This week’s Prompts For The Promptless is about Ostranenie:
Ostranenie is a Russian word meaning, roughly, “defamiliarization”. It is the artistic technique of encouraging audiences to see common things as strange, wild, or unfamiliar in order to enhance perception of the familiar.
Once again, Queen Creative has managed to come up with a concept that I’m very familiar with, but had no idea what it was called or that it even had a name!
A long time ago, I had a severe head injury that left me a vegetable. I wasn’t technically in a vegetative state, but I did have the mental capacity and memory of a head of broccoli.
Having a severe head injury is almost like having a second childhood, which was nice for me since my first childhood was pretty awful. What I mean is that a lot of the concepts we take for granted as adults were new to me again. My memory, and to a lesser extent, my language were effected, but it was all totally random. I could remember complicated words like philatelist, defenestrate and deoxyribonucleic acid, but I once asked what the cylindrical aluminum beverage container with the pop top best known for containing soda or beer was called. Can. It’s called a can. To my mind, that didn’t make any sense at all. Can is a verb, e.g. I can fly. It’s not a noun. That’s just weird! I could remember the verb usage of can, but had completely shunned the noun.
Because my entire processing center, known as the brain, had gone cattywampus and wonky, I had to re-learn a lot of things. Everything was defamiliarized. It was rather overwhelming at first. I was incredibly frustrated with myself. I don’t have much memory of that time, but I do remember doing a test at a doctor’s office where I had to put the right shapes into the right hole like a kindergartener, and I couldn’t do it. I got angry and then I cried. The person administering the test came over and put a hand on my shoulder. She said, “It takes time and practice. You’ll get it eventually if you keep trying.” I was frustrated because this was something that any kindergartener could do, including myself at that age, but I couldn’t do it.
I gave a lot of thought to words as I was learning them again. Have you ever thought about how strange your own first name is? It doesn’t even matter what your name is, but I’m telling you, it’s weird. Names, all of them, are weird. They define us, yet there is no definition for a name. I can’t look up my name in a dictionary and see the traits that people with that name have because they’re all different. I think the reason I have so much trouble remembering names now is because, honestly, names are totally strange. Michael, Rebecca, George, Samantha… that’s just weird!
A traumatic head injury is like trying to make a pie when you only have half of the ingredients and you’ve forgotten how an oven works. You know what a pie looks like and what it tastes like, you can even list off some different kinds of pie, but getting from raw apples to apple pie is just baffling.
A few years after my accident, I made a cheesecake to take to someone’s house. Cheesecake is my specialty. I can make the hell out of a cheesecake on a good brain day. On a bad brain day, like the one on which I made this particular cheesecake, I put the entire egg in instead of just the egg whites. It was more like flan than cheesecake. I cried when I realized it. I cried because I was back at that doctor’s office trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. No matter how much my brain compensates for its loss, which has actually been quite a bit, it will never be 100%, not even close. It’s terrifying and infuriating.
So, yes, I’m intimately familiar with the concept of Ostranenie. I’m sure some artists would be jealous of that ability, but believe me, it’s not as great as it seems to be defamiliarized with the world around you. Fortunately, my brain isn’t quite as bad as it was then, but there are still times when I can’t remember simple words. There are times when I stand there like an idiot, ruminating on the strangeness of names. There are times when I still can’t put that peg in the hole.