Learning to see the world anew
“A fresh look and a fresh listen,” said Robert Frost of a good poem. “Read it a hundred times: it will for ever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance.” A poem may not show us anything new, but what we see, we see afresh, and what we hear, we hear anew. Frost was talking about the poem itself: what it presents, and the way it does it, should strike us unexpectedly.
The English novelist and scholar David Lodge asked, “What do we mean . . . when we say that a book is ‘original’? Not, usually, that the writer has invented something without precedent, but that she has made us ‘perceive’ what we already, in a conceptual sense, ‘know,’ by deviating from the conventional, habitual ways of representing reality.” It is newness of seeing, rather than newness per se, that counts.
This effect or property of art—to see things anew—was given a name in a 1917 essay by the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky. He called it “defamiliarization.” As Shklovsky put it,
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.
And to accomplish that, art makes objects “unfamiliar.” Art, in other words, has the power to make our process of seeing less habitual. Shklovsky goes on:
Habituation devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.
Thus art exists to restore to us our actual experience, unmediated by the veil of what we think we know. Defamiliarization is not a method for making a poem more interesting, nor is it a mere writerly tip on technique; it’s central to the function and place of art in our lives. Sure enough, a good poem’s effect endures beyond the actual reading. When we deeply engage with good literature, good art, it changes our habitual view of things. The world itself seems different, clearer, closer.
Shklovsky was writing at a time when Modernist art, the new art of the early 20th century—inaccessible, hard to understand, intended to upset conventional expectations— needed defending. He was an apologist for the avant-garde poet Mayakovsky, for example, whose poems were unabashedly “difficult,” whose creed, shared with other Russian Futurist poets, was zaum—“beyond reason.” But the point Shklovsky was making is much older. Perhaps it was ever thus: even Aristotle said that poetic language should appear “strange and wonderful.” Any work of art, old or new, has the power to be fresh. As Pasternak said of Pushkin and Chekhov, their work has “ripened of itself, like apples picked green from the trees, and has increasingly matured in sense and sweetness.” We may feel the same about Shakespeare, Dante, Ovid, Sappho, to name a random few: that ever-newness is integral to their longevity.
Perhaps, in fact, what Shklovsky was pointing to is something more encompassing even than art, something basic to the search for spiritual meaning in life; for however comfortable we may be in our certainties, we also long for a more immediate experience of this world. Even as we are impelled to strive to understand things, somehow we yearn at the same time to be divested of that understanding, so we can meet things more intimately. Defamiliarization is, then, both a function of art and a structural feature of spiritual life, and whether or not it is recognized in this way, it is the source of deep resonance between them.
By Henry Shukman, originally published in Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2014