Stuck in the house, I have tried to follow a common writing exercise — attempting to ‘re-see’ and then to describe ordinary objects.
‘Make the ordinary extraordinary’ – it’s become something of a cliché, hasn’t it? But now circumstances has remanded us in our homes (around a third of the world’s population, or 2.6 billion people – we’ve all seen the stats), this task may become a mental necessity.
I have alighted upon a jug. Bought in a cut-price china shop, it’s been sitting unused on the shelf. Opalescent, belly rounded with a motherly tenderness. No. That sounds like a piece of anthropomorphized crockery from Beauty & the Beast. Perhaps drop the personification. The jug is female, but so much for trying to wear poet’s eyes… My attention slips and I am simply reminded that I bought it with Easter Sunday dinner in mind, for cream or custard, lots of family round the table.
The literary critic Viktor Shklovsky proposed that literature, and art forms more widely, has the ability to make us see ordinary things differently. Or, at least, more intensely, re-awakening the sense of it that over-familiarity has dulled. He wrote:
“After we see an object several times, we begin to recognise it… We know about it, but we do not see it… Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make the stone stony.”
Shklovsky cites practitioner of literary realism Lev Tolstoy as a master in making “the familiar seem strange,” able to make the reader experience interaction with everyday items as if for the first time. I have read very little of Tolstoy’s work. For me the abilities of Virginia Wolf and Katherine Mansfield to engage us with ordinary objects, give them vigour and lustre, make them covetable, is supreme.
Look at this from Mansfield’s story ‘A Cup of Tea’, protagonist Rosemary buying flowers, how we see the blooms in a new way:
“Yes, I’ll have all the roses in the jar. No, no lilac. I hate lilac. It’s got no shape.” The attendant bowed and put the lilac out of sight, as though this was only too true; lilac was dreadfully shapeless. “Give me those stumpy little tulips. Those red and white ones.” And she was followed to the car by a thin shop-girl staggering under an immense white paper armful that looked like a baby in long clothes….
It’s not only literature, of course, but all art forms, painting, photography, drama, that can capture the ordinary in new and meaningful ways, to make use think again.
It may be harder than it looks, but a good mental exercise. The writer and broadcaster Sarah Dunant was on the radio this morning, proposing that “in a crisis like the one we’re going through… Imagination is going to be an exceedingly powerful inner muscle,” one we will need to exercise in order to keep it flexible and toned.
We are all wondering, too, with what fresh eyes we will see the ‘ordinary’ world when we step back into it.
Viktor Shklovsky ‘Art as Device’ (1917)
Katherine Mansfield, ‘A Cup of Tea’ in The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories (1923)
Sarah Dunant, ‘Fighting infection with imagination’ on BBC Radio 4, 29 March 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000gn77