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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, January 4, 2014


For reasons I'll explore in a future essay, I'm addressing the ways in which a given phenomenality manifests its qualities of what some have loosely called "mind" and "body"-- qualities which the poet Octavio Paz re-christened "non-body" and "body."

I first mentioned Paz's formulation in this essay:

I take the phrases "body" and "non-body" from an essay by Octavio Paz in CONJUNCTIONS AND DISJUNCTIONS. Paz was mindful of the fact that a lot of the words used by human beings in opposition to the physical body (as well as physical phenomena generally) are highly speculative, such as "soul" and "spirit." For that matter, even words like "mind" and "the unconscious," while more commonly used by materialists, are still "iffy."

"Non-body," then, was Paz's portmanteau term for all that intangible shit. I believe he meant it not as a viable category in itself but just as a means of spotlighting how human beings regard everything that informs their symbolic universe (that's Cassirer, again, BTW), be it tangible or intangible, corporeal or incorporeal, body or "non-body." It appeals to me as a means to subsume aspects of humanity that are sometimes ascribed to "mind," sometimes to "spirit."

It occurs to me that with both my categories of "the naturalistic" and "the marvelous," all of the "intangible shit" is highly dependent on whether or not the diegetic world depicted is one in which causality can or cannot be disrupted.  Whether the range of affects is dominated by the spectrum of fear and admiration (the naturalistic), or the spectrum of awe and exaltation (the marvelous), those "non-body" affects are dependent on the nature of the "body;" i.e., the causal universe.

In contrast, within the intermediate category of "the uncanny," body and non-body are somewhat in equilibrium.  Causality is not violated, and yet the affects that arise from works of the uncanny-- dominantly dread and fascination-- exceed in tonality the range of affects that dominate the category of the naturalistic.  Given that I have formulated my "ten tropes" as a means of showing how certain works exceed naturalistic limitations, it seems apposite to explore those tropes in terms of how they reveal the uncanny affects in terms of the ambivalence between body and non-body.

Going alphabetically:

ASTOUNDING ANIMALS-- Any animal whose behavior exceeds the limits of common expectations, be it Moby Dick or Jaws, belongs here.  Though an uncanny animal does not exceed causal limitations, its attitude can, as when I describe Jaws as demonstrating an "almost supernatural ferocity." 

BIZARRE CRIMES-- This trope concerns the commission of crimes for motives that go beyond the ordinary ends of "acquisition," and are done more or less for their own sake. This trope frequently crosses over into the terrain of the "perilous psycho," well represented by the 1935 film THE RAVEN, but it also takes in types who are not truly insane in the diegetic sense, as with Sade's character Juliette and certain criminal masterminds, like Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

DELIRIOUS DREAMS AND FALLACIOUS FIGMENTS-- Here the ambivalence is between the dreamer-- or daydreamer-- who conjures forth "dreams that become more real to [the audience] than reality."

ENTHRALLING HYPNOTISM AND ILLUSIONISM-- In the essay TEN DYNAMIC DEMONS I used the famous hypnotist Svengali as an example of a character who could extend his will over his victims even though he had no literal power.  But it also extends to the use of objects in such a way that they fool an audience into believing in magical transformations, even when that audience is aware that no magic has taken place. 

EXOTIC LANDS AND CUSTOMS-- The idea that there are real places on the earth that seem strange in and of themselves-- and that the people living in those places practice customs which seem like inversions of the audience's-- is a conceit that probably dates back to the first travelers' tales, though we know such stories best from Europeans like John Mandeville and Marco Polo.  For whatever reason, Africa became a nexus for the maintenance of peculiar peoples and their customs.  Many of these were imagined out of whole cloth but at times they were based on real cultures whose customs seemed strange to viewers, as with the serial JUNGLE GIRL, which bases its fictional lion-worshipping society on the real Masai.

FREAKISH FLESH-- This is the trope which places the most emphasis on "body," since it intimately concerns the body's many deviations from a hypothetical normality-- whether it be actual "freakish" distortions, as with the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or atypical phenomena like twins or dwarves, which are not distortions as such but which may convey a sense of supernatural "strangeness" under the correct conditions.

OUTRE OUTFITS SKILLS AND DEVICES-- This trope includes three bodily aspects beneath its "umbrella" because they often collude in creating an overall sense of dread or fascination for a given character, though all three can act independently. James Bond is probably the character best known for utilizing unusual, though not marvelous, devices, Tarzan for possessing perternatural skills due to his upbringing-- to say nothing of being additionally "outre" for wearing almost no outfit at all-- and the Lone Ranger for being a character who creates constant suspense re: maintaining a masked identity in a naturalistic setting.

PERILOUS PSYCHOS-- While there are some psychos who use uncanny gimmicks or commit bizarre crimes in addition to their being crazy, their insanity remains the baseline of their uncanny nature.  Many of them, such as Norman Bates, are not overly prepossessing apart from their mad qualities; in the 1960 PSYCHO Norman, after providing terror to the audience for roughly an hour, is easily sudbued by an entirely ordinary individual.  This more than anything suggests that a psycho need not be physically formidable to invoke dread and fear, in contrast to the more hefty maniacs seen in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

PHANTASMAL FIGURATIONS-- This trope has often been seen as providing a "victory" for causal reality, whenever a given heroine-- be it Jane Eyre or Velma Dinkley-- proves that the hideous, marvelous-seeming spectre is merely some masquerade or misunderstanding.  What is rarely understood is that the effort that has gone into creating the illusion is a source of strangeness in itself, much as one sees in stage-magician's illusions, even though the latter are done with the audience's partial complicity.  When a figure like the Hound of the Baskervilles remains a formidable spectre in the story, even after it has been revealed to be a phosphorescent dog, one cannot claim that reality has entirely won the game.

WEIRD FAMILIES AND SOCIETIES-- This parallels some of the same conceptual territory as "exotic lands and customs."  However, in the previous trope, the customs and the people who practice them have evolved as the dominant culture of a given location.  In the "weird families" trope, the unusual society exists within the sphere of a "normative" society, and is usually in opposition to its values.  A strong example of this trope is seen in the Satanist cult in THE SEVENTH VICTIM.

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