In order to discuss the literature of the uncanny we must first be able to define “uncanny”, and trying to grasp a firm understanding of the term “uncanny” is problematic; since as accepted reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary filter down into popular culture the meaning subtly alters, or becomes drawn towards only one aspect of what was originally a much broader definition. To illustrate this, the Oxford Complete Wordfinder, Reader’s Digest (1999), defines: “uncanny adj. seemingly supernatural; mysterious * see EERIE” and my word-processor contributes:
meanings for “uncanny” : weird; “Of a mysteriously strange and usually frightening nature” (Word 2002 Thesaurus, allegedly adapted from the Oxford Thesaurus and Roget’s 2nd: The New Thesaurus.)
The OED, the source from which both of these definitions ultimately are derived, takes its associations somewhat further, and there are decided connotations of the perilous and mystic:
“mischievous, malicious … not to be trusted … associated with supernatural arts or powers … dangerous, unsafe” (lecture handout notes), but even considering this it is difficult to come to a decisive, all-encompassing definition of what constitutes ‘uncanny literature’, because to be concerned with the unknown, the subject matter must by its very nature be imprecise. What is suggested becomes far more important than what is actually said. An excellent illustration of this is the work of that master of cosmic otherworldliness, H.P. Lovecraft. (Typical extract from an e-text of his short story, The Outsider: “I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribab…
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…ssible engagement with the text, it is also an invited one, because a great deal of the value of the text lies in presenting an unsettling and subtle variation upon a known theme or situation. Mastery of the literary genre depends upon a clear knowledge not only of recurrent themes and styles of the form (which exist to be perpetuated in continually evolving manner, much more so than in other genres), but of human nature and the psychological triggers which create in readers a spirit of curiosity. One might think that such a device was inherent to any form of writing of any quality, and whilst this is true, there is a much more marked difference between formulaic uncanny and gothic fiction than that of other genres.
Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg, Everyman, 1998.
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.
Absurdity in Albert Camus’ The Stranger
The word “absurd” or “absurdity” is very peculiar in that there is no clear definition for the term. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary gave its definition of “absurd” as “having no rational or orderly relationship to human life: meaningless, also: lacking order or value.” Many existential philosophers have defined it in their own manner. Soren Kierkegarrd, a pre-World War II German philosopher, defined absurd as “that quality of Christian faith which runs counter to all reasonable human expectation” (Woelfel 40). Jean-Paul Sartre a post-WW II French philosopher, felt that absurd was “the sheer contingency or ‘thereness’ or gratuitousness of the world” (Woelfel 41). Both of these definitions are hard to interpret and for the most part are not how Camus viewed the word absurd. Camus gives his interpretation of absurd in his book The Myth of Sisyphus, which is the point at which man realizes that all the struggles that we put forth in a repeated daily cycle are in all actuality completely meaningless (Woelfel 44).
In James W. Woelfel’s book, Camus: A Theological Perspective, he gives us Camus point of absurdity in detail,
I have said that the world is not absurd. Neither is man the strange animal absurd. What is then? The absurd, Camus says, is precisely the relationship between man, who demands ultimate rationality, and his irrational world: the “confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world” (Camus, Myth 21). … man experiences himself as other than his natural environment and as wanting more than it can yield…nature has produced a being with needs it cannot fulfill. The juxtaposition of the human need for ultimate meaning with the ultimate lack of meaning yielded by the universe is the a…
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…tranger.’” Storybites.com. Storybites, 2011. Web. 26 August 2015.
“Absurd.” Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary. http://www.merriam-webster.com/ Web. 26 August 2015.
Braun, Lev. Albert Camus: Moralist of the Absurd. Cranbury: Associated UP, 1974.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage, 1955.
—. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage, 1988.
Ellison, David R. Understanding Albert Camus. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1990.
Masters, Brian. Camus: A Study. London: Heinemann, 1974.
McCarthy, Patrick. Camus: The Stranger. Cambridge UP, 1988.
Todd, Oliver. Albert Camus: A Life. Trans. Benjamin Ivry. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Woelfel, James W. Camus: A Theological Perspective. New York: Abingdon, 1975.