Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times

By Cristina Vatulescu | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Literary Theory and the Secret Police
Writing and Estranging the Self

The foremost theorists of literary estrangement, Bertolt Brecht and Viktor Shklovsky, shared a preoccupation with being interrogated.

I often imagine being interrogated by a tribunal.
“Now tell us, Mr. Brecht, are you really in earnest?”1

I give my deposition [pokazaniie]. I declare. I lived through the revolution honestly.2

Brecht’s and Shklovsky’s conversations with imaginary interrogators seem to echo each other, as if Shklovsky were answering the question that Brecht feared his interrogator might ask. In fact, Brecht was conversing with Walter Benjamin, who preserved Brecht’s words in a diary entry from July 6, 1934, together with a possible clue to this puzzling fascination with interrogations. Benjamin laconically noted that in the same conversation, Brecht asserted that “the methods of the GPU” were based on “certain kinds of estrangement” (Entfremdung).3 In the same passage, Brecht used the same word, Entfremdung, to describe Kafka’s fiction. Brecht’s words assume that there are different kinds of estrangement, such as secret police estrangement and artistic estrangement.4 His provocative musings, however, point to a question he left unanswered: What is the relationship between artistic estrangement and GPU estrangement? Could the fascination that the two theorists of artistic estrangement showed for interrogations have something to do with these “certain kinds of estrangement” practiced by the secret police? We have already seen the secret police meddle in and influence questions that one would usually believe to be the province of literary theory, such as omniscient or unreliable narration; or the relationship between word, image, and their human referents; or the boundaries between literature and extraliterary genres such as the police file. But could it be that the shadow of the secret police reached as far as estrangement, the foundational concept

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