Reader Imaging Techniques Utilized in Tolstoj's War and Peace

Sarah Mohler, Truman State University

Film critic AndrČ Levinson once stated that "In the cinema, one extracts the thought from the image, in literature, the image from the thought." However, it is only relatively recently that cognitive scientists, such as Stephen Kosslyn, and literary critics, like Christopher Collins and Elaine Scarry, have made a concerted effort to explain why visualization plays such an important role in our appreciation of literary texts and why certain texts facilitate reader imaging more than others. My paper will utilize the research of these and other scholars to explain how Tolstoj constructs narrative descriptions in War and Peace that verbally mimic the movements and mannerisms of the mind's eye in order to deepen the reader's understanding of the text's meaning.

Turgenev was correct when he suspected that there is a degree of artifice involved in Tolstoj's succinct descriptive passages, which tend to fixate on a particular physical trait or detail (Ellen's "white shoulders," the little princess's "short upper lip" and Princess Mar'ja's "luminous eyes"). Unlike other "visual" authors, whose copious descriptions catalog all the minutiae of a certain sphere or social milieu in order to convince the reader of the verisimilitude of their narratives, Tolstoj does not attempt to reproduce reality mimetically. Instead, he takes a shortcut. He recreates reality as it is interpreted by the mind's eye, not as it is perceived by the actual eye. Mental imagery fades unless it is refreshed, and by repeating certain physical traits or details, Tolstoj is constantly refreshing the images readers construct of the people and events in the novel. Thus, Tolstoj's images appear remarkably vivid precisely because he is so attuned to what actually goes on physiologically and psychologically when one is interpreting verbal cues in order to create images in one's mind. The combination of details he chooses to incorporate in the work is based entirely on what is best suited for reader imaging. Everything else is omitted, because its absence will only heighten the reader's awareness of what Tolstoj focuses on.

It is my theory that Tolstoj utilizes visualization in War and Peace to encourage his readers to enter into ethical relations with his characters. Baxtin is wrong: War and Peace is not a monologic work, in so far as one considers the dialogic relations produced while visualizing the novel. When we as readers visualize the novel, we see ourselves in the role of silent other in relation to the individuals we read about. We are no longer voyeurs (Morson), but witnesses to all that occurs, ready--if not able--to respond to the events depicted. The desire to respond can only be frustrated within the confines of the reading experience, for we cannot warn Natasha that Anatole is a cad or tell Petja to duck as the bullets whiz by his head. However, our frustration with our inability to act within the fictional world ensures that we emerge from War and Peace with a heightened awareness of our responsibility towards those we observe and can interact with in the real world. I will argue that visualization is paramount in producing this effect. Without the extraordinary vividness of Tolstoj's characters, convincing us that we would recognize these people anywhere and in any circumstances, there would be no desire to enter into ethical relationship with them.