Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Uncanny

In class, I suggested that Stephen Dedalus’ first wanderings toward the brothels of Dublin bore some resemblance to Freud’s description of uncanny wandering in “The Uncanny.”

I found an e-text of Freud’s 1919 essay here, and reproduce for you the passage that, to my mind, resonates with Joyce.
The factor of the repetition of the same thing will perhaps not appeal to everyone as a source of uncanny feeling. From what I have observed, this phenomenon does undoubtedly, subject to certain conditions and combined with certain circumstances, arouse an uncanny feeling, which, furthermore, recalls the sense of helplessness experienced in some dream-states. As I was walking, one hot summer afternoon, through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was unknown to me, I found myself in a quarter of whose character I could not long remain in doubt. nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after having wandered about for a time without enquiring my way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, only to arrive by another detour at the same place yet a third time. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad enough to find myself back at the piazza I had left a short while before, without any further voyages of discovery. ….
Note the coy “a quarter of whose character I could not remain in doubt.” There is a reason why, in the early modern period, these men found themselves simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by city neighborhoods full of brothels. I’d love to hear your thought on this connection...


  1. To be attracted and repelled at the same time--a definition of abjection. Abjection, outside the boundaries of what we know. Only a man could dare to walk the streets outside what is conventionally acceptable. (Women safely at home.) Stephen and Freud, constantly attracted to what is forbidden to them but unlike Freud, Stephen follows his desire, a necessary step toward breaking from the church and entering his true calling--that of the artist. (How does this work as a reading?)

  2. That works for me, absolutely. And I'd add that Stephen's own unhappiness at home and the way in which the brothels function as a home only reinforce Freud's etymological work with *unheimlich/heimlich.*

    It may not work quite as well with Freud, and yet the sense of being far from home & yet in a place that's familiar--and, home-like--is shared.