The Uncanny

arbus twins

Diane Arbus, “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967”

If anything deserves an octave, it’s Halloween. I can’t count how many years I’ve put together an amazing spooky movie list for October or Halloween night only to maybe get through only one. We really need to just extend it all the way through November. So in that spirit, let’s continue with a look at the uncanny.

The uncanny is often associated with the horror that arises from yoking the familiar with the unfamiliar in such a way that makes the domestic grotesque. Whether insanity is coupled with the nurturing role of a governess or a diabolic presence consumes the most charming of children, the uncanny is synonymous with that unsettling feeling that the domestic sphere (including the very domestic act of reading for enjoyment) is dangerous and filled with evil.

Even the more colloquial uses of the uncanny in popular media, such as the traditional and religiously-motivated horror of vampirism or the more modern and scientifically-motivated horror of zombies, exist to make the familiar human form unfamiliar and elicit revulsion.

At the same time, the uncanny is an aspect of paradox. At the end of his litany of definitions of the uncanny, Freud suggests that heimlich and unheimlich aren’t mere contraries set in opposition, but something more like a synthesis: “Heimlich thus becomes increasingly ambivalent, until it finally merges with its antonym unheimlich. The uncanny… is in some way a species of the familiar.” Nicholas Royle echoes this definition when he writes that the uncanny is “…the commingling of the familiar and the unfamiliar … something familiar arising in an unfamiliar context, or its opposite, something unfamiliar arising unexpectedly in a familiar context.”

An important aspect of this doubling of familiar and unfamiliar is to unveil something that is hidden. Remember that a central assumption for Freud and critics that follow in his footsteps is that there is an unconscious, and the main purpose of the method of psychoanalysis is to uncover hidden mental processes through free association, dream analysis, and interpretation of parapraxes (Freudian slips).

However, what is unveiled isn’t always just a disturbing facet of the unconscious that has been repressed. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter adds an extra turn of the screw by moving the protagonist, and by extension the reader, to horror for the purpose of internal healing.

[Now, would this really be a Golden Echo post if I didn’t do a dramatic turn and try to convince you that everything was meaningful and about hope?]

Rappaccini’s Daughter is full of nested levels of the uncanny that serve to transition the reader from exterior horrors to interior faults. At the outer shell, the story is a set of unsettling contraries. Where we would expect the comfort of Eden, unblemished and serene, there’s a garden that is already tainted.  Instead of the peaceful sleep of Adam, Giovanni Guasconti dreams of both a flower and maiden who are one in their beauty and dangerous nature. Rather than greeting his Eve with a primordial love song, “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,” Giovanni “knew not what to dread; still less did he know what to hope; yet hope and dread kept a continual warfare in his breast.” All of this leads us to the uncanny combination of a beautiful woman who is also a carrier of poison, and yet even that is pedestrian compared with the final accusation that unsettles Giovanni and, by extension, the reader:

Farewell, Giovanni! Thy words of hatred are like lead within my heart—but they, too, will fall away as I ascend. Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?

Since it reverses the poisoning of the domestic sphere by uncovering the interior poison of Giovanni, this final line from Beatrice is the key to the mingling of familiar and unfamiliar in one dream, one breast, one person.

It is easy to see the unfamiliar as ugly, such as poisonous breath from a human, or a dreadful Eden presided over by an “emaciated, sallow, and sickly” father. But it is the familiar sickness that we overlook that may be more pernicious. Giovanni can see the death of a small insect from the distance of a balcony but is blind to his own poisonous hatred. The physical poison of Beatrice helps manifest the underlying poison of Giovanni’s heart because what is alien in her is so intimately united to his personality as to go unnoticed.

Ultimately, the woman who first seems to be the anti-Beatrice, coming into Giovanni’s life soon after the allusion to the seventh layer of hell in Dante’s Inferno, full of poison rather than beatitude, is still the heavenly lady who upbraids the poet when he is still full of pride after all he has seen. And, like Dante’s Beatrice who shows him the two natures of the griffin in her eyes, Hawthorne’s Beatrice shows Giovanni and us his own poison that he hid from himself.

But, like cigars, sometimes the uncanny is just the uncanny. Now if you really want to keep the Halloween spirit going, check out the red room from Twin Peaks:


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