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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Me Versus Freud: The Uncanny

Sigmund Freud is my dear close personal friend, but somewhat obsessed with S-E-X, and not surprisingly, he says that the experience of the uncanny, which is different and more subtle than terrifying or horrifying, has to do with confronting repressed fears, usually sexual.  He writes about the recurrent theme of losing one's eyes in the short story, "The Sandman," which I've never read, but I know there is indeed something particularly uncanny in this; I used to feel a little shudder of horror at a lullaby that ran in part, "Birds and the butterflies, pecking at his eyes."  In one version of Cinderella, crows peck out an eye from each of the stepmother and stepsisters as they enter the church to watch Cinderella's wedding, and then upon their exit, return to eat the other eye.  
R Crumb's strangely bloodless eye sockets in as Eggs stares futiley at his paper creep us out, as does the lump of one eyeball descending the crow's throat.  Freud, predictably, says this sort of thing represents castration anxiety, and, well, okay... what the hell, why not.  You can't deny there's some sort of sexual revenge going on in Cinderella, and we needn't doubt that Crumb, who digs the toe-jam from the darkest corners of the id - incest, murder, canabalism, cacphagy (look it up) - might have a sexual subtext at work.  But with respect to Dr. Freud (Siggy, we used to call him in grade school) I think he might be barking up the wrong complex.
The German word for the uncanny is unheimlich, which means something like un-homely.  When Dorothy tells Toto they're not in Kansas anymore, she's expressing the German idea of the uncanny.  Freud does some brilliant etymological analysis leading to the conclusion that the root heimlich means both itself, "homely," and its opposite - "secret," and so unheimlich, also is its own antonym.  The uncanny, for Freud, is the unfamiliar, which points us back to that which is familiar, but repressed.
This is all well and good, but the English word for uncanny is not unheimlich, it's uncanny, and uncanny's roots mean, not un-homely, but un-known, or more like un-encountered.  (I won't use unfamiliar because the root familial lends support to Freud's thesis.)  I think it's this measure of un-knowledge that constitutes the uncanny, and here I'm going to use Freud's own ideas against him.  One of our developmental stages is the acquistion of the reality principle: we learn that the world won't give us what we want all the time, but that if we can conform our behavior and expectations to the way the world works, we'll get at least some of what we want, some of the time.  This principle rests on the bedrock that reality is a real thing, that it is rule-bound and to a large degree predictable.  But what if the world isn't that way?  There's no reason why it should be, after all: reason itself, which justifies so many other things, can't be justified by reason.  What if the world isn't reasonable, what if it's irrational and crazy?  What if it's unknowable, un-encounterable, in short: uncanny?
That's why I think the thought of losing our eyes is so troubling: it isn't that they represent gonads, it's that they represent the ability to know.  When someone grasps an idea, he has an "insight," when he explains it to us, we "see what he means."  There's a children's story that always troubled me, not in spite of its ridiculous ending, but because of it.  A normally well-behaved brother and sister meet a gypsy girl who offers them a magical toy if they will misbehave at home.  In spite of the love they have for their mother, they do so, causing her great grief.  (The father is evidently dead.)  But the gypsy refuses to give them the toy because they haven't been "bad enough" yet, and so the siblings get into worse and worse antics, and the mother warns them, tearfully, if they keep it up, she will leave them and be replaced with another mother, one with a wooden tail and glass eyes.  (There's those eyes again!)  But the children don't listen, and finally do something so terrible, they're convinced the gypsy child will give them the toy.  They run off to meet her, but she isn't there.  They wait until the sun sets, but she never returns.  They go back home, disappointed and uneasy.  As they approach their house in the darkness, through the window, they catch sight of their new mother's glass eyes glinting in the firelight and they hear her wooden tail dragging on the floor.
The ending isn't scary in the normal way - it's not as if the new mother shows any ability to harm them, it's just that it's so uncanny.  It's illogical, it makes no sense, it isn't possible.
Freud would say this is sexual too, and ok, if that's the way he wants it, but I'll cling to my notion that the uncanny has more to do with the potential for terrible unknowableness than the fear of a wiener-snipping.  At the beginning of Night of the Living Dead a brother and sister are arguing as they visit their father's grave (Okay, Freud, shut up, you've had your say!)  And in the background, way against the horizon, a shuffling figure meanders slowly, weaving in and out of our field of vision.  He's so far off, we can barely see him.  And we know, we just know, he's a zombie.  It doesn't make sense that he should be, there's no reason for a dead person to be up and walking around - and that's what makes it uncanny.  One more example, Gregor Samsa, as rule-bound and reality principled as any man who ever walked, wakes up from a troubled dream to find himself changed into a monstrous vermin.  This is the uncanny and our peculiar horror of it.  When we were very, very little we struck a bargain with the universe that we would be have reasonably in accordance with its reason, but what if the universe never kept its side of the deal, and after all, why should we expect it to?  What if instead of an orderly if unsatisfactory clockwork of cause and effect, and this therefore that, and one-thing-at-a-time, it's a bedlam of eyeball-eating crows and mothers with glass eyes and wooden tails?

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