Some of the most affecting artwork—or, at least, the art that really “gets” me—is the art that haunts. Not many scenes in literature have stuck with me quite like Ovid’s tale of Actaeon, the hunter who became the stag in his own hunt. The hunter whose own hounds dismembered him. The precise moment in that scene that haunts me is his scream, which lies somewhere between man and animal, which “has a sound, although not of a man, yet such as a stag is not able to utter.” Why can’t I shake it?
In his 1919 essay on unheimlich, or the ‘uncanny,’ Freud writes that he is not so much interested in “the theory of beauty, but the theory of the qualities of feeling." The uncanny, he continues, “belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror. . .that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar. . .Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar to make it uncanny." Freud builds here on the definition of unheimlich originally proposed in 1906 by Ernst Jentsch, who identifies the peculiarly unsettling sensation as one arising in “intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always be that in which one does not know where one is, as it were,” and especially “‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.” He reveals “heimlich” to have two definitions, one being “familiar” and the other “secret,” and concludes:
. . .among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheim- lich. What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich. (Cf. the quotation from Gutzkow: “We call it unheimlich; you call it heimlich.”) In general we are reminded that the word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which without being contradictory are yet very different: on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight.
Certainly these early nineteenth century considerations of unheimlichkeit would be foreign to Ovid. Still, The Metamorphoses consistently demonstrates an ‘uncanny’ brand of horror that, once experienced, intrudes upon their “fairy-tale”-esque aura. Transformation here, when a form of violence, leaves human bodies in a liminal state between human and “other.” Such metamorphoses are thus incomplete. Not quite human, not quite animal, they are often Dr. Moreau-vian or Frankenstein-ian abominations which, once fully imagined, become unsettling to behold. Apollo can still hear Daphne’s heart beating behind the bark of the laurel tree, like the tell-tale heart of a dismembered body still beating beneath the floorboards. Lycaon retains his human eyes. Conversely, Juno cuts Argus’s many eyes from his severed head and uses them to adorn her bird. The familiar has been transformed into the strange, yet still evokes itself. This is the realm of unheimlicht.
It is tempting to dub these as metaphorical gestures that simply represent earthly phenomena (e.g. an origin story for the eye-like markings of the ordinary peacock, far less terrifying to imagine than a bird with a body of eyes), or else “fairy-tale” transformations that remain easily digestible because a reader understands them to be fictional. And, indeed, many of the tales and the images that come to embody them in The Metamorphoses invite allegorical interpretations.
But each grand metaphor, each transformation that makes “art” of a victim, in turn contains the slow and painful destruction—or dismemberment—of a mortal human body and mind that nonetheless resists complete disappearance. Each symbolic image, even the “beautiful” laurel, contains the nightmarish distortion that begat it. The uncanny sensation arises at the moment the empathetic reader realizes the object (or animal) in such an episode retains not merely a physical attribute (hair or eye color) of its human form but a trace of its humanness. Lycaon is not quite a wolf. The eyes of the animal do not resemble his in color but in their act of looking, in their “fierce gaze,” suggesting they are still his human eyes. Note that a “literal translation” of this moment reads as “his eyes glare the same,” also emphasizing their action rather than their appearance. Lycaon is closer to a werewolf, to a monster; he resists classification.
The tale of Diana and Actaeon, which quickly escalates into the domain of cinematically nightmarish horror, features perhaps the most unsettingly ‘uncanny’ moment in The Metamorphoses.* Actaeon, of house Cadmus, has finished hunting and wanders the woods alone. Diana, also “weary from hunting,” bathes in her sacred cave, which Nature itself has sculpted into its own piece of art. When Actaeon wanders from his familiar path and happens upon the cave, god and human realms converge; though her nymphs scream and rush to hide Diana’s naked body, they cannot hide her skin from him completely. She furiously sprinkles his head with water and piece-by-piece, limb-by-limb, she transforms him into a stag. Now terrified, still unaware of his own transformation, Actaeon runs from the cave and through the woods. He is surprised at his own swiftness—until he catches a glimpse of himself in the river. He sees the stag’s “face” instead of his own, and wants to say “Poor me!” but cannot find his voice. (A literal translation: “he was about to say ‘Wretch that I am!” no voice followed. He groaned; that was his voice; and tears flowed over features not his own; only his former mind remained.”) His own hunting dogs begin to chase him, and, trained well by his own hand, they advance on him, easily down him, and sink their teeth into him again and again. As they wound him—perhaps even as theyeat him alive—he groans, and “though the sounds/ he utters are not human, they are not/ the sounds a stag could voice.” The dogs “tear in pieces their lord” as he hears his hunting companions calling and calling his name.
Freud proposes that “dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet which dance by themselves—all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them. . .” However, while the image of Actaeon’s dismemberment is certainly gruesome and horrific, and while a reader might experience general panic or terror (or at least discomfort) as they process its unfolding, the umheimlich itself lies in the moment of his groan, which “has a sound, although not of a man, yet such as a stag is not able to utter.” Actaeon, much like one of the stags he had watched fall earlier that day, collapses, and groans in a pool of his own blood, and the sound he makes is inhuman—but not the “godly” inhuman of Achilles, nor the inhuman of the natural, animal world to which a “lowly” (but humble, innocent) stag belongs. Like Lycaon-as-wolf, Actaeon is not quite a stag, but he is not a human being either. He is, as he suggests himself to be, a “wretch” that exists outside of the natural order of animalia.
What is this sound he makes? It is an ‘uncanny’ one—simultaneously familiar and strange. Ovid does not liken the groan to anything else on earth; he leaves the sound mysterious and open to imaginative interpretations. All he reveals is the unnaturalness of the “voice,” its abnormality, that the sound is out-of-place.
Imagining the sound of Actaeon’s groan—only described as existing somewhere on the spectrum between the sound of a man and a stag—is not a passive activity for a reader. The moment asks the reader to situate his or her self in the world of the moment of the poem, to not only become more intimate with that horror but to help construct it. The reader mentally enters the literary space rather than merely “reads” it. This (terrifying) moment of intimacy helps to “[efface] the distinction between imagination and reality” (that’s Freud again!) typically absent from a fairy-tale narrative. For a second, however brief, reader and poem merge.
And so, too, reader and “character” merge, heightening their empathic relationship with the imagined figure and so unlocking access to his inner world, for throughout the scene Actaeon himself is stuck in the province of the uncanny or unheimlicht. His mind is out-of-body, and his body is out-of-place, all is strange, and yet all is simultaneously familiar, as if he is experiencing a version of déjà vu: “On those same slopes where he once gave—/ he now is given—chase: he has to race/ away from his own hounds,” and, later, as the hounds mangle him, “he would delight to see—not feel and fear—/ the sight of his hounds’ ferocity.” Unsurprisingly, Freud identifies a relationship between unheimlicht and déjà vu, writing that “something uncanny” arises during an “involuntary return to the same situation,” such as being lost in the forest, “when every endeavor to find the marked or familiar path ends again and again in a return to the one and the same spot, recognizable by some particular landmark.” Actaeon experiences an “involuntary return” (of a sort) to his earlier hunt, to its “same slopes” and paths, with one major difference: instead of watching the familiar spectacle from a privileged position of spectator or voyeur, as a reader does the poem, or as a viewer does a film or theatre, he becomes the spectacle itself.
At this point, Actaeon is both tongueless and eyeless—he is able to hear and understand his name but not say it—and without these “powers” he is unable to reorient himself into his position as “master” or “lord.” He has become his own art: not a stag, but instead the hunt itself he so loved, which is, essentially, the production of fear, terror, and destruction for another animal. This transformation—a distorted “translation” of his body into his own perverse desires—is his punishment for tainting a holy space with his presence, and so “wounding” the virginal Diana with his own gaze; her cheeks blushed “the color crimson” when he saw her, which evokes the “mountain slopes stained with blood” from Actaeon’s earlier hunt. As the abomination Diana makes him, Actaeon not only gains access to the experience of the “other”—the animal—that he once watched from the safety of distance, but also the monstrosity that exists within himself. As in Freud’s uncanny, all that was “once concealed and kept out of sight” within the familiar experience “comes to light” for him.
Actaeon physically moves from the periphery to the center of vision through his transformation, but the retainment of his “former mind” in the body of the stag—his memory of the “familiar” experience as the hunterof the stag—generates a tension between the two positions that emphasizes his liminality, i.e., hisbetweenness: the incompletion of his metamorphosis from human into animal (or spectator into spectacle). Actaeon is living the culmination of unheimlicht at the moment of his spectacular destruction. Consider further Freud's etymological treatment of the word: “heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops towards an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich.” The other hunters watching the scene see only the familiar spectacle of the hunt; what is “concealed, kept from sight, withheld” from them is Actaeon himself, who remains somewhere between absence and presence—as the absent presence unable to announce itself.
Metamorphosis itself hinges on a period of liminality, in which two forms converge somewhere “between” states of existence. Ovid's transformations frequently exhibit, rather than elide, this liminal period. It is as if Ovid slits open the belly of transformation to reveal its inner workings. The execution of Acateon's changing is no exception:
There were no other threats. But then she set
a long-lived stag’s horns on the head she’d drenched;
she made his ear-tips sharp, stretched out his neck,
and changed his hands to feet, arms to long legs,
and cloaked his body with a spotted hide.
That done, timidity was added on.
And now Autonoe’s heroic son
takes flight and, as he races, he’s amazed
at how much speed he has.
Actaeon does not instantaneously become the stag but undergoes a process—the contortion of his form toward another form. Much like the sound of his groan, existing somewhere between man and stag, his liminal form verges on the grotesquely strange for those readers who venture to imagine it. This transformation is on one level a process that simulates the creation of art through a distortion (however beautiful the final result).
The presence of unheimlich and horror in The Metamorphoses is what in part gives the work its complexity. Each ‘uncanny’ moment of transformation forges an equally unstable relationship between the creation of art and the destruction of the mortal body within the poem, calling attention to the fear of “final” death that drives us to create lasting images that inevitably contain pieces of them (of both their hands and mind). Never “perfect” in its own transformations, illusory and palpable, and summoning both past and present realities, certain poetry is haunted by a world both old and “familiar,” and haunts the world in turn.
Some of the most affecting art and poetry produces the “uncanny” feeling—much like the feeling of déjà vu—in the sense that it distorts and troubles a moment of “being” (of body, of humanity, of self and mind). In short, sometimes it’s good for us to feel a little strange, good to feel a little unsafe, to allow ourselves, like Actaeon, to divest ourselves of spectatorship and enter the work as if a part of its inner workings and transformations.
*The Mandelbaum translation was used for the purposes of this post.