In today’s session, we read an extract from Charlotte Bronte‘s novel Villette. The scene is in an art museum. The heroine, Lucy Snowe, has been brought there by Dr. John Bretton, a handsome English doctor who has taken a brotherly interest in her. Dr. Bretton escorts her to various art museums but leaves her there to explore the paintings on her own. In the museum, Lucy finds herself facing a picture of a nude woman: she guesses her weight and estimates how much butcher’s meat it required to feed her up to that size, wonders why the young lady is lying down as it is broad daylight outside in the painting and the woman is clearly young and fit; expresses disapproval of the young lady’s scant attire, despite being surrounded bylots of material:
Out of abundance of material – seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery – she managed to make insufficient raiment.
The traditional still-life decorations in a painting such as this also receive short shrift:
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.
Then the punchline:
On referring to the catalogue, I found that this notable production bore the name “Cleopatra“.
There followed a lively discussion about the concept of defamiliarization, which is the English translation of ostranenie (literally “making strange”), a term invented by a Russian and published in an essay of 1917 by Victor Shklovsky.
The next session will be in 1 month, May 27th, and the topic will be “The Novel of Ideas”. The text will be 2 extracts from Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged. In the May 27th session, we will read the passages (one about people’s doubts about the John Galt Line, the other a scene between Hank Rearden and his mother who comes to plead with her son to give his brother a job), then discuss the ideas that lie behind the text.
In the following session, June 3rd, we will discuss Rand’s philosophy and the role that ideas and concepts play in daily life, especially the relation between some of her ideas and the financial crisis of today. Depending on interest, we may continue the topic into a 3rd session, and examine other novels of ideas, such as 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange.