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Fiction and the Uncanny

By Michael Samuels 09F

Maggie HartThe uncanny, or Unheimlich, is an important concept in German-language literature and thought around the turn of the twentieth century. It describes an object or situation that is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, making it uncomfortable or downright creepy.

Maggie Hart 09F’s Division III, Invisibility and Return: Uncanny Ontologies, takes on the concept from the dual perspectives of theory and practice.

Part of the project, “Sometimes Enough,” is a collection of short stories. “They all in some way deal with the uncanny,” says Hart, adding, “I use that definition loosely.”

One of her stories shows the slow dissolution of a small town after the moon turns a bright, glowing orange. In another, a boy tries to leave behind his home life during his first day (and night) of college in New York City, only to find himself in a taxi with his uncle’s ghost.

“I think that my fascination with fiction has always revolved around silence and death and isolation, not to be too bleak, which is where the uncanny is at home,” says Hart.

The other part of the project is an analytical essay. “Ontological Insecurity and the Unheimlich Woman” looks at uncanny representations of women and woman-like objects by a handful of German-language writers.

The essay is exhaustive, and draws from a slew of theorists. The experience was challenging, but, says Hart, “it was really surprising, simultaneously, what I got to say.”

Hart began taking German classes at Mount Holyoke College through the Five College consortium. After a semester in Berlin, she continued to study German at Amherst College.

Her work with the uncanny began in a literature class at Hampshire, Readings in German Narrative Forms: Identity and Crisis, taught by German and comparative literature professor Alicia Ellis. She encountered “The Meridian,” a speech by the German-speaking Romanian poet Paul Celan, and decided to write about it. She was already familiar with the idea of the uncanny, but now she dove in.

One part of Celan’s speech still stands out to Hart. “He talks about the uncanny as being where poetry and art take place,” she says. “You need this uncanny space.”

Faculty committee: Literature and critical theory professor Mary Russo (chair) and creative writing professor Heather Madden

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