Fetishism and the Uncanny



Remember how the media presented Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays towards the end of the last century: the idea was that X-rays allow us to see a person who is still alive as if he were already dead, reduced to a mere skeleton (with, of course, the underlying theological notion of vanitas: through the Roentgen apparatus, we see “what we truly are,” in the eyes of eternity…). What we are dealing with here is the negative link between visibility and movement: in terms of its original phenomenological status, movement equals blindness; it blurs the contours of what we perceive: in order for us to perceive the object clearly, it must be frozen – immobility makes a thing visible.

xxxxxxxxxx(Slavoj Zizek, Fetishism and its Vicissitudes)

Item 1: in Bo Widerberg’s Love Lessons (aka All Things Fair), made in Sweden in 1995, a teenage boy has fallen in love with his teacher. In one scene, as a class ends, his teacher gets up from her chair, which is situated behind the table at the front of the class-room, and leaves. When all the pupils have gone as well, the boy kneels down and kisses the seat of the chair vacated by the object of his desire.

Item 2: when I was a small boy I once watched a hypnotist at work in a French fairground. He was able to put his colleague into a trance. The hypnotist then wrote on his subject’s eye-balls with a pencil.

Item 3: I once had a friend who had been a Churchill Fellow at Cambridge. He lost the fellowship because he took off all his clothes on Cambridge Station.

Something links these events. Fetishism and the uncanny are bound together. There is a commonality shared by 1) an object which has become invested with emotional magnetism, 2) the glazed gaze of someone who has been turned into an object and 3) the perceived vulnerability of a person who has become strange to us in some quite ordinary setting. All three conditions invoke unease in their witnesses. Freud speaks of the uncanny as being both familiar and unfamiliar – as if something known but hidden to us had come to light. It could be a suppressed memory or it could be some ancient superstition.

In each of my examples, the gaze is crucial to the sensation. In the first instance, the boy focuses on the chair. In the second, I recall that the hypnotist established the trance as much through his voice as through his gaze, but the subject gained a fixed, glassy stare. In the third, doubtless, the other people waiting on the platform felt the need to avert their gaze from the person who had taken off his clothes. Spiritual powers tell Dante that he stares too fixedly at the ghost of Beatrice, the dead girl who has become the object of his worship. When brought into the company of Medusa, we must be careful to avoid the “mortifying” effect of petrification, a state similar to that suffered by a bird whose ability to fly away gets frozen by the raised hood of a cobra.

An uncanny stare is abstracted. An angel passes overhead. In such a state, the subject confronts the real in Lacan’s usage of the term. The real, in this sense, is that which is barred to us, an area beyond the symbolic representation afforded by our words, beyond the projections afforded by our imagination. It’s the nitty-gritty we cannot consciously contemplate, the blind spot which is also the source of light. We cannot view this source: it would burn our eyes out – for the source is as petrifying as the sight of Medusa – and Mithraic belief placed Medusa in the sun. We can only witness the effect of light on surfaces, note the shadows cast by what it illumines. That which we cannot contemplate is the hideous ambiguity of life itself. The sun causes all things to grow, but growing brings them closer to oblivion. This is why Medusa is also the vagina. What emerges there must eventually meet death. Manifestations of the uncanny flip us into a transient awareness of this ambiguity: briefly we glimpse the real as we may glimpse the sun. Stare too long and we become transfixed by what we see, we become zombies – the living dead – as uncanny ourselves as the very fetishes that stand in for the real.


Fetishism is a word which is overdetermined. A number of meanings have condensed around the term and some of these are in conflict. As Zizek points out, through the title of his essay, it has its “vicissitudes”, its mutations, transformations. The uncanny sensation proper to fetishism travels from subject to object. In Love Lessons, the boy’s adoration of the chair is strange and it makes a strange thing of the chair. His action is overdetermined, for as well as kissing the seat of his beloved he is kissing the “seat of learning”. The transference of affection from person to object is easily made through language – in English at least – for the word seat can refer to a person’s bottom as well as to a chair. By kissing the seat of learning, is an equation being made between education and faeces? We are obliged to take in that which the teacher pushes out at us. Learning is an uncomfortable process – it causes aphanasis – a fading of what we were before we knew what we “know now.” After we have learned something we can never be the same again. So there is an unpleasant aspect to education – as a disaffected pupil might say, Education is shit! But later in the film, the boy will lose his virginity to this attractive teacher. An aphanasis devoutly to be wished, as his action of kissing the chair demonstrates. The scene is uncomfortable as much because of its hints at anal eroticism as because of its innate fetishism. It seems that each fetish occults its own barred subject.

Fetishism and the uncanny are terms which have different roots, yet they are related. Distinctions can be made between them, the one being an activity, the other being a sensation – yet they affect each other and their separate arenas can easily merge into one, though each preserves its own particular properties. Their overlapping is a factor which brings about some of their vicissitudes. Often it is the fetish object itself which prompts the uncanny sensation, however ordinary that object may be – a shoe for instance may feel uncanny to a shoe fetishist. Things are ordinary because they are familiar to us. Freud’s paper of 1919, identified Das Unheimlich as the unfamiliar, but recognised that the familiar is already strange. A witch’s mascots, her cats, toads and owls, are her “familiars”. And she is canny in her esoteric knowledge. In Totem and Taboo, Freud indicated the alienating properties of the familiar power-figure by pointing out the taboo against the mating of those who shared the same totem. In sharing the same secret, they have spoilt their chances of a relationship. It is as if each knows the other’s shame. In a similar way, siblings who have shared the bath together are unlikely to fall into an incestuous relationship. They know each other “too well.”

The vocabulary of religion and folk-lore allowed superstition to prevail in Western Europe until the age of Enlightenment. Charms were efficacious against evil thoughts. Note that African charm bracelets were identified as “fetishes” by seventeenth century Portuguese traders, and this was our first use of the term. In Europe, as in Africa, then, animism was still a familiar aspect of village life. Garlic gave protection from the devil – as is apparent in Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Velasquez, which shows Martha grinding the garlic against possible emanations of the underworld accompanying her brother Lazarus on his return from the Dead. With illumination came internalization. Unreasonable superstition was outlawed. An enlightened Peter the Great (1672-1725) issued a decree stating that all prodigies and freaks of nature were to be sent to Saint Petersburg, since he wished to prove that these were not the work of the devil, nor due to the hexes of some witch, but rather they were the natural product of an expectant mother’s ill-feelings towards her progeny! It was thus that he filled his Kunst Kamera, his cabinet of curiosities, with aberrations and monstrosities. Thus, at the same time as it became internalised, superstition became manifest in the psyche, giving rise to uncanny affects – possessions, transformations at midnight. This was a sensation which was to abound in literary productions.  “Ghosts, vampires and the undead flourish at a time when we expect them to be dead and buried,” points out M. Dolar in I shall be with you on your Wedding-night, an essay on Lacan and the uncanny. It became fashionable in the eighteenth-century to visit Bedlam: for the weird could be experienced through the spasmodic contortions and grimaces of the insane, and the uncanny contemplated in their obsessive fixations which epitomised superstition. All the outmoded beliefs had been driven indoors.

This suggests a Dionysian spirit that has somehow been immobilised, frozen by the Medusan properties of Dionysus’s enemy, the sun, or enlightenment itself. The trance is a suspended paroxysm, and a trance depicted increases the immobility of the state. Sander L. Gilman’s Seeing the Insane provides us with plenty of evidence for the fetishism which surrounded, and still surrounds, lunatics. The preoccupation with madness is one the uncanny shares with the grotesque. Madness mediates between the demon and the dead.

The village idiot is also that village’s mascot – its “familiar”. Repeatedly the likenesses of demented persons have been captured, that is “arrested”, in drawings, in etchings, and more recently in photography – from the days of its inception to those of Diane Arbus. With idiocy, as with the naked man on the railway platform, the real, the thing that should remain unseen, has become visible. André Green’s essays on psychoanalysis have the title On Private Madness. We are all permitted to be mad privately, just as there is nothing odd about undressing in private. It is when we allow our madness to show that we become truly mad. By the same token, there is something uncanny not about nudity but about nudism. This can be seen in the uncomfortable photographs taken by Arbus of nudists in their sitting-rooms. If you have ever been to a nudist colony you may have felt this uncanniness as a sensation when queuing up naked for yogurts and salamis in the nudist shop. The sensation is markedly diminished on the beach where nudity seems more appropriate.


All the tokens of the familiar made unfamiliar which characterize Das Unheimlich come into play when we become aware that a thing which may be done “legitimately” in private is being done in some inappropriate setting (herein lies the power of Duchamp’s Urinal exhibited in an art gallery). The immobilizing effect of the photograph capturing such a subject may increase the sense of unwelcome exposure, of the weirdness of the thing. When the subject appears to be quite distinctly unhinged, that thing becomes das Ding in psychoanalytic terms; another instance of the unviewable – the real – for madness is as difficult to contemplate as our own mortality.

At the same time as the Apollonian spirit of enlightenment was driving all manifestations of the miraculous into the soul’s interior (where they became manias), bargain hunters were beginning to penetrate the interior of Africa, that dark continent, in search of the outlandish. But here we should start to distinguish between fetishes and symbols. The Western tradition of witchcraft suggests that nails are stuck in effigies to cause hurt to an enemy. But this does not explain why one tribal power figure will become overwhelmed by nails. In fact, traditionally, many of these figures have a greater symbolic significance than a fetishistic one. A nail may be inserted to remind parties of an oath they have sworn to each other. Thus the power figure presides over ceremonial events, just as the cross presides over Christian ceremonies. Generally the cross is a symbol not a fetish, unless invested with unofficial animistic properties. It is said that the Mayans recognised that gold was the fetish of the conquistadors, not the cross behind which they marched. Here we return to notions of the hidden yet familiar. And by the same token, among the indigents of North America, it could be said that whiskey was their fetish rather than some totem-pole.

There is a perversity that governs the fetish. The fetish is a hidden god. It betrays your freak. Surreptitiously the Spaniards worshiped gold. Marx speaks satirically of the fetishisation of capital. And secretly the Indians worshipped “fire-water” – in that Dionysian longing to be subsumed into the larger Other which was not even their own large Other – the Other of their tribe and their environment – but an Alien Other, the Other of the colonial power destined to destroy them. Conversely, a gaoler may experience a vertiginous desire to commit a crime and become one of the inmates. It is thus that the fetish partakes of the death-wish. In the same way, we Europeans colonized by America have now made a fetish out of Friends. This is not to deny that the uncanny object can sometimes be used for a symbolic purpose – take the familiar sight of the budget-day box, which becomes strange by the weight of the importance vested in it, or the ceremony of wheeling a dusted-off mummy of Jeremy Bentham into the Annual Meeting at London University.

But the spirit of the uncanny, together with its kinship to the fetish, goes back before the internalization which occurred during the Enlightenment. It was a spirit that was recognised by the ancient Greeks, who wore masks with exaggerated expressions of grief or humour when performing their dramas. A mask renders an actor puppet-like, and there is a definite uncanniness about human beings pretending to be puppets or automatons, just as there is about life-like dolls such as Olympia in The Sandman, a tale by one of the masters of the uncanny, E. T. A. Hoffmann. Mike Kelley, in his excellent article on The Uncanny, goes further:

…the statue, because of its construction in permanent material, constantly evokes in the viewer its own mortality. This, indeed, could be said to be the point of Christian statuary: to rub people’s noses in their own mortality so that their minds were forever focused on the after-life. And this is probably why, in the Modern era, figurative sculpture is held in such low esteem. The aura of death surrounds statues. The origin of sculpture is said to be in the grave; the first corpse was the first statue. That was the first object that the aura of life clung to. Man, unwilling to accept the notion of himself as a material being of limited life span had to represent himself symbolically as living eternally, through representing himself in materials more permanent than flesh…

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Mike Kelley, The Uncanny, p. 19)

The emphasis on harmony in Greek sculpture renders it more sublime than uncanny, especially when placed high on the facade of a temple. But there is something distinctly uncanny about much Roman sculpture because it is so often taken up with portraiture and precise detail. In addition there is an uncanny absence of people in the airy urban views to be seen through many of the illusory windows the Romans liked to paint on their walls. This suggests that such windows looked out onto a land where life was absent, that is, the land of the dead.

In sculpture, it is precision of detail that renders a statue uncanny. A great deal of Greek sculpture was idealised rather than representative. This was particularly true in the golden age of Greek art. There were few portraits. The heroic mode had for its subject those who had entered or were about to enter the realm of the divine. Thus heroic sculpture was appropriately other-worldly, and often a little bit “larger than life.” It concerned immortals, ancestors; those who are no longer of this earth. Often it strove to bring a god to life. We admire heroic sculpture but we are not disturbed by it. Its idealised stature indicates that these are already beings from a mythic land. It is a depiction of the grandly dead, not a stiffening of the living.

Classical drama which, as we have noted, was always performed in masks – as, in many cases, it still is in the East – also occupies itself with this depiction of beings who are no longer with us, with ancestors and worthy precursors. The masks may render these dramas uncanny but this is not the case with idealised statuary. However, instead of striving to bring a god to life, the Romans strove to preserve the appearance of an actual person, to extend his presence beyond his time, and so, when the Romans sculpt a meticulous portrait of Caligula, or a bust of some courtesan that shows every ringlet in her crescent-moon inspired hair-do, idealism has clearly been sacrificed to the temporal, and what we have is an accurate portrait from life, a breathing being arrested. To step up to such a head, Caligula’s for instance, is practically to experience the threat emanating from this distinctly violent individual. If we were really standing this close to him we would have every reason to fear for our lives. And yet…he is only a thing of stone. Just as uncanny are full-length figures of empresses with portrait heads stuck on top of classically idealised bodies!


The eerie property we are considering is well demonstrated by the work of the Danish neo-classicist Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844). A great favourite with the Pope of his time, he accumulated wealth in Rome and built himself a fine collection of the best painters of the Danish Golden Age. Returning to Denmark for a hero’s welcome, he set about constructing his mausoleum in the Egyptian style and furnished its interior – he is buried in the courtyard – with the finest examples of his own immaculate sculpture. This is uncanny in itself. The works, especially those executed more for his private satisfaction than for the sake of some commission, are to some extent idealised – yet this is rendered strange by the sculptor’s handling of detail. The details are uncanny. Thorvaldsen is, like Jean-Léon Gérome, a dedicated Pygmalian. It is difficult to resist grasping an ankle to determine if it is warmed by a circulatory system – which is of course as fetishistic an act as kissing the forehead of a departed parent. His marble is actually smoother than flesh itself.

Thorvaldsen’s reputation has been in decline since the advent of modernism, but it is due for a revival. There has been a shift in our ways of looking at art, for where we were once aesthetic in our judgement we are now analytic. A digression is in order here, before we subject Thorvaldsen’s work to further scrutiny.

In art, psychoanalysis has proved of significance for having brought about this transition from the aesthetic to the analytic. Freud himself attempted to analyse the character of Leonardo da Vinci through his work, but today this is largely seen as a failure. More successful was his analysis of the novel, Gradiva, by Wilhelm Jensen – in itself a novel about a fetishist who admires a sculpted foot. In his essay on this work, Freud carries out an analysis of the fiction, not of its author.

The aesthetic approach is preoccupied with an assessment of the effect of a work of art on the consciousness of the viewer whereas the analytic one concerns a scrutiny of the work itself. A “polite society” – that is one sharing the same mores, manners and upbringing – may share an aesthetic reaction. Our society is now too diverse for us to be able to calculate what the effect will be. Besides which, the aesthetic approach emphasises the primacy of the consciousness, since for previous, more romantic generations, the cultivation of consciousness was an ideal pursuit, whereas nowadays… well, we are not so sure that consciousness is the goal of existence. Perhaps it is simply a by-product of evolution.

The contemporary work of art is as much a symptom as an edifice of our society. Analysis allows us to deconstruct the symptom – to identify its contradictions. We describe its surface to ourselves, as before, but we are also intrigued by the process which caused it to occur, by the symbolic language it releases, fully aware that the symbols it stimulates may not carry, or have carried, the same meaning for its creator. This hypothetical discrepancy proves intriguing, and may explain why currently we seem more interested in the biography of the artist than in our own reactions to his work. Aesthetic judgement concerned an appreciation of the object: analysis concerns a reading of it. There is appreciation still, but this includes the complete organisation of the work, its homeostasis, the resonance and the richness of the meanings it permits, together with its relation to the psychological, social and political environment in which it manifests itself – we could perhaps speak of its “integrity” – which may be anything but harmonious; which may be abusive rather than pleasing, disturbing rather than inspiring.

But these terms – abusive, pleasing, disturbing, inspiring – return us to the sphere of sensibility, and so indeed does the uncanny, since the uncanny is primarily a sensation aroused in the viewer. Thus, to some extent contemporary interest in the term marks a revival of interest in the aesthetics of judgement – in terms of registering how a piece affects our emotions. For all that, it is worth analysing the work of Thorvaldsen rather than merely appreciating it in an aesthetic way, for such analysis provides us with enlightening observations. For instance, we may imagine that we are far more aware of the erotic, and homoerotic, agenda to which he repeatedly applies himself than viewers might have been at the time. Take the case of his Jason. The educated viewer contemporaneous with this statue would have examined the feelings it inspired, would have judged it by its affects. The glance into the distance over the shoulder would have triggered the notion of the gaze of the Argonaut, it would have inspired a longing to travel and to see the world; the right foot set forward so heroically would have suggested determination. The breadth of the shoulders would provoke a sublime experience, the sensation of indomitable strength. The genitals, being small, evoke if anything a sense that one should really concentrate on matters of greater import, the lofty thoughts contained within the capacious helmet.

Jasão_e_o_Velo_de_ouro_-_Bertel_Thorvaldsen_-_1803Jason by Thorvaldsen

What we see now is a flagrantly naked young man. His penis, though small, resides at the solar centre of a system of properties. He leans against an enormous tree-stump, and this is draped in a cloth. In his right hand he holds a truncated spear, his helmet sprouts an erect crest of hair and under his left arm he wears a sword whose hilt supplies the dimensions his penis appears to lack. We note that he is sexualised by his accoutrements. The stump, the shorn-off spear are symbols of castration – as if the artist brought them in as a commentary; exasperated by a convention which demanded minuscule genitals – in accordance with some antiquated ideal. The cloth, and the fleece he carries folded over his left arm, are both symbols of the vagina, and we notice that the soft, vulva-like ear of the sheep has penetrated its own curled horn. Is this a comment on the emasculation of a phallic society by conventional sensibility, hedonism raped by social decency?

Thorvaldsen abided by the rules. Of course, in his smooth renditions of the female, we never get to see the “uncanny” vulva, however perfect his graces may be in every other part. But we sense his frustration with the convention which forbade the representation of female genitalia in the sharpened pencil his statue of Lord Byron pokes forcefully into his chin – this is a perfect substitution and makes its satirical point. It’s worth noting also that Thorvaldsen repeatedly returns to the theme of Cupid and Psyche, and his sculpture of this standing pair must be the model for Geoff Koons’s kitsch piece, called Naked – which is a painted ceramic sculpture of two children, one of them holding a bouquet, who glance down at each others’ details.

Detail reverses the law that the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. In fetishistic work, as in mannerism, the detail should be greater than the whole. Much affected by the brutal realities of war – Charles Sargeant Jagger – the sculptor who constructed the war memorial at Hyde Park Corner – made a fetish of military kit: carefully modelling ammunition belts, shell-holsters, helmets and binoculars. The dead soldier, recumbent on the Royal Artillery Memorial is genuinely uncanny, compounded mainly of his uniform.


* * * *

It is this need to convey detail which leads the ultra-realist to paint the surface of a sculpture. Mike Kelley brings Gérome to our attention when he points out that classical sculpture was often painted. This obliges us to acknowledge that the idealism of Greek statuary must have been less apparent in its own age. It is really only since the Renaissance that the notion of such ultra-realism has been deemed repugnant: for it seems anti-essentialist – at variance with such high ideals as truth to material and integrity of form:

There is only the coloured sculpture of the academic Jean-Léon Gérome to break the general monochrome trend. Gérome’s The Ball Player of 1902 is a female nude carved from marble, tinted naturalistically and covered with wax giving the surface a skin-like quality. Gérome was an admirer of the painted figures found at Tanagra, which had further upset the myth of pure white Greek sculpture. Another tinted sculpture (though now bleached white) by Gérome is, appropriately, a version of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. The story, recounted by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, tells of a sculptor who falls in love with one of his statues, which is then brought to life by Venus.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Mike Kelley, The Uncanny, p. 11)

Painted sculpture may be denounced as kitsch, but today it has either shrugged off that epithet or basks in it – as can be seen by the figurative sculpture of Duane Hanson, of John de Andrea, and more recently of Geoff Koons and Charles Ray. Degas’ dancer dressed in a ballet skirt made of real muslin may here be cited as a precedent. Recently, Vanessa Beecroft’s immaculate living women stood posed as manikins in the Gagosian gallery, many of them over six feet tall. These whippet-slim, professional models seemed to be masquerading as painted sculpture. However, despite appearances to the contrary they were alive, and of course they were also pretty uncanny.

It’s been noted that the uncanny is a sensation while the fetish is an object which may arouse that sensation. Pygmalion’s sculpture was just such an object, the precursor of Hoffmann’s mechanical doll Coppelia. John Marston (1575-1634), the Elizabethan dramatist, who explored the grotesque as well as the uncanny, has a long poem: The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion’s Image – which he published in 1598. This deals rather thoroughly with fetishism and demonstrates that it was as much a manifestation of his day as of ours:

…Why were these women made,
O sacred gods! And with such beauties graced?
Have they not power as well to coole and shade,
As for to heate mens harts? Or is there none,
Or are they all like mine – relentless stone?

With that he takes her in his loving armes.
And downe within a downe-bed softly layd her…

The love-making to which the sculptor subjects his statue is described in enthusiastic detail, while the love made after the transformation from effigy to breathing reality is pruriently glossed over. The notion of laying a statue down in a “downe-bed” is worthy of a contemporary film-maker. It suggests a fetishisation that reminds us of the dichotomy that differentiates the object from the thrill it arouses. Marston says that the statue was “dead, yet gave a life to death.” Thus this marble simulacrum has an uncanny power, and Pygmalion treats the thing like a sex-doll.

Back in the Renaissance, the Venetian painter, Vittore Carpaccio, produced a fine work which very aptly demonstrates the relation of the uncanny to the fetish – before either of these terms came into circulation. This is his painting of Two Venetian Ladies on a Balcony in the Museo Correr. An atmosphere of stillness and inertia overwhelms the picture. It is true that a dog tugs at a stick in a lady’s hand, but this action has arrived at a stale-mate, neither the dog nor the lady will let go. The stare of the two ladies in the picture is one of vacancy. A handkerchief hangs limp from another hand.



Tradition has it that these are ladies of ill-repute. La Bella Bona Roba was a term for a prostitute, and its implication is well-expressed in a poem with that title by the cavalier Richard Lovelace:

I cannot tell who loves the skeleton
Of a poor Marmoset, nought but boan, boan:
Give me a skeleton with her cloathes on…

These two dames are not skeletons, and yet they are death in frocks. They cannot be aroused. The only frizzed-up thing about them is their hair. They simply wait for their next clients. There is a letter under the paw of the dog tugging the stick. Is this a letter of assignation? A letter sent from some dog? He won’t offer more, but she won’t put out for less. Is this at the crux of the impasse? Impasse resides at the heart of the uncanny. It confers that immobility Zizek avers is a prerequisite for rendering the thing visible. A dwarf sneaks into the picture, and a pair of elevated shoes has been placed in front of him. They are not his shoes, but they suggest that he needs some elevation, that he lacks stature – is this a comment on the inadequacies of the other lady’s client? Otherwise, this picture is filled with pets. A second dog, very much a lap-dog, places its paws in the left hand of the lady tugging at the stick. Its position is abject. But it is the only thing in the picture which looks out at us. Invested with the ‘animism’ of their mistresses’ devotion, these pets are the fetishes of our two sexual zombies. They lack the capacity to love anything other than their four-footed or feathered familiars. With its emptied figures and its charged objects, this painting offers us both of the uncanny’s major aspects.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo is another precursor: a Milanese painter who specialised in fantastic heads composed of the fruits of the earth, or of flowers, or of dead branches and peeling pieces of bark. Naturally the surrealists have claimed him as a forerunner of their own pursuits. What is of interest here is that a face made out of flowers seems fairly uncanny – whereas a face made from books or from rotting trees can be located within the grotesque. The face made of books partakes of the satirical aspect of grotesque art – it is surely the face of an age-last, in Rabelaisian terms: some old stick who has spent too long in his library – while the face made from branches and bark returns us to the tree-man and the dryads of folk-lore, growing at the same time as they die.


There are overtones of the uncanny in many of the paintings of Pietro Longhi, who loved to paint the ridotto, that masked entertainment which characterised Venetian society in the eighteenth century. His figures often wear the dominos of masquerade, black cloaks, white masks with rather grotesque features, or masks like black ovals. Just as the domino costume was designed to hide the identity of the wearer, so it doubles and reduplicates its own characteristics. Throughout Longhi’s work we come across mirror images of couples we have seen in other pictures – but what we see are constructs of cloaks and masks. As Descartes doubted that figures passing below his window were human, since for all he knew they could have been hats dancing by on sticks, so we doubt the corporeal existence of anything behind these all-encompassing costumes. Their artificiality is emphasised when they mingle with the ordinary people of the streets – the apple sellers and fortune-tellers who accost them. They present a theatre of mortality, a sort of dance of death threading its way through everyday business. Their association with figures from the land of the dead seems intentional, part of the spirit of the carnivalesque. At the same time, the black ovals create a hole where the face should be. Just as the normally hidden can be exposed – to create an uncanny result – such as my friend created on Cambridge station; so the normally exposed can be hidden from us, creating a result which is equally uncanny. For just as the dead can rise from the earth, the living can be put into it.



The doubling of the dominos in the work of Longhi draws attention to the fact that the uncanny has always been connected with the notion of doubles. Here we are dealing with mirror images, shadows, doppelgangers and imposters. The double links the uncanny inextricably with repetition, and with déjà vu – for to say, “I have been here before” is to assert that history is repeating itself. The very notion of the familiar implies a constant return, and memory functions by making some spectral duplication of the past. For Freud, the double is linked to primary narcissism, when the ego is at first undifferentiated from the Other, and then, with the first intimations of separation, perceived as the Other’s double, or rather, given the centrality of the ego itself, the Other is perceived as the double of the ego. D. W. Winnicot maintains that the mother is the child’s first mirror, since the mother fills the gaze and is for a while the only Other there is. Mirrors reside in the bellies of many African power figures.

Certain uncanny qualities in the work of Leonardo come to the surface when one considers the issue of mothers and doubles. Leonardo was separated from his natural mother at an early age and brought up by his paternal grandmother in his father’s house. It is thought, by Freud and others, that his Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is a subliminal representation of this condition of having two mothers, since Mary sits on Saint Anne’s lap and seems almost to be the same presence. The hue of Mary’s bodice is similar to that of Saint Anne’s gown, which causes the figures to merge. It is as if one figure were leaning out of the other.

Coppelia has already been mentioned. In the ballet with music by Delibes, choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon in 1870, Swanhilda, the heroine of the tale, which is based on The Sandman by Hoffmann, doubles as the beautiful dancing automaton Coppelia. She dances as this doll in order to protect her boyfriend, whose blood is intended to bring life to the doll. Here we have the living about to give life to the inanimate, and the living doubling as the dead.

Twins have often been taken as emblems of the uncanny – long before Diane Arbus captured that characteristic in a photograph. Take the story of Alcmene, which Plautus uses in his comedy, Amphitryon.

Alcmene is the wife of a general of that name. While he is away at the wars, Zeus appears as the doppelganger of her husband and seduces her. In this nefarious act, he is aided and abetted by his servant, Hermes, who takes the form of Amphitryon’s servant, Sosia. In the staged drama, one actor takes two roles – since Zeus and Amphitryon never appear on stage at the same time – while a pair of twins are also required, since Hermes and Sosia appear on stage together. Soon Alcmene lies in the throes of labour – prevented from giving birth by the midwives of Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus. These midwives tie their bodies in knots – thus preventing the child’s arrival for seven days and nights. Finally Alcmene’s handmaid, Galanthis, holds up a veil between the midwives and the vagina of her mistress and cries out, “Oh, look, he’s arrived! There’s his little head!” Astonished, the midwives unravel their limbs and Alcmene gives birth to a child the size of a fully-grown wild boar.

The play of doubles at the start of this drama, and the use of the veil at its conclusion make this the archetype of vaginal tales. Doubling, as a prelude, invokes the labia, and the veil suggests a replacement of the hymen – which is probably what so disconcerts the midwives. This makes the birth of Hercules a virgin birth. He is of course the child in question, and the son of God – the Father. But this drama also suggests that there is some relation between the uncanny and the body of the mother.

According to the theories of Julia Kristeva, a primary source of the uncanny is our repressed awareness of the pleasures of the mother’s body. Consider Marcel Duchamp’s strange, installational piece of sculpture, Etants Données, with its abject, open female who is nevertheless removed from us – foreclosed in Lacanian terms. Prohibited by the conventions governing our maturity, this once familiar place is now the site of taboo. The figure may indeed be entirely hidden.   Take the strange images of draped women photographed by the psychiatrist Gaetan Gatian de Clérambault (1872-1934) – famous for having coined the term erotomania.  Here the female is entirely hidden in the folds of what might be apparel (or it might be merely a sheet).  The female becomes these folds, while the folds are themselves a vaginal symbol, so the drapery doubles as the hidden vagina – perhaps that of the prohibited mother.

Clerambault (2) p.JPG

Jouissance, that unbearable joy we experienced in our primary entanglement with this body, haunts our life as an elixir which can never be tasted again. Jouissance as the joy of orgasm is only its physical substitute; inevitably disappointing, according to this theory, for our exclusion from any ultimate oneness with the mother’s body embraces the mournful absence which constitutes the real. Kristeva describes the lure of our nostalgia for that body as that of a territory we are compulsively drawn to even as we assert our separation from it. The maternal body is the site of that which is …desirable, and terrifying, nourishing and murderous, fascinating and abject (my italics).

While the sublime may emerge from the confluence of grandeur and non-finito, her lowly sister, the abject, might be expected to be dredged up, sodden and water-logged, from the confluence of the grotesque and the uncanny. A certain abject quality characterises Hans Bellmer’s usage of a doll and Cindy Sherman’s employment of prosthetic limbs and other body parts in some of her photographs, as it also characterises the shit pictures of Gilbert and George and the supposedly injured girls incapacitated by their plaster-casts who feature in Romaine Slocombe’s photographic study, City of Broken Dolls. According to Kristeva, abjection concerns all that must be got rid of in order for a subject to become a subject – our bodily waste, our vomit, and eventually, in a mystic sense, as the soul frees itself, our corpse. Here, evidently, the uncanny starts to encroach on the domain of the grotesque. But the uncanny lacks the humour of the grotesque – the humour which proves so disconcerting in the midst of unmitigated horror. The abjection of the uncanny seems to me more connected with the servile. Its station is open to abuse.



Mike Kelley points out in his essay that many manikins are there simply to serve a purpose, and are subsequently discarded. He introduces this notion by describing the servile character of the ushabti figure buried with the mummified Egyptians:

The purpose of this figure was to do your labour for you; when you were called upon to work the ushabti answered. A kind of double was created, a shadow of yourself bound to perpetual slavery. All low sculpture has this plebeian quality, from votive sculpture, which is a representation of the person making sacrifice before a god, to the most mundane worker replacement like the scarecrow or shop-window mannequin. Votive sculpture, ranging from life-size full wax figures to small depictions of afflicted body parts that a person wants healed, could be said to symbolically represent the devotees themselves as a sacrificial offering to the god. Although these replacements are sometimes emotionally highly charged and this throw-away quality is repressed, they still have one foot in the garbage dump. In the fourteenth century it was not uncommon for the wealthy to have a life-size wax votive image of themselves set up in a church to perpetually mourn a dead loved one or to show reverence to a religious image. The churches became so crowded that these figures had to be hung from the rafters. This trash heap of devotees, of course, was eventually just tossed out. The life-size doll commissioned by Oskar Kokoschka of his obsession, Alma Mahler, was torn apart by the revelers at a drunken party after his desire waned. This fetish object, which had been the focus of his thoughts for years, became as dispensable as the inflatable fuck doll available at the corner sex shop. There are whole classes of figures designed especially to be destroyed in use: car crash test dummies, the effigies of hated political figures hung and burned at demonstrations, the mannequins that people the cities at nuclear test sites, and the electrified human decoys recently utilized in India to shock man-eating tigers into losing their taste for human flesh…

(Mike Kelley, The Uncanny, p. 20)

Kelley also has interesting things to say about Hans Bellmer, and deserves to be quoted at some length:

The Surrealist artist, Hans Bellmer constructed a life-size figure of a young girl in the early 1930’s. This figure was fully jointed and came apart in pieces in such a way that it could be put back together in innumerable ways. There were also extra pieces that could be added so that the figure could have, if desired, multiples of some parts. Bellmer’s playful dismantlings and reorganizations of this figure were documented in a series of photographs, most hand-tinted in the pastel shades of popular postcards. The doll is a perfect illustration of Bellmer’s notion of the body as anagram: the body as a kind of sentence that can be scrambled again and again to produce new meanings every time. He has written, “The starting-point of desire, with respect to the intensity of images, is not in a perceptible whole but in the detail … The essential point to retain from the monstrous dictionary of analogies/antagonisms which constitute the dictionary of the image is that a given detail such as a leg is perceptible, accessible to memory and available, in short is real, only if desire does not take it fatally for a leg. An object that is identical with itself is without reality.” The sentence of experience is recalled through the syntax of remembered moments. In Bellmer, the shifting of attention during the sex act from one body part to the next is presented in terms of a kind of Futurist simultaneity, all at once rather than through time. This flow of physical recollection is further intensified by the crossover of one body part into another, where one part becomes associated with or a stand-in for a different part. Freud calls this “anatomical transgression”, where certain parts of the body… “lay claim as it were, to be considered and treated as genitals.” This is even a part of “normal” sexual practice; the polymorphous perversity of infantile sexuality has found its way into a canon of socially-acceptable genital substitutes. “Partiality” to the lips, breasts and the arse, is not seen as strange at all. In fact, a number of years ago in Penthouse magazine there was a very popular series of letters supposedly documenting the interest of various men in female amputees, often explained by the fact that their mother was an amputee.



In the late 1920s, Alan Beeton eschewed living models and posed lay figures for some scrupulously worked paintings in a series entitled Behind the Screen. The titles for these works were Posing, Composing, Reposing, and Decomposing – the last being a depiction of a neglected dummy falling apart in a chair, an image imbued with abjection in Kristeva’s sense of the term.

Decomposing c.1929 by Alan Beeton 1880-1942

The pictures seem a commentary on the perverse voyeurism of academic painters of the model, who can never quite get away from the voyeurism associated with Susannah being spied on by her elders, but who camouflage this within the authority of a conservative technique; a situation satirised by Marcel Duchamp in Etants Données – which was one of his last pieces. Here the nude dummy can only be peeked at through a hole in a very old and dilapidated door. About Beeton’s depiction of the decomposing lay figure there is a sense that it is the genre itself which is deteriorating into a forbidding conformity, and thus becoming cadaverous, empty and lacking in any animation.

* * * *

Should we distinguish between artists who work with the materials of fetishism to produce uncanny works and artists whose obsessions are fetishistic? Is there a danger here that we could now be trespassing into the territory of art brut, or outsider art – which might be thought of as art created under compulsion, often by unhinged artists? Art brut is sometimes uncanny, but not always. The great circular cosmologies of Adolf Wölfli, a now well-known outsider artist, are no more uncanny than those of Tantric India, though they are certainly obsessive. On the other hand, the work of Henry Darger, an artist who was a cleaner for most of his life, has indeed got an uncanny aspect to it. In total privacy, he created large books and fantastic drawings on scrolls detailing a saga that concerned a war waged between a group of little girls – called the Vivian Girls – and violent adult forces. Often the little girls seem to possess the genitals of little boys. Darger may have given the little girls penises simply because he had no idea what little girls were really like. It is this anomaly which lends many of his fine panoramic drawings an uncanny aspect, though the violent amputations, decollations and tortures inflicted on his small heroines also impel his work towards the realm of the grotesque.

BDSM may be an erotic practice engaging in fetishism, but it is also generating genuinely uncanny images in which performance art fuses with photography to create art, as in the photo Shibari by Amaury Grisel.   The knotting and binding of the suspended body now develops an aesthetic of its own.  In these esoteric images knotting is often done in a repetitive manner, underlying the obsession, and the markings on the body when the bondage is removed are also highly appreciated for their patterns.

Shibari photo by Amaury Grisel

Obsessive art, fetishism and the uncanny have this in common: each is deeply concerned with repetition. It is when the reduplications of the picture within the picture reach such a pitch that they implode that we get the figure which is more real than life itself.

Obsessive art returns to the same subject and the same process by the very nature of its compulsion. The fetishist makes a repetition out of a singularity. He either makes a single object the site of his repetitious procedures – as an infant repeatedly sucks his thumb – or he accumulates a variety of objects which amount to repetitions by dint of their sharing a signifier. This would be the case for a shoe fetishist. In the first instance, that is, in thumb-sucking, the thumb has become a transitional object in Winnicott’s terms, as was the mother’s breast at a more infantile stage, that is, an object which is neither entirely subjective nor entirely objective. The transitional object is something utterly introjected and yet external, mediating between presence and absence, and crucial to the disillusioning process of weening, a process in which we must come to accept the mother’s nourishment as emanating from another, not from ourselves. Yet we need also to internalise her comforts as commodities we can expect, and commodities for which there are stand-ins. It is in this way that a thumb may stand in for a nipple and a shawl may stand in for maternal comfort – which is why the shawl becomes the emblem for the vagina.

Freud identified the fetish as the mother’s missing phallus, but this is only to say that loss has signed the entrance to the womb. It is not so much the phallus as the mother who has been cut off from us, in a psychical re-enactment of the severance of the umbilical chord. We cannot look at her vaginal entrance, which is now taboo – so instead our eyes may drop and come to rest on her shoe.

It was not a shoe but a glove though that became the fetishistic subject of a series of phantasmagoric etchings by Max Klinger which appeared in 1881. A glove is stolen, but then comes to haunt the young man who has stolen it. The glove provides the leitmotif to the series which was much admired by De Chirico. But the series seems more a capricious foray into fetishism rather than an uncanny example of fixation in itself. The artist seems more interested in displacement and in violent contradictions of scale. In his article on Klinger published in the Artnews Annual,October 1966, John Ashbery pointed out that in this series we find ordinary domestic furniture situated in a leafy landscape – a theme later developed by De Chirico.

It could be said that optical illusions became an obsession for Escher and that John Kacere, the American photo-realist, became obsessed by women’s underwear. But here we need to distinguish between obsession and the need to refine one’s work. If we discount that refinement, then we are forced to admit that all creative persons are obsessed by their own style. And this may be true. Take the case of Kacere. For many years he has painted women in their knickers, from the front or from the back. The paintings are immense. The area defined by the subject usually begins below the navel and ends above the knee. As an obsessive and uncanny act, this ties in with Kristeva’s theory concerning some repressed awareness of the pleasures of the mother’s body – and the immensity of the canvases may well encourage this reading, since naturally the infant feels that the mother’s body is that of a giant compared to his own diminutive size.

As a theory this is neat enough, I suppose, but it strikes me that, for a photo-realist, the many textures of lingerie make a good subject. The subtle nuances of difference between silk or satin or cotton or lycra require masterly handling, and after all, the folds and whimsies of drapery have always been considered a valid subject through which to demonstrate a consummate technique. The Greeks were aware of this, and so was Alma-Tadema, surely the most accomplished of the pre-Raphaelite artists. Kacere is his equal, and his painting compares very well with that of Ingres. Both artists have realised that the power of painting may be best demonstrated by its depiction of the flimsiest material, just as the power of poetry may be demonstrated in the description of some minor social event more than in the bombast of an epic:

She went, to plain-work, and to purling brooks,
Old-fashion’d halls, dull Aunts, and croaking rooks;
She went from Op’ra, park, assembly, play,
To morning walks, and pray’rs three hours a day;
To part her time ‘twixt reading and Bohea,
To muse, and spill her solitary Tea,
Or o’er cold coffee trifle with the spoon,
Count the slow clock, and dine exact at noon…

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Alexander Pope, Epistle to Miss Blount, on her leaving the Town xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxafter the Coronation)

Kacere left off painting his specific and highly limited subjects for a while, in order to experiment with full-length reclining figures draped in satin. These were complete failures, in my estimation. He went back to painting the fanny. What scale lends these works is an immediate kinship with abstract field-painting. The subject occupies the entire field and is simply cut off by the edges of the canvas. Pearlstein is another realist who paints field paintings. But it’s no use pretending that there is no psychology to Kacere’s paintings. They differ fundamentally from Courbet’s famous painting of a vulva, known as The Origin of the World, which is most explicit. It is now in the Musée d’Orsay but was once owned by Lacan. By contrast, Kacere likes to veil his Medusa. His faith is orthodox – and the knickers are his iconostasis, screening the real and preserving its mystery. His “icon-station” – the panties – stop us from looking further into that mystery. In this sense, they bring about stasis, and we are back to the immobility of the uncanny. The underwear also provides many of the works with an elaborate abstract arrangement of flowing lines and cadenced colours, and this relates to Muslim prohibitions concerning figuration, since man is formed in the image of God, but God has not given any artist permission to make his likeness. Kacere is Lebanese. His work is figurative but his kernel of concern is hidden from us – as the eyes are hidden in otherwise explicit correspondence magazines. It is also the case that the figurative form is well diffused by decoration – namely the patterns on the panties or on the edge of the chemise – and diffusion of form by decoration is another tenet of Islamic art.


But Kacere’s art involves stasis and it is repetitive and repetition suspends time. It slows narrative down. This will be readily admitted when we consider the cinematic experience of being compelled to watch an advertisement which has passed its “due-date”. We have seen it too many times. The key aspect of every shot is no longer of interest. Knowing full well what these are, we turn our exasperated attention to the pattern on the curtain in the background. We have the time to do it. Repetition has rendered the advertisement uncanny, just as slow-motion allows an uncanny aura to settle on the performances of Robert Wilson.

The uncanny therefore “puts things on hold.” It operates in immobile performances, where motionlessness increases the sensation of presence well beyond the norm – and thus confers to the normally active an enduring “sculptural” status. It is manifest in the performances of Gilbert and George. In Underneath the Arches, their seminal “singing sculpture”, first shown in 1969, and shown again two decades later – in 1991 at the Sonnabend Gallery – their frozen display of commonplace formal poses prompted by an exchange of glove and stick was punctuated by the need for one of them to descend from the table upon which these poses were displayed in order to turn over the sound-cassette in the small recorder placed in front of the table – which was playing an old music-hall song. Stick and glove were exchanged and new poses adopted only when the tape was turned, so the length of the tape dictated the length of the pose. There is something uncanny too about their life-lasting decision to dress in very similar suits and to conduct themselves as sculpture, exhibiting themselves initially at private views and then at their own exhibitions, but also to be found in their favourite east London cafe, still being Gilbert and George.

Tilda Swinton remains still for longer than the duration of an audio-cassette, sleeping through the day in a glass cabinet. Tanya Ostojic stands motionless for hours within a square of marble dust. She’s scrupulously shaven of all body hair, and covered in the marble dust herself. With life-like sculpture, we doubt whether the material is really inanimate. With living sculpture we doubt whether the being is really alive. There is, after all, a congealing quality about stillness. We speak of a stilled position as a freeze, and indeed there is an aspect to stillness which suggests coldness – not only the coldness of the lake turning to ice but also the coldness of statues, the coldness of stone, and of death. Heat speeds up molecules; while stillness suggests their inertia.

Coming back to the original meaning of unheimlich, what is familiar about such statuesque performances is that we are clearly observing living humans in precisely everyday poses: what is unfamiliar is their stillness. And it is the tension between these contradictory qualities which produces the uncanny effect. Stillness may suggest indifference to time – as a memorial may seem indifferent to the changes of the weather. We associate the memorial with the dead, and stillness is indicative of death. When the dead object proves “undead”, though, we experience goose-bumps, and thus the effect can be achieved by reversing the components – what can be more uncanny than dead things that move? Consider the voice of the statue of the murdered Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

* * * *

What of the literature of the uncanny? Can a book constitute a fetish? Certainly it can. Take a look at Arcimboldo’s painting of a book-worm, a man made entirely out of books. Most religious tomes are treated as objects of devotion, are credited with powers of divination and are used in esoteric rites by the faithful. In the popular imagination, the Talmud is regarded with a particular thrill of superstition because of its associations with the cabala – the ancient Jewish mystical system based on esoteric interpretation of Talmudic law and tradition. We find this featuring in countless ghost-stories. Of these, Walter Owen’s More Things in Heaven deserves to be reappraised. It is a novel which deals with a curse placed on Alexander the Great for burning down the library of Babylon, and it follows this curse down the generations. In one chapter, the mere reading of a certain document causes internal combustion within the head of a character who is perusing it – and this is a disconcerting thought for the reader of the novel itself. The plot deals with the document as a fetish and one that is charged with danger. It is also an interesting use of the strategy of telling a story within a story. Certainly it’s the best piece of haunted literature that I have ever read.

Esoteric teachings, and a sense of a mesmerising power existing in words, phrases or documents which may go beyond the materiality of the book or the content of what is signified gets well expressed in the writing of Borges – in a story such as The Zahir, for instance, which concerns a word which once heard can never be forgotten, a word which operates like a virus on all other words. Here, the reader is reduced to a condition of immobility, as if turned into a zombie by the text. But Borges is simply pointing out the uncanniness of all reading, for an arrested immobility is the condition which it usually induces. Reading is a sort of trance, and we find ourselves unable to read when restlessness refuses to let us enter into that condition.

Ghost stories also make use of the fragment, usually some relic – as in several of the Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James. The literature of hauntings and possessions can be traced back to fairy tales such as those collected by the brothers Grimm, and beyond these to the curses on the tombs of the Romans and their prayers for use with sexual potions. Horace’s eighth satire and his fifth and his seventeenth epodes are early examples of writing about ghosts and witches. But that which is particular to the mode under discussion as often as not eludes the conventional fantasy or horror story. The fantasy becomes too fantastic, the horror too horrid. We escape into a world quite other than our own, whereas the point about the uncanny is that it concerns as certain sense of there being something distinctly unusual about something which is, at the same time, very familiar to us. If we narrow the focus to exclude the fantastic and the horrid, other items come more readily to light. One of these is a canzone by the twelfth century troubadour Bertran de Born, which fascinated Ezra Pound:

Anyone who has read anything of the troubadours knows well the tale of Bertran of Born and My Lady Maent of Montaignac, and knows also the song he made when she would none of him, the song wherein he, seeking to find or make her equal, begs of each pre-eminent lady of Langue d’Oc some trait or some fair semblance: thus of Cembelins her “esgart amoros” to wit, her love-lit glance, of Aelis her speech free-running, of the Vicomtess of Chalais her throat and her two hands, at Roacoart of Anhes her hair golden as Iseult’s; and even in this fashion of Lady Audiart “although she would that ill come unto him” he sought and praised the lineaments of the torse. And all this to make “Una dompna soiseubuda” a borrowed lady or as the Italians translate it “Una donna ideale”.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Note prefacing Na Audiart in the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound)

The notion of “a borrowed lady” is certainly curious, and we find it persisting into the Renaissance when we come across sonnets which itemize the attributes of beloved objects: it is this which lends an uncanny aura to the sixteenth century reinterpretation of courtly love, indeed the way in which such literary adoration may objectify the beloved reveals a tendency to think of love as an embalming process or one which reverses the action of Pygmalion by attempting to turn a living being into a work of art. It is this tendency which is satirised by Shakespeare in one of his sonnets:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Objectification is at work when the source of attraction becomes immobilised. As Zizek puts it, “immobility makes a thing visible.” It is thus that the uncanny becomes an influence on the tableaux vivants that became fashionable in the late eighteenth century through the improvised performances of Emma Hamilton in Naples. Such tableaux feature in Elective Affinities, the novel by Goethe in which a love-lorn woman absent-mindedly allows a child in her charge to drown. Her absent-mindedness reinforces the leitmotif of living statuary, in this case with a figure immobilised by her dreams. Then an arrested action, which turns the participant in a sexual ritual into an object of aesthetic appreciation, is a notable feature of flagellation scenes in Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. When the redoubtable Wanda raises her whip to beat her cowering lover, she will often hold this threatening gesture for a while, thus prolonging the threat, for in this ritual the agony of anticipation is more powerful than the pain that may actually be caused. For the masochist, the visualisation which the immobility facilitates helps to distill the potency of the perverse experience. A Freudian might argue that the uplifted arm also becomes phallic by dint of its rigidity – although it belongs to a female – and thus it constitutes the lost phallus of the mother which becomes the fetish. This notion is well expressed by Hans Bellmer:

In all probability no one has to this point seriously enough considered to what extent the image of a desirable woman is dependent on the image of the man who desires her, so that in the end it amounts to a series of phallic projections which progress from one segment of a woman to configure her entire image, whereby the finger, the arm, the leg of the woman, could actually be the man’s genitals – that it’s the male sex-organ in the woman’s firm, stockinged leg…

xxxxxxxx(Hans Bellmer, cited by Gilles Néret in Twentieth Century Erotic Art – page 21)

The fetishisation of love into an object or an agglomeration of objects thrives on exaggeration and, at its most distended, it gives rise to that fascination with freaks and with automata which the surrealists identified as a quality they termed the marvelous. The tendency to collect such marvels was already in vogue in the time of Catherine II (1729-1796) in Russia. Inside the Hermitage, a mechanical peacock flexes its neck then fans its actual feathers. It eyes the mechanical cock askance, likewise the automated owl. Everything is of gold and there’s a fascination with curiosities such as paintings made out of tiny bits of mosaic. Of course the collection of art in the Hermitage is stupendous, but still it’s the curios which prevail as the city’s epitome, and of these the most outlandish are brought together in the aforementioned Kunst Kamera, that museum of dubious anthropological significance founded by Peter the Great, Catherine’s predecessor; an enlightened repudiator of all witchcraft, who was a collector of marvels and monstrosities – as well as being a dentist who kept and exhibited the teeth he pulled.

Behind the hand imprint and death mask of the Chinese giant but beyond the branch which grows back into being a trunk, we find the heart and skeleton of another giant, the giant Bourgeois, and then, next to this, we come across strange toads and lizards with extra limbs – which place them more in the realm of the grotesque than in that of the uncanny. But Laevenhoek the microscopist, who was also the Kunst Kamera’s taxidermist, noticed that a dash of cochineal in the preservative made everything more life-like – placentae, arteries, blood vessels – and this explains the genuinely uncanny vivacity of pickled children with glass eyes, ruddy cheeks and openly sanguine brains. Along with mummified Siamese twins and Siamese twins in formaldehyde, these life-like fetishes gathered up by Peter have pride of place in a collection augmented by the fetishes found by later ethnographers. And there are still some scalps here, unlike New York’s Museum of the American Indian in Harlem which thinks it politically incorrect to display them.

The entire collection of these bizarre items gets exhibited across the Neva from the Hermitage – along with jews’ harps, rams’ horns, mbiras, sextants and compasses, alchemical dioramas and immense magnifying glasses. Most of the foetal marvels here wear little bonnets of lace, and the isolated arms and the little feet born without bodies have very fine cuffs and sit happily cushioned on their placentas, while in the engravings of the time, pathetic homunculus skeletons dry their tears on their placenta hankies.

The German romantic spinner of tales, Hoffmann, makes use of the marvelous with the story of his Olympia doll – which becomes Coppelia in the ballet – but in the nineteenth century, in her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley turned the borrowed lady into a borrowed man, and Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) does the same in his truly uncanny novel, The Golem, which derives its inspiration from a figure out of Jewish folklore that seems to hark back to some memory of the Egyptian ushabti figure referred to by Mike Kelly: in this case a miraculously animated servant fashioned out of clay. As we read this brilliantly constructed novel we become aware that the narrator actually is the creation he describes. And this happens through the dawning of self-awareness in that unfortunate object. It is as if it is piecing its own construction together. The book has a thoroughly disquieting effect.

* * * *

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, is equally disquieting, and its disquiet is also intimately bound up with its use of repetition, which, as we have seen, is often employed to uncanny effect. Its narrator is trapped in an environment so bizarre that at first one imagines that one is engaged in reading some sort of abstract text that will go on shifting its scenery like a dream, as does surrealist novel Hebdomeros by De Chirico. This turns out not to be so. The narrator is a fugitive from justice who has escaped to a remote island furnished with a few strange buildings – a museum, a swimming-pool and a chapel on the high ground, a mill somewhere in the lowland marshes that get flooded at regular intervals. We learn as much in the first few paragraphs of the novel, and for a while one senses that these paragraphs are simply repeating themselves, each time expanding on their content but allowing little to transpire. It is as if the book’s initial premise were constantly being reiterated, and were being expanded upon with each reiteration. Even in the first short section of the book we have been apprised of the fact that visitors have arrived on the island, and the rest of the book is taken up with who these visitors are and how the fugitive comes to terms with them. Initially he hides from them, only to discover that they have no inclination to acknowledge his existence. His predicament strikes one as being similar to that of an invisible camera that has somehow developed its own conscious awareness while observing the actions of characters who either feign not to recognise its existence or else exist in some dimension alien to it. Although they appear to be normal human beings, of flesh and blood, breathing, chatting naturally enough to each other, they endlessly repeat the same routine with a robotic precision. Ingeniously, the author delays our discovery of the reason for this routine, and for the lack of any acknowledgement of the protagonist – but it would be a shame to spoil the reader’s enjoyment of this brilliant novella by giving away any more of the plot. Suffice it to say, that in this novel, delay conspires with repetition to create an astounding work of the imagination.

Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet made sensational use of repetition’s capacity to generate an uncanny filmic rhythm in L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) – a rhythm Robbe-Grillet had already exploited ingeniously in his nouveaux romans. Both Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were inspired to collaborate on the script for this film by reading The Invention of Morel, and it’s fascinating to read this novella in the light of the film and realise how the book changed the course of film history; for Last Year at Marienbad – to give its title in translation – introduced the notion of a film in which much gets repeated while nothing very much happens, a notion brilliantly exploited later by Michelangelo Antonioni, the director of L’Aventura.


In Marienbad, the use of repetition subjects the viewer to a constant reiteration of the same scenes: views of the baroque palace hotel where the action takes place, a game played with matchsticks, the corridors of the hotel, enigmatic confrontations between characters rigid with formality. This resonates with a remark by the narrator of The Invention of Morel:

I felt elated. I thought I had made this discovery: that there are unexpected, constant repetitions in our behaviour. The right combination of circumstances had enabled me to observe them. One seldom has the chance to be a clandestine witness of several talks between the same people. But scenes are repeated in life, just as they are in the theatre…

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel, p. 41)

Little gets resolved in the plot of Marienbad, and it seems no more, and no less, than a fugue in celluloid, reveling in the silvery qualities of a stunning cinematography that takes full advantage of the starkly sculptural properties of black and white projection. Yet the film presents us with characters who engage in their repetitive actions in what appears to be a deliberately stilted manner, though it may be that this mechanical quality is actually generated by the force of their repetitions. It is as if everyone is going about their business in a sort of trance, and this is what places the film in the realm of the uncanny, rather than in some quieter location. Marienbad, however, has always provoked the sort of controversy that is usually reserved for the innocuous where “nothing happens,” an accusation usually leveled at quietist art: “It’s either some sort of masterpiece or meaningless twaddle,” says The Time Out Film Guide, and less sophisticated commentators have no doubts about which of these it is.

* * * *

Both literature and film make use of the uncanny when they resort to shifts of scale – as in Albert Zugsmith’s The Incredible Shrinking Man – where the familiar domestic setting gradually becomes estranged from normality, as chairs seem, from the shrinking man’s point-of-view, to enlarge. Crucial here are the initial stages of this process, when the chair is just a bit overlarge. This is genuinely eerie, for the uncanny must always teeter between familiar and unfamiliar. Once the man has become minuscule, the particular frisson which constitutes uncanniness is no longer operative on our senses. We find the same to be true in visual art. Goya indulges in a massive scale shift in his painting of a giant – however there is more of the awesome in this than the uncanny. However, when the American artist Charles Ray brings a man, a woman, a boy and a girl to their mean average in size, altering the usual scaling down of a family group from maturity to infancy, and replacing it with an unfamiliar equality of height, our term is very well epitomised. We come across the uncanny also in the large-scale paintings of Chuck Close. In his early pieces, the meticulous photo-realism creates an eeriness out of the moment, for the now that the photograph was taken in is sustained beyond its time – and thus the expression becomes disconcertingly frozen. Nobody ever looks so precisely “like this” for as long as we can look at the work, and certainly they cannot look like it for as long as it has taken the artist to execute it. In his book on The Laocoon, Gothold Lessing maintains that the pre-Hellenic Greeks tended to avoid intensity of expression because they were aware that expressions were fleeting things. If a powerful expression were to be given immemorial extension in marble it would become a caricature of itself – like the frozen smiles on the faces of infant beauty queens – the tragically murdered four-year-old, Jon Benet Ramsay thus becomes her murderer’s fetish – and an icon of uncanny – by dint of the fact that she could hold a smile for longer than two minutes, without it turning into a grimace. In later pieces by Close, there is an unearthly feeling derived from the same effect of a specific expression sustained, but this is now compounded by the immensity of the scale and the oddity of the technique – which seems painterly and even expressionist though it still “adds up” to a photo-realist image. Thus familiarity and unfamiliarity combine to produce the weirdest of results.

I thought Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad was one of the more interesting pieces in the Sensation show at the Royal Academy. This is the sculpted image of an elderly man, prone, with his eyes closed, immobile, to all intents a corpse, accurate to the last pore, yet shrunk to less than human size. It epitomises the experience of memory when its living object is gone. Time has operated like perspective, so the object seems far away. But the shrinkage this entails intensifies the material. The memory becomes the more intense. Dead Dad is a distilled image. It has a power similar to that of South American shrunken heads. They too seem intensified by diminution. Mueck has also created a very accurate sculpture of a baby which is much larger than life. This proves as uncomfortable as Dead Dad but entails a fairly obvious reversal of a strategy that had meaning, and to my mind, with enlargement, the meaning disappears – grandeur is introduced, or rather aggrandizement, but to very little purpose. I have pointed out that Hercules was already the size of a fully grown wild boar by the time Alcmene gave birth to him, and one might argue that here, in this enlarged baby, there’s the suggestion that the child becomes larger than the mother, eventually replacing her. Infancy thus incorporates the body which will become taboo. This is a reading of sorts, but I find it contrived, and feel the same way about the piece.

In another distortion of scale, John Paul Evans makes larger-than-life photographic portraits of small military dolls. He shoots his images in daylight with black and white film, relying on natural shadows. Every nuance of the plastic features gets captured – accuracy seems to indicate depth of fascination in uncanny work. Yet in each of these “portraits”, the inanimate comes alive. At first glance, the distinctive face emerging from a surrounding opacity seems that of a living person: and unlike the laboured images of Chuck Close – where living expressions appear falsified by their prolongation – here the expression conveys the sense of a consciousness together with the psychological impulse behind that consciousness – or so one would swear. It is only when one takes a second look, when one moves closer to examine the image, that one notices that the eye-brow has been painted on. The realisation of such artificiality creates a transitional disturbance, the appearance of dementia, distraction – this person has painted on an eye-brow, not some fashioned, plucked concoction, but an ordinary eye-brow. It is only gradually that the doll emerges from behind the persona created by the light, by the angle, by that which the artist has sensed as a hint and projected onto it. This reminds one of childhood preoccupations – our toys are the tools of our projections, and it is through our projections that we play with them. Such a notion has implications for the act of love.

George 1

It is by no means inevitable, however, that scale-shifts will produce uncanny results. As already emphasized, the discrepancy has to be a subtle one. Gulliver’s Travels are not uncanny, nor is Gargantua. Despite Swift’s satirical intent, the various species visited by Gulliver prove too far out of scale to be convincing. We readily identify with the Lilliputians: they are irrepressibly lively, and too like us to suggest the dead. At the same time, in the fantastic realms visited by Gullliver, the scale is so far removed from our own that we feel that we are dealing with ants and then with giants, and then with talking horses who are too sensible to strike us as peculiar. As for the masterpiece by Rabelais, the world described is far more grotesque than it is uncanny. There is death in abundance, but it is redolent with buffoonery, whereas the uncanny concerns the “almost life-like”; being a very intense near-miss.

But the uncanny works well in the photographs of Safetyville by Miles Coolidge. This is a real town built to something like two thirds of the normal scale for the training of civic services. When we look at these images, they seem normal but not quite – the steps don’t exactly fit the bank they lead up to, the grass doesn’t look right somehow in front of the factory. The photographs show no people. So these uninhabited corners of a town which just looks “off” are uncanny; but the fabulous is something else, and, in their different ways, both Swift and Rabelais are dealing with fables, for they are demonstrating a moral, whether couched in barbed wit or a belly-laugh.

Swift’s Modest Proposal – that the problem of starvation could be solved if the starving were to eat their own children – is far more uncanny, since it is so politely argued that it seems serious, and strikes us, almost strikes us, as a sound suggestion. Ultimately though the satirical intent pitches us back into the grim humour of the grotesque. In terms of scale-shift, perhaps the most successful literary account of the experience of being at odds with the norm is Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget. This account of how a tiny person is seduced into friendship by an attractive fully-grown woman, who ultimately betrays her in the most hideous way, plays on a difference of size in a genuinely uncanny manner. It is the accuracy of the detail summoned up by the author as he describes the midget’s life which creates the effect – the small steps inset into the normal stairs of her touring caravan, for instance – together with the careful location of the story in a convincingly ordinary world. In the memoirs, the empathy the author manages to achieve between his reader and his sixteen-inch narrator is quite phenomenal and only equalled by the sensation of being a rabbit in Watership Down.

While breathing in short, panting breaths down the warren it is worth noting that there is a distinct uncanniness about situations where animals are invested with anthropomorphic powers or behave in ways which deviate from their predictable patterns. We have already noted the strangeness of Carpaccio’s painting of the two courtesans surrounded by their pets, and that the notion of a pet is not so far removed from that of a familiar – it is only that the witch’s familiar may be a creature few people feel much affection for – a toad perhaps – though I must admit I was pretty pleased with the toad I possessed in my adolescence (and Geraldine Chaplin liked it so much that she once kissed it on the nose – which was kind of uncanny, I guess). In conventional terms, nevertheless, a peculiar creature makes a bizarre pet, while to treat a pet as if it were capable of a human response is an everyday form of uncanniness which can be carried to uncommon extremes – dogs dressed in baby-clothes and paraded in prams, for instance, or cows who sleep on sofas, as in Appleby’s End by Michael Innes, or stuffed squirrels dressed as a class of schoolboys. And here the monumental puppy made out of flowers by Geoff Koons, and currently to be found in front of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, can be seen to derive from Arcimboldo and to share with that artist the sense of a facility carried to such an extreme that it becomes fetishistic – which in turn locates the puppy in the tradition of the uncanny, although you might say that the puppy is just too nice to have much to do with “the undead”.

When it comes to the animals themselves behaving in some unpredictable way, this aspect of the uncanny is well expressed in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, in which flocks of gulls, blackbirds and starlings attack a community on America’s West Coast. The film gives its director a chance to focus on ordinary people dealing with an extraordinary situation. It gains in force by there being no concise reason given for the aggression of the birds. True, the first attack we witness is carried out by a gull as Tippi Hedren carries a pair of caged lovebirds across the water of the bay in a small boat, and we might conclude that the gulls are enraged by the sight of this incarcerated pair being conveyed across the open sea, their own “territory”. But we learn soon after this that the chickens are refusing to eat their feed on more than one homestead. The birds’ rebellion seems to have begun before the arrival of the lovebirds. It’s more likely that the plot has been arrived at by a process of exaggeration. “Will they never leave off migrating!” opines one character irritably as the birds are seen flocking in a cloud on the horizon. This natural phenomenon is simply allowed to outgrow its natural proportions. It becomes a massing of a feathered force. At the same time, the violence that the birds do to their human victims refutes the sentimental role of the lovebirds and denies that nature is a benign influence with its birds and bees acting in harmony with Walt Disney to aid and abet our own relationships. The human relationship portrayed in this drama is in itself one fraught with Freudian tensions: the couple bickering, the mother hysterical, the daughter young enough to be the daughter of her sibling. The birds attack children and kill the one rival for Rod Taylor’s affections. But these incidents are permitted to remain enigmas. The film’s innuendo is that of bloody tragedy. One thinks of the savage tale of the hoopoe, the nightingale and the swallow in classical mythology. No such connection is actually drawn, it is just hinted at, but it is this elusiveness as to the rationale for the events described which gives the film its truly eerie quality.

* * * *

This essay risks turning into a catalogue, yet it hardly touches on the myriad examples which could be cited. There is a certain dummy-like figure that appears in some paintings of Balthus, and a frozen quality he sometimes utilises for street scenes. There are certain works by Sophie Calle which engage with fetishism, while the “secret gaze” she employs to haunt the lives of strangers certainly borders on the strange. There are the life-like sculptures of the nineteenth century American, Hiram Powers, and those in Roman Catholic Churches, from Vienna to Malta. There are death-masks, and there is the V. and A. cast-room – which demonstrates an architectural uncanniness by annulling time and gathering together monuments from all times and places in one locale. There are the hair-shirts of Jordan Baseman and the frozen sculptures of Marc Quinn. There are novels like Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain- Fournier and The Collector by John Fowles. There is a film called The Dybbuk, which I haven’t seen – but it sounds as if it might be uncanny. There is Jennifer Chamber Lynch’s excellent Boxing Helena, a much underrated film, with genuinely surreal images, though these do border on the grotesque. There are the bodyless legs of Robert Gober, the tumour-ridden furniture of Nina Saunders. Eve Dent makes the following observations about the work of Saunders in her essay, You are this, which is so far from you: an investigation into the uncanny:

Discarded pieces of furniture, mostly chairs and seats, are re-upholstered in a way that renders them profoundly disturbed and dysfunctional. Pure Thought (1995) is a broad armchair, upholstered with plastic and leatherette, held taut with small white buttons. However, a large swelling protrudes forward from the back panel, engulfing most of the seat. This large ball foils any sense of comfort and cosiness. There is also a sense of an unwell body, afflicted with swellings and blockages. Saunders relates these formations to a kind of repression. In Unfinished Opera (1996), a dainty dressing-table chair with rather a wide seat has a tube and funnel attached to it. The whole thing has been covered in furry fabric, so that it appears as if the chair has a tail that is swollen and wounded. I find this piece particularly unnerving, partly due to its animalistic references and also because I sense that the object is extending out beyond its “normal” boundaries.

In her defamiliarising of domestic objects, the chairs convey the contradiction of the uncanny. The homely and unhomely are mixed together. Because the works are so immaculately crafted they manage to attract and repel, comfort and exclude at same time and their awful swellings serve as an indication of an unknown presence hidden within.

Home as a place of being at ease with oneself and the world is undermined in this work as in Gober’s. Home is rooted in a disquiet that pulls us back to the uncanny and repressed infantile material. Home is also the place of the maternal body…
(Eve Dent, B.A. Dissertation, Cardiff, 1999)

I remain of the opinion that the fetish constitutes the object in which the “unknown presence” resides, while the uncanny constitutes the sensation provoked by our sense of that presence. Surface detail counteracts the uncomfortable realisation that our thoughts on the subject of that hidden existence are inchoate, and obscure – even to ourselves.

Anthony Howell, November, 2003.

Jorge Luis Borges, The Zahir in Fictiones,
Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel, NYRB edition, NY, 2003
Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget
Eve Dent, Nina Saunders in B.A. Dissertation, U.W.I.C., Fine Art, 1999
M. Dolar , I shall be with you on your Wedding-night, an essay on Lacan and the uncanny published in October no. 58, Fall 1991.
Alain Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes
John Fowles, The Collector
Sigmund Freud, On Leonardo da Vinci,
Sigmund Freud, Das Unheimlich, 1919
Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo,
Sander L. Gilman, Seeing the Insane, John Wiley and Brunner/Mazel, NY, 1982
Goethe, Elective Affinities,
André Green, On Private Madness,
E. T. A. Hoffmann, Tales,
Michael Innes, Appleby’s End, Penguin,
M. R. James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
Wilhelm Jensen, Gradiva (with Freud’s analysis of the text), Sun and Moon, San Francisco,
Mike Kelley, article on The Uncanny, published in conjunction with an exhibition organised by Sonsbeek 95, in the Gemeentemuseum Arnhem
Gothold Lessing, The Laocoon,
John Marston, The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion’s Image,
Gilles Néret, Twentieth Century Erotic Art, Taschen, Italy. 1993
Walter Owen, More Things in Heaven
Plautus, Amphitryon
Ezra Pound, Note prefacing Na Audiart in the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound,
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs,
William Shakespeare, Sonnets,

Romaine Slocombe, City of Broken Dolls, Velvet Publications, London
Swift, A Modest Proposal,
Slavoj Zizek, Fetishism and its Vicissitudes, in The Plague of Fantasies, Verso, London and New York, 1997
Watership Down

and many more…..

About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
This entry was posted in art, Essays and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Fetishism and the Uncanny

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  5. Deb Guy says:

    excellent thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Naty J Calderon says:

    Reblogged this on Nathalia J Calderon and commented:
    Great article on the uncanny and fetishism!

    Liked by 1 person

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