“A fresh look and a fresh listen,” said Robert Frost of a good poem. “Read it a hundred times: it will for ever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance.” A poem may not show us anything new, but what we see, we see afresh, and what we hear, we hear anew. Frost was talking about the poem itself: what it presents, and the way it does it, should strike us unexpectedly.
The English novelist and scholar David Lodge asked, “What do we mean . . . when we say that a book is ‘original’? Not, usually, that the writer has invented something without precedent, but that she has made us ‘perceive’ what we already, in a conceptual sense, ‘know,’ by deviating from the conventional, habitual ways of representing reality.” It is newness of seeing, rather than newness per se, that counts.
This effect or property of art—to see things anew—was given a name in a 1917 essay by the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky. He called it “defamiliarization.” As Shklovsky put it, “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” And to accomplish that, art makes objects “unfamiliar.” Art, in other words, has the power to make our process of seeing less habitual. Shklovsky goes on: “Habituation devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”
Thus art exists to restore to us our actual experience, unmediated by the veil of what we think we know. Defamiliarization is not a method for making a poem more interesting, nor is it a mere writerly tip on technique; it’s central to the function and place of art in our lives. Sure enough, a good poem’s effect endures beyond the actual reading. When we deeply engage with good literature, good art, it changes our habitual view of things. The world itself seems different, clearer, closer.
Shklovsky was writing at a time when Modernist art, the new art of the early 20th century—inaccessible, hard to understand, intended to upset conventional expectations—needed defending. He was an apologist for the avant-garde poet Mayakovsky, for example, whose poems were unabashedly “difficult,” whose creed, shared with other Russian Futurist poets, was zaum—“beyond reason.” But the point Shklovsky was making is much older. Perhaps it was ever thus: even Aristotle said that poetic language should appear “strange and wonderful.” Any work of art, old or new, has the power to be fresh. As Pasternak said of Pushkin and Chekhov, their work has “ripened of itself, like apples picked green from the trees, and has increasingly matured in sense and sweetness.” We may feel the same about Shakespeare, Dante, Ovid, Sappho, to name a random few: that ever-newness is integral to their longevity.
Perhaps, in fact, what Shklovsky was pointing to is something more encompassing even than art, something basic to the search for spiritual meaning in life; for however comfortable we may be in our certainties, we also long for a more immediate experience of this world. Even as we are impelled to strive to understand things, somehow we yearn at the same time to be divested of that understanding, so we can meet things more intimately. Defamiliarization is, then, both a function of art and a structural feature of spiritual life, and whether or not it is recognized in this way, it is the source of deep resonance between them.
The world is dynamic and changing; therein lies its freshness. But our ideas about it tend to grow static and calcified, even our ideas about the most important things: who we are, how things are, why the world is the way it is. Especially these, perhaps. Our accustomed way of seeing is just one way, yet as it hardens through habit, it tends to become our only way. To see the world anew is of a piece with wisdom.
In the various styles and forms of Buddhist teachings, different means are employed to undermine the certainty with which we hold our views. The early Buddhist scriptures tend to be didactic and discursive, often familiar to us moderns in their reason and rationality. Yet even here defamiliarization is at work, not so much in the style as in the content. In the sutta that is traditionally known as the Buddha’s second discourse (SN 22.59), for example, he deconstructs the five aggregates, referred to as form, feeling, perception, concepts, and consciousness, through the lens of the three marks of existence (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self ).
“What do you think of this, O monks? Is form permanent or impermanent?”—“Impermanent, O Lord.”—“Now, that which is impermanent, is it unsatisfactory or satisfactory?”—“Unsatisfactory, O Lord.”—“Now, that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard that as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self?’”—“Indeed, not that, O Lord.”
(Trans. N. K. G. Mendis)
Through a somewhat Socratic approach the Buddha destabilizes our preconceptions about the nature of our experience. Form is neither permanent, satisfactory, nor endowed with self-existence, though we surely may behave as though our cars and iPhones were when they get stolen or don’t work properly. He also systematically exposes the faulty assumptions that underlie the ongoing sense of a fixed self.
“If consciousness were the self, this consciousness would not lend itself to disease. It would be possible [to say] . . . ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’ But precisely because consciousness is not self, consciousness lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say], ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’”
(Trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
The argument is presented in an ordinary—that is, reasonable—way, but the conclusion it leads to is anything but ordinary: namely anatta, or non-self, one of the most revolutionary insights of Buddhism, offered at a time when belief not just in self but even in an immortal self was embedded in the cultural context. In rational language the Buddha defamiliarizes the experience of self, freeing his listeners, and us, of basic assumptions about it and opening up a more liberative way of experiencing.
The early teachings deconstruct many habitual ways of being and seeing. We think we’re permanent, but we’re not. We think that by craving things we’ll find happiness, but we won’t. One after another the Buddha challenges our established views, our ways of constructing our version of the world, and takes them apart: you think it’s one way but it’s not; you want an answer, but the problem is your very wanting of an answer, so I’m not giving it to you. To be sure, there is shock in these teachings, but it’s a salutary shock. Whatever view we may be grasping onto, or after, we must be dissuaded from it.
In John Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” the poet dramatizes a sudden expansion of view. Keats had never learned Greek and did not like Pope’s versions of the classics, but one evening in a friend’s house he was presented with a volume of the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman’s translation of Homer. He was captivated by it, and when his friend came down to breakfast the next day, he found the superb sonnet waiting on the table. It ends with these lines:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
In Chapman’s earthy, energetic lines, Keats felt that at last he could taste Homer’s world for himself. His literary imagination was ignited and expanded: it was like finding a whole new ocean. He had thought he knew what he was missing in Homer; now he finds that he was wrong and his world is enriched and broadened.
This kind of disbanding of an assumption—whether of something as fundamental as our sense of self, or merely of a preconception about a classical poet—can bring about a radical new openness. Indeed, Keats’s poem is not about Homer, or Chapman, but precisely about the defamiliarizing effect of his all-night reading. It celebrates the epiphanic quality art can have when it strips us of our limited views, of what we think we know.
Nor do age and tradition dull this power. Even Homer’s ink, at the base of the Western canon, remains wet. When the war-horses munch their barley at night on the plains of Troy, awaiting dawn on the eve of battle, and catch a glow from the Greek campfires, it’s as if we see horses stir from hoof to hoof in firelight for the first time. Homer’s works may be among the oldest European texts, but they are also the youngest. Everything seems new-minted. They depict a remote world; yet Homer makes it close, and in doing so he revivifies our appreciation of our own world, and helps us to see it too as if for the first time.
This process is enacted with the poet’s epic similes. Again and again he interrupts the action of, say, a battle scene, to bring us into the peacetime world of the Mycenean countryside. In a sense poetic metaphor and simile are always a matter of defamiliarization. When two phenomena are brought together by unexpected likeness, both are “made strange.” In Homer’s famous simile for the storming of the Achaean troops from their ships before Troy—likened to the swarming of bees—the ordinary local event of bees moving from one home to another is given an epic cast, which it seems to truly deserve. At the same time the great human cataclysm—the loss of a city—is presented as part of a natural cycle. Both sides of the simile are at once defamiliarized, and simultaneously redeemed and exalted.
Which also folds back into Buddha’s investigation of the self and non-self: the defamiliarizing of a human experience such as loss creates the possibility of distance from it, and thus also from the self to whom we assume it pertains.
In the early Buddhist texts, defamiliarization is established in the content of what is said; in the later Mahayana teachings of the early first millennium C.E., it tends to occupy a central place not just in the content but in the very form of the texts. The scriptures do not merely speak about the deconstruction of preconception; they enact it. The Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) scriptures, which hinge on emptiness, for example, are generally discursive, like the early texts, but they operate by inversions of logic. Categories of thought, including Buddhism’s own categories, are frequently turned on their head: The truths they express are only conventional; ultimately, our ideas are empty constructs. We know there is suffering, a cause of suffering, cessation, and a path; after all, that is why we’re practicing Buddhists: to travel the path out of suffering. But the Heart Sutra, a kind of distillation of Prajnaparamita teachings, expressly declares: “No suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation, and no path.” And thus, because suffering is rooted in attachment to conceptualizations, there is a path. And yet there isn’t.
The early Pali teachings are in some ways easier to grasp, or at least to follow; we can easily find ourselves at sea in these later texts. This is especially true of the great visionary Mahayana sutras like the Avatamsaka, Vimalakirti, and Lotus sutras. They can seem dauntingly strange and foreign. But they work differently, in a more poetic way, and when we approach them in that spirit they can work on us too.
In the Vimalakirti Sutra, various kinds of defamiliarization are at work. Familiar notions of space and time are repeatedly challenged. Thousands upon thousands of bodhisattvas, Brahmas, devas, nagas, yakshas, and other kinds of mythical and divine beings congregate outside the ailing Vimalakirti’s hut. Five hundred youths from the nearby town come forth with jeweled parasols and set them down before the Buddha, who is also there.
As soon as all these parasols had been laid down, suddenly, by the miraculous power of the Lord Buddha, they were transformed into a single precious canopy so great that it formed a covering for this entire billion-world galaxy. The surface of the entire billion-world galaxy was reflected in the interior of the great precious canopy, where the total content of this galaxy could be seen: limitless mansions of suns, moons, and stellar bodies; the realms of the devas, nagas, yakshas. . . . all the great oceans, rivers, bays, torrents, streams, brooks, and springs; finally, all the villages, suburbs, cities, capitals, provinces, and wildernesses. All this could be clearly seen by everyone.
(Trans. Robert Thurman)
I have left out many items in a list too lengthy to enumerate here. The point seems to be this: everything everywhere was miraculously visible, reflected in the canopy formed by the magical parasols. Later, a conjured deity travels past innumerable “buddha-worlds” to teleport a host of 84,000 bodhisattvas to Vimalakirti’s hut.
It would be easy to gloss this as mere religious hyperbole. But it has a cumulative effect. It takes us not just to a realm of poetry, but to a condition in which our conventional understanding of the ways things work is disassembled. Time is upset; space is upset; quantity, magnitude, scope are all expanded beyond normal categories of understanding.
Yet alongside these spectacular displays of the possibilities of perception, Vimalakirti offers the following teaching:
Insofar as apparent objects are perceived, they are the basis of sickness. What things are perceived as objects? . . . What is the thorough understanding of the basic, apparent object? It is its nonperception, as no objects exist ultimately.
No sooner has our perception been expanded than we are brought back to the emptiness teachings of the Prajnaparamita: seeing is not-seeing, perception is nonperception. Appearances are dualistic, but this dualism is without ultimate basis, and our failure to understand that is the source of our sickness. Yet Vimalakirti is himself sick, which is why all the great beings have gathered at his humble—yet all-encompassing—shack. What is he sick with? The sickness of all beings. And what is their sickness? No sickness.
This kind of repeated destabilizing is surely intended to produce an effect. It’s as if the early teachings of Buddhism in the Pali canon patiently seek to conduct us out of our deluded view of things, while in the Mahayana sutras the intention is more to drop us into the middle of the mind of Buddha, as it were, from which we look out and see as he sees. And what we see is both infinite and no-seeing at all.
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.”
When we come to the Zen koans, we find a tradition in full engagement with the workings of defamiliarization in a most direct and compelling way. In a famous case from the Sung dynasty koan collection The Gateless Gate (Mumonkan), Goso said, “To give an example, it is like a buffalo passing through a window. Its head, horns and four legs have all passed through. Why is it that its tail cannot?”
The whole beast can pass through this window, so why is it that its little tail can’t? The question would seem to flout all laws of physics, space, volume, size, and so on—to defamiliarize them. The only way to resolve the koan is to somehow surrender our habitual understanding in hopes that a new way of seeing will come forth, in which the apparent nonsense of the koan becomes a new kind of sense—a new way of seeing, indeed.
Similarly, a koan from the Blue Cliff Record records a meeting between Master Isan and his female student Ryu Tetsuma.
Ryu Tetsuma came to Isan.
Isan said, “Old Cow [a term of respect and endearment], you have come!”
Tetsuma said, “Tomorrow there will be a great feast at Mount Tai. Will you go there, Master?”
Isan lay down and stretched himself out.
Tetsuma left immediately.
Tetsuma’s question to Isan is patent nonsense: Mount Tai was some 800 miles from Isan’s temple. The suggestion that he might go there for a feast the following day confounds normal notions of time and space (this was 9th-century China, after all). Then Isan lies down by way of answer; at which point Tetsuma leaves.
Was she satisfied with the visit? Had they communicated in some way hidden to the normal mind? What on earth are we to make of this nonsensical behavior?
But in fact it’s not mere nonsense; it’s more that we have an order or scheme by and through which we ordinarily experience time and space. The koan directly challenges that. If we apply our normal view to the koan we won’t get anywhere. Our concepts of time and space have to collapse: that’s the only way the koan can be resolved.
In a sense the koan is of a piece with the view that buddha-nature is manifestly and inherently present in and as everything, always. Yet in another sense it’s not really a view of that proposition. Rather, the koan’s purpose is to see things from buddhanature’s point of view, as it were, rather than instill an idea about it from our own point of view. Or we might say that the experience crystalized in the koan is only revealed when we realize that our own point of view is the very same as buddhanature’s point of view. At which point our usual notions of the physical properties of things may collapse.
Koans seek to draw the student away from a perspective on the teachings and into an experience of the teachings—of emptiness, for example, or of the oneness of subject and object, and so on—through a radical defamiliarizing of perception. We may then experience any ordinary sight or sound in a non-ordinary way; the familiar may become deeply unfamiliar, as the koans deconstruct our view of things in order to release us into a new openness. And in this openness we may discover that all the conceptual and perceptual intricacies of Mahayana philosophy finally are no different from ordinary life as it is, except that they are seen anew and afresh. So the defamiliarization inherent in Zen training also necessarily involves a return to the familiar.
This kind of resolution of the path of practice is expressed with exceptional nuance and thoroughness in the writings of the 13th-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, who is perhaps most famous for his teaching that practice itself is realization. This would seem, at least initially, to contradict the entire Buddhist project: if enlightenment is from the outset fully present in practice, then what need is there of a path?
Maybe it’s no accident that interest in Dogen has surged over the past hundred years. He goes beyond all normal categories of expression and thought in a way that can call to mind some of the Modernist writings of the early 20th century. In his more poetic teachings he seems intent on taking defamiliarization to all possible depths and in all directions. He turns Buddhist doctrine and even hallmark Zen teachings on their head. His very writing defies categories: it is poetic but usually not poetry; it is philosophical, but it isn’t philosophy; it includes koans, but his approach is entirely his own; and translators say his Japanese is so idiosyncratic it amounts almost to a language of its own, as though he had to invent it to say what he wanted to say.
But Dogen’s assertion that practice is enlightenment doesn’t mean that there is no enlightenment; it means that the fulfillment of enlightenment can’t be found anywhere but here, now, just as things are. As the Zen teacher Norman Fischer has said, “For Dogen the ultimate standpoint of dharma is simply the full affirmation of our ordinary human world of attachment and aversion and their consequences. It is precisely through full appreciation of this vale of tears that Buddha’s illumination shines in us.”
Even in the midst of our woes and troubles, all is already complete and fulfilled: for Dogen, the path is simply about seeing and experiencing this life as it is, in full awareness that all of it is buddhanature itself, even our antipathies and longings, even our very selves. Or perhaps not even in that awareness: rather, we may forget all about that and merely allow the unfolding of buddhanature to happen through and as our experience. “No trace of this realization remains,” he says in the Genjokoan, “and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
At this point it’s no longer possible to say what is familiar or unfamiliar: “The Buddha way is not carried over from before,” Dogen states in the Shobogenzo, “nor is it merely arising now.” It’s not old, and it’s not new, neither familiar nor unfamiliar. The known is both known and new, and the new both new and known. So all is well.
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