CONTEXT, Shklovsky, an Interlude

This post begins in 1999, in Raleigh, North Carolina. At Quail Ridge Books, where I had recently started working after quitting a job at Borders in nearby Cary because it was “too corporate” and cramping my mid-twenties style.

I was already obsessed with Dalkey Archive thanks to a few amazing readers at the previous bookstore I worked at (shout out to Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and to Curt Witteveen, Tom Benaway, and Rich Gabe for being as instructive in terms of great literature as any professor I studied with in college), but the brand new Dalkey venture, CONTEXT magazine, was about to change so much of my life.

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CONTEXT launched in 1999 primarily through the support of the Lila Wallace-Reader’s’Digest Fund. John’s stories about this set of grants—and the Mellon ones for nonprofit publishing a few years earlier—are legendary, and definitely need to be recorded and related for posterity’s sake. (And in a format much more lasting and impactful than this newsletter.)

The main goal of the Lila Wallace grants—which were of a limited duration, but allowed participating presses to count on funding for each of the future years, something that isn’t true about the National Endowment for the Arts or any state funders, or most private foundations for that matter—was to enhance the marketing efforts of these nonprofit presses.

John decided that the best way to market Dalkey books—and the tradition Dalkey books came out of—was by creating a free tabloid on literature and the arts. A TLS of sorts, with the same sort of rebel spirit and occasional fun and games. (For example, all the “Anne Burke” articles in CONTEXT were actually written by John, and, to his detriment, he frequently used the pages of CONTEXT to run ads against foundations or entities that had pissed him off. Not very copacetic by 2021 standards, but to be honest, in the world before Twitter this was some fun, effective trolling.)

I have to defer to Martin Riker (the first managing editor) and Angela Weaser (marketing director at that time) for the true history of how CONTEXT came to be, and what all of John’s initial aspirations for the publication were. As I mentioned above, this launched before I ever met John in person, while I was a lowly bookseller, trying to convince middle-aged Carolina women that Cigarettes by Harry Mathews wasn’t obscene. (Not kidding that all of my staff picks had to be labeled: “Not for Everyone.” But, honestly, what is? Not Dr. Seuss. Not the Bible. And definitely not Pierre Klossowski.)

Here's what CONTEXT was for its twenty-five issue life (so far):

Free. John didn’t think anyone would pay for a magazine like this that was explicitly catering to a “fringe” readership. (That shouldn’t be “fringe,” but I can’t come up with a better word right now that doesn’t sound elitist.)

Distributed through interested booksellers and academics. One of reasons Dalkey Archive didn’t use commission sales reps for decades were John’s beliefs that a) there were only ~150 bookstores in the country interested in promoting these books, so why pay someone to try and reach the ones who are never going to get it?, and b) that all sales calls can be marketing calls, if the person talking to the interested booksellers and buyers actually knows the books and how to pitch them. CONTEXT was somewhat of an extension of these ideas: send boxes of 50-100 copies to booksellers who were supportive and willing to display them in their stores and hand them out to the cool kids. (And by cool kids, at that time, we really did think of these “alternative” readers as being cool, which is why Dalkey’s main advertising slogan was “Read Different” and we all used Macs.)

But in addition to booksellers who could reach that handful of aesthetically woke readers in their community, the tabloid was also geared toward curious college students who hadn’t been trapped into the Fiction of the Mundane by the corporate world at large. Students seeking something weirder, more disruptive than, say, I don’t know, Nicholas Sparks. Or Isabel Allende. Remember, this was at the advent of the Internet. Amazon was new and losing money for what seemed like an eternity, and instead of being able to access information about all books ever with a Google search, we relied on Northern Lights, AltaVista, and a set of Book in Print CD-ROMs.

We were never sure that the college professors on our list were actually distributing the copies of the magazine though. John was particularly prejudiced against “lazy academics” who “won’t do anything unless you give them a coupon for a free Big Mac.” (See where I get it from?) He would joke that they probably threw them all in the trash. The evidence? All the ads for fellowships and internships for recent college graduates received only a select number of applications. If the magazine was being widely distributed in the right colleges, “our people” would be emailing about these opportunities. So the right people weren’t getting the magazine, QED.

CONTEXT would be an eclectic mix of pieces, always smart, never dull. The main part of the tabloid would be the “Readings.” Pieces of around 2,000 words providing readers with entryways to approaching particular authors/books. “Reading Manuel Puig.” “Reading Carole Maso.” “Reading Jacques Roubaud.” “Reading B. S. Johnson.” “Reading Georges Perec.” “Reading Jaimy Gordon.” “Reading Ann Quin’s Berg.” “Reading Kathy Acker.” It was a literal goldmine of knowledge about some of the most interesting writers of the past hundred plus years.

In addition though, there were excerpts from books—both published by Dalkey and in public domain, like Gargantua and Pantagruel—book reviews culled from the Review of Contemporary Fiction, “letters” from around the world about what’s going on in their literary scenes (see this one from Russia, or this one from Peru, or this one from Finland, or this one from Croatia), strident pieces from John about publishing and funding and the impact of the marketplace on art, and interviews with various authors (issue 15 included interviews with Dubravka Ugresic by Jessa Crispin and Ariel Dorfman by Sophia A. McClennen, for example).

The main vibe (or mood?) was that these pieces should be accessible to any and all smart readers. (No footnotes!) You didn’t need a PhD to understand how to read Ann Quin. This wasn’t esoteric knowledge. These pieces were meant to turn you on as a reader.

It was promotional, yet classy. Sure, there were far more Dalkey and New Directions authors included in here than others, but, well, when you’re the best . . . ? There were three main types of ads included in CONTEXT: ads for indie bookstores, ads for Dalkey books, and ads for Dalkey adjacent programs (think: Bookworm).

The main goal was to create better readers for this sort of literature. When a novel isn’t entirely reflective of the current moment—in terms of sales trends, politics, mainstream-approved aesthetic approaches—it tends to be dismissed. This happens in cycles; just look at the rise and “fall” of Infinite Jest—a work of genius that’s now cited as a “red flag” for people seeking love and connection on Tinder. Contemporizing art in that way is valid, but it’s not absolute. And it’s frequently (if not always) reductive. Art, literature, great books, are complex things. They can be difficult to approach at particular junctures in time and/or space. To outright reject them without engaging is equally as bad as proclaiming every scrap of paper from Famous Author X to be “pure unadulterated genius.” (Or, say, Kazuo Ishiguro. Nobel Prizes don’t make you an infallible writer. See: The Buried Giant.)

The point of these “Readings” was to open up possibilities to exploring a given author, ways in which to find your footing, chances to grapple with unusual ideas or syntax or structure. This is what criticism should be. Not coming up with silly witticisms to cut down sacred cows so that you can produce a “book of quotations”; not publishing “essays” that are actually listicles in disguise; not producing listicles at all, since that’s the lowest form of engagement possible. (That said, Dalkey would poll all its bookseller and academic advisors to creating “Reading Lists” like “Best Spanish Books of the Twentieth Century.” We would compile the results and then tweak it to reflect our vision. This is LitHub before LitHub.)

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Two advertisements in CONTEXT:

1)     100 Dalkey Titles for $5 a Piece!

2)     Fellowships Available! Spend a Year Learning about Nonprofit Publishing!

I never did the former, but the latter was the ad that changed my life.

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Sarah Goddin, the buyer for Quail Ridge Books, gave me the first copy of CONTEXT. She told me in brief what it was about—something from Dalkey Archive about those sorts of books you like—and let me be the bookstore advisor for our store.

Included in that issue was an excerpt from Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose about the “Novel as Parody,” referring to Tristram Shandy, one of the greatest books ever written. Just before moving to North Carolina to pursue a career in . . . , I had read both Sterne’s mega-masterpiece of pre-postmodern glory and Mason & Dixon.

When you’re young, you have the advantage of feeling like everything is created to speak to you. And CONTEXT was a beacon. Here were my people. Talking to each other. Writing about reading the authors I had—or more frequently, should and then did—read. More than anything else—my love of the Oulipo, my email conversation with John about Cortazar’s Around the Day in Eighty Worlds—which 100% needs to be in print—CONTEXT brought me to Dalkey Archive.

And Shklovsky changed the way I read books.

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Shklovsky is one of those names—like Bolaño, like Queneau—that I assume everyone already knows. But he was never Elon; he was a Russian theorist and filmmaker obsessed with structures and patterns and how art was constructed.

When I first got to Dalkey as a twenty-five-year-old bookseller with a reading obsession and a chip on my shoulder the size of Detroit, I didn’t know anything about Viktor Shklovsky. But Marty and John made sure that didn’t stay the course for very long.

While I was there, we reissued both Third Factory and Zoo, or Letters Not About Love(a book that I internalized to a point that influences my texts to this day) and worked with a grad student named Shushan Avagyan, who, working into her third (?) language, ended up translating a number of Shklovsky’s books for Dalkey Archive.

The story of Dalkey interns and fellows who lead amazing careers outside of Dalkey—there are too many to name, I’m afraid I’ll forget someone and they’ll be pissed, but TRUST ME—is a story that also deserves to be told. That was always my goal for the University of Rochester: to help students find their path. And it’s my editing M.O. as well: give the translator the space to do the most rewarding, creative work. It’s not possible with all people at all times, but it’s worth striving for.

Shushan Avagyan retranslated Theory of Prose.

The only existent translation is by Benjamin Sher, and was done in 1990. As a translator who chose all the words, he coined the term entrangement. Not “es-strangement,” but “en-strangement.” I believe this was an accidental typo (someone knows the story, I’m sure), but ostranenie is “estrangement” in the new translation. Point being, it’s the idea that you can put a word in a new context that makes it weird, that makes the reader reconceptualize what that word means.

And so in order to restore the sensation of life, in order to feel things—to make the stone stony—we have something called art. The purpose of art is to convey the sensation of an object as something visible, not as something recognizable. The devices of art—ostranenie, or the “estrangement” of objects, and the impeded form—magnify the difficulty and duration of perception, because the process of perception in art is an end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a means of experiencing the making of an object; the finished object is not important in art.

Reading in 2021 should be all about reading Viktor Shklovsky.

Shushan Avagyan retranslated Theory of Prose and I proofed it this summer and realized that everything John and Marty taught me about how to read, how to approach texts, was included in this book. And this translation? It’s spectacular.

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Initially, this episode was going to be entitled, simply “[Interlude],” because it’s a bit of a transition between Louis Paul Boon and the next two pieces that I have planned out. But it’s not just that. An interlude is something you can ignore, but CONTEXT and Shklovsky are parts of my reading, publishing, editing, pattern-obsessed life.

Shushan Avagyan retranslated Theory of Prose, and here’s the opening section of it. Her version is On the Theory of Prose, and here’s the cover:

It’s coming out soon. Probably November. Pre-order it via Bookshop.org or the very-soon-to-be-relauched Dalkey Archive website. Read it and think about how we talk about literature today, in 2021. Read it and be impressed by the translation and the ideas. Read it and nostalgia up an era when readers found a home in a free tabloid that helped them articulate their way of envisioning words, books, literature, life.

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Excerpt from “Art As Device” by Viktor Shklovsky

“Art is thinking in images.” This phrase, which you can hear even from a grammar school student, nevertheless appears to be a starting point for the philologist who is beginning to formulate something in literary theory. The notion has entered the consciousness of many, and according to Potebnya, who ought to be seen as one of its originators, “There is no art, and especially no poetry, without images.” Also: “Poetry, like prose, is first and foremost a mode of thought and cognition.”

Poetry is a special mode of thought—to be exact, a mode of thought through images. This mode entails a certain economy of mental effort, “a sensation of a relative ease of the process,” and this economy reflexively evokes an aesthetic feeling. Apparently, this is how the academician Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky, who undoubtedly read the books of Potebnya, understood and summarized the ideas of his teacher. Potebnya and his numerous followers consider poetry to be a special kind of thought—thought with the help of imagery—and the task of imagery, according to them, is to help organize different objects and actions into groups in order to explain the unknown by means of the known. Or, in Potebnya’s words: “The relationship of the image to what is being explained is that: a) the image serves as a constant predicate for varying subjects—a constant means for attracting variable apperceptives . . . b) the image is far simpler and clearer than what it explains.” In other words, “since the purpose of imagery is to bring the mean­ing of the image closer to our understanding, and since without it imagery has no meaning, the image ought to be better known to us than that which is explained by it.”

It would be interesting to apply this principle to Tyutchev’s comparison of lightning to deaf and dumb demons, or Gogol’s comparison of the sky to God’s mantle.

“There is no art without an image.” “Art is thinking in images.” Monstrous stretches were made for the sake of these definitions: people strove to understand music, architecture, and lyric poetry as thinking in images. After a quarter century of effort, Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky finally had to recognize music, architecture, and lyric poetry as a special class of imageless art, which he then defined as lyrical arts appealing directly to the emotions. And so, it turns out that a large sector of art is not a mode of thought. One of them, however, lyric poetry (in the narrow sense), is similar to “imagistic” art in its treatment of words, and, what is more important, imagistic art passes quite imperceptibly into imageless art, and yet our perceptions of them are similar.

But the definition “art is thinking in images,” which means (I am omitting the intermediary links of the well-known equations) that art primarily creates symbols, still persists, having survived the collapse of the theory on which it was based. It mainly thrives in the Symbolist movement, especially among its theorists.

And so, many people still believe that the main characteristic of poetry is thinking in images (“roads and shadows,” “furrows and ridges”). Thus, they should have expected the history of this so-called “imagistic” art to be a history of changes in the image. It turns out, however, that images are virtually fixed; they pass from century to century, from country to country, from poet to poet, almost unchanged. Images “belong to no one,” they “belong to God.” The more you try to understand an epoch, the more convinced you become that the images you thought were created by a given poet were taken almost unchanged from others. Ultimately, the task of poetic schools comes down to collecting and revealing new devices for the arrangement and development of verbal material; poets are more concerned with arranging images than creating them. Images are given; poets do not think through images so much as remember them.

Imagistic thought is not, in any case, something that unites all types of art or even all types of verbal art. And a change in imagery is not essential to the dynamics of poetry.

We know that often an expression is perceived to be poetic, created for aesthetic pleasure, when, in fact, it was created with no such intention. Take, for example, Annensky’s opinion that Slavonic is especially poetic, or Andrei Bely’s delight in the way eighteenth-century Russian poets placed adjectives after nouns. Bely delights in this as in something inherently artistic, or rather as intended and therefore artistic. In reality, it is a general feature of the given language (the influence of Church Slavonic). Thus, a work may be: (1) intended to be prosaic and experienced as poetic, or (2) intended to be poetic and experienced as prosaic. This suggests that the artistic quality attributed to a given object results from the way we perceive it. By objects of art, in the narrow sense, we mean things created through special devices designed to make them as obviously artistic as possible.

Potebnya’s conclusion, which may be formulated as “poetry = imagery,” created the whole theory of “imagery = symbolism,” the ability of the image to serve as the invariable predicate of various subjects. (This conclusion has attracted, by virtue of a kinship of ideas, such Symbolists as Andrei Bely and Dmitri Merezhkovsky, with his Eternal Companions, and underlies the foundation of Symbolist theory.) The conclusion stems partly from the fact that Potebnya did not distinguish between the language of poetry and the language of prose. Consequently, he failed to notice that there are two types of images: (a) the image as a practical means for thinking, a means for grouping objects into clusters, and (b) the poetic image as a means for intensifying an impression. Let me clarify with an example. I am walking down the street and see a man in a fedora, walking ahead of me, drop his packet. I call after him: “Hey fedora! You lost your packet!” This is a purely prosaic trope. Here is another example. Several men are standing to attention. The commander, noticing that one of them is slouching, shouts: “Hey fedora! Mind how you stand!” This is a poetic trope. (In the first case, the word “fedora” is a metonym; in the second case, it is a metaphor. But I am interested in something else.) The poetic image is a means for creating the strongest possible impression. It has the same task as other poetic devices such as positive and negative parallelism, comparison, repetition, symmetry, hyperbole, and any other figure of speech that amplifies the sensation of the object (these can be the words or even the sounds of a literary work). But the poetic image is only externally similar to the image-fable, the image-thought, for example, when a little girl calls a glass sphere a watermelon (in Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky’s Language and Art, 16-17). The poetic image is but one of the means of poetic language. The prosaic image is a means for abstraction: a watermelon in place of a round lampshade or a watermelon in place of a head is only the abstraction of one of the object’s qualities and is not any different from “head = sphere” or “watermelon = sphere.” This, too, is a mode of thought, but it has nothing in common with poetry.

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The law governing the economy of creative effort belongs to a group of generally accepted laws. Herbert Spencer wrote in The Philosophy of Style (1852):

On seeking for some clue to the law underlying these current maxims, we may see shadowed forth in many of them, the importance of economizing the reader’s or hearer’s attention. To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum towards which most of the rules above quoted point.

And Richard Avenarius wrote:

If the soul possessed inexhaustible energies, it would be indifferent to how much might be spent from this inexhaustible source; the only thing that would matter would be, perhaps, the time expended. But since its energies are limited, one is led to expect that the soul hastens to carry out the appercep­tive processes as expediently as possible—that is, with the least expenditure of energy possible or, which is the same, with the greatest result possible.

With a mere reference to the general law governing the economy of mental effort, Leon Petrażycki refutes William James’s theory of the physical basis of emotion, which happens to contradict his own theory. Aleksandr Veselovsky followed suit in acknowledging the principle of the economy of creative effort—an attractive theory, especially in the study of rhythm—and summed up Spencer’s ideas in the following way: “The virtue of style depends precisely on the ability to deliver the greatest amount of ideas in the fewest possible words.” Even Andrei Bely, who in his best writings gave numerous examples of impeded, so-called “stumbling” rhythm (particularly in the examples from Baratynsky), and who showed the impediment of poetic epithets, deemed it necessary to speak of the law of economy in his book—a heroic attempt to create a theory of art based on unverified facts from outdated books, his vast knowledge of poetic devices, and Kraevich’s textbook of physics.

The idea of the economy of effort as the law and purpose of creativity is perhaps true for a particular case—“practical” language. However, due to the prevailing ignorance regarding the difference between the laws of practical language and the laws of poetic language, the idea was extended to poetic language as well. The fact that Japanese poetic language has sounds that do not exist in practical Japanese was perhaps the first factual indication that these two languages do not coincide. Lev Yakubinsky’s article, in which he discusses the absence of the law of the dissimilation of liquids in poetic language and how poetic language admits such hard-to-pronounce sound clusters, is one of the first claims, with­standing scientific criticism, that factually indicates the opposition (for now applicable only to this case) between the laws of poetic and practical languages.

We must speak, then, about the laws of expenditure and economy in poetic language not on the basis of prosaic language, but on the basis of the laws of poetic language.

If we study the general laws of perception, we will see that habitual actions become automatic. So, for example, all of our skills move into the realm of the unconscious-automatic; if one remembers the sensation of holding a pen in one’s hand or speaking a foreign language for the first time and compares that with the sensation of performing the action for the ten thousandth time, then one will agree with us. This process of automatization explains the laws of our prosaic speech, with its unfinished phrases and half-articulated words. Algebra is the ideal manifestation of this process whereby objects are replaced with symbols. Words are not fully articulated in rapid practical speech; the mind barely registers the initial sounds of a name. Aleksandr Pogodin gives the example of a boy processing the phrase “Les montagnes de la Suisse sont belles” in the form of a series of letters: L, m, d, l, S, s, b.

This kind of thinking prompted not only the logic of algebra, but also the choice of symbols (letters, and specifically initial letters). By means of this algebraic method of thinking, objects are grasped quantitatively and spatially—we do not see them but rather recognize them by their primary features. The object passes before us as if in a package; we know that it exists because of the space that it occupies, but we only see its surface. Perceived in this way, the object withers away, first losing its palpability, then its effect. This kind of prosaic perception explains why words are half-heard (Yakubinsky) and half-uttered (which also accounts for slips of the tongue). The algebraization process—the automatization of an object—permits the greatest economy of perceptual effort; objects are either presented by a single feature (for example, a number), or else performed by a formula without ever registering in our consciousness. Consider the following entry from Tolstoy’s diary:

I was dusting the room and, after making a circle, approached the sofa and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. I couldn’t and knew that it would be impossible to remember, since these movements are habitual and unconscious. If, in fact, I dusted it and forgot—that is, acted unconsciously—then it was the same as if I had not dusted it. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could have been established. Otherwise, it is as if nothing has ever transpired, nothing has ever been, just like the complex lives of many people who go on living unconsciously. (February 29, 1897, Nikolskoe)

And so life is lost in oblivion. Automatization eats away at objects, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.

“If nothing has ever transpired, then nothing has ever been, just like the complex lives of many people who go on living unconsciously.”

And so in order to restore the sensation of life, in order to feel things—to make the stone stony—we have something called art. The purpose of art is to convey the sensation of an object as something visible, not as something recognizable. The devices of art—ostranenie, or the “estrangement” of objects, and the impeded form—magnify the difficulty and duration of perception, because the process of perception in art is an end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a means of experiencing the making of an object; the finished object is not important in art.

The life of a poetic (artistic) work proceeds from being visible to being recognizable, from poetry to prose, from the concrete to the general, from Cervantes’s Don Quixote—the scholar and impoverished nobleman, enduring half-consciously his humiliation in the court of the duke—to Turgenev’s expansive but empty Don Quixote, from Charlemagne to the designation “king.” As the work of art and its artfulness die, the work expands: a fable is more symbolic than a long poem, and a proverb is more symbolic than a fable. This is why Potebnya’s theory was less self-contradictory in the analysis of the fable, which, in his view, he examined thoroughly. His theory didn’t tackle artistic, “objectual” works, and this is why his book was unfinishable. As we know, Notes on the Theory of Verbal Art was published in 1905, thirteen years after his death. Potebnya managed fully to develop only the section on the fable.

Objects become recognizable once they have been perceived several times: we know there is something in front of us, but we don’t see it. Hence we cannot say anything significant about it. The removal of an object from the automatism of perception is accomplished through art in several ways. I want to highlight here one of the techniques used most often by Tolstoy—the writer who, at least for Merezhkovsky, seems to present things as he sees them, in their entirety, without changing them.

Tolstoy estranges a thing not by naming it, but by describing it as if he were seeing it for the first time, or describing an event as if it were happening for the first time. When describing something, he avoids the conventional names of its parts and instead names the corresponding parts of other things. For example, in the article “Shame!” (1895) Tolstoy estranges the idea of flogging in this way: “. . . that people who have violated the law, and sometimes old men, be undressed, thrown on the floor, and beaten with rods on their backsides,” and a few lines later, “switched over their bare buttocks.”12 In a footnote to this passage, Tolstoy asks: “Why this particular stupid, savage method of causing pain, and no other? Why not stick pins into the shoulder or some other part of the body, compress the hands or feet in a vise, or something like that?” I apologize for this crude example, but it is typical of the way in which Tolstoy reaches our conscience. The familiar act of flogging is estranged both by the description and by the proposal to change its form without changing its essence. Tolstoy constantly draws on this method of estrangement. In one of his stories (“Strider”), the narrator is a horse and things are perceived not from a human, but an equine point of view.

Here is how the horse perceives the institution of property:

What they said about flogging and Christianity I understood well enough, but I was quite in the dark as to what they meant by the words “his colt,” from which I perceived that people considered that there was some connection between me and the head groom. What the connection was I could not at all understand then. Only much later when they separated me from the other horses did I learn what it meant. At that time I could not at all understand what they meant by speaking of me as being a man’s property. The words “my horse” applied to me, a live horse, seemed to me as strange as to say “my land,” “my air,” or “my water.”

But those words had an enormous effect on me. I thought of them constantly and only after long and varied relations with men did I at last understand the meaning they attach to these strange words, which indicate that men are guided in life not by deeds but by words. They like not so much to do or abstain from doing anything, as to be able to apply conventional words to different objects. Such words, considered very important among them, are my and mine, which they apply to various things, creatures or objects: even to land, people, and horses. They have agreed that of any given thing only one person may use the word mine, and he who in this game of theirs may use that conventional word about the greatest number of things is considered the happiest. Why this is so I do not know, but it is so. For a long time I tried to explain it by some direct advantage they derive from it, but this proved wrong.

For instance, many of those who called me their horse did not ride me, quite other people rode me; nor did they feed me—quite other people did that. Again it was not those who called me their horse who treated me kindly, but coachmen, veterinaries, and in general quite other people. Later on, having widened my field of observation, I became convinced that not only as applied to us horses, but in regard to other things, the idea of mine has no other basis than a low, mercenary instinct in men, which they call the feeling or right of property. A man who never lives in it says “my house” but only concerns himself with its building and maintenance; and a tradesman talks of “my cloth business,” but has none of his clothes made of the best cloth that is in his shop.

There are people who call land theirs, though they have never seen that land and never walked on it. There are people who call other people theirs, but have never seen those others, and the whole relationship of the owners to the owned is that they do them harm. There are men who call women their women or their wives; yet these women live with other men. And men strive in life not to do what they think right, but to call as many things as possible their own.

I am now convinced that in this lies the essential difference between men and us. Therefore, not to speak of other things in which we are superior to men, on this ground alone we may boldly say that in the scale of living creatures we stand higher than man. The activity of men, at any rate of those I have had to do with, is guided by words, while ours is guided by deeds.

The horse is killed toward the end of the story, but the mode of the narrative, its device, does not change:

The dead body of Serpukhovskoy, which had walked about the earth eating and drinking, was put under ground much later. Neither his skin, nor his flesh, nor his bones, were of any use.

Just as for the last twenty years his body that had walked the earth had been a great burden to everybody, so the putting away of that body was again an additional trouble to people. He had not been wanted by anybody for a long time and had only been a burden, yet the dead who bury their dead found it necessary to clothe that swollen body, which at once began to decompose, in a good uniform and good boots and put it into a new and expensive coffin with new tassels at its four corners, and then to place that coffin in another coffin of lead, to take it to Moscow and there dig up some long buried human bones, and to hide in that particular spot this decomposing body full of maggots in its new uniform and polished boots, and cover it all up with earth.

Thus, as we see, Tolstoy continues to use the same device at the end of the story even when the motivation for it is gone.

Tolstoy used the same device in his description of all the battle scenes in War and Peace. He presented them, above all, as something strange. These descriptions are too long to be quoted here; I would have to copy out a considerable part of the four-volume novel. But Tolstoy also applied this method to describe the salons and the theater:

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 . . .

In the second act there was scenery representing tombstones, and there was a round hole in the canvas to represent the moon, shades were raised over the footlights, and from horns and contrabass came deep notes while many people appeared from right and left wearing black cloaks and holding things like daggers in their hands. They began waving their arms. Then some other people ran in and began dragging away the maiden who had been in white and was now in light blue. They did not drag her away at once, but sang with her for a long time and then at last dragged her off, and behind the scenes something metallic was struck three times and everyone knelt down and sang a prayer. All these things were repeatedly interrupted by the enthusiastic shouts of the audience.

The third act is described similarly:

. . . But suddenly a storm came on, chromatic scales and diminished sevenths were heard in the orchestra, everyone ran off, again dragging one of their numbers away, and the curtain dropped. (Book II, Part V, Chapter 9)

In the fourth act, “there was some sort of a devil who sang, waving his arm about, till the boards were withdrawn from under him and he disappeared down below.”

Tolstoy described the city and the trial in the same way in Resurrection. He questioned marriage similarly in The Kreutzer Sonata: “‘Spiritual affinity! Identity of ideals!’ he repeated, emitting his peculiar sound. ‘But in that case why go to bed together?’”15 But he did not only use the device of estrangement to make visible the things that he criticized.

Pierre got up and left his new companions, crossing between the camp-fires to the other side of the road where he had been told the common soldier-prisoners were stationed. He wanted to talk to them. On the road he was stopped by a French sentinel who ordered him back.

Pierre turned back, not to his companions by the campfire but to an unharnessed cart where there was nobody. Tucking his legs under him and dropping his head he sat down on the cold ground by a wheel of the cart and remained motionless a long while sunk in thought. Suddenly he burst out into a fit of his broad, good-natured laughter, so loud that men from various sides turned with surprise to see what this strange and evidently solitary laughter could mean.

“Ha-ha-ha!” laughed Pierre. And he said aloud to himself: “The soldier did not let me pass. They took me and shut me up. They hold me captive. What, me? Me? My immortal soul? Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha! . . .” and he laughed till tears started to his eyes. . . .

Pierre glanced up at the sky and the twinkling stars in its far-away depths. “And all that is me, all that is within me, and it is all I!” thought Pierre. “And they caught all that and put it into a shed boarded up with planks!” He smiled, and went and lay down to sleep beside his companions. (War and Peace, Book IV, Part II, Chapter 14)

Anyone who knows Tolstoy can find hundreds of such examples in his work. His way of seeing things out of context is evident in his late works too, where he applied the device of estrangement to the description of religious dogmas and rituals by replacing the customary religious terms used in church rituals with their literal meanings. The result was something strange, monstrous, and taken by many—quite sincerely—as blasphemy, wounding them to the core. And yet this was the same device whereby Tolstoy perceived and described the surrounding world. Tolstoy’s perceptions unsettled his own faith, confronting him with things that he had long avoided.