The Uncanny

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

The Uncanny

Literature is uncanny. What does this mean? To try to define the uncanny is immediately to encounter one of its decisive paradoxes, namely that it has to do with a troubling of definitions, with a fundamental disturbance of what we think and feel. The uncanny has to do with a sense of strangeness, mystery or eeriness. More particularly it concerns a sense of unfamiliarity that appears at the very heart of the familiar, or else a sense of familiarity that appears at the very heart of the unfamiliar. The uncanny is not just a matter of the weird or spooky, but has to do more specifically with a disturbance of the familiar. Such a disturbance might be hinted at by way of the word ’familiar’ itself. ’Familiar’ goes back to the Latin familia, a family: we all have some sense of how odd families can seem (whether or not one is ’part of the family’). The idea of ’keeping things in the family’ or of something that ’runs in the family’, for instance, is at once familiar and potentially secretive or strange. As an adjective ’familiar’ means ’well acquainted or intimate’, ’having a thorough knowledge’, etc., but as a noun it carries the more unsettling, supernatural sense of ’a spirit or demon supposed to come to a person esp a witch, etc, at his or her call’ (Chambers Dictionary). We might think here, for example, of the demonic ’familiar’ that is said to haunt Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) or, more comically, of the 12-year-old Maud’s ’supernatural companion’ in Elizabeth Bowen’s superb novel A World of Love (1955).

Here are a couple of examples of the uncanny. First: you walk into a room in a house you have never visited before and suddenly you have the sense that you have been there before and that you even seem to know what will happen next. This kind of experience has even developed its own name, déjà vu. Or, second example: you are in some public place (a shop, perhaps, or a train) and you catch sight of someone whom you think looks rather disturbing, and then you realize that you have caught sight of this person reflected in a window or a mirror and that this person is yourself.

These examples could be described as so-called ’real life’ occurrences. But are they in fact ’real life’? If, as we shall see, the uncanny is especially relevant to the study of literature, it also has to do with how the ’literary’ and the ’real’ can seem to merge into one another. On the one hand, uncanniness could be defined as occurring when ’real’, everyday life suddenly takes on a disturbingly ’literary’ or ’fictional’ quality. On the other hand, literature itself could be defined as the discourse of the uncanny: literature is the kind of writing that most persistently and most provocatively engages with the uncanny aspects of experience, thought and feeling. In some ways this is in keeping with the sort of conception of literature theorized by the Russian formalists of the early twentieth century, especially Viktor Shklovsky. Literature, for the Russian formalists, has to do with defamiliarization (ostranenie): it makes the familiar strange, it challenges our beliefs and assumptions about the world and about the nature of ’reality’. The German poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s argument that theatre should produce ’alienation effects’ is an obvious analogy here. For Brecht, no actor is supposed to identify completely with the character he or she plays. Likewise the spectator is encouraged to feel dissociated, uneasy, alienated. In accordance with this, Brecht’s concern is to demonstrate that the ’real’ is not something that is simply a given: it is not something definite and immutable, but is constructed through human perception, language, beliefs and assumptions, and consequently it is something that can be changed. In Brechtian terms, the alienating or defamiliarizing power of drama — and art and literature more generally — lies in its capacity to transform us and the world around us. In this chapter we shall argue that these ideas about the power of art to disturb, defamiliarize or shake our beliefs and assumptions are intimately bound up with the uncanny. The uncanny — in particular as first elaborated by Freud, in his essay of that title (Freud 1985b) — is central to any description of the literary.

The uncanny has to do with making things uncertain: it has to do with the sense that things are not as they have come to appear through habit and familiarity, that they may challenge all rationality and logic. Let us nevertheless suggest, thirteen (unlucky?) forms that the uncanny can take:

· 1. Repetition. For example, strange repetition of a feeling, situation, event or character. Two obvious examples of the uncanny, in this respect, would be the experience of déjà vu (the sense that something has happened before), and the idea of the double (or doppelgänger).

· 2. Odd coincidences and, more generally, the sense that things are fated to happen. Something might happen, for example, that seems ’too good to be true’ or that suggests, despite the fact that you do not believe in God, that someone or something is pulling the strings.

· 3. Animism. This is the rhetorical term referring to a situation in which what is inanimate or lifeless is given attributes of life or spirit. In the last sentence of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), for example, we read of ’the soft wind breathing through the grass’ — a potentially uncanny instance of animism.

· 4. Anthropomorphism — that is to say, a more specific (because specifically human) form of animism. It is the rhetorical figure that refers to a situation in which what is not human is given attributes of human form or shape: the legs of a table or the face of a cliff would be examples of anthropomorphism, although they might not immediately or necessarily provoke a feeling of uncanniness. In a similar fashion, children’s toys and fairy tales present many possibilities for thinking about anthropomorphism: we may think of such things (dolls or household utensils coming to life and talking) as decidedly not uncanny, but there is perhaps also a strange, potential slipperiness here. It is perhaps not by chance that children and children’s toys loom large in certain books and films about the supernatural. (A fairy tale is not as far from a horror story as we might initially suppose.) An uncanny story frequently involves a mingling of such elements. It is crucial to the strange and disturbing atmosphere of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) that the room in which the narrator is confined is a former children’s nursery. More immediately and more obviously uncanny, however, would be the anthropomorphic character of the wallpaper in this room. There is, for example, the moment when the narrator tells us about the ’kind of sub-pattern’ in the wallpaper: ’in the places where [the wallpaper] isn’t faded and where the sun is just so — I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind’ (18).

· 5. Automatism. This is a term that can be used when what is human is perceived as merely mechanical: examples of this would be sleepwalking, epileptic fits, trance-states and madness. The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper would clearly fit into this category (especially when she is ’creeping’ round and round her room at the end), but a sufficiently careful reading of, say, Keats’s trance-like ’Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) might also prove interesting in this context. The question at the end of Keats’s poem is about trance and, perhaps, madness. In a sense it is a question that haunts literature in general: ’Do I wake or sleep?’ To suggest briefly one other example, the writing of D.H. Lawrence is full of people in states of trance and seizure. Towards the end of ’The Rocking-Horse Winner’ (1912), for instance, there is a description of Paul and his mother: ’The Derby was drawing near, and the boy grew more and more tense. He hardly heard what was spoken to him, he was very frail, and his eyes were really uncanny. His mother had sudden seizures of uneasiness about him’ (745). On the other hand, robots and other automata — such as Terminator (from 1984), Ava in Ex Machina (2015) or Anita in the 2015 TV series Humans — are also potentially uncanny, for the opposite reason: what is perceived as human is in fact mechanical. Somewhere between a sense of comfort with the idea that an automaton, ’synth’ or human replica is not human, and a sense of comfort with seeing the non-human as human (i.e. happily anthropomorphizing one’s doll or robot or other device) is the dip that the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori (1970) calls the ’uncanny valley’. In the uncanny valley, comfort turns to unease and empathy to revulsion.

· 6. A sense of radical uncertainty about sexual identity — about whether a person is male or female, or apparently one but actually the other. This is made dramatically clear, for instance, in the uncanny revelation in the course of Neil Jordan’s film The Crying Game (1992), when an apparently female character turns out to have the genitalia of a man; or, again, in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), when an apparently female character turns out, under the skin, not to have skin at all but the body of an alien. In a literary context we could also think of the uncanniness of gender in, for example, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1927), Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry (1989) and Written on the Body (1992), or Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (2002).

· 7. A fear of being buried alive. This may seem a somewhat refined example of the uncanny, but it is relevant insofar as it is related more broadly to images or experiences of claustrophobia, of being unexpectedly and unpleasantly stuck (for instance in an elevator, or in a swamp, or simply in a room with the last person in the world you would like to be left alone with). An extreme but fascinating instance of the uncanny in this context would be Edgar Allan Poe’s story ’The Premature Burial’ (1844) — about a man who has an obsessive fear of being buried alive and goes to great trouble and expense to have his family crypt designed in such a way as to allow him to escape, in the (one might have thought laughably unlikely) event of being buried alive by mistake. In a broader sense, however, we could reflect on the uncanny feelings encountered in all the aspects of being locked in, of enclosure and confinement, in Brontë’s intensely claustrophobic Wuthering Heights or in Tennyson’s short but extraordinarily evocative poem ’Mariana’ (1830).

· 8. Silence. Intriguingly, this is an example proposed by Freud, although he himself is effectively silent on the subject of what makes it uncanny. The potentially uncanny qualities of silence are particularly evident in a work such as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). There is, for example, the strangely silent encounter on the stairs, between the governess and the dead Peter Quint:

It was the dead silence of our long gaze at such close quarters that gave the whole horror, huge as it was, its only note of the unnatural. If I had met a murderer in such a place and at such an hour we still at least would have spoken. Something would have passed, in life, between us; if nothing had passed one of us would have moved. The moment was so prolonged that it would have taken but little more to make me doubt if even I were in life. I can’t express what followed it save by saying that the silence itself … became the element into which I saw the figure disappear. (135)

· 9. Telepathy. This is an uncanny idea not least because it involves the thought that your thoughts are perhaps not your own, however private or concealed you might have assumed them to be. Literature is pervaded by examples of the telepathic. Alongside some of the texts already mentioned, such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, ’The Rocking-Horse Winner’ and The Turn of the Screw, we might think, for instance, of George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil (1878) — the very title of which gestures towards uncanny revelation. Eliot’s narrator, Latimer, describes how he suddenly becomes capable of reading others’ thoughts. In this way he presents an uncanny example of one of the most fundamental characteristics of narrative fiction: he becomes a telepathic narrator.

· 10. Death. In particular, death as something at once familiar — ’all that lives must die’, as Gertrude puts it (Hamlet, 1.2.72) — and absolutely unfamiliar, unthinkable, unimaginable. As the Anglican Book of Common Prayer declares: ’In life we are in the midst of death.’

· 11. The death drive. This term, initially deriving from Sigmund Freud’s remarkable essay of 1920, ’Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (Freud 1984), refers to the idea that everyone at some level (consciously or unconsciously) is driven by a desire to die, to self-destruct, to return to a state of inanimacy. By a sort of uncanny reversal or displacement of perspective, then, life would not be about living, progressing and developing, about pleasure, vitality and staying healthy. Instead, and without our even necessarily realizing it, life is about what W.B. Yeats, in his poem ’The Wheel’, calls the ’longing for the tomb’ (Yeats 1977), in other words an uncannily strange return or recurrence (the desire to return to non-being, the desire not to be). Literature is packed with examples. We might think, once again, of Wuthering Heights, ’The Rocking-Horse Winner’, ’Ode to a Nightingale’, ’Mariana’ or, of course, Hamlet.

· 12. Ghosts. In some ways, perhaps, this is the uncanny par excellence. The notion of the ghost unsettles all distinctions between being alive and being dead, the real and the unreal, the familiar and the unfamiliar. A ghost is the very embodiment of strange repetition or recurrence: it is a revenant, it comes back. (For more on this particular form of uncanniness, see Chapter 20.)

· 13. Language. The word ’uncanny’ is singular: it is not just a case of something being ’weird’, ’spooky’, or ’eerie’. An uncanny feeling or experience is intimately bound up with language, and more particularly perhaps with a kind of crisis in relation to language. We call it ’uncanny’ but we are also rather at a loss, we experience uncertainty, we encounter (however fleetingly) the sense of something beyond language, unnamable.

In sum, then, the uncanny can be described as the thoughts and feelings that may arise on those occasions when the homely becomes unhomely, when the familiar becomes uncomfortably strange or the unfamiliar becomes strangely familiar. Alternatively, the uncanny is — in the words of the German philosopher F.W.J. Schelling — that which ’ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light’ (see Freud 1985b, 345). Schelling’s definition of the uncanny is quoted by Sigmund Freud in his essay, published in 1919, entitled ’The “Uncanny”’ (’Das Unheimliche’). In fact, most of the account of the uncanny which we have given so far is indebted to this extraordinary text. When Freud chose to write an essay on the uncanny he was opening up a very strange can of worms.

Freud’s essay is largely focused on literature and in particular on a reading of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story ’The Sand-Man’ (1816). In this respect it is slightly unusual, since Freud wrote comparatively little that could be described as literary criticism or literary theory. But few of Freud’s essays have had a more pervasive impact on literary studies. What is especially fascinating about Freud’s essay is the way in which it prompts us to ask various questions about boundaries and limits: How much of Freud’s essay is psychoanalysis and how much is literature? Where does reason become imagination and imagination reason? Where does science become fiction and fiction science? Where does literature end and literary criticism or literary theory begin?

It has become something of a truism to note that Freud’s writings can be thought about in at least two basic and quite different ways. First, there is the Freud of the so-called popular imagination: Freud the patriarchal, bourgeois, nineteenth-century Viennese Jew, who believed that everything has to do with sex. This Freud has very firm views and spouts these in the form of rather mechanically predictable theories, the most celebrated and fundamental of which is perhaps the Oedipus complex. Second, however, there is the other Freud, a Freud who did not fully realize what he was saying, who was for various reasons (historical as much as personal) unable to see or develop the implications of what he was saying, not least because these implications regularly exceed or interfere with his own proposed themes and assumptions. This second Freud is a Freud who is, we could say, different from himself, and who constitutes what is sometimes referred to as ’the new Freud’ or ’French Freud’ (in acknowledgement of the work done by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and others), a result in other words of what has been called ’the rereading of Freud’ or ’the return to Freud’.

Freud’s ’The “Uncanny”’ provides one of the most dramatic and stimulating manifestations of these two Freuds. On the one hand there is the Freud who believes (and in some sense needs to believe) that literature and psychoanalysis can be simply and clearly separated off from each other, and that psychoanalysis can significantly contribute towards a scientific and objective understanding of literary texts. On the other hand, there is the Freud who shows (often only inadvertently) that the ’literary’ is stranger and more disturbing than psychoanalysis, science or rationalism in general may be able or willing to acknowledge. The essay gives us two Freuds, or a kind of double-Freud, and this double spends the essay investigating the importance among other things of the idea of the double. What makes the double uncanny? According to Freud’s essay, the double is paradoxically both a promise of immortality (look, there’s my double, I can be reproduced, I can live forever) and a harbinger of death (look, there I am, no longer me here, but there: I am about to die, or else I must be dead already). The notion of the double undermines the very logic of identity.

All of this is suggested, in fact, by the English title of Freud’s essay, where the word ’uncanny’ is in quotation marks. This putting-into-quotation-marks itself constitutes potential breeding grounds for the uncanny — for the ’uncanny’ is in a sense always in quotation marks. The uncanny might thus be thought of as a kind of ghost-effect that haunts all words, however self-evident or ’familiar’ they may appear to be. We could illustrate this most easily perhaps by trying to imagine what it would be like if proper names (such as ’London’, ’Hillary Clinton’, ’God’) were suddenly used only in quotation marks — thus giving a new sense to the phrase ’scare quotes’. Language itself, then, becomes uncanny. Indeed, very often the more familiar a word, the more uncanny it can become. Every ’word’, for example, is capable of being put into quotation marks and the act of putting it into quotation marks makes that word a little strange, as if different from itself, referring to something or somewhere else. This is a general point, also, about repetition: repetition of a word (’Words, words, words’, as Hamlet says (Hamlet, 2.2.195)) can give rise to a sense of hollowness, strangeness, even spookiness.

Repetition is a key aspect of the uncanny, as Freud’s essay makes clear. The uncanny is not simply a matter of the mysterious, bizarre or frightening: as we have tried to suggest, it involves a kind of duplicity (both doubling and deception) within the familiar. This logic of the uncanny, whereby the familiar turns into, or becomes contaminated by, the unfamiliar, is evident in the word ’uncanny’ (or, in German, ’unheimlich’) itself. ’Uncanny’ is the opposite of ’canny’, meaning ’skilful’, ’shrewd’, ’knowing’ (from Old English kunnan, ’to know’, especially in the sense ’to know how to be able to do something’). But the word ’canny’ shades into its opposite: in Scottish English in particular, ’canny’ can suggest unnatural or excessive skilfulness, shrewdness or knowing. This capacity for a word to contain or to turn into its opposite is what Freud elsewhere talks about as the ’antithetical’ meanings of ’primal words’ (see Freud 1957a). We consider another example of this in Chapter 34, where ’pleasure’ can be seen — at least in certain contexts — to entail its opposite (’pain’). ’Masochism’ is the term conventionally used to gloss this contradictory logic according to which pain can be pleasure or pleasure pain.

Analysis of the word ’uncanny’ seems ineluctably, even fatalistically, bound up with an experience of the uncanny, an experience which disturbs any attempt to remain analytically detached and objective. This is strikingly clear from the early pages of Freud’s essay, in which he seeks to show how the German word for ’homely’ (’heimlich’), with its connotations of ’private’, ’hidden’, ’secret’, inevitably conceals its opposite — the ’unhomely’ or unheimlich. From this it may be concluded that the uncanny cannot readily be avoided or denied: ultimately, the uncanny is aligned with death. As a form of strange disruption, questioning and uncertainty, the idea of the uncanny may be frightening, but it also continues to be a crucially important and productive area for literary study.

The uncanny, then, is an experience — even though this may have to do with the unthinkable or unimaginable. It is not a theme that a writer uses or that a text possesses. The uncanny is not something simply present like an object in a painting. It is, rather, an effect. In this respect it has to do with how we read or interpret (interestingly, it makes no difference here whether we are talking about something in a book or something in the so-called outside world). In other words, the uncanny has to do, most of all, with effects of reading, with the experience of the reader. The uncanny is not so much in the text we are reading: rather, it is like a foreign body within ourselves.

Further reading

For a book-length study dealing with many of the concerns of this chapter, see Nicholas Royle’s The Uncanny (2003). For an excellent account of the theoretical influence and effects of Freud’s essay, see Anneeleen Masschelein’s The Unconcept: The Freudian Uncanny in Late-Twentieth-Century Theory (2012). Masschelein’s book also contains an invaluable 36-page bibliography of critical and theoretical works on the topic. On the historical background to the concept of the uncanny, see Terry Castle’s The Female Thermometer (1995) and Mladen Dolar’s ’“I Shall Be with You on Your Wedding-night”’ (1991). Hillel Schwartz’s The Culture of the Copy (1996) offers some fascinating perspectives on doubles and dual-thinking, from ’identical twins’ to ’parallel universes’. For a good collection of essays on various aspects of the uncanny, including the first English translation of Ernst Jentsch’s ’On the Psychology of the Uncanny’ (1906), see Home and Family (1995), ed. Sarah Wood. On defamiliarization, the classic essay is Shklovsky’s ’Art as Technique’ (1965), but for an earlier engagement with similar ideas, see Shelley’s crucial and widely reprinted 1821 essay ’A Defence of Poetry’. On theatre and alienation, ’A Short Organum for the Theatre’ (Brecht 1978) is terse and stimulating. On fairy tales and the uncanny, see Jack Zipes (1988). On telepathy and the uncanny, see Royle’s Telepathy and Literature (1991). Freud’s ’The “Uncanny”’ remains an extremely rich and surprising text (see Freud 1985b, as well as the new Penguin translation in Freud 2003). For some of the more challenging readings of Freud’s essay, see Samuel Weber (1973, 2000), Hélène Cixous (2011) and Neil Hertz (1979). On ’the return to Freud’, see Samuel Weber’s fine study of that title (1992). On the uncanny in the context of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (a topic that would require another chapter of Bennett and Royle), see Katherine Withy (2015). For especially good general introductions to psychoanalysis and literature, see Ellmann, ed., Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism (1994); Wright, Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reappraisal (1998); Tambling, Literature and Psychoanalysis (2012); Marcus and Mukherjee, eds., A Concise Companion to Psychoanalysis, Literature, and Culture (2014); and Jean-Michel Rabaté, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and Psychoanalysis (2014).