Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, January 14, 2008

When The Familiar Becomes Strange

It doesn't take much, in my opinion, for that which we regard as familiar to become suddenly strange to us. For example, I'd bet that most keepers of dogs and cats every so often take a second look at the dog or cat in question and, no matter how long the animal has been around, will find something about the creature to be fascinating or puzzling--as if it were a strange, new characteristic. Maybe the person looks, really looks for the first time, at leathery pads on the bottoms of the paws, or at dog- or cat-lips, and then the closely examined item looks fantastic, in the older sense of that word.

Or the familiar-turned-strange thing may be something you look at anew on your umpteenth commute to work.

Here's a short poem by Harold Monro (1879-1932) that represents such a moment--when the familiar becomes strange, except that, in this case, Monro focuses on human beings.

Strange Meetings

By Harold Monro

IF suddenly a clod of earth should rise
And walk about, and breathe, and speak, and love,
How one would tremble, and in what surprise
Gasp: "Can you move?"

I see men walking, and I always feel:
"Earth! How have you done this? What can you be?"
I can't learn how to know men, or conceal
How strange they are to me.

If one takes the concept of Evolution seriously, and I do (and I do not view the concept to be incompatible with the concept of God, in case you're wondering), then you do have to wonder, as Monro does, how some bits of protein in water (to summarize things too simplistically) became us over millions or billions of years. And you have to wonder why those bits turned into this odd thing (especially in my case) called "the human body."

The other evening, during the Republican "debate," Mike Huckabee got off a good joke about members of Congress acting like monkeys, but he did so at his own expense (though not so as his supporters would notice), for he deliberately fell back on one of the oldest, most inaccurate recapitulations of evolutionary theory--that we descended from monkeys. Civilizations, arguably, may have descended, and the descent seems to have picked up some velocity, but humans didn't descend, biologically. They resulted from evolution, and so they share some biological and anatomical characteristics with primates, but we are not directly connected to "monkeys," and Huckabee knows this, but he needs to pander to a certain "base" (and that's the word for it), as do all the candidates in both parties; it's just that one base likes one type of pander-snack, and another likes another.

But how much more refreshing Monro's take on "the human body"--or, more simply, humans-- is! Rather than taking one side or the other of the phantom "debate" between faith and evolution, which are compatible, he expresses shock. How did these creatures come to be?! (I have a friend who doesn't like that double-punctuation, by the way, but I think it's useful; it helps express an astonished question, in my view.)

Of course, we might be as astonished as Monro about many other human characteristics, such as why we make the fashion-choices we do, how we pick our leaders, why we keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result, and why we voluntarily watch so many television-commercials--and so on.

But Monro sticks to basics, and good for him. He ran a bookshop in London, by the way, and published poetry books there and otherwise supported poets. Allegedly Wilfred Owen lived above the shop for a while.

(I cut the poem from one of Louis Untermeyer's anthologies, now in the public domain and posted on, and then pasted it here, to give credit where credit may be useful, is polite and appropriate.)

I hope something familiar to you looks pleasantly strange to you tomorrow.

"I can't learn how to know men . . .": what a great (part of) a line! I imagine lots of social scientists ultimately come to a similar conclusion. "I can't learn to know humans! I give up!"
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