Essay as Uncanny: Once More to the Moth

E.B. White

You will recall that Jeff Porter, in his “History and Poetics of the Essay,” discusses the Freudian, psychological concept of the uncanny, and applies it to White’s “Once More to the Lake.” As he notes, the uncanny is not simply an experience of the foreign or strange, but rather, of the commingling of the two, the unfamiliar in the familiar. In Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny,” one of his examples is glancing at a strange, unfamiliar face on a train, then realizing that he was seeing his own reflection in a window.

The essay, then, like the lake in White’s essay, is something of a “haunt” (the last word in White’s first paragraph). Something very familiar; but also something that’s more complicated than we commonly or conventionally, or maybe consciously, realize.

Both White’s essay and Woolf’s essay are then haunted by death. You can’t get more uncanny than that: this thing that has everything to do with us that we want nothing to do with, at least not yet; death, both essayists suggest, is the most unfamiliar familiarity in our lives. That’s heavy and heady stuff, certainly for an essay–and both fairly short at that. So how do they manage to work this large subject, organize it into an essay, keep us engaged as readers in the process?

One of the primary ways that these essays work rhetorically is by organizing the contemplation of the uncanny, the unfamiliar familiarity of death, around a primary rhetorical (or some would say, poetic) figure. For Woolf, that figure is metaphor: the moth. For White, that figure is metonymy: the lake and all the physical conditions associated with it.

This use of figure–metaphor, metonymy, analogy, and others–is a way that the essayist, or any writer for that matter, relates its ideas. (The uncanny is a reminder that our relations are both familiar and strange to us, depending on how you look at them). The essay, as we have seen, places particular emphasis on relation. In the words of Montaigne: ‘I do not teach; I only relate.’

 

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