to get a grip on. More than most writers, his essence is quicksilver – that wrestler’s metaphor is peculiarly inappropriate for a man who so loved the one or two sentence paragraph. Getting a grip on Shklovsky is like wrestingly a necklace.

But one can say certain things. I’m currently reading The Knight’s Move. Skhlovsky begins the book, a seemingly disparate collection of pieces, with a sort of stunning image – that of the knight’s move in chess. There are many reasons for  the “strangeness” of the knight’s L shaped move in the game, Shklovsky writes. But one of them is this – “the knight is not free- it moves in an L shaped manner because it is forbidden to take the straight road.”

And, a typical Shklovsky device, he drops the matter. But since the move entitles the book, and the book is about literature, there is surely a broader implication. I would take that implication to be that all the notions that traditionally refer to the artist’s freedom, or familiarity with chance, the whole dual notion of inspiration, in which the freedom of creation is granted only at the cost of annuling the creator, in as much as inspiration exists outside of and through the creator, are subsumed in the iron law of the strange move. Strangeness, the disjunction, the lateral movement, are not so much spontaneous but rigged. And yet, what is being rigged but a violation of the conventions of the straight road? And even if the movement is rigged, its effects are not. This is where Shklovsky’s image differs from the inspiration traditon, which situates inspiration not only outside the author but outside the work. The work is the product of inspiration, in this way of thinking. For Shklovsky, it is precisely the inverse. Inspiration is a product of the work – that is, the devises in the work are both inspired and inspiring, creating other devices.

In work, however, in which the devices seem to force us all into straight lines – in work that is, for instance, political – the knight must make a harlequin’s leap – that is, prefer that choice that isn’t given.