Thursday, June 28, 2012

Making Strange

"As the musicians started to play the bass horn and counter-bass, a large number of people in black mantles poured onto the stage from right and left. The people, with something like daggers in their hands, started to wave their arms. Then still more people came running out and began to drag away a maiden who had been wearing a white dress but who now wore one of sky blue. They did not drag her off immediately, but sang with her for a long time before dragging her away. Three times they struck on something metallic behind the scenes, and everyone got down on his knees and began to chant a prayer. Several times all of this activity was interrupted by enthusiastic shouts from the spectators."

This passage from Tolstoy's War and Peace is an example of what the Russian Formalists (a literary movement that flourished at the time of the Russian Revolution) called defamiliarization or "making strange," the artistic technique of taking a familiar object or situation and presenting it in a strange way so as to produce the strongest possible impression (the sense that one is experiencing something for the first time).

Tolstoy's description of what happens in the second act of an opera as if he's never seen one before (or Tyutchev's comparing summer lightning to deaf and dumb demons or Gogol's postulating a man who's lost his nose and has to track it down as it parades through the streets of St. Petersburg) are all ways of "making strange."  The purpose is to free art (and life) from what one of the leading figures of the movement, Victor Shklovsky, called the "automatism of perception," the tendency to overlook familiar things. 
"After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it -- hence, we cannot say anything significant about it."
In his article "Art and Device," Shklovsky offers an excerpt from Tolstoy's diary to illustrate:
"I was cleaning a room and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn't remember whether or not I had dusted it.  Since these movements are habitual and unconscious, I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember -- so that if I had dusted it and forgot -- that is, had acted unconsciously -- then it was the same as if I had not. If no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex of lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been."
The purpose of art, then, is to make us feel alive -- or, as Shklovsky puts it, "to make the stone stony."  The way to achieve this is through certain artistic "devices" that when employed impede perception through their strangeness so that the object can be experienced in all its wonder (deaf and dumb demons) before the everyday word that we assign to it (lightning) is recognized. 

One device is to avoid the familiar word.  In the passage from War and Peace, the word "opera" is not mentioned once.  Nor is "actor" or "singer."  Instead, Tolstoy refers to "a maiden" and "the people." Another device is to use bold imagery and metaphor (Gogol compared the sky to the garment of God) or foreign words (Tolstoy wrote whole passages of War and Peace in French) or words out of context (in one story, a commentary about the institution of private property, Tolstoy tells the entire story from the horse's point of view).

The theater of Bertolt Brecht in which the audience was kept from losing itself passively in the characters so that it could reflect consciously on what was happening was grounded in the Russian Formalist notion of defamiliarization, but "making strange" was then certainly nothing new.  Long before, Aristotle himself had written in his Poetics that "impressive diction, one that escapes the ordinary, results from the use of strange words."  The other arts as well, such as medicine, have long employed the technique.  The shaman among certain Inuit tribes use circumlocution when conversing with the spirits, employing certain substitutes for ordinary words, such as "the one with the drum" for "shaman" or "that with tusks" for "walrus."  I speculate that the purpose here of "making strange" is to take the extraordinary proceedings of healing someone's soul out from the "ordinary" world into the realm where spirits reside.  We even see the device of "making strange" in children's fairy tales, where the hard task of turning away from familiar things and embarking on the marvelous journey is rewarded by the discovery of the self.

What then is in front of you, that familiar thing, which you constantly overlook that would come to life if only you knew how to make it strange?


Linda said...

I absolutely love this. you're describing mindful awareness and other "spiritual" practices. Making unique art really is a way of SEEING.

Love the Tolstoy opera quote because i thought it was describing some fascinating, ancient hellenic ritual. if I knew it was about opera I would've been snoozing before reaching the end of the paragraph.

and THIS describes my life, working at home:
"I was cleaning a room and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn't remember whether or not I had dusted it."


Cynthia Wylie said...

Diana. You have reached a new height of not just great observation and writing but a well-researched, cutting edge informative piece. I want to say it could be the beginnings of a textbook but it's too interesting for that LOL.

I can honestly say that I struggle daily to be mindful and observant of my day-to-day activities and what is around me. I read though that if we were focused on everything around us we'd be overwhelmed because the human mind cannot take it all in. So we employ something called adaptive unconscious. Maybe that's just an excuse.

I do achieve extreme presence when I am painting. Otherwise, it would be nice if I could notice my hands more.