Uncanny: a Brief History of a Disturbed Word

This week, we’re exploring uncanny literature with Majorie Sandor, the editor of the recent anthology The Uncanny Reader. Be sure to also check out our interview with Sandor. — The Editors

The Sleep of Reason

And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead
–W.H. Auden

Trust me: trying to define the uncanny, whether as a sensation in our lives or as an effect in a short story, is a fool’s errand. From its roots in old Scots/Gaelic to its recent renaissance as a field of inquiry, it eludes the firm grasp. A student of mine once called the uncanny “a rabbit hole with no Wonderland at the bottom.” Amen.

And yet I’ve just gone through the exercise of shaping an anthology of short stories called The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, suggesting that in this volume, a certain kind of reader will find a certain kind of story. So it seems to me I ought to try to provide a blueprint, if only to show you how full of unsuspected rooms and dead-end staircases and trapdoors the house of uncanny fiction might be.

Already I’ve fallen through the floorboards. Surely there’s no such animal as “uncanny fiction.” The uncanny-in-fiction might be a better phrase. Let’s just say there are stories—and they come in every shape, size, and genre—capable of inspiring a special form of unease in the susceptible reader. Such a story might begin in a world deeply familiar to its characters, and in a voice which, if only for a moment, establishes an intimacy, a sense of trust. But drop by drop, that familiarity will begin to wobble. Sometimes the whole structure of the story itself begins to fracture—so faintly the reader might miss it. We undergo, like the most hapless of characters, a growing sense of dreamlike disorientation, as if the story’s terrain has begun to waver and reorganize itself—and us.

Think of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

Of almost anything by Franz Kafka.

All shapes and sizes.

However it comes, the uncanny is a haunting sensation. A bit like a curse passed down from writer to reader. A new—and disturbing—awareness seems to have formed. It won’t dissipate. The world beyond the page looks different now.

***

Uncanny. Look it up in a standard collegiate dictionary, and it appears to stay neatly in its bounds. Seemingly supernatural; mysterious [orig. Sc & N. Engl.].

But the slippage has already begun. Seemingly.

Scholars have traced the word back as far as 1593, and discovered something very telling about its roots. Long ago, the Scots/Gaelic word from which it emerges, canny, meant not only what you’d think—“safe” and “cozy” and “prudent”—but also “sly of humor,” and “having supernatural knowledge.” You might go to “a canny man” to have a spell cast on an enemy, or to have one reversed. So you might say that from early-on, “canny” secretly contained the seed of its own negative. A shadow-word just waiting to emerge.

Maybe it’s that wobble in the parent-word that invites uncertainty into the tales of the early 19th century Scottish writer James Hogg. His Country Dreams and Apparitions are set in country villages and croft-houses, and are full of the homely dialect of his time and place. Ghost stories, yes, but with strange hanging endings, a sense of unfinished business both in language and action. They create a deeper sort of shudder than the Gothic tale. They speak to crimes we’ve buried. And the human compulsion to confess—or bear witness. To share the news.

Around the same time, in Germany, the künstlerroman, or art fairy tale, is coming into being. Hoffmann, Tieck, von Kleist and others are writing long tales in which something extraordinary happens in a familiar world. The locales are usually urban—the coffee houses and market squares of university towns and cities—and rich with recognizable place-names, known figures, and scrupulous attention to realistic domestic detail. Then something strange happens to the protagonist. Something seemingly supernatural. From that moment forward, his perception—and ours—is fundamentally, violently, shattered. The experience of seeing differently isolates him from his oh-so-rational friends. Neither he nor the reader can fully resolve whether he has imagined all of it, or it’s simply that no one else is “aware.”

The stories in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nachtstucke, or Night Tales left a lasting mark on such writers as Poe, Dostoyevsky, and Hawthorne. Think of the great tradition of the doppelgänger—a feeling of the self as split in two. Of the artist as hero. Of the artist’s fear that his culture does not value him, let alone the deep strangeness of the human imagination—and all it might perceive beyond that which can be proven. And one story in particular, “The Sandman” (1817) continues to leave generations of readers feeling deeply unsettled.

***

Terry Castle, in her book, The Female Thermometer: the Eighteenth-century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, suggests that “the aggressively rationalist imperatives of the epoch also produced, like a kind of toxic side effect, a new human experience of strangeness, anxiety, bafflement, and intellectual impasse.” This brief quote gives you only a micro-glimpse of the critical work that’s been done, across a range of disciplines, to trace the roots of the uncanny in modern history. The late 18th century and early 19th century saw the rise of great urban centers, a proliferation of new technologies in science, transportation, mass communication. Those years also saw the rise of a new kind of ghost story, one which, unlike its Gothic predecessors, takes place in familiar domestic locales. From the early 19th century tales of Hogg and Hoffmann to James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, a story of “general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain,” homely spaces—country houses, city apartments, private gardens and cozy libraries—become sites for the uncanny, the suppressed past in ghostly form. As editors Cox and Gilbert write in their introduction to Victorian Ghost Stories, “[T]he ghost story seemed to thrive precisely because it dealt in possibilities that were in fundamental opposition to the explicatory march of science.”

Sigmund Freud

But it was Freud’s landmark 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche (The Uncanny) that blew open the door of the uncanny as a field of inquiry—and ushered in a century of new thinking about modern forms of alienation and estrangement. Freud wasn’t actually the first person to explore the uncanny: credit goes to Ernst Jentsch and his short 1906 essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” But Freud’s effort to net as many instances of uncanniness as he can, along with a delightful strangeness in the writing itself, makes his essay the definitive introduction to the modern conception of the uncanny as a way of reading the world.

In his effort to expand on, and argue with, Jentsch’s notion that the sensation of the uncanny comes from intellectual uncertainty, Freud found himself drawn into the sticky web of the word’s many uses, its capacious and unstable quality. His essay brought out into the open its ever-proliferating range of psychological and literary capacities.

In a nutshell, his catalogue of uses of the word unheimlich turns up its own unstable habit: like the word “canny,” heimlich appears to have leaned toward its own opposite from early in its history. Not only did it mean “belonging to the home,” and “familiar,” but also, “private” and “secret.” There is even mention of the word “magic” and “supernatural.”

In their efforts to get ahold of the idea of the unheimliche, both Jentsch and Freud try to account for human experiences that create the sensation. Freud lists at least twelve such categories of experience. I’ll paraphrase just a handful here, to give you a glimpse of the glorious range of possibilities for experiencing the sensation of the uncanny—and arousing it through literature.

  • That which should have remained hidden has come out into the open.
  • The return of the primitive in an apparently modern and secular context.
  • Uncertainty as to whether something that appears to be alive is, in fact, dead, or something that appears to be dead, is, in fact, alive.
  • Uncertainty as to whether one is speaking to a human or an automaton.
  • Something familiar occurring in an unfamiliar context.
  • Something strange occurring in a familiar context.
  • The experience of unintended repetition, which makes us think of our own mortality.
  • The experience of a foreign body inside our own, or ourselves as a foreign body.
  • The fear of being buried alive.
  • The experience of seeing one’s double.

While any of these definitions might make us think of the “seemingly supernatural,” what matters is that they do so in relationship to—and in danger of exposing—something hidden uncomfortably close to home. The sensation of uncanniness is, at its core, an anxiety about the stability of those persons, places, and things in which we have placed our deepest trust, and our own sense of identity and belonging, that which we hold most private, from style to perception to the most hidden unhomelike subjects locked away in our private selves.

Notably, both Jentsch and Freud turned to fiction—and in particular, to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” to try to describe the sensation and how a writer might achieve the “effect” of the uncanny in imaginative writing. Again, what matters, for our purposes, is the sheer fact that these two psychologists turned to a tale—to work of fiction—as a sort of laboratory in which to observe this deep—and in their time—unplumbed psychological sensation.

Freud, near the end of his essay, seems slightly envious of fiction writers. He writes, “The uncanny that we find in fiction—in creative writing, imaginative literature—actually deserves to be considered separately, it is above all much richer than what we know from experience; it embraces the whole of this and something else besides., something that is wanting in real life.” Still later, he tries to get at what the fiction writer does: “In a sense, then, he betrays us to a superstition we thought we had surmounted; he tricks us by promising us everyday reality and then going beyond it. We react to his fictions as if they had been our own experiences. By the time we become aware of the trickery, it is too late.”

***

As much as our sense of “what’s uncanny” has changed and grown since Freud wrote his essay, this sensation, both in life and literature, has retained at least one consistent trait: it likes to burrow into domestic spaces. It likes, above all, to remind us that the places we call “home” are profoundly unstable: from the trailer-home to the rental apartment, right on up to the penthouse and the perfectly-kept suburban mansion. Buildings, like official histories, conceal the lost and buried stories of the past in their walls. We are haunted by childhood homes, by ruins and construction sites, by houses we once knew, now revised or demolished by later occupants. We are haunted by the terror of homelessness: in her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s heroine, Eleanor, registers humankind’s condition as “a creation so unfortunate as to not be rooted in the ground, forced to go from one place to another, heartbreakingly mobile.”

Does the lean toward the private and domestic also account for the prevalence of first person narrations in stories which feel uncanny—and if not first person, then its cousin the “limited third”—which burrows into the consciousness of one character and makes the reader go along? As Freud and Jentsch understood, the uncanny is nothing if not personal and idiosyncratic. It happens to one person at a time, and isolates that person, heightening the terror or the exaltation.

What then, of omniscience, a form of narration that might appear, at first, to forbid uncanniness, since the narrator “knows all?” Such voices are full of authority, and you might just want to be aware of tiny cracks and fissures, signs that even this kind of narrator might be concealing an agenda, one that might never fully reveal itself. In cases like these, it is the reader, more than any character, who finds herself destabilized. For she cannot resolve or trust the very structure in which she’s been dwelling in so cozily—the house of the story.

***

Betrayed to a superstition we thought we had surmounted.

Reminded that we carry inside ourselves a forgotten but not dismantled belief in a world—and forces—far beyond our ken.

The late 20th and early 21st centuries have inspired an ever richer range of artistic expressions of the uncanny, and a parallel movement of inquiry across many disciplines. Anthony Vidler, in The Architectural Uncanny, observes that a new sensibility is emerging, one that “sees the uncanny erupt in empty parking lots around abandoned or run-down shopping malls…in the wasted margins and surface appearances of postindustrial culture.” Nicholas Royle, in The Uncanny, finds the uncanny in everything from a Monty Python comedy sketch to “politics, economics, autobiography and teaching.” The uncanny, he asserts, is “a province still before us, awaiting our examination.” And you’ve no doubt heard of Masahiro Mori’s 1970 theory, the Uncanny Valley. I won’t try to describe it here. Let’s just say that you don’t want your automaton or your computer-generated figure to fall into it.

Consider the speed of globalization, the paradox of technologies designed to improve our communications that, in fact, isolate and alienate us from each other, from language itself, from the act of remembering. Are we in danger of turning our planet unheimlich?

The French philosopher Michael Serres writes that “Every technology is used before it is completely understood. There is always a lag between an innovation and the apprehension of its consequences. We are living in that lag, and it is a right time to keep our heads and reflect.”

The uncanny-in-fiction invites us to pause. If not to “keep our heads,” exactly, then to practice, in the still-private act of reading, a form of free-fall and wonder. The chance to pay close attention to the strangeness of life in our moment. Our lag-time.

The uncanny-in-literature might be a way to reclaim the power of language itself. To occupy it once more.

The early 20th century Russian thinker Victor Shklovsky coined a term for this subversive act: ostranenie. In English, defamiliarization. A long word, yes, but worth slowing down for. It’s what language, reclaimed in art, can do to awaken us from our stupor. “Habitualization,” he wrote, “devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. ‘If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.’ And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”

The uncanny-in-fiction reawakens us to the strange in the world, the strange in ourselves. It opens a crack in the teacup. It makes the stone stony. Surely this is not a bad thing, to have our perception of a given moment—or our own selves—shocked awake. We are brought back to wonder. How else will we start thinking differently about how we live now, before we go uncanny to ourselves?