Recently reader John Degatina asked whether there is an opposite to the phrase deja vu , which means already seen.
Most of us are familiar with deja vu. We ride down a street in a city we have never been to before, and it seems hauntingly familiar. We meet someone we have never met, and feel as if we know her.
Degatina recently drove down Western Avenue, a street with which he once was very familiar; but he found almost nothing but Korean signs, and felt he did not know the place.
I am embarrassed to find that the opposite of deja vu is very common, and many readers have written to enlighten me. The phrase is jamais vu , and it means, literally, never seen.
When Degatina drives down Western today he has a feeling that he has never seen it before. Is that jamais vu ?
When I look for my birthplace in Long Beach, and find instead the Queen Mary, is that jamais vu ?
Janet Paulson notes that she found the phrase in a book about the brain. She says: "It seems that the ineffable sensation of experiencing the familiar as alien is known to neuro-researchers as jamais vu ."
"It provides us linguistic commoners with yet another lyrical Norman phrase to bandy about in the lunch room or on first dates," she observes.
"I'm surprised," writes Leslie R. Schwartz, "that a man who uses phrases like c'est la vie and je ne sais quoi doesn't know the opposite of deja vu. It is jamais vu, which means never seen , as opposed to already seen ."
Donald Tuzin, professor and chairman of the Department of Anthropology, UC San Diego, notes that jamais vu is used in psychiatry and psychoanalysis to refer, for example, "to a common form of dream experience--as when the dreamer knows he has returned to his childhood home, but is faintly disturbed that its interior resembles that of, say, a foundry of some bygone era."
Liz Newman of Bell Canyon argues that "in the truest sense the place (not remembered in jamais vu ) is the same as it has always been; it has not changed to Koreatown or the Queen Mary."
I think she's right. If a place has been completely altered by time, one is not manifesting some psychological aberration in not recognizing it; but not remembering the familiar is neurotic, like remembering what one has never seen.
Dr. John O. Fleming, assistant professor of neurology at the USC School of Medicine, quotes a medical text: "Complex Partial Seizures," by Robert G. Feldman:
"Dysmnesic symptoms, distortions of memory, may take the form of a temporal disorientation, a dreamy state, a flashback, a sensation as if an experience had occurred before ( deja vu , if visual; deja entendu , if auditory), or a sensation as if a previously experienced sensation had not been experienced ( jamais vu , if visual; jamais entendu , if auditory). . . ."
Fleming adds: "Although jamais vu is discussed here as a symptom associated with epilepsy, it is also true that many normal people occasionally experience this or similar phenomena."
Dr. Wendy Mitchell of Mount Washington also defines the terms as neurological phenomena, and adds the same caveat: "I should hasten to add that both sensations can be experienced by the normal person as well, though not the . . . frequency as might occur in a patient with epilepsy."
Peg Ridley of Upland adds yet a third term-- presque vu --meaning almost seen , to describe "that sense of 'Oh, yes, the meaning of the universe is--oh, I had it; shoot, it's gone. It was something like cottage cheese,' I think. . . ."
Jim Marugg of Pasadena also offers presque vu. "Consider the sensation, in a daydreaming state, of a situation or concept that escapes you the moment you try to bring it to full consciousness. This is presque vu , almost seen ." As an example, Marugg suggests: "Is that Hedy Lamarr using my typewriter to weed my garden?"
From all this I conclude that Degatina was not afflicted by jamais vu when he could not recognize Western Avenue. He was suffering from no failure of memory, no illusion, no seizure. He was just momentarily disoriented by the physical changes in what he thought of as his world.
And when I found my birthplace missing, I wasn't dreaming. But having been deprived of a birthplace, I was disqualified as a presidential candidate.