David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2009

Freud on the Uncanny/Unheimlich

The uncanny as it is depicted in literature, in stories and imaginative productions, merits in truth a separate discussion. Above all, it is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter and something more besides, something that cannot be found in real life. The contrast between what has been repressed and what has been surmounted cannot be transposed on to the uncanny in fiction without profound modification; for the realm of phantasy depends for its effect on the fact that its content is not submitted to reality-testing. The somewhat paradoxical result is that in the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place, that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.

The Uncanny

Elsewhere in the essay Freud (taking off, magpie-like, from Ernst Jentsch’s conception of the uncanny) discusses the partial synonymy between heimlich and unheimlich, suggesting that the latter is a product of the repression of the former. But I like the idea that fiction and presumably other forms of art and writing as well bring with it its own set of standards for what is and is not uncanny, and these standards are in no way mimetic of the real world. It seems like an obvious enough point, but how many discussions of the uncanny ignore the clear difference between those standards for what one experiences in reading and those standards for what one experiences in life? (Benjamin, for one, as with when he treats Kafka.) And how often do one’s expectations of uncanniness in stories get projected mistakenly onto life itself?

Moreover, the writer works overtime to create uncanny effects well beyond anything that we tend to encounter in life (or that if we encounter in real life, we think it to be is “stranger than fiction”), then has to be held to the ever-shifting standards of the uncanny, and how robust the writer’s conception was determines the reception of their work in the ensuing years. (That is, the nature of the “reality testing” changes as the social conception of reality does.) Private, unshared neuroses may cause any would-be uncanny effects to quickly fade from the page.

(As an example of the shifting, take Freud’s essay and larger work itself. Since so many versions of Freud’s ideas have passed into conventional wisdom, every time Freud doesn’t match one of the common conceptions in his writing, there’s an uncanny experience that Freud has greatly departed from what Freud is supposed to be.)

One other, metatextual point, is that you can hypothesize that the fictional standards from the uncanny bear an uncanny relation to the real-life standards; our laxer standards in fiction allow for the airing of more repression. Maybe this is too clever a formulation, but at least it merits bearing in mind before a critic jumps at the opportunity to point out every quirk in a novel as being uncanny. It’s become an overused category, and it would be better to document it descriptively than to postulate instances of it willy-nilly.

(The most famous application of the idea of the uncanny as nearly-familiar is Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley.)

Nagisa Oshima: More Films

Violence at Noon (Oshima, 1966): Aesthetics triumph. Oshima aggressively shoots black and white Cinemascope in almost exclusively close-ups or wide shots, most of them quite short, and combined with a dissonant orchestral score (not familiar with the composer, but it is in line with Takemitsu’s excellent film scores of the period), the film builds up momentum through craft alone. Which is good, because the plot is a mess. It’s the story of a love triangle (or square) in which one of the men has killed himself and the other has begun sexually assaulting and killing women. The two female characters provide varying degrees of rationale for his actions and not much else. That they all lived on a collective farm years before the main plotline implies some kind of political message, but next to Night and Fog in Japan, it’s pretty weak stuff. There is more analysis of the plot at Strictly Film School, which does more for it than I can do. Technically brilliant but morally questionable.

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Oshima, 1967): Not to be confused with Masahiro Shinoda’s beautiful but completely different Double Suicide from 1969. Here Oshima abandons realism completely and tells the story of two youths, a boy who just wants to die and a girl who just wants sex (this is Oshima, remember), who get mixed up in some sort of allegorical gang war and end up hiding out in a barn with a bunch of cowardly thugs. Not as technically impressive as Violence at Noon, there are still some gorgeous and abstract scenes on some odd sort of beach. The vaguely apocalyptic plot and characters throw off sparks without ever really gelling (think of Godard’s Les Carabiniers), but it keeps your attention, particularly the ending, which involves an American sniper who does not speak one word of Japanese.

Death By Hanging (Oshima, 1968): Humor, not especially noticeable in the earlier films, shows up here and it’s surprisingly effective. A Korean man is hanged but instead of dying suffers amnesia, and so the warden and others have to cause him to remember his crime so they can hang him again. Ostensibly a parable about the death penalty, Oshima can’t stick with one subject and things spill over into Japanese colonialism, racism, and bureaucracy. It’s effective satire; even when you can’t figure out what point Oshima is exactly trying to make, it’s biting anyway. It’s the colonial message that is clearest for me, making depressing observations on Japanese discrimination against Koreans and the alienation forced on them. Not as visually striking as the two above films, it still has some of the strongest content of any Oshima film.

The Ceremony (Oshima, 1971): Another nasty parable, this one telling the story of the extended family that constitutes part of Japan’s ruling class. Everyone is corrupt; redemption is impossible. The younger generation listlessly follow in the vile footsteps of their megalomaniacal parents, acting out all the self-absorbed and reprehensible pageantry funded by imperial and capitalistic thuggery. The famous setpiece is a wedding that goes ahead even though the bride has failed to show, but the film has a consistent brute-force power, and the actors convincingly portray hollow, soulless aristocrats. Appropriately gloomy and typically good score by Takemitsu.

Jean Améry

Our slave morality will not triumph. Our ressentiments—emotional source of every genuine morality, which was always a morality for the losers —have little or no chance at all to make the evil work of the overwhelmers bitter for them. We victims must ?nish with our retroactive rancor. In the sense that the KZ argot once gave to the word “?nish”; it meant as much as to “kill.” Soon we must and will be ?nished. Until that time has come, we request of those whose peace is disturbed by our grudge that they be patient.


I was struck that this passage from the resolutely secular Améry, for whom being a Jew had little to do with religion, echoed that religious pessimist Charles Péguy in its post-Nietzschean despair:

Try as we may, try as we may, they will always go faster than we, they will always do more than we, a deal more than we. All that is needed to set a farm ablaze is a flint. It takes, it took years to build it. It isn’t difficult. One doesn’t have to be so clever. It takes months and months, it took work and more work to make the crop grow. And all that is needed to set a crop ablaze is a flint. It takes years and years to mak a man grow, it took bread and more bread to feed him, and work and more work, and all kinds of work. And all that is needed to kill him is one blow. One swordthrust and it’s done. To make a good Christian, the plough has to work twenty years. To kill a good Christian, the sword has to work one minute. It’s always that way. It’s like the plough to work twenty years and it’s like the sword to work one minute. It’s always that way. It’s like the plough to work twenty years and it’s like the sword to work one minute, and to do more, to be stronger, to make an end of things. So we people will always be the weaker ones. We will always go more slowly, we will always do less. We are the party of those who build up. They are the party of those who pull down. We are the party of the plough. They are the party of the sword. We will always be beaten. They will always get the better of us, on top of us. No matter what we say.

For one wounded man dragging himself along the roads, for one man we pick up on the roads, for one child dragging himself along the roadsides, how many people are wounded, and sick, and forsaken, how many women are made unhappy and children forsaken because of the war, and how many are killed, and how many unfortunates lose their souls. Those who kill lose their souls because they kill. And those who are killed lose their souls because they are killed. Those who are strongest, those who kill lose their souls through the murder which they commit. And those who are killed, the man who is weaker, lose their souls through the murder which they suffer, for, seeing how weak they are and how bruised, always the same being weak, and the same unhappy, and the same beaten, and the same killed, then, unhappy ones, they despair of their salvation, because they despair of the goodness of God. Thus, no matter where one may turn, on both sides, it is a game in which, no matter how one plays or what one plays for, salvation is always bound to lose and perdition always bound to win. There is nothing but ingratitude, nothing but despair and perdition.

And bread everlasting. He who is too much in lack of daily bread no longer has any desire for bread everlasting, the bread of Jesus Christ.

It’s exactly the inability of religion to overcome suffering and starvation that makes it useless to Améry.

Nagisa Oshima and Other Japanese New Wave Films

There have been two retrospectives of Oshima recently in New York, as well as a brief New Wave overview at the Japan Society. Most of these films aren’t readily available, and for Oshima at least, people’s opinions of him have been skewed by only watching his late work, particularly In the Realm of the Senses (which is really not my thing). So here are quick takes on what I’ve seen. First, three early Oshima films.

The Sun’s Burial (Oshima, 1960): Assorted gang members and other lowlifes in Osaka try to make money and kill each other. Even here, though, Oshima is not concerned with realism. The film is essentially a melodrama and the plot contrivances are designed to generate theatricality and brutality. Oshima is technically fluent, but the film’s construction pales next to Imamura’s contemporaneous Pigs and Battleships, which takes a more anthropological view toward its lower-class subjects.

Night and Fog in Japan (Oshima, 1960): At a wedding, students, professors, and activists argue over what happened during the student movement against the Japan-America security treaty ten years earlier. There’s a lot of political talk without much background, but the depiction of a dead-serious Communist student movement, complete with censure and autocracy, is compelling. The flashbacks and camera movements are vaguely dialectical (the camera has a habit of swinging horizontally backwards and forwards), and it’s clear that the political content is meant seriously, not satirically, even if Oshima is ultimately pessimistic about the movements and their hollow leaders. It’s a more literal version of what Godard did in La Chinoise.

Pleasures of the Flesh (Oshima, 1963): Based on a book apparently entitled Pleasures of the Coffin, this is another over-the-top melodrama. Our hero murders a man who raped the teenage object of his obsession/love/lust, then comes into a fortune through hard-to-figure circumstances. He spends a year spending money by hiring assorted women as prostitutes. Things go very badly. The material seems to be tongue-in-cheek, but the rampant misogyny (the women just want money, they betray him, they don’t have feelings, etc.) is still hard to take. Best example of such: our hero secretly watches a pimp rape his prostitute, but doesn’t intervene until the pimp is about to pour acid on her face. Yeah.

On South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation

Q.: Let me put it this way; you do read newspapers and watch TV, not so?
A.: Yes I do read newspapers and I do watch television.
Q.: I assume that you know about this Truth & Reconciliation Commission that is going on, of which Amnesty is part thereof?
A.: Yes I heard.
Q.: Do you know that this is done by the Government to foster or to promote reconciliation in the country?
A.: Yes I do know that.
Q.:What is your attitude about this reconciliation process?
A.: I don’t have any comment on that one.
Q.: Do you believe in reconciliation?
A.: Yes I do believe.

The witness’s refusal to forgive or to support the granting of amnesty thus is met with attempts to convince her that her attitude will harm her country’s rebuilding efforts. A more harsh interpretation—based on the possibility that the commissioner did not really seek to move the witness by invoking national reconciliation efforts—is to see the exchange of questions and answers as motivated by a wish to publicly shame or belittle the unforgiving relative by attempting to position her as “unenlightened.” In any event, the questioning aims to pressure or intimidate the witness. It is striking that we hear no words that could reassure dissenters that their sentiments and demands are legitimate as such and that the TRC, despite its preference and support of the suspension of those demands, could still recognize them as genuinely moral in nature. It is also worth noting that giving up resentment and a desire for retribution or revenge does not imply a support for amnesty—unless of course one assumes that the only reason for the state to punish criminals is to satisfy the crime victim’s desires for vengeance or even punishment proper. The contrast between the warm and welcoming responses given to forgiving victims and the range of responses given to their unforgiving counterparts can also be illustrated with the following example. During Bettina Mdlalose’s testimony about the killing of her son in an HRV hearing in Durban, Vryheid, on April 16, 1997, the following exchange occurred:

COMMISSIONER: But one other thing that’s an objective of this Commission is that after we have ventilated about the atrocities that were committed to us, is that we should reconcile as the community of South Africa at large. The perpetrators, those who committed those atrocities to you, killed your son, according to our records haven’t come forth for amnesty, or perhaps sending us to you for forgiveness. But one question I would like to ask is that, if today those perpetrators could come forth and say, “Commission, because you exist today, we would like to go and meet Mrs. Mdlalose to ask for forgiveness,” would you be prepared to meet with the perpetrators? I know they haven’t come forward, they have not even admitted an application for amnesty, but still we would like to ask from you, to get a view from you that if they come to you and ask for forgiveness would you be prepared to sit down with them, shake hands with them, and reconcile with them? Would you be prepared to talk to them?

MRS.MDLALOSE: I don’t think I will allow such an opportunity.

COMMISSIONER: Thanks. Thank you for responding, because you just told us what you feel from inside. But do not feel bad . . .

Thomas Brudholm, Resentment’s Virtue

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