Friday, February 15, 2013

Michael5000 Rediscovers Ostranenie

I dropped the ball a bit on this blog's longest-running serial feature, The Reading List, in the second half of 2012.  The last book completed was Possession, all the way back last July, and I find that I hadn't updated the progress chart for, um, more than a year.  Yet there is life beneath winter snows, as they say in places where there is snow, and I am well on my way into Tolstoy's War and Peace.  It is interesting that, with 475 pages left to go, I feel as though I starting into the gallop to the finish, but then that's War and Peace for you.  It is rather long.

On page 678, I discovered a nifty piece of ostranenie!  Ostranenie is a fine bookish word that I know from my favorite book about books, David Lodge's The Art of Fiction.  Also known in English as "defamiliarization," it is usually defined along the lines of "to render common things in an unfamiliar or strange way," although I think that a better definition would be "to write about things that are typically written about within a set of conventions, in a way that counters or undermines those conventions."

But Lodge's example serves the point better.  It's from Charlotte Bronte's Villette, and describes the reaction of the book's protagonist, Lucy, to a classical painting in a museum.
It represented a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher's meat - to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids - must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material - seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery - she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans - perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets - were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch and cumbered the floor. On referring to the catalogue, I found that this notable production bore the name 'Cleopatra.'
Lucy, unlike the readers of this blog, was not all up in the fine arts scene, and her evaluation of what she sees in the museum underscores that she is out of her cultural milieu while making it clear that she is not therefore by any means unintelligent.  At the same time, by stripping "Cleopatra" of its usual conceptual frame, Bronte pulls off a very sassy satire of classical painting.  Lodge points out that by saving the title for last, Bronte "implies the arbitrariness and spuriousness of the historical/mythological justification claimed by the painting, which just as well could have been called 'Dido' or 'Delilah' or (more honestly) 'Odalisque.'"

So. Ostranenie.

This brings us to page 678 of War and Peace, where I found this passage:
The floor of the stage consisted of smooth boards, at the sides was some painted cardboard representing trees, and at the back was a cloth stretched over boards. In the center of the stage sat some girls in red bodices and white skirts. One very fat girl in a white silk dress sat apart on a low bench, to the back of which a piece of green cardboard was glued. They all sang something. When they had finished their song the girl in white went up to the prompter's box and a man with tight silk trousers over his stout legs, and holding a plume and a dagger, went up to her and began singing, waving his arms about.
First the man in the tight trousers sang alone, then she sang, then they both paused while the orchestra played and the man fingered the hand of the girl in white, obviously awaiting the beat to start singing with her. They sang together and everyone in the theater began clapping and shouting, while the man and woman on the stage- who represented lovers- began smiling, spreading out their arms, and bowing.
After her life in the country, and in her present serious mood, all this seemed grotesque and amazing to Natasha. She could not follow the opera nor even listen to the music; she saw only the painted cardboard and the queerly dressed men and women who moved, spoke, and sang so strangely in that brilliant light. She knew what it was all meant to represent, but it was so pretentiously false and unnatural that she first felt ashamed for the actors and then amused at them. She looked at the faces of the audience, seeking in them the same sense of ridicule and perplexity she herself experienced, but they all seemed attentive to what was happening on the stage, and expressed delight which to Natasha seemed feigned. "I suppose it has to be like this!"
This is a fun passage, and if making fun of the artificiality of opera seems a bit like shooting fish in a barrel in 2013, it was probably a little more daring when Count Tolstoy was writing.  But Tolstoy, like Bronte, is a fairly sharp character, and wasn't just mocking opera for the hell of it.  He's got a character, Natasha, who is going to make some very foolish choices in the next few chapters because she is extremely naive in her reading of people and their intentions.  Her inability to interpret the opera in the conventional way, by accepting that the actors are presenting a stylized story, prefigures her inability to penetrate the false promises of a dastardly young rake a few pages later.

Well, you can imagine how excited I was to find my very own instance of ostranenie!  Unfortunately, when I rushed back to Lodge's article, I was disappointed to find that Victor Shlovsky, who came up with the concept in the first place, used this very passage from War and Peace as one of his key examples.  Curses! That Shlovsky is always beating me to the punch.

I challenge you -- yes, YOU, dear reader, who actually read to the bottom of this long texty post -- to seek out and bring back additional instances of ostranenie!


Nichim said...

Will do! I will go looking for it like the protagonist of this song by The Flatlanders:

Tonight I think I'm gonna go downtown
Tonight I think I'm gonna look around
For something I couldn't see
When this world was more real to me
Tonight I think I'm gonna go downtown.

Jennifer said...

See, this is funny to me because I always think of very small examples of ostranenie--I am more of a detail-oriented person than a big-picture one, so I notice it with a single moment like "when virtue's steely bones / Look bleak i' the cold wind" (Measure for Measure 1.1.106-07) more than in paragraphs or as a function of the overall work: describing virtue not only as a skeleton but as one made out of steel, one that, to other people, has the emotional attraction of a wire-frame monkey, makes me look at it differently. And, perhaps simply because I am the way I am, it takes my breath away every time I read this passage.

But defamiliarizing larger cultural phenomena, on the other hand, loses its impact very quickly for me after the first time. (One encounters it so frequently these days.) The notion that tv shows or movie genres, e.g., like painting or ballet, follow sets of conventions that do not generally correspond to reality and that become ludicrous in isolation doesn't carry the same weight to me (by virtue of how often I've encountered it) as the examples you cite (and I'm awfully fond of the example from Villette). If you want an example of it that works at a larger scale, I'd suggest Infinite Jest--or, even better, perhaps, If on a winter's night a traveller.

(I'm not trying to say that I don't like the passage you mention from War and Peace or the way you discuss it, of course--I haven't read the book, but you make a good case for why it's effective there. I think I got started thinking along these lines because when I read your post, my first reaction was, "What's wrong with me? I can't come up with any examples like yours!")

P.S. Sorry if there are errors or anything here--my browser doesn't seem to like it when I write more than a tweet's worth of comment, so it's hard to edit.

Michael5000 said...

Putting both of these fine comments together, I came out with a favorite line from the old Tom Waits song "Burma Shave," where the small-town girl gets into the drifter's car:

"And with her knees up on the glove compartment
She took out her barrettes and her hair spilled out like root beer
And she popped her gum and arched her back..."

And how I've always loved the hair spilling out like root beer, which does double duty both as a surprising and lovely piece of metaphoric description, but also a cultural marker -- the small-town girl thinks she's whisky-and-soda, yearns to be whisky-and-soda, but underneath, she's still a root beer little small town girl.

mrs.5000 said...

My husband is always discovering and rediscovering things, and making bold challenges that require time-consuming detours or at least add a certain level of anxiety to the journey, like when I am going to the store for milk, tortillas, and cat food, and he says, "bring me back a surprise." This morning the big orange headline was that he had rediscovered that word again. Ostranenie. And my first thought might have been that he had been in the kitchen cooking up elements, and had produced a minute quantity of some highly unstable silvery metal that would be gone again before you could blink an eye, and so had done something very rare, like you would expect from scientists at Berkeley or Scandinavia, only that would be Ostranenium, and as far as I know it doesn't ever exist. Let alone in our kitchen. Except he had been using it the other day again--the word, that is, so I was less off-guard--when he was reading that fat book he claims was considered by its author to be something other than a novel, although you wouldn't call it nonfiction, and God knows it is not in verse. Before I married him, I had never heard of ostranenie, or if I had I had been allowed to forget about it peacefully, despite my generally good education. Since then, I have learned that it will come up every once in awhile, and I remember it as that literary term that has stayed in Russian because we don't have a word for it that is quite right, and so it is a lot like Weltschmerz, which is another one of those words, except in German, which I also always forget the meaning of, let alone know how to spell, which makes me despair. I think I have heard ostranenie more times than I have seen it. I think of it as that Russian word I hear in my husband's voice, and it is somewhere between ostracize and dasvidaniya, and there is a "y" sound in it somewhere that makes it uncertain and tentative to say, and when I hear it I will have to decide if I will ask again what exactly it means again, thus betraying a certain thickheadedness, and if so when.

gl. said...

nice! and the comments are stellar (kudos especially to mrs5k). i don't have any examples of my own yet, but i will keep an eye out!