The Uncanny Female Body

The main focal point, and perhaps trigger, for my emerging project was Yoko Ogawa’s book The Diving Pool, and the elements of the grotesque that she expertly incorporates into it. As the book is written by a female author, and tells three stories from the perspective of female protagonists, I thought that a feminist lens would be an appropriate way to approach this. Yet, I also do not want to ignore the fact that what mostly caught my attention in these three novellas was their intricate attention to the human body, and specifically the female body and the connection of the grotesque to them. By incorporating this unpleasant and repulsive element, Ogawa adds another side to the feminist lens. Is she trying to lend a look at how society perceives women’s’ bodies? Is she trying to draw our attention to the women’s function in reproduction (as one of the novellas centers on the pregnancy of the protagonist’s sister)?

I proceeded to find a tentative answer to this question by consulting Freud’s The Uncanny. Freud begins his analysis of the Uncanny as something that “evokes fear and dread,” or discomfort in the beholder (p.123). He claims that the uncanny is experienced through aesthetic, and therefore is a kind of aesthetic disorder. As these things that are considered uncanny are the opposite of beautiful, they are categorized as grotesque, which perhaps Ogawa is trying to hang over the women in her novellas to make a point about how society perceives the female body. The need for the female to be more thoroughly covered in public, lest she show too much and reveal herself to the public eye could be a contributing factor for this display in Ogawa’s book.

To further the point that Ogawa is reaching for a feminist lens, or that her novellas could be interpreted in such a way, one could mention Freud’s comment on the basis of the term, “uncanny.” According to Freud, “one may presume that there exists a specific affective nucleus, which justifies the use of a special conceptual term,” (p.123). This special term Freud refers to is the “uncanny,” but what struck me with this sentence was the use of the word nucleus to represent the uncanny. We know that this nucleus is “affective” in creating the effects of fear and discomfort in the ones that witness the aesthetic deformity, which for now we will assume is the female body. Next, the use of the word “nucleus” right after affective suggests that this aesthetic disorder is, in fact, at a cellular level, in other words, a genetic defect. Men and women each have different cells (chromosomes) that make an individual genetically male or female. If Freud states that this disorder of the uncanny lies at a cellular level that is affective, this could be applied to the fact that the female body is considered grotesque simply because of an affective difference in genetics. Not only is this difference effective, it is also “specific”, as if it needs to be just right and very calculated.

Another element of the uncanny is also the fear of castration, and as Freud states, “ losing a precious organ,” suggesting that the male sex organ is what creates power and normality as opposed to females who don’t posses one. The anxiety and fear associated with the castration complex falls parallel to the fact that the uncanny also evokes feelings of fear and anxiety. Freud claims “one finds it understandable that so precious an organ such as the eye should be guarded by a commensurate anxiety. Indeed, One can go further and claim that no deeper mystery and no other significance lie behind the fear of castration,” (p. 140). In other words, the fear of losing the male sex organ denotes a male as male. Without this symbol of masculinity, the man has no identity and subsequently no power. Women do no posses this organ and therefore start off with no power, or less power than men. As said before, the basis for the uncanny lies in the cellular differences of men and woman, which then leads to physical difference in appearance; the aesthetic disorder.

One thought on “The Uncanny Female Body”

  1. This is really interesting how you pull from both the more obvious feminist lens, but also incorporate some psychoanalytic theories to further complicate what Ogawa is trying to accomplish in her novellas. I feel like there are a ton of places where you could connect these two lenses quite directly – off the top of my head, I think of Victorian era literature, which analyzes grotesque characteristics of people (mostly female) and deals with the fear of the unknown. To put a different spin on what you’re already focusing on, maybe bringing in some primary texts – or even some theoretical work – could help to complicate some ideas you’ve already presented in this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *