Michael Kinnucan

The Uncanny and the Rest of the World


ISSUE 12 | HOME AND PAIN | JAN 2012

The Uncanny in General

Many things are frightening: wolves, heights, the loss of the beloved, failure, debt, forests. These things are not uncanny, usually, and a sign of this is that when we’re faced with them we know why we’re afraid. Pain, loss, death—these are threats we understand, which of course does not prevent them from swamping us in a terror so great we can only gasp and sob. But suppose you were looking at yourself in the mirror one night, looking right into your own eyes, and the reflection you saw began, very slowly, to chuckle at you. You would clutch at your mouth to discover whether it was moving, cover it to hold it still, and your image would break into deep, resonant laughter, slapping his thighs, really enjoying himself, never taking his eyes off of you. What, in such a case, would you be afraid of?

In fact, such things (“uncanny” things) almost never happen outside movies and bad dreams. Yet the terror they evoke can cast its shadow over the morning after or give us nightmares for weeks, because they seem to make the world as a whole shudder for a while, because they reveal a crack in its foundations. For this reason, uncanny phenomena are fascinating—we can’t look away. The uncanny seems to threaten in us a faith or knowledge we hold so deep we don’t know it’s there until something makes it flicker. Even then, we can’t say what it is we were made to doubt.

Etymology is informative here. In English, “uncanny” is simple enough: it is something like the negation of “canny” (“capable, clever,” related to “cunning,” “ken”). To be “canny” is to be good at dealing with things; the “uncanny” is that with which we cannot reckon, a kind of impasse. True, but scarcely informative. The German equivalent of “uncanny” is stranger and more telling. “Unheimlich” is the negation of “heimlich,” and “heimlich” is something like “home-like.” “Heimlich” mostly means homelike, comforting, at ease—but it can also mean private, even secret. (A privy councilor is “heimlich.”) By extension, it comes to mean “secretive,” suspicious, dangerous, even haunted—in fact, “uncanny.” “Unheimlich” thus means: the un-home, but also the un-secret, the un-hidden. Schelling explains it best: “The uncanny is that which ought to have remained secret but has come to light.” Uncanny is the disclosure of the secret we keep.

The suspicion that the uncanny has something more to tell us than its fleeting presence in our lives might suggest, that it might tell us something about how and on what we build our homes, has a history: it’s one of the few things Freud and Heidegger share. In Being and Time, Heidegger makes the uncanny the mark of a Dasein which has emerged from the inauthentic, falsifying state of being which occupies us most of the time. For the most part, we’re engaged in idle talk and empty curiosity, and nothing possesses real weight for us; out of this ordinary state we awake into awareness of the pressing and even foreboding gravity of the real, into a world which has become uncanny. This latter state is “authentic” in relation to the ordinary not because it is morally superior to the ordinary but simply because it lies “behind” the ordinary: it is that which the ordinary flees, hence that in relation to which the ordinary must be understood. Our everyday involvement with the world in which we feel most “at home” is, among other things, a constant effort to keep the uncanny at bay.

This way of reading the ordinary—as a flight from deeper truths which are evaded but never quite escaped—has its parallel in Freud’s work, and for Freud too the uncanny is the way truth catches up to us. Freud is, on the whole, unconcerned with mere emotions: they are vague and changeable, they disguise or become their opposites, they are on the whole far less “truthful” than speech, desire and dream. But the uncanny holds a special place for him: in his article on this term, he argues that the uncanny marks the emergence of the repressed. When we encounter something that reminds us of castration anxiety, Oedipal rivalry, the autistic omnipotence of the infant, or any of the many other things we have been obliged to forget in order to grow up, we experience these things as uncanny. The peculiar terror of the uncanny is thus explained: there are things we must repress in order to make our selves, but which must continue to operate in order that we be ourselves; they’re what’s most intimate to us, but brought face to face with them, we fall apart.

Yet this isn’t quite right—not every confrontation with the repressed is uncanny. The paradigmatic case of such confrontation, the psychoanalytic session, is filled not with uncanniness but by its distant cousin, anxiety. The difference, I think, is that in analysis we are confronted with the repressed as knowledge in ourselves, while uncanny phenomena confront us as objects in the world of the real. In ordinary usage, it is not people or moods but things which are called uncanny.

What is uncanny?

And really, what’s strange about the uncanny is this: it arises in objects, in people, in mirrors, as a minimal difference which causes a tremor in the world as a whole. How can an object do this, and which objects have this power? Heidegger simply does not pursue this question. Freud does attempt to answer it, as I’ve mentioned, but his solution—that certain objects manifest the truth of the repressed—is unsatisfying: so many objects might fit this description, but it’s not clear why such classically uncanny phenomena as mirrors and doubles should fit better than others. A few examples will show what I mean.

The Parental Uncanny

In Coraline, a children’s book by Neil Gaiman, the eponymous protagonist moves with her parents into a drafty old house way out in the country. Her parents are writers and want more time to focus on their work. Coraline, taken away from her friends to a place where there is absolutely nothing to do, wants them to pay attention to her. Overwhelmed by the sort of penetrating, insufferable boredom that is the curse of childhood, she constantly nags them to play with her; they put her off with adult reasonableness, “why don’t you play with your crayons?”, that sort of thing. At last she goes exploring and finds a key which opens a hidden doorway. Through the doorway is another house, exactly the same as her own, with parents who are just like hers except that they seem to love her more. They want nothing more than to play with her, amuse her, cook her favorite meals and let her eat dessert before dinner; they’re apparently just like her parents, only better. With one exception: they have buttons instead of eyes.

The Uncanny of Lovers

I remember a story which I thought was a Grimm’s fairy tale, but which seems not to be, and whose origins I can’t trace. Most of the people I’ve asked about it have heard one version or another at a sleepover or around a campfire. The version I remember, which I think of as “The Red Ribbon,” goes like this:

A journeyman blacksmith is travelling around the country to gain experience in his trade. He settles down for a while at an inn in a particular village, and one day as he’s coming out of the inn he sees a woman coming out of the house across the street. She’s beautiful, pale, wearing an elegant dress, with a thin red ribbon tied around her throat. He falls in love. He asks the other villagers about her, but they can tell him nothing: she lives alone, they don’t know where she comes from or who her people are. She’s always wearing that ribbon; that’s about all they know. Nonetheless, he courts her. At first she’s standoffish, strangely silent, but in the end he wins her over. His love grows stronger, and at last he proposes. She agrees to marry him, but under one condition: he must never ask her to remove her ribbon. He of course promises without a second thought. They marry, they move in together, and he’s very happy—but he finds himself wondering about the ribbon. He’ll wake up in the middle of the night sometimes just to gaze at her and wonder. She catches him at it and reminds him of his promise—but he can’t get his mind off it, he can’t sleep, he must know. At last one night she finds him staring at her again and asks: is this really what you want? Do you want me to take off the ribbon? I’ll do it for you. And he can’t help himself, he really does want it, he begs her to do it. So she unties the ribbon, and her head falls off.

The Uncanny of Mirrors

Most people seem to have one or several uncanny fantasies in which something goes wrong with a mirror. Something shows up which shouldn’t (a skull, or the rabbit in Donnie Darko, or a laughing face) or something doesn’t show up (your own reflection is absent, or the way vampires don’t show up in mirrors). Clearly related are fantasies of the double: seeing one’s double is a sign of death, but also the idea of being replaced in the affections of your friends and family by someone they believe is you. The uncanny of mannequins, puppets who come alive, portraits whose eyes follow you, the “uncanny valley,” seems relevant here too.

Certain themes emerge in this assemblage: the uncanny has something to do with the gaze, with desire, with an ambiguity between the living and the dead. But what precisely links these things remains obscure.

The Structure of “The Sandman”

We can begin to grasp the structure at work here through a reading of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Sandman.” When Freud discusses the uncanny, he suggests that Hoffmann’s work is in some sense exemplary and provides a reading of this story in particular—yet his reading seems to indicate that Hoffmann merely assembles a heap of basically heterogeneous uncanny phenomena to produce his effect. The story, according to Freud, evokes castration-anxiety and animistic omnipotence, but these are related only in that they’re both repressed. I will try to show in what follows that a closer reading of the story suggests a deeper unity than the one Freud found—indeed, that it can provide us with a general theory of the uncanny.

Episode 1

“The Sandman” opens with a letter in which the main character, Nathaniel, relates a dark episode from his past. When he was a boy, his father was visited regularly late at night by an ugly and wicked lawyer named Coppelius. On the nights when such visits were to occur, his mother would pack the children off to bed with a warning that “the Sandman is coming.” Nathaniel once asked his nurse who this Sandman was, and she told him that the Sandman is a wicked being who sprinkles hot coals into small children’s eyes so that the eyes pop out, then brings the eyes to feed his own small children on the moon. Nathaniel was too old to really believe such stories—yet he became obsessed with the Sandman nonetheless and was overcome with a desire to see what his father and Coppelius were up to in his father’s study late at night. So one night he hid in the study and waited. Coppelius discovered him, dragged him toward the fireplace, and threatened to burn out his eyes—but his father intervened and he was saved. He fainted and became feverish, and was confined to bed for weeks.

A more perfect illustration of Schelling’s dictum on the uncanny would be hard to find: Nathaniel becomes obsessed with a secret, something all the adults around him seem to be in on together, and the terror of the uncanny occurs with the revelation of this secret. Yet this formula hides certain complications. In one sense, after all, Nathaniel already knows what he takes such risks to discover: it turns out that his nurse’s “childish” account of the Sandman was quite correct. The Sandman steals children’s eyes. What Nathaniel already knew, he nonetheless had to see for himself—and the punishment for this desire to see was blindness. In another sense, though, Nathaniel remains in the dark. What he really wanted to know was the nature of Coppelius’s strange hold over his father, and this he has not discovered.

Freud argues that the uncanny here has to do with castration—the eyes as symbol of the genitals—and he is surely right, but this statement is more question than answer. For in this story castration is not the punishment for desiring the mother but punishment for seeking knowledge of castration. And the knowledge at work here is at once grotesquely obvious (bleeding eyeballs strewn on the floor) and strangely veiled.

Episode 2

Months later, Nathaniel’s father dies in a mysterious explosion in the study and Coppelius disappears. Nathaniel recovers from his illness and grief and falls in love with a lovely and sensible girl named Clara. But while he’s away at school he encounters a dealer in glass instruments named Coppola who looks exactly like Coppelius. He becomes obsessed with strange forebodings about this man and writes to Clara describing this dark episode in his childhood. She very sensibly tells him that he’s probably remembering a fever-dream and should forget about it, but he cannot. When he comes home from school he can talk of nothing else, and endlessly seeks to make Clara share in his dread and fascination. She’ll have none of it. At last, he writes a poem describing his forebodings:

It occurred to him, however, in the end to make his gloomy foreboding, that Coppelius would destroy his happiness, the subject of a poem. He represented himself and Clara as united by true love, but occasionally threatened by a black hand, which appeared to dart into their lives, to snatch away some new joy just as it was born. Finally, as they were standing at the altar, the hideous Coppelius appeared and touched Clara's lovely eyes. They flashed into Nathaniel's heart, like bleeding sparks, scorching and burning, as Coppelius caught him, and flung him into a flaming, fiery circle, which flew round with the swiftness of a storm, carrying him along with it, amid its roaring. The roar is like that of the hurricane, when it fiercely lashes the foaming waves, which rise up, like black giants with white heads, for the furious combat. But through the wild tumult he hears Clara's voice: 'Can't you see me then? Coppelius has deceived you. Those, indeed, were not my eyes which so burned in your breast—they were glowing drops of your own heart's blood. I have my eyes still—only look at them!' Nathaniel reflects: 'That is Clara, and I am hers for ever!' Then it seems to him as though this thought has forcibly entered the fiery circle, which stands still, while the noise dully ceases in the dark abyss. Nathaniel looks into Clara's eyes, but it is death that looks kindly upon him from her eyes.

When he reads this poem to Clara, she is frightened; she demands that he burn it and forget about the whole business. He responds with revulsion to her lack of sensitivity: “Thrusting Clara from him, [he] cried: 'Oh, inanimate, accursed automaton!'”

In this episode it is no longer Coppelius himself but Nathaniel’s obsession with him which threatens his happiness. Nathaniel is obsessed with the idea that the Sandman is a threat to Clara, that she will be “castrated” in the way he almost was. More specifically, he is obsessed with giving her this fear: in his poem it is she who is castrated. Yet both in the narrative of his poem and at the moment when he reads it, Clara refuses to accept his fear: it is he who is castrated, the damage he sees in her is only “his own heart’s blood.” Strangely, though, he cannot accept this: if she will not share his anxiety, she is dead to him. He sees the terror of loss and blindness as a sign of life, as the criterion of the soul: someone who lacks this fear is nothing more than a robot.

Here castration intervenes in the love relation, as that which threatens at the moment of consummation—but again, the structure is strange. Nathaniel demands that his lover be castrated, or subject to the fear of castration; the punishment for love is at the same time a condition of love. He can feel nothing for a being who is not obsessed with his loss.

Episode 3

Nathaniel’s rage nearly provokes a duel between him and Clara’s brother, but they eventually make up, and Nathaniel, repentant, promises to forget about Coppelius / Coppola forever. When he returns to school, Coppola comes to his room and tries to sell him glasses; he is frightened, but to prove to himself that all is well he buys a pocket telescope from the man and sends him on his way. From his window, he looks out at Olympia, the strangely silent daughter of his physics professor, Spalanzani. He has never paid much attention to her before, but through Coppola’s telescope she seems the most beautiful girl in the world. He falls in love with her, forgets all about Clara and begins courting her. Though she doesn’t have much to say—she responds to all his sweet nothings with the words “Ah, ah!”—he’s convinced that she understands him perfectly. His friends tell him he’s crazy, that she might as well be a robot, but he persists and finally decides to propose to her. But when he enters her house to pop the question, he witnesses the following scene:

The professor was holding a female figure fast by the shoulders, the Italian Coppola grasped it by the feet, and there they were tugging and pulling, this way and that, contending for the possession of it with the utmost fury. Nathaniel started back with horror when in the figure he recognized Olympia. Boiling with the wildest indignation, he was about to rescue his beloved from these infuriated men. But at that moment Coppola, whirling round with the strength of a giant, wrenched the figure from the professor's hand, and then dealt him a tremendous blow with the object itself, which sent him reeling and tumbling backwards over the table, upon which stood vials, retorts, bottles and glass cylinders. All these were dashed to a thousand shivers. Now Coppola flung the figure across his shoulders, and with a frightful burst of shrill laughter dashed down the stairs, so fast that the feet of the figure, which dangled in the most hideous manner, rattled with a wooden sound on every step.

Nathaniel stood paralyzed; he had seen but too plainly that Olympia's waxen, deathly-pale countenance had no eyes, but black holes instead—she was, indeed, a lifeless doll. Spalanzani was writhing on the floor; the pieces of glass had cut his head, his breast and his arms, and the blood was spurting up as from so many fountains. But he soon collected all his strength. 'After him—after him—what are you waiting for? Coppelius, Coppelius—has robbed me of my best automaton—a work of twenty years—body and soul risked upon it—the clockwork—the speech—the walk, mine; the eyes stolen from you. The infernal rascal—after him; fetch Olympia—there you see the eyes!'

And now Nathaniel saw that a pair of eyes lay upon the ground, staring at him; these Spalanzani caught up, with his unwounded hand, and flung into his bosom.

Nathaniel has accused Clara of being an “inanimate, accursed automaton”—but he falls in love with a girl who really is one. The story is a cruelly literal take on the saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”: it was only through Nathaniel’s gaze, or rather through the frame he bought from Coppola, that Olympia had a soul. Her beauty was a reflection of his own castration, and when he gazed into her eyes he saw only his own reflection. Nathaniel faces a symmetrical dilemma: Clara, who is living but “really” dead since she won’t share his castration, or Olympia, who is dead and comes alive only through his loss. In both cases, Nathaniel is trapped in the Sandman’s game, and ultimately in his father’s: he can love only through castration, and this he cannot escape. Again, though, castration is not a threat to love but its condition.

Episode 4

Nathaniel goes insane, but he gradually recovers and falls in love with Clara again. He and Clara climb a tower together to see the sights, and he takes out his pocket telescope—but through it he sees the lawyer Coppelius. He goes insane again and tries to throw Clara from the tower, but she escapes. He rages atop the tower, and one of the townsfolk suggests that they go up there and drag him down, but Coppelius chuckles: “Just wait—he’ll come down of his own accord.” Upon which Nathaniel leaps to his death. The story ends on a cheerful note, though:

Many years afterwards it is said that Clara was seen in a remote spot, sitting hand in hand with a kind-looking man before the door of a country house, while two lively boys played before her. From this it may be inferred that she at last found a quiet domestic happiness suitable to her serene and cheerful nature, a happiness which the morbid Nathaniel would never have given her.

Nathaniel never had a chance: even in suicide he is still playing the Sandman’s game, still a kind of puppet and a kind of joke.

Grand Unified Theory of the Uncanny

Hoffmann’s story provides a suggestive link among the various forms of the uncanny listed above: the dead lover, the mirror-double, the castrated. Freud is right to think that castration is fundamental here, but it is operative not as a threat superseded in childhood but as that which persists in every love. Nathaniel is faced with the double threat: the living lover appears as dead without castration, yet a lover animated only by one’s own castration is already dead. The uncanny, then, has to do with the question one meets in a lover’s eyes: does one see a soul there, or merely the empty reflection of one’s own desires? The threat would be one of solipsism were it not for the figure of the Sandman, Coppola/Coppelius, whose laughter echoes through the whole story and whose ugly, grinning face appears at the end of every road.

What is most intimate, most heimlich, is the lack through which we love—yet this lack ought to remain veiled; the question we pose to a lover ought to remain unanswered. The figure who knows the answer, who causes the lack, is uncanny in the highest degree.