Hey! I hope revision is going well for everyone reading! So, here are my notes on The Uncanny/Das Unheimliche within the scope of the gothic. As ever, hope it helps.
Because the LITB3 exam requires a lot of perceptive and original interpretation to achieve the higher bands, it’s useful to look at texts like Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Macbeth and even The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale through the lens of different critical perspectives. Aside from the interpretation of the gothic genre as sensationalist, serving no other purpose than excess and titillation, it is also a plastic, ambivalent discourse that can be used in many ways and to different ends in conveying a number of social, political, cultural messages. For this reason, psychoanalysis provides a theoretical framework through which we can read the gothic, that is perhaps more relevant and less orthodox than the ever-predictible feminist theory, which is applied so much to Carter’s work in the exam, to the extent that people tend overlook what actually makes the text ‘gothic’.
So, to understand the uncanny, it’s useful to have a basic grasp of the concepts underlying psychoanalysis, Freudian theory in particular. Here is a link to Freud’s essay on The Uncanny/Das Unheimliche that should help with this if you want to get a full understanding, but I’ll break down the basic ideas here:
- Division of the psyche that contains thoughts that we are unaware of – this is gothic in that it deals with the sexual, primitive and aggressive urges that lie beneath the civilised exterior that we portray to society. These urges motivate our behaviour in powerful ways that we are unmindful of.
- The unconscious is dynamic, boundless and unknowable.
- It reveals itself through jokes, parapraxis (slips of the tongue – a ‘Freudian slip’), and dreams (this is particularly important for the gothic).
- Site of past childhood and developmental traumas.
- It contains disturbing material that we need to keep out of our awareness – they are too threatening for us to acknowledge. Thus, this information needs to be repressed in order for individuals to function (otherwise – they are mad/criminal)
- Exerts compulsions and repetitive behaviours.
- Ambivalent – the competition between civilised conscious thoughts and sex/death instincts – this conflict manifests in the behaviour of many gothic characters.
‘Das Unheimliche’ / ‘The Uncanny’ (all quotes taken from the article I cited earlier in the post)
- ‘The word ‘heimlich’ is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet vey different: on the one hand, it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight’
- So, Unheimlich can be defined as ‘The name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden but has come to light’
- ‘Heimlich is a word meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich’
- Understanding of the uncanny in relation to the gothic can be simplified as follows – ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar‘ and ‘nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression‘
The subject of The Uncanny and its manifestations within gothic literature
- Uncanny feeling is ‘produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced‘.
- Uncanny as disguise/disguised – what is beneath the disguise?
- ‘The subject of the uncanny… is undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general. Yet we may expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One is curious to know what this common core is which allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’ certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening’.
- Freud also lists a number of more specific sources of the uncanny including: ‘intellectual uncertainty, doubles, deja vu, coincidences and repetition, omnipotence of thoughts (recalling our surmounted belief in the power of thoughts to affect the material world), the blurring of the boundary between imagination and reality, incest, being buried alive, ghosts and death itself’.
- Furthermore, castration; doubles; doppelgängers; split personality; mirrors; involuntary repetition or the compulsion to repeat (Wiederholungszwang).
- The uncanny evil eye; scopophilia and the love of looking; this way, the uncanny can also be related to feminist theory, so if you’re not quite ready to lay to rest the ghost of Angela Carter and her second wave collective, then this might be something to mention! ‘This fear that a person is able to inflict harm upon another being merely by a glance’ ; the ‘substitutive relation between the eye and the male organ […]” particularly in the context of lost vision and dismemberment’.
Macbeth and The Uncanny
In Macbeth, The Uncanny appears in the following forms, and psychoanalysis can be applied accordingly:
- The uncanny feeling is produced when the distinction between Macbeth’s imagination and uncivilised thoughts of Duncan’s ‘murther which yet is fantastical’ come into fruition as he commits the deed of ‘treasonous malice’.
Put simply, the distinction between his imagination and reality – his brain, which is fundamentally ‘wrought with things forgotten…,’ containing disturbing introspections which he wishes to repress, is obliterated. There is evident conflict between the ‘black and deep desires’ of the psychological id and conscious, rational thoughts of a man who notes that Duncan ‘hath honoured [him] of late’. As these repressed thoughts creep into the conscious mind, the result is terror – a ‘horrid image that doth unfix [Macbeth’s] hair and make[s his] seated heart knock at his [ribs].’ Though at this stage, uncivilised thought and ‘present fears are less than horrible imaginings’ – as he kills Duncan, Macbeth ‘murther[s] sleep’ and progressively descends into a downward spiral and state of psychological unrest. Furthermore, the notion of the power of thoughts and their ability to affect the material world is significant to a psychoanalytic reading of the play. Macbeth’s subversive thoughts – in the sense that they subvert hierarchy – ‘[shake so his single state of man],’ and as the body can be considered a microcosm for society, the affects of these thoughts causing the earth to become ‘feverous,’ ‘shake’ and even result in literal disruption as ‘the chimneys were blown down’ represents an uncanny destruction of nature.
- Also, the notion of disguise and concealment is integral to Macbeth (see my essay here on darkness and concealment). Not only through literal concealment, darkness and equivocation, but also Macbeth’s transformation, as he adopts an ‘otherness’ in order to commit his bloody deeds. There is plenty of imagery relating to appearance and reality as a result – Macbeth takes on a ‘vizard‘ to mask his depravity; Lady Macbeth instructs him to ‘look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t‘. The recurrence of ‘false face‘ and duality is inherently Freudian.
- Coincidences and repetition, in particular the echoing of the ‘fair is foul and foul is fair chiasmus‘ through Macbeth’s own rhetoric (‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen‘), as this sentiment resonates throughout the entirety of the play.
- Similarly, Lady Macbeth straddles, uncannily, the border of nightmare and reality, exerting compulsive and repetitive behaviours as she expels the damaging content of her unconscious mind though somnambulism.
She suffers the following; ‘A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of watching. In this slumbery agitation, besides her walking and other actual performances…’. Sleep is a process by which we recover from the hardships of daily life – ‘sleep that knits up th’ravelled sleeve of care‘. Yet, as ‘only the innocent sleep,’ this familiar process is distorted and changed into something horrific; unfamiliar, or uncanny, even. Her repetitive behaviours and compulsions also adhere to Freud’s notion of the unheimlich – as repressed memories of Duncan’s bloody murder creep into her subconscious, she begins to ‘rub her hands,’ an ‘accustomed action,’ to rid herself of the blood that she recalls from the scene.
- Again, repetition is significant with Duncan/Macbeth, as Duncan notes in a sort of ominous and uncanny proleptic irony that there is ‘no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’ prior to his murder at the hands of Macbeth, who notes that ‘false face must hide what the false heart doth know’ chillingly soon after. Coincidence and fate is also uncanny within the play. The past appears to repeat itself, as the original Thane Of Cawdor, ‘a gentleman on whom [Duncan built] an absolute trust’ is similar to the originally ‘noble’ Macbeth in that he commits treacherous acts and succumbs to his eventual death.
- The uncanny evil eye – This fear that a person is able to inflict harm upon another being merely by a glance’ ; the ‘substitutive relation between the eye and the male organ […]” particularly in the context of lost vision and dismemberment’. – ‘let the eye wink at the hand and yet let that be which the eye fears‘ – Macbeth fears the eradication of his masculinity and wishes to overcome the moral and ethical consequences of committing murder, which would cause him psychological unrest if he were able to physically see the act.
- Finally, Banquo’s ghost is also an apt example of the uncanny within the play – he appears in an unfamiliar form which is evidently troubling for Macbeth, resulting in his terror and the ‘very painting of [his] fear’. Thus, as he begs for the ghost to ‘never shake thy gory locks at me, thou canst say I did it!’ he evidently engages in both the denial/repression of his aggressive and uncivilised actions, motivated from the unconscious/id and absolute fear.
The Bloody Chamber and The Uncanny
Because the comment I received about the uncanny specified Macbeth, I’m not going to specify psychoanalysis in The Bloody Chamber in quite so much detail but I’d look out for the following:
- See my essay on base instincts/subconscious desires here, or my essay on the beasts as more humane than the humans here to read about the uncanny in The Tiger’s Bride. One thing I didn’t really touch on was the full significance of scopophilia and the male gaze and also, the role of the automaton, but I’m sure that’s something you can look into.
- The Erl-King for me is the most obviously psychoanalytic of all the texts in the collection – the whole story has the potentiality to be a construct of the narrator and a manifestation of her unconscious desire (‘he came alive from the desire of the woods’ ‘all perspectives converged’ ‘invented distance’ ‘imaginary traveller’ – she is addicted and desires the Erl-King, as shown through the imagery of the ‘nicotine’ etc. etc.’.
- In the titular story, look out for imagery of mirrors, gothic duplicity with the Marquis, references to scopophilia and eyes (Those of the Marquis, contrasting with those of the more benign Jean-Yves – he evades the male gaze, as though he is blind, his eyes are ‘singularly sweet’).
- The Snow Child is evidently open to psychoanalytic interpretation, due to the dream-like atmosphere and periodic references to desire and aggression. The Count is ‘weeping’ as he succumbs to his own unconscious desire – is he helpless in his depravity? The Countess is similarly ambivalent – she ‘watched him narrowly’ and resigns to her own aggressive instincts.
- Finally, all of the stories evoke the latent content of fairytales – childhood stories appear to be subverted into horrific adult nightmares, but Carter is merely extracting the latent content. This is uncanny in that the terror is already underlying the prose that we have read as children, once again, showing the gothic to be a pliable genre that we can use to project didactic messages for our own means, whether they be political, feminist, social etcetera.