The Unheimlich and the Uncanny

April 16, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.

There’s a fantastic etymological tangent in S.S. Prawer’s chapter on “The Uncanny.”  Trying to pin down what he means by the term “uncanny,” he focuses on the German word unheimlich.  He provides two common understandings of the term:

(a) the ‘un-homely,’ that which makes you feel uneasy in the world of your normal experience, not quite safe to trust to, mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar.  In this sense, unheimlich has frequently been used as the equivalent of a word that would seem to be its opposite, the word heimlich, meaning ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’..

(b) the ‘un-secret,’ that which should have remained hidden but has somehow failed to do so.

He goes on to translate from the German philosopher F.W.J. Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology: “Uncanny [unheimlich] is a term for everything which should remain mysterious, hidden, latent and has come to light.”

Why do German words always seem to have these awesome subtleties and gradations of meaning?

This is really fascinating to me, this Gothic and proto-Freudian sense of the uncanny being the forbidden intrusion of the secret or hidden into the world — and the connection to the home, the connection that heimlich seems to have with both the hidden and the cozy, the comfortable, the homey.  (Those madwomen in the attic again; those horrors in the basement; those extrusions of the id.)  The seeming simultaneous opposition and equivalence of unheimlich and heimlich is also perfect, somehow.  Think of the way your name, or any common word, starts to sound really weird when you repeat it to yourself over and over.  (Best cinematic representation of this phenomenon that I can think of off the top of my head: Kicking and Screaming.)  Both canny and uncanny.  It’s hidden there all along, that weirdness, that divide between meaning and meaningless symbols.

Or think, more to the point, of the Doppelgänger.  The doppelganger (forgive my lazy Anglicization), as Prawer points out, is the consummate example of the uncanny/unheimlich.  And yet it’s so close to home: the double, the other self.  Weird like the world in the mirror is weird, and will spook you if you stare too long.

Atmospheric Disturbances is shaping up to be one helluva doppelganger story: a psychiatrist who “senses” one day that his wife is no longer his wife, but a simulacrum, or a double.  This “sensing” is the trademark of the uncanny, as well as one of the stock devices of the horror genre: “something doesn’t feel right here.”  But Galchen is doing great things with it here, by destabilizing our relationship with our narrator/psychiatrist, making us question his stability, this supposed practitioner of mental health.

All fiction is uncanny in that anything, really, can happen: writers can be as strange or as normal as they choose to be (although, of course, the unconventional ones — those who do not follow conventions, intentionally or not, skillfully or not — have a harder time getting anyone to read them).  I am loving the way that this book is making me question what’s going on: I do not know what kind of story I am being told.  It could be a story of mental illness or a story of supernatural phenomena.  Or a story of hidden lives and domestic drama.  Is it a Borgesian puzzle or a kind of parable of marriage?  Or all of the above?  (Well, it is definitely of Borges.  That’s for sure.)  Isn’t that another quintessentially uncanny feeling — the feeling, as in many dreams, that you don’t know where you’re going?

(An aside on this last comment: a couple of months ago at the Nevermore Film Festival here in Durham I saw this movie from New Zealand called Blackspot.  It’s really stuck with me: the empty nighttime road played for its full uncanny potential.  It’s imperfect, and pretty difficult to track down at the moment, it would seem, but really, really worth seeking out if you’re a fan of the best kind of Twilight Zone fright.)

Advertisements

Good Country People?

April 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Bible Salesman.

The first Flannery O’Connor story I ever read was “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”  I was nineteen.  It pretty much made my head explode.  I’d also read King Lear around the same time, and I remember thinking about how the story reminded me of the play.  That same angry comedy of horrors; a similar sense of staring into a void; in both, an existential struggle with God or our sense of him.  The theatre of the absurd, on a country road, with a sociopath called the Misfit.

What’s “funny” in this story, as in much of her work, is rather savage and wicked.  O’Connor had a sneer behind an awful lot of her laughs.  Most of the comedic work is done by the two children, John Wesley and June Star, who are little caricatured monsters: reading their comic books, jaded and utterly bored with their world, they mock everything in sight.  They only come alive when their car wrecks.  “‘But nobody’s killed,’ June Star said with disappointment…”  Their true kin is the Misfit, with his classic closing statement: “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

The Bible Salesman has given me a good reason to revisit this story, a source for Preston Clearwater, and “Good Country People,” a source for Henry Dampier (but which contributed to Clearwater, too, it would seem — there’s something of the Misfit in this story, too).  To be honest, I’d forgotten all about “Good Country People,” which features a nihilistic Bible salesman who seduces a PhD in philosophy, only to steal the lonely woman’s wooden leg.  (Well, when I put it that way, the story sounds completely insane, but it’s great.)

Henry in TBS is a nice inversion of Pointer, the Bible salesman in O’Connor’s story.  While we start out with some doubts about Henry — he writes letters pretending to be a circuit preacher to get free Bibles which he then sells — he grows on us, and we see the goodness and sincerity mixed up with his attempt to make a few bucks.  We also follow his struggles to make sense of some of the complications and confusions in the Bible, and his struggles with faith.  On the other hand, Pointer (a pseudonym) begins with a measure of our trust, posing as a nice, naive young man, but he takes advantage of Joy’s own pose of worldly wisdom and existential ennui to allow her to think that she has seduced him.  In the end, he says to her, “you ain’t so smart.  I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”

The comparison between the two is nicely encapsulated by Edgerton’s use of three of the important objects in O’Connor’s story.  Pointer displays for Joy like “offerings at the shrine of a goddess” a dummy Bible hiding a whiskey flask, a deck of pornographic cards, and a box of condoms.  The objects reveal his selfish nihilism, the dead end of humanity he represents for O’Connor.  Henry also has a flask, an “exotic” deck, and some condoms — “preventatives,” he calls them.  But they’ve lost their ugliness, and gained a context.  We know that Henry is not posing as naive, but actually is: a virgin, curious, and young.  The flask and condoms are used, lovingly, only after Henry has discovered in the Bible that extramarital sex is hardly the universally condemned sin his upbringing led him to believe: if it’s good enough for Abraham, why wouldn’t it be good enough for him?

Some of my favorite passages in this book are Henry’s attempts to read the Bible, baffled right off the bat at the contradictory accounts of the creation in Genesis.  In the truly lovely epilogue of the book, he reads an updated American translation, and finds his way to an understanding and appreciation of key passages of Ecclesiastes and Psalm 23.  It is not a stretch to call this understanding existential; and it seems to me to chart a middle path between the nihilism and uncompromising Christianity present in Flannery O’Connor’s work.

Henry’s sense of engagement, of wanting to understand something that does not make sense but which has always been presented to you as infallible truth (and which you, Henry, have yourself been presenting as the most important thing money can buy), also seems something of an attempt on Edgerton’s part to redeem the vapidity, materialism, and nihilism in O’Connor’s work — what she was bucking against with her stories in the ’50s.  Perhaps there are good country people, after all.

Dead Cat Tales

April 11, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Bible Salesman, by Clyde Edgerton.

Reading next: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.

Here’s a koan for ya: is a story about a dead cat told in 2008 the same story it would’ve been in 1950?

I ask because there’s a story about a dead cat in The Bible Salesman — a very funny story, or more to the point, a tale, or a yarn.  Without giving too much away, it involves the young protagonist, the Bible-selling naif Henry Dampier, finding himself trying to bury a soft-hearted housewife’s cat without her seeing the gruesome end to which it came.  It is, at least so far, the most memorable scene in the book.

One way of answering this dead-cat-tale question is to ask whether you think a book set in 1950 but written in the 2000s could be the same as a book set in 1950 and written in 1950.  I think most of us would agree that it could not: the context and the audience have changed drastically.

I wonder what this means for Southern humor, and for this book specifically.  Comic writing is my favorite subgenre of the Southern tradition: Twain (if you consider him Southern), Portis, J. K. Toole, Flannery O’Connor, more recently Jack Pendarvis.  Comedians of character, situation, and tone, usually in that order, with the exception of Pendarvis, who’s mostly a comedian of wordplay and surrealism.

(Wait: did I just call Flannery O’Connor a comic writer?  I’m going to talk about O’Connor in my next post, since her works are the wellspring for this one — but yes, her works do have their own idiosyncratic humor.)

However, we associate the Southern school of humor most with the homespun yarn — the porch-rocking-chair story.  The dead-cat story fits in very well in this tradition.  I appreciate Edgerton maintaining that tradition in this book, which displays fascinating streaks of light (or at least light-seeming) comedy mingled with darker passages of religious and social thought.  But I wonder if it is something of a museum piece — is it telling that the book is set in the 1930s to 1950s, and not in the present day?  Is it possible for a work of dead-cat tales to be set in the present-day South?  Is it, in a word, nostalgic?

I think there is something sweetly nostalgic about this book, although it’s too serious (and too well written) to dismiss it as nostalgia through and through.  (Of course, there’s also something decidedly unsweet about works that look back and laugh on the Jim Crow era, although in Edgerton’s defense, it’s hardly fair to force every Southern book to be about racial discord, especially in books about the poor, white, rural South.)   In interesting ways, the work discusses the encroachment of mass media, “progress,” and homogenized culture on the rural South — some of the same things that are very interesting undertones in O’Connor’s best stories.  I wonder about “preservation” of regional culture in a region that has undergone such massive and ongoing development, has taken in so many new ethnic groups, has cultivated so many new industries.

Last week I attended the Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga, and many of these same thoughts went through my head.  Everyone seems to be wondering whether there is a there in the South anymore: whether the designation “Southern” is still necessary to signify distinctive literary, popular, and social cultures.  I guess I am just trying to figure out if there’s anything distinctively Southern in a writer like Pendarvis, with his gonzo narratives and sense of the humor of wacky narration — or whether “Southern” humor is now relegated to looking backward, to telling tales about a culture that used to be.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for April, 2009 at The Ambiguities.