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Joseph C. Sch6pp “VastForms That Move Fantastically”: Poe, Freud, and the Uncanny There is always a residuum unknown,unanalyzable. -R. W. Emerson, “Circles”(1841) When literary scholars use the term “uncanny“ they almost instinctively think of Sigmund Freud-who, in his famous essay “The Uncanny,” not only investigated the term’s etymological history and its various shades of meaning in “a virtuoso display of lexicographical research,” as Hugh Haughton puts it, but also acted as a respectable literary scholar, applying the term to E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tale “The Sand-Man’’(1816) and reflecting extensively about the place of the uncanny “in creative writing” generally.’ Harold Bloom therefore regards Freud’sessayasbeing “of enormous importance to literary criticism.”*Thus the term almost automatically takes on Freudian overtones when we speak of the uncanny in Poe. I will contend, however, that we should reverse the argument. When we today speak of Freud’s uncanny the term should reverberate with echoes of Hoffmann or Poe, since Freud’s psychological insights were, as he admitted, heavily indebted to works of “imaginative literature” that were far ahead of the more scientifically oriented minds and that drew on sources inaccessibleto ~cience.~ The poetic minds, in his opinion, were able to envisage what ordinary human beings-among them scientists-would never dare to dream. Poe certainlywas among these daring dreamers , “a great writer with pathological trends,” as Freud called him in his foreword to Marie Bonaparte’s study The Lye and Works of Edgar AlZan Poe, to my knowledge his only reference to Poe-whose greatness, Freud seems to imply, lay in his ability to dive deeply and bring to light in his writing what otherwise would have remained hidden in the dark cavernsof the human p~yche.~ The pathological trends to which Freud refers were trends that he, not unlike hisfaithful disciple Mme Bonaparte, sawactive in both Poe’s “lifeand works.”As a literary scholar I do not presume to discussPoe’spersonality.I will rather concentrate on Poe the writer,how he represented pathological trends in his literary work and what their effects may be on the reader. While a psychoanalystmay be eager to decipher and decode, the poet’s task is primarily to show rather than to tell. While the psychoanalyst sees him- or herself first and foremost asan unriddler of the mysteriesof the human mind, Poe leavesthe riddles largelyunsolved,gives hints at best. As a literary analyst I will therefore primarily focus on the textual strategies, how Poe entangles his reader in an uncanny textual network ,rather than lay the author and hischaracters on the couch, as it were, to psychoanalyze them. The uncanny may be counted among those effectsmost frequently traceable in Poe’swritings. The English term “uncanny”is, as Haughton has shown,related “tothe Scottishdialectterm ‘canny’, with ‘uncanny’meaning ‘mischievous’,‘careless’, ‘unreliable’and ‘notquite safe to trust to’”-and, in an additional sense, “‘partakingof a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar”’ ( U,lix n. 48). The definitionsin the German dictionaries of Daniel Sanders and the BrothersGrimm,from whichFreud mainly cites, correspond more or less with the English definitions. One entry, however, struck Freud as particularly appropriate, since it quite obviously reflected his own psychological interests and expressed , as he observes, “something quite newsomething we certainlydid not expect-about the meaningof unheimlich.”Among “thevariousshades of meaning that are recorded for the word heimlich there is one,” he says,“in which it merges with its Poe. Freud. and the Uncannv 47 formalantonym, unheimlich,so that what is called heimlich becomes unheimlich.”What he refers to is Friedrich WilhelmJosef von Schelling’s remark that “uncannyiswhatonecallseverythingthatwas meant to remainsecretand hidden and has come into the open”[Unheimlichnennt manAlles,was im Geheimnis,imVerborgenen...bleiben sollteund hervorgetretenist] (V, 132): Whatshouldremain heimlich (latent, covert, canny) becomes unheimlich (overt,uncanny) once it comes to the fore. From Schelling’sdefinitionof the uncannyFreud inferred that the “uncanny (das Unheimliche,the ‘unhomely’)isin someway aspeciesof thefamiliar (dasHeimliche, ‘thehomely’)”(V, 134);it appears familiar to us because it represents a part of our selfthatshouldhave remained covertyet somehow has become overt.The uncanny then is the latent that mysteriouslyhas come to the fore and seen the light of common day. In Freud...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1754-6095
Print ISSN
1947-4644
Pages
pp. 46-54
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-07
Open Access
No
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