ReadySteadyBlog

How does Freud define the unheimlich (in his famous essay here)? The question is important – and we should be clear we know what it is asking: the question is not, what is Freud's definition, but rather how does he go about defining the word? What is his method? What needs noting is that Freud's process of (arriving at a) definition, his attempts at clarity, problematises the very idea of a fixed and final definition. And this paradox can be used to gain some insight into how a novel opens itself up to the problem of its own subject matter, how the novel deals with the self-undermining fact of itself.

The unheimlich – crudely, the uncanny, or the opposite of what is familiar – itself points at something beyond definition and suggests language – and the particular kind of conversation that psychoanalysis is – is always in excess of itself. As Bifo Berardi argues this excess is what makes (poetic) language (potentially) revolutionary. And it is what makes fetishising the mot juste a reactionary step. Freud's etymology is scientific or pedantic, depending on your sensibility, but quaint, dogged and laughable regardless – and it echoes in this essay in miniature the insightful purblindedness of his whole weltanschauung. The unheimlich essay (available in volume 14 of the old Penguin Freud Library, Art and Literature but not the new replacement to that volume; I hear the editor Adam Phillips didn't want it included for some reason) begins with an extensive trawl through many complimentary and contradictory dictionary definitions. We see the word pulled and pushed and extended and bent to move between meaning unhomely or undomestic to ghostly, haunted and on to secret, concealed. Page after page of yet more exact definition and one finds only that exactness and definition have proved illusory. Uncannily, unheimlich is a word that contains secret worlds and will not settle down. Uncannily, unheimlich names something that can just about be named but barely owns its own definition. In a sense – and we read in the essay its multiple senses – it is the word for what poetry is always concerned with: nomenclature – naming with absolute precision what absolutely has no precise meaning, naming what always wriggles free of being named and held down, naming what is always beyond language in language, naming what is left behind, unsaid, unheimlich, after language has got close, moved nearby, danced around, scented, approached...

Once Freud has waded through a number of definitions of unheimlich, dissatisfied he walks us through several definitions of its antonym heimlich. He finds something deeply strange, something unheimlich, during this work: secretly, heimlich is not the antonym of unheimlich at all, but rather its sometime synonym; their secret sharing is that they secretly share the same meaning: "What interests us most in this long extract is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich... Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich." Heimlich shivers with an an unheimlich quality. Unheimlich finds in its opposite only itself. Specifity – a scientific trawl through the dictionaries – has led us back to an unheimlich place. Specifity has proved itself merely to be a mode of obscurity. The domestic is weird, very weird at root. Underneath the heimlich, the homely, the unheimlich is. It takes Freud a few pages of dictionary-sourced entries to prove this; it takes Karl Ove Knausgård a novel.

The finest novel of this year, A Death in the Family (the first volume of six, the series entitled My Struggle) is a novel of the unheimlich and an unheimlich novel. It was so far beyond anything else published this year because of its engagement with the fact that quotidian dreariness, everyday pain, and something numinous that lies just beyond sight, beneath grief, certainly lies always beyond language, is precisely what the novel at its best yearns to reach, knowing it will ever fail to reach there. This is not a typical bildungsroman – life's untaken paths are not the novel's concern. Cliche, commonplace and unremarkable constructions abound. Language's untrodden paths are not a concern either – the path language is always already taking, the path we're never not on, is suffused with the unheimlich: the yearned for mot juste doesn't get us any further than just our everyday yearning, The subject here is death – and whether writing/language has anything to say about this commonplace disaster that haunts and harries and shapes us everywhere we turn.

The novel begins, before it gets caught up in a sometimes pedestrian if always hypnotic retelling of a young man growing up, with the unheimlich. Knausgaard the author writes directly about death's ubiquity (the first line, in Don Bartlett's translation, is: "For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.") Knausgaard the boy is then described seeing, on the TV news, after a disaster, a face in the sea. Beneath the whole novel something is stirring, something unheimlich that can't be said. After Knausgaard's father dies, the key event in the novel, the huge, overwhelming presence he was in Karl Ove's life continues. As Knausgaard and his brother clean the filthy detritus his dead drunken father has left behind in a house become hovel, he realises that he has to write this, has to write of this, write out of this, write about the stink, the misery, the pain, the boredom, the embarrassment because the stink, the misery, the pain, the boredom, the embarrassment is never all there is – things are always in excess of themselves, and in this way things are like words, are like icebergs, and their excess isn't captured by words but mirrored by them.

If, uncannily, words, sometimes, mean the very opposite of themselves; if poetry, language at its most distilled, at its finest and most dense, is at the same time language freed from crude referentiality; if and when, as Freud shows us, unheimlich can mean heimlich – what can we make of words? And what, so labile, can words make? And why might this – call it porousness, call is slipperiness, call it irony – why might this unreliability of language be something either to celebrate or, more, even to find radical or potentially liberatory? Can we even agree with Bifo that it is? Doubtless, language, used instrumentally, used to pass along (messages about) value, used as info-exchange, is language as reaction, but is poetry really other to this? Millennia of poetry hasn't saved us – but perhaps millennia of poetry has prevented us finally from fully falling? Perhaps Knausgaard's struggle is our struggle – to see that the unheimlich is the heimlich, that the unfathomable death of a father might actually be, in reality, both the same as and at the same time the opposite of the clumsy symbol and actual tragedy it is in and out of a novel. And perhaps the separation of in and out of a novel finally fully collapses here – and collapses the only place where it can: in a novel.

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