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Enstrangement, Metafiction, and Constraint

I’ve been thinking about Victor Shklovsky’s concept of ostraniene, a neologism in Russian traditionally translated as “defamiliarization” but also, in the edition of his Theory of Prose (1929) that I have (Trans. by Benjamin Sher, Dalkey Archive, 1990), as “enstrangement”. The idea being that when we are familiar with something we no longer see it; it becomes part of a category. The seeing is automatized with repetition; we just “recognize” what we see instead of really looking. Shklovsky says that the purpose of art is to enstrange, making us see things anew, so our perception is “long and laborious”.

This concept of enstrangement is used regarding the mimetic in art (making us see anew the world around us through the represented world in the work of art), but in a similar way, the metafictional aspects of much 20th century literature (or earlier novels such as Tristram Shandy (one of Shklovsky’s favorites)) is an enstrangement not of mimesis but of narrative form. By exposing the devices of narration and the artificiality of “realism” (a classic example being John Barth’s short story “Lost in the Funhouse”), metafiction enstranges the realist narrative form, creating a new perception of the way fiction is constructed.

It is my contention that in an analogous way literary constraints work to enstrange the process of the creation of fiction. Various constraints make the writer look “long and laborious[ly]” at the choice of words, organization of form, or creation of content. In this way literary constraint breaks away from the automatized creation of fiction. (Automatization, a term brought up by Shklovsky, is quite an apt term in this case as Oulipo founder Queneau was a former Surrealist and specifically went about going against his former group allegiances, such as Surrealist automatic writing.) In it’s way the idea of “inspiration” is an automatization. “Inspired” thoughts and ideas come from various associations, experiences, knowledge, etc., but in the Romantic sense, inspiration is divine/mystified and the concrete origin of the creation is taken for granted. Like the manifest and latent content of an unexamined dream (again with Surrealist connections), the “moment of inspiration” is taken at face value, and the deeper structure of creation is ignored. As a character notes in Gaddis’ The Recognitions: “Orignlty not inventn bt snse of recall, recgntion, pttrns alrdy thr…” (123) (which is: Originality is not invention but a sense of recall, recognition of patterns already there).

[I realize this is a rather sparse concept/argument, but I’m not sure where I need to argue further. Comments, criticism are welcome either in the comments or via email.]

[Edit 11/27/04: Golden Rule Jones responds to my post, adding in some words from Philip Roth (who I still have never read!) on using remembering in creating fiction. Check it out. The autobiographical impulse in fiction is something I find quite interesting to consider.]