Defamiliarization and James Take’s ‘A More Prosperous Nation’

Victor Shklovsky’s seminal essay “Art as Technique” plays a crucial role in the foundation of literary theory. As a creative exponent of Russian Formalism, he took ideas concerning textual analysis to a new level. Shklovsky’s theories on literary technique and art allowed for the experience between reader and author to manifest towards a new precipice—that of sensation, of “experiencing the artfulness of an object” (720) while rendering the object itself void. This is why when critics apply his ideas to a piece of literature, in this case a poem from James Take’s “Return to the City of the White Donkey” (entitled “A More Prosperous Nation”), the reader gleams a profound dichotomy between what is written and what is signified.

The originality of Shklovsky’s theory reside in his concept of “defamilirization”. Regarding art, he writes “[its] purpose… is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known”, that art’s “technique… is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged”. This was what he would dub experiencing the ‘artfulness of an object’. Defamiliarization aims to dispel what Shklovsky names as the “automatic unconsciouss” or that perceptual mode which forces our analytical habits into an uncritical pose. Of such an uncritical, unconscious pose, the ‘automatic’ prevents literary work from being experienced at their most base level: if readers are “algebraically” interpreting texts, as opposed to taking in concepts as a whole, then the individual characteristics becomes fluid, thereby reclaiming the “sensation of life” which exists within an object yet is simultaneously clouded by an automatic internalization of its properties. Accordingly, this is why art fills this void as the harbinger of meaning: because it strikes through the all devouring habitualization and adds interpretative content based on perception, not knowing.

Perception, as such, unfurls in James Take’s “A More Prosperous Nation” when the narrative describes a ghastly baby; being a “disgusting little creature” (1) and something which devoured “a dozen tomatoes” before puking “and… eat[ing] more”, “Babies” are an odd animal. Never does the narrator say what babies actually are, whether they are animals, mythological creatures, demonized outlaws, or monsters. The narrative only speaks of the protagonist being so frightened that they hurriedly call the police, as they themselves lack the courage to “shoot… them on sight” and “end [an] epidemic” which had sprung up in their part of the state. Two minutes is all it takes for the police to arrive bearing shotguns. The protagonist retreats inside as the policemen engage the creature. The protagonist waits but hears no loud boom indicative of a struggle; so arming themselves with a kitchen knife to investigate, all while hoping that the creature did not eat the two policemen, the protagonist discovers that the policemen are merely taking a break and that the baby was, in fact, only a wild, unwanted baby and that while would be likely back, poses little risk; the police recommend that she “’share the bounty’” that is her crops the wild baby being “’only babies, you know’”.

It is an odd narrative which could be interpreted in many different lights. However, for the purposes of applying Shklovsky’s ideas, I will focus on how an unidentified life-form, possibly a bear or large ape-creature, or maybe even a humanoid species, becomes mystified through the power of defamiliarization. The foundation for Take’s defamiliarization resides in the breakdown between signified and signifier. A “baby”, typically thought of as a harmless and adorable life form, is transmogrified into an otherworldly entity; “snarl[ing]”, “quick and vicious”, and “disgusting” are all words used to denote such a baby. This set of qualifiers shrouds the creature in an aura of mystery—clearly this baby is not one in the same with a human baby. These mystifications evolve when the reader considers the baby’s actions: it eats, “by the fistful” the protagonist’s flowers, prior to “roll[ing] around in the dirt, laughing”. It also bites the ankle of one of the policemen. Descriptors such as by the “fistful” and “laughing” seem to denote a human characteristic, while rolling in the dirt, a very animalistic (dog-like) quality. The police says to the woman that, despite what the woman has read regarding their supposedly dangerous nature, “they’re only babies, you know”. Henceforth, in a single stroke, the reader witnesses an uncertain grey area between the propaganda the protagonist readers, and the reality of baby life itself. All of this points to a conflict in perception, and ultimately, the essence; Take’s intention here is likely to draw back the curtain on this seemingly rudimentary experience of discovering a wild, or homeless, creature-person in your garden to reveal the existential emotion within, of the “artfulness” of the encounter articulated through the added layer of social commentary.

Take’s description recalls Shklovsky’s statement of art to impart a thing’s sensation as perceived, not as known (720). Hence why the creature’s mystification is sublimated within culture: Take is attempting to take a common, albeit “dangerous” nuisance, and paint it as unfamiliar but not wholly so; something which is nebulous only when divorced from the system of signifiers unearthing the perception, an object’s core essence, not readily available upon initial inspection. Accordingly, this is why the social commentary is only digested upon excavating the poem itself.

Right off the bat we see an idiosyncrasy within the title itself: “A More Prosperous Nation”, which is a play on words concerning the varied Americana phrases relating to liberty and justice, becomes sinister and twisted once the reader interprets the poem as a scathing social commentary on homelessness. Possible authorial desire to spread awareness of the challenges homeless people face, and how they are perceived at large by society, are revealed exactly by those defamiliarzed lines of texts, when seen contrasted against the mildly sarcastic title; a title which deconstructs the notion of American wealth and power by referencing the philosophical poverty of a nation which is so terrified of the homeless that it is necessary to call the police, if not ‘shoot them on sight’.

Facets of the text relating to the perception of homelessness is seen early: the narrator muses on how babies were becoming a “nuisance”, how they are “vicious” and “disgusting”. Each descriptor corresponds to popular imaginings of the societal role of the homeless and their conduct generally. Moreover, babies are desperate for food. The lines state “I watched it eat a dozen tomatoes.” After this the baby throws up and continues eating. Medically speaking this is normal starvation behavior, as the body becomes increasingly withered a large intake of food becomes too much for the shutting down organs to deal with and the remaining excess is expelled. Starving, of course, the person continues eating. Tendency, as such, to theft and the perceived gluttony serves the fear element: the narrator’s first impulse is to call the police who, armed to the teeth with shotguns, represents state power as the arbiter of who is allowed to live and who is allowed to be removed or killed. All of this points to a creature desperate to live and yet seen as despicable by the general populace despite being exactly like them except for the lacking of a home.

Understandably, the poem’s title betrays the convictions of the protagonist through the medium of the police officer’s comments at the end, thus problematizing the state role in the homeless question itself. This is evidenced by the distinction made by one of the officers “That wasn’t a real wild baby… that was just a baby someone didn’t want” thus signaling an additional dichotomy within the homeless structure itself—that there are acceptable babies (homeless) who may be handled compassionately, while others “real babies” (homeless) who must be handled lethally; one could easily equate this distinction as the former constituting temporary homelessness, as a middle class person down on their luck but with plans to re-ascend, while the latter constitutes permanent homelessness. One of the policemen says, “you’ve got plenty to go around. They’re only babies, you know.” Said in response to the protagonist’s pleading for safety in their garden, such sentiment is indicative of a political orientation geared toward either charity or a re-distributive economics. The lack of harmony between the unwanted babies and those with food enough for two, signal the title as social commentary taking aim toward unequal resource ownership.

All of the above critique would be indispensable were it not for Victor Shklovsky and his “Art of Technique”. Social critique revealed through de-familiarizing everyday concepts, through demanding of the reader a more paced reading requiring them to experience the artfulness of a commodity or person, instead of merely it was a thing in day-to-day life, renders new experiences previously unrecognizable. Take’s poem, “A More Prosperous Nation” does exactly this in its treatment of class life: the homeless are de-familiarized in order to bring their plight to light. While doing so Take frames himself as a proud adept of Shklovsky’s theory.

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