The Female Breast—Defamiliarized



Early in the 20th century, the Russian formalist, Victor Schklovskii, coined the term “defamiliarization” for designating one of the things that literature does (that is, it makes what is familiar unfamiliar ). 

David Mikics, in his excellent reference, A New Handbook of Literary Terms  (Yale 2007), offers the quote below, from Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, as an example of literary defamiliarization. Tiny Gulliver, among the comparatively huge Brobdingnagians, finds himself face to face with a giant breast: 

The Nipple was about the Bigness of my Head, and the Hue both of that and the Dug so varified with Spots, Pimples and Freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous: For I had a near Sight of her, she sitting down the more conveniently to give Suck, and I standing on the table. This made me reflect upon the fair Skins of our English Ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own Size.

In this passage, what is familiarly taken as beautiful suddenly, by defamiliarization, evokes in Gulliver what he describes as “nausea.”

We as readers, meanwhile, are driven into a confrontation with the nature of beauty, and whether, for example, Camille Paglia is correct that beauty functions to mesmerize the eye, and conceal from us the horror of nature’s capacious fecundity, and oozing disseminations.

In short, Swift’s passage drives us into defamiliarized territory, splashing, as it were, a bucket of cold and sour pickle juice upon our thoughts and emotions.

Did you think I was about to say milk?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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