Allan Lloyd Smith: The Phantoms of Drood and Rebecca

The Uncanny Reencountered through Abraham and Torok's "Cryptonymy"

The uncanny is a relatively untheorized area which crops up periodically in criticism as a reading effect. Shoshana Felman and others have drawn attention to those moments in a text which can be called uncanny, when inner contradiction and semantic slippage create a sense of something not said, the non-presence of the story to itself. But the eruption of the uncanny depends on more than simply formal considerations. Although certain kinds of narrative transgression will produce it, the effect is linked both psychologically and politically to wider issues. Male and female interactions involving power and sexual desire are determinants; so also may be the historical and political experiences of class, race, or age, and certain specific features of culture, such as imperialism and the fear of what is brought back from colonial adventures. My argument is that unresolved contradictions, unadmitted fears and desires, and incompatible assertions of the culture produce these areas of slippage, these discontinuities of meaning, these phantoms, and this generation of powerful affect by the literary text, giving the reader a sense of the uncanny.

The uncanny is most simply described as the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange, as Freud noted the German term unheimlich to suggest. Freud's 1919 essay "The Uncanny" remains the most useful general introduction to psychoanalytic interpretations of the subject. Heimlich means belonging to the house, familiar, tame, intimate, not strange, and so on. But it can also mean concealed, kept from sight, or withheld from others. This conjunction led Freud to accept Schelling's definition of the uncanny as "the name for everything that ought to have remained . . . secret and hidden but has come to light" (Freud 1955 [1919] : 354). This essay will focus on some more recent insights of psychoanalytic theory about the secret that has not come to light, but nevertheless makes its presence felt. But first we should examine, at least in summary, Freud's arguments about the uncanny.