With Marcel Bénabou, Michael Bérubé, William Eastlake, Stuart Hall, Mark Crispin Miller, Warren F. Motte, Cesare Pavese, Raymond Roussel, Viktor Shklovsky, John Taylor, Curtis White, Trevor Winkfield, Marguerite Young
From "Art as Device"
The law governing the economy of creative effort also belongs to a group of laws taken for granted by everyone. Here is what Herbert Spencer says:
And Richard Avenarius writes:
By a mere allusion to the general law governing the economy of mental effort, Petrazhitsky dismisses James’s theory, in which the latter presents the case for the corporeal basis of the effect. The principle of the economy of creative effort, so seductive especially in the domain of rhythm, was affirmed by Aleksandr Veselovsky. Taking Spencer’s ideas to their conclusion, he said: "The merit of a style consists precisely in this: that it delivers the greatest number of ideas in the fewest number of words." Even Andrei Bely, who, at his best, gave us so many fine examples of his own "laborious," impeding rhythm and who, citing examples from Baratynsky, pointed out the "laboriousness" of poetic epithets, found it, nonetheless, necessary to speak of the law of economy in his book. This work, representing a heroic attempt to create a theory of art, demonstrates Bely’s enormous command of the devices of poetry. Unfortunately, it also rests on a body of unverified facts gathered from out-of-date books, including Krayevich’s physics textbook, in fashion when he was a student at the lycée.
The idea that an economy of effort lies at the basis of and governs the creative process may well hold true in the "practical" domain of language. However, these ideas, flourishing in the prevailing climate of ignorance concerning the nature of poetic creation, were transplanted from their native soil in prose to poetry.
The discovery that there are sounds in the Japanese poetic language that have no parallels in everyday Japanese was perhaps the first factual indication that these two languages, that is, the poetic and the practical, do not coincide. L. P. Yakubinsky’s article concerning the absence of the law of dissimilation of liquid sounds in the language of poetry, and, on the other hand, the admission into the language of poetry, as pointed out by the author, of a confluence of similar sounds that are difficult to pronounce (corroborated by scientific research), clearly point, at least in this case, to the fundamental opposition of the laws governing the practical and poetic uses of language.
For that reason we have to consider the question of energy expenditure and economy in poetry, not by analogy with prose, but on its own terms.
If we examine the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual, it also becomes automatic. So eventually all of our skills and experiences function unconsciously—automatically. If someone were to compare the sensation of holding a pen in his hand or speaking a foreign tongue for the very first time with the sensation of performing this same operation for the ten thousandth time, then he would no doubt agree with us. It is this process of automatization that explains the laws of our prose speech with its fragmentary phrases and half-articulated words.
The ideal expression of this process may be said to take place in algebra, where objects are replaced by symbols. In the rapid-fire flow of conversational speech, words are not fully articulated. The first sounds of names hardly enter our consciousness. In Language as Art, Pogodin tells of a boy who represented the sentence "Les montagnes de la Suisse sont belles" in the following sequence of initial letters: L, m, d, 1, S, s, b.
This abstractive character of thought suggests not only the method of algebra but also the choice of symbols (letters and, more precisely, initial letters). By means of this algebraic method of thinking, objects are grasped spatially, in the blink of an eye. We do not see them, we merely recognize them by their primary characteristics. The object passes before us, as if it were prepackaged. We know that it exists because of its position in space, but we see only its surface. Gradually, under the influence of this generalizing perception, the object fades away. This is as true of our perception of the object in action as of mere perception itself. It is precisely this perceptual character of the prose word that explains why it often reaches our ears in fragmentary form (see the article by L. P. Yakubinsky). This fact also accounts for much discord in mankind (and for all manner of slips of the tongue). In the process of algebrizing, of automatizing the object, the greatest economy of perceptual effort takes place. Objects are represented either by one single characteristic (for example, by number), or else by a formula that never even rises to the level of consciousness. Consider the following entry in Tolstoy’s diary:
And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war.
If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been.
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. By "enstranging" objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and "laborious." The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant.
The life of a poem (and of an artifact) proceeds from vision to recognition, from poetry to prose, from the concrete to the general, from Don Quixote, the scholarly and poor aristocrat enduring half-consciously his humiliation at court, to Turgenev’s broad and hollow Don Quixote, from Charlemagne to Charles the Fat. As the work of art dies, it becomes broader: the fable is more symbolic than a poem and a proverb is more symbolic than a fable. For that reason, Potebnya’s theory is least self-contradictory in its analysis of the fable, which, he believed, he had investigated thoroughly. Alas, his theory never dealt with the "eternal" works of imaginative literature. That accounts for the fact that Potebnya never did complete his book. As is well known, Notes on the Theory of Literature was published in 1905, thirteen years after the author’s death. Potebnya himself had managed to work out fully only the section on the fable.
After being perceived several times, objects acquire the status of "recognition." An object appears before us. We know it’s there but we do not see it, and, for that reason, we can say nothing about it. The removal of this object from the sphere of automatized perception is accomplished in art by a variety of means. I wish to point out in this chapter one of the devices used almost constantly by Tolstoy. It is Merezhkovsky’s belief that Tolstoy presents things as he sees them with his eyes without ever changing them.
The devices by which Tolstoy enstranges his material may be boiled down to the following: he does not call a thing by its name, that is, he describes it as if it were perceived for the first time, while an incident is described as if it were happening for the first time. In addition, he foregoes the conventional names of the various parts of a thing, replacing them instead with the names of corresponding parts in other things. Let me demonstrate this with an example. In "Shame" Tolstoy enstranges the idea of flogging by describing people who, as punishment for violating the law, had been stripped, thrown down on the floor, and beaten with switches. A few lines later he refers to the practice of whipping their behinds. In a note on this passage, Tolstoy asks: "Just why this stupid, savage method of inflicting pain and no other: such as pricking the shoulder or some such other part of the body with needles, squeezing somebody’s hands or feet in a vise, etc."
The essay from which this passage was taken forms the first chapter of Shklovsky’s seminal Theory of Prose, first published in 1925.