Looking at Freud’s Uncanny and Seeing the Feminine:
A Reading of das Unheimliche Via the Visual With the Help of Artist Shary Boyle.

Gayle Gorman, 2006


The writer of the present contribution, indeed, must himself plead guilty to a special obtuseness in the matter, where extreme delicacy of perception would be more in place. It is long since he has experienced or heard anything which has given him an uncanny impression, and he must start by translating himself into that state of feeling, by awakening in himself the possibility of experiencing it.

But I must confess that I have not made a very thorough examination of the literature, especially the foreign literature, relating to this present modest condition of mine, for reasons which, as may easily be guessed, lie in the times in which we live… (my italics, Freud, 1919: 220)


What would Freud think of the Uncanny – Unheimliche – were he alive today? Would he find it any easier to experience? Would the image-saturation of our current postmodern culture turn him towards the visual in experiencing and formulating the Uncanny? Why does it take an ‘extreme delicacy of perception’ to experience the Uncanny, and why is Freud’s own perception lacking this gentle nature, this fragility? How, then, may the Uncanny be related to contemporary post-psychoanalytic ideas of what constitutes the feminine?

These questions are important to me as I set out to bring something new to Freud’s unheimliche, which has certainly been confronted many times and through varied lenses; my own preference is for an emphasis on the visual, for the empirical dictum of seeing-is-believing, for sight-as-knowledge, in that knowledge is never certain just as appearances can be deceiving, which is what causes me to raise some of these questions, questions that come out of what is omitted from Freud’s 1919 essay das Unheimliche (The Uncanny), as any properly psychoanalytic reading requires. Through my research I embrace Hélène Cixous as she employs this turning and twisting to Freud’s essay in her response essay Fiction and Its Phantasms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche, as she engages enthusiastically and emphatically with his writing and thinking in a resistant response and interaction. In doing so I, unavoidably it seems, come to issues of binaries and feminine sexuality, thus inviting into my attempt the profound ideas of Luce Irigaray as a counterforce to the phallocentric normalcy of psychoanalysis. In deploying this feminine sexuality and my own feminine reading of das Unheimliche, I look at the visual artwork of Canadian artist Shary Boyle and her creation of a pre, or non, Oedipal world where desire may flow unrestricted by the constraints of the symbolic order.



If one is attracted to the writings and ideas of Sigmund Freud, one would think that one would also be drawn to his concept of the uncanny, for the built-in ambiguity and undefinability of the term sits well within the legacy of psychoanalysis itself as being concerned with this very space of in-between what we know and what we don’t. Shoshana Felman states (1987: 57) that "Freud’s unprecedented discovery’ was that the unconscious was not simply opposed to the conscious mind, but ‘speaks as something other from within the speech of consciousness itself". This "something other" is not only our unconscious mind, but the inexplicable as a site of inquiry, and inquiry as a citing of the self. The other of Otherness, something between what’s known and what is not, is where both psychoanalysis and the uncanny live and we are drawn to this "province" of the repressed because we are drawn to the unknown through our desire to know. Consciousness "turns out to be forever incomplete, illusory, and self-deceptive" (Felman, 1987: 57), all words that can (im)properly fit within the domain of the uncanny.

We shall be guided by the ambivalence and in conformity with the undecidable nature of all that touches the Unheimliche: life and fiction, life-as-fiction… (Cixous, 1975: 526).


The uncanny’s contemporary popularity, as almost its own genre both academically and artistically, is found in the Gothic and the Horror and finds itself Fantastical and manifested in Sci-Fi via the cyborg; it is indelibly cross-disciplinary, multifaceted, and at home in fiction that easily allows for belief to be suspended and the repressions of the unconscious to come to the fore. In Freud’s analysis the experiencing of the uncanny was possible primarily via the written word, in literature such as E.T.A. Hoffman’s story The Sandman, which he examined and interpreted in The Uncanny in an attempt to define the term and understand its solicitation as an affective response. Are we not now closer to the experience of the uncanny via the postmodern condition and the ubiquity of moving images as a display of our collective unconscious – the realm of our vast repressions? Is the uncanny, as set within the frightening, not one of our more desirous of cultural products today in an age when re-presentation casts such enigmatic virtualities as believable within the safety-net of vicarious experiences, when fear itself is a commodity to enjoy without fear? For the uncanny today is seen as a way to bring notice to our cultural unconscious, whether via architecture or horror films. We seek explanations and it is in this seeking that we find what’s been buried, where we excavate the ruins of our past and apply them to our present state. The uncanny affords us the opportunity to experience knowledge as something that is not pre-determined or easily given, knowledge that is based in an affective response that flies counter to reason.

In reading das Unheimliche I cannot help but linger on the lack of attention given to the act of seeing, to the idea of sight-as-knowing, especially in Freud’s re-telling and analysis of The Sandman. Freud lived during a bursting of Modernity and how he could not have written about photography and cinema is a question left wide open for me in my questions of the sight’s invisibility in his essay. Since Freud, of course, much has been written on the uncanny nature of photography and especially on its initial effects on people first apprehending it, and on its relation to death (Sontag, 1973; Barthes, 1982; Cadava, 1997). The familiar-yet-unfamiliar experience of the Lumiére Brother’s pivotal film of a train entering a station was certainly something that Freud was aware of and must have, to some degree, experienced himself. What of skyscrapers? What of the automobile? This uncanny element of time and space compression that Paul Virilio (1984, 1991) is so versed at theorizing about today was actually transpiring in its infancy during the time that Freud was creating his science of psychoanalysis via the rise in a Modernist sensibility and the work of artists such as the Italian Futurists. Perhaps it was his entrenched petite bourgeois perspective that kept such novelties from the interior of the human psyche and of his own for Freud, leaving time-based media to all the others who have come since, though he certainly acknowledged that dreams were primarily manifested as imagery and spatial experience.



… it seems as though that major strand of ‘indeterminacy’ in postmodern theory that Ihab Hassan has termed ‘the unrepresentable’ is entirely preoccupied with the uncanny in many implicit and explicit ways (Arnzen, 1997: 2).

In hindsight postmodernism gives us the ability to condition ourselves as negotiators of a world founded on uncertainty and illusion. Had Freud actually lived to have witnessed the Holocaust and its aftermath, then perhaps he may have been so conditioned. As it was, his theory of the death drive, which emerged from case studies of shell-shocked World War I soldiers, set him on that path and set us, who come after him, on the path to postmodernity. Had he lived long enough (he died in 1939 barely a year after fleeing Austria) to know that his dear sisters had been killed in Nazi concentration camps, would he have revised his work even further? The splitting between modernity and postmodernity that was exemplified in Auschwitz was foreseen by Freud in his theoretical move from pleasure to pain, from the individuals’ psyche to that of society’s, and the need for a father-figure to embody the laws of civilization. Had he survived his cancer to witness the machinizations of progress as made into death camps, would it have told him anything that the technological applications of World War I already hadn’t?

"The more you try to bury the dead, the harder they whisper", writes Alex Demeulenaere (2003: 4). Since the Holocaust our ever-present shared anxiety has grown like weeds in the already-corrupted garden, now being so entangled in their origins as to be unnamable and their sources almost imperceivable: "the unspecified tensions of everyday experience" (Berteen, 1995: 62), since everyday experience is so layered with pathological angst. The postmodern subject is imbued with the underbelly of human motivations, and the postmodern society strives to keep the engine of illusion working to sustain a livable level of healthy ignorance, just as it provides for the plurality of deviance and worms beneath the surface of things: "Freud is one of the great disturbers of purity… In the Freudian model, the impure manifests itself not in some other space but as a disruption to any pure realm" (Gallop, 1988: 34), such as a realm of metaphysical distinction that prefaced the postmodern turn. The collapse of master narratives, such as the belief in technological progress making our lives more livable, resulted in a blending and blurring and the creation of multiple spaces between: between people and between what we know and don’t know. Freud helped us too in thinking about space as a psychic entity: the ‘province’ of the uncanny, the "dark continent" of woman. Thus we are mired in uncanniness, as Freud had not so easily been (‘the times in which we live’), as stated in the opening quotation. Yet, "Freud discovered close relationships among the various psychic productions: myths, tales, literature, and art can be explained like dreams" (Kofman, 1988: 3). His method of dream analysis established

a [A] link between the unconscious and the conscious, the normal and the pathological, the child and the adult, the civilized man and the primitive man, the individual and the species, the human and the divine. It links cultural and psychic productions, representations and affect, and so forth (ibid).

This link, this crossing-over and connecting, both establishes a space between and de-establishes the linear causality that we had become accustomed to since the Cartsian mind/body split. Freud knew that art was a way to get to this place, that artists ("poets") had a way of knowing that sidesteps reason and dispels binaries between childhood and adulthood in terms of imaginative proclivity. Sarah Kofman writes in her interpretation of his aesthetics that Freud felt that "what is true of art and religion and psychotic delusions, namely the constraint imposed by the logical mode of thought, is no longer in force" (15) for artists. In his paralleling of the individual to the human species, Freud saw the artistic phase in a person as akin to the animistic phase in early humankind: "the animistic phase must be surpassed by the scientific phase – that of adulthood – characterized by renunciation of the pleasure principle and subordination of object choice to reality" (20). The child is a natural artist and privy to the animistic belief that all things are full of lifespirit, that all life exists in the immaterial as well as the material, that believability has more than vision to sustain itself. Closer to a realm of pure affect (the Real), children embody forces that Freud characterizes as uncanny, such as these beliefs, that allow for the flights of imagination necessary for artistic production: "As children, we did not know if we were going to laugh or cry but, as adults, we 'possess' this world, we make endless use of it… we have forgotten, out of habit, our childish apprehensions" (Bataille, 1949). "There is a rift, an unmastered gap or discontinuity between consciousness and the unconscious, and infantile and adult sexualities", (Grosz, 1990: 10). From child to adult, the division is an illusion of a clearly marked path from one to another, rather than this discontinuity. Psychoanalysis strives to define this porosity: "Freud observed that one of the main features of the uncanny lies in a problematic relation with the past" (Demeulenare, 2003: 3). Hence, the uncanny in cinematic and literary examples sees itself played out with narrative devices akin to methods of analysis, such as flashbacks, overdubs, shifting points of views and multiple narrators, as means to address the problematics of the experience of time.

In his essay of 1994, The Pictures Over Freud’s Couch, George Dimock addresses the images and sculptures that Freud kept in his office in Vienna, a space that was photographed by Edmund Engelman in 1938 on the night Freud left Austria for good. Although Dimock does an exemplary job at analyzing and connecting these works to psychoanalysis and to Freud’s personal and professional history, I want to see if I can look into the sort of artwork, aside from the written word of literature which seems to be what he meant most of all by "art", that appealed to Freud and understand his aesthetic leanings. The work, such as a reproduction of a painting by Ingres of Oedipus and the Sphinx, seems to directly relate to Freud’s overt interests in history and archeology; another image is that of an Egyptian mummy. Again, leaving it to Dimock to attach significance to these images via Freud’s ideas and fascinations, I strive to understand the appeal of the art for aesthetic reasons, yet it doesn’t seem that Freud was interested in pictures other than for what they studiously referenced, such as the classical history of the West. There are no Impressionistic images, Japanese prints, or Art Nouveau muses, as were the effete pictorial tastes of the day. So here I am left with not knowing what other sort of imagistic art Freud might have been drawn to: Braque’s cubist figures, Cézanne’s fragmented spaces, Monet’s hazy lilies? What did he make of those, so revolutionary at that time?

I ask these questions, again, because of what is not included in his essay das Unheimliche. In limiting his journey into an acknowledged aesthetic realm to the written word, Freud is omitting so much of the power that the Uncanny contains; he is perhaps avoiding being affected by it and thus not facing his own repression, though his approach to the uncanny is admittedly uncertain, as uncertain as I am in looking at his omission. By not citing sight as a trigger for affect in his analysis, he depends on language that fails to elicit this effect from himself, as attested to in the quote at the start of this essay. Is his inability to be so impressed predicated on his indelicate perception? Or can it be that the power of words has not the force of an image; that words are indelicate compared to the fragility of a picture? In answering "yes, both" to this question, I make the connection to the time in which he lived as manifest in his own disposition; was Freud privy at all to the proliferation of photographic pornography in Europe at this time? Was he so bourgeois as to not attend to it in his theoretical work, as well as ignoring it in his own desires? The critique of photography and cinema as being mere entertainment ‘for the masses’ at that time was perhaps part of the middle-class mentality that had its hold on Freud. Can we vulgarly refer to this mentality as uptight, especially if we are to cite Cixous’s response essay in pointing out that sex is what Freud is leaving out of his own analysis: "It is only at the end that the sexual threat emerges. But it had always been there latently" (1975: 530).

Doesn’t the analysis which brings up the whole question of repression imprint them at once upon the one who undertakes the analysis



In Thinking Through The Body Jane Gallop calls attention to "the imprint of his own subjectivity upon his pursuit of knowledge" (Gallop, 1988: 5), as she too calls attention to the psychoanalytic critics’ analysis (her own and mine) as being engaged in an ‘erotics of engagement’ with their own subject matter of choice in which they choose to find themselves; desire to know and desire for sex is of one and the same drive circuit. In das Unheimliche Freud uses the story The Sandman to find a way to pinpoint the uncanny and ends up conveniently running head-first into his castration complex. This is because of the emphasis on eyes in the story, the main theme, according to Freud, being
the "Sand-Man" who tears out children’s eyes” (Freud, 1919: 223). My own attraction is towards the visual manifestation of the uncanny and how the images within the story play a part in the fear of its protagonist, as my interest in eyes is grounded in the visual as a way of knowing that is just as problematic, if not more so, than the written word. Let us take our own look at the emphasis on eyes in the story so that we can refocus the uncanny on an alternative way of knowing that’s in keeping with Freud’s conception of the artist and will lead us into a conception of a feminine uncanny.

The story goes as follows: Nathaniel remembers his mother sending him and his siblings to bed early some nights when his father would receive a visitor with the warning that the Sandman was coming. His nurse told the children that the Sandman was wicked and would throw sand in their eyes so that their eyes would fall out, and then he would take their eyes and feed them to his children, who sit in a nest and have beaks to poke out other childrens’ eyes with. One night Nathaniel hides in his father’s study when the mysterious visitor, whom he associates with this dreaded Sandman, comes in and performs an experiment with his father involving hot coals. At this point in the retelling of the story Freud crucially writes that “we are in doubt whether what we are witnessing is the first delirium of the panic-stricken boy, or a succession of events which are to be regarded in the story as being real” (228). So apparently, this visitor – Coppelius – cries out “eyes here, eyes here,” and scares Nathaniel so that his presence is revealed. Coppelius grabs Nathaniel and tries to drop hot coals in his eyes, but the father stops him and saves the boy’s eyes. Nathaniel enters into “a long illness” and years later, when Coppelius visits again, the father dies in an explosion in the study during one of their undefined experiments with hot coals. When at university, Nathaniel encounters an optician named Coppola, who scares him by reminding him of Coppelius when he tries to sell him some glasses while saying, "got fine eyes, fine eyes". Nathaniel ends up buying a "spy-glass" from him, which he uses to spy into his professor’s house to see his daughter Olympia, even though he’s engaged. Nate falls in love with this visage and somehow enters into the professor’s home to find him and the optician Coppola fighting over Olympia, who turns out to be a wooden automaton that they’ve collaborated on. Her eyes fall out and Coppola throws them at Nate, saying that he stole them from him. Nate loses it and tries to strangle Olympia’s father, his professor. He goes into a long illness again. Years later, upon recovery, Nathaniel is reunited with his flesh and blood fiancée and they go up to the top of a tower where he uses his spy-glass on the crowd below and spots the Sandman Coppelius. He then attacks his fiancée and throws himself over the edge of the tower to his death.

Freud almost thoroughly dismisses the relevance of Ernst Jentsch’s, his predecessor on the uncanny. Jentsch claimed in 1906 that "ingeniously constructed dolls and automata" provide uncanny effects by not focusing on Olympia, but rather on the threat of losing one’s eyes, as the basis of the uncanny in Hoffman’s tale. Although Freud recognizes that Jentsch "has taken as a very good instance doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive" (226) as a manifestation of the Uncanny earlier in his essay, he states that Olympia "is by no means the only, or indeed the most important element that must be held responsible for the quite unparalleled atmosphere of uncanniness evoked by the story… the feeling of something uncanny is directly attached to the figure of the Sand-man, that is, to the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes… Uncertainty whether an object is living or inanimate, which admittedly applied to the doll Olympia, is quite irrelevant in connection with this other, more striking instance of uncanniness" (230).



We can see how Freud is so attracted to this story and to this particular element of it: we are here again with Oedipus, who robbed himself of his own eyes, robbing himself of what? Of sight. And what was it that Oedipus could bear no longer to look upon, or deserved to see no more? According to Freud, Oedipus was punishing himself for having sex with his mother, albeit unknowingly. Through his work with dream analysis, Freud had concluded that dismembered body parts, especially eyes, came to symbolize this punishment against the ultimate taboo, incest. The punishment is the critical part, for prohibitions must be enforced through this sort of deterrent in order for society to function. With Oedipus we find the ultimate crime, that of incest, being punished with the ultimate punishment, that of castration, if we are accept Freud’s interpretation that the eyes are but a stand-in for the penis and disregard their function of visual perception. Freud’s castration complex is a pivotal part of the whole structure of the Oedipus complex, the developmental scenario for a child to enter into society and into a proper self. The sexual freedom of the infant, in its polymorphous perversity, must be attenuated with prohibitions and bodily fragmentation via the creation of the erogenous zones. One’s love-object must be transferred from the mother, to the (narcissistic) self, and ultimately to the (name-of-the) father. The threat of castration arises as the parents prohibit the child from touching oneself and turns into a more generalized prohibition against acting on sexual desire that then leads to anxiety, and then to (necessary) repression: “Above all, it is not a question of whether castration is really carried out; what is decisive is that the danger is one that threatens from the outside and that the child believes in it” (Freud, 1933: 86). Theoretically, if one succeeds through this developmental structure, the rest of childhood is spent in ‘latency’ where one’s sexual desires are both turned into energies of a more productive sort, with the help of institutional repression such as that found in schooling, and repressed, thus creating the unconscious, which is made up of such repressions and losses. The latency period only ends once one enters into puberty and into a ‘normalized’ sexuality intent on genitally-based sexual acts with the opposite sex, and thus reproduction. The castration complex functions as an externalized fear that one internalizes in order to keep the species fruitful.

The question to address right now is whether or not the eyes in The Sandman refer to the castration complex: might we not entertain the possibility that this is not all there is to it, just as unheimliche is neither one thing nor another, but a massing of properties at once contradictory and ambiguous? I want to write now of vision and of the twists that this language takes in assigning the notion of understanding to seeing. We privilege sight as knowing: "I see", yet appearances are deceiving and this acknowledgment is due, in no small part, to the influence of Freud in his unveiling of the force the unconscious plays upon our lives. If being robbed of your eyes is, according to Freud, akin to being robbed of the phallus, then what you are losing, according to Lacan, is your place in the symbolic order, your place in language; if one does not obey the paternalistic law, one is stripped of signification, of sight., of the ability to know. But might there not be a way to know that eludes this order?

While he did not focus on the image in modern art, modern art has re-focused the image in that the invention of photography freed painters to abstract from representative renderings of a sharply defined reality. Thus, we have the impressions of the Impressionists, the fracturing of the Cubists, and the juxtapositions of the Surrealists. All-in-one, Modernity has allowed us to lift the veil of representative realistic renderings of existent life to look at what indeed may lie behind, or beneath, just as Freud has done with our psyches. This abstraction with both image and idea in visual art created an interstitial space between the object-being-viewed (eg: a painting), and the perception of the one viewing; in this space between is where the work of art occurs, where it works on you and you back on it. It involves a sensational interrelationship that accesses your unconscious in a response that is most often difficult to put into words, to categorize, to explain. So seeing is, in this sense, a form of knowing outside of language, outside of the symbolic order, and it is ripe for misperception because of this lack and in contrast to signification. Sight itself can be castrated.

Although the topic of turns in representation is relevant here, this space is for how sight-as-knowing may apply to an alternate reading of The Sandman, and thus of the uncanny, that could only come after Freud. So then, once more, is little Nathaniel’s fear of the Sandman a fear of punishment via the castration complex? Let’s follow the source of how Nathaniel came to know of this Sandman: it was his mother who told him and his siblings of him, and the alternate caretaker, their nurse, who filled in the horrid details. Nathaniel’s father actually stopped Coppelius – the Sandman – from taking his eyes, rescuing Nathaniel. So the initial prohibition lies with the females in the story. If we allow the eyes to represent a knowledge that would afford him a place in civilized society, then what is it that Nathaniel is not supposed to know, or what is it that he is not supposed to want to know, for his curiosity about the mysterious visitor has a stronger force on him than his fear of losing his eyes, hence he ends up hiding in the study. Freud felt that curiosity – sexual curiosity – was a healthy stage for a child, but one that had to be eventually sublimated into intellectual pursuits. Was Nathaniel’s father, in saving his eyes, telling him that it was okay to still be curious? And what sort of curiosity would need to be curtailed?

According to Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, the infant is constantly sexually aroused by his caretaker. His sucking of the breast gives pleasure through satiation, the cleaning of the genitals and anal region an ongoing necessity also arousing pleasure; for Freud, all pleasure is thus sexual. If the caretakers are typically female, then there is a direct association with these pleasures and their source, woman. The time of separation, in Julia Kristeva’s terms of abjection, is tied into the separation from the mother’s body and the awareness of one’s own body in wanting, and the mother’s in satisfying the want, the hunger. The original separation is, of course, "the original anxiety at birth" (87). That initial separation sets a trauma in motion that is repeated throughout life and fixed on the woman as a maternal figure: she cast you out and you want back in, but how to get there is indeed the major mystery. And, most importantly, if getting there meant the negation of separation, would that not equal the loss of one’s autonomy and therefore death? Uncertainties infuse these questions with contradictory desires aiming towards both pleasure and pain, loss and gain: "for Freud the Unheimliche symbolizes the shattering of the autonomous subject" (Demeulenaere, 2003: 5).

In putting the fear of the Sandman into the children, is the mother/nurse merely carrying the Law of the Father within her? Are they "invoking 'his' authority on loan’ in the absence of the father" (Grosz, 1990: 71)? Or, is there something pertaining to their own functioning as female caretakers/providers of sexual pleasure that needs to be warded off in the development of the children? Of interest to this line of thought is the passage in das Unheimliche where Freud relates a somewhat uncanny experience he had while wandering about in "a provincial town in Italy". He is trying to make the point about the Uncanny and the "repetition of the same thing" being one of its conditions; the part of town was unknown to him and he "found himself in a quarter of whose character I could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows" (emphasis added). He "hastened" to leave that area and return to what was familiar, only to find himself back there, and then once again: "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" (Freud, 1919: 237). It would be amiss of me not to draw attention to the term “painted women” as another way of seeing a doll, as well as the more familiar euphemism for a prostitute, or a supposedly easy woman ("Hey, doll, what’s swingin"). Clearly the common meaning is one of sexual availability as determined in the historical virgin/whore binary. A flesh and blood woman being replaced by a doll or an automaton, with her features painted on, necessarily extends the objectification of woman as a sexual object; she is the key to the journey back to the womb and your attraction to her is a return of the repressed. Freud’s ‘voyage of discovery’ was a discovery of his feeling of the uncanny, a discovery of women-as-sexually-available, of women-as-object; an explosive affective moment of his own repressed desire contingent upon his sense of sight.


The Phallic Symbol:

When Nathaniel, now as a university student, uses his "spy glass" to play Peeping Tom to the alluring Olympia he falls in love with her immediately. How can this be possible? How does the distance from his voyeuristic sighting dependent on optics for magnification via his spy glass allow such a thing to happen? He is clearly seeing her as an object of and for his repressed desire; she is no more real than a trick of the light, yet much more unreal than his flesh and blood fiancée, which may be a safer bet for him in terms of sexual fulfillment. The spy-glass is a phallic symbol, with its penetrating look of power over someone who is not aware that they are being looked at. Nathaniel, never having resolved his Oedipal crisis of earlier years, needs this cyborgian piece of equipment in order to enhance his own ability to see and, thus, to love someone of the opposite sex, as he should. The phallus status of the spy-glass affords him his proper place in the symbolic order, but things are not as they seem. The object of the look is contained in the optics of the scope; contained and controlled from afar. This idealization of the feminine with safe distance intact gives Nathaniel the promise of desire fulfilled, perhaps just as his engagement prolongs it. Olympia, as this distanced object, is more available for his desire’s fulfillment than a real person since she is thus objectified and an illusion, a vision, and an uncanny double to his betrothed who, due to the social constraints of the time and class, is sexually unavailable to him.

Upon finding out that she is not what she appeared to be, Nate loses his cool, just as he loses his illusions. His enhanced phallic sight had given him access to the forbidden object, a daughter/creation of his professor-father figure and therefore an incestuous union had it occurred. This repressed and unspoken desire had surfaced via the Imaginary of the sight of Olympia through his voyeuristic act. Both the professor and the optician Coppola bear witness to Nate’s discovery that Olympia is not alive, that she is not a viable option for a sexual act. As her eyes fall out of her head, Coppola throws them at Nate in anger saying that he used Nate’s eyes for Olympia’s. The return of the repressed here is inculcated with the loss of both Olympia’s eyes and Nate’s illusion, but the exchange of eyeballs is of interest as an exchange of information and power between Nathaniel and Olympia. Nate needed the spy-glass to see, and Olympia needs to not be a machine; they are both lacking the phallus and a place in the symbolic order. For Olympia to have truly lived, she would’ve needed some human eyes to see with, to know of the world, to have signification. Just as in the film Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1981), these eyes are the doors to perception, and this perception the discovery of what it is to be human, to desire. Nathaniel’s ‘eyes’ did not work for Olympia, though, just as they seemed to have never worked for him. His desire remains blind and unknowing, failing to give life. If Olympia were flesh and blood, she could have been his mate and their union would have overcome the issue of sexual difference that lies at the heart of Nate’s lack of knowledge. The original prohibitions that his mother and nurse set into motion with the fear of the Sandman now points to this issue of sexual difference; Nathaniel was denied this knowledge and, with his father’s death, was denied a father-figure to guide him on the straight and narrow. He has neither a proper father to assimilate himself to, nor a woman to highlight his own significance. All that’s left for him is the evil father-figure who prohibits without modeling the proper gender role, as his father would have done with his mother by his side.

When the subject becomes a speaking being, he or she will no longer be able to have sex in an animal’s instinctive way. However, in the place of this loss, we encounter a force that essentially marks the subject by imposing a constant pressure on him or her… (Salecl, 1997: 19).


Woman as Other:

Sight is not enough: the citing of woman as a continent; the site of the uncanny as a province perhaps within it; the container of the womb for all men to journey back to. What you see is not necessarily what you get. With both the ‘painted women’ of Freud’s uncanny experience, and with the alluring Olympia, satisfaction is deferred by both repression and by the impossibility of actual union and, thus, loss of the self. Olympia seems to be a woman, but Nathaniel lacks the knowledge necessary to truly obtain her; his knowledge has been denied by the impotence of his natural sight. It took an external phallus via the spy-glass to give him access to his repressed desire: his desire is located in his ability to see. The threat of castration, of having your power in the symbolic order taken from you, is located in this exchange. Freud bypassed the prostitutes only to return to them twice more before ‘finding his way out’ of the pull of his repressed desire. He maintained his position, but experienced the Uncanny. Those woman, as the basest form of his desire’s satisfaction, would take him back to the place we all journey out from through a sexual act that would not result in reproduction, thus its prohibition and repression.

… this fear of falling back into the mother’s body, metaphorically at least, of losing one’s own identity, is what Freud identified as the ultimate source of the feeling of uncanniness… a deep anxiety over losing one’s subjectivity (McAfee, 2004: 48).


For the girl, the castration complex is a double whammy since she unavoidably discovers that she is already castrated once she sees that her father has a penis and realizes that both she and her mother do not. According to Freud, and in many ways Lacan as well, a woman’s sexuality, aside from being a "dark continent" and a "riddle", is based in this lack, in her mark as other that is instigated firstly by what she sees and what she doesn’t; the absence of the penis marks the knowledge for both girls and boys that she is different and that she is lacking. "Sexual difference becomes codified into the presence or absence of a single feature – the male sexual organ…" (Grosz, 1990: 188). "Women, the mother in particular, must therefore be constructed as not having, that is, as lacking the phallus in order for men to be regarded as having it. Women desire the penis as castrated subjects" (119). She desires to be made whole by obtaining the phallus through obtaining a man, as her mother has, so that she achieves signification within the symbolic order as the other, as the second sex. She is already "amputated". Hence, according to psychoanalysis proper, feminine desire is centered on the desire to be wanted by a man, assuring her some of this power that he already has.

Is the question of sexual differentiation located in this negation? Is woman woman because she is not man? Or is there some knowledge that is unmarked by the symbolic order and hinted at throughout the investigations of the uncanny? "Distinctions, binary oppositions, are relations based on one rather than many terms, the one term generating a non-reciprocal definition of the other as its negative" (124). Are women to accept this one way, along with their castrated condition, as "fait accompli" by being so ensnared within the castration complex? Can there be an order of symbolization that does not rely on lack and this primary repression? These questions are addressed by Luce Irigaray in her return to the body for a site of symbolic and representational resistance, and in her call for a sense of wonder to reattach itself to sexual difference:

Who or what the other is, I never know. But the other who is forever unknowable is the one who differs from me sexually. This feeling of surprise, astonishment, and wonder in the face of the unknowable ought to be returned to its locus: that of sexual difference (Irigaray, 1993: 13).


A Female Artist:

Here is where we look at the work of Shary Boyle, drawings, paintings, and sculptures that show us what we are not supposed to see, what we are not supposed to know,


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Fig. 1: untitled. polymar clay, gouache, 6cm tall (Boyle, 2002). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fig. 2: untitled. ink (Boyle, 1999).

as well as offers us visions of the symbolic order at its most destructive through the repression and fear it necessitates, through its denial of bodily sensation as an element of knowing oneself. The ability of this artwork to be uncanny is predicated on vision, on what we see, with every small detail impressing upon us the magnitude of the repression that the work either incorporates or resists. It is out of the bounds of reason.

Fiction is connected to life’s economy by a link as undeniable and ambiguous as that which passes from the unheimliche to the heimliche: it is not unreal, it is the ‘fictional reality’ and the vibration of reality (Cixous, 1975: 546).


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Fig. 3: Bloodie Writes an Anthem. ink, watercolour (Boyle, 2005). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Fig. 4: untitled. ink (Boyle, 2000).

With Boyle’s work we see a move from a female subject who struggles within the representational limits of the symbolic order ("Language defines things in a way that I’m not personally comfortable with because it’s too limiting" [Boyle, 2000]) , whose desire struggles within the restraints of being the amputated other, who struggles with the castration complex and the mark of difference as a loss, to a female subject reveling in her unceasing fluid explosive desire. Ultimately, the female subject of her work rebels and completes herself through this resistance, creating her own world of and through transgression and conjoined affective sensations with nature itself; it is not a real world because it is a work of fiction, but fiction itself is the place of the uncanny where nothing is real yet all things are possible. As with Elizabeth Grosz’s estimation of the writings of Irigaray and Kristeva, Boyle too affirms "the fluid, polymorphous perverse status of libidinal drives and… evoke(s) a series of sites of bodily pleasure capable of resisting the demands of the symbolic order" (1990: 149).

Boyle’s female figures enact their submission and restriction in a gestural space of the semiotic, Kristeva’s concept for a pre-Oedipal time and space in which flux is emergent and drives are multiple: "The semiotic is thus the rhythmic, energetic, dispersed bodily series of forces which strive to proliferate pleasures, sounds, colours, or movements experienced in the child’s body" (McAfee, 2004: 152). To add to this statement what we know of the blurring between childhood and adulthood, it is not only the child’s body that is capable of such transgression. According to Kristeva, the semiotic is constantly erupting through the symbolic order which tries to control and repress its power of expression: "the symbolic harnesses libidinal flows" (153) in a way that this imagined world without language does not, we’ll call it ‘nature’ because that is what has been constructed for us, this dichotomy between language-as-creation and nature-as-occurring-without-intervention. Her figures bear the marks of the world ‘outside’ of them, since the boundaries pitting inside against outside are no longer in force without this space of in-between. What happened to Nathaniel in The Sandman was a result of his "flows" being "harnessed".



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Fig. 5: Sami of Finland. oil (Boyle, 2005). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fig. 6: Porcelain Fantasy #19. ink, watercolour (Boyle, 2005).


Kristeva believes that it is only men who can effectively disrupt the symbolic order by semiotic expressions, but I maintain that once you have arrived at such a possibility, it would be nihilistic and clearly futile to deny women access to this force, since it was, in Kristeva’s estimation, from women that such a force erupted in the first place. This brings us back to the question of sexual difference as maintained by the symbolic order. "Sexuality, in Freud’s understanding is not, in spite of popular conceptions, governed by nature, instincts, or biology but by signification of meaning", writes Kristeva (McAfee, 2004: 13). Something will mean something if we allow the signification to occur. Following Irigaray, the distinction between the sexes is a resistance to sameness, to assimilation, and a casting-off point for wonder: "Who or what can move us out of mere survival except a return to the bodily-fleshly values that have never yet come full flower" (Irigaray, 1993: 144)? We end up once more at a space between, an uncanny place predicated on ambiguity and questioning, on not knowing through reason alone.


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Fig. 7: The Origins of Joy. Ink, watercolour (Boyle, 2005). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fig. 8: Taproots. Clay, gouache (Boyle, 2005).



Much of Shary Boyle’s work illustrates the old animistic conception of the universe that, as a patriarchal civilization, we have supposedly surpassed. The subjects in her work are inextricably inhabitants of such a universe. This "over evaluation" of mental processes that allows thoughts to be empowered within the material realm, is caught up in her visions of women and little girls as beings with such powers, as being powerful. This narrative space is an account of a non-Oedipal world where men are usually absent and nature itself couples with its female inhabitants in such an animistic way as to render this universe magical and death-defying. There is no fear of abject separation, nor of repeated attempts to return, because one has never left; the connection between body and the rest of the natural world is continuous, seamless, and brimming with fluid desire that does not depend on difference for its propulsion. This fluidity assures that death is not a loss of the self because the self, in this fiction, was never at a loss.


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Fig. 9: unititled. Oil, fluorescent pigment (Boyle, 2003) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fig. 10: untitled. oil (Boyle, 2002).


This uncanny space of Boyle’s work also maintains an unabashed sexuality that flies in the face of the symbolic order’s system of veiling and referencing. The female sex is not covered up and no metaphoric devices are needed in her tiny sculptures of disembodied females who are all-woman with their genitalia exposed and flaunted; she has no need to hint at what’s there, as Lacan did by keeping his painting by Gustave Courbet of a woman’s brazenly spread open legs (The Origin of the World, 1866) behind a sliding door . In this act of repression Lacan was indeed obeying the laws of the symbolic father in covering up the very origin of the world that is the impetus for the return of the repressed, the uncanny itself. In contrast, Shary Boyle obeys no such laws; she is not the "dutiful daughter" who needs to maintain her signification as dictated by the patriarchal system, rather she creates her own system in the transgressive acts of "bringing to light" what has been in the dark for so long. In illuminating this source of life and death she uses visual artwork, and our affective responses to it, to highlight the possibilities of the space-between our actions and our desires. Everything that ought to have remained hidden and secret has become unabashedly visible in her dreamworld of free-flowing desire and abjected sexual difference. She can do this by brave leaps of the artistic imagination that has access to the unconscious:

As a Reserve of the Repressed, fiction is finally that which resists analysis and, thus, it attracts the most. This "freedom of fiction" as another form of the unheimliche is like that which should have remained hidden. Still this fiction does not escape the law of representation, and is mysterious to everything but itself (Cixous, 1975: 547).


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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fig. 11: Water and Grass. Polymar clay, gouache (Boyle, 2005).

Let us take the following quotation by Freud regarding art and replace each instance of the word "man", "he", "his" or "men" with the feminine and read it thus:

art... brings about a reconciliation of the two principles (pleasure and reality) in a peculiar way. An artist is originally a woman who turns away from reality because she cannot come to turns with the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction which it at first demands, and who allows her erotic and ambitious wishes full play in the life of phantasy. She finds the way back to reality, however, from this world of phantasy by making use of her special gifts to mould her phantasies into truths of a new kind, which are valued by women as precious reflections of reality. Thus in a certain fashion she actually becomes the hero, the king, the creator, or the favourite she desired to be, without following the long, roundabout path of making real alterations in the external world. But she can only achieve this because other women feel the same dissatisfaction as she does with the renunciation demanded by reality, and because that dissatisfaction, which results from the replacement of the pleasure-principle by the reality principle, is itself part of reality (Freud, 1911: 224).

The symbolic order, within which the castration complex functions, may be the way things are but when we come to fiction – when we come to Art – we are in a fuller realm that may offer us things as they can be imagined to be, as they can be dreamt; the world as occupied by itself and with itself in a fluid exchange beyond threat and in awe of exhilaration: "it does not have to be this way", is the plea of the artist in creating uncanny spaces. In trying to sort out the uncanny through Freud and Boyle, I have ended up here, in this space between, filled with contradictions and, therefore, spottings of possibility.


If man achieves autonomy from a maternal that supports him, from the kind of all-powerful Other that is finally extrapolated into God, then perhaps he will discover that there is something inhering in the female that is not maternal… which would oblige man – humanity – to glimpse something other, something not of his world… not built to his specifications (Irigaray, 1993: 145–6).


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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fig. 12: Feral Girls Hunt Down and Prepare to Slay God. Ink (Boyle, 2004).




1. These photographs were subsequently meticulously drawn in charcoal and graphite by the artist Robert Longo and exhibited at Metro Pictures, NYC for the first time in 2001, and then published in book form. http://www.metropicturesgallery.com/index.php?mode=exhibition&object_id=33

2. Peeping Tom is the name of a famous film by Michael Powell made in 1960. The film tells the story of a cameraman who, as a young boy, was the subject of effects-of-fear experiments by his father, who ends up a serial killer who films his murder victims as he’s terrorizing and killing them. http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/447463/

3. Olympia (1863), the at-the-time highly controversial painting by Edouard Manet of the naked woman who looks back at us, challenging our look of possession. We are no longer a voyeur if she knows she’s being watched, if she’s looking back, returning the gaze. The painting was scandalous at the time because it portrays an assertive prostitute rather than an historical figure, as well as because of the noticeable brushstrokes and harsh light. See: http://www.unc.edu/~sfox/olympia.html

4. Originally published in the bookwork: I Feel Funny Mommy, now published in the book of Boyle’s bookworks Witness My Shame, 2005.

5. This Shary Boyle quote was taken from an interview with Ryan Bigge published in Broken Pencil, Winter 2000, and retrieved from http://www.biggeworld.com/archive/boyle.html on 1/18/2006.

6. Jacques Lacan kept Gustave Courbet’s realistic painting L’Origine du Monde (1866), which depicts a reclining bare-bottomed female figure (you look at her from the point of view between her legs looking up at her genitals, legs spread, breasts exposed, a blanket covering her face) behind a wooden sliding door that has an abstraction of it on the front. See: http://www.lacan.com/courbet.htm.



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Fig. 1: Boyle, Shary (2002). Untitled. Polymar clay, gouache. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.
Fig. 2: Boyle, Shary (1999). Untitled, ink. I Feel Funny Mommy. Self-published booklet.
Fig. 3: Boyle, Shary (2005). Bloodie Writes an Anthem. Ink, watercolour. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.
Fig. 4: Boyle, Shary (2000). Untitled, ink. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.
Fig. 5: Boyle, Shary (2005). Sami of Finland. Oil. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.
Fig. 6: Boyle, Shary (2005). Porcelain Fantasy #19. Ink, watercolour. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.
Fig. 7: Boyle, Shary (2005).The Origins of Joy. Ink, watercolour. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.
Fig. 8: Boyle, Shary (2005).Taproots. Clay, gouache. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.
Fig. 9: Boyle, Shary (2003). Unititled. Oil, fluorescent pigment. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.
Fig. 10: Boyle, Shary (2002). Untitled. Oil. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.
Fig. 11: Boyle, Shary (2005). Water and Grass. Polymar clay, gouache. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.
Fig. 12: Boyle, Shary (2004). Feral Girls Hunt Down and Prepare to Slay God. Ink. Retrieved 3 March 2006, <http://www.sharyboyle.com>.



* All images used with permission of the artist Shary Boyle.

all rights reserved. gayle gorman. ggorman@ualberta.ca