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  • Writer's pictureDan Thompson

On the Strangeness of Natural Things and the Naturalness of Strange Things

Art critic, André Gide describes Henri Michaux’s fascination with ‘the strangeness of natural things and the naturalness of strange things.’ But listen to the contrast in the two modes, how the strangeness of natural things adheres to the rhythms of speech, while the naturalness of strange things draws attention to the strangeness of its own sound. It reaches across a schism for ‘the right word’, but is unable to find it, because nature (with-a-small-n) resists our attempts to use it in any other way than it was intended. Not in service of our meanings, but in service of its meanings–which is the source of all meaning–and any attempt to bend it outside of its nature, by force or by ignorance, will only result in confusion and a strangeness which cannot be reconciled.

This distinction between nature-with-a-small-n and Nature-with-a-capital-N is confined mostly to literary theory and eco-criticism, where capital N represents the Naturalization of phenomena, while small n maintains its rightful place beneath and beyond our human categories as a thing-in-itself, or at least the thing itself.

‘Naturalness’ therefore is the inversion of nature; what previously was not considered to belong has been allowed to take up residence. Like allowing an unwanted presence to stay in your home. A monster to continue to live in your closet. The truth to become less and less true, the sky to become less and less blue, smacks of something earth-changing; a forerunner of great events, until we all agree that it had been like that all along. The sky for more than clouds, birds and rickety old jets.

It’s this naturalness of the strange that we have to watch out for, lest it creep up on us, as in ‘the failure of absence’; something that shouldn’t be there but is, or ‘the failure of presence’, something that should be there but isn’t. The same words used in Magical Realism to describe the unfamiliar or uncanny appearing in a familiar context, where there is the presence of something where there should be nothing or the presence of nothing where there should be something (see Blue In Green: Where Sky Meets Earth).

The following quote, however provides a little hope and stability in the ordinary.

Quoting from Gide, “For both Michaux and Magritte, the everyday familiar world has terrific power to unsettle. ‘Nothing but the banal can support the unusual,’ Michaux writes, stating further on in the same prose poem that ‘The extraordinary has not succeeded in overcoming the ordinary. The ordinary has not been defeated by the absurd.’ This is a reasonable judgement to pass on the entire collection; Michaux’s skill in these poems consists in creating delicate tension between the ordinary and its potential to be fantastic, unsettling and bizarre.”

Both Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico were formative in the development of alternate realities in painting, fiction and as a way of looking at the world–as strange. A view that seems interesting at first, but soon becomes disruptive, because strange is not really what we want, but what’s transcendental about the strange, which is also what is transcendental about the beautiful and the true.

What de Chirico and Magritte depicted in their paintings is about where we want to be when thinking about the thing-in-itself, whether in art, poetry, philosophy (speculative realism), or even in physics and psychology. Ordinary enough to be recognizable, but strange enough to make us question what we think we know.

Giorgio de Chirico, The (Mad) Song of Love, 1914

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