The Spectral Other and the Erotic Uncanny Melancholy

Deborah Lutz
Deborah Lutz

To love the dangerous lover is to feel the creepy uncanniness of finding the familiar at the heart of terrifying strangeness. It is to love the uneasiness, the restless uncertainty, the inquietude of never fully knowing: when we will die, if we will find true love. A theory of the eroticism of the uncanny can be developed from the dangerous lover narrative; such a theory begins with the Gothic proper of the late eighteenth-century and then moves through the nineteenth-century to the contemporary Gothic-themed romance.

To love the dangerous lover is to feel the creepy uncanniness of finding the familiar at the heart of terrifying strangeness. It is to love the uneasiness, the restless uncertainty, the inquietude of never fully knowing: when we will die, if we will find true love. A theory of the eroticism of the uncanny can be developed from the dangerous lover narrative; such a theory begins with the Gothic proper of the late eighteenth-century and then moves through the nineteenth-century to the contemporary Gothic-themed romance.

In fact “uncanniness is the fundamental kind of being-in-the-world” (Being and Time, 277). Hence, when Dasein draws closest to itself, it is nearest to its most mysterious and uncertain possibility. But we can take this even further: when Dasein understands its absorption in the “they” as an evasion and tranquilization and turns away from it into essential being, then not only does Dasein feel a sense of being “not-at-home” in its essence, but the comfortable “home” of everydayness also no longer belongs to one. The potential for uncanniness then permeates the movement (which is itself always possible) of Dasein within both the everyday and essential being. Face-to-face with its own being, Dasein’s uncanny feeling is not just a sense of being “not-at-home,” it is also a sense of this strangeness being itself at the heart of one’s own existence. Uncanniness has a close kinship to the theory of proximity explored in chapter one — the strange push/pull of attraction to the dangerous lover. The uncanny also uncovers the misunderstanding at the heart of being: the way we think the most familiar — the everyday world around us, full of people, society, and chatter — constitutes our true being. But our authentic self is only to be found on the edge of the abyss, at the limit of darkness, of the dizzy rapture of the unknowable. Meeting the dangerous lover for the first time, the heroine discovers what will be, in the logic of the romance, her true self, her essential being, but which she initially regards as a deeply threatening other.

To survey Sigmund Freud’s ideas on the unheimlich in this context gives them a romantic colouring. Sigmund Freud takes his idea of the uncanny further with his insight that concealment is an aspect of the work of the uncanny. Martin Heidegger sees the uncanny merely as being “not-at-home”; he does not see concealment as integral to creating the uncanny. Sigmund Freud describes an uncanny feeling — a “dread and creeping horror” — coming from, among other things, the revivification through an event or experience of an idea repressed or concealed in the hinter regions of the unconscious. “The ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (369–70). Hence the uncanny brings about a “creepiness” not only because one feels “not-at-home” in the unfamiliar and strange experience, but also because, at the heart of the strange, there is a sense of home, of a deep interiority, of a place already visited. The already concealed, which is now partially or entirely disclosed, causes the uncanny to surface as a feeling. The full dreadfulness of this feeling comes from the fact that what is disturbing is located “inside” us, it “belongs” to us, individually, and we have been responsible for both producing and concealing it. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein has this reaction upon knowing his creation: “Oh God, it’s mine.”

Another etymological thread related to “heim” is “geheim,” which also has the “home” in it but means “secret” or “concealed.” As explored in chapter one, the “secret home” can be linked to the Heideggerian idea that, in an everyday way, authentic homes are “secret.” This helps to unravel why the secret is such an important theme to the dangerous lover romance.

The romantic heroine’s potential, her “authentic” self, lies in the presence of love, in unconcealed, disclosed meaning. Her possibility as fully present to love is the secret behind all other secrets and this is her final “home” — her destiny, fate. “A cry sounded in her throat; then her legs parted and he was inside her. This was his true coming home, the only one that mattered” (Rogers, 287). And another “home” scene: “ […] that bewildering notion that somehow she had found that special wondrous place; that special wondrous person who was her real home, that knowledge somehow or other Luke had reached out and touched the very core of her innermost being and because of that […] because of him the whole of her life would be changed forever” (Jordan, 155). And again: “With that simple profession [of love], all the broken pieces of Catherine’s life shaped themselves into a picture of perfect provision. Suddenly she saw how everything had worked to bring them to this wondrous moment” (Smith, 369). The hero also finds his home in the beloved. One hero thinks to himself, “he […] had known the moment he looked at her that he was confronting his own fate” (Jordan, 424).

For the heroine to draw closer to her essential self she must move nearer to an unsettling other who is her “home.” Like Dasein, what has been concealed, the presence of the true love, is something that has been “known” all along. Hence the revelation of this love leads to the uncanny: “A heightened sensation of portent, of standing on the edge of something vital and life-changing shook her, a feeling of uncannily clear-minded perception that suddenly, here and now […] she was facing something immensely important” (Jordan, 316). And the uncanny moment reveals what was already there. “There was a wonderful, exhilarating sense of release and freedom […] in being able to cast aside her guard and acknowledge, admit, that the desire for him, which she was now allowing to express itself, had been there virtually from the first time they met. It existed even if she herself had tried to force it underground and keep it hidden away” (Jordan, 328). The structure of this uncanny situates a sense of strangeness in the heart of what is one’s own — the true love and final destiny in another whose enemy-like surface at first repels. But, in that it discloses, the heroine also feels that it is something that has been “there” all along but that she has concealed. Instead of horror in the uncanny moment, in romance it is the titillating ache of the “Oh God, it’s mine.” So, in a sense, while it sometimes appears that the heroine is moving inexorably toward her fate, a mere puppet in the hands of the machinations of the hero, she is always in what is her “own”; her adventures emanate out from the dark center of her singular being. The hero can even be located inside her, like a ghost in the unconscious, or a closed box waiting to be broached: “She felt as though he had found a secret entrance into her belly, into her bones. She felt that he was folded inside her” (Doyle, 121).

With the romantic uncanny the moment opens up in all its complexity: each moment contains an uncovering of what one already knows and then a reconcealment of knowledge. The heroine already knows she is in love with the hero and she can see the movement of her narrative ending while at the same time she flees and evades this destiny. Thus the dangerous lover romance is filled with hesitancy, false starts, and frozen impotence. A dark madness of failure often overtakes these narratives, a sense of movement’s terrifying inconceivability. The Gothic proper never fully resolves this madness. Even in Ann Radcliffe, the happy ending feels like an anti-climatic, pasted-on addition — not very relevant to the terrors of the earlier story. But the gothic romance and the erotic historical interrupt this impotence with the final presence of the scene of a union: “His mouth closed hungrily over hers in a moist, deep, endless kiss. It seemed to Vanessa that they were no longer two separate people, but one blended together by magic” (Garlock, 358). The reintegration of the strange self-leads to an odd looping of time that both the reader and the heroine experience. The loop occurs because the end — union in love — is prefigured in the beginning, and all along, as it is at the same time concealed. So the end seems to be both a completion, a closure, and a return to an origin, to the beginning. The end does not feel like a narrative progression forward or a move backwards, but the meeting of both the arrival and the setting off.

The heroine of the dangerous lover romance is like a haunted house: bumping about inside her is this other self — this enigmatic demon lover, full of secret gestures of longings. Yet the hauntedness of these narratives does not only happen on the level of the characters of the story; in fact, all narrativity contains a spectral element — characters come to life, are animated out of the darkness of nonexistence, point to an irreversible past, and then die again at the close of the narrative. Narrative power moves in the shadowy realm of the revenant, the dead but still lifelike and illuminated, the remainder of the real. Making explicit the ghostliness of all narrative, the Gothic novel tells the story of those things that partake of or fall into relation to death — silence, secrets, imprisonment, and remorse. We are already aware of the importance of the secret to the dangerous lover narrative: love itself and its relation to a past, a history, creates a constellation of secret communications. Silences maintained on the most important matters, hidden facts that would save the lives of many, unfold the plot of Gothic novels as well as dark romances. The hero of both genres holds his subjectivity in secret. Charles Maturin’s ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ (1820) revolves around an impenetrable secret which is so unspeakable it throws the speaker who tries to utter it into fits or even causes death. The theme of wholesale tragedy springs readily from the impossibility of communicating one’s inner meaning: “The very thirst of my body seemed to vanish in this fiery thirst of the soul for communication, where all communication was unutterable, impossible, hopeless […]. The secret of silence is the only secret” (Maturin, 151). The blocked speech of the Gothic novel continues in the dangerous lover narrative: lovers who cannot speak their “inner meaning” — their love for the other — hold their essence in abeyance until the final transcendence of the narrative.

Melmoth, the Cain-like “disinherited child of nature” (245), sells his soul to the devil who curses him to wander the world forever, trying to ruin others’ souls. Like later dangerous lovers, he becomes “the demon of superhuman misanthropy” (233). His “boundless aspiration after forbidden knowledge” (380) leads to the Faustian bargain that seals his fall from grace: “I hate all things that live — all things that are dead — I am myself hated and hateful” (244). Yet out of the ceaseless torment of a ruined life comes the glimmer of hope: atonement by a true love. He meets the innocent and beautiful Isadora, secretly visits her at night, and finally convinces her to participate in a clandestine marriage. Inexplicably failing at the crucial moment here and in a second incident with another “pure” woman, Melmoth just misses the discovery of “the ineffable and forbidden secret of his destiny” (238). His destiny, as the reader knows although she is never told, lies in the possibility of grace through the beloved. His only absolution lies in love, but this can never be. The Faustian bargain of the Gothic villain must always include the heroine as well — and this is one good reason for the impossibility of love with the Gothic villain. She must be doomed like him, in order to love him: love as the curse of Cain. Melmoth gnashes out, “‘Seek all that is terrible in nature for your companions and your lover! — woo them to burn and blast you — perish in their fierce embrace, and you will be happier, far happier, than if you lived in mine! Lived! — Oh, who can be mine and live! […] If you will be mine, it must be amid a scene like this forever — amid fire and darkness — amid hatred and despair — amid — ’ and his voice swelling to a demoniac shriek of rage and horror, and his arms extended, as if to grapple with the fearful objects of some imaginary struggle […]” (Maturin, 247). The frozen, impotent fury of the dangerous lover will be melted in later love narratives; the Gothic gives only an approach to the interruption, never the actual breaking through.

The obscure flash of meaning, the secret affinity, important both to the Gothic and the dangerous lover romance, draw the lover to her beloved. We can liken this fragmented, obscured meaning and the disjointed piecing together of narrative to Benjamin’s envisioning of historicity, or our history (Urgeschichte). He sees historicity not as a series of statements about major events and famous people but rather as a collection of secret affinities discoverable only by indirect means and chance occurrences. Meaning comes not through the creation of continuity, teleology, and connective narrativity, but rather through the side-by-sideness of fragments, the flash of the image. The dangerous lover’s subjectivity, his narrativity, or history, similarly shatters into a handful of unexplained pieces like the curiosities in the cabinet of the collector. To communicate with this bundle of meanings, the lover of the dangerous beloved must discover secret affinities, dreamlike understandings that are never fully explained. Thus might she create an obscure dialogue, an amatory conversation. This dialogue, like Benjamin’s history, occurs in flashes, maintaining an obscure stasis, a dark certainty. Knowledge manifests itself in hiddenness here; knowledge does not occur in the realm of enlightenment. And this knowledge, which also obscures knowledge, is a kind of sight or an insight (a sight inside) that brings an understanding of subterranean affinities.

The singularity of the hero and heroine’s love and the reasons for their coming together are something only they can know. The simple characterization and plots of many important dangerous lover romances express the sense that there need be no drawn-out explanation for love; in fact, it can never be explained. This silent meaning describes the absolute singularity of love and points to its seeming fatefulness, its unexplainable, unhistorical presentness. Here it is; it appears out of darkness, carrying with it always this darkness. Silence keeps the lovers both joined and standing in a nomadic tandem to the rest of the social order, always on the outside of what they are near. Their secret joining happens in a darkness that blinds, subsumes. Whispering, mumbled communications, as stated in the last chapter, are the ways the dangerous lover inscribes meaning. Like the effaced manuscripts in Melmoth the Wanderer, where the essence of the story has decayed, been ripped off, or smudged, the dangerous lover’s meaning never quite arrives.

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on reddit
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp
Notify of
Inline Discussions
View all discussions
digest of the most read and current commentary pieces
digest of the most read pieces