Tolstoy and Shklovsky on making things strange

After an epic literary journey of 1074 pages and 4 and a half weeks, I have accomplished a task which only a select few dare to undertake: I have finished reading War and Peace.  Okay, perhaps I am making it sound more exciting than it actually was, but nonetheless, Tolstoy has consumed my life for half a term.

War and Peace spans so many genres, themes, settings, and characters that it would be impossible for me, in a single blog post, to address everything in the work that I found beautiful, problematic, intriguing, etc…but one thing that did strike me in particular was the literary device, otstranenie (in English, defamiliarization), that Tolstoy employs frequently.

In making my own attempt at an ars poetica, without having taken any formal college English classes on literary theory, I focused much more on why we should engage in artistic endeavors, but not how we should do this.  Viktor Shklovsky, in explaining otstranenie, presents us with both the how and the why.

“The purpose of art is to transmit the sense of a thing as seeing not as recognizing; the device of art is that of ‘making things strange’ and of making form difficult, increasing the difficulty and time taken to perceive since the process of perception in art is an aim in itself and must be prolonged: art is a way of experiencing the making of a thing and what has already been made is of no importance.
As they become habitual, actions are automatized…This is a process ideally typified by algebra where objects are replaced by symbols. Through this algebraic mode of thinking we grasp things by counting them and measuring them; we do not see them, but merely recognize them by their primary features. The thing rushes past us, prepacked as it were; we know that it is there by the space it takes up, but we see only its surface. This kind of perception shrivels a thing up, first of all in the way we perceive it, but later this affects the way we handle it too…Life goes to waste as it is turned into nothingness. Automatization corrodes things, clothing, furniture, one’s wife and one’s fear of war…And so that a sense of life may be restored, that things may be felt, so that stones may be made stony, there exists what we call art.”

(from “Art as Device,” Viktor Shklovsky, 1917)

Art, then, wakes us up, breaks us out of our conventional way of thinking about things, makes us see life and all that is in it as it truly is, not as we have been taught to see it.  When Tolstoy describes an opera, for example, he does not tell us the name of the opera or who the composer is; he does not allow us to make assumption or to fall back on our habitual, automatized mode of thinking.  We see the opera as something new, as if we have never seen such a thing before.  We are not presented with a soprano performing an aria, but instead are told that “one very fat girl in a white silk dress [who] sat apart on a low bench, to the back of which a piece of green cardboard was glued.  They all sang something” (498).  Tolstoy does not show us the familiar musical performance we are expecting, but something “grotesque and amazing.”  And while we still know “what it was all meant to represent,…it was so pretentiously false and unnatural” that we are filled with a sense of “ridicule and perplexity” (499).*

Of course, not all art does this, and even the art that does take this approach does so for different reasons.  Tolstoy’s opera scene reveals to us the absurdity and unnaturalness of societal conventions, urging us to be critical of the Russian nobles who immerse themselves in these conventions and live for nothing else.  But Shklovsky, I think, would add that the point of defamiliarization can go beyond social criticism.  It aims not at a criticism of life or defamiliarization for its own sake, but at the restoration of a sense of life in the lifeless, conventional world that once surrounded us.

As a poet, I read Shkolvsky’s discussion of defamiliarzation as a challenge.  I now hope that I can approach my own writing with this understanding of art as a way to make the world stranger, and more meaningful, beautiful, and grotesque in this strangeness.  Or perhaps I will discover that I understood this all along.

*The page numbers correspond to: Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. ed. George Gibian. New York: Norton, 1996.


5 Responses

  1. Photography is an incredibly efficient way to make the world stranger. We should collaborate on some art that is a device to make the world doubly strange and meaningful.

    • That would be really interesting. How are you thinking that photo-poetry (poem photography?) would work? I think that it could be approached in a lot of ways, like using a photo or group of photos as a prompt for a poem, or choosing an idea (something vague like “self” or something more specific like “April 28th”) and having us both work on it independently to see how it manifests itself differently in our different mediums and perspectives. Another possibility would be to write the poem about something, physically write it on that something, then photograph it. I like the last idea best, I think. That way, reading the poem and looking at the photo would take place simultaneously. It could also involve sidewalk chalk, which is always good.

      • Eh, sidewalk chalk is okay, but it’s kinda limiting to just take a picture of words, in my opinion. I’m thinking pictures with a Photoshop mask that is made up of text, so that the image is created by the words, or vice versa. Or just simple, old school pairing of text and image. That can work wonders.

  2. Your interpretive approach through art is an interesting lead into the text. Thanks for sharing, your writing is fantastic. C

    • Thanks so much for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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