Of the Uncanny

Schelling wrote in 1835, in his book Philosophie der Mythologie, that “all things are called uncanny which should have remained secret, hidden, latent, but which have come to light.”

The “uncanny” pervades human experience, accumulating a variety of definitions — some of them contradictory — through time.  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche, for example, observed that “Uncanny is human existence and still without meaning: a buffoon can be fatal to it.”

In a word, the uncanny is anthropomorphic because it is a signal of human vulnerability.  Just that.

As the uncanny has its roots in German idealism (or does it?), a look at its German word may be more revealing of this vulnerability: unheimlichUnheimlich means, loosely, a stew of these concepts: not-at-home, dislodged, and unhomely.

Sure.  To be without a home suggests vulnerability.  But of what kind?

The root word of unheimlich is, of course, heimlichHeimlich is much more definitive of the uncanny.  In its various definitions, it can be described as some combination of these: familiar, native, belonging to the home, intimate, comfortable, surrounded by close walls, concealed, esoteric, hidden, behind someone’s back.  

This list gets more juicy as it progresses, doesn’t it?  It begins with the “familiar” and ends with a series of concepts that seem quite contradictory to homeliness.  The “canny” is, in many ways, more uncanny than the uncanny.

It certainly reveals human vulnerability more clearly.

Heimlich suggests that the most familiar aspects of human experience are the hidden ones.What goes on behind closed doors is always exposed to the public somehow, though — through gossip.  Confabulation.  Sharing with some — only pieces, maybe.  Embellishing our lives for others.  Keeping yet others in the dark.

The uncanny is gossip.

A fantasy of the inner space.

Is there anything more terrifying?


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