In Too Deep: What Is The Uncanny?
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Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
So this is an essay I did a while back for one of my courses which I think is interesting enough to be put on my blog. So without further ado, enjoy.
Two uncanny moments in Mary Shelly’s â€œFrankensteinâ€ and Robert Louis Stevenson â€œThe Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hydeâ€ is the moment where the monster in the texts see their reflection for the first time. Daryl Jones, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan all have their own theories about the ‘double’ and its relation to the uncanny, and all three help build up to a unified definition of uncanniness.
In the chapter â€œMonsters from the Idâ€ Daryl Jones examines the concept of doubling in relation to psychoanalyst’s Otto Ranks viewpoints. He writes: â€œProverbially, an encounter with the double portends the death of the self â€¦ the fear of the double has at least some of its origins in beliefs surrounding the human shadow … The shadow thus symbolizes, or exists in, another world parallel with our own, a non-material or spirit world. To cross over into that world is to die.â€ This examination of the ‘double’ is more apparent in â€œThe Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hydeâ€ than in â€œFrankensteinâ€. Describing the transformation Doctor Jekyll writes: â€œAgain, in the course of my life, which had been, after all, nine-tenths a life of effort, virtue, and control, it had been much less exercised and much less exhausted. And hence, as I think, it came about that Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter, and younger than Henry Jekyll. Even as good shone upon the countenance of the one, evil was written broadly and plainly on the face of the other. Evil besides (which I must still believe to be the lethal side of man) had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay.â€ This passage relates to Jones’ and by extension Rank’s view on doubling by showing that Hyde is a literal representation of the shadow side of Jekyll. Firstly by becoming Hyde Jekyll essentially is killing his ‘self’, that is to say who he is as a person. While Hyde exists and conscious Jekyll by default must be non-existent and unconscious. The ‘self’ that makes up Jekyll is temporarily suspended in order to allowed Hyde to roam freely. So in this sense by creating a double Jekyll does indeed has himself ‘die’ in a metaphorical sense, since he can not exist at the same time as Hyde. Secondly Jekyll refers to Hyde as a shadow throughout the text, explicitly saying that Hyde is the representation of the evil that Jekyll has kept bottled up and under control. Hyde is a shadow of Jekyll and as such is smaller and younger than Jekyll. He is an imperfect double since he is not an exact representation of Jekyll. As such it is better to describe him as a shadow because, like a shadow, Hyde does not have as much material existence as Jekyll does. Ergo Hyde is merely a shadow to Jekyll, a representation of his evil nature but not as substitutional as his good nature. Likewise Hyde relates to the final part of the Jones’ quote by existing in another, non-material world. Hyde exists as a collection of impulses brought into physical form by Jekyll, but has no physical existence outside of that potion. As such Hyde lives in a non-material world like a shadow. However when Hyde is brought into the physical world he does bring about the death of Jekyll, both in the metaphorical sense as mentioned previously and the physical sense when Jekyll commits suicide at the end of the story. As such Jekyll’s first witness of his alter ego Hyde directly compares to the ideas that Jones and Rank put across.
On the other hand Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of the double and its relation to the uncanny has more to do with â€œFrankensteinâ€ than â€œThe Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.â€ In his â€œThe Uncannyâ€ essay he writes: â€œThe idea of the â€˜doubleâ€™ does not necessarily disappear with the passing of primary narcissism, for it can receive fresh meaning from the later stages of the egoâ€™s development. A special agency is slowly formed there, which is able to stand over against the rest of the ego, which has the function of observing and criticizing the self and of exercising a censorship within the mind, and which we become aware of as our â€˜conscienceâ€™â€. This in turn plays into what the monster Frankenstein created thinks when it first sees its reflection: â€œI had admired the perfect forms of my cottagersâ€”their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions; but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification.â€ Upon seeing its reflection for the first time the monster fulfils both of the ideas that Freud puts forward in regards to the double. First off the monster rejects the idea that the ‘double’ is simple narcissism by recoiling in horror at his own reflection. He does not find his reflected double attractive but hideous, influencing the second half of the quote. The monster develops a conscience of sorts, but one that focuses on the negative aspects of his character and appearance. It is this self-hatred that influences the character greatly and motivates a lot of his further actions. The monster’s conscience becomes so warped upon seeing his reflection that he demands that his bride be made in the same deformed style that he was. Even though he thinks of himself as an abomination he still demands that his bride be made in the same style as him. This showcases how much the creature’s ‘double’ reflection is influencing its ego. It still subconsciously sees itself as being ‘right’ and everything else being ‘wrong’ and thus wants a mate that is as ‘right’ as him. Furthermore Freud later elaborates on why the ‘double’ is uncanny and unsettling to us by illustrating how it has moved from the familiar to the unknown. This shift is reflected in the monster but is shown in reverse. The monster goes from being frightened by his appearance and seeing it as ‘uncanny’ to being appreciative of his appearance and seeing it as ‘right’. As such the monster is shown to be uncanny due to it reacting the opposite way that humans react when they see a ‘double’ of themselves.
Meanwhile Jacques Lacan approaches a middle-ground between these two ideals and comes up with a theory that can be applied to both of the texts in question. He writes: â€œThis form would have to be called the Ideal-I, if we wished to incorporate it into our usual register, in the sense that it will also be the source of secondary identifications, under which term I would place the functions of libidinal normalization. But the important point is that this form situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming-into-being (le devenir) of the subject asymptotically, whatever the success of the dialectical syntheses by which he must resolve as I his discordance with his own reality.â€ This quote, as well as Lacan’s mirror theory as a whole, relates to both the texts and the idea of the ‘double’ being uncanny. Hyde falls under this Ideal-I definition because the character is Jekyll’s freedom from social norms and responsibility that bind him. When Jekyll looks upon his Hyde appearance for the first time he quickly realises that he can commit all sorts of devilish acts without tarnishing the name of Jekyll. One of these acts he readily commits is the engagement in non-moral sexual intercourse, relating to the idea of ‘libidinal normalization’ that Lacan mentions. Hyde is a product of Jekyll’s libido and as such acts out on these impulses when out in public. However what is of more important note is that Hyde and Jekyll never truly interact or meet. The two, despite sharing the same body, are essentially separated from each other and thus can not interact with one another. This relates to the concept of ‘asymptotically’, the idea of a straight line approaching a curve but does not meet it. Jekyll and Hyde can be see as the straight line and the curve respectively, both existing but at not point intersecting with each other. However the ‘dialectical syntheses’ mentioned works in response to these two characters, since they are opposed to each other while at the same time making up the whole of the person. As such Hyde is the Ideal-I of Jekyll, the one with the more freedom who is not bounded or connected to Jekyll in any significant way. This can also be seen as true for Frankenstein’s monster. The monster possess a ‘libido’ of sorts in its desire to have a mate to love. It wishes to have female companionship even if it is not inherently sexual in nature. Likewise the monster and his reflection can be seen as being asymptotic of each other. The monster thinks of itself as an ugly beast while at the same time thinking that its form is ‘right’. It is both opposed to its form while being attracted to it due to its desire to have a mate that shares the deformations. Thus the monster resolves the problems it has with its reflection and comes to terms with what it is. As such Lacan’s definition of the â€œIdeal-Iâ€ can fit with both Mr Hyde and Frankenstein’s monster.
All three theories have a unifying aspect that links them together in relation to the uncanny: Namely they all deal with the fear of losing one’s identity or self. Jones talks about the death of self in relation to the shadows, Freud talks about how our self is defined by our ego while Lacan combines the two and says that without this sense of ego we would have no I. As such it becomes clear that the uncanny has to deal with in part the idea of something that is known becoming unknown. It is logical to presume that the thing that we recognise as being most familiar is ourselves, since one tends to know that oneself exists in some form. Thus when we see a double it makes us question our own existence and turns it into something that is unfamiliar. It is this unfamiliar feeling that Freud mentions by saying that the â€œ’uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.â€ Frankenstein’s monster finds his reflection troubling, demonstrating that he finds its unfamiliar and thus frightening. He knows that his reflection is wrong when compared to others, ergo he finds it scary. Likewise Jekyll knows that his evil side is not familiar to him since he does not recognise his reflection, ergo he finds it scary in part since it is a complete unknown to him. So both of these texts demonstrate the concept that the uncanny comes from not recognising something and finding it frightful because it relates to the characters sense of self in some way. Thus we can draw the implication that the uncanny comes from the idea of what is known becoming unknown, which in turn is related to the theory of doubles since they make the concept of self unknown.
â€œFrankensteinâ€ by Mary Shelly and â€œThe Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hydeâ€ by Robert Louis Stevenson share two uncanny moments that are similar to one another. Both feature scenes where the monsters of the texts see their reflections for the first time. In relation to this Daryl Jones, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan all put forward theories of the uncanny that relate to the concept of ‘doubling’. As such it can be concluded that doubling is the result of the concept of the ‘uncanny’ in action.
So there you have it. My look at the uncanny. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.