The (Un)Familiar Essay by Sasha Steensen


 “We live on familiar terms with the people in our own family, our own milieu, our own class. This constant impression of familiarity makes us think that we know them, that their outlines are defined for us, and that they see themselves as having those same outlines. We define them (Peter is this, Paul is that) and we judge them. We can identify with them or exclude them from our world. But the familiar is not necessary the known....Familiarity, what is familiar, conceals human beings and makes them difficult to know by giving them a mask we can recognize, a mask that is   merely the lack of something. And yet familiarity (mine with other people, other people’s with me) is by no means an illusion. It is real, and is part of reality.  Masks cling to our faces.”

—Henri Lefebvre, The Critique of Everyday Life

walnuts and other imposters


Walnuts are among humans’ oldest food.  In Iraq, archeologists have found walnut remains that date from 50, 000 bce. One Greek legend holds that the gods’ diet consisted of walnuts alone.  The same legend tells us that mortals ate only acorns.  We know walnuts have been consumed in Europe for at least 8000 years, and in Asia for over 2000 years.  When Vesuvius erupted, a mound of walnuts were left behind in Pompeii’s Temple of Isis.  Presumably, this patron of motherhood and marriage, this goddess of slaves, sinners and anyone downtrodden, was particularly fond of walnuts. Or, her devotees were. In short, humans have a long-standing relationship with the walnut.  But our English word for “walnut” comes from the Old English walhnutu meaning “foreign nut.”  The walnut as imposter.  That is how we experience the walnut in my house—a dangerous stranger.  My youngest daughter is deathly allergic to walnuts.  When she first ate one when she was two, her face swelled up and she vomited up everything she had eaten in the last 24 hours, and then some.  Once when my father ate a walnut and kissed my daughter on the check, a bright red welt appeared. I go in fear of the walnut.  Even the word frightens me.


Sometimes it feels like certain words are out to get me.  As if to collude with “walhnutu,” the word “allergy” comes from the Greek words “allos” (other, different, strange) and “ergon” (work or energy).  Put these words together and it becomes a wonder anyone can eat a walnut and live!  An allergy is a misidentification in which the body decides that something harmless is, in fact, full of harm.  The body acts immediately to protect itself, but the protection it offers can be mortally damaging.  If the throat closes, we must shoot the body full of adrenaline in hopes the airwaves might reopen.  And it sometimes feels like these misidentifications are contagious.  Recently my other daughter, who had eaten walnuts without any ill effect until she was eight years old, reported an itchy mouth when I allowed her to eat a walnut cookie at the grocery store (walnuts never pass through our front door).  It turns out she, too, has become allergic.


And there are other allergies—other foods, animals, pollens.  It sounds absurd, but my sensitive girl has been known to have an allergic reaction to fruits that were pollinated by a bee that previously pollinated one of her plant allergies, say, for example, a birch tree.  Why do some bodies make an imposter of something so familiar to most bodies?  Every evening I place a single drop of sixty-four things unfamiliar to my daughter under her tounge, and she swallows them.  Slowly, we hope, her body will come to recognize these substances as familiar. I have also taken to writing little poems for all of my daughter’s allergies (for the coconut, the cashew, the pecan, for ragweed, timothy grass, the birch tree) as if speaking their names aloud will build up a realm of protection around my child.  That is how familiarity works, after all.  We see, hear, smell, touch, taste someone or something more than once and at some point, that person or substance is less of a mystery.  We settle into it.


Outside of allergies and other auto-immune diseases, there are occasions when too much familiarity can become its own kind of problem.  In relationships, familiarity is an impression that both roughly reflects, and dangerously determines, our experiences of one another.  The family is the primary site for such formations, and it does not take this opportunity for granted. The family loves its hall of oval-framed silhouettes, its craft table piled high with blank masks, glue sticks and sequins.   I look into my baby’s eyes. I point at myself. I say, Mama. I celebrate when she says it back to me.  I call my own mother and excitedly tell her the news.


But, as Lefebvre suggests, the familiarity we experience in the presence of our intimates is an impression, not a fact.  Something unfamiliar lies behind the masks that cling to our loved one’s faces. And yet we cannot simply remove them.  What are we to do with the masks, with the silhouettes?  The outlines that we (think we) identify in others probably cannot be completely reconstituted.  They are “real,” says Lefebvre, but they are also “the lack of something.”  What is this lack?   Perhaps the mask’s eyehole or its nostril, will allow us just a quick glimpse.   Perhaps the mask can tremble a little, or perhaps we can gaze back, and look around the mask, from another angle.  Perhaps the lack is made up, in part, of the very word—familiar—that we’ve come to know like a brother.


Let’s begin with the Latin familia. Reach in your quiver, then, and aim your arrow at the egg, just about to hatch.  It cracks.  What is born is not the modern family, complete in its intimacy, but rather, the master-slave relation.  Familia begins not by denoting a collection of members living under the same roof, but rather, the servants of that household. The slave was the master’s familiar.  Paidos, the Greek word for both child and slave, suggests that there was very little distinction between a child, even if he or she is one’s own, and a slave.  In fact, all who “shared” the space of the household—both the slave and the subordinate family member—belonged to the master.  Wasn’t “shared” suspect even then? No one, neither slave nor daughter nor son nor wife can be said to “share” space he or she does not own.  This is no way to get to know someone.


In Latin, an entirely different word—domus—was used to refer to parents and their children. But the Greek doma means house itself. Words shelter. The family is at home.  Or are they?  Freud says perhaps not.  He reminds us that the German word heimlich (homely, canny) means “belonging to the house, not strange, familiar.”  But does unheimlich (uncanny) simply mean its opposite?  Is the uncanny frightening because it is so unfamiliar, so strange, so foreign?  No, because heimlich has a second connotation that, once revealed, seems to contradict its primary definition. This second meaning—“concealed, kept from sight—” is itself almost successfully hidden. Homely, argues Freud, refers both to that which is known and to that which is concealed.  The uncanny is frightening not because it is unfamiliar, but because there is something hidden in the heart of what is most familiar.  Freud writes:

In general we are reminded that the word ‘heimlich’ is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight. ‘Unheimlich’ is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of’ heimlich’, and not of the second....Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich.


Coincides, or collides.  Either way, we’ve found our subject—that which is home-like and not-home-like at once.  The family hides itself from itself, and no matter how familiar we are with one another, there is something hidden in the house.


It isn’t until the Early Modern period when we first encounter the word family as we’ve come to use it, but words don’t completely forget their etymons when they move on. Etymologies often belie the familiarity upon which words rest.  Take the word “silhouette.”  After France’s Seven Years’ War, the French finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette, imposed economic demands on France’s wealthiest citizens, leaving them unable to purchase luxury items such as painted portraits of themselves or their family members. Outline portraits were a cheap alternative, and thus our silhouettes hanging in the hall conceal a history of ridicule.  Even if we have to dig to discover it, Etienne is forever associated with all things cheaply made.


Likewise, the word “familiar” greedily clasps its former slave, evoking not intimacy, but control.  In the slave-master relationship, the familiar was subordinate, but during the Inquisition, the familiar sat firmly in the middle of the church’s power structure, both answering to and controlling others.  The familiar, an officer charged with arresting and imprisoning heretics, took orders from the Holy Tribunal, but he also enjoyed terrorizing innocent civilians.  The 17th century Anglo-Welsh writer James Howell describes the familiar’s power in a series of letters, curiously titled Epistolae Ho-Elainae: Familiar Letters, Domestic and Foreign, partly Historical, Political and Philosophical:     “When the said Familiar goes to any house, though it be in the dead of night...all doors and trunks and chests fly open to him, and the first thing he doth he seizeth the party’s breeches, searcheseth his pockets, and takes his keys, and so rummageth all his closets and trunks.”  Howell’s letters are addressed to superiors, fictional characters, and intimates.  As such, Howell relishes in the word “familiar,” touching upon nearly every possible connotation.  The word is having a moment.


Regardless of the recipient, Howell prefers “to write as [he] speaks” because “that’s a true familiar letter which expresseth one’s mind.” In his dedication to the King, Howell declares himself a “servant,” the King’s familiar, but he still offers apologies should his colloquial tone make him seem “over-familiar.” Whereas to be familiar with a king is presumptuous, to be familiar with a loved one is generous.  Howell’s letters to family members are records of familial intimacy, signed in love, not just for the recipient, but for the recipient’s and the writer’s shared family members: “So with my dear love to my brothers and sisters, with other kindred and friends in the country, I rest your dutiful son.”  As “interchangeable offices of love,” the letters both evidence and perpetuate familiarity.


The letter is just one such office by which we strengthen the bonds between ourselves and our loved ones, and we tend not to turn to it if we are actively sharing the same space.  There are other, more immediate, offices available to those living in the same house, such as performing tasks that benefit one another, showing physical affection, exchanging kind words.  And there is no doubt that these offices, like the letter, also evidence and perpetuate familiarity.  So, why be overly concerned with what Lefebvre calls “this constant impression of familiarity?”


Certainly, this impression serves us.  The familiar puts us at ease and enriches us, but the ghost of subservience continues to haunt the word.  If someone else’s outlines are defined, than so are ours, and we both feel we’ve come a little closer to mastering ourselves. Nonetheless the familiar also threatens us, and, in most cases, we are not the least bit aware of this threat.  If we take the same route to work at approximately the same time everyday, can it be said to be familiar?  Yes, and we do say as much, but it is not safe to feel familiarity in this situation.  When we do, we might be tempted to check our text messages, something we’d likely never do on a street we are driving down for the first time. There is no familiar route, or so says the pedestrian’s middle finger.


a breech makes changelings of us all


It is the impression of familiarity that worries Lefebvre.   This impression, he suggests, can cause us to draw outlines that cannot be said to belong to our “intimates.”  Like the (un)familiar route, there is always a periphery, a corner about to be turned.  And yet, in the process of pressing these outlines upon our loved ones, we come to assume that the outlines of our own making are inherent to the other person.


Part of the problem is that we fail to experience the familiar as a sensation produced by a series of complex emotional processes.  In fact, we hardly (recognize that we) experience the familiar at all.  The very nature of familiarity is such that it tends to erase its own appearance. Or, as Wittgenstein says, “Unfamiliarity is much more of an experience than familiarity.”


If we do recognize the sensation of familiarity, we likely experience it as a reoccurrence, something like a moment of recognition (I know this person) or a moment of repetition (I have been here before). There is very little time to identify the origin of familiarity, since the sensation emerges at almost the exact moment that the familiar person (or place) appears.


So where does this sensation come from? As is often the case, the “abnormal” brain has much to teach us about the “normal” brain.  Patients with Capgras Syndrome suffer from brain lesions that interfere with the limbic system, the system that controls emotions.  These patients can recognize familiar faces, say, of their spouse, but they are unable to produce the emotions that usually accompany the recognition of their spouse.


In the absence of these emotions, Capgras sufferers believe their friends or family members have been replaced by lookalikes.  I recognize my husband’s face and body standing in front of me, but if I don’t have the typical emotional response to his presence, he is not, for all intents and purposes, my husband.  I half expect to find the pod from which the imposter hatched in the basement.


What’s curious is that these patients refuse to see their mistakes.  They simply cannot be convinced, and thus, from the point of view of the unrecognizable loved one, it appears as though the Capgras sufferer, too, has been replaced, or at least so damaged as to cease being who they once were.  How can she be my wife if she doesn’t recognize me as her husband?  Familiarity, it seems, is a contract.  A breech makes changelings of us all.


Folktales about changelings reveal a bit about this contract.  The changeling is an imposter who serves as a stand-in for a stolen child. Often, in the medieval period, this imposter was the offspring of a troll or fairy.  Folktales about changelings may have developed in order to explain the presence of various physical and neurological disorders, including what we now call autism.  Children who failed to walk or talk at the proper time were often thought to be changelings.  The “abnormal” individual must be an imposter.


Well into the 19th century, desperate mothers attempted to retrieve their stolen children by mistreating the changeling—burning or drowning or whipping them in hopes that they’d retreat and return the “real” child.  We now know that autistic children often have difficulty recognizing faces and interpreting facial expressions, but perhaps the greatest failure of recognition and interpretation is our own.


As Andrew Solomon writes in Far From the Tree, a study of families in which children differ from their parents in some exceptional way (deafness, autism, sexual orientation, etc), “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity.”  When we are in a relationship with a stranger, the stranger, too, must be in the same type of relationship, one marked by unfamiliarity and difference.  “Loving our children is an exercise for the imagination,” says Solomon, not only because we have to reimagine the child, but also because we have to reimagine ourselves.  The individual who cannot do this imaginative work suffers from something akin to Capgras Syndrome, facing their child in disbelief without recognizing that they are strangers too.  A breech makes changelings of us all.


The children in Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” are seduced by fairies who sing a song both accurate in its portrayal of the world, and full of deceit:


Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.


Indeed, the world is full of weeping, but of course, separating the stranger, especially the stranger who is supposed to be familiar, is no solution.  And to where would we send her?  To the waters and the wild?  Your own body is half water, and the self is nothing if not wild.


on which side of the brain do we endeavor ourselves


Michel De Montaigne insists that, if we are to be honest, we must admit that we lack familiarity with ourselves: “We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game.  And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.”  Over a thousand pages of self-searching on Montaigne’s part (with very small print, I might add) does not change this fact.


So, what are we to do with that ancient Delphic maxim, “know thyself?”  It is the cornerstone of Western Knowledge—both literally, inscribed as it was on a rock in the Temple of Apollo, and figuratively, sitting at the center of so many of Plato’s and Socrates’s dialogues.  Shall we take our modern jackhammers to it?  I say, “deny it.”


I don’t mean deny or reject the imperative, but rather, deny the self.  Make an “it” of the self.   I am not suggesting that one should face the self like a strict parent who keeps life’s pleasures out of the reach of her child so as to protect her from later overindulgences. For better or for worse, I am no ascetic.  And besides, we know that never works. Rather, I am simply echoing the Greeks’ original meanings (and this “know thyself” business, it turns out, was used in varying contexts).  In most cases, it seems, knowing oneself did not mean gaining certainty about oneself, but rather, admitting uncertainty, admitting what one did not know or could not do, and admitting the fact of one’s own immortality. In other words, denying oneself the illusion of self-sufficiency and permanence.  Several classicists have suggested that “know” in this instance is more like “endeavor” than “attain,” and John Burnett goes so far as to say that for Heraclitus this phrase simply meant “I sought myself.”


Burnett claims that the ancient Greeks repeated and internalized these words until they became a “household” phrase.  Nonetheless, it appears as though it was as hard to attain then as it is now.  Otherwise the Greeks wouldn’t have needed the fable of Jupiter’s two sacks as an illustration.  Aesop tells it like this:  “Jupiter placed upon us two sacks. The one laden with others’ faults he hung before our heart; the other, filled with our own, he placed behind our backs.”  Aesop makes dicks of us all—our own heads oblivious to the second sack behind us.


The author of the Magna Moralia (maybe Aristotle, maybe not), proposes that we need a vantage point outside of the self from which to view the self.  “We are unable to contemplate ourselves from within ourselves....Accordingly, just as when we wish to see our face, we see it by looking in a  mirror, likewise when we wish to know ourselves, we would acquire the knowledge by looking at our friend.  For our friend, we say, is a second self.”  My friend gazes down into the sack resting on her breast and lists its contents, and if I am willing to listen, I know a bit more about my first self than I knew before.


But is there any other way to achieve this vantage point?  If, as Lefebvre suggests, our familiarity with one another is suspect, can we trusts our friend’s sack? And what about the body, an undeniable and inescapable marker of selfhood? Does the body have any role to play in the process of seeking ourselves? The body can be viewed from a distance only in the most extreme of circumstances—death or the rare physiological rupture.  If we believe several accounts of near death experiences, death may provide us with an opportunity to view our own body from outside of our body, and we may or may not immediately recognize what we see as “ours.”  Of course, in death, it may no longer be ours, if ever it were.


During evaluations for epilepsy, Dr. Olaf Blanke administered electrical currents to two patients’ brains.  In each case, the patient reported leaving her body and not immediately recognizing it as her own.   As you might guess, the patients described this experience as extremely “uncomfortable.”  This discomfort, Dr. Blanke says, is the direct result of our seeming familiarity with ourselves:  “The felt sensation of the body is so seamless, so familiar, that people do not realize it is a creation of the brain, even when something goes wrong and the brain is perturbed.”


Seeing ourselves as an other is seeing the otherwise invisible seams between our body and our identity.   What is most familiar is defamilarized, and we are forced to recognize that the self is no more lodged in the body than the brain, nor can it be said to be held in between, in something like a soul.  We recognize it nowhere and everywhere.


In Radiolab’s very first official episode, entitled “Who Am I?,” the hosts and guests explore the phenomena of self-recognition by calling upon a largely-held, but likely inaccurate, theory of the brain—lateralization of brain function.  In a study that involved anesthetizing the left-hemisphere of participants’ brains, Dr. Julian Keenan suggests that self-recognition is the job of the right hemisphere, the same hemisphere that, according to Keenan, has “no language.” But, in this same episode, guests and hosts suggest that self-recognition is tied up in storytelling, an ability that emerged about a half a million years ago.  This, says Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, is the beginning of “introspective consciousness,” and it is the birth of the self.  “The idea of self is you take all the things that ever happened to you.... and you stitch them together into a general abstract idea....that is the self.”


This stitching-storytelling metaphor is so persistent that it cannot be ignored, especially if the result, the product, if you will, is believed by some to constitute selfhood.  But notice how Ramachandran’s story-self is also an “abstract idea.”   I know we are nothing without our stories, but I also know that we are more than our stories. What about the remainder—the part that isn’t abstract, the body, the impact the body makes on other bodies, the (re)production of bodies, or just copulation for copulation’s sake?


the biblical sense

Just as to “know” someone “in the biblical sense” is a euphemism for sex, so is being “familiar,” though I don’t ever remember that word being uttered with a wink. It seems in the case of the former, this knowledge can be either culturally “acceptable” (as in the context of marriage), or culturally “unacceptable” (in the cases of extramarital, homosexual or incestuous sex).


The Hebrew verb “yada,” “to know,” is used both for the condoned begetting that marks the Old Testament and for the less savory stories.  It is used twice in the story of Sodom and Gommorah, first when the men of the city demand that Lot release the angels so they might “know” them, and second when Lot offers a consolation prize—his daughters.  “Behold now,” says Lot, “I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.”


Like the shadow of Lot’s roof, the word “familiar” is too slight to shelter everyone.   There are no instances, so far as I can tell, of acceptable sexual familiarity, and therefore those who seek it are subject to the elements.  “Emma was accused to be famulyer with the Bishop of Wynchester” (Robert Fabyan, New Cronycles Eng. & Fraunce, 1563); “A poor man found a priest over familiar with his wife” (William Camden, Remaines, 1605); “Sejanus was, before her husband was dead, too familiar with her” (J Rendle, History of Tiberius, 1805).


Despite the fact that the OED now characterizes this euphemistic usage “Rare and Archaic,” there is one recent example included, albeit referencing a 19th century seduction.  In his 1995 study Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex and the Law in the Nineteenth-Century South, P.W. Bardaglio’s writes:  “Catherine reported to her father in the autumn of 1842 that the governor had become too familiar with her.”


Why was “familiar” tinged with inappropriateness, when “knowing” was allowed to denote either unacceptable or acceptable sexual activity?  And why have the euphemistic possibilities of the word more or less fallen away?  It may be that the first question goes some way toward answering the second.  Whereas “familiarity” in all other instances is meant to be positive and attainable, this negative outlier suggests a darker side to the word that we’d rather forget.  Knowledge can exist outside of the family (and in the Old Testament, it did, until Adam and Eve ate of it).  The word “family,” however, can never be disassociated from the word “familiar.”


Perhaps the family wanted to purge “familiar’s” sexual connotations so as to strengthen its validity as a unit.  Interestingly, with this newfound strength, the family expanded its realm of influence, more or less seizing control of all things sexual.   As Foucault writes:

At the beginning of the seventeenth century a certain frankness was still common, it would seem.  Sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit....But twilight soon fell upon this bright day, followed by the monotonous nights of the Victorian bourgeoisie.  Sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the home.  The conjugal family took custody of it and absorbed it into the serious function of reproduction.  On the subject of sex, silence became the rule.  The legitimate and procreative couple laid down the law. The couple imposed itself as a model, enforced the norm, safeguarded the truth, and reserved the right to speak while retaining the principle of secrecy.


Euphemisms perform “the right to speak” where silence is the rule.  But whereas the familiar hits too close to home, knowing (yada) is just distant enough.  To say, “he knows her, in the biblical sense” is to say they have had sex without saying it.  Thanks to Jerry Seinfield, “yada yada yada” has become a euphemism for euphemism.  It means, “I cannot say what I mean, so I will both say it and I will say that I know it, three times, in another language.” This casts a spell by which the sexual can perform its disappearing act, reappearing somewhere outside of the family’s purview.  Perhaps the sexual “familiar” does not fall away; perhaps it simply changes shape.


the familiar appears in the form of a frog


Remember the officers of the Inquisition, the Familiars, who were charged with arresting heretics?  One such heresy was witchcraft, and during the Inquisition a telltale sign of a witch was the presence of a familiar, or an animal guide.  According to the 15th century German Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer, the witch’s familiar “works with her in everything she does.”  It was a union that, though unholy, was not unlike marriage, and, as such, perhaps it even included sexual relations.


For the witch, too, there was something undeniably domestic about the familiar. According to the historian Emma Wilby, familiars were often given as gifts from family members, as in Puss-in-Boots, or they revealed themselves to humans who were going about their daily business, “gathering heather,” “driving cattle to pasture”  “knitting in an arbour” or preparing themselves “to bedward.”


According to what Wilby calls the many “matter-of-fact and realistic” descriptions of familiar spirits, familiars, unlike shadowy ghosts, were “clearly defined, three-dimensional human or animal forms.”  In some ways, it seems that encounters with such familiars were remarkable precisely because of the “ordinariness” of the familiar’s appearance. The familiar was familiar both in terms of the form it took (often, it inhabited the body of an ordinary house pet) and in terms of the circumstances of its appearance.   The spoiled princess who regularly pouts by the pond (or the well, or the fountain, depending on which version you are reading) is not surprised to meet a frog.  Naturally, she vows to take its advice.


She does not immediately kiss him, of course.  In fact, she never kisses him; instead, in the original, the transformation occurs when she hurls the frog against the wall.  But the Disney rendition tells it differently.  Disney’s first African-American princess herself is turned into a frog, spending most of the film not as a beautiful black woman, but as a green, wet amphibian.   We aren’t supposed to trouble ourselves over the fact that this princess, unlike her white counterparts, is robbed of her beauty, and thus much of her power, during the depths of her plight. The fair Norwegian Elsa, on the other hand, becomes even more beautiful and powerful as the result of her transformation, a transformation that seems to me to be a metaphor for puberty.   The black outlines continue to define Tiana even when she’s green.


But does Tiana feel like a frog when she is in her frog body? It is unclear.  I know, Disney rarely concerns itself with subjectivity in any sustained way, but these stories, stories so many of our children come to know by heart, do present models of outlines that don’t merely quiver—they completely change shape!  And yet, by themselves, they tell us so little about this problem of “the constant impression of familiarity.”


Whoever the princess might be, she’s alienated, whether by race, class or cyrokinetic power, not only from society, but also from herself.  The impression of familiarity is a two-way street—we assume we are familiar with our loved ones, and that our loved ones are familiar with us.   We look to them to help us form and affirm our own subjectivity, but if we admit the shakiness of these impressions, we are all at sea.


This rocky water, this space of alienation, though, is just where we need to be.  Lefebvre suggests: “to know and understand oneself, to reflect upon oneself, is to resolve contradictions while provoking new alienating contradictions.” Maybe the problem isn’t that Disney is unaware or disinterested in contradictions, but rather, Disney resolves them without provoking new ones.  Can we blame them? Alienation is the last thing children want to feel as they are walking out of a theatre.


In fact, children spend so much of their early years trying to figure out how not to feel alienated.  Child psychologists warn against the common practice of labeling our children—the “quiet” one, the “artistic” one, the one who is “like her dad,” or “like his mom,” but the tendency is hard to resist.  And children beg to be labeled, as if a word of description of who or what they are is a gift.  And, in many ways, it is.  It lays out a path before them where, prior to this, no discernable path existed.


However inaccurate or self-fulfilling, this path serves an important function in the child’s developing identity. To be expected to know both how you are different and how to communicate those differences to others, all the while learning nearly everything by mimesis, must be painfully confusing and terribly exhausting.  It must be comforting to say, “I like horses,” or “I’m a good artist.”  If familiarity takes some time, the young child must feel unfamiliar often, not just with the world around her, but with her family members, and ultimately, herself.


I desire to take it inside my body


Defamiliarization is, so said the Russian critic Victor Shklovsky, one of art’s most important functions.  We come into the world unfamiliar with nearly everything it holds, save, perhaps, sensations of warmth and wet (and their absence), and the sound of our mother’s voice.  And while the process of familiarization begins immediately, our early years are marked by confusion, disorientation, and the lurking sense that we do not understand what’s expected of us.


When my four-year-old daughter hit her sister, I said, rather thoughtlessly, “we don’t hit each other when we are angry.” Of course, we do, but as she had never actually witnessed a physical fight between two adults, I must have stupidly assumed she would accept this as truth.  The problem is she did hit her sister, and she did not hesitate to point that out.  “You don’t, mommy, but I do.  My brain doesn’t work like yours.”  Not yet, it doesn’t, at least not in all circumstances.  While a four-year-old may see right through the royal we, she is being trained to see through it in another way.  She puts it on, like a lens that will color future actions, and eventually, she forgets she is wearing it.


Art asks, how can we make her see (through) it again? Shklovsky proposes that “the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art 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.”


But, is art’s role simply to make the seemingly familiar unfamiliar? Does Gertrude Stein hope to make the carafe something less quotidian so that we might see the very extraordinary nature of this glass container? No.  What she hopes to do is point to the unbridgeable distance between the carafe and our processing of it (which, inevitably includes the word “carafe” itself), so that we might see our own misguided familiarity with the object, with its attendant word, and ultimately, with ourselves.  “The difference,” Stein says, “is spreading.”


The prolongation Shklovsky speaks of plunges us back into the space of difficulty that characterized our first years, the same space adults gently coaxed us away from in our earliest interactions.  And while the process of perception is an aesthetic end in and of itself, it serves other ends too.   Since we are not so much estranged from the carafe as we are from our own consciousness of it, prolonging perception might give us time to reconsider not the familiar world, but the consciousness of (un)familiarity.  Familiarity is not, after all, a quality in the world, but rather, it is a quality of consciousness itself.


I’ve long wondered why the defamiliarization I experience in the face of certain poems, paintings, and films leaves me feeling both bereft and overjoyed.  I become desperate to bring the thing closer to me.  Perhaps I want to alleviate the discomfort I feel when I become conscious of my own unconsciousness.   When I attempt to describe what I love about the piece, I mutter a bit. What I wish I could describe is the welling up inside—a warm, wet, hollow welling up.  This may be akin to being in the womb, and it is certainly akin to sexual desire.   I want the thing to fill me so that there will be no more distance between it and my consciousness of it.


the familiar essay


When I started this essay on familiarity, I didn’t want to write about art, or literature for that matter.  I just wanted to think about why some people, some objects, some places feel so familiar, so bound up in my own sense of self.  I wanted to know if I was doing any damage, to myself, but more importantly, to others, by assuming I knew them intimately.  And I certainly had no intention whatsoever of writing about “the familiar essay,” a form prevalent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but with roots stretching back to Montaigne and Bacon (and, arguably further, back to Petrarch or Sei Shonagon, perhaps).   I didn’t even know this nonfiction subset existed.  Or if I did, I had long forgotten it, despite the fact that I had, at one point or another, read so many of the form’s exemplary texts.


In turns out that the familiar essay is enjoying a renaissance of sorts.  If you listen to NPR, you might believe that the author Anne Fadiman single-handedly revived the sub-genre in 2007 when she published At Large and At Small, a collection of essays on topics ranging from ice-cream to insomnia to staging a New York city apartment for resale.  Fadiman inherited her interest in the familiar essay from her father. Clifton Fadiman, author, editor and radio personality, lamented the disappearance of the form in his 1955 “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay,” noting that the familiar essay’s “digressive and noncommiting” methods were unpopular in an “age of anxiety.”


Reading his daughter’s book, one does feel that perhaps we have come out on the other side.  Perhaps our psychotherapy, our serotonin reuptake inhibitors, our days at the spa, have been successful enough for us to return to the light-hearted familiar essay.  Perhaps we can now focus on the seductive delights of coffee, as Fadiman does, without even a mention of the politics of the coffee industry.  Why worry about deforestation, pesticides, child labor, unjust compensation, the exploitation of migrant workers, or the disastrous effects NAFTA has had on the small coffee farmer?  I don’t mean to suggest that every essay about our favorite stimulant (some economists claim it is one of the most exported products in the world, second only to oil), must delve into the politics of coffee, but I do wonder about a form that automatically exempts itself from the darker sides of a given subject.


The familiar essay is meant to be both amusing and comforting.   The subject matter is usually ordinary and somewhat quotidian, and thus the reader is familiar, at least tangentially, with the author’s subject.  But one of the purported pleasures of the familiar essay is that the reader is becoming more familiar as she reads, not just with the subject, but with the author.  In his introduction to the collection Modern Familiar Essays, William Tanner insists that “the personality of the familiar essayist, the mood he creates, the conversational intimacy of his style and the individuality of his diction are of much greater importance than are subject matter, theme, and structure.”  In short, in the familiar essay, the author is the subject, while the author’s declared subject  (many familiar essays take as their title a preposition—‘on’ or ‘of’—” and a proposed subject—“On Friendship,” for example) is, at the very least, secondary.


But what if this secondary subject diverts our eyes so successfully that we do not recognize that we are in the midst of a personal essay, or perhaps even a memoir?  Fadiman is insistent that while the familiar essay is a subset of the personal essay, it is, in fact, distinctive. Unlike the personal essay, which she says has “more heart than brain,” or the critical essay which has (you guessed it!)  “more brain than heart,” the familiar essay has “equal measures of both.”  Is this the origin of the “charm” that many critics identify as a primary component of the familiar essay?  Are readers charmed by an author’s ability to give over her heart and her mind in such perfect symmetry?


The familiar essayist has a light touch, one that becomes familiar precisely because it does not overburden us.  Tanner suggests that this charm springs from the fact that “personality in the familiar essay is obtrusive egotistic personality but rather one that is unconscious of itself.” Oh, how wonderful such unconsciousness would be! As we are thinking about ice cream, we get to forget that we are actually thinking about ourselves!  But this amnesia is mistaken and fleeting, and as Tolstoy says, “if the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been at all.”


Still, there is an interesting parallel between the familiar essay and the impression of familiarity itself.  In many familiar essays (though not all),  the topic offers a focal point, other than the self, that simultaneously allows the self to become its secret subject.   Similarly, the impression of familiarity helps us delineate the parameters of our own selves—my mother, my husband, my daughter, my friend—while simultaneously diverting our eyes from ourselves—my mother, my husband, my daughter, my friend.


We know that these impressions can be misleading. Remember Lefebvre’s mask, the one that “conceals human beings and makes them difficult to know by giving them a mask we can recognize?” I give my mother, my husband, my daughter, and my friend their masks, just as they give me mine, and now no one knows what to italicize. But, would we choose to throw these masks away, even if we could?  If there were not familiarity, Lefebvre asks, “how could the cultural element or ethical element which should modify and humanize our emotions and our passions be introduced into life?”  Familiarity is the beginning of empathy.  We cannot do without it.  And yet, the ironic possibility is that we might just be empathizing with our own creations, the masks we paste on one another’s faces.



the venn diagram rolls away


What are we to do, then, with the predicament of familiarity?  We cannot remove the masks that cling to our faces without damaging ourselves and one another.  The impression of familiarity, once formed, cannot be abandoned. But we can become slightly less familiar with the idea of familiarity.  It can be made strange. As Hegel says:


Analysis of an idea, as it used to be carried out, did in fact consist of nothing else than doing away with its character of familiarity.  To break up an idea into its ultimate elements means returning upon its moments, which at least   do not have the form of the given idea when found, but are the immediate property of the self. Doubtless this analysis only arrives at thoughts which are themselves familiar elements, fixed inert determinations.  But what is thus separated, and in a sense is unreal, is itself an essential moment; for just because the concrete fact is self-divided, and it turns into unreality, it is something self-moving, self-acting.  The action of separating the elements is the exercise of the force of Understanding.


When the idea of familiarity becomes unfamiliar, a feeling of unreality sets everything in motion.  Hegel uses the image of a circle, which he says is self-enclosed and at rest. By some accident, the circle is “set loose from its containing circumference” and the energy of thought reaches outward and inward at the same time.  What are our relations with others but a collision, an accident filled with commotion?


I have in mind Hegel’s circle as it collides with another, a Venn Diagram of sorts—one circle representing me and one representing my intimate.  I’ll call that intimate “you.” Imagine that the overlapping space represents what we know about one another.  Might the Greek word “aletheia” be written here?  We’ve heard this word means “truth,” but Heidegger says it is better translated as “unconcealedness.”  Might that word exert some force, as words often do, pushing the circles away from one another so that they roll in opposite directions, onto the backside of the page?  Turn the page over and see how they roll toward one another again.  See how the letters of that very word—aletheia—have been separated, some travel inside my circle, and some travel inside yours. See how they tumble around as if in a raffle drum.


Where will the circles meet?  Will the outside edges, the edges that did not previously touch, move toward the center?  Will these outer edges intersect, and if they do, will they make remote what we thought we knew about one another?  And what about the letters?  Are they strewn about in little piles at the bottom of our circles? I have an “a” in my circle and so do you. Like aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, our a’s are silent. Daniel Heller-Roazen says that “the silent letter marks the forgetting from which all language emerges. Aleph guards the place of oblivion at the inception of every alphabet” (25).  Aletheia has one on either end, and now separated, maybe they quiver a little, looking for one another.


Perhaps the single i has multiplied.  I know I have one, and I know you do too, even if I can’t fully see it.  But what’s left in the shared space, the space that overlaps, the space that was previously occupied by those things that were familiar, unconcealed?  Lethe.   There is oblivion in the midst of that which should be most familiar and we share it.  “Language,” says Heller-Roazen, “has no being beyond its drifting parts, and its sole consistency may lie in the layers of forgetting and remembrance that tie and untie it, in ever-changing ways, to those before it” (97).   When we go back into a word like “familiar” we see what we recognize and we recognize what we cannot see.  We forget and we remember simultaneously.  We look longingly, lovingly at that (un)concealedness.  It is at the heart of all we say to one another.



Works Cited


Aristotle, The Works of Aristotle, trans. WD Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press) 1915.


De Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journals, Letters. trans. Donald M. Frame (New York: Knopf) 2003.


Fadiman, Anne.  At Large and At Small (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 2008.


Fadiman, Clifton. Party of One. (Cleveland: World Press) 1955.


“familiar,” n., adj., and adv.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 10 October 2014.


Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol. 1. (New York: Vintage Books) 1990.


Freud, Sigmund.  The Uncanny, trans. David Mclintock, (New York: Penguin) 2003.


Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Vol 1. trans. A.V. Miller. (New Dehli: Shri Jainendra Press) 1998.


Heller-Roazen, Daniel. Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language.  (New York: Zone) 2005.


Howell, James.  Epistolae Ho-Elainae: Familiar Letters, Domestic and Foreign, partly Historical,  Political and Philosophical. Upon Emergent Occasions. 11th Edition. Hathi Trust Digital Library:;view=1up;seq=7


Kramer, Heinrich & James Sprnger. Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft. (Manchester: Manchester University Press) 2003.


Lefebvre, Henri. The Critique of Everyday Life. vol. 1, trans. John Moore (New York: Verse) 1947.


Radiolab, “Who Am I?” Season 1, Episode 1.  May 7, 2007:


Shklovsy, Victor. Theory of Prose. (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press) 1991.


Solomon, Andrew. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. (New York: Scribner) 2013


Stein, Gertrude.  Tender Buttons. (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon) 1991.


Tanner, William. Modern Familiar Essays. (New York: Little Brown) 1937.


Wilby, Emma. Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. (Sussex: Sussex Academic Press) 2005.  (60-1)


Yeats, WB. “The Stolen Child” Academy of American Poets Website:
Sasha Steensen is the author of four books of poems, most recently House of Deer (Fence Books) and Gatherest (Ahsahta Press). She has published several essays, including “Openings: Into Our Vertical Cosmos,” which can be read as an online chapbook by Essay Press at She teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Colorado State University, where she also serves as a poetry editor for Colorado Review.