For this book Miller interviewed 100 households that lived in a London street. This book is a selection of about 30 portraits he wrote from these interviews. His focus is on how these people define themselves by their possessions and draw comfort from them. Miller is not suggesting that we are slaves to consumerist urges; the analysis is more subtle than that – our belongings are parts of our paralanguage as much as gestures and clothes.

 I’m reading it to better understand people’s relationship with things they collect, horde or just don’t throw away. This will inform my writing on Wainwright Caspinal and his collection.  So far it has been a little disappointing. I’m only a little way through the book, but most of the portraits have been a little too affirmative and read like a TV psychologist telling their viewers what they want to hear. The most interesting portrait was about a man who seemed to own nothing, as the absence of things raised important questions about how possessions affect our lives and a symbolic of experience. Maybe I’m just looking for too much misery as this would better suit Wainwright and my story.

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This last week I’ve doing some research into human trafficking and cults. An important feature to be introduced to my story is a human trafficking group that masquerades as a religious cult. I have it in my mind that the cult, disbanded in the ‘present day’ of the novel, was based in the Sinai desert. It’s such a desolate, barren place that seems perfect for this group to hide away and do horrible things. 

 I want to base the group in Africa as it suits the purposes of my story that we still tend to find aspects of African culture intriguing. However, I walk a fine line between evoking mysterious and uncanny responses and a simple tabloid revulsion towards perceived immorality and ‘uncivilised’ behaviour.

 We read news stories about massacres and brutality in Africa or we see films like Blood Diamond that portray more inhumane acts and we start to associate continent with violence and corruption.  For example, this story in The Independent about a dismembered body found in the Thames explains it as ‘African human sacrifice’ as if Africa is a country and not a diverse continent, like they practice human sacrifice from Rabat to Johannesburg.

Representation of Africa and other developing countries is a highly contentious issue. Africa especially is worn out from pictures of starving children and such like – all its cultural richness and history is lost. So I’ve been researching African history and culture to help me represent aspects of Africa with texture and depth. The recent BBC series ‘The Lost Kingdoms of Africa’ has been excellent in celebrating Africa’s history. Also Bruce Parry’s series Tribe is very good.

Africa sets a challenge to think beyond the common images thrown at it, and I have to admit it can be easy to fall in line with some tired old idea about Africa, but I’m keeping a sharp and merciless eye out for any such occurences.

Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’

February 25, 2010

I’ve been doing some research into objects, strange collections and general weirdness to get a better feel for Anthony’s world. As part of this research I’ve been reading Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’. ‘The Uncanny’ is an essay he wrote in 1919 in which he explores why some strange events and occurrences can unsettle us, with a particular focus on literature.

 Freud concludes that the uncanny is derived from two things. Firstly, from primitive superstitions that we no longer believe in, suddenly seeming possible – our primitive instincts lay just beneath the surface waiting for such things to be proven real. Secondly, uncanny feelings can be caused by the resurfacing of repressed infantile complexes such as fear of the father or castration complex (see below).

 It’s been a while since I’ve read any Freud and the years have been a little reductive – it’s all about sex and wanting to kill my father (or does he want to kill me?) So it’s been good to revisit.

 His prose style is sometimes a little difficult. He has a tendency to make assertions about one thing meaning something else and we’ll have to just take his work for it: ‘The study of dreams fantasies and myths has taught us also that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind is quite often a substitute for the fear of castration.’ (p139) Of course, he has the weight of the greater part of 20th century criticism behind him so we do take his word for it. Which is just as well because I’ve already got a shrunken head with burnt out eyes in my novel – just the unconscious mind at work, though I’m still pretty sure my father never tried to castrate me.

 Freud goes on to state that to achieve the uncanny in a literary work the writer must create a world that simulates reality so that the reader’s mind reacts to unusual occurrences with the same reaction it would in real life.   

                 “In a sense then he [the writer] betrays us to a superstition we thought we had surmounted; he tricks us by promising everyday reality and then going beyond it. We react to his fictions as if they had been our own experiences.” (p157)

 So when strange things happen in a fairytale we are not disturbed by it as it’s just what we expect – fairy tales are set in strange worlds in which strange things happen. But if we are to be disturbed by something then the uncanny needs to be contrasted with normality. 

 Currently, I don’t intend to have anything of the supernatural manifest itself in my story. In fact my intention is to demystify curios by representing them as cultural artefacts rather than arcane things used in savage rituals.

 If I’m honest Freud’s essay has given me plenty to think about, but I’m still not exactly sure how or to what extent I’ll be incorporating what he has to say. Psychoanalysts might argue that I’ll be incorporating his theories whether I like it or not.

 Quotes taken from the 2003 Penguin edition of ‘The Uncanny’.