Friday, November 6, 2009

Plotting Revolution

“In our name they will oppress future generations, the way food is compressed in a can.”

Bolshoi Theatre

Viktor Shkovsky’s Night’s Move is a difficult work. It’s not just that the Shkovsky’s short articles are theoretic ally sophisticated; the difficult also stems from that fact that these articles regularly refer to obscure early Soviet works in diverse artistic media. For me, Night’s Move is most useful as a reminder that the Soviet Revolution was, at first, almost as much about aesthetic transformation as it was about political or economic change. Richard Sheldon, the book’s 2004 translator, says that Schkovky’s Formalism and Futurism set him on a collision course with Trotsky as well as Stalin.

What’s most impressive to me is that Soviet political leaders such as Trotsky had the time and the ability to do ideological battle with art critics of genius such as Shkovsky. (The issue, Sheldon asserts, was Shkovsky’s very un-Marxist assertion that art should not be subservient to political or economic exigencies.) In any event, the world Shkovsky describes, and criticizes, comes alive in these essays. Notwithstanding the material privations of the Civil War and its aftermath, the Soviet Union in the early 1920s was, at least in St. Petersburg, alive with theatrical, poetic, literary, cinematic and artistic innovation.

In an essay on Tolstoy entitled “Parallels in Tolstoy,” Shkovsky asserts the centrality of art in helping make revolution possible. I take this theory seriously: poetry may have undermined the Old Regime as much as food shortages did. In Shkovsky’s words:

“A poet takes down all the signs down from their places. An artist always foments the revolt of things. In the hands of poets, things revolt, throwing off their old names and taking with the new name a new face. The poet uses images, tropes, similes; he calls, let us suppose, a fire a red blossom or he attaches to an old word a new epithet…In this way the poet makes a semantic shift.”

Reading Shkovsky now I’m also taken with the fact that he was obsessed with plot and structure in any work of art. For instance, he analyzes the circus just as he would analyze War and Peace or Anna Karenina. The diagnosis of plot makes one think immediately of the Russian Revolution itself. For here is an event with an artistic tradition, inherited from 1905, 1870, 1848, 1789, and 1688, as well as actors, both in the sense of people who cause things to happen, and people who have recourse to a wide range of theatrical devices and traditions. For revolutionaries, like circus people, play parts, orate, and perform for audiences.

When Shkovsky asks the literary question: what separates the circus from everyday life, one naturally asks the same question of the Revolution. In this sense of analyzing the formal plot structures, Shkovsky anticipated modern literary criticism, or works of history that borrow from that literary criticism such as Metahistory. To a surprising degree, Shkovsky also seems to anticipate the field of interdisciplinary inquiry known today as Cultural Studies. For the critic uses the strictures of Aristotle and Plato to analyze the meaning of movies, pantomimes, circuses, and songs, as well as theatre and poetry. He makes no distinction between Shakespeare and vaudeville: each art form, whether popular or elitist, must be judged severely, according to the artistic conventions of the medium.

What’s refreshing about Night’s Move, is that whole theoretical arguments can sometimes emerge in a page and a half journalistic piece. For instance, in one critique of a play by Sergie Radlov entitled "The Comic and the Tragic," Shkovsky reminds readers of Fielding’s theory that sometimes a Harlequin performance intentionally offers audiences a dull and monotonous set of characters to throw into high relief the gifts and excitement of the main one.

Shkovsky’s criticism is often brutally funny. In the review of a play he thought to be overwrought and filled with a cacophony of artistic devices, he reminds his readers of the tale of a schoolboy who turned in a paper that contained no punctuation whatsoever. The student gathered all of the punctuation marks together and added them to the very end of the paper, with the common school phraseology: punctuation marks, take your places…

One final thought that Shkovsky left me with is this: the Russian Revolution ought to have been both comedy and tragedy. As Shkovsky notes in his "Apropos of King Lear," art isn’t really about emotions. The Cherry Orchard can be played as a hilarious farce or as desperate tragedy; music can be played cheerfully or sadly according to its interpreter’s will. And the Revolution was nothing if not an artistic statement. It’s a shame that we can no longer see—or interpret-- the comedy of the Russian Revolution—only its tragedy.

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