The Unheimlich and the Uncanny
April 16, 2009 § 3 Comments
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.)