© 2018 Greg & Sylvia RAY

When the familiar becomes unfamiliar

AS a child sometimes I used to stare into a mirror at my own face, unblinking, for minutes at a time. It got scary. Because at a certain point my own familiar face stopped being recognisable and I saw a weird creature. I couldn’t look at it for long, but nor did I have to, since the merest movement of my eyes brought back the familiar me. But I thought about what happened and I realised that the benign interpretation of my face that I had become accustomed to wasn’t necessarily the only way it could be seen: that there were other ways of seeing this skinny pale being, with its questing sense organs clustered on a tough, nuggety extremity that also housed its predatory energy intake, complete with the businesslike teeth that lined its edges.

This exercise was an early introduction to my lifelong preoccupation with the knowledge that things aren’t necessarily what they seem, or what we accept them to be. I got used to the idea that getting by effectively in day-to-day life requires me to learn to see things a certain way, but that those useful interpretations aren’t necessarily the “truth”.

Another example. Sometimes when I look intently at another organism, stripping it of its name and all of its familiarity, I get a jolt from perceiving it in a new way. Part of the jolt comes from the idea that the entire world as experienced by that organism must be greatly different from the one I live in. Then I’m dizzied by the sense of being surrounded by worlds within worlds, inhabited by beings that are necessarily beyond my understanding. This also comes with the instant realisation that none of these beings are more or less important than me: that they are driven by imperatives of their own that I can’t experience and the vastness of the enterprise of life and existence seems to fold in on me, overwhelming my mind.

Interestingly, I read a possibly relevant account of something similar described by the Victorian-era romantic poet Alfred Tennyson. This passage comes from Frank Harris’s unreliable memoir, My Life and Loves: “Writing on March 7th 1874, to a gentleman who had communicated to him some strange experience which he had under anaesthetics, Tennyson said; ‘I have never had any revelations through anaesthetics, but a kind of waking trance – this for lack of a better name – I have frequently had quite up from boyhood when I have been all alone. This is often come upon me through repeating of my own name to myself silently ’til all at once, as it were, out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, a loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life’. “As if conscious of the significance of the statement thus detailed he adds: ‘I am ashamed of my feeble description. Have I not said the state is utterly beyond words?’.” I’ve often speculated about the origins of inspiration, especially when I contrast the sublimity of some works of art with the mundane nature of their creators. This account by Tennyson – a shallow character to all appearance – only feeds that speculation.

Another example of defamiliarisation from my own life. Now and then, when I’m reading or writing, some particular word suddenly looks wrong. Something about it seems off. I find myself unsure whether the spelling is correct and I want to look it up, just to be sure.

Normally my eyes flick onto a word for just a moment and I don’t need to wonder or think about it. It is what it is, and my mind fills in the sound of the word as if is being spoken, the narrow meaning in which it is being used in the given context and perhaps a visual image of what it represents. The process is automatic, more or less.

When the glitch happens though, my brain goes into a flap. The word that is usually passed over in less than a blink becomes a stumbling block until I reconfirm with external authority that it is correct on the page after all. Things go back to normal in a little while, and that word is the same as it was before. Except I remember what happened . . .  

Sometimes I can induce the effect. I can stare at a page of text or a sign until the words dissolve from their familiar forms and reassemble as “foreign”. It’s as though I am looking at a page written in a language I never learned to read. A page of typed English looks very much like script I’ve seen on Sri Lankan documents – characterised very much by curves and curlicues. I think to myself that this is what a page of English text looks like to somebody who can’t read the language.

In younger days when I experimented with marihuana I occasionally relished the shift in perception the drug provided, making familiar things and ideas seem strange and new. It was a short cut, in a way. The time came when I concluded that, for me, the downside of the drug outweighed the upside and I left it behind. But at the time I appreciated its potential fast-track to new views of my world.

Nowadays I think of the process of defamiliarization as a kind of meditation in which I see myself as dipping my toes, metaphorically, in a vast ocean of existence, most of which is beyond my understanding and certainly beyond words. It’s strange and confronting at times, when I see it as infinitely impersonal and yet intimately connected to me, deep down where dreams blend with daily life and the whole of existence seems to be talking at once in signs and symbols I may or may not recognise.

Most recently I’ve been trying to turn the attention of defamiliarization on my own sense of self. It’s like mirror-staring my face, except inwardly. The interesting question is, how do you look at your self if you are your self?

It’s a very good question, well worth contemplating.

If you find it interesting, then perhaps you can figure it out for your self.

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