The subversive potential of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘defamiliarisation’: a case study in drawing on the imagination to denounce violence

2017-06-13T11:17:26Z (GMT) by Alexandre Christoyannopoulos
In his later years, Leo Tolstoy wrote numerous books, essays and pamphlets expounding his newly-articulated denunciations of all political violence, whether by dissidents or ostensibly legitimate states. If these writings have inspired many later pacifists and anarchists, it is partly thanks to his masterful deployment of the literary technique of ‘defamiliarisation’ – or looking at the familiar as if new – to shake readers into recognising the absurdity of common justifications of violence, admitting their implicit complicity in it, and noticing the process which numbed them into accepting such complicity. This paper discusses Tolstoy’s use of the imagination to defamiliarise and denounce violence, first by citing a number of typical examples, then by reflecting on four of its subversive characteristics: its disruption of automated perception, its implicit concession of some recognition, its corrosion of conventional respect for traditional hierarchies, and its encouragement of empathy.