A couple of weeks ago my compost bin began to topple of its own accord and the only way I could think to salvage the compost was to shift the bottomless (but not topless) bin, then shovel the compost back inside. Deep in the midst of the pile, amongst all the squirming, insectivorous busyness, sat a small, delicate white globe. As I bent down to take a closer look, the globe, too, began to wriggle then something waspish squeezed through and flew off. After checking on Google what I’d seen – not so quick and easy as you might think, as most sites tell you how to get rid of a wasps’ nest – I believe, though I may be mistaken, what I saw was the ‘birth’ of a queen wasp.
It was strange to see this so deep within the compost heap, strange but marvellous. And also, somehow, familiar, like the moment when a story or poem reveals itself to me, when it ‘hatches’, after all that time spent shovelling words and shifting them around. I don’t mean I’ve reached the end; in fact, I’ve really just reached the beginning.
Nicholas Royle says: ‘The Uncanny has to do with the sense of a secret encounter; it is perhaps inseparable from an apprehension, however fleeting, of something that should have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.’ This was my experience of coming upon the cocoon in the compost.
Some of you may be familiar with a comment attributed to Michelangelo:
In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me… I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes as mine see it.
As a writer, I’m more of a fumbler – or stumbler – in the dark, hoping that some clarity, or illumination will eventually occur. The American fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor, said that you (the writer) ‘ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don’t, probably nobody else will’. (Mystery and Manners 106) What you discover need not be completely new (if such a thing exists); it might be something you have always known but forgotten, covered up, put out of your mind or, hitherto, were unable to articulate.
Two Faces Under One Hood
The double is considered a key feature of the uncanny but a great deal of imaginative writing involves doubling, or multiplication. Writing works with both the literal and figurative meaning of language; with truth and reality, with present, past and future, with this place and that, with fictional time and clock time, with narrative movements forwards and backwards, with varying points of view and varying narrative distance. A phrase, a character, an action, can be experienced as itself but can also stand for, suggest, imply, hint at something other than itself.
When we experience an action, we experience it in the context of what, in a sequence of actions, has led to that particular moment and in that moment a specific action may have accrued symbolic meaning. This is not to say that figurative meaning is more important than literal meaning. If the writer says, for example that snow covered the pond, or that the protagonist struck a match, the reader is not intended to ignore or discard those literal actions or scenarios and go in search of symbolic meaning. Writing is not some kind of arcane puzzle, though an element of puzzlement, or uncertainty, may be crucial element to its success.
We talked about how the uncanny confronts questions around what it means to be human, and what it means to be a human substitute. Some years ago (before Sexbots but certainly not before blow-up dolls or their hand-stitched precursors), I wrote a story, ‘Camille’, (Lord of Illusions, 2005) in which a man, obsessed about one of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures, secures a job as a gallery guard at the Rodin Museum in Paris. The sculpture in question is of Camille Claudel, Rodin’s muse, model, lover and fellow sculptor. Though the story has undeniable echoes of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and earlier versions of the story, somehow I failed to make the connection until I’d finished the story, by which time I felt that I had made the material my own.
But what I wanted to say was that the literal, the concrete (or, in this case marble) object, an inert (lifeless) statue, and what it represents – an idealised but ultimately inviolable object of desire – exist alongside each other in the narrative: they change places; become, at least in the mind of the narrator, muddled, entangled.
To return to the notion of the double, in the following poem, I attempt to give voice, in a slant sort of way, to the Celtic ‘fetch’, a wraith similar in character and function to a doppelgänger:
We talked about ambiguity, ambivalence, liminality: of being neither here nor there, of being neither one thing nor another, real nor unreal, human nor monster. We talked about the need to embrace contradiction which, in some form, is key to embracing the uncanny by creative means. Even if, as Ed Cohen reminded me over dinner, this balancing of opposing notions can lead to stasis, for me the process of arriving at that balance and the destabilisation this entails, is more interesting than this end result.
Broadly, my interest in the uncanny lies in representations of the self, and what might constitute an embodied, disembodied or disrupted self. In Bodywork, my initial intention was to write poems about specific aspects of the body but found that it was impossible to consider the body without the mind, the emotions, and a whole range of questions about what constitutes the self, coming into play, for example, ‘Face On’ explores what identity might mean to a woman who has had a face transplant; ‘Flavia’s Skin’ is about how the largest organ of the body can act as a receptacle for memory. In Lure, a previous collection, I wanted to ‘give substance to’ four phobias, or abstract states of mind: chionphobia (fear of snow); chrematophobia (fear of money); bibliophobia (odd, perhaps but understandable for people who have to read and assess vast amounts of text); and hypnophobia (fear of sleep). For the record, I don’t suffer from any of them.
Voice and the Second Person: What Kind of Significant Other is You?
In both poems, I use second person narration to try to convey a sense of unease or disease, in its older sense. Narrative voice has always been a central concern, and decision about this are always important. Voice dictates, or mediates in, choice of language, syntax, tone, imagery, mood. It establishes parameters. It extends them, turns them inside out. In second person narration, the ‘you’ who is addressed is a version or aspect of the self, or some self. This has little in common with the ‘you’ addressed in a poem/story narrated by an ‘I’, where ‘you’ represents the significant other to whom and often for whom the poem/story was, at least ostensibly, written. Where a (disembodied) ‘I’ – and writers deal with disembodied voices all the time – addresses ‘you’ (that is, talks to him- or herself in much the same way as a tennis player carries on on court: Come on! Stop it! Get a grip!), something very different is going on. When a (disembodied) narrator addresses her/himself or another self rather than another subject in this way, voice can feel very close, sometimes too close for comfort. It is a voice in your head, a hiss or murmur in the ear; impossible to ignore. You may not trust the voice but it persists: intimate, consoling, reassuring, easy-osey, or controlling, insistent, needling, undermining, as if the self is under siege. In this way, for me, writing can be, in its very essence, an uncanny act.