Cohabitation: On "Revenge," by Steven Millhauser

By Alexander, Danielle | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Cohabitation: On "Revenge," by Steven Millhauser


Alexander, Danielle, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories, and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present, and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another. In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being's first world.... And always, in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle.... Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house.

--Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (6-7)

**********

Steven Millhauser's unsettling novella "Revenge," first published in Harper's Magazine in 2001, is a psychological drama with narrative implications that extend far beyond its careful realism. Its fabula--a woman whose husband has died in an auto wreck puts her house on the market in order to lure the late husband's mistress into a confrontation--is inherently dramatic. Yet what distinguishes the novella is how it deploys domestic space to metonymize--for both the reader and for the victim of the narrator's revenge--the indeterminacy of the past, whether that past is defined as memory, a causal chain of events, or time itself. This essay will explore how Millhauser's "Revenge" evokes both the spatial and temporal uncanny to accomplish these ends.

The post-Freudian and postromantic uncanny has always been concerned with time as well as with space. In his collection of critical essays The Architectural Uncanny, art historian and architecture critic Anthony Vidler points out that psychologist Ernst Jensch, whose views on the uncanny influenced Freud's own, posited "intellectual uncertainty" as the root of the unheimlich. This uncertainty arose from a lack of spatial orientation or, in contemporary idiom, the feeling of being lost or "turned around" in one's environment. Schelling, however, joined space and time in his discussion of the uncanny when he proposed that the Homeric sublime was formed by the repression of the uncanny over the course of time:

   Greece had a Homer precisely because it had mysteries, that
   is because it succeeded in completely subduing that principle
   of the past, which was still dominant and outwardly manifest in
   the Oriental systems, and in pushing it back into the interior,
   that is, into secrecy, into the Mystery (out of which it had,
   after all, originally emerged). (Vidler 26)

Repetition, which conflates time and space, frequently in itself constitutes the uncanny. Vidler credits De Quincy with the first articulation of the romantic "spatial uncanny," which is "displayed in the abyssal repetitions of the imaginary void" (37). These abyssal repetitions are instantiated in De Quincy's reading of Charles Nodier's short story "Piranese." The story's abyssal palace interior, through which Piranesi climbs endlessly, only to find that at the summit he is once again at the foot of what appears to be (but may not in fact be) the same palace, evokes both dread of the void and the ecstasy of the Romantic sublime. Interestingly, as Vidler points out, the "site" of De Quincy's own laudanum-induced reveries was a "simple white cottage, formerly owned by Wordsworth, in the valley of Grasmere" (37).

Gaston Bachelard, in his 1958 work The Poetics of Space, posits another kind of site that collapses architecture and temporality: the oneiric house, the house of "dream-memory" (15). In Bachelard's philosophy this is the "crypt of the house that we were born in," and is the site of the reciprocal relationship between thought and dream. This house is not, strictly speaking, uncanny--as the psychological residue of the house of our birth, which allows us access to "the real being of our childhood" (16), its dream has more in common with reverie than nightmare. …

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