Recognition / estrangement

I complained yesterday about the fact that many people will dismiss a book simply because it is science fiction.  One explanation for this offered by China Miéville is that our literary establishment has for some time* valued story-telling that presents the familiar to us, over story-telling that presents us with the unfamiliar.  It values ‘the literature of recognition’, over ‘the literature of estrangement’.

It is certainly the case that for a long time literature has been dominated by the realist novel, characterised by Miéville as ‘limpidly observed interiority, decodable metaphors, strained middle-class relationships and eternal truths of the human condition’, and I guess that does explain snootiness about novels set in imagined worlds, but, that said, I’m not sure that it’s really helpful to place recognition and estrangement at opposite ends of a spectrum.

It seems to me that, far from being opposites, recognition and estrangement are two sides of the same coin.  True recognition requires estrangement first, in order to shake off the numbing that comes with familiarity.  (That’s how metaphor works: that’s why Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’ is striking, because you don’t expect sea to be compared with something red.)   I’ve noticed that when film-makers want to achieve a sense of heightened reality, they use both slow motion and speeded up motion.   It’s not that there is something intrinsically less exciting about the actual speed at which life is lived.  It’s just that unfamiliarity sheds a new and different light which makes us notice things.  You have to step away from a thing to see it.

As T.S.Eliot wrote (though I’m sure he wasn’t the first or last):

…the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

A novel that showed us only familiar things from an entirely familiar perspective would be dull to the point of unreadability, and no decent realist novel ever really does this.  But a novel which offered strangeness with no point of connection with our own experience, would be equally unreadable.  Even (for instance) the famous Star Gate sequence in the film 2001, which might at first sight be a good example of completely baffling weirdness, works (or works for me) because it makes a connection with something inside ourselves.  We are star-dust, after all, we are billion-year old carbon, as Joni Mitchell said.  Middle class relationships, limpid interiority and all the rest it, are a very very temporary phase.

It’s not so much a case of choosing estrangement over recognition, as allowing the interplay of estrangement and recognition to take us a bit further from our taken-for-granted selves.

*I say ‘for some time’ because it hasn’t always been this way.  Most of the famous early works of literature are fantastical rather than realist.

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