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.


Janet said...

Since Pierre was reared abroad, the Russian Orthodox church services would of course be unfamiliar to him. Perhaps this, rather than anti-clericalism, motivates the "Verfremdungseffekt".

Matthew said...

Sorry, Janet, for taking so long to respond. It's been a busy couple weeks and I haven't been checking my blog (I have a bunch more written on this subject but I need to edit it before I post).

I think you are right about Pierre being reared abroad. But this still raises the question: why did Tolstoy have Pierre raised abroad?