The Knight’s Move is one of Shklovsky’s typically enigmatic books, where the essay form breaks up under some strange paratactic pressure, as though a dialogue were being attempted through the static crackle of a bad connection.
Although Shklovsky is the ideological opposite of V. Rozanov, that weirdly creepy but charismatic moraliste, but he was fascinated by him in the pre-revolutionary period, when Shklovsky wrote some of his most famous texts. The fragmentary style was, if not borrowed from Rozanov, at least incited by his sense of the way Rozanov’s writing on literature where having an effect on the way people read novels, what they expected from them, in the 1900-1917 period. In an essay on Rozanov, Shklovsky called him a master of the oxymoron – that moment when the dialectic collapses. Oxymorons are a kind of tomb in which the contradiction becomes a kind of petrified juvenile delinquent style. Rozanov’s reactionary ideology was a death-driven thing, whereas Skhlovsky want to resurrect the dialectic from the oxymoron – just as revolution emerges from the hostile juxtaposition of opposing classes. “In Russia,” Shklovsky wrote in The Knight’s move, “ everything is so contradictory that we have become witty in spite of ourselves.”
Shklovsky book, it that is what it is, is governed over the a stunning comparison of the writer – or the writing – to the knight’s move in chess. The knight’s path is different from the other power players. It cannot even move to the square ahead of it or of the same color. The conclusion Shklovsy draws is that the “knight is not free- it moves in an L shaped manner because it is forbidden to take the straight road.” That non-freedom is like the non-freedom of the writer.
Shklovsky , typically, drops the metaphor. But since the move entitles the book, and the book is about literature, he lets the broader implication pull us along – we cannot confuse the eccentric with freedom.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 that is not even completely lateral, is 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 tradition, 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 inspire the infinite filling in, creating the interest in the work. To use Seanne Ngai’s vocabulary, the work is full of gimmicks.
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, it choses the choice that is given due to the nature of the board itself, where possible moves are not exhausted but given in a limited canon and, even so, the combinations are infinite.
This is one of the reasons that even bad, horrendous, terrible politics can produce, in literature, good work. We can wish Pound and Celine, for instance, away, but they will come back and haunt you.