UNCANNY FIGURES AND THE SEA
Predominantly using Freud’s 1919 text ‘The Uncanny’ we will explore how images or stories of figures found in the sea produce a sense of the uncanny.
‘The Uncanny’ is an imperfect translation of the German term unheimlich. Apparent opposite terms of heimlich and unheimlich are shown to be circuitously connected.Unheimlichmeans un-homley, strange, but also, that which is hidden and is contrasted with heimlich meaning homely, not strange, but also, that which is hidden. For Freud the uncanny centres on fears of doubles, death, dolls, dismemberment, secrets, and the supernatural. The uncanny is located somewhere in a Rumsfeldian-knot of knowns, unknowns, half-knowns and once-knowns. Uncanniness can bearousedby something being where it shouldn’t or if something is sensed as being not quite natural, even supernatural.Freud quotes Schelling‘s assertion that ‘everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.’ Also quoted is Jentsch’s theory that the uncanny is triggered by “doubt as to whether an apparently animate object really is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might perhaps be animate.” The notion of a double is uncanny; an alternative self which makes us unsure of ourselves.
The uncanny can be a matter of something gruesome or terrible, above all death and corpses, cannibalism, live burial, the return of the dead. But it can also be a matter of something strangely beautiful, bordering on ecstasy.
Freud being Freud, the uncanny is also apparently a repressed fear of castration.Blinding in particular becomes fear of castration but for Freud any lost body part can stand in for a lost penis.
The sea is our primordial birthing-pool, a place of death, of burial but also in a baptismal sense, a place of re-birth and transformation.
It is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exits in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came. John F Kennedy
We cannot stay long in the sea, alive we won’t stay that way for long, we drown or freeze or get swallowed by sharks. Even before death we may experience a watery sense of ‘live-burial’ as described by a fisherman who fell over-board; sea lice and shrimps soon latched on to him and started to claim him as ‘part of the sea’. Once deadour flesh is soon eaten by sea-creatures, eyes, lips and fingers first, then the rest. Eventually our bones are softened by salt until there is nothing left. Despite the dangers; the sea seems to call us in, siren like. John F Kennedy invokes our ancient saline roots but more personally we each start our lives in a miniature salt-sea -sack. As James Hamilton-Patterson says of the sea, it reminds us of ‘where we suppose we originally came from, what we have left behind. Going back thus to our genetic roots rather than to the sunlit idyll of Eden is a disquieting affair. Did we not abandon our ancestral dark by crawling towards the light.’This ancestral and personal link seems to engender a sense of loss for that which was once homely, but which is now unhomely, or more potently, unheimlich.
When we see figures under the sea we experience a sense of the uncanny; they are in a place that in its self is uncanny. They are also somewhere they should not be; they are domestic objects in a deeply un-domestic space. The deep sea is long associated with death and darkness and things in it are only seen with difficulty. The sea bed has only relatively recently been able to be seen by human eyes, but even with dramatic advances in technology, much of it’s mysteries remains hidden;it is still a place of secrets and monsters, terrors and treasures.Loss of eyes more than any other body part leads Freud onto an Oedipal path and fear of blinding becomes fear of castration. The fear at loss of vision we experience in the dark is easily transferred from the night to the darkness of the deep sea. Figures under the sea are easily confused with real bodies and doubts naturally arise as to whether a figure is alive, dead or inanimate and so; neither. The sea has a ‘rough caress’ that tends to erode extremities of statues in the same way as real bodies. The sea does dismember, but does not necessarily dismember members. However, for Freud, any part of the body can act as a stand in for the male genitals. If the soft or extreme extremities are first to be eaten, surely a penis wouldn’t last long. Statues with limbs eaten or washed away may spark a fear of the uncanny and therefore, perhaps, castration. ‘The uncanny has to do with a strangeness of framing and borders, an experience of liminality.’The sea is a liminal space, whether on it, in it or beside it, we experience the thrill of the edge. The seaside is a site we visit to drink and dance, we throw off our inhibitions with our clothes. It is dangerous but fun. This edgeness can create an edginess, an uncertainty and an un-canniness. The English ‘canny’ is archaically linked to birth; a ‘canny wife’ was a midwife, an arbiter of the liminal experience of birth. Immersion in the sea seems to make the ordinary extraordinary, the heimlichunheimlich. Even everyday objects like cups and saucers or bottles can become imbued with a magic aura and a monetary value that far exceeds their materials. There is a thriving ebay market in shipwrecked souvenirs. As James Hamilton-Patterson points out; ‘Since this is a secular age, sacred relics will no longer do as quest objects (the recent demotion of the Shroud of Turin from holy trophy to medieval forgery ought to have dealt the final blow to the sacred object industry). Things swallowed by the sea will do excellently in their place,’
Who hasn’t swam in the sea and shivered at the thought of what lurks beneath, monsters or bodies, real or imagined. "And under the water? You haven't thought what could be under the water." A monster?A giant carapace?sunk in the mud? A dozen pairs of claws or fins labouring slowly in the slime. The monster rises. At the bottom of the water. I went nearer, watching every eddy and undulation.’ Sartre, Nausea. We fear that which we do not know and that which we cannot see we fear because we do not know it. But we are as fascinated as we are scared, as a species we are incurably curious. Despite the inhospitable nature of the deep-sea we seem to have been compelled to risk death to reach it. Sight and knowledge have been linked since the Greeks, as evidenced by the Greek word ‘theorin’ meaning both ‘to know’ and ‘to see’. The deep sea is incredibly dark, anything in it looms out of the blackness, illuminated only by artificial lights, it has all the drama of a stage set. Half hidden in weed and encrusted by barnacles any figures are only half recognized and this confusion and uncertainty creates a strong sense of the uncanny. We are biologically programmed to see faces and figures; it is our ancient self-preservation instinct of ‘friend or foe’. Therefore we are inclined to see figures where there are none; half-burnt toast, tea-leafs, rock-faces. That moment before the full realization that these are in-fact random patterns is the moment the uncanny strikes.
The first diver to discover a shipwrecked collection of marble statues off Antikythera was terrified when he mistook them for rotting corpses. Those parts of the statues that were in the sand were perfectly preserved whilst any parts exposed were being cannibalistically consumed by sea-creatures feasting on the fossilized remains of their ancestors.The statues would surely inspire Freud to invoke the uncanny fear of castration in the leper-like appearance of the partially dismembered limbs. The diver’s uncanny uncertainty as to whether the figures were once living beings produced a real fear. The same fear was felt by North Sea fishermen in a tale told to and recounted by James Hamilton-Patterson;‘Crushed into the meshes was the face of a girl looking out at them, her mouth wide open in a yell, her eyes wide. Partially lost among the plaice and whiting and dogfish were her twisted limbs. When the catch was released nobody wanted to wade into the bin to dig her out from beneath the bottles and squid and halibut, not least because there was movement everywhere as if things were trying to struggle up from the bottom of the heap. Eventually some brave soul pulled her out from beneath a heaving monkfish: a torn and deflated life-sized sex doll. Inside her mouth, moulded into a red-rimmed O of insatiable accommodation, were hermit crabs. She, too, went back over the side, twentieth-century mermaid, Jenny Haniver herself, probably modelled from the by-products of the very same North Sea oil her roustabout lover had been helping to extract.’ This extract operates perfectly as a tale of the uncanny, a doll is where she shouldn’t be, her limbs are twisted inspiring a fear of dismemberment. At first the fishermen are afraid because they think she might be a real dead body, that fear is furthered by fears of movement, for a moving dead body is more scary than a still one. But once the doll is clearly seen the fears become laughable, she is tossed back in the sea and the story will surely be told, safely back on dry land to amuse friends.
This passage comes from a tourist website, it describes the moment a 2,500 year old bronze 7ft statue of a dancing satyr is hauled out of the Mediterranean in 1998:
Captain Ciccio said the statue emerged from the sea in the most beautiful way imaginable, because while it could have come out with its legs, or backside leading the way, the first part of its body to break the surface of the water was its face. It came out gazing towards the heavens as if gasping for air. Ciccio said it initially looked like a castaway caught in his nets and trying to escape. The statue was covered in shrimps and small crabs, many of which had crawled out of its mouth.
This story shares that same sense of the uncanny in that the figure is described as if it is alive and it’s loss of limbs(danced away by the sea) draw on Freud’s concept of the uncanny and dismemberment/castration. ‘The uncanny is never far from something comic: humour, irony and laughter all have a genuinely ‘funny’ role in thinking on this topic.’ This assertion by Nicholas Royle might seem strange but laughter often follows an unsettling experience, it is part of our cathartic response to death and fear. Once we have ascertained that something is not supernatural or dangerous we can laugh at our own fears and the fears of others. In the clear light of day night-terrors seem absurd. The sex-doll once discovered to be just that, stops being scary and becomes ridiculous. In trying to achieve an uncanny effect in story telling we can easily slip out of the sublime and into the silly; the author of the story about the trawling up of the Dancing Satyr statue accidentally muddles up the boat ‘Capitan Ciccio’, (Captain Fatso), with her actual captain, Francesco Adragna. So in an amusing example of half-intended pathetic fallacy the boat describes the statue coming up for air.
These figures that were under the sea are not alone; there is a whole host down there, real bodies, statues, dolls, figurines. Some are deliberately placed in the water, either for spiritual or artistic ends, others because of shipwreck, accidental loss or deliberate jettisoning as trash. The artist Jason deCairesTurner sinks coral-friendly statues under the sea and although the sea-claimed statues are beautiful and to some extent operate within the frame-work of the uncanny, they are not as uncanny as those figures that end up in the sea unintentionally; for as Freud notes, the uncanny fails to operate if we expect it. The uncanny is usually associated with a fleeting feeling, a liminal emotion, but those statues and figures that have been in the sea and are then retrieved seem to retain a sense of the uncanny. It was about a decade ago that I first came face-to-face with the Dancing Satyr statue, despite having been cleaned-up and being in a dry, safe environment it still held a frisson of the uncanny, helped by dramatic lighting in a dark room that suggested the sea-bed. But it was more than just a trick-of-the-light, the sea had changed it, had made it even more ‘rich and strange’ than it would have been when first made, the same has happened to the Antikythera marbles, they have been rendered permanently un-canny by the sea.