I spend a fair amount of time in, or else revisiting, a state of mind whose exact definition I grapple with, but which might be called an Edward Hopper state of mind. I associate it with plastic, gas stations at night, childhood memories of Barbies and Intellivisions, brick bungalow houses in the dark with life boxed in window lights. It is least associated with environments where time, history, and practices invested with imaginative meaning are visible, so I’m not likely to feel it in a church, or in an old house full of the souvenirs of someone’s life.
I don’t think I engage with this state very much — if at all — in my work, either in writing or art. I’ve tried writing it, but can’t find narratives for it (though, heck, I can’t find narratives for lots of things). It’s a boring state, yet one imbued with a lurking, immanent frisson. Silence, or minimal speech, is one of its typical qualities; conversation tends to dispel (literally dis-spell) it.
I doubt it’s a sculptable state. Installations might be able to convey it, but not body-oriented sculpture, whether figurative or abstract. Bodies, figures, characters, are if not incidental to it then subordinate to it, absorbed by it, like debris inside an amoeba. Painting and photography, media with capacity to depict rooms and buildings and effects of light, convey it best; the flatness of these media is also an advantage, flatness being one quality of the state itself. Even if figures are a focus of the composition, they will be anti-portraits, possessing some kind of charge, but not the charge of warm-blooded life.
Trying to describe this tate without resorting to images, I come up with “tension between the homely and the unhomely.” But “tension” isn’t the right word, although tension is present. It’s more like coexistence, which is interesting in the context of Freud’s “uncanny”, or “unheimlich”. I assumed “unheimlich” simply meant “unhomely, unfamiliar”, and so it does. However, “heimlich” doesn’t only mean “homely”; it also has a second definition, which can be found in Freud’s essay on the uncanny:
Concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others. To do something heimlich, i.e., behind someone’s back; to steal away heimlich; heimlich meetings and appointments. … The heimlich art’ (magic). ‘Where public ventilation has to stop, there heimlich conspirators and the loud battle-cry of professed revolutionaries.’ ‘A holy, heimlich effect.’ … ‘learned in strange Heimlichkeiten’ (magic arts).
As Freud says:
among its different shades of meaning the word ‘heimlich’’ exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, ‘unheirnlich.’ What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich. (Cf. the quotation from Gutzkow: ‘We call it “unheimlich”; you call it “heimlich.”’) In general we are reminded that the word ‘heimlich’ is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other. what is concealed and kept out of sight. ‘Unheimlich’ is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of’ heimlich,’ and not of the second.
Is this hypostatic binary un/heimlich just a German linguistic accident, or is it a fact that the known is always lined with the unknown? Since there are limits to our knowledge of anything, the answer must be yes. Perhaps my Edward Hopper state of mind is the lining showing? Accumulations of meaning — figuration, portraiture, evidence of history and memory — may be the fastenings that hold the garment tight and stop it from turning inside out. I want a more nuanced word than “meaning”, too — weight, soul, story, substance? — but maybe that’s just my prejudice against the kind of people who go around all the time talking about finding meaning in life.
However, a scene or an object can be utterly unfamiliar, completely unhomely, but not at all uncanny. I seldom experience the Hopper state while on holiday, which I think is because holidays usually take in locations with intense concentrations of meaning — famous, historical, religious. Perhaps one could draw a distinction between the foreign uncanny (when it does occur) and the uncanny familiar. The former tends to be frightening, the latter something like melancholy.
Freud goes on to say:
When we proceed to review things, persons, impressions, events and situations which are able to arouse in us a feeling of the uncanny in a particularly forcible and definite form, the first requirement is obviously to select a suitable example to start on. Jentsch has taken as a very good instance ‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate’
My instinctive reaction, the usefulness of which I am not sure, is to think that perhaps my Edward Hopper state is one in which I have doubts (only in the form of uneasy emotion, without accompanying thought) as to whether I am alive. But that isn’t, or isn’t always, the whole story.
For my uncanny example, rather than a lonely urban scene, I’m choosing a bottle of nail polish:
This object has, for me, an uncanny quality. At risk of sounding pretentious, it defamiliarises nail polish. Firstly, the nail polish itself is unnatural, a festively industrial confetti. Still, in an ordinary bottle, it would pass unnoticed. If the makers of the lid had stopped at the embossed rose bud, the effect would have been prettily cheap. But they went and stuck that lurid, electric pink-mauve rose on top. Is it gorgeous? Is it awful? I can’t say. I do like it; yet I find it disturbing. Perhaps it has an aposematic quality, a warning of poison or other danger. Perhaps one of the animals within me is reacting to it; yet I couldn’t describe the disturbance as being anything like fear. I want to call it “misplaced recognition”, or “displaced recognition”, as if I were seeing the bottle but recognising something else.
When we find something uncanny, and can’t say why, are we experiencing the reaction of one of our mute interior animals, maybe not even a mammal, but something older and simpler, whose attitudes are part of us, but inaccessible to the light of our reason, like locked catacombs in our psyches?
Freud chooses Hoffmann’s story “The Sandman” as his example of a stimulus that arouses feelings of the uncanny. He makes the point that it is not the automaton Olimpia but rather the fear of losing one’s eyes that produces the more uncanny effect upon the reader. (But is this really uncanny / unheimlich, or just scary?). He then goes on to relate this fear to the castration complex, at which point his obsessions and mine part company. Still, in relating the experience of the uncanny to this “infantile factor”, he makes the point that the factor in question, in other instances, may not be fear, but a wish or a belief, such a child’s wish for its toys to come to life, or belief that they are alive. As I wrote above, I don’t find the uncanny in its familiar register to be frightening, but rather closer to melancholy. The melancholy may only be an undercurrent beneath fun or pleasure, too.
Nostalgic, maybe? No, not really. Perhaps a shade in the same band of the emotional spectrum, but, if so, a pining without any warmth: an emotion whose colours are neon and whose textures are without, and resistant to, time’s patina.
(ETA: in Part 2 of his essay, Freud writes: “[I]t is possible to recognize the dominance in the unconscious mind of a ‘compulsion to repeat’ proceeding from the instinctual impulses and probably inherent in the very nature of the instincts — a compulsion powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character, and still very clearly expressed in the impulses of small children; a compulsion, too, which is responsible for a part of the course taken by the analyses of neurotic patients. All these considerations prepare us for the discovery that whatever reminds us of this inner ‘compulsion to repeat’ is perceived as uncanny.” Could this be why I find franchise stores somewhat uncanny?)