restricted access Chapter 6. Beyond Belief (Cazotte)
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C h a p t e r 6 Beyond Belief (Cazotte) In his famous essay on the uncanny, Freud does not attempt to provide a literary history of this effect of “dread and creeping horror,” but he gives enough examples to allow us to sketch one out.1 He finds the uncanny in the stories of Hoffmann and Schnitzler, and even in a Strand magazine piece in which carved crocodiles come to life. He does not find it in “Homer’s jovial world of gods,” nor in Dante and Shakespeare, whose works nonetheless abound in spiritual entities. Fairy tales, meanwhile, are “crammed with instantaneous wish-fulfillments”; “and yet,” writes Freud, “I cannot think of any genuine fairy-story which has anything uncanny about it.” Sheer literary talent cannot be the explanation for the uncanny, since the “thoroughly silly” story in the Strand easily beats Shakespeare and Homer. So even if Freud doesn’t actually draw the conclusion, it would seem from his examples that the uncanny is above all a historical phenomenon: the literature of many periods has supernatural or irrational content, but modern literature is the uncanny’s only home. Such a periodization has been confirmed by subsequent research into the literary genre that best overlaps with the uncanny, the fantastic: both are defined by an intrusion of the irrational into the seemingly rational world, and both appear to come into their own in the nineteenth century.2 One popular explanation for the uncanny’s historical intrusion has been to stress an evolution in mentality—in people’s beliefs about the supernatural, in their faith in reason. Freud’s essay points firmly in this direction. Since the uncanny is generated by the shocking eruption of the irrational into the rational world, it cannot very well exist before the world itself is viewed rationally ; indeed, the uncanny is precisely the return of beliefs “surmounted” by the process of rationalization, but which “still exist within us ready to seize upon any confirmation.”3 Freud himself provides no indication of when that 172 chapter 6 surmounting occurred, but others have singled out the Enlightenment as the moment when ghosts exit the material world and enter literature. For E. J. Clery, the early 1760s seem emblematic: in 1762, the so-called Cock Lane ghost attracts much attention, both skeptical and credulous; two years later, one of the skeptics, Walpole, converts the polemic into entertainment by penning the gothic harbinger The Castle of Otranto.4 In her analysis of gothic-era ghost stories, Terry Castle sets the shift a bit later, at the turn of the nineteenth century, “precisely [the] moment when traditional credulity had begun to give way, more or less definitively, to the arguments of scientific rationality.”5 Either way, our uncanny literature allows us to savor at nostalgic remove a realm of experience otherwise lost to Enlightenment rationality. “Aesthetically induced demonic dread of the sort Freud describes,” writes Victoria Nelson, “is finally all that we superstition-free rationalists possess of the numinous.”6 Fantastic literature may well provide life support for beliefs that have otherwise become embarrassing, but throughout this chapter I will sidestep appeals to a sea-change in Western rationality as the genre’s source or explanation . First, it would be a tall order indeed to decide just when we surmounted the “traditional credulity” of our ancestors: when Castle tells us that the literary uncanny arises “precisely” at the point that scientific rationality “more or less” “had begun” to win out, she unwittingly highlights the elasticity of a transition that can be positioned pretty much wherever the argument requires .7 Second, and much more important, the proper place of the supernatural , the irrational, and the unbelievable in literature had long been a subject of debate—in Enlightenment England and France, certainly, but also in the neoclassical French seventeenth century, and before that in the Italian Renaissance ; all these writers and thinkers, meanwhile, were turning over some basic if ambiguous precepts found already in Aristotle and Horace. Chief among these was the latter’s dictum incredulus odi, typically taken to mean that unbelievable subject matter could give no pleasure.8 No doubt real beliefs, both popular and elite, did change over such a long period. But the advent of the uncanny or fantastic genre, as well as its break from previous accepted uses of the supernatural, is a problem whose solution lies less in the process of rationalization than in aesthetic...


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