tales of the unexpected
At this time of the year, ‘weird tales’ of the supernatural, ghosts and hauntings begin to emerge. These tales link to ancient fireside rituals where stories have been exchanged for millennia; imaginations are also enkindled by the ever mutating forms in the flames. The fire and the tales not only connect us to our ancestral origins and traditions but also to our psychological lives; and where they converge with the uncanny.
Freud called the uncanny ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.’(1919, p.219) Within the uncanny lies the combination of what is known and unknown; conscious and unconscious. The uncanny is 'everything…that ought to have remained hidden and secret, yet comes to light.’ (Freud, 1919, p.4). When it does ‘come to light’ there is a sense that it takes us by surprise; that it is something unwelcome. This element of unwelcome apparitions uncanny was memorably explored in the cult TV series ‘Tales of the unexpected’ written by Roald Dahl. The series contained tales of unconscious phenomena lurking in phenomena that did not auger well. Another author of the strange and uncanny, Robert Aickman was inspired by Freud’s theories of the unconscious and dreams:
As we often find in dreams, there is also much ambiguity and many cryptic layers in Aickman’s work that leave it open to interpretation. There is dread without resolution: in the end nothing comes to light, yet the fear of it is potent.
the uncanny and the weird
In the uncanny there is a tension between the conscious and unconscious elements of our lives that combine with an uneasy preoccupation with the temporal world; a forgotten or neglected past threatens to haunt us and our destinies. This prophetic element of the uncanny can perhaps be traced back to the English word ‘weird’. Its arcane semantic ancestor, ‘wyrd’ stemmed from the Germanic root and once signified destiny, as personified by the three fates in Greek mythology. Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ subsequently combined this prophetic element with the daemonic and dangerous, signified by the three witches in the play, also known as ‘the weird sisters’, presumably bringing to bear a significant influence on the transformation of the meaning of the word. Importantly, the witches’ prediction that Macbeth would become king was followed by murderous acts of death and destruction concluding with his own eventual downfall.
‘Weird’ consequently became linked with the uncanny and supernatural forces, overshadowing its ancestral prophetic element which retreated to the vernacular unconscious, yet perhaps still maintained its archaic power. The ‘weird sisters’ of Macbeth became cultural signifiers that embodied the ‘bad’ and ‘witches’ were also cruelly vilified in reality, tragically condemned to hold what what could not be accepted within the psyches of their persecutors. Of course this level of persecution is arguably no less pervasive today, although its manifestations are different and more complex.
Perhaps it is the more unconscious associations with daemonic prophesy that we continue to carry within us that could begin to explain the horrendous violence that continues in our world: indeed not only do we find someone ‘weird’ because they simply represent something different from us. More significantly, unconsciously there is a profound level of projective identification where we expel into the ‘weird’ people of the world, all that we cannot bear to feel or think about as we fear that otherwise they might cast a spell on us and ruin our lives: a pre-emptive strike if you will. It is this disowning of our identification with ‘weird’ people which keeps them weird and us ‘normal.’ We then confuse the external with the internal.
‘an uncanny sense of disappointment’
Aside from witches, ghosts are perhaps the most well known symbols of the uncanny. In Mark Fisher’s excellent essay ‘Ghosts of my life’ (2014), he explores less those of the spectral world, more the inner kind, using British band’s Japan’s spellbinding song ‘Ghosts’ from 1981 as his prima materia for the essay. The verses of ‘Ghosts’ have an alienating, almost claustrophobic atmosphere; what Fisher calls an ‘enervated foreboding’ (2014, p.35). When the chorus arrives however, there is a sense of relief; a charged catharsis encoded with the feeling that the plight which singer David Sylvian describes is something much more familiar; an uncanny sense of disappointment. Here something is ‘coming to light’ exactly at the wrong time.
There are evocations of the damned plight of Macbeth in ‘Ghosts’, yet here it is clear in the song there will be no coronation. In 'Ghosts’ we can wonder if this is a familiar process of thwarting - ‘Just when I thought I could not be stopped’- as if at the crucial moment he will fail and is fated to do so. Perhaps there are again echoes of the ‘weird sisters’ and this metaphorical crowning is scuppered by what Christopher Bollas (1987, p. 32) calls ‘an unthought known’: Sylvian ‘knows’ that his ‘ghosts’ will stop him in his tracks (as they always do) yet perhaps they are not something that can be explained. Perhaps these ‘ghosts’ reside in his unconscious and cannot therefore be thought about in any way which will set them free.
Mark Fisher (2014, p.35) also wonders what Sylvian’s ‘Ghosts’ might be: are they ‘something from his past - something he wants to have left behind’ that keep returning? He continues:
Fisher here draws upon the fatalistic/ prophetic elements of the song; this compulsion to repeat ‘might be a self fulfilling prophecy.’ The ghosts will always return as as long as he ‘fears they will.’
THe ghost of winnicott
Fisher’s fascinating free associations on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’ call to mind psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s late paper ‘Fear of breakdown’. Winnicott describes those patients in his practice that seemed to live in fear of a traumatic catastrophe, postulating that their trauma ‘had already happened,’ but due to a very necessary defence organisation at the time of infancy, ‘had not been experienced’ (Ogden, 2014, p.212.) The ‘destruction of their happiness’ that Fisher spoke of was playing out in their lives every day now as adults, ‘blowing wilder than the wind’.
Again here is the dread of something ‘coming to light’, but it signifies a trauma that has already taken place; a mad-making psychic conundrum. Winnicott affirms (1973.p.103) that as the original trauma happened at the stage of ‘absolute dependence’, it could not therefore be brought into ‘the present time experience’ of the ego and remained split off from conscious experience. Winnicott asserts that in psychotherapy the trauma is in this way experienced for the first time. However, unlike at the time of the original trauma, the patient does not face it alone, as they are accompanied by the ‘auxiliary ego’ (p.103) of the psychoanalyst with which they begin to bear what was unbearable before.
As the original trauma is unconscious, it can only be made conscious and worked through by experiencing the ‘primitive agonies’ (unbearable anxiety) which arise in the transference relationship. This may seem horrendously painful and potentially re-traumatising, but importantly in psychotherapy the patient is also now an adult and as a result is more equipped with the developmental resources to begin the process of recovery:
In ‘Fear of breakdown’ Winnicott writes of unbearable levels of psychic suffering. Yet surely all of us have experienced failures at the earliest stages of life to a varying extent that can impact on our lives now. Any one of us can be ‘haunted’ or ‘cursed’ by some ‘unthought known’ from the past that just seems to get in our way when we least want it, that stops us from fulfilling our creative potential. This is the uncanny nature of disappointment, an archetypal experience of falling at the final hurdle; a blundering fall from grace, though one which contributes to being quite imperfectly human. This does not feel like something which should remain a secret however, or that we should hide from; indeed it is a potential source of profound connection.
Bollas, C. (1987). The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. London, UK: Free Association Book.
Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of my life. Writings on depression hauntology and lost futures. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.
Freud, S. (1919). The ‘Uncanny’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, 217-256
Jung, C.G. (1969). Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1), Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press
Ogden, T.H. (2014) Fear of Breakdown and the unlived life. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 95:205–223
Aickman, R. (1971). Fontana book of great ghost stories. New York: Beagle Books.
Sylvian, D. ‘Ghosts’ ℗ 1981 © 1982 Virgin Records Limited.
Winnicott, D.W. (1974). Fear of Breakdown. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 1:103-107