Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Uncanny and the Opaque in Yoknapatawpha and beyond (1)

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Uncanny and the Opaque in Yoknapatawpha and beyond (1)

Article excerpt

the hate and the fury and the unsleeping and the unforgetting

---Absalom, Absalom!

FOR C. JENTSCH, WHOM FREUD CREDITS as anticipating his own research into the subject, "the uncanny" pertains to "doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate" (Freud, "The Uncanny" 226). Freud includes Jentsch's insight in his conception of the uncanny as a "return of the repressed," focusing attention on those circumstances in which the other's simultaneous strangeness and familiarity--his "is different from my is" as Vardaman calls it (A/LD 56)--belongs in "that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar" (220).

At the base of what is originally familiar and subsequently, though imperfectly, forgotten, in Freud's phylogenetic reading of Jentsch's theme, is the enchanted though largely menacing vitality of the entire creation. In the animistic conception of the universe every object is awake with living force. Dead persons and dead animals remain sentient as ghosts, spirits, or totems. In the general history of human development animism is gradually replaced by religious and finally by scientific conceptions of the cosmos (see also Totem and Taboo and The Future of an Illusion), yet the earlier phases are never entirely "surmounted." A primordial ambivalence and epistemological uncertainty still shadow our encounters with the others of our contemporary scene. The uncanny eyes of the totem, or doll, are key. Wooden or glassy points of libidinal extension and attachment, these eyes were, originally, fully alive. We have learned as civilized adults to see these eyes as dead-matter simulacra, but we have not sufficiently transcended our primary belief in the power of their gaze, nor have we overcome our latent uncertainty concerning the ontological plane upon which the being of the doll exists. We continue to feel a sense of the uncanny "when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one" (233), or when an animate being suddenly becomes too much like a doll, dummy, or statue. The uncanny is the sign of perpetual, and ominous, uncertainty, of a dualism that refuses to be resolved: the other (as we imagine, hence misrecognize him) is real and alive; the other only seems real and alive. (2)

If the other is merely a blurry object, possibly even a zombie, perhaps it is we ourselves who have produced his inanimacy, in accordance with the magical "omnipotence of [our] thoughts" (240). "The source of uncanny feelings would not, therefore, be an infantile fear in this case, but rather an infantile wish or even merely an infantile belief" (233), a belief, that is, in the power of our thoughts to bring about the other's death, injury, or misfortune. (3) Contemporary engagements are shadowed in this way by the unconscious death wishes of the "primeval" period, the era of our uncanny childhood encounters with the mirror reflections of our own faces, with dolls, stuffed animals, pets, zoo animals, siblings, parents, and strangers. The eyes are nodal points of this fascinating meconnaissance, that agency of (mis) recognition at the center of our brushes with the familiar, yet also in some sense repellant, alien, and impossible, subjectivities of all the others.

In his 1933 preface to Sanctuary Andre Malraux was perhaps the first to speak of Faulkner's "powerful, and savagely personal world," of the narcissism, that is, from which "the uncanny" extends into a world of alienating, and hated, objects:

   An intense obsession crushes each of his characters, and in no case
   do the characters succeed in exorcising it. The obsession still
   hovers behind them, unchanging, summoning them instead of awaiting
   their summons.

      Such a realm was for a long time the subject for gossip; even if
   American rumors did not kindly inform us that alcohol was an
   integral part of Faulkner's personal legend, the relationship
   between his universe and those of Poe and Hoffmann would be dear. … 
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