Passage de la Trinité, Paris.
“One would suppose, then,” so Freud writes in his essay on the uncanny “that the uncanny would always be an area in which a person was unsure of his way around: the better oriented he was in the world around him, the less likely he would be to find the objects and occurrences in it uncanny.” Freud alerts us to the relationship between orientation and uncanniness. At stake in this relation is not only the issue of finding one’s way around in a geometrical or strictly spatial sense. Rather, the experience of being disorientated carries with it a loss of homeworld, and thus the emergence of uncanny angst. The world becomes uncanny precisely through being disoriented. If disorientation coincides with uncanniness, then can we readily infer the opposite; namely, that being orientated means being “at-home”?
To be “at-home.” In one clear sense, this ontological achievement has the advantage of establishing a centre of being in a contingent world. Perhaps this centre is not the physical locality of the house, as it would be for the agoraphobic patient, but instead an experience defined by the body. Either way, the home and the centre entwine, such that one knows where one is, even—especially—if one is in an alien landscape. In this respect, orientation attains a level of homeliness, insofar as it produces a familiar world. The world is familiar insofar as it can be placed—indeed, insofar as it has a place at all.
To the anti-home: the uncanny. To be unsure of one’s way around is to invite unfamiliarity into the familiar world. The world remains as it is. In this uncanny world, trees, rivers, and city squares remain a part of the phenomenal realm; they are not consumed by absolute alienation. Instead of being consumed, they loose the quality of being irreducibly real. Here, the materiality of things is not a sufficient condition to attest to their brute existence. Suffering from a lack of phenomenal depth, things become flattened, divested of their animate dynamism, and now reduced to a simulacrum of reality.
From a medical perspective, the experience would be termed “derealization.” More convincingly, the experience would also be termed jamais vu. The term jamais vu touches upon the ambiguity between the familiar and the unfamiliar co-existing in the mode of uncanny disorientation. Disorientation is uncanny precisely because it leaves the world intact, thus setting the stage for a disjunction in the world. On the one hand, the disoriented subject knows in abstraction that he has been in the place before. Yet, doubt intervenes in this conviction, and an overpowering sense that the same place is bathed in total unfamiliarity overwhelms him. In the tension, unreality protrudes into the uncanny world. I'm reminded here of Freud's wonderful essay, "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis," in which he will say the following words: “According to the evidence of my senses, I am now standing on the Acropolis, but I can’t believe it.” These wonderfully eerie words capture the disbelief that there is such a thing as the world in the first place, returning the subject to a primitive organ of perception located in the objective world but existentially and experientially far from home.
Alongside Freud, Lovecraft offers us a more abysmal take on this uncanny realm. From Dagon:
Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity. There was nothing within hearing, and nothing in sight save a vast reach of black slime; yet the completeness of the stillness and the homogeneity of the landscape oppressed me with a nauseating fear.
Part of the problem here is that, for Lovecraft, the lack of heterogeneous features in the landscapes means that measuring space becomes impossible. (Here, too, the seeds of Lovecraft’s agoraphobia are planted in his elevation of the void to the absolute horror. More on this later). If Freud presents us with a disturbance of memory, then Lovecraft is content with nothing less than a disturbance of reality. If space cannot be measured in either subjective of objective terms, then it loses all meaning, and instead becomes a threatening void. Again, the theme of disorientation and unfamiliarity are reprised. Once more, the threat is not a question of being lost in the geometrical sense. After all, in principle one could be lost within the halls and rooms of one’s home. Instead, the loss is fundamentally an ontological one: a loss, that is, of familiarity, orientation, and, above all, reality.