The Uncanny

A very strange thing happened to me yesterday, and all I can say in my defence was that I wasn’t wearing my contact lenses. I should also say that we have had a small invasion of creepy-crawlies lately, trying to get in out of the rain including, only the previous evening, the most enormous spider. So when I was getting my breakfast ready and I felt something odd and foreign insinuate itself between my toes, and when looking down I perceived a dark, shapeless object there, I… well, I lost it a bit. Fortunately my husband was on hand to rescue me from my undignified squawking. He grabbed the offending foot and retrieved…. a strand of cabbage greens.

‘ Yeah,’ said my husband. ‘Vegetables this green scare the hell out of me, too.’

Now, there are many things that could be said about this incident, but the one that intrigues me here is: was this an example of the uncanny? As chance would have it, I spent yesterday reading up on this phenomenon in preparation for writing a chapter on ghosts and the uncanny, and emerged from my research more than a tad confused. Good old Sigmund Freud was the first person to write an essay on the uncanny, identifying it as an object for study, only of course he famously never managed to come to a neat definition of it, resorting instead to a kind of check list of all the situations in which the uncanny could be found. So, the uncanny is often understood as the moment when the familiar is spine-tinglingly discovered at the heart of the unfamiliar, or vice versa. It’s when what we consider to be homely and safe turns strange and unexpected. It’s around when patterns repeat and we get caught up in that repetition. It can arise from a sense that things were ‘fated’ to happen, or from deja vu, telepathy and prophetic dreams. It can be found when dolls become animated, or when we discover that what appeared to live and breathe turns out to be mechanical. It can be horrific and gruesome, but it can also be distrubingly beautiful and verge on the ecstatic. We feel it in the presence of madness, in the company of ghosts, and in the dark, alone. The uncanny often has to do with a secret encounter, or with the recognition that something has been revealed that ought to have remained hidden. And it has the sense of happening only to oneself, but of never quite belonging to oneself, always bizarre and foreign and ungraspable. It’s funny, in the way that the very word funny can mean both what is comic and what is peculiar.

So the uncanny is all these things, and as such is very hard to pin down. All the critics I read began by saying, ha ha, Freud can’t define it, and then went on only to broaden the definition themselves, including (most noticeably) all the phantom effects of technology – disembodied voices on phones, virtual reality, human cloning, etc, etc. One critic heads a paragraph with the phrase ‘The world is uncanny’. Thanks, very helpful. Interestingly enough, the one thing Freud didn’t want to think it was, kept cropping up as the only definition I found consistently helpful. Freud resisted the notion of the uncanny as intellectual uncertainty, and yet for me, that seems to cover quite a lot of his various categories. My problem with the cabbage greens was that I really believed it was a big fat cockroach at the least. But it was a moment when all my senses and strategies for figuring out the world had been momentarily duped. I was very wrong in my deductions. And yet it is a bit more than that, isn’t it, because that doesn’t account for the way I felt – the freakiness of it all, the loss of my rational faculties to fear.

So, you may ask, why do I need to define the uncanny at all? Well, my interest is in seeing how the uncanny has changed since its earliest manifestations in the crossover period from 19th to 20th century. Because these things metamorphose, they always do, and that tells us a lot about our culture and the way people’s mentalities are changing. I’ve got some fabulous books to talk about. One concerns a man who, for a joke to surprise his wife, shaves his moustache off. Only of course the wife doesn’t notice, or he thinks she doesn’t, until finally he confronts her with what he’s done and she says, but darling, you never had a moustache in the first place. From this little hitch in the fabric of time, his whole relationship to his life unravels. At first he can’t believe she isn’t playing a complicated joke on him. Then he thinks she’s mad. Then he thinks he must be mad. Then he descends into paranoia, and then he runs away, getting on the first plane he can catch to the other side of the world. I’m afraid it only gets worse after that, but it’s a taut, brilliant little gem of a novel. Apparently it’s been made into a film (called ‘The Moustache’ naturally) and how on earth did they manage that, I wonder? One of my other novels is the story of a woman whose husband goes out to buy bread one evening and then never returns home. The novel simply focuses on the woman’s struggle to come to terms with this inexplicable event. Not knowing what has happened turns her very strange and she begins to construct her husband as a ghost – or maybe it’s the ghost of her husband who really is visiting her. We never know. There’s a beautiful scene when she’s alone in the silence of her flat and she thinks that there’s a kind of shadow before her that’s nothing more than a condensation of the air. There’s the most extraordinary description of her circling this column of tightly packed air, observing it from all angles, passing her hands over it, watching it. Then I have other, more conventionally ghosty books I can use – the novel that was the basis for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the delightful Phantom of the Opera, which I’ll post about another time. What I need to do is track the changing shape of the uncanny from the early texts to the later 21st century ones. And for that some kind of neat definition would be useful, but I’m clearly not going to get one.

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14 thoughts on “The Uncanny

  1. There’s a children’s book by Malorie Blackman about ghostly doings and the uncanny from a slightly different angle and it would, of course, help if I could remember the title! I’ll check over the weekend and get back to you.

  2. I believe I will have to add a scary cabbage to my scary story… But you have made me think–I have been teaching Emerson this week, and in “Idealism,” he deals with the problems of subjectivity and experience. He talks about how you can take a familar landscape and make it fresh and new or even sublime by bending over and looking at it upside-down through your legs. I think there are some similarities between Burke’s definition of the sublime (which inspired the Gothic novelists, who develop the literary uncanny) and Freud’s uncanny–both deal with an experience where the perception is rendered strange or fearful. I’m sort of rambling here, but I wonder if the uncanny can be the result of some sort of disjunction between our assumptions about objectivity and (whatever that is) the subjectivity.

  3. I remember that Rudolf Otto writes about the uncanny in The Idea of the Holy (although I haven’t read it in a long while.) He is thinking about the uncanny in connection with the numinous. My experience of the uncanny most often comes during the writing process, writing about something and then having something similar happen.

  4. Caz – you know me of old. Easy mistake to make, no? Ann – that sounds fantastic. I’d love to know the title, if you can find it. Bikeprof – you are spot on; the uncanny and the sublime are indeed linked, and this may well be a very interesting line of thought to pursue. Nancy Ruth, I’m extremely interested in this notion of the numinous as well. It’s generally thought that the uncanny was born out of the Englightenment privileging of reason, coupled with the decline in organised religion. What would have been considered a divine sign became instead the supernatural. But there’s a return of spirituality operating at the moment which makes the whole relationship between reason and the uncanny more complex and more intriguing.

  5. The husband not coming home after going out for bread SOUNDS FANTASTIC. I love those kinds of inexplicable events that happen to fictional characters — how they react, cope, etc.

    This whole uncanny-numinous issue fascinates me too. I have been thinking about it since reading Gothics, which seem to have arisen as a sort of reaction to the reasoning of Enlightenment (as did the rise of Romanticisim,I believe). Much research for this kitten to attend to!

  6. I think Freud would have been in his element if he’d lived to see all the brain research that goes on these days. Can you think of anything more uncanny than this? An article in the New York Times earlier this week reported that delivering mild electric current to certain parts of the brain can induce “paranormal experiences,” such as a feeling that someone is standing behind a person, or that some shadow figure is lying beneath someone when no one is there. As fascinating as I found this, I also found it a bit sad. Who wants to hear that ghosts are really merely the product of some sort of energy in the brain? I’d much rather have them attributed to something we can’t explain. Otherwise, where’s the romance? (I’m beginning to understand how people must have felt during the Enlightenment). Meanwhile, are you SURE you weren’t getting some sort of electric current passing through your head from, say, the microwave or something when that giant cockroach turned into a piece of green cabbage?

  7. LK, I’ve just found out that the book I mention is available in the US in translation. It’s called My Phantom Husband, by Marie Darrieussecq, and it really is worth reading. And Emily, I am laughing still at your comment. Clearly the microwave is to blame!

  8. Well, your project sounds very interesting. Aren’t definitions some of the hardest things to deal with in academic writing? They seem so basic, and yet can be so elusive. I’d love to get my hands on your book when it’s finished.

  9. Katherine Mansfield wrote a short story about a person being removed from existence – I read it in High School so that would have been over 45 years ago – so I have forgotten the title. Probably my first encounter with the uncanny. Defining uncanny seems very ambitious. “Everyone knows what is uncanny!” Just as everyone knows what is good art.
    I do not – repeat, do NOT have uncanny experiences – although, the night my mother died – - – hmmmm – that is another story!

  10. Pingback: Forty Signs of Links « Torque Control

  11. Dorothy – I’ll be delighted to send you a copy when it’s done. Archie – I look forward to hearing that other story from you one day, and Danielle – I could not agree with you more! That exact thought fills my working hours at the moment.

  12. Stumbled across the film La Moustache the other day and had to rent it after you piqued my curiosity with the story. Brilliant. Thanks. Must get my hands on the book now.

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