Friday, June 22, 2012

The Uncanniness of the Pickpocket

This is only tangentially linked to art, and it's not a subject well amenable to pictures. So - consider that fair warning?

I was at Spring Street the other night, drawing a model named Burr, a tall, skinny, hairy guy; life drawing is when I do some of my best thinking. I was thinking about Leonard Cohen, whom we discussed a bit recently. I had earlier in the day heard one of his songs, and a lyric in it came back to me. It's The Stranger Song. I have long identified with this song because it includes a line that sums up my worst fear about myself:

I told you when I came I was a stranger

Well, second-worst. But that's not the part I was thinking about. This was:

...while he talks his dreams to sleep
You notice there's a highway
That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder.

Context: this song, like so many other Cohen songs, is addressed to a woman with flamboyantly wretched taste in men. The woman in this case has a thing for guys who claim they are giving up their wandering, gambling ways, but really, they just need someplace to crash tonight. They'll be moving on in the morning, once she's already fallen in love with them.

In this lyric, a stranger is talking to the woman. He is claiming that he's changed. And she is listening to what he's saying, and seeing at the same time that he is lying. I had a sudden sense of the uncanny. It was very much the same as the scene in Lost Highway where Robert Blake is speaking to Bill Pullman at a party, and Blake claims that he is, right now, inside of Pullman's house. He pulls out a cell phone and has Pullman call home. Blake answers, and the two of him carry on a baiting, menacing conversation with Pullman.

 Lost Highway, Robert Blake

In Lost Highway, Blake's character, listed in the credits as Mystery Man, conforms structurally to Freud's notion of the uncanny as the return of the repressed: he is an ambiguous, multipresent gnome who murders Pullman's wife, with the strong implication that Pullman himself murdered his wife and partially blocked the memory.

I have an evolving relationship with Freud's definition of the uncanny. I used to think it was entirely incorrect; now I think it is simply incomplete. I think he observed an actual phenomenon, and piggy-backed his own set of ideas onto it to lend credence to the ideas. But the resulting definition is a kind of special subset of the entire field of the uncanny. For me, one good hypothesis (good, but ultimately likely to be wrong) of the Compleat Uncanny is a shocking conflict between a real experience, and our accepted idea of reality. Robert Blake, demonstrably in two places at once. The man who talks his dreams to sleep, and all the time a highway is curling up above his shoulder.

Wait - how is that second one uncanny?

Well, consider: there are three loci of our notion of the real:

    •    the processes of our own consciousness
    •    our sense perceptions of the world
    •    things other people say

These three loci often stray from one another, and our consciousness is always seeking to match them up. We instinctively treat all of them as real - at least I do. Uncanniness occurs within and between these loci. There is a trace of the uncanny to a man floating in midair; there is a speeding locomotive of uncanny to having forgotten you are a murderer.

Lies, like the return of the repressed, involve a reality conflict. But lies go further - they are a willful mislocation of reality. They are insupportable, there is something about them which goes not against the laws of morality, but against the laws of physics. I cannot tell a lie, and I cannot abide a lie.

A man faces me, eyes bright and clean as glass, and tells me he is done wandering. And I see the highway curling up like smoke above his shoulder. The image is perfectly crafted, which is to say, inspired. No rational process leads to it; it can only reveal itself. Smoke goes with fire, and fire is demonic. The highway is linear, like the serpent's tongue. The man is the prince of lies, the heartstone of the uncanny.

The best line of Othello, unfortunately, happens to be found in Hamlet, Act I, Scene V:

That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—

This is the mechanism by which Iago undoes Othello. Othello cannot conceive the hideous conflict Iago embraces, that Iago can say one thing, and know that something else is true.

For me, this is the crux of the tragedy of Othello. The rest is window-dressing, a plot cooked up to support this essential idea: the ontological terror of the lie. I would be half-prepared to make the argument that Othello is the tragedy of Iago. Certainly Othello falls from grace, but his fatal flaw - all that jealousy business - is a less profound flaw than Iago's lies.

Othello and Desdemona in happier times

Othello suffers blunt pain and death, but what becomes of Iago? Act V, Scene II:

Demand me nothing, what you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Iago is disfigured by his villainy. Shakespeare contends that he who starts in lies, ends in silence: effaced by his own hand, not from life, but from the universe. He launches himself into the void.

All of this makes my skin crawl. Cohen's Stranger, Blake's Mystery Man, Iago: those who come up to you and lie to your face.

This is what I considered, while drawing our tall, hairy, skinny model at Spring Street. And he himself looked a little like a liar I once met. I was reminded of this liar: he was a pickpocket. We were in a flea market, in Rome. I had been warned of pickpockets, and kept my wallet and passport in zipped pockets. A crowd mysteriously condensed around us in a narrow lane in the flea market. Our pace slowed to a crawl. I looked at the thin, tall, hairy man beside me. He smiled. I felt a nervous skittering on my leg. I shouted, in shock, "This man is picking my pocket." He smiled: "No, I don't know what you're talking about." I looked down; his hand was in my pocket; he was pulling out my wallet; my passport was already gone. I grabbed his arm, shouted at him, shouted for the police. I made a commotion. Someone somewhere along the criminal chain, with a subtle jerk of the wrist, threw my passport on the ground and said, "Look, it must have fallen there."

He got nothing. I should have broken his fucking fingers. Except probably I'd have gotten a knife in the gut for my troubles. The pickpocket was narrow and lightboned; his friends were not. I do not think about my pickpocket much, but I still recoil in anger and shock when I think of the time I came face to face with this reptile, this uncanny, this liar.

There is another element to the encounter with the uncanny that arises in these instances. It is the uncanny gaze, the gaze endowed with secret knowledge. What is secret knowledge? It is knowledge you do not have. All knowledge is secret until you have it. The hook of the uncanny is that this secret knowledge is knowledge you should have, knowledge you may already have had. For whatever reason, you don't have it now.

This comes back to Freud - it may well be that the knowledge is so terrible you have repressed it. This is literally the case with, for instance, the uncanny gaze as delivered by Robert De Niro in Angel Heart.

He knows something, and Mickey Rourke ought to know it too. He used to know.

But it is not always the case that the uncanny gaze fits so neatly into the repressed-memory model. Consider Galadriel's telepathic conversation with Frodo in Peter Jackson's version of Lord of the Rings:

There's nothing Frodo should have remembered, but didn't. He doesn't particularly notice that what Galadriel is physically saying, and what he's hearing, are not the same, until she points it out. He's totally innocent in this instance. She's pretty much just fucking with him. But the reality conflict arises, and riding its pale horse beside the conflict is the uncanny gaze - the gaze that says, "I know something awful, and if you think about it, you will find you know it too."

The uncanny is, in a sense, a falling away of illusion. Only one claim can win this conflict. One claim is true, and one claim is a lie, or an error. There is a terrible vulnerability to the liar: with his mouth, he advocates for the error. But with his eyes, he admits the truth. He begs you to believe his lies. There is something abject about him, something that puts him entirely in your possession, if you want him. Cohen's unnamed gambler is the pathetic captive of his hostess. Iago is the slave of Othello. My pickpocket begged me, "Believe me, believe me." And all the time they know something, it is written clearly on their faces, and it is available to the subject of their blandishments if he or she wants to pick it up.

The recipient of the uncanny has a choice to make: do I go with my instinct and believe the words, or do I look directly at the highway above the shoulder, the secret knowledge in the eye? Believing the words gives a tactical win to the liar, but as we see with Iago, it destroys the liar. Believing the gaze defeats the liar, but it saves him. It casts out his demon, his untruth. It restores to him the world, from which he has turned away. Lies are dead ends, as dead as it gets.

But the truth involved in an uncanny situation is not an easy truth. If it were easy, there would never have been anything uncanny about it. We can see this vividly illustrated in, of all things, the little-noted horror movie Event Horizon. Event Horizon was made in 1997, during the period when filmmakers agreed that faster-than-light travel must involve three large concentric rings rotating on separate axes to produce an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. The reasons for this consensus remain mysterious to this day.

FTL drive, 1997 model year

Anyhoo, what happens is, this experimental spaceship, the Event Horizon, went faster than light, and what do you know, computer glitch, they wound up in a hell dimension. Here's the upsetting thing about that - they didn't particularly have a bad time there. Rather, they recognized the truth of the place, and gleefully self-mutilated, and came back evangelists of bloody malevolence. Now a rescue crew has gone to find out what's up with the Event Horizon, including Sam Neill, whose wife was among the crew. The ship seems abandoned. It isn't, of course. Eventually, poor Sam Neill catches up with his wife. She appears to him, apparition-like. Turns out she's de-eyeballed herself at some point since he last hung out with her. Meeting up with him again, she croaks, "I have such beautiful things to show you."

worth noting: Freud's description of the uncanny involved the concept of eyeball theft in Hoffman's story "The Sandman"

Subtle, it ain't. But it is uncanny. Missing eyeballs aside, it's an instance of the uncanny gaze. In this case, the emphasis lies with the difficult truth. Because the conflict underlying the uncanny is this: if the thing you thought was true, isn't - then what is?

It might be anything, except comfortable. If it were comfortable, it wouldn't have been concealed or lost.

So the liar does not depend on his lies alone to convince you. He also depends on the fact that you don't want to know the truth. You are shying away from the truth right now. There is every chance that the truth is worse than the lie. The uncanny gaze is a frightening invitation, and the lips keep whispering, "Believe the words, believe the words." You might just want to go on believing the words.

I think about the uncanny gaze a lot. It is often in the back of my mind when I design a painting.

Emma Twice, Daniel Maidman, 2009, oil on canvas, 48"x48"

The uncanny gaze is on my mind a lot because I have had a feeling, my entire life, that the world is not what we think it is. Not at all. This is not an uncommon feeling, especially in children, who must constantly re-evaluate the world because they don't know anything about it yet. But for me, the feeling won't go away. I am in no wise so organized in my thinking as to be religious, but I cannot shake the feeling that it is absurd to think our primitive senses, and our rudimentary reason, are telling us the whole story.

I think the world is not what we think it is, and moreover, I think that when we finally see the world properly, it will not be a surprise. We will, as Socrates suspected, have a sense of recognition, of recollection of something we knew, and forgot.

There are two ways to express this sense in artwork: one can attempt to depict the truth itself, which is the strategy Kubrick adapted in 2001:

2001, Stargate sequence

Or one can depict people who have encountered this truth, which is the strategy Tarkovsky took in Solaris, which was very much an explicit response to 2001:

Solaris, start of final scene

Kubrick's strategy is riskier - you can get it right, and basically start your own religion, or you can look absurd. Both arguments have been made about 2001.

Tarkovsky's strategy is more accessible; it retains the recognizably human, providing purchase for the audience. And yet it introduces the uncanny, it leads the audience toward its own encounter with the awful truth.

I have emphasized the uncanny gaze in the past because I generally empathize with Tarkovsky's path. I have never wanted to tell anyone what to think (laugh at me, those of you who know me personally - it's true; I have certainly tried to persuade you, and I'm working on improving that skill even now, but I would not be your dictator). I have never wanted to tell anyone what to think - but I have wanted to introduce people to the vast stretches of available thoughts which I had glimpsed, or thought I glimpsed.

And similarly, since I do not know the truth, I have looked around, asking, "Do you know? How about you over there - do you know?" I am afraid of the truth, but I want to know what it is. So I am drawn to the uncanny gaze, and I seek to put it in my work.

I am, however, working on some work right now along the path of Kubrick, which I will show you soon, and we can discuss it then.

Incidentally, being oversensitive to the uncanny gaze, from a practical perspective, is a fast-track to paranoia. If you go around thinking you might run into somebody who knows something, you'll think you see them everywhere. This is why I will not touch marijuana. The only thing it does for me is give everybody the uncanny gaze - and meanwhile, it's quite obvious, the entire time, that I'm the only monster in the room. Everybody has always known, and I had forgotten. Nobody has said anything yet because it would be horribly impolite.


  1. Interesting that you use both Event Horizon and Solaris in this article, as EH seemed to be an almost scene-for-scene remake at times of Solaris.

    1. You know, what with the saturation of one in blood and mayhem, and the other not as much, I never thought before of this totally credible parallel. Certainly EH is a better scene-for-scene remake than, for instance, the other Solaris.

  2. Doesn't this truth go something like, "I said in my ecstacy, every man is a liar."?

    Then there's Rumsfeld's adroit image: The known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. Add to them the unknown knowns and maybe there's part of the uncanny there.

    Plus Lewis' description of the numinous; the thing which is not fearful for what it can do (Such as a bear or a criminal) but because of what it is. I think maybe in more childlike modes of thinking the two easily blend, so there's that. However, 'that which is but should not be' from the standpoint of our affection and reason is definitely the numinous, and the uncanny, to boot. The fear attributed to people when they see angels seems very much like this uncanny, numinous fear -- but what is it about the appearance of an angel that a man has so hard a time accepting?