21. The Uncanny, Part 3

The surrealists[1] were very influenced by Freud’s naturalistic approach to the mind as well as occult phenomenon.  But they tried to distance themselves from both influences by, on the one hand, trying to probe the unconscious without using reason as much as Freud did (for example, by using automatic writing or Dali’s paranoiac-critical method)[2] and, on the other hand, trying to release powerful spiritual energy without committing themselves to another supernatural world (for example, by using symbols and subject matter from religions, mythology and the occult as material for art rather than for worship or belief). In general, the goal was this: To create art that would fuse together the so-called real world we perceive with the mysterious, irrational, and subversive powers of our dreams.

It wasn’t a matter of escaping into another realm of being or denying another realm.  It was about offering another way to think about reality, an absolute surreality, outside the confines of a “this world” vs. “other world” duality.  Andre Breton, one of the central figures in the surrealist movement, puts the point as follows in the first Manifesto of Surrealism (1925): “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a new kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak”.[3] Dreams, of course, are linked to the unconscious and have always been associated with prophecy, magic, imagination, and spirituality.  So the task was to create art that would transform familiar ordinary objects into unfamiliar ones, usually by a change in part and/or context, in order to let dream and reality mix.

Since their task was to make such mixtures, the aesthetic category of the uncanny seems particularly well-suited to surrealism.  After all, the uncanny represents precisely those bizarre experiences where the familiar and unfamiliar are somehow mixed up.   It is important to note that the surrealists didn’t use the term ‘uncanny’.  But there is no doubt that the term and concept can be fruitfully applied to their works. We can see how by understanding that the uncanny fusions of surrealist art were instruments for the following two ends:

(1) To threaten—perhaps even destroy some of—the accepted, bourgeoisie order of the world with all its “familiar” roles, categories, binary oppositions, language, identities, and theories.  Surrealism hopes to fuse the familiar with the unaccepted, mysterious powers of the dream realm in order to liberate us for more creative action.  Take note that the uncanny typically threatens boundaries and the clear distinctions we often base our lives around. On one hand, this makes the concept (if it is one) hard to grasp, track, and apply.  On the other hand, this opens the possibility that uncanny experience can be liberating and can undermine fundamental principles of thought and action. Surrealism gives us powerful examples of both these dimensions of the uncanny.

(2) To unravel the mystery of the mind itself.  According to the surrealists, reason and science cannot unlock the powers of the dream realm and the creative powers of the unconscious. But aesthetic experience, especially uncanny aesthetic experience, can give one an intuitive experience of the mind’s powers and nature.  Breton hoped to discover a “point of the mind” where a mysterious alchemy occurs that attempts to unify things that are usually kept apart: “Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions”.[4] One way to interpret his claim, similar to what was suggested in my previous blog with reference to Otto, is that imagination, with its ability to make the familiar unfamiliar, is this mysterious “point” or, perhaps more accurately, power. If this is the case then imagination would be a necessary condition for an uncanny experience. Moreover, if imagination is a central function of our mind, then uncanniness is integral to the human condition.  This suggests uncanny experiences could indeed tell us something profound about ourselves.

Over the last three blogs we have seen some examples of the uncanny and entertained some possible explanations and applications.  Is any of it true?  To be sure, thinking in the above terms can be a helpful heuristic device, that is, a device for interpreting things in a new and interesting light. But does the light shine on anything true?  It is hard to say.  Obviously, much of the above is speculative and more argumentation and exposition is needed—something I cannot do in this brief overview.  I have included some further reading suggestions should you want to inquire further.  But I think we need to stress that the uncanny is almost always presented, regardless of the theory, as revealing something.  To me, this commonality is important.  It seems clear that there is something about uncanny experiences that can reveal something for better or worse.  My personal position is that the uncanny is important for exactly this reason: it has revelatory powerHow this power occurs and what it reveals is another question.  But it will not do to dismiss the uncanny as mere entertainment, childish fear, or metaphysical gibberish.


[1] For a useful introduction to surrealism, see http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/surr/hd_surr.htm

[2]Automatism or automatic writing was a technique whereby one tried to write or draw from the subconscious or even the unconscious. The idea is to write randomly and let one’s non-conscious processes take over where the magic of chance and surprise can play a powerful and creative role.  Dali’s paranoiac-critical method essentially involved creating visual configurations that would enable the viewer to see a multitude of images in and around that one configuration.  Andre Breton hailed the method as “an instrument of primary importance” for accomplishing what Dali referred to as a form of “irrational knowledge” based on a “delirium of interpretation”. See Dawn Ades, Dali and Surrealism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982), p. 119.  Some works that illustrate Dali’s thesis: Invisible Sleeper, Horse, Lion; The Endless Enigma; Suburb of the Paranoiac-critical Town; The Great Paranoiac; The Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire; and Impressions of Africa.

[3] Andre Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), p. 14.

[4] Ibid., p. 123.

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