Making it strange: literature and culture shock

Written by: Alan Pulverness
A previous version of this paper was first presented at Rome TESOL, in December 1999


The experience of learning a foreign language inevitably involves an encounter with different cultural contexts and with different ways of conceptualising the world. This can be disturbing or invigorating, depending on our attitude to the foreign culture. Literature often employs deliberate strategies of defamiliarisation that replicate this sense of strangeness, taking us on voyages of discovery or making us look afresh at our everyday surroundings. Genres which typically displace the reader in this way include historical fiction, science fiction and utopian (or dystopian) fantasies. There is also a growing body of literature in English reflecting the immigrant experience and the rich diversity of increasingly multi-cultural societies. This paper explored ways in which such intra-cultural texts can be used in the language classroom to promote greater inter-cultural awareness.

The Martian narrator of Craig Raine’s poem “A Martian sends a postcard home” thinks that books are mechanical birds with many wings that sometimes perch on the hand and cause the eyes to melt/or the body to shriek without pain. Henry Ford’s Model T car is seen by the alien as a room with the lock inside-/a key is turned to free the world/for movement. When the driver looks in the rearview mirror, there is a film to watch for anything missed. The telephone, seen through Martian eyes, becomes a haunted apparatus […] that snores when you pick it up and toilets seem to this bemused interplanetary visitor to be punishment rooms.

Raine’s poem gave its name to a group of British poets in the late 1970s, who became known as “The Martian School”. Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison, in their introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, said that the ‘Martian’ poets shared a delight in outrageous simile and like[d] to twist and mix language in order to revive the ordinary. The figure of the curious alien, bewildered by the most natural objects and events is a convenient representative for the writer who wants to take a fresh look at everything.

As a literary agenda, this is nothing new: at the end of the nineteenth century, the French poet, Mallarmé, wrote of wanting to give a purer sense to the language of the tribe; by the 1940s, the Russian literary theorist, Bakhtin, was concerned with the challenge that faces every writer in trying to use language whose impact has been blunted by passing through the hands of so many other users. Or as T S Eliot succinctly put it in Sweeney Agonistes, “I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you!” In response to this feeling that language – and hence writing – was in danger of losing its force because it was over-familiar, the Russian formalist critics, writing around 1917, had suggested that one of the main aims of literature was defamiliarisation. (The Russian word is ostranenie – or “making strange”.) Shklovsky, the central figure in the Formalsit group, examined the technique of Tolstoy in an influential essay called Art as technique:

After we see an object several times, we begin to recognise it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence we cannot say anything significant about it…. Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange…. 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.

Perhaps the most famous example is Tolstoy’s description of battle through Pierre’s eyes in War and Peace, seeing war – and making the reader see it – as if for the first time.

The experience of the learner encountering another culture either through the direct experience of travelling abroad, or simply through the language and the literature is, by definition, one of estrangement. The first thing to be registered is strangeness and difference.

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