In a slew of personal and pedagogical incarnations I have given serious thought to the notion of what a complete stranger to our human culture would take away from it. [It happens to be a great way to teach metaphors and figurative language in English, perceptual and vernacular regions in Geography, the relative nature of History, as well as sense of place in Geography and Literature, if you were wondering whether this might just be another bloody *reflective* rumination.] I am intrigued by this question not only because I am often bewildered by the shit I see in my daily life (in positive and negative ways) but also because since I was very young, I have regularly considered my actions and behavior in terms of how it would appear as a film; a clear euphemism for “in the eyes of others.” I would not necessarily condone this practice by the way, but hey, we all have our own idiosyncrasies – healthy or not.
IN recent years it seems even more obvious that so much of what human animals do anymore is built around creating this virtual movie montage of our lives and our identities and our significance. I don’t think it can really be just me who does this. And further, according to that same sourcce the blogosphere is booming, if not always blooming (or maybe that should be expressed the other way around?) I spend a great deal of time trying to articulate effective comparisons of my Hong Kong life to my homies in the States, and vice versa. I often turn to photos, but still, the experiential differences are often so much richer, and confoundingly more subtle. How can one gift an experience so removed, to others, who in spite of familial or familiar intimacy, have not seen what you have seen?
There was a minor literary movement in the late Seventies in Britain built on what was/is called Martian Poetry. The primary aim of Martian poetry (incidentally ‘Martianism is an anagram of Martin Amis, one of the key contributors to the movement – I like how these guys operate) was “to make the familiar strange… through the heavy use of curious, exotic and humorous visual metaphors… Martian Poetry aimed to break the grip of ‘the familiar’, by describing ordinary things in unfamiliar ways.” Of this movement, loosely associated with several others including surrealist and metaphysical poetry (about which Samuel Johnson dished one of my current favorite quotations: “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”) Martian poets tried to force people to let go of their accepted assumptions of cultural norms regarding behavior and culture both material and abstract. Breaking the grip of the familiar.
As the contemporary epistolary form, blogging may seek to break this grip. Or, it could be, as I have suggested before, a simply narcissistic obsession of people too self-involved to get out there into the meatspace. (Sigh.) All this comes together for me in Craig Raine’s poem, “A Martian Sends A Postcard Home.” A more traditional epistle – this free verse poem made up of riddle-like couplets is one of my favorites (yeah, yeah, yeah, I do not like poetry, I know) and supposes the speaker to be a Martian trying to explain life on Earth to his folks on the Red Planet via a common vacation tool: the postcard. I love this particular effort not only for the myriad ways it can be used in the classroom, but also for the interesting and creative descriptions of such common (at least for us who remember phones that actually had a dial…) elements of the mundane human world. Raine’s use of metaphor and the notion of this being from the point of view of a Martian tourist are both really effective as well, partly because “the epistolary form can add greater realism to a story, because it mimics the workings of real life… and is thus able to demonstrate differing points of view without recourse to the device of an omniscient narrator” and partly because we forget that the idea of a Martian traipsing around among us might be odd. The Martian has become “normal” in his efforts to describe a world totally bizarre to him and the telephone, books and taking a poop have become fantastically strange. Totally unfamiliar. The grip has broken.
I take heart in the idea that there may still be things that defy the scope of familiarity. Not to say that everyone is jaded, but I certainly miss being around people who are genuinely intrigued by things other than who the politician is sleeping with, or what Lindsay Lohan took in one of her bodily orifices. [And in many ways everyone does seem to be jaded, or want to be, these days.] Anymore, the course of general discourse is more an exchange of one-upmanship and somehow, it is no longer acceptable to say, “Woah, I have never seen/heard/read/done that!” This is kind of ridiculous particularly if you subscribe to any sort of empirical belief system, and even if you are transcendental to the max, I would suggest that your experiences are always somehow unique – colored by your personal vernacular among other things. The grip of the familiar consists of the assumptions we hold regarding norms and what is “okay.” This grip can be crippling, and I would argue it underlies a lot of current dramz in the world. Consider for a moment if everyone looked at the weirdness and strangeness around them with the interest of Raine’s Martian rather than defaulting to fear and freakery. I hate to even bring up a leading financial institution in this analysis, but HSBC has long been putting forward an ad campaign I love, and sums up several of these points nicely. It has morphed from the dualistic ‘different points of view’ to ‘different values.’ The basic tag line is: “The more you look at the world, the more you recognize how people value things differently.” Word.
It is fun to try to make my unfamiliar life more familiar to those I share it with, though I do not know if it really works (or if that matters.) To acknowledge the infinite potential perspectives is also pretty trick – it is like the most epic 3-D glasses you could come by. I also understand that the experience-by-proxy doesn’t work for everyone. I also get that it can come across as completely self-obsessive. Still, I persist in my recently heightened observations of my current surroundings, hoping to somehow find the way to communicate to my peoples how I have broken, mended and adjusted the grip of the familiar.
At night when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs
and read about themselves —
in colour, with their eyelids shut.