The Uncanny In Fiction And In Real World
Sigmund Freud, the great founder of psychoanalysis and the famously known father of psychology, made a big realization about the paradoxical deployment of the uncanny, stating that “The somewhat paradoxical result is that in the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life”. The “uncanny” is a significant word for Freud, but why? How could one comprehend the prior statement? Do the uncanny in fiction and the uncanny in reality share a reflective relationship between them? Lastly, what is the ground of this back-and-forth process, and could it be itself uncanny? The aforementioned questions are going to be the main focus of this essay, keeping in mind some very crucial and meaningful terms such as fiction, paradox, and uncanny, simply because the universe we live in is nothing more than an uncanny place where everything has a bit of uncanny-ness.
First of all, before start explaining Freud’s picture of the somewhat paradoxical result in the fictional and real world, it is equally important to grasp the idea of the uncanny. The word uncanny describes something eerie, creepy, and weird or something sinisterly, eerily, or weirdly done. To feel uncanny is to feel discomfort. As Freud put it, “it reveals an area of aesthetics which is neglected: ‘subdued emotional impulses which, inhibited in their aims and dependent on a host of concurrent factors”. It discloses another, unwanted side of aesthetics, not of the graceful, appealing sublime, but one of the frightening, ghastly and perverse. One could think that the “uncanny” is something unfamiliar because it is something horrifying. However, it is familiar because the feeling of fear and nervousness leads humans back to something intimate (Freud, 220). In a word, the aptest translation for the “uncanny” is the world “unhomely”, but it is of primary importance to keep in mind that the uncanny is neither unfamiliar, nor familiar. Therefore, one could describe it as “the unfamiliar familiar”.
One example of uncanny fiction is China Miéville’s award-winning book, “The city & the City”, which is about two different cities physically occupying the same space. Ul Qoma and Besźel are two cities that are crosshatching, and that is strange enough and quite challenging to conceive because there is no such place in the real world, which makes it questionable how this fictional world works. “He was silhouetted against the skyline, of Besźel and Ul Qoma or both I could not tell”. The borders are unclear and ambiguous, but there is also a third city, mostly discredited as a myth, that the citizens do not know many things about (The city and the City, 98). Even this place eventually exists on the geographical map or not, it definitely exists in the citizens’ consciousness (The city and the City, 61). Although those cities do not exist in the real world, in other words they are fictional; the readers get some important information about their location. A character in the story, Khurusch, makes money by going abroad, to Turkey, Bucharest, Varna, or Ul Qoma. This means that Besźel might be somewhere close to Romania, Bulgaria, or perhaps Serbia. The fact that the fictional city of Besźel, an unknown and unfamiliar city for every reader, is somewhere near countries that actually exist in the real world and that are familiar to everyone, it is a bit uncanny. There is no question why an uncanny story like that was characterized by Walter Mosley as “daring and disturbing”, and by Daily Mail as “haunting”.
Now that an idea of the term “uncanny” is explained, it is easier to analyze Freud’s aforementioned statement. Freud states that it is a kind of paradoxical result that something that is not uncanny in the fictional world, would be uncanny if it happened in the real world; and at the same time, there are numerous ways to successfully create uncanny effects in fiction than there are in the real world. To put it differently, life in the actual world is much more real than fiction in any form, and fiction is more real than life, and this is in essence, a paradox that is brought by no other than the uncanny (Freud, 249). The uncanny creates this paradoxical effect, and what a paradox is, is basically a logical phenomenon which implies a contradiction of two conflicting, different things.
In the light of uncanny, it is a place where one understands his or her existence (Freud, 220). Human beings are living a journey trying to interpret their existence, and answer some existential questions. For instance, the biggest “aporia” (Plato) humans have is who they are and what they are. For Plato, the first systematic thinker in history, in order to figure out life and answer those unanswered, existential questions, people need to simulate, in other words to duplicate, to reproduce in terms of images, human life.
Freud uses as an example the story of “The Sand-Man” by E.T.A Hoffmann. The protagonist, Nathaniel, is living his own uncanny experience. First of all, the first uncanny effect is the way how this story is narrated. The author does not let the readers know if the story takes place in the real world or an imaginary setting (Freud, 230). Moreover, since Nathaniel was little, he was scared by the fictional creature he was told, named the Sand-Man (Hoffmann, 227-230). However, the Sand-Man was just a visitor at their home. He was the lawyer Coppelius, a familiar face for Nathaniel, but because he was described as something unfamiliar, young Nathaniel was frightened of the idea of Sand-Man. Since the Sand-Man was thought to be unfamiliar, but he was familiar, this brings us back to the concept of uncanny. The uncanny-ness continues as Nathaniel meets Olympia since the uncanny is concentrated by this female figure. He falls in love with her; little did he know she was not real. Olympia was a lifelike doll, created by Professor Spalanzani and Coppola the optician. Love is a strong and powerful feeling; hence Nathaniel’s reaction was very live and passionate towards something that was actually lifeless.
In addition, Freud suggests that Hoffmann’s story involves images of the double (“The figures of Nathaniel’s father… father-imago is split”). There are mirrors, reflections, shadows, dream’s language, images of the dead, narcissism, and assurance of immortality. Those manifestations are frequent and familiar to any place on earth regardless of culture or religion. The energetic denial of the power of death can be found everywhere. If in a way one simulates his or her bodily life into a spiritual life, that simulation of his or her bodily life will somehow remain after death. To put it differently, the idea of the immortal soul is the very first double of the human body. Altogether, it is always about the survival of the Ego (Freud, 234).
The relation between reality and fiction is a relation of familiarity and unfamiliarity. They come together in terms of a reflection, as a relation in terms of mirroring (Freud, 235). Michel Foucault imagined everything as a network; that everything is connected and everything carries functionality and everything interacts with everything. He suggested that there is a reflective relationship between the uncanny in fiction and the uncanny in real life. That is to say, that this reflection carries the idea of back and forth; which means that what is constructed is the unfamiliar in the familiar and vice versa.
“The Bloodchild” by the American author Octavia E. Butler is an excellent illustration of how the unfamiliar is invading the space of familiar. Throughout the reading of the story the feelings of discomfort, fear, and nervousness are dominant. Only by reading Butler’s words: “my pregnant man story”; is enough for a feeling of uncanny-ness to prevail the reader and to make him or her question. The readers are introduced to an alien, unfamiliar planet, still, life conditions are pretty normal and familiar (Butler, 30). The environment is similar to the environment of planet Earth’s. Even so, Butler introduces a fictional, boneless and aquatic creature, a character named ‘T’ Gatoi. ‘T’ Gatoi’s description introduces an unfamiliar, frightening, alien creature that belongs to the Tlic species. The Terrans, who are more like humans, need the Tlic to survive, and the Tlic species need Terrans to lay their eggs (Butler, 9-10). ‘T’ Gatoi as a Tlic and Gan as a Terran are an example of how life works in this alien universe. As a result, all this uncanny-ness makes the feelings of fear and anxiety always present.
Fear and anxiety, disturb any kind of familiarity and comfort one may have. They are common, human feelings that have the effect of uncanny. They make the familiar space quite unfamiliar. Just like in “The Bloodchild”, even though ‘T’ Gatoi is such a different, uncanny creature, it is still a close relative to Gan’s family, which makes her familiar (Butler, 7-8). ‘T’ Gatoi is unfamiliarly familiar, or, familiarly unfamiliar. Therefore, she is an uncanny soul. Gan’s and ‘T’ Gatoi’s relationship is also uncanny because the two are linked by a disturbing combination of the unfamiliar (‘T’ Gatoi) and the unfamiliar. Nevertheless, what is crucial is this order of simulation, which makes the combination of familiar and unfamiliar occur. This union is called the “order of simulation” (Plato, 29b). Then, a question is raised; what if one of the two overcomes the other? Well, if it does, the whole relation is unfamiliar, so the familiar is a duplication of the unfamiliar. If it is the other way round, then, the unfamiliar is nearly a copy of the familiar. Therefore, a paradox occurs (Freud, 249).
As stated by Freud, the order of simulation is paradoxical. Since the end result is a sequence of the familiar and the unfamiliar then, the two cannot be detached, which means that there is an absolute dependence between familiar and unfamiliar. On the contrary, the environment is something that the combination of the two is neither familiar nor unfamiliar. This makes it unknown. It is a new vision that is constantly out of the order of the unfamiliar and the familiar. Their reflective relation brings humanity in a place where it is both in familiarity and unfamiliarity simultaneously, without being able to separate surely the two, and also, at another place where you have neither familiarity, nor unfamiliarity (Foucault, 16-17). Hence, a new vision is on the horizon. In other words, it is a place that one has both of the two, and neither of the two, which is pretty paradoxical. This place of course, is no other than fiction. The coming together of reality and fiction is fiction but it is also the impossibility of also fiction and reality to be combined. Fiction is an “aporia” which negates everything that is already known. Fiction has no rules, and it does not follow any. It allows the mind to create any unprecedented images it desires.
One could come to a conclusion, that the existence’s ingredients are not only familiar, recognizable things that humans are comfortable with, and they can easily recognize, but also unknown, unfamiliar things. Foucault calls that the world. In a way, the unfamiliar part of the world disturbs and puts out of place the familiar, and the world that comes to replace our familiar world is mostly the world of dreams. In “The Bloodchild”, Terrans exist and are alive because of the eggs. The Tlics lay their eggs in the Terrans’ human bodies, and they become their hosts. Undoubtedly, Terrans can die because these eggs are Tlics’ eggs, which means they are hosting creatures more powerful than them, but at the same time these eggs are life-giving since they are fed to humans because they give them great pleasure (Butler, 4-5). What is paradoxical about this story is that although the eggs provide Terrans with pleasure, they put them in a dream state. As Freud expressed, the sphere of dreaming is the unconscious, and the unconscious is the ground of consciousness. The uncanny is the space of humanity’s innermost familiarity, it is Being perhaps, which was repressed or forgotten, but has since returned in an ambiguous. In other words, this foundational unfamiliar is necessary for understanding the familiar, as it displaces in the form of a dream, and it suggests that as long as Terrans are alive, in order to stay alive they need the eggs which put them in this dream state, their unconscious sphere.
In Lovecraft’s, “The Dreams in the Witch House”, the readers cannot be sure if what they are reading is happening within a dream or it is not, since the state of dreaming and the state of being awake are confused. Once again, this confusion provides the reader with feelings of anxiety and fear; a sense of eternal replacement. What is left in the end is an unfamiliarity that is absolutely unfamiliar. All this breaks down the relationship between the familiar and the unfamiliar. This is a simulation; trying to understand the otherwise and this dissimulation is the displacement of any sense of order. It is important to mention that the uncanny provides the order of simulation and the connection between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Therefore, the uncanny simulates itself uncannily. The order of dissimulation is provided by the uncanny as aporetic and contradictory. Plato accurately put it, that the order of simulation is the greatest difficulty of all.
Additionally, the story presents a scholar who wishes to be enlightened by the truth and understand the world, so he brings together two completely contradictory discourses; mathematics and mythology. By these two opposites combined, he hopes to find one singular understanding, but unfortunately, he fails. His failure is due to the fact that the combination of the two opposites, the real and the fictional, the familiar and the unfamiliar, carries a disturbing side of fiction, a side that is out of place and out of order. In the end, the protagonist ends up with evidence that is nothing evident. The fashion in which places of heterotopia are real, are capabilities that are made real and graspable in an impossible way. Because of that, both the scientific community and the locals are left with nothing but anxiety and fear. Therefore, they end up the same lost as they were in the beginning.
Foucault explained the other place as a place where existence is constituted, and the in-between place of utopia and heterotopia; two places that are reflected. The other place is defined by emplacement, upon which we find existence. Now, utopia and heterotopia are always connected, and then the coming together of the two is neither of the two. It is another place, also known as fiction.
In the final analysis, every moment in those stories is an uncanny moment, and their narratives start and end with the feeling of uncanny-ness. The end result of an uncanny moment is something that remains uncanny. It is impossible to find a resolution to what is proposed by the ground of uncanny since the uncanny dissimulates itself uncannily. What one is left within the end, is the great “aporia”, feeling completely uncertain and uncomfortable. In both “The Bloodchild” and “The Dreams in the Witch House” there is no satisfaction, no assurances, no answering questions, no completion, no closure in the end. All things considered, it is really challenging to answer existential questions. People become who they are exclusively in terms of fiction. Fiction is the coming together of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the possibility of the two, and the impossibility of the two. This other place where people become who they are is an impossibility. In the long run, in order to one be himself or herself, he or she needs to simulate their self; to become an opposite copy. If one does this, if he or she creates their own reflection, they assume that they are that thing. However, that thing one thinks he or she is, he or she is not.
- Butler, Octavia E. “Bloodchild.” Bloodchild and Other Stories. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2005. 1-32. Print.
- Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society. Eds. Dehaene, Michiel and Lieven De Cauter. New York: Routledge, 2008. 13-29. Print.
- Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny’ (1919).” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. Ed. Strachey, James. London: Vintage, 2001. 217-252. Print.
- Lovecraft, H. P. “The Dreams in the Witch House.” H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2011. 859-888. Print.
- Miéville, China. The City & the City. London: Pan Macmillan, 2011. Print.
- Plato. Timaeus. Trans. Bury, R. G. Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.