Sunday, 21 August 2011

Strangeness

Following the successful run of indie author interviews, I am reclaiming my blog! Over the last few weeks I have posted interviews by people from all walks of life, who work and write in a number of very different genres. It got me thinking about the significance of strangeness, of how we react to things that are different to ourselves and the things we like. Difference, after all, is the hallmark of our ever-increasingly multicultural societies. How we react to the differences of others, and how we assimilate those differences, forms the crux of the question of how we all, as humans, interact.


In the first instance, we recognise strangeness as something different (Other) to ourselves. Something similar is not strange, otherwise we, too, would be strange. Therefore to define something/someone as Other defines you by default. The quest for similarity, of common ground, is universal: both in real life and in fiction. Strangeness is thus a socially constructed element of self-definition, it is what binds us to those who we perceive as like us.


Some theorists, not least Foucault, believe that in order to escape our socialisation we need to adopt self-alienating behaviour. By becoming strangers to ourselves, we break down the barriers that make us define others as strange by default. It is only by denying ourselves that we can ultimately accept both ourselves and others. However, if we achieve self-alienation, both everything and nothing is strange. If we become strange to ourselves, we lose our definition of what we are, and therefore cannot label anyone else as Other. Nothing would be strange, as the construct of strangeness would no longer apply. This, of course, does not happen in real life. People do not accept themselves as Other - they reject everyone else instead.


A fine example of that rejection exists in Huysmans' Au Rebours (Against Nature), which tells the story of a man - Des Esseintes - shutting himself away from society. Ultimately, Des Esseintes becomes ill, and is forced to return to society. The moral is that there is no escape from civilisation: the stranger is forced to integrate himself, as social interaction and inclusion is fundamental to human (mental) health.


Despite the implicit threat posed by strangeness, and the urge to conform, strangeness is often perceived as desirable, not least in fiction. The motif of the beautiful stranger is a universal cliche. A fine example of that is Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, in which his protagonist, Aschenbach, falls for Tadzio, a beautiful boy staying in the same hotel. Aschenbach never actually speaks to Tadzio: the entire persona that he gives the boy has been created in his own feverish, romantic imagination. Even his name is a construct - as all things must be named to be known. It is not the boy that Aschenbach loves, but Tadzio - the persona. An attractive stranger cannot remain strange indefinitely: the strange must become familiar, even if by artificial means. All desire for the strange is a desire for knowledge, and familiarity. If you see a beautiful person in a bar, you don't want to sit staring forlornly at them forever, you want to get to know them.


Strangeness is however not just a tool of alienation, is is also a tool of conformity. It is a way of demonstrating that you belong to a group, from which others are excluded. In this sense it is easy to see a rejection of a projected Other (straight / gay; white / black; male / female; rich / poor) as an indication of subconscious fear. The assumption is that no one hates themselves, therefore to hate something as Other is to deny any affiliation with that thing. This is what we are seeing through when we laughingly whisper "I think the lady doth protest too much..." 


However, that doesn't mean that conformity itself is not strange. We all bandy expressions about Big Brother and police states, and every western nation has chuckled over jokes about excessive conformity in the militarised or Communist east. This is best represented in literature by Brett Easton-Ellis' American Psycho, in which the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is not just the norm, but a member of the elite. In Bateman's mind, however, he identifies as something Other to what he appears to be, the famous image from the film of Christian Bale sums this up nicely: Bateman is the man behind the mask. He is a character who has self-alienated to such an extent that he actively seeks to destroy the very thing that his outward appearance represents. He symbolises the destructive rejection of the familiar. Normality, in American Psycho's sense, represents everything that is wrong with society: it is boring, sterile, conformist. In this sense, strangeness is almost an antidote.


Of course, while Bateman sees his otherness as something positive (he is effecting a change), Ellis is reinforcing the fact that strangeness is contrary to a safe and productive society: strangeness is dangerous.


Sometimes rejection of the strange can be required by society. To not reject something is to be seen to be affiliated with it. This is what makes integration so difficult for the stranger, those that would tolerate / welcome him dare not in case they be seen as strange themselves. A rift can then occur in the original group between the pro- and anti-stranger. This friction between what is still a cohesive unit (i.e. still defined as Other to the stranger) then calls into question the validity of the definitions which united the group originally; they are no longer the same. The differences that mark the Other become subtler. The ruling norm can then be split, and in that instance it is usually those who continue to reject the Other that are considered unreasonable (racist / misogynistic / homophobic). The importance of eventual integration is paramount, forcing us to conclude that while initial separation and wariness is a common response, it has no longevity


But why does any of this matter? Understanding the mechanics that inform our socialisation is key both to functioning in the world today, and to writing convincing fiction. All narratives have a pivot around which the action rotates, and that pivot usually involves the resolution of difference between characters. I have quoted from three extreme examples in literary fiction, but aren't all stories the same? They all involve discovering why someone is different; or meeting someone new; or feeling alienated. Strangeness in an underlying narrative that informs much of our daily lives. Strangeness is imperative, but it is also transient.

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Kate Aaron is an author of queer and fantasy novels and short stories. Find all her books on Amazon now http://www.amazon.com/Kate-Aaron/e/B0058DL8A0/

2 comments:

  1. this is a great post - i'm into foucoltian theory of intersex, and the idea of gender as an infinite continuum... also love death in venice, great analysis. cheers

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ego-Dead-ebook/dp/B005GHDU4K

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  2. thanks! it's been a while since I've written theory, I've been a bit lost in fiction recently. It made a nice change to stretch my legs here :-)

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