Mapping the Unknown: Literary Defamiliarization in Our Pandemic Era

Gabrielle Bellot on Viktor Shklovsky, the Risk of Life, and Art as a Way of Reencountering

In 1917, a peculiar essay on the aims of art—and how we should talk about it—appeared in Russia. If the year would soon be remembered for bloody political revolutions, the essay, which had been written by Viktor Shklovsky, an unassuming man in his twenties from St. Petersburg, would quickly come to seem revolutionary itself, in part because its goal was no less than to change the course of literary criticism itself.

One might be forgiven for not realizing that the essay had such lofty goals from its bland title, “Art as Device” (or, as it is sometimes translated, “Art as Technique”), yet the clinical air of the essay’s name was deliberate, meant to evoke the feel of a scientific paper. Shklovsky’s aim was to create a new paradigm for talking about the arts, which would focus on the aesthetic techniques that a piece used rather than its historical or political context, studying artworks with an almost scientific eye for how they were put together.

At the time, Russian art criticism was dominated by attempts to connect works to the present’s politics, some of which were essentially propaganda for Lenin’s government. As a counter to this, Shklovsky had helped found the Society for the Study of Poetic Language, or OPOJAZ, a group dedicated to exploring aesthetic structure and technique; in little time, Shklovsky and his ilk were branded “Formalists,” a term that was meant to be pejorative and which Shklovsky disliked, but which the group ended up using anyway, because they saw the form of an artwork as the key to understanding its function.

Along with a related group, the Moscow Linguistic Circle, OPOJAZ radically reevaluated art in an era where dissenting from the political party-line was wildly risky, but Shklovsky delighted in being provocative, an enfant terrible, even as it meant that he would be sent into hiding more than once for his anti-establishment, anti-Bolshevik protesting.

What I’ve always loved about “Art as Device” isn’t its history or grand goals, though; it’s Shklovsky’s focus on “defamiliarization,” a simple technique that, in his mind, described the goal of most art. Defamiliarization meant taking something familiar or mundane, like a chair or a horse, and making it seem utterly unfamiliar and strange by virtue of how it’s described. When you become too accustomed to the things around you, they stop seeming extraordinary; when you step back and reflect on how rocking chairs, televisions, or markers work, though, imagining that you are describing them to someone who has never before seen them, they begin to take on an air of magic, of the marvelous, and the true strangeness and wonder of the world around us begins to feel visible again.

For Shklovsky, Tolstoy’s work was full of precisely this impulse. “Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object,” the Russian formalist mused. “He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time. In describing something he avoids the accepted names of its parts and instead names corresponding parts of other objects.”

Defamiliarization meant taking something familiar or mundane, like a chair or a horse, and making it seem utterly unfamiliar and strange.

But, of course, defamiliarization appears in much more than Tolstoy. I’ve always thought that the opening paragraph of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is a masterful example of this, as is certain science fiction that captures the strangeness of technologies whose extraordinariness we come to take for granted. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” reads Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum, and the observation feels particularly germane alongside Shklovsky’s essay. If we pause to reflect on how just about any piece of technology—broadly understood—works, it truly seems miraculous, and defamiliarization restores this sense of things seeming like magic back to us.

I think, how, of an extraordinary short story by E.M. Forster at the beginning of the 20th century, in which Forster described technologies that, to a 21st-century reader, seem uncannily akin to social media, Skype, or Zoom, and the internet in general; to a reader of Forster’s time, however, in which no such technologies yet existed, the story’s inventions would have seemed so fantastical as to be indistinguishable, as in Clarke’s law, from sorcery.

The technique is also known as ostranenie, or “estrangement”; this curiouser label is perhaps even more appropriate for capturing the sense of oddness, of alienness, of strangeness, that Shklovsky identified. And I can’t help but feel that “estrangement” also captures something else for me today: my relationship with the outside world in the coronavirus pandemic. I no longer see the outside world—the world, that is, just outside my apartment’s door—with the same casual assumptions as before; it is the same world, but it also is not, because something fundamental about its makeup has shifted, as if I have stepped into some world-whirling witchery. It has become strange.

The simple mundane is no longer simple or mundane, and I cannot help but feel that I am living in a grand demonstration of Shklovsky’s method, where the strangeness of everyday life and its categories has been forcibly restored to me. I still do not know, two years into this pandemic, how I feel about exploring these new maps, where all its landmasses, once known and labeled, have become terra incognita, the mysterious spaces where there just may be dragons.

How do you follow a map of the unknown?

*

2020, and each year since, has been an era of ostranenie, an age of estrangement, a time when the familiar becomes laden with unfamiliar risk. We are living in a world where the familiar no longer feels like that, even if you deny it, even if you try to live like it is 2019, because the unfamiliar-familiar is all around us.

The simple mundane is no longer simple or mundane, and I cannot help but feel that I am living in a grand demonstration of Shklovsky’s method.

I remember when it started, at least for me. In March of 2020, when New York City began to slowly shut down, I didn’t understand what was happening. I followed the news day by day, as our governor announced that businesses would gradually reduce how many people could enter them. The very night my partner and I were supposed to see Company, a Broadway show we had waited ages to score tickets to, Broadway itself shut down. We went, instead, to a mostly empty movie theater to watch Pixar’s Onward, still trying, through a fantastical movie, to escape the fantastical strangeness happening around us. I knew something was different in the air, but I still didn’t want to believe it.

Before the shutdown started, I had been leading a reading group on James Baldwin’s work in Manhattan. The night of our final session, where a group of us sat around a table inside, unmasked—businesses were still sort of open, and the CDC hadn’t yet announced that we should all be wearing masks—I remember bumping into my supervisor in the hallway during a break. We wouldn’t be coming back to the office tomorrow, they told me, smiling faintly, a curious smile I’ve never forgotten because it was the kind of smile you do when you’re putting on a brave face for someone else. We might not be coming back for a long time.

Then, New York City was officially locked down, and, soon after, we were told that we were required to wear face coverings wherever we went. The rest of the world, if it hadn’t already locked down, followed suit. I was terrified for my father in the Caribbean, who is in poor health. It was hard enough for him to get the medical care he needed, which usually meant traveling to the United States; now, unable to travel and with vaccines far off, I was afraid he might die. I was afraid I might never see him again. The gray sands of depression filled me like an hourglass. I lay in bed some nights, wondering aloud to my partner what the point of it all was, if there was no end point in sight, no hope for a return to the casual life we had once found familiar, and that now seemed incomprehensibly liberated.

Some afternoons, I held her as the grey took her, in turn. To keep ourselves going, we invented apartment games: bowling with a set of plastic cups down a short hallway, a lurid version of Uno involving shots and silly “curses” for the other player to follow, a cramped water balloon fight in the shower.

Eventually, we would receive clarification that being indoors with others was more dangerous than being outdoors, and the city would slowly begin to open up again, piece by piece. New York became like one of Calvino’s invisible cities, ever-shifting in its definition, its dreamlike past and surreal present difficult to reconcile. The moment we were allowed to reenter retail stores, I rushed into clothes stores again, from H&M to Macy’s, not because I needed to buy anything, but because I needed the memory of what it was like to be inside a store with other people again. I needed to remember the world I had taken for granted before everything shut down. Now, it sounds sort of sad, but back then, entering a retail store felt almost scandalous, devious, wild.

But it wasn’t the same—or, more accurately, it was the same, and it also was not. My relationship to my own body, to others’ bodies, to space, had shifted. I thought of places to go not just as what they were, but what fundamental architectural categories they contained: indoors, outdoors, ventilated, not ventilated. The pandemic, I realized, had forced me into a peculiar readjustment not just of language, but of space, of topography, of cartography. I had not thought much about the distinctions between indoors and outdoors beyond what was available, affordable, and most enjoyable—or least unpleasant—at any one time; now, “indoors” and “outdoors” had become some rigid Manichaean binary, one bad and the other good, a person with a Goyaesque demon on one shoulder and an angel bright as Lucifer on the next.

Art is a way of strange-making, of re-encountering, of bringing the hulking fanged thing into view, fearsome and sublime all at once.

And I hated wearing a face mask. As a trans woman, I often think about what it means to have the privilege to “pass” or not, and while I don’t necessarily need makeup to do so, I’ve always thought of adding a dash of lipstick, in particular, as a way to “tip the scales,” so to speak, towards strangers subconsciously gendering me correctly at a glance. I also just love lipstick as a personal fashion statement, a look that has come to define me, and masks took it away, making me feel like a signature part of my aesthetic had been excised. I was more afraid, suddenly, of being misgendered. That fear may have been overblown, but I remember it strongly. I knew the masks were beneficial; I just loathed them. Later, I secretly came to like being able to hide away under one on the subway, but I still longed for the day when I could toss mine into the wind.

Life had shifted. The outdoors, broadly understood, became a refuge; its very essence was salvific, so we had to open front doors and windows when indoors, so that we would cease, in a sense, to truly be “indoors” even when we were. A dull thing like the circulation of air had taken on the glow of magic. It was like having floated asleep, for some weeks, somewhere far flung, a starship drifting amongst the nebula, and then suddenly waking up, back on Earth, and finding it incomprehensibly different from what we remembered.

This sense reminds me of Return from the Stars, a curious novel by the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, which I found by chance on a shelf in The Strand. I hadn’t been looking for the novel—in large part because I hadn’t known it existed—but the premise on the back immediately felt like it had been designed for this moment. In the novel, Hal Bregg, a space explorer from the 20th century, returns to Earth after a long mission, only to find that, due to time dilation, over a century on Earth has passed while he’s been away. In this new world, nearly all humans have undergone betrization, a medical procedure that radically reduces humans’ propensities for violence or taking risks; betrizated people can scarcely imagine hurting others or taking adventurous risks for the sake thereof, and all dangerous work is now done by robots.

Space exploration, therefore, is no longer something people do, or would imagine wanting to do, because simple peacefulness is the order of the day. Along with this, humans’ lifespans have extended, and they cosmetically alter their appearances to keep appearing youthful, so an old, grizzled, bumbling astronaut in this time is a comical museum relic at best and something vaguely alarming at worst.

The world Bregg finds is unfamiliar, and risk-taking for the sake of adventure and knowledge, the very foundations of his life’s work, are absurd bits of ancient history now. In this sense, Lem’s novel felt astonishingly apt for the coronavirus era, except that we were all versions of Bregg, thrust into a new world that did not fully understand or accept us, and where the elimination of risk is at once good—as a woman reader, it is difficult not to wonder about a world where men no longer follow you, grab you, try to make you submit to their red whims—and painful, because a world without uncertainty and risk is inherently, destructively dull. Here was a novel of now.

But, of course, this isn’t the full story. Some of Bregg’s views about gender and relationships are genuinely dated and puritanical, and he lashes out at betrizated women in frustration that horrifically crosses the line into assault. He realizes he has done terrible things out of his claustrophobia at being in a world he does not understand, but none of that justifies or erases the horror of his acts.

I left the book so uncertain of how to feel about it, knowing only that it was not marketed as horror, but it was, in fact, that. It was brilliant in its encapsulation of strangeness, terrifying in its encapsulation of assault. Then again, perhaps the latter, terribly, is what made the book feel grounded in reality, in the sense that even in this new, risk-free society, there is still that old threat from men so many of us know by instinct, that risk can never actually be eliminated, per se, that safety is a likelihood rather than some ironclad law granted by new medicine or technology.

We will never be entirely safe; we are always like divers surrounded by sharks too far away to see. And most of us know this, but it’s quite another thing to actually believe it.

*

But this essay is all wrong, because it’s one-sided. I’m not telling this story quite right. It’s hard to know where some stories begin; this one slips through my hands when I try to hold it.

For one, if the strange can be bad, it can also, as Shklovsky argued, be good, can be sublime as one of Friedrich’s vast landscapes. Humans have a tendency to associate strangeness with badness, but the strange is indivisibly neutral, as likely to be marvelous as malign.

Pandemics end, but we are not who we were when they started.

This was a year of strangeness, bad and beautiful alike, but even that label fails. You can’t really contain the multitudes of a single day, as Woolf and Joyce knew, so there’s no way you can reduce a year to a single feeling. 2020, after all, was also the year I proposed to the love of my life in the Brooklyn park we went to on our first date, secretly hiring a string trio to play our couple-song, Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance with Somebody,” as I got on one knee. It was the year we sequestered ourselves; it was the year we also explored our world like never before, appreciating our neighborhood’s little details on the walks that felt sacred. We connected more to nature on hikes away from other people. We learnt, anew, what mattered to us.

It was a shitty year, full of deaths and idiotic denials that there was a pandemic at all; but even it had its moments of awe, incomprehensible and privileged, in its luck, as that still seems to write. I cried and hated myself and the world; I also renewed my faith in that very world, not in its people, per se, but in simply living, and in the strange, controversial allure of risk. I can’t describe this year because it is both trauma and love, profane and sacred. It is void and star.

I never want to live through it again. But I also know I will never forget the feeling of its circling strangeness, and that the world may always feel a bit like that from now on, even once 2020 has faded into the library stillness of history textbooks.

*

We are in Florida in 2021 on a dive boat, ready to step into the sea to search for sharks and goliath groupers. We have been vaccinated and the promises of a vague “hot vax summer” are ringing in our ears. We’ve traveled here for a brief weekend; we have a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galapagos planned for July, after we had to cancel said trip in 2020, and we want to make sure we still feel comfortable in the water before we dive with Ecuador’s Darwinian denizens. Above all, I want to finally dive with some sharks. I’ve seen sea turtles, lobsters, gaping moray eels, but I’ve never dived with a shark. I want to feel what it is like.

As we descend into the shifting blue, shimmering bubbles from the other divers floating up like jellyfish-balloons, and I hear the clink of our dive master tapping his scuba tank to tell us to look his way. He points to a patch of sand. I look, bewildered, and then I see the shark, large as me, its body swaying as it swims into the shadows, underbelly white, skin the hue of storm clouds. In a moment, it is gone, but it sticks with me. Later, over the reef, a lemon shark flits into view in the distance, fins straight and body careening like some strange airplane, its exterior a curiously beautiful shade of yellowish murk.

They are the first sharks I’ve dived with—knowingly dived with, anyway, because they are always there over the horizons of reefs or in the caverns you do not even know are there, and they know you are there, but, contrary to popular belief, most have little overt interest in coming to investigate you. Earlier, I had snorkeled with Galapagos sharks in Hawaii as part of a shark-encounter service with the wonderful conservation agency One Ocean, and it had unnerved me, clinging to the side of the boat as the winds of the sea blew, graceful sinuous shadows of sharks circling beneath us, until a lightning storm forced us to evacuate this curiously Bond-villain-esque backdrop. But this was different; I was down there with them, in their world, glimpsing the strange icy marbles of their eyes. Every time I’d dived, though, they were probably there, just out of my sight.

Uncertainty is also just human, which means that being uncomfortable and unmoored are as well.

This was the point, though, that they are always there, but not usually dangerous, indeed smarter and more intriguing than the Jaws-inspired media makes the average shark out to be. They were avatars of the strangeness of the pandemic we were diving in, well, diving away from, diving a way to try to escape the sadness of the surface world for a bit. The sharks were always there, but most of the time, if you did not go out of your way to provoke them or model typical prey behavior by splashing or flailing or removing eye contact, you would be fine. Not always fine, because that uncertainty, that flourish of blood-panic in the back of your mind, will always be there, and rightly, because such encounters can never be totally risk-free, like just about every encounter in life. Risk is life; most people just don’t think about all the risks they have escaped each moment they remain alive.

The pandemic feels like this to me, at least: not a blitz of certain death across the board, not the rotting-away of the world, but that feeling on the back of my neck that something unsettling and dangerous might always be there, even in the places that felt safe and familiar. An invisible enemy, as Woolf famously called Death. Its effects, of course, are far from invisible, especially for essential workers—hospital staff most of all—and those who have had to watch loved ones perish, or who developed long forms of the disease, or who knew their own risk was heightened because they were immunocompromised or had specially-at-risk loved ones at home. There’s no way to be right in this pandemic, you see, because uncertainty and risk have become too visible, too real, for so many of us, and it is difficult to casually step back into old rhythms without feeling fear; then, there are the folks who scoff at this cautiousness, arguing that such fear is unwarranted and pathetic.

I fell into a strange middle place, where, especially once I had been vaccinated, I did not feel a kneejerk sense of fear being indoors or even taking off my mask in a packed restaurant or getting on a plane, but I also understood and respected those who would not feel comfortable doing these things, and I was furious at the people who refused to get vaccinated or who denied the pandemic existed at all. I was not living in total caution, but I was still following the basic protocols and being more careful than I had been prior to the pandemic. I was, I realized, diving even when I was on land, sharks all around me whether I saw them or not.

It’s uncomfortable being in-between, a camp of the borderlands, because certainty makes everything seem simpler: always do this, never do that. But uncertainty is also just human, which means that being uncomfortable and unmoored also are, as well, for better or for worse. A pandemic is a killer and a clarifier all at once, not in the sense of giving us clear answers, but of showing us how difficulty clarity actually is on many things when we spend enough time with them.

I have always been a contradiction, I reflected, nervous about something as simple as talking to a stranger at a party because of my shyness but willing to step out of an airplane three times to skydive with a demon’s wild grin. I both fear and love the risk-dance. I am no adrenalin junkie; I just like both the quiet of solitude and the sharp melodies of a devil playing on a brimstone piano, even if that latter side of me is smaller. I like familiar comforts, like anyone else. But, sometimes, defamiliarization is necessary, so we can remember the astonishing feeling of an encounter with something else, whatever that may be.

“Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony,” Shklovsky wrote in “Art as Device.” “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known…. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object.” Art, then, helps us remember—not by making something familiar, but by reminding us of the strange encounters we first had with all the things we have learnt to take for granted. Art is a way of strange-making, of re-encountering, of bringing the hulking fanged thing into view, fearsome and sublime all at once.

This pandemic has reminded us, over and over, about encounters: how they are dangerous, how they are necessary, how they are uncertainty given form. It’s still like this now in 2022; the strangeness is there, obvious as the vision of that first shark. The unfamiliar has itself become the familiar, now. I no longer know what “normalcy” will look like, but once it, as governments define it, does arrive, it will still not be 2019, even if it outwardly is indistinguishable; it can’t be, because too much strangeness has touched us.

Pandemics end, but we are not who we were when they started. The strange will always be there, now, quietly circling, then bumping, sometimes biting, sometimes fleeing, but always leaving its impression in us. It always was around us; it’s just become impossible to ignore. And maybe, for all the horror, this is okay—not the horror itself, but the simpler art of being forced to reconceive what encounters matter most to us, what places we are willing to dive into again, even if we do not know what may drift beneath us.

Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, The Cut, Tin House, The Guardian, Guernica, The Normal School, The Poetry Foundation, Lambda Literary, and many other places. She is working on her first novel.





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