Defamiliarization and Renewing the Art of Perception in Thomas Carlyle, D.H. Lawrence, and Annie Dillard
Jane Porter '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003
How is it that a farmer's burden can be equated to that of the crucified or a praying mantis egg case to a mother preparing her daughter for a beauty pageant? D.H. Lawrence and Annie Dillard masterfully draw such connections, breaking down the reader's notions of objects and concepts and reconstructing them with a renewed art of perception. Russian Formalism, a critical movement of the earlier half of the twentieth century, focused its attention on such linguistic and structural properties of literary works. The concept of defamiliarization, developed by Formalist Victor Shklovskii, argues that the function of art is to renew our awareness of things that have become habitual objects of everyday awareness (Selden, 31). Thus in literature, defamiliarization is the act of portraying something familiar in a new and different light. Destroying preconceived notions in this way renews perceptions and enables the author to pull readers into a realm of understanding that is more easily accepted. In the following discussion, I shall focus on two ways in which defamiliarization is achieved -- distorting images as a result of simplification or uncommon associations and the distortng time by means of slowing down actions and incorporating sensory details. These specific techniques serve a number of purposes, namely, demolishing and manipulating the readers' existing perceptions, highlighting the presence of opposites in each text, and illustrating the struggle between the mental and physical, thus expressing each author's overall didactic message. In discussing these various applications and effects of defamiliarization, I shall focus on D.H. Lawrence's
Thomas Carlyle's "Signs of the Times" [text] is the ultimate source of such literary explorations in nonfiction. Carlyle's use of grotesque analogies displays the beginnings of defamiliarization as a literary device useful in transforming the reader's perception of events and circumstances. For instance, the symbolical grotesque image of Mechanism as a glass bell that "encircles and imprisons us" (12) employs the use of abstractions to reconstruct the reader's understanding of concepts. Carlyle's creation of this grotesque image indicates the sage-like view that by changing the way we think about things, we can change them. This creation of grotesque images places a heavy emphasis on a renewed art of perception, a central characteristic of defamiliarization.
Examining the Present
By opening his "Signs of the Times" with the statement, "It is no very good symptom either of nations or individuals, that they deal much in vaticination" (1), Thomas Carlyle stresses the importance of concentrating on the present rather than on dealing in predictions of the future. This emphasis on tackling the mystery of the present appears in both Lawrence and Dillard. Carlyle emphasizes the potential didacticism of the present when declaring: "We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our own time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position in it. Let us, instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, look calmly around us, for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand" (2). By means of observations in both
Dillard in particular struggles with understanding the present world around her, attempting to understand nature as a framework for her understanding of living in general. Her struggle comes not in seeing the physical but in understanding it. This difficultly in mastering the mental over the physical is what Dillard attempts to clarify throughout
The Distortion of Time
Active language enables the writer to slow down events effectively. Lawrence manipulates the reader's sensations by using highly descriptive language and emphasizing the constant motion of settings and actions as they occur. The distortion of time is achieved by means of slowing down actions and events, enabling the process and its implications to take precedence over the act itself. Thus, in "The Crucifix Across the Mountains," Lawrence uses the defamiliarizing technique of time distortion transforms the simple task of gathering hay by incorporating details and active language:
The body bent forward towards the earth, closing round on itself; the arms clasped full of hay, clasped round the hay that presses soft and close to the breast and the body, that pricks heat into the arms and the skin of the breast, and fills the lungs with the sleepy scent of dried herbs: the rain that falls heavily and wets the shoulders, so that the shirt clings to the hot, firm skin and the rain comes with heavy, pleasant coldness on the active flesh, running in a trickle down towards the loins, secretly; this is the peasant, this hot welter of physical sensation. And it is intoxicating. It is intoxicating almost like a soporific, like a sensuous drug, to gather the burden to one's body in the rain, to stumble across the living grass to the shed, to relieve one's arms of the weight, to throw down the hay on to the heap, to feel light and free in the dry shed, then to return again into the chill, hard rain, to stoop again under the rain, and rise to return again with the burden. [4-5]
By slowing his prose down so precisely, Lawrence recreates the simple act of lifting hay, adding an element of importance to the movements and sensations involved. This slowing down of actions has an important overall effect on the reader because it emphasizes the centrality of the senses and begins to inform us of Lawrence's admiration for the Italian emphasis on sensation and emotion. Descriptions such as "closing round itself" and "active flesh" create a continual movement on multiple levels. Contrasts in the description serve as sensual cues for the reader, emphasizing sensation over literal action. Furthermore, the combination of long sentences with short fragmented ones like, "And it is intoxicating," adds a variety and richness to the prose that flows over the reader's senses. Thus, the farmer gathering hay across the marsh is meticulously described, his actions slowed down, and time magnified so that he begins to take on a hyper-real existence. We are provided with a glimpse into Lawrence's construction of the Italian character by means of such defamiliarizing literary devices.
The above detailed description has the effect of engaging the reader, making it possible for Lawrence to equate the peasant's burden to the burden of the crucified and still maintain the reader's confidence. After decelerating and intensely describing the farmer's actions, Lawrence emphasizes, "this heat of physical experience, becomes at length a bondage, at last a crucifixion" (5). The reader's senses have been heightened to a point where they are directed by Lawrence's engaging language. Although he is writing from a distance, slowing down his narrative causes us to accept his claims that, "it is the life and the fulfillment of the peasant, this flow of sensuous experience. But at last it drives him almost mad, because he cannot escape" (5). Thus we see that defamiliarizing the act of gathering hay enables Lawrence to transform its significance, equating the farmer's burden to the heroic burden of the crucified. Lawrence's artful language gains the reader's confidence and paints the peasant as a hero, indicating his personal view of the life of such rural Italian farmers as suffering humanity.
Dillard. who seeks an understanding of beauty, can comprehend the significance of creatures in nature only after they are perceived anew. For example, Dillard's examination of a twenty-five cent goldfish in a bowl on her table is explained with rich prose that enhances the creature's fascinating existence. Slowing down her prose into an extensive passage about the goldfish defamiliarizes our notions of these creatures as simple and worthless pets. Dillard's description of having once examined an etherized goldfish transforms the fish in the bowl into a complex creature embodying beauty and the workings of life:
The red blood cells in the goldfish's tail streamed and coursed through narrow channels invisible save for glistening threads of thickness in the general translucency. They never wavered or slowed or ceased flowing, like the creek itself; they streamed redly around, up, and on, one by one, more, and more, without end. (The energy of that pulse reminds me of something about the human body . . .) Those red blood cells are coursing in Ellery's tail now, too, in just that way, and through his mouth and eyes as well, and through mine. I've never forgotten the sight of those cells; I think of it when I see the fish in his bowl; I think of it lying in bed at night imagining that if I concentrate enough I might be able to feel in my fingers' capillaries the small knocking and flow if those circular dots, like a string of beads drawn through my hand. 
Thus Dillard illuminates the complexity of life involved even in the simple subsistence of a goldfish. She simulates the concept of beauty as objective when describing her fish in the light as "an eyeful of fish-scale and star" (124). This understanding of objective beauty does not come easily to Dillard, who earlier questions the sound of a mocking bird chirping, asking "Why is it beautiful?" (106) and later explaining, "beauty is something objectively performed" (106). In gaining this objective understanding, images and observations must be defamiliarized and reconstructed as this fish in its bowl. The significance of such a meager creature can only be confidently accepted by the reader by replacing existing perceptions with such patient description.
Descriptive and Active Language
Just as Lawrence defamiliarizes the act of gathering hay by slowing down his prose, so too does Dillard defamiliarize the act of seeing by addressing the many sensations involved. She slows down time by loading every moment with a great deal of details, recreating what she observes into grotesque images as is visible in her examination of a praying mantis producing eggs:
I poked near the female's head with a grass; she was clearly undisturbed, so I settled my nose an inch from that pulsing abdomen. It puffed like a concertina, it throbbed like a bellows; it roved, pumping, over the glistening, clabbering surface of the egg case testing and patting, thrusting and smoothing. It seemed to act so independently that I forgot the panting brown stick at the other end. The bubble creature seemed to have two eyes, a frantic little brain, and two busy soft hands. 
Dillard emphasizes actions by means of adjectives such as "puffed," "throbbed," and "roved." By delving into an account of the mantis laying her eggs, Dillard equates the situation to the grotesque image of "a hideous, harried mother slicking up a fat daughter for a beauty pageant, touching her up, slobbering over her, patting and hemming and brushing and stroking" (57). Such colorful descriptions enable the reader to visualize the actions, rather than simply see the creature, and thus a distortion of the image is successfully rendered and farfetched analogies such as the one above become comprehensible.
In "Italians in Exile," Lawrence uses the defamiliarizing technique of incorporating sensory description to illustrate the existing relationship between physicality and mentality. His ideal of Italians as individuals highly in tune with their senses is thus illustrated in the following rendering of a group of Italians rehearsing a play:
I can see the Maddelena, rather course and hard and repellent, declaiming her words in a loud, half-cynical voice, falling on the breast of the Alfredo, who was soft and sensuous, morel like a female, flushing, with his mouth getting wet, his eyes moist, as he was roused. I can see the Alberto, slow, laboured, yet with a kind of pristine simplicity in all his movements, that touched his fat commonplaceness with beauty. Then there were the two other men, shy, inflammable, unintelligent, with their sudden Italian rushes of hot feeling. All their faces are distinct in the lamplight, all their bodies are palpable and dramatic. 
Lawrence does not elaborate on the play itself and after reading the above passage, we are not left with an understanding of what it is these people are doing specifically as much as we are made aware of their heightened senses. This emphasis on descriptive adjectives and verbs like "flushing," "soft," and "sensuous," translates these individuals in terms of their emotional expressions and enables Lawrence to later make the assertion that, "They could hardly live except through the senses" (136).
Simplifications and Unlikely Comparisons
In the opening of
Lawrence simplifies processes as well, emphasizing particular characteristics he sees as prominent. For example, in "The Return Journey," he characterizes the Englishman's journey back home as a gradual decent into mechanization: "And here he was, down again from the mountains, beginning his journey home again: steamer and train and steamer and train and Tube, till he was back in the machine" (150). Rather than ending with "he began his journey home again," Lawrence's repetition of "steamer and train and steamer and train and Tube," simplifies the Englishman's journey into a mechanical process. This sentence structure reconstructs our perception of the journey, emphasizing how void of the luster and sensuality is the Englishman's world when compared to that of the Italian.
Similarly, in her attempt to understand how the physical gives way to the mental, Annie Dillard, in
Like Lawrence, Dillard transforms the ordinary into extraordinary by means of virtuoso description, but she takes the task of defamiliarization a step further than Lawrence, however, attempting not only to use it as a literary device but also to illustrate her struggle to she sees the world in new ways. For example, referring to Marius von Senden's
I saw color-patches for weeks after I read this wonderful book. It was summer; the peaches were ripe in the valley orchards. When I woke in the morning, color-patches wrapped round my eyes, intricately, leaving not one unfilled spot. All day long I walked among shifting color-patches that parted before me like the Red Sea and closed again in silence, transfigured, wherever I looked back. Some patches swelled and loomed, while others vanished utterly, and dark marks flitted at random over the whole dazzling sweep. But I couldn't sustain the illusion of flatness. I've been around for too long. Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning: I couldn't unpeach the peaches. 
Again, motion is emphasized in this passage with words such as "shifting," "swelled," and "vanished." It is this ever-changing element of nature that hinders Dillard's efforts to reevaluate what she sees. Thus, the reader is introduced to the concept of defamiliarization by Dillard's directly admitting her struggle to see afresh. She does not merely employ the technique in her writing but makes clear to the reader that seeing in such a way is a true challenge to the senses. Dillard faces his conflict between mental and physical perceptions throughout the text. She tackles the question, "What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms?" (7) approaching the issue by defamiliarizing preconceived notions for both herself and the reader. This act of seeing the familiar in a new way becomes Dillard's outlet for understanding how nature categorizes art, beauty, science, and religion.
Another technique involving the distortion of an object deals with combining otherwise disassociated elements, enabling the author to induce an emotional response in the reader. For example, Lawrence, in "San Gaudenzio," combines uncommon colors and images when describing the snow as gleaming "apricot gold." This unfamiliar association enables Lawrence to create a sense of brightness described by him as "almost frightening," creating both a visual and emotional context for the reader:
Then their radiance becomes soiled and brown, they thaw, break, and scatter and vanish away. Already the primroses are coming out, and the almond is in bud. The winter is passing away. On the mountains the fierce snow gleams apricot gold as evening approaches, golden, apricot, but so bright that it is almost frightening. What can be so fiercely gleaming when all is shadowy? It is something inhuman and unmitigated between heaven and earth. 
Thus we see how Lawrence emotionalizes various aspects of the text by means of descriptive language. Furthermore, the description is never stagnant, emphasizing movement with words like "thaw," "break," and "scatter," which further pulls the reader into a whirlwind of language and emotion. Lawrence draws a link between nature and constant change and is only able to express this "inhuman and unmitigated" force by qualifying it with uncommon associations.
Overall, Lawrence's defamiliarization in
The contrast between mechanization and nature is a prominent issue in Lawrence's text. Mechanization is understood as a form of disintegration in society as a result of Lawrence's unusual descriptions of scenery. His negative perception of mechanization is never outright stated but rather strongly implied as a result of the distortion of images by means of unlikely comparisons. It is by defamiliarizing the city of Andermatt, which looks "so terribly raw and flat and accidental, as if great big pieces of furniture had tumbled out of a pantechnicon and lay discarded by the road" (155), that Lawrence creates a contrast between the illuminated lands of Italy and the stagnant cities of industrialized Switzerland. The negative qualities of industrialization are heightened with such uncommon associations as hotels and foreigners equated to parasitism or the social form in the context of industrialization like "maggots in cheese" (165). In this way, Lawrence defamiliarizes the reader's understanding of mechanization by equating it with disturbing images of rotting and parasite-infested objects. Thus the grotesqueness of the social movement is realized by demonstrating the grotesqueness of the process of disintegration.
Parasitism plays an important role in Dillard's writing as well. However, it is the parasites themselves that are transformed in her prose to provide the reader with a view into the often-overlooked elements of life. Her use of contrasts is important in providing a clearer understanding of the existence of these organisms. "Parasitism: this itch, this gasp, in the lung, this coiled worm in the gut, hatching egg in the sinew, warble-hole in the hide -- is a sort of rent, paid by all creatures who live in the real world with us now" (234). Dillard's defamiliarization works to bridge our understanding of life with her observations of nature by equating the seemingly disgusting act of what she calls "a little blood here, a chomp there" (227), in the world of parasites to the ordinary responsibility of paying rent. In this passage, Dillard also combines the horror of survival and the beauty of nature, thus blurring distinctions between horror and beauty.
Dillard's attempts to conceptualize her observations of the physical world illustrate her struggle to gauge the connection between of nature and its possible meanings. Although she easily learns to see the physical aspect of nature such as praying mantis egg cases and muskrats emerging at the creek, her true struggle is associated with understanding how these acts of nature inform us of the purpose of living. Dillard slows down descriptions and makes uncommon associations, enabling the reader to contemplate how such acts of nature relate to the individual's reason for living. Thus, elements of nature are melded into a type of religion to be followed, and in transforming and interpreting various occurrences in nature, Dillard upholds Carlyle's concept that "Religion must have a Natural History" (10). Her mental struggle in obtaining this understanding is clarified by observations of nature, which she defamiliarizes into a model for living:
I was standing lost, sunk, my hands in my pockets, gazing towards Tinker Mountain and feeling the earth reel down. All at once I saw what looked like a Martian spaceship whirling towards me in the air. It flashed borrowed light like a propeller. Its forward motion greatly outran its fall. As I watched, transfixed, it rose, just before it would have touched a thistle, and hovered pirouetting in one spot, then twirled on and finally came to rest. I found it in the grass; it was a maple key, a single winged seed from a pair. 
By merely stating that individuals live their lives the way a maple key blows in the breeze, Dillard would not have validated her point with nearly as much force as she does by first defamiliarizing the maple key. She is thus able to manipulate the reader's senses, using intense language and slowing down one's ingestion of the scene to present the mental implications rather than simply the physical attributes of this occurrence. The reader concentrates on the "forward motion" rather than on the object itself. This forward motion is what Dillard later equates to the "rush of the world . . . blown by a generous unending breath" (268). Her faith in the maple key's path as a model of living righteously is an example of the effects produced by defamiliarization: an acquisition of mental mastery by means of transforming the physical.
We have seen how defamiliarization establishes contrasts in these texts. However, it is crucial to note these opposites do not exist independently, rather a melding of the two serves as a unifying thread between two worlds as well as amidst these texts. Dark and light, beauty and horror, the natural and mechanical are all painted in their contrasting colors but they are also skillfully intertwined with staggering similarities. Such a blur between opposites invariably creates the whole. Carlyle astutely remarks, "that in the whole picture there are bright lights as well as gloomy shadows" (11). His description of the "boundless grinding collision of the New with the Old" (12), is touched on by Lawrence, whose voyages from rural Italy to mechanized Switzerland point out contrasting worlds that nevertheless subsist simultaneously. Lawrence nearly echoes Carlyle's words: "Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand" (4), when at the closing of
Lawrence's cohesion of dark and light is an element of his defamiliarization of objects and concepts. He melds the two by renewing this art of perceiving dark and light, muddling the distinction between opposites as seen in this passage in the opening of "San Gaudenzio":
The days go by, through the brief silence of winter, when the sunshine is so still and pure, like iced wine, and the dead leaves gleam brown, and water sounds hoarse in the ravines. It is so still and transcendent, the cypress trees poise like flames of forgotten darkness, that should have been blown out at the end of the summer. For as we have candles to light the darkness of night, so the cypresses are candles to keep the darkness aflame in the full sunshine. 
The description of "darkness aflame" in the sunshine blurs the effects of dark and light, indicating the possibility of both existing at the same time. By combining notions of light and dark, Lawrence deconstructs opposites, indicating that the two are not as unrelated as may seem. His use of rich descriptions, such as "iced wine" and "flames of forgotten darkness," color his prose with a rich and poetic language that coaxes such contrasts together. Thus language plays a fundamental role in the paring of dark and light and by means of this defamiliarization, the reader recognizes how the two can coexist.
Dillard too addresses this notion of combining opposites in her discussion of light and darkness, distorting our conceptions of each: "If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results" (22). Here Dillard defamiliarizes blindness, indicating that both dark and light, although opposites, can have jarringly similar effects on the individual's senses, yet again indicating that contrasting elements share common characteristics in the realm of nature.
Thus both Lawrence and Dillard establish that elements cannot simply be measured in terms of opposites but rather that blending dark and light, horror and beauty, and the mental and physical creates a full understanding of the present. Carlyle's "Signs of the Times" grasps the didactic message created by both Lawrence and Dillard: "This is as it should be; for not in turning back, not in resisting, but only in resolutely struggling forward, does our life consist" (12). This emphasis on the present, on a reevaluation of existing conditions, is made possible by distorting images and time by means of vivid and rich language, defamiliarizing the way in which objects and actions are experienced. Thus Dillard is able to claim: "I cannot in all honesty call the world old when I've seen it new" (241). Seeing anew in this way is enabled by what Russian Formalists called defamiliarization, accomplished by a literary emphasis on language as a guiding influence on how concepts are understood. Mechanization, nature, religion, the physical, and the mental are not merely thrust at the reader; they are transformed and made acceptable as a result of the application of such careful and enriched literary techniques.
Carlyle, Thomas. "Signs of the Times." Victorian Web.
Lawrence, D.H. "Twilight in Italy."
Selden, Raman and Peter Widdowson.
Last modified 3 December 2006