Guest Post: “I Walked with a Somnambulist and Marched with a Madman”: Heym’s and Wiene’s Uncanny Submersions

The following post is by Morgan Blair, an undergraduate from the University of Louisville, and it deals with the concept of the uncanny as it is utilized by writer Georg Heym and director Robert Wiene. The uncanny itself is an important facet to consider when studying the paranormal, particularly ghosts and hauntings. Morgan’s post provides an intriguing look at Freud’s theory and presents an understanding that merits further consideration.

According to Freud, effective translation of the Uncanny into literature avoids solely exaggerated circumstances in which “we adapt our judgment to the imaginative reality imposed on us by the writer, [regarding supernatural elements] as though their existence had the same validity as our own has in material reality” (18).  Expressionist writer Georg Heym and film director Robert Wiene acknowledge this necessity for a contrast between realism and fantasy in order for effective reader implication into supernatural subject matter.  Each artist frames a distorted narrative within the context of an objective reality whereby readers might reflect on their submersions into irrationality.  While one artist appeals to metaphor in order to implicate readers, the other juxtaposes distorted and realistic imagery via a framed narrative.  The ease with which Heym and Wiene guide readers into and out of the imaginary world evokes an uncanny feeling in readers, who recognize their own susceptibility (alongside the protagonist) to the aesthetic territory of the subconscious.

The most prominent means by which Heym dictates this subtle transition in “The Madman” is his manipulation of metaphor.  Readers immediately are submersed into the realm of the id during the protagonist’s own release from societal constraint, i.e. the mental asylum.  Reveling in this existential freedom, both protagonist and reader tread joyfully through a field of corn, cracking skulls “like bursting rubber balls” (Heym 48).  “What satisfaction to tread into the thick stems, making them snap and split under his feet [. . .] Oh, it was wonderfully beautiful,” an omniscient narrator describes (Heym 49).  Aligning themselves with the socially transgressive protagonist, readers simultaneously delve into onomatopoeic language as well as metaphor that reflects the primitive emotionality of the id; however, as the madman “steps out of the corn stalks with straw all over his suit and hair,” readers emerge from the metaphor self-aware of their preceding voyeuristic satisfaction (Heym 49).  As they reflect on their susceptibility to metaphor, readers transition into a subjective role, now aligning themselves with the observant narrator. Readers now introspect regarding their empathy with a protagonist portrayed as mentally ill, yet this introspection lasts only until another subversive instance of metaphor transposes them into an emotional versus intellectual experience of narrative.

This alternation between metaphor and reality guides readers throughout “The Madman,” as do swift transitions in narrator perspective.  The effect of these transitions is the sustenance of Heym’s primary tension—a tension between intellectual engagement and spontaneous emotional experience.  “He felt the rage coming on again. He feared that dark furious state,” describes an omniscient narrator (Heym 53).  “Now he was himself the animal, crawling on all fours down the street.  Quick, quick, or she’ll run away” (53).  In this description of subject, Heym’s narrator (and, hence, readers) shifts immediately from observer to subjective participant in the instinctual actions of the protagonist.

Just as Heym invokes in readers a necessary awareness of their susceptibility to an aesthetic experience of irrationality, Robert Wiene imposes this experience on audience members by juxtaposing distorted and realistic imagery. Typified by dark, non-geometrical, distorted buildings, the surreal world in which viewers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari find themselves during what they perceive to be the main plot contrasts starkly with the well-lit, orderly asylum that frames this plot.  Within the framed plot, a somnambulist wanders through a fictional world dazed by rationality and motivated by primitive desire.  Likewise, viewers navigate plot in accordance with scenery—scenery that alternates between high distortion and conventionality.  One instance of this distortion occurs at the beginning of the film during a carnival scene. The obvious camera tilt during this scene creates a disorienting, perhaps uncanny, effect that is sustained throughout the framed plot of the film.  This quality of the film gains significance in the closing scene as viewers are exposed to clear, orderly imagery that indicates an overarching plot rooted in rationality.  As film viewers realize the contrast between these juxtaposed plots (and imageries), so do they experience an uncanniness derived from their naïve implication into the somnambulism of the protagonist.


Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund, (1919). “The Uncanny.” Blackboard. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Wiene, Robert, dir. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Goldwyn Distributing Company, 1921. Film.

Heym, Georg. “The Madman,” from The Thief and Other Stories. Ed. Susan Bennett. London: Libris, 1994. 46-64. Print.


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