19 June 2010

Pierre Bezukhov, “Clerical Persons”, and Defamiliarization (Part 3)

In my last post I discussed the Tolstoy’s concern for reality and how he paradoxically uses anti-realist techniques, specifically defamiliarization. I promised to ponder how this relates to Toltoy’s complicated, and tragic, relationship to organized religion. So I’d like to jump ahead a few decade to the end of the Count’s life. Aaron of Logismoi gives a good overview of his eventual excommunication so I won’t get into it in detail, except insofar as it relates to literature.

One thing I’ll note is that, at least superficially, the excommunication was occasioned by the publication of his novel Ressurection. He had criticized the Orthodox Faith significantly before 1901, and it was surprising to me to find that the Church took so long excommunicate him, but it is at least interesting that it was in fact occasioned by the publication of a novel.

Count Tolstoy didn’t think much of the Church. As Metropolitan Anthony put it, according to Tolstoy, Orthodoxy "substitutes the moral teaching of the Gospel with idle ritualism." [1] But was the "attack on the Church in Resurrection led to Tolstoy’s formal excommunication." [2]

And with what tactics does launch his attach on the Church? Put simply, defamiliarization, our subject. Victor Shklovsky, in "Art as Technique," writes:
“Tolstoy described the dogmas and rituals he attacked as if they were unfamiliar, substituting everyday meanings for the customarily religious meanings of the words common in church ritual. Many persons were painfully wounded; they considered it blasphemy to present as strange and monstrous what they accepted as sacred. Their reaction was due chiefly to the technique through which Tolstoy perceived and reported his environment. And after turning to what he had long avoided, Tolstoy found that his perceptions had unsettled his faith." [3]

Rosemary Edmonds writes,
"In every description he gives of church services, ritual, traditions, texts, he disfigures and caricatures with such obvious tendentiousness and vehemence that art goes by the board… Everything that, as a rationalist, he could not accept, everything in which he could not BELIEVE, Tolstoy rejected with the intransigence of a man who knows himself to be right." [4]

The defamiliarized Church service takes place in Chapter 39 of Resurrection. Chapter 40 is a sort of commentary on Chapter 39 (using absolute, monophonic language, another technique of Tolstoy’s that we know from War and Peace). These chapters were, of course, censored for the original publication. I have to admit they are difficult to take. I am sorry to report that he not only attacked the Church’s Liturgy, but mocked even the Gospel According to St. Mark. [5] Both offensive and artless, a good editor would have cut the chapters before it even got to a government censor.

Now, of course, this is at a whole different level than the mention of 'clerical person' in War and Peace. But the difference is a difference of degree, not of kind.

To be continued...

[1] The Moral Idea of the Main Dogmas of the Faith.(Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, Synaxis Press). Page 102.
[2] Rosemary Edmond’s introduction to her translation of Resurrection published by Penguin Classics. Page 15.
[3] Shklovsky. Page 8.
[4] (Edmond, Penguin) Page 14.
[5] Apparently he didn’t realize that the passage he referenced would never be read during the Liturgy. See the note in Edmond/Penguin, page 181. I guess it had been a while since the Count actually paid attention to the Liturgy, or bothered to flip through a service book.

26 May 2010

Pierre Bezukhov, “Clerical Persons”, and Defamiliarization (Part 2)

(In my last post, I introduced the strange--strange, to me anyway--use of the phrase "clerical persons" in the Unction scene in Volume 1, Book 1 of War and Peace. I claimed that this was particularly Tostoyan, an example of both repetition and defamiliariation, and promised to explain about defamiliariation. In the comments section of that post, by the way, Aaron helped me out with the Russian, and although we don’t know for sure that it would sound odd to the Russian ear, we do know that the phrase was repeated.)

One of the themes of War and Peace is the difference between appearance and reality.[1] He is often very cynical about the "conventional wisdom" and social conventions. Most famously, this is shown in the war sections where we see the difference between the military strategists ideas about what should happen and the what actually happens in the battle.

This perspective is everywhere in the novel[2], and Tolstoy seems to particularly enjoy making fun of polite "Society." He writes about the viscount at Anna Pavlovna’s soirée:
"Anna Pavlovna was obviously treating her guests to him. As a good maître d’hôtel presents, as something supernaturally excellent, a piece of beef one would not want to eat if one saw it in the dirty kitchen, so that evening Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests first the viscount, then the abbé, as something supernaturally refined." [3]

It is often the character of Pierre who disrupts the appearance, partly because of his natural genuineness and simplicity, partly because he is big and clumsy ("Educate this bear for me" requests Prince Vasily to Anna Pavlovna later at the soiree [4]), partly because he was educated abroad outside of Russian High Society. An illegitimate son of a wealthy nobleman, he doesn’t quite fit into polite society, so he is in a unique position to see it with fresh eyes.[5] Of course, Anna Pavlovna is not unaware of Pierre’s disruptive qualities. "But amidst all these cares there could still be seen in her a special fear for Pierre."[6] Tolstoy explains:
"For Pierre, brought up abroad, this soiree of Anna Pavlovna’s was the first he had seen of Russia. He knew that all the intelligentsia of Petersburg was gathered there, and, like a child in a toy shop, he looked everywhere at once. He kept fearing to miss intelligent conversations that he might have listened to." [7]

He had eyes to see, and what Tolstoy often does is show us what is going on as if from Pierre’s clumsy, simple, foreign perspective. But he doesn't narrate it simply from Pierre’s perspective. Instead, he uses the literary technique now known as defamiliarization.

So, what is defamiliarization? I looked it up in The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory by J. A. Cuddon. Cuddon explains that it is
"A concept and term introduced by Viktor Shlovsky (1983[sic]-?), an important member of the Russian School of Formalism. It is a translation of the Russian ostranenie 'making strange'. To 'defamiliarize' is to make fresh, new, strange, different what is familiar and know. Through defamiliarization the writer modifies the reader’s habitual perceptions by drawing attention to the artifice of the text. This is a matter of literary technique. What the reader notices is not the picture of reality that is being presented but the peculiarities of the writing itself." [8]

Cuddon continues: "The classic example analysed by Shklovsky is Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760-67). Russian Formalists tend to be interested in text which are 'anti-realist'; hence they privilege Tristram Shandy or modernist works."[9]

Stern should sound familiar because Princess Marya quotes from him when talking to her brother near the end of the first book.[10] Richard Pevear comments in the notes:
"The English writer Lawrence Sterne (1713-68) had a marked influence on the young Tolstoy, particularly with his Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy(1768), which stands behind Tolstoy’s first piece of fiction, 'A History of Yesterday' (1851), and part of which Tolstoy translated. Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760-67) has been seen as a formal precursor of War and Peace." [11]

(All this is to say that it is probably to a mistake to consider War and Peace an example of realism.)

Anyway, I was able to find a translation of Shklovsky’s essay "Art as Technique" for free on the internet (it's a PDF). Shklovsky writes, "Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object... Tolstoy uses this technique of 'defamiliarization' constantly."[12] (That was my ellipsis). Shklovsky gives lots of interesting examples from all over Tolstoy’s works (a flogging, a story told from the point of view of a horse, a comical description of a theatrical production, etc.), including War and Peace, and concludes "Anyone who knows Tolstoy can find several hundred such passages in his work."[13]

Re-reading the Unction scene in book 1 of volume 1, I noticed that one of these hundreds of examples might be the 'clerical persons' language used in connection with the religious services taking place at Count Bezukov’s deathbed. The fact that Pierre is present adds weight to this, I think. Also significant is the fact that the drama of the scene comes from the juxtaposition of the solemn, lofty, religious rites and the sordid battle over the old man's inheritance.

If I am right, and Tolstoy is rephrasing for the purposes of making the familiar, in this case the Unction service, seem unfamiliar, and that this technique is related to the overall theme of contrast between appearance and reality, then what is the significance of the technique being applied to a church service? Is this explicitly a criticism of the Church, or perhaps of religion in general? Or is it an innocuous literary trope? That is what I’m going to ponder in my next post.[14]

Either way, I invite readers to keep watch for this technique as they read War and Peace.

[1] I have read more Tolstoy in my life than most other writers. Still, I am not exactly by nature a critical reader; thus much of what I’m writing I probably borrowed or stole from others. My understanding of Tolstoy comes mostly from Professor Irving Weil, whose excellent lectures on Russian Literature for the Teaching Company I’ve listened through at least 4 times, Gary Saul Morison (in his book Hidden in Plain View), Karl Stern (the Roman Catholic Psychiatrist, particularly in his book The Flight from Woman), and to some extent Stanton’s book about the Optina Elders and Professor Liza Knapp, whose lectures on Russian Literature are interesting by no means as brilliant or extensive as Professor Weil’s.

[2] This might be a clue about the very oddness of War & Peace: the strange language (like the repetitions I mentioned before), the random inclusion of essays about Philosophy of History, the long un-translated bits of French. In some ways, the narrator is a kind of Pierre, a bear that refuses to be educated. Tolstoy almost seems anxious that the reader will take War & Peace as merely another piece of fiction. Perhaps?

[3] War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky, Knopf). Page 11.

[4] War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky, Knopf). Page 15.

[5] In this way, he might be compared to a Holy Fool, though I hesitate to push this analogy too far. I plan to write about this soon, so stay tuned.

[6] War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky, Knopf). Page 10.

[7] Ibid.

[8] (Cuddon, Penguin). Page 214.

[9] Ibid.

[10] War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky, Knopf). Page 106.

[11] War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky, Knopf). Page 1228.

[12] Apparently from Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (David Lodge, ed, Longmans). Pages 16-30. Here's the link: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~cultagen/academic/shklovsky1.pdf

[13] Ibid.

[14] I still need to think about it some more, so it may be a few days.

Pierre Bezukhov, “Clerical Persons”, and Defamiliarization (Part 1)

(Note: I’m only half way through volume 1 of War and Peace, partly because I haven’t had much time for reading lately and partly because I’m also looking through a couple of other book simultaneously. In the first book of Volume 1, there are three really compelling scenes that stand out, at least to me: Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soiree, the Rostov dance party, and the original Count Bezukhov’s deathbed drama. To start off my blogging, I’m going to try to write three posts about a tiny aspect of the Count Bezukhov section, particularly how the sacrament of unction is described by Tolstoy.)

As I wrote before, the first two times I read War and Peace, it was with the Ann Dunnigan translation, and since I am unable to read the Russian original, I was looking forward to a fresh perspective in this new translation.

One thing that struck me was the way Tolstoy writes about priests in the scene where Pierre’s father deathbed unction service [1] in chapter 20. The service is described as follows (by the way, in all my quoting the emphasis will be my own):
"He lay directly under the icons; his two large, fat arms were freed of the coverlet and lay on top of it. In his right hand, which lay palm down, a wax candle had been placed between the thumb and the index finger, held in place by an old servant who reached from behind the armchair. Over the armchair stood the clerical persons in their majestic, shining vestments, their long hair spread loose on them, lighted candles in their hands, performing the service with slow solemnity." [2]

After the service, Tolstoy writes, "The sound of the church singing ceased, and the voice of the clerical person was heard deferentially congratulating the sick man with having received the sacrament." [3]

This use of "clerical persons" rather the "priests" or "clergy" was a bit jarring to me. It also struck me as particularly Tolstoyan. I didn’t remember this from the last time I read it, so I dug up my Dunnigan copy. Here is how she translated the last sentence of that first passage:
"The clergymen, their long hair falling over their gorgeous, shimmering vestments, stood around the armchair with lighted tapers in their hands, slowly and solemnly celebrating the service." [4]

And the second passage is translated: "The chanting ceased, and the voice of a priest was heard congratulating the sick man on having received the sacrament." [5]

A couple of thoughts about this right away. First, I think Dunnigan’s sentences are superb. For literary quality, you could do much worse. Second, I think that the literary quality is the reason she changed “clerical persons” to “clergyman” and “priests.” Those sentences just sound off, and it was easy to edit his clumsy prose. There are at least two things about this usage that seem very Tolstoyan to me. The use of repetition as a literary device, and the use of the literary technique called defamiliarization. Whereas a more conventional writer would vary the vocabulary, such as Dunnigan did with "priests" here and "clergymen" there, Tolstoy intentionally used the same rather odd phrase over and over.[6] At the very least this has the affect of magnifying the oddness of the phrase.[7]

In my next post I will try to analyze this phrase as a case of defamiliarization, and how I think defamiliarization tends to work in War and Peace. In the post after that, I will try to figure out if behind the technique there lurks Tolstoy’s famous anti-clericalism.

[1] It is interesting that several characters call it "Extreme Unction." It partly makes sense because they are speaking in French. Still, you don’t usually hear it phrased that way among Orthodox Christians these days.
[2] War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky, Knopf). Page 80. I apologize for these sloppy citations.
[3] War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky, Knopf). Page 81. There were a couple other mentions of ‘clerical persons’ in this section of the book, but I forgot to note their locations.
[4] War and Peace (Ann Dunnigan, Signet Classic). Page 116.
[5] War and Peace (Ann Dunnigan, Signet Classic). Page 117.
[6] See the introduction to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (page xv) for more information about repetition. He notes that both Dunnigan and Maude typically gloss over the repetitions. I did look up a free translation of W&P online which I think is Maude and the translator actually did repeat “priest” consistently.
[7] For more about the oddness of Tolstoy’s prose, though I don't recall if he touches on repetition, see Gary Saul Morson’s Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in 'War and Peace'. I read the first half of it a while ago and need to finish it. It's one of the best literary theory books I've picked up.

04 May 2010

Re-reading war and peace

1. So, there's going to be a bunch of (mainly Orthodox?) bloggers reading and writing about War and Peace( this will include my two favorite blogs Ora et Labora and Logismoi, whose insights are sure to be much more engaging, I suspect, and frequent and grammatically correct, than my own). Since I don’t write a post more than once every couple of months, I certainly don’t count as a blogger, but I’m going to take this opportunity to re-read it in the relatively new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.

2. I’ve actually written about this novel (if that is, indeed, the book's genre) before on the internet. First, back in my misspent youth, before I had a mortgage or a family, I bought up all the Signet Classic edition War & Peace paperbacks from the local bookstores, and gave them away for free on my (now defunct) blog ‘M. L. Reed.’ I believe I gave away 5 or 6 at least. I’m not sure if any of them actually read it. It was fun though, and the upshot was that I got to write the following limerick in the comments section:
Zero dollars is cheaper than retail,
for a book, if you send your address by email
(Fourteen Hundred Fifty Five Pages
Subsidized by my wages)
And save your money for whiskey and pale ale.

I even considered starting a society called ‘The Count Bezukhov Society’, whose purpose was to “put War and Peace in every hotel in North America.” Never panned out.

3. I re-read War & Peace again (again with the Signet Classic version, translated by Ann Dunnigan) back in 2007. It took me 4 months or so, but I wrote about it on my (now defunct) blog '(Write it!) Like Disaster'here and here. I know it was not very original, but I think the stuff I wrote about the Iliad connection is worth thinking about:
I was reminded again of the similarities between Tolstoy's writing style, especially in the first book, with Homer's (especially the Iliad and I believe someone famous compared the two books before me so this is nothing new, I guess), in his use of long and complex similes which one rarely sees in fiction these days and his use of epithets in describing the character...

4. We’re supposed to start reading the book tomorrow, so I’ll post some of my initial expectations, hopefully, soon.