LOOKING RIGHT AT IT
an essay by EMMA COHEN
edited by michael lottner, art by celeste cares
The uncanny is born out of a contradiction. Freud defines the uncanny using the german word “heimlich,” which has a duality in meaning: familiar, but also kept out of sight. Uncanny is the opposite of the second definition: it is what ought to be concealed, but isn’t. It seems familiar, but it’s just a lick off, it can’t quite be touched. Nicholas Royle writes, “the uncanny is construed as a foreign body within oneself.” It is within us, but is not quite ours. In her book The Needle’s Eye, Fanny Howe writes about “mysticism, prophecy and the hidden life in a world of objective fact.”
Unexpectedly, mid-way through a dense Montreal winter, unexpectedly though through no fault of anyone’s, not mine, not planning’s, not even the god of roommates, I end up living alone. Alone in an apartment, city, province, alone. Being the constructor of my days, I have a lot of time to follow my instincts. I’m shocked by my awareness of my own body when it’s the only moving thing. It’s an act of doubling when I’m being myself and watching myself be in a way I am not when around others. All this takes places in the familiarity of my home. I can’t blame roommates for my bad habits, can’t gel my own indulgences with anyone else’s. I go through bouts of cleansing and purity, hoping to force a ritual that will reflect well on me (But aren’t I the only one looking at myself? Is impressing myself worth it?). Sometimes, I get the hang of stretching and moisturizing diligently before bed, cutting up oranges and marvelling at their pulp, cooking lime chicken, lighting candles, getting up early to read, not a staying in to watch TV. Then I’ll slip up and drink too much wine and waste the night, or stay in bed all day hungover and get takeout delivered and suddenly am thrown down a guilty spiral. Because there is no one to laugh at these fluctuations with, every move I make is a refraction of my deepest identity. I am constantly proving to myself who I am. Giving such weight to such small choices, looking and looking and looking at myself: I am exhausted, but I am exhilarated.
‘Mise en abime’ is an art history term describing a technique wherein a painter inserts an image that is a small copy of itself into a painting. For example, a mirror reflecting the painter and the painting being painted at within the painting. If you put one mirror in front of you and one mirror behind you to see yourself reflected infinitely, you are practicing ‘mise en abime.’ This is how living alone feels for me. In the best and worst ways, I can access the duplicity of being attuned to two selves, to two refracted streams. Catching myself in a mirror, or putting a cup to my mouth I’ll sometimes find that I’ve been speaking out loud. To no one, or to myself.
I spend a lot of the time in the Mile End after moving to Montreal. My dad grew up in Montreal, and every time I pass by the Mile End diner Wilensky’s, I am compelled to text him a picture of the yellow wooden letters strung like a banner on the fading green storefront. For proof, for acknowledgment that I remember his stories. At the same time, there’s a deep sacrilege to casually going for a brunch, or picking up a book, or a stack of bagels and seeing it across the street: Wilensky’s, the site of so many childhood stories my dad told about his Jewish family standing in line there, passing around mustard and salami sandwiches. Knowing little of that side of my family, anecdotes like these were my inheritance. It feels reductive to pass Wilensky’s as often as I do, that this monument of fairytale, or inherited cultural myth, not be interesting to anyone else, or worse, is actually interesting to everyone.. I still haven’t been inside—some sacredness knows no bounds, maybe. What’s the difference between a diner and a basilica, if you’ve treated them with the weight of legend since childhood? My dad always tells me the story of moving to Toronto at twelve, and driving all the way back to Montreal to get chocolate cream pies and Portuguese chicken. What is that, if not a pilgrimage? Next year I’m going to live across the street from a Portuguese chicken place. It very well might be the same one my dad drove all that way for. If the uncanny is something hidden coming into our consciousness, it feels uncanny to have the architecture of my family history unveiled in a physical way. Passing by the real locations of stories, the reveal feels mythic. Like I’m tapping into a cosmic stream, what Fanny Howe describes as that “hidden life in a world of objective fact.” Getting outside that objective fact is a precious thing.
In my apartment, the loneliness cleaves my skin, bleeds out, calcifies, becomes a mercurial element and transforms, and eventually it evens out. I begin to have violent visions like I’ve never had before. Maybe they mimic looking right into aloneness. When entering my apartment after classes or after going out with friends, I imagine a strange man waiting to attack me inside. I double check every room in the house, under the beds, making real sure he’s not there. I see this shadowy man—always a man, of course—waiting for me in the bathroom, Psycho-style. He has many weapons, a different one for every occasion. Climbing through my fourth-story windows, slitting my throat, etc. These apparitions become part of my routine. It is difficult to fend them off when coming home to a void.
In my bedroom I read part of Sleepless Nights, enough to get to the part where Elizabeth Hardwick writes that “when you travel, your first discovery is that you do not exist” before I have to return the book to the library. I spend the winter trying to understand what that means. In February, I go to Florida, to my boyfriend’s parents vacation house for a week. I don’t know what to expect of Florida, but my idea of Florida is based on a movie that came out earlier this year, The Florida Project. Early winter, I took the bus to Cinema du Parc, to see it alone. It was first the visuals that struck me - the tender sharing of ice cream cones, the sherbert housing, the young kids’ silky hair and undone shoelaces. Beyond the look of the film, the director, Sean Baker, nails the uncanniness of childhood: where everything is familiar but also hidden. Moonee, the six year old lead character, exists in a blissful childhood while the shakey realities of adulthood in America unfold around her. Her bliss is punctured more frequently as the film goes on, as the unfamiliar reveals itself to her. But even as this happens, the big orange heat of Florida covers it all, covers everyone no matter what.
One night while I was in Florida, about two hours away from the coast of where The Florida Project was filmed, we were eating steaks and drinking red wine and everyone was feeling very loose. A camaraderie had formed, and being the girlfriend entering into the family, I felt glad for it. In the background, out of a habit I’ll never understand, the news was playing. I should have expected, of course, it to inevitably shift to coverage of the Florida school shooting, in the grating chatter of American local news channels. I suddenly felt disgusting to be consuming these things, sitting in this air conditioning, talking about the size of alligators. It felt violent. The hidden, unspoken element of being in Florida at that moment in time came into my consciousness in an unavoidable way. I wondered, did my responsibility (particularly as a white Canadian) change because I was actually in Florida, and not just hearing about it from Montreal? Does it matter where I am in the world? Does that change anything? I was transposed here briefly, my location situating me in the deep heart of a national, even global, political movement but does it make any difference where I am?
I’m still unsure how to answer whether our expectations from travel—that our being somewhere else somehow changes anything—makes any sense, or whether we have equal responsibility no matter where we are. There is something about our geographical, historical moment, being in a place in a time, that is precise, and even uncanny. Joan Didion wrote that famous line about being twenty-one and feeling like no one’s ever experienced what you’re experiencing. I wonder if it is possible to differentiate what feels unique to my experience from the larger narrative of Western/Canadian big city youngness. Is my body just what I am inhabiting? And am I just a vessel of that circumstance? Sometimes, satire feels so depressing for that reason: you find out all the earnest revelations you’re having about Life On Earth have been made before. Being bogged down by these questions comes from being trapped by objective fact.
Magic, for a long time, seemed binary to me. Like when I was teetering out of kid-hood and demanding my parents be honest with me: do fairies exist? Demanding an answer, praying for it to be yes, when of course it was no. But there’s a smudging that happens when you don’t see magic as bound up in made-up creatures, but something ambiguous. In Ali Smith’s novel How to be Both, a character describes mysteries (which are akin to magic) like this:
“The word mystery originally meant a closing, of the mouth or the eyes. It meant an agreement or an understanding that something would not be disclosed. The mysterious nature of some things was accepted then […] But now we live in a time and culture where mystery tends to mean something more answerable, it means a crime novel, a thriller […] where the whole point is that we will find out what happened.”
We want to eradicate this idea of the hidden, shine light onto the full thing, unveil everything and when we can’t do that cleanly, we dismiss happenings that we can’t explain with fact. But what if we try to engage with the uneasily explained?
At some point so long ago that I can’t remember any localizing information like time or place or age, my best friend told me about a memory of hers. That friend is not the kind of person to be overwrought, fabricating the kinds of things I’m about to tell you. She is completely sincere. She is brash, blonde-headed, would totally intimidate you at a party, mostly because she might not talk to you at all, or anyone at all. Either that, or you’ll start seeing people leave their conversations with her glimmering, as though she has bestowed on them a private joke like a gift. She has the irreverent talent of not showing interest anything she’s not actually interested in. She spends her energy in extremely deliberate pulses. This is to say, when she talks, you listen. So somewhere in that nomansland of time she told me about this memory she has. The memory is her and her mother making peach cobbler during a thunderstorm in their kitchen. She swears back and forth it wasn’t a dream, but a memory, but when she questioned her mother about it, she said that not only had it never happened, but she doesn’t know how to make peach cobbler in the first place.
One hot summer night, my mom was reading a novel at our cottage in the room below me. The next morning, during a drive, I recounted a dream to her I’d had that night, where I got together with two of my cousins and we decided to light the cottage on fire, the three of us dousing the surrounding area in gasoline, and while we did this a car drove up the driveway. She looked at me with a disbelief from the passenger seat, then told me that was the exact scene that happened in the novel she read that night. Three cousins dousing their cottage in gasoline, interrupted by a car driving up the driveway. In a novel I’d never read or heard of.
In another part of Ali Smith’s novel, one of the characters describes what happens to ripples of water in a puddle. They say that the ripples don’t vanish, they just get bigger and bigger as they become larger rings in the puddle, eventually leaving the puddle and encompassing everything. These ripples engage with the world outside of objective fact. I like to think of all these ripples reverberating out into the world, all the ripples of our aloneness, our interactions, of our dreams and our parallels, never disappearing but not able to be seen—something hidden—and still swallowing everything.
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