…we surely know that to be alive among things is a gift; yet it’s a gift we so often fail to unwrap.
Shklovsky regarded the slowing down of perception as one of the purposes of defamiliarization. By making us work harder the artist slows our perception to the point of making it nonautomatic.
Like Rain it sounded till it curved
And then I knew ’twas Wind—
It walked as wet as any Wave
But swept as dry as Sand—
When it had pushed itself away
To some remotest Plain
A coming as of Hosts was heard
That was indeed the Rain—
Here, the poet, Emily Dickinson, dissects her own misperception: what sounded to her like rain was in fact the wind; the wind then blew on, and rain actually did come. In the precise breakdown of her misperception she reawakens the reader’s own aural sense- memory, and we rediscover for ourselves how wind may sound like rain and vice versa. This brings the experience to life; we get a “fresh look and a fresh listen.” The rehearsing of this in our imagination awakens a dormant cherishing of auditory experience. To reawaken our love for things—isn’t this the very thing, or one of the very things, we read for?
After all… we surely know that to be alive among things is a gift; yet it’s a gift we so often fail to unwrap.
To defamiliarize it is to unwrap it, so we no longer see what we already know or believe but rather see directly, or less indirectly. Aristotle believed that mimesis, the process by which art remakes the world as it were in miniature, was inherently pleasurable. We may look at a real beetle and find it disgusting, Aristotle averred, but when we see a beetle expertly depicted in a painting it fascinates us. It’s the same in drama and narrative: catastrophes that would appall us in reality captivate us in story. It’s as if once perception occurs unfiltered, stripped of the habitual veil of automatic preconception, it is inherently fulfilling. Shklovsky, indeed, regarded perception as an aesthetic end in itself: the purpose of art, in his view, was simply to allow us to perceive, without the encumbrance of preconception.
Great novels by their nature involve defamiliarization in that they bring about in the reader a sympathetic understanding of the world of others, taking one outside one’s familiar world. But in the hands of a master, the depth and richness with which one enters the experiences of others can truly widen one’s sense of being. In War and Peace, the long process of the death of Prince Andrei, for example, brings us into unparalleled intimacy with the phases and landscape of dying, with the perspectives of the different participants in the process, and with the most foreign of life’s realms, the final encounter, and through the sheer thoroughness of it we emerge absolved of our own perspective for a while. It is almost like a literary Russian “Book of the Dead.”
By Henry Shukman, originally published in Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2014