By Nathan Goldman
The following originally appeared in an issue of the Gadfly, the St. John’s student newspaper.
In literary critic Viktor Shklovsky’s 1925 masterwork, Theory of Prose, he seeks to explain how literature works in a series of deftly argued and lyrical essays examining works as disparate as Don Quixote and the Sherlock Holmes novels. He delivers: in the book’s very first chapter, “Art as Device,” he presents his theory of art’s function. Shklovsky writes:
Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war…And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition.
Shklovsky’s term for this process is ostraniene; a Russian neologism, which translator Benjamin Sher renders as “enstrangement.” Art, Shklovsky claims, re-awakens us; it makes us see objects in their complexity rather than recognize symbols in their mundanity. Art exists to make the world strange to us—“to make a stone feel stony.”
Shklovsky’s theory is a fascinating attempt to answer fundamental aesthetic questions: What is art, what is it for, and how does it work? But the theory of enstrangement is useful, too, apart from its intended use: it’s a fruitful way to think about how works we study at St. John’s might affect us. Much of what we study is art in the sense that Shklovsky means it. One way to understand the beauty of a chorale from the St. Matthew Passion is as a process of musical enstrangement. But how can we bring the theory to bear on works of philosophy, mathematics, or natural science?
Great works in these genres enstrange our world, too; the thinkers we read lived amidst daily mundanity but found ways to see and discover strangeness, complexity, and wonder. The works alert our attention to this strangeness: where we might hear the obvious meaning of the word “knowledge,” Plato heard profound uncertainty; where we see shapes ambling through the sky, Ptolemy saw the epicycles, elaborate and divine.
Often, the authors even thwart our normal means of communication and expression to enstrange. Euclid defines a point as “that which has no part,” and Aristotle interprets the world through the alien concept of entelecheia. The notion of enstrangement provides a way of unlocking a text: How and by what means, I might ask, does this work help me re-see everything around and within me?
In these cases, the works do the enstranging; our tasks are to look anew and to investigate the enstrangement’s source. Other times, the onus is on us. Studying foundational works is not without its dangers: we may too readily accept familiar ideas or fail to see strangeness and complexity even as the works alert us to it. When Locke discusses property, it’s difficult for me to encounter the idea directly. Because I’ve lived with property all my life, I’m tempted to merely nod along rather than wrestle with the idea of it. In Genesis, some being creates the world and sees that it is good. In our pervasively monotheistic world, it’s hard to realize that “What is a god?” is not an insipid question.
In these cases, the works alone may fail to fully enstrange our world. Our task, then, is to assist them: to read actively, attentively, and sometimes outside ourselves. We must shake ourselves from our complacence: stop nodding along and instead search for nuances and oddities. We must meet the authors on the page and, as they were before us, be willing not only to see, but to re-see—and thus to see far more fully.