THE "UNCANNY" AS A DEFINING FEATURE OF NARRATIVE:
COINCIDENCE AS BOTH FAMILIAR AND MYSTERIOUS
Novels, short stories, plays, movies, often seem to have coincidental events that occur in them. Why? Is it because the reflect real life, which is often coincidental? Or is their occurrence actually more coincidental than real life, and the author (whether knowingly or not) uses these coincidences as a structural device or for some thematic purpose? What are these coincidences that we all seem to experience? Freud defines them as the uncanny, and while he acknowledges that many people experience them, he rationally explains them away in a manner that doesn't account for their frequent use and presence in narrative form.
Freud defines the "uncanny" ("unheimlich") in his essay by that name, by noting that its opposite has attained a similar meaning to it. "Heimlich" refers to something "familiar, not strange, intimate, tame, comfortable, homely, belonging to the house" (Freud 155). However, it has, also, a similar meaning to "unheimlich": ghostly, secret, obscure, inaccessible to knowledge, hidden, unconscious, mystic, allegorical, dangerous (Freud 157). So in this combination of meanings, the paradox becomes that the uncanny is both familiar and strange, comfortable and dangerous, intimate and obscure, known and inaccessible to knowledge. The uncanny is the repetition (hence, familiarity) of coincidental circumstances or events, with no apparent causal reason (hence, mysterious and hidden). Freud uses the example of the repetition of a certain number, say 62, that one might see several times in a day. "The recurrence of the same situations, things and events ...awaken an uncanny feeling ....it is only this factor of involuntary repetition which surrounds with an uncanny atmosphere what would otherwise be innocent enough, and forces upon us the idea of something fateful and unescapable where otherwise we should have spoken of 'chance' only" (Freud 163-164).
The significance of a lack of a known reason or cause for these mysterious coincidences is that they then become open for us to ascribe them a cause, or a meaning. Even if we fail at giving them a particular meaning, we still assume that there is some meaning behind them that we have yet to come to grasp. "We do feel this to be 'uncanny' and unless a man is utterly hardened and proof against the lure of superstition he will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to this obstinate recurrence of a number, taking it, perhaps as an indication of the span of life allotted to him ....Not long ago an ingenious scientist attempted to reduce coincidences of this kind to certain laws, and so deprive them of their uncanny effect" (Freud 164).
The uncanny appeals to us since, in its lack of no known cause or reason for the juxtaposition of two uncanny events, it implies that there IS a cause or reason beyond our understanding. Hence, the mystery of this randomly ordered event suggests that the world is ordered, without our knowledge, and all is safe, stable, secure, and comfortable. No surprises. Ironically, it is the hiddenness and secretiveness of the cause of uncanniness that reassures us that the world is known and stable.
However, Freud, like the scientist he refers to, kindly removes the mystery for us. He postulates an unconscious instinctual repetitioncompulsion principle to explain the uncanny. "The quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the 'double' being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage ....a regression to a time when the ego was not yet sharply differentiated from the external world and from other persons" (Freud 163). He says "all obsessional neurotics I have observed are able to relate [uncanny] experiences ...." (Freud 165) and "whatever reminds us of this inner repetition-compulsion is perceived as uncanny" (Freud 164). Freud attributes uncanniness to "the individual [narcisstic] stage of development corresponding to that animistic stage of primitive men" (Freud 165). Uncanniness is something repressed which RECURS, simply "a morbid anxiety;" this uncanniness is "nothing new or foreign but something familiar and old, established in the mind that has been estranged only be the process of repression" (Freud 166). Uncanniness is not something inherently meaningful, revealing some truth about the nature of the universe itself; it is only something that "ought to have been kept concealed, but which has nevertheless come to light" (Freud 166). Uncanniness arises from the unconscious, then, and is a product and element of the unconscious emerging into the light of the conscious.
Freud, however, was a materialist and a determinist who had little
room for ideas of spirit, soul, noumena, and otherworldly occurrences that some might use to explain uncanniness. For Freud, psychological laws can simply explain all phenomena; there is little room for mystery and the unexplainable in Freud's universe; all will ultimately be explained by rational science. Thus, uncanniness is reduced to a psychological occurrence, governed by psychologically determined and predictable laws; specifically, an unhealthy psychological occurrence (obssesive neuroses) (as its postulates that perhaps there is something unexplainable, incomprehensible, "other," in the world.) Others disagree.
Carl Jung, Freud's student, writes of something similar to uncanniness: synchronicity, or "the meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved" (Jung 505). Using a rational, scientific method, he examines some "uncanny" or "synchronistic" occurrences, typically considered very unscientific (such as astrology) (Jung 513-17). Jung says that there is no demonstrable, understandable link between synchronistic events other than their common character, which calls into question our ideas of causality and correspondence in explaining the universe. If as Jung says, the inner content of a subject can have a non-causal connection with outer events, then "either the psyche cannot be localized in space, or space is relative to the psyche ...the same applies to the temporal determination of the psyche and the psychic relativity of time" (Jung 518). Clearly, Jung disagrees with Freud's causal explanation of uncanniness. For Jung, there is something mysterious and unexplainable to man (at least at the moment), a way of viewing the world that transcends Freud's deterministic, causal paradigm.
Whether Freud is right, or Jung is right, or another interpretation of the nature of uncanniness is right, is the subject of another paper. The point here is that, I would argue (and this is an intuitive claim for the moment), we WANT Jung to be right, and Freud to be wrong. Freud's unfortunate activity of removing the mystery and hiddenness from the uncanny only leaves the repetition of the familiar. Mystery becomes a mere psychological aberration and uncanniness merely another psychological law conforming to our understanding of basic scientific theories, revealing no new truth about the world. However, mere repetition, without mystery, is not sufficient for man; not only does it not keep his interest, it imparts no truths nor any insights. It has no meaning or purpose. These potentionally meaningful coincidences, now in Freud's view, reduced to mere random events, reduces man's place of importance in the universe; life no longer has an overarching purpose, nor does one's individual, personal life have a meaning and purpose beyond one. Ironically, by removing the mystery and explaining away the coincidences, Freud removes the meaning of the coincidences (or their capacity to reveal any truths is removed when their mystery is removed). We want repetition of the familiar to be accompanied by its mystery, the secret, hidden, obscure inaccessible knowledge.
The concept of uncanniness, or synchronicity, when associated with Lacan's idea of metonymy and metaphor, can give insight into narrative. First of all, Lacan's metonymy (word for word connection) is feminine and his metaphor (one word for another) is masculine (Lacan 196). However, we can easily make an argument for metonymy/metaphor standing for the reverse gender principles that Lacan ascribes to them. Metonymy is the masculine, not the feminine; the horizontal movement of the sentence has direction, meaning, purpose. It is order and structure and form, as the metonymic words, the connection of the words, form the structure of the sentence. It is the law of the father. Each word has its predetermined place in the sentence and purpose, which can't be changed. Metaphor should be the feminine as it is repetition (of the term, in a different form), randomness, and play. Any word can go in any order along the vertical (metaphoric) axis. It is connected to the unconscious, the feminine, and the free association of the unconscious. The vertical movement of metaphor is the plunge into the depths of the unconscious.
Lacan differentiates "jouissance (sexual pleasure, free play)," from "eternally stretching forth towards the desire for something else -- metonymy" (Lacan 201). Metonymy is moving forward; metaphor is repetition in the same spot. In this sense, the jouissance, which is the shattering of the "I" through loss of self and return to that oceanic feeling of oneness with everything, which is done through drugs, sex, mysticism, can also be found in the free play of free association, or repetition, and is then closer to metaphor. It is then metaphor that connects to: the unconscious, for Freud; the individual (and/or collective) unconscious, for Jung; the Real, for Lacan; the Imaginary, for Kristeva; the noumena, for Kant. (Traditionally, for Jung especially, these are the feminine; the conscious world of structure, ego, symbol, is the masculine.) Also, if metaphor is the connection to the unconscious, the Real, then metaphor is associated with Saussure's (note spelling) world of the signified; metonymy, the world, the symbolic order, is associated with the signifier.
The repetition of uncanniness is not dissimilar to the repetition (the same form of the word, ie: a noun, or a verb) found in metaphor. Like metaphor, with the encounter with the uncanny, we do not move forward in the sentence, but rather stay in a stable spot, exploring that position in all its different manifestations of form. If one were to see the number 62 repeated uncannily, it would take different forms -- perhaps on an address, a license plate, a shirt. These are the metaphors. By experiencing the "free play" with the number one is urged to go deeper, to find meaning, to connect with the "other" realm which holds that meaning. And each of the forms of the number '62' is a then a different signifier for the same, mysterious, obscure, inaccessible, signified found in that other world.
Narrative is a repetitive activity, an instinct or urge to return to an earlier state of things. Repetition serves to give us mastery over our experiences; it allows us, by going back to a time before our story and retelling it, to control the story (and thus to control the unconscious drives from whence the story arose) (Brooks 1038-39). Narrative uses metonyms to become a metaphor as a whole. So narrative is metonymic activity because it uses language, the signifiers, symbols, the law of the father to create the whole story. It is a metonymic activity because it progresses forward, as a sentence does, but it does so by BEING a metaphor, that is by being a repetition; in other words, the narrative itself, as a whole, is a metaphor -- it is a repetition of the life event it is narrating. It is a repetition of the psychological truth it is revealing. All metonyms are working toward the metaphor. The narrative is uncanny, in that it is both familiar and mysterious. It is familiar in that it is a repetition, a repetition of a story that strikes us as familiar because it is true to life, and a repetition of psychological types and characters with actions that are familiar to us, in situations that strike us as familiar because they are true to life.
And yet the novel is also mysterious, in that it has these coincidences, and an order, which reveal meaning. We want to believe these coincidences exist, in real life, as well as in the narrative, and we want to believe they have a meaning that transcends our understanding and that reveals a kind of divine order and purpose to the universe and hence to our individual life. The artist will give a narrative a structure, with events often more clearly meaningful and coincidental than real life (some would say, others would say real life is stranger than fiction), and yet the reason behind the coincidences (and a defining characteristic of the term) is one that can never (at the moment) be understood. The author is the giver of purpose and meaning to coincidental events, he structures and patterns the novel, as we want to assume God structures and patterns the world, so that at the time of occurrence of these events, they seem random and coincidental, and then we, the readers, find out later, as we, the humans hope to discover later, there is a pattern (and thus, a meaning) to the uncanny incidents in the novel (of life).
Brooks, Peter. "Freud's Masterplot." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed. Ed. by David Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998.
Freud, Sigumund. "The Uncanny." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. New York: Blackwell, 1998.
Jung, Carl G. The Portable Jung. Ed. by Joseph Campbell. New York: Penguin, 1981.
Lacan, Jacques. "The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud." Literarv Theory: An Anthology. Ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. New York: Blackwell, 1998.