A Philosopher’s Sickness

Tom Stern in The Point:

ScreenHunter_04 Oct. 16 14.52There is a device, known to students of literature and students of creative writing, called “defamiliarization.” In the creative writing course, the exercise might go like this:

Take something that is familiar to you (an object, an occasion). Now imagine you are an alien who has just landed on Earth and make a report on it to your alien superiors back home.

In this case, the defamiliarization is brought about by the alien narrator, the stranger in the strange land. Standard defamiliarizing narrators include the naive child, the animal or the inanimate object—other contenders might be the very clever or stupid, the very large or small. Using both of those latter two, Swift’s Gulliver—first colossal, then tiny—proves an ideal vehicle for defamiliarized observation. Gulliver also shows us the connection between defamiliarization and satire: both can provide a kind of distance from that which we see too closely ever to understand—from the speeches of politicians to the objects on our bedside tables. Viktor Shklovsky, the Soviet literary critic who coined the phrase, associated it strongly with a description of seeing something familiar as if for the first time. He uses the example of a Tolstoy story in which the horse- narrator fails to comprehend how he can belong to a person, how, as the horse puts it, “there was some sort of connection between me and the stable.”

More here.