One of the things I love best about the Rainier Writing Workshop is the synergy that sneaks into being over the course of the summer residency, as morning craft lectures build on and respond to one another, and participants and faculty carry fragments and notes from those sessions into workshops and afternoon classes and on into the night. Over the ten days, something gets built: a commodious, if eccentric, house with a welcoming vestibule and surprising antechambers; some of its doorframes slightly off-kilter, and others, plumb. Then of course there is the occasional trapdoor that drops you into an unsuspected cellar. But isn’t that, in the writer’s world, a good thing?
Last summer, Adrianne Harun and I built an odd pair of rooms onto the side of the RWW house. Adrianne led an afternoon class on the relationship between narrative and architecture, and the next day, I added an annex: “the uncanny” and its magnetic attraction to all things architectural. As a connecting hallway, we used William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, a novella haunted by unfinished and lost houses, by a vulnerable memory searching to restore and reanimate the past.
I offer here a short tour of my own odd little room of last summer—this thing we call “the uncanny”—and hope to open a door through which Adrianne can reenter in the next issue of Soundings to talk about the exciting dialogue between architecture and narrative. Both refresh a writer’s vocabulary and the practice of making literary art; they have done that for me, first as a reader, then as a writing teacher. What this approach is doing for my own writing, I hope to never know.
The Uncanny: call it a theory, call it a psychological sensation; call it, as one of my students did recently, “a rabbit hole with no Wonderland at the bottom.” Whatever it is, noticing it in literature, and playing with it in our own work, helps us shift our vision for a moment by quite literally focusing our attention elsewhere: chiefly on the way we experience our most intimate physical spaces and their hunger to act as dynamic agents in a composition.
Let me give you an example: in Edith Wharton’s novella The Touchstone, at dusk, a character’s attention is caught by the way lamplight falls on a silver-framed picture of his beloved. The narrator speaks of the lamp-moment as the “tacit connivance of the inanimate,” and gives the protagonist—and the reader—the feeling that something slightly supernatural is going on. This leads somewhere quite surprising—a newspaper article that triggers the memory of another, long-suppressed relationship, with a famous woman-writer, long-since dead. Because he has so suppressed his relationship to that dead woman, the lamp and silver-frame, followed by the newspaper, must, in some sense, ‘come to life’ and conspire to awaken him. Thus begins a journey of necessary, and extraordinarily difficult, self-recognition and change.
It’s no accident that his first “signal” to move, to act, happens in his own small, cozy parlor, a place where he thought he was safe from judgment or temptation, a place that was static. The uncanny prefers to haunt and reanimate those spaces and moments we wishfully think most safe from danger and drama. Our own bodies, and the bodies of our beloveds, included.
But let’s back up and define this thing more properly. “Uncanny” is a word that sounds, I know, like it is going to involve ghost stories, even horror stories, and certainly it finds rich expression there. But from the get-go, the word has carried in its root something closer to home, deeply ordinary and familiar. Its various manifestations in literature produce not a titillating thrill of horror, but an unsettling, uncomfortable sense of having touched something both alien and faintly recognizable.
It was Sigmund Freud, who, in his 1919 essay “Das Unheimliche,” (translated as “The Uncanny”) gave the German word its first full cataloguing, and demonstrated its capacities in literature. Freud’s essay has, itself, been called “uncanny,” as it seems to veer about and leave things unfinished. In it you’ll find a miniature history of the word’s life, a literary analysis of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s harrowing tale of 1814, “The Sand-man,” and a sudden, if brief, swerve into personal anecdote—Freud gets lost in a red-light district! Therein lies one of the many dark pleasures of the uncanny: it tends to undo any sense of control one has over one’s narrative—even Dr. Freud falls prey to its destabilizing habits.
Crucially, for us, he begins by defining the word “Heimlich,” and as you’d expect, we get words like “comfortable,” “cozy,” “safe,” “homely.” But we come to find out that the oldest usages of the word also include “private,” “secret,” “concealed.” Thus the word carries its own potential for unraveling, for uncertainty and paradox. And that’s good for the writer: if ambiguity and uncertainty have a home in the very root of the word—a word which itself touches on all that we think most safe and familiar—well, then, there is no end to the rabbit-hole, and the possibility of dramatic and poetic discovery.
Here are a few of the definitions Freud catalogued in his essay—roughly paraphrased:
- 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 one is speaking to a human or an automaton.
- The familiar suddenly becoming strange.
- The strange suddenly seeming familiar.
- 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 uncanny has to do with our locked-up mysteries, from style to perception to the most hidden un-homelike subjects locked away in our private selves. It lures the reader—and the writer—to see the familiar in the strange, and the strange in the familiar. And to do that, it likes to sneak into the house, let the lamplight fall a different way on a perfectly ordinary silver picture frame. Above all, the uncanny is desperate for a recollected or half-neglected physical place to inhabit: childhood houses, houses-under-construction, houses revised by later occupants. We need only peer into such lost spaces, private and public, to discover a passageway into our own buried stories—and the language with which we recall those lost spaces has as much to tell us as the spaces themselves. Consider, for example, Alice Munro, haunted by Ontario’s erasures. In an interview in The Paris Review, she describes going back to her childhood home: “When my father died, he was still living in that house on the farm, which was a fox and mink farm. It changed a lot though. Now it’s a beauty parlor called Total Indulgence. I think they have the beauty parlor in the back wing, and they’ve knocked down the kitchen entirely.”
Total Indulgence. Knocked down entirely. You have only to hear the suppressed irony, and the not-so-suppressed violence that underlies her recollection, to get a sense of the depth of our connections to dwelling-places, our sense of them as living, breathing characters with something to say.
But what strikes me as the most productive aspect of the uncanny is—this will sound like a paradox because it is—it offers a formal restraint against locking down a story’s ending. It is violently opposed to resolutions, forcing the writer to stay in the zone where things often are unfinished, indeterminable, and by keeping us there, it forces us closer to older, more deeply buried funds of memory and imagination.
As a different approach to the writing workshop, what if, for a whole session, instead of asking, “Where does it not work?” or the dreaded phrase, “What is at stake for these characters?” we instead enquired, “Where, in the physical spaces of the story, did the character come closest to trespassing?” Or, “Where, in the physical spaces of the story, did the character seem most threatened or vulnerable?” “What happened in each physical space of the piece, and what is peculiar about it?”
The uncanny takes us close to one of the writer’s hardest, and most central jobs: the art of “defamiliarization”—of stripping away all the tired accretions of description that have papered over a given moment, and really seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, as if for the first time. The uncanny, with its invitation to return to places we think we know and dwell in their slowly-rising uncertainties, offers us a chance to break old habits of not-seeing, not-hearing, not-smelling. And finally, because it often invokes an urgency to confess or bear witness, it might offer us a return to our own vulnerable—less carefully polished—human voices. Sometimes, without our quite meaning to, we might even invoke ancestral voices and old, forsaken narrative structures: the oral tale-teller and the folktale, both carrying untapped potential for the reinvention of our oldest archetypes and mythic structures in a contemporary context.
Lately the word “uncanny” has been showing up more and more often in newspaper stories. Then again, I could just be more aware of it—that’s a symptom of the uncanny habit, after all. But not long ago in The New York Times there was a piece on the “rise of the ghost story” in times of rapid technological change. Is something happening? Are we, like E.T.A. Hoffmann’s characters in “The Sand-man,” worried about automatons again? So worried that a theory has emerged in the field of robotics and animation called “The Uncanny Valley” about the way human beings respond to cyborgs, robots, and too-close-to-human performances in films like Beowulf. I’ll leave it at that. Because with the uncanny, there’s always a sense of a story left unfinished, a trap-door unlatched, and left ever-so-slightly ajar.
Works Cited Freud, Sigmund. “Das Unheimliche.” New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2003. (originally published 1919, available as a public domain e-book download at Project Gutenberg) Munro, Alice. “Alice Munro, The Art of Fiction No. 137.” Interview by Jeanne McCulloch, Mona Simpson. The Paris Review. Summer, 1994, No. 131. Wharton, Edith. The Touchstone. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2004. (originally published 1900, available as a public domain e-book download at Project Gutenberg)
Marjorie Sandor is the author of four books, including the recently published memoir, The Late Interiors: A Life Under Construction, and the 2004 Winner of the National Jewish Book Award in Fiction, Portrait of my Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime: Stories. Her earlier book of personal essays, The Night Gardener: A Search for Home, won the 2000 Oregon Book Award for Literary Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in such magazines as The Georgia Review, AGNI, and TriQuarterly, as well as in Best American Short Stories 1985 and 1988, The Pushcart Prize XIII, Twenty Under Thirty, The Best American Spiritual Writing 2000, and other anthologies. She teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Oregon State University in Corvallis, and, thankfully, also here at the Rainier Writing Workshop.