[ bookreviews ]
Nicholas Royle (or rather, for reasons that will become clear, Nicholas Royle 1957- ) acknowledges Jacques Derrida in his Preface. Derrida is the final name thanked in what is a conventional ending for a Preface that begins with the words "a preface is conventionally signed, dated, placed in a fashion that distinguishes it from the text that follows. Written at the end, it comes at the beginning ... The genre of the preface is perhaps quite familiar. If so, it is apt to become strange in the special sense that has interested me in these pages. This is the strangeness of the uncanny, a flickering moment of embroilment in the experience of something at once strange and unfamiliar."
In the same preface, Royle refers to September 11, which occurred two months before the preface was written, as an exemplar of the uncanny suddenly intruding into "everyday", commonsensical life removed from the abtruse world of literary theory. Already, Royle writes, the Twin Towers were uncanny, and the events of that September morning turned the familiar into the terribly strange. Who does not remember that day as something unbelievable, beyond the realm of the everyday and yet made up of the material of the everyday? Towering office buildings, commercial airliners, cell phones - all now part of everyday life, and yet their strangeness restored by terrorism.
This is a book haunted by Derrida and Sigmund Freud. Indeed, it is haunted by a text, Freud's Das Unheimliche - the uncanny. Of course, the stuff of psychoanalysis is the uncanny. Whatever the scientific or therapeutic merits of psychodynamic psychotherapy, it can almost be called an engine for the creation of the uncanny, taking everyday stuff such as slips of the tongue and dreams and transforming them into near-mystical portals into an inner world resistant to mere introspection. Das Unheimliche is, in Royle's words, a "peculiarly uncertain, wavering and eccentric text ... it keeps trying to lay certain ghosts to rest, but they keep coming back."
One of the ironies of the attraction of literary theorists to Freud (attraction does not imply agreement, but rather that Freud a fertile substrate for speculation, elaboration and denigration) is that Freud's limpid, clear prose style is at the core of his appeal, and yet an enormous mountain of mystification has been deposited around him. The Uncanny - both the phenomenon itself and Freud's essay - is particularly ripe for contemporary theory, with its love of the marginal and liminal, the obscure, the threatening and subversive - especially when these characteristics can be found in the familiar and apparently harmless.
This book is essentially a series of explorations on the theme of the uncanny. The component chapters are self-contained essays - many of which were published separately without the intention of being included in a work on "the uncanny." Do you "buy" Derrida, or literary theory, or postmodernism? No? Well, don't worry - there's something here for you anyway.
The essay on "film" is a series of aphorisms, some of which are tendentious, some of which are sort of koans on celluloid that provoke insight and reflection ("The entire 'industry' might be defined as a palliative working to repress the uncanniness of film" "Imagine an experience of film that was not 'bounded.' That is perhaps where writing on film would begin.") Das Unheimliche discusses Otto Rank's 'The Double', a meditation on a particular type of the uncanny that took its inspiration from a popular film, Hans Heinz Ewers' The Student of Prague - yet Freud does not refer to the cinematic roots of Ranks's study. (Rank, of course, was one of the inner Freudian circle who inevitably committed heresy and was excommunicated by the master.) Cinema, as Rank pointed out, is particularly suited to portraying certain psychological states manifested in the outer world - just as it is, one might add, unsuited to portraying certain psychological states manifested as inner experience.
Royle's essay on "The death drive" is structured by bullet points ("Where did the desire for 'bullet points' come from? Why do we speak of bullet points rather than, say, nutshells or propositions or simply points? Who is shooting whom?") and links Freud's concept of thanatos to his discussion of the uncanny. Royle also gives probably the best example of everyday uncanniness one can find - and one that anyone who has indulged in auto-googling (that is, everyone) can identify with - the namesake. For while Nicholas Royle (1957-) has written this book, Nicholas Royle (1963-), author of The Matter of The Heart, Counterparts, Saxophone Dreams and The Director's Cut - and winner of the 1997 Bad Sex Award for incompetent description of the act of love by the Literary Review - has a parallel literary career. Predictably, each of the Nicholas Royles is invited to separate conferences, and it turns out that the other was intended to go. Both are categorised together by the British Library. Google has brought all of us in touch with our namesakes, uncanny doubles of ourselves engaging in activities continents away that we would be quite unlikely to do ourselves.
The Uncanny (Nicholas Royle 1957-'s book, as opposed to Sigmund Freud 1856-1939's) is a typical text of literary theory - playful, sceptical, sceptical of scepticism (witness Royle's suspicion of Jonathon Culler's suspicion of religion and how it blinds Culler to the problem of omniscient narrators in fiction), digressive, maddening elusive, impossible to summarise, thought-provoking ... continue with adjectives connoting indeterminate, familiar-yet-strange, uncanny...