Eco and Defamiliarization in Reverse

I am a huge fan of Eco. One of the many things I love about his work is the way his historical fiction does not stop at building an “accurate” portrayal of the physical universe of whatever time period his story takes place in, but works to accomplish the far more difficult task of building an alien intellectual universe in which religion, ideas, and ways of thinking differ from our own, or in which material objects have entirely different meanings for those who interact with them. On every page you can feel his enthusiasm for playing with long lost categories, and helping us all come closer to understanding the rich world of his characters. You can see this in all his fiction, including the three I enjoyed the most The Name of the Rose, Baudolino, and The Island of the Day Before. One day I hope to make use some of his techniques in some fictional writing of my own. For many readers, who feel overwhelmed by the detail and long discussions of obscure topics, it turns them forever away from his writing, but for others, such as myself, his passion filled writing has the capacity to ignite a curiosity and excitement few writers can match.

Today I was delighted to come across a passage in which he talks about this aspect of his work:

…the only essay I have ever written on the semiotics of the theater begins with the story of Averroes. What is so extraordinary about that story? It is that Borges‘s Averroes is stupid not in personal terms but culturally, because he has reality before his eyes (the children playing) and yet he cannot make that relate to what the book is describing to him…Averroes’s situation is that of the poetics of “defamiliarization,” which the Russian formalists describe as representing something in such a way that one feels as if one were seeing it for the first time, thus making the perception of the object difficult for the reader. I would say that in my novels I reverse the “Averroes model”: the (culturally ignorant) character often describes with astonishment something he sees and about which he does not understand very much, whereby the reader is led to understand it. That is to say, I work to produce an intelligent Averroes.

As someone said, it may be that this is one of the reasons for the popularity of my fiction: mine is the opposite of the “defamiliarization” technique; I make the reader familiar with something he did not know until then. I take a reader from Texas, who has never seen Europe, into a medieval abbey (or into a Templar commandery, or a museum full of complicated objects, or into a Baroque room) and make them feel at ease. I show him the medieval character who takes out a pair of glasses as if it were completely natural, and I depict his contemporaries, who are astonished at this sight; at first the reader does not understand why they are amazed, but in the end he realizes that spectacles were invented in the Middle Ages, this is not a Borgesian technique; mine is an “anti-Averroes model,” but without Borges’s model before me I would never have been able to conceive of it.”1

  1. Eco, Umberto “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence” On Literature, 127-8 []

One thought on “Eco and Defamiliarization in Reverse”

  1. Umberto Eco’s works provide such pleasures of reading, with not only an enormous range of topics that his knowledge covers but also his insight into things around us in a broader context. I think he is an intellectual role model as well as an inspiring writer, and I have no doubt that you really enjoy his works.

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