‘Out wiv the old ay plumma?’ The Uncanny Marginalized Wastelands of Memory and Matter in David Cronenberg’s Spider – Samantha Lindop

Abstract: The shift of economic focus from industrial production to consumption in contemporary Western Society has meant that once booming factories and their surrounding infrastructure are now redundant. Left to decay, the places and spaces of yesteryear are now derelict wastelands that intrude upon the present as a fractured semblance of the past. Hauntingly familiar yet disturbingly unfamiliar they embody the uncanny, evoking a sense of something that ought to remain secret and hidden but that has come to light. Just as unwelcome memories that exist at the core of the uncanny are repressed, confined to the margins of the mind, so too are discarded places and buildings, resonating messages of a failed past, confined to the margins of society. Both memory and matter are delegated to the status of unwanted waste, left to decompose over time. I argue that the film Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002) represents a powerful journey through the marginalized wastelands of memory and matter. Both the memories of the film’s central protagonist Spider (Ralf Fiennes) and the decomposing landscape surrounding him are inextricably bound in the uncanny, both become disjointed from the sequential structure of time, returning as a fragmented ruin of the past, imposing their disturbing presence on the present, causing the fragile web of Spider’s mind to disintegrate like the decaying wasteland around him. 

Introduction

German Intellectual Walter Benjamin famously writes: “the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (1999, 82). Abandoned, decaying urban wastelands such as those depicted in Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002) may be rendered useless in contemporary consumer society but it does not mean that their history has ceased. The rags and the refuse that are post-industrial wastelands form an unconscious backdrop to contemporary life, they come back from the past, enforcing their presence on the present as a haunting and subversive symbol of something that ought to remain secret and hidden but has come to light. As such, urban wastelands embody Freud’s description of the uncanny in the same way that disturbing memories – buried deep in the mental wasteland of the unconsciousness embody the uncanny when they re-emerge.

I contend that not only are the derelict wastelands of Spider the physical embodiment of the uncanny, but the memories of the film’s central protagonist, Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralf Fiennes) also possess an uncanny quality. Memory and matter interact and amalgamate, both becoming disjointed in time; the past, now fragmented, fragile and decaying, returns to haunt the present with disastrous consequences for the future as the frail web of Spider’s mind falls apart like the dilapidated wastelands around him.

From its inception psychoanalysis has been used to explore representations in cultural texts. Whilst Freud examined art and literature from a psychoanalytic perspective, many contemporary theorists apply psychoanalytic theory to film in order to study unresolved cultural anxieties. To begin I shall explore the way deserted, obsolete remnants of a once thriving industrial age embody a powerful sense of uncanny. I will then discuss the psychological origins of the uncanny from a Freudian perspective and how this links in with contemporary Western society and the post-World War II shift from production to consumption as the primary economic activity. Finally I shall look at how marginalized, neglected places and spaces interact with the deserted, shadowy content of repressed memories in the film Spider.

Released from a psychiatric institution after thirty years of incarceration Spider is sent to live in a dingy, decrepit half way house run by an officious woman called Mrs. Wilkins (Lynn Redgrave). His new home is in the same neighborhood that he grew up in and although it is now run down and derelict, all the old places of his childhood still exist. However, the return to the landscape of his youth begins to undermine the fragile stability of his psyche. Disturbing memories that have remained deeply repressed start to emerge, intruding on the present. Time becomes disjointed as he watches the past playing out before him. As memory and contemporary reality intermingle, the film reveals that Spider, an only child, and his mother have a close, loving bond but the relationship between Spider’s parents is strained. His father Bill (Gabriel Byrne) is volatile, intolerant and resentful of his familial responsibilities. Preferring to spend his time at the local pub, Bill begins an affair with Yvonne Wilkinson (Miranda Richardson), a “cheap tart” who frequents the same bar.

One night Spider’s mother (also played by Miranda Richardson) finds Bill and Yvonne having sex in the allotment shed. Bill murders Spider’s mum with a shovel and buries her in the vegetable patch while Yvonne watches on. Yvonne then moves into the family home replacing Spider’s mother, much to his disgust. Spider knows that they murdered his mother and formulates a plan to murder Yvonne. He attaches string from his bedroom down to the kitchen, affixing it to the gas oven. As Yvonne sleeps in a chair next to the stove he pulls the string that turns on the gas. However, as Bill pulls her dead body from the gas filled house she turns back into Spider’s mother whom she really had been all along.  Her transformation into Yvonne was all in Spider’s psychotic mind.

Uncanny Post-Industrial Wastelands

Around the early twentieth century there was a shift from industrial production to consumption as the central economic activity of Western society. This movement away from production meant that many factories and their surrounding infrastructure became redundant and were abandoned. With no function they transformed into decaying, derelict urban wastelands like the setting depicted in Spider. In the opening scenes of the film, Spider makes his way through the desolate urban wasteland of post-industrial East London. The streets are lined with disused, bricked up Victorian terrace houses that would have once been animate with factory employees and their families. A canal, in the past vital for the transportation of goods, now sits obsolete. Devoid of human activity, organic life comprises solely of weeds, poking up through cracks in the pavement. The only stir comes from the methodical heaving and thudding of a monolithic gas works that dominates the landscape like an enormous steel monster from the Jurassic era.

The ruined and dilapidated places and spaces of post-industrial urban wastelands generate a strangely unsettling feeling that can best be described as uncanny. For Freud the uncanny is a feeling that is “undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror” (The Uncanny 1919, 218), but it is also unique and somehow different; a type of feeling that deserves a special conceptual term because it produces a disturbing dreamlike feeling of familiarity in what is evidently unfamiliar. The uncanny is uncanny specifically because of its familiarity being “that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud , The Uncanny 1919, 218) the familiar and the unfamiliar always inhabit each other. The German word for the uncanny is “unheimlich”, which translates directly as “unhomely” in English. When Spider returns to the neighborhood that was once his home he finds that although it is the same place he grew up in it is also very different. Now a wasteland of neglected ruins it exists in the present as a haunting residue of the past. Both familiar and unfamiliar, it has become an alienating unhomely place that Spider does not quite fit into. Philosopher and academic Dylan Trigg describes the ruin as something which:

 Intrudes upon the seamless present, disordering the unmarked line of time by invoking a spatial plane of uncanniness […] It retains the shadow of its old self, but simultaneously radically destabilizes the present (Trigg 2006, 131).

For Trigg, the way that the wasteland, in a sense, returns from the past, “enforcing its presence in the present” (2006, 131) corresponds with Freud’s account of the uncanny. As Freud asserts: “Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (1919, 227). According to Trigg:

This coming to light materializes in the untimely quality of the ruin. Having fallen from (active) time, the ruin becomes disjointed from time. The untimeliness is evident in how past, present and future conspires to converge in the ruin. Having outlawed its functional existence, the ruin’s persistence in time disproves outright extinction, so compels an unexpected return (Trigg 2006, 131).

Confined to the status of waste, obsolete structures sit suspended in time, displacing its linear continuity. As they gradually crumble and decay they retain a semblance of what they once were but grow increasingly distant from their original form. Just like Spider’s memories, the ruins of the urban wasteland embody the feeling of uncanniness, transcending time they come from the past but appear in the present as a fragmented, ghostly revelation that informs and shapes the future.

The Origins of the Uncanny

Freud argues that the psychological origins of the uncanny stem from repressed infantile anxieties that ought to remain hidden in the deep recesses of the mind but as the result of external triggers make an unexpected return (The Uncanny 1919, 227). Freud concludes that the uncanny is directly attached to the mythical figure of the Sand-Man, and to the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes. Freud refers centrally to the story of ‘The Sand-Man’ by E.T.A Hoffmann where the Sand-Man is described as:

A wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes so that they jump out of their heads bleeding. Then he puts the eyes into a sack and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children (Freud, The Uncanny 1919, 227)

Through psychoanalytic experience, Freud has found that incidents about the eyes and fear of going blind are a substitute for the dread of being castrated which arises in the Oedipal phase of development where the male infant’s desire for his mother gives rise to an overwhelming fear that the jealous and cruel father, a bitter rival for the mother’s affections, will castrate the child as punishment for his intense cravings (The Uncanny 1919, 241). Freud argues that the self-blinding of the mythical Oedipus was simply a mitigated form of the punishment of castration and this is why the predominant characteristic of the uncanny is something that is familiar and long-established in the mind. It has become forgotten only through the process of repression, concealed in the catacombs of the unconsciousness which serves as a mental wasteland, reserved for things that we would rather pretend do not exist. According to Freud, in Hoffmann’s tale the Sand-Man always appears as a disturber of love, taking the place of the dreaded father, at whose hands castration is expected (The Uncanny 1919, 230).

In traditional Freudian expression the traumatic threat of castration forces the boy to give up his mother as a love object and instead identify with the castrating father who plays a role in the formation of the superego. The task of the superego is to repress aggressive impulses that stem from the infant’s Oedipal desires to take the place of the father. In order to render hostile impulses towards the father innocuous, the child internalizes its violence, sending it back to where it came from in the outset – one’s own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego, which sets itself up against the rest of the ego as the superego. Retaining the castigatory character of the cruel and jealous father the superego functions as an overwhelmingly cruel agency that torments the ego with guilt (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents 1930, 132-135). Feminist theorist Christina Wieland contends that while the successful working through of the Oedipal stage of development involves the elevation of the father to the superego the deep trauma resulting from the essential rejection of the child’s mother as an object of affection and desire necessitates her banishment into the unconscious (2002, 36).

Just as Freud draws on the ancient Greek drama of Oedipus by Sophocles in order to contextualize this particular stage of psychical development, Wieland refers to the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon form the trilogy The Oresteia to provide a schema for the distressing removal of the revered mother from the consciousness. According to the legend, Agamemnon, commander of the Greek fleet had been in Troy fighting the Trojan War for many years. Upon his eventual return he bought with him a mistress named Cassandra whom he had captured in Troy. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, angry that he had acquired a mistress and wanting revenge for his earlier sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, murders both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus rule the kingdom until Clytemnestra’s son Orestes, prompted by the God Apollo, avenges his father’s death by murdering his mother and her lover. However, Orestes is immediately hounded by the Furies; ancient maternal Goddesses who seek revenge for matricide. Orestes is punished for his dreadful deed with insanity. Just as Orestes commits a physical act of matricide, the total repression of the mother is tantamount to psychical matricide (Wieland 2002, 36-38).

The young Spider is undoubtedly in the midst of Oedipal conflict. He clearly adores his loving, gentle mother, cherishing the time they spend alone together. His brooding, ill-tempered father functions as a disturber of love, an unwelcome intrusion who appears to have very little tolerance or regard for his young son. When Spider observes his parent’s being physically affectionate towards each other he becomes enraged, an emotion that is intensified when a moment of blissful admiration for his mother as she models some new lingerie is shattered when she asks Spider if he thinks his father will like it. However, just as Orestes is mentally unable to deal with the horror of his matricidal actions so too is young Spider unable to cope with the reality that he has murdered his beloved mother, his punishment, like the ancient Greek character before him is insanity. Wieland identifies that the manic solution to intense distress is to deny reality. She argues that the manic responds to the act of matricide by constructing a false belief that the mother is not their true parent (Wieland 2002, 39-40). Thus, Spider’s psychotic reaction is to deny reality by instead constructing an alternative where it is not his mother that he has murdered but Yvonne.

Another example of the expression of matricide in the creative medium of film is the Australian black comedy Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1993). Bad Boy Bubby is set in a derelict post-industrial wasteland that not entirely dissimilar to the mise-en-scene of Spider. Mentally retarded Bubby (Nicolas Hope) has lived in complete isolation in a dark, filthy, windowless, cockroach ridden concrete box with his abusive, dominating mother Flo (Claire Benito) for thirty five years. His mother uses him for sex and tricks him into believing that the outside air is poisonous. To back up the lie she wears a gas mask whenever she leaves their squalid home. The unexpected arrival of Bubby’s Pop (Ralph Cotterill) triggers a jealous Oedipal response in Bubby as well as leading him to question if the outside air really is poisonous. He murders both his mother and pop, asphyxiating them with cling wrap before venturing out into a strange, inhospitable world where his experiences with other people are complicated by the fact that he cannot communicate on any level other than mimicry.

Memory and Matter in a Changing World

Social theorists Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs identify that whilst Freud’s primary concern was certainly with the psyche, his exploration of the uncanny is also about one’s sense of place in the modern, changing environment and it attends to anxieties which are symptomatic of an ongoing process or realignment in post-war society (Gelder and Jacobs 1995, 174). Sociologist John Carroll explains that the shift away from industrialization towards consumption has had a destabilizing effect on traditional societal structures in both the private and public sphere, particularly in relation to patriarchal hegemony. Consumer culture meant that for the first time the wife/mother became psychologically central to the family, taking the lead role in spending decisions (Carroll 1985, 173).

Additionally, active challenges to the time-honored order of female subordination and male domination initiated by the rise of feminism, the entrance of women into the labor market, the collapse of the nuclear family and gradual elevation of women to positions of real power within government and industry over the decades has led to the popular presumption that masculinity is in crisis; that there is a general feeling among men that they are no longer capable of fully controlling the world, and that their power and authority can no longer be taken for granted (Brittan 1989, 183).  As famous psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan states:

Whatever its future this decline [of the paternal imago] constitutes a psychological crisis. It may even be that the emergence of psychoanalysis itself is linked to this very crisis (Lacan 1938, 45).

Not all contemporary thinkers agree that the psychological crisis referred to by Lacan is entirely inclusive, for example, sociologist Tim Edwards argues that whilst there is conceptual and theoretical support for the argument of a crisis of masculinity, the actual effects of this crisis undoubtedly vary according to class, ethnicity, age, geography, and sexuality, constituting what Edwards refers to as a “partial crisis” as opposed to an overall catastrophe (Edwards 2006, 16). Similarly, academic Arthur Brittan argues “it is problematic to assume that all men are in crisis given that not all men have the same interests, nor do they share the same collective identities” (1989, 183). However, whilst the extent of a crisis of masculinity is a debated topic, there is some consensus that the male identity has been destabilized by cultural shifts creating a profound effect on the psyche by triggering deep feelings of anxiety that originate in the Oedipal phase of development.

These anxieties reveal themselves in the form of the uncanny in the sense that the derelict wastelands of former factory sites serve as a catalyst, as remnants of the past when gender roles were clearly defined. Similarly, the exclusively masculine domain of the factory serves as an emblem for patriarchal hegemony. Just as unwelcome memories are repressed and confined to the margins of the mind, so too are discarded places that resonate with troubling messages of failure, confined to the margins of society. Both memory and matter are delegated the status of unwanted waste, left to gradually decompose over time.

Memory, Matter and the Wastelands of Spider

The marginalized wastelands of memory and matter form a powerful alliance in Spider, embodying the uncanny. Both become disjointed from time, disrupting its continuity, both generate a lurking feeling of unease as something that ought to remain secret and hidden reveals itself. The places from Spider’s past; the streets, the canal, the allotment, Spider’s childhood home, the local pub, and the gas works, all conspire to exhume Spider’s interred memories. The vegetable garden at the allotment is where his mother was buried after being brutally murdered, under the bridge alongside the canal Spider’s father received sexual favors from Yvonne, the local pub is where Bill preferred to spend his free time and also where he met Yvonne, Spider’s old home is where his mother lovingly indulged his obsession with spiders (as well as being the place where she met her real death). All these places still exist, but like the ruin they are shadows of past that threaten to subvert the present.

As Spider explores the landscape of his youth the past, present and future conspire to converge in his mind just as they do in the ruin. His childhood memories resurface from history, imposing their uncanny presence on the present. Spider becomes lost in time as his surroundings return to their original manifestation and the events of the past play out before his eyes. But as Trigg describes, when we encounter objects from our background a change takes place when we recall their origin:

They return to their original spontaneity, and yet are wholly decaying, rotting, and fragile to the touch. The return of the “thing” thus instills a warped time scale. What remains in the ruin is the trace of a past, fragmented and unable to be situated in an overarching narrative, fusing with the ruin’s decay in the present (Trigg 2006, 31).

As the narrative of Spider’s childhood comes to life cracks begin to appear, revealing the fragility of its construction and the fragility of Spider’s mind. Things are not quite right; Yvonne looks disturbingly like Spider’s mother, although she behaves very differently. No one else seems to notice that Spider’s mother is missing and when Spider accuses Bill and Yvonne of murdering his mother Bill, appearing shocked and concerned, asks him if he is daft.

Just as the fragmented traces of the past fuse with the ruin’s decay in the present, the repressed memories from Spider’s past emerge and combine with the present; as the prologue for the movie articulates: “The only thing worse than losing your mind is finding it again” (http://www.spiderthemovie.com). Spider is no longer able to contain the fact that it was he who murdered his beloved mother; that she was actually Yvonne all along. As Trigg asserts: “In spite of the temporal closure of the past, the same past reconfigures and reappears, circumventing the attempt to rationalize it into submission” (2006, 31).

Spider’s psychotic attempt to rationalize his act of matricide “into submission” by denying that it is his mother that he has murdered, instead displacing culpability for his mother’s death onto his father is thwarted by the return of the truth, which, in response to the external triggers of the post-industrial wasteland around him, has reconfigured and reappeared. Like the string that connects the oven door to the murder’s hand, the memory connects the past to the present. Spider’s recollections reactivate his psychosis, which returns with all the vigor and intensity of its original manifestation.  Mrs. Wilkins morphs into Yvonne Wilkinson, looking and behaving exactly as she did when Spider was a young child. The past and the present become trapped in the tangled web of Spider’s mind, just like living become ensnared in the sticky tendrils of the web of his namesake taking their place alongside decaying corpses that linger as a ghoulish testimony of past consumption. In an uncanny act of repetition he sets about murdering Yvonne again (only this time he fails to complete the deed) and is taken away to the asylum, just as he was thirty years ago, as much a fragmented ruin from the past, conflated with the present as the decaying wasteland around him.

Conclusion

No longer of material value, waste is the stuff we discard, the rags and the refuse that is confined to the outskirts of society, forming an unconscious backdrop that despite its marginalization defies outright extinction. Wasted places and spaces, remnant from another era become disjointed from time, transcending its sequential structure. They retain a semblance of their past life but, now distant from their original form, take on a disturbing, haunting quality that embodies the uncanny; a dream like feeling of familiarity in what is evidently unfamiliar. In David Cronenberg’s Spider the wasted debris of the landscape forms a powerful coalition with disturbing memories that have been impounded in the mental wasteland of Spider’s unconsciousness, each providing the other with substance and epistemological value. Like a hurriedly covered corpse in a shallow grave, memory and matter do not remain buried for long, instead they reemerge, tainting the present with their fetid presence, a presence that in turn contaminates the future. Thus, whether it is in the form of disturbing and traumatic memories or architectural constructions that resonate with outmoded ideologies waste becomes a pseudonym for the things we would prefer to forget; the objects and events that are stifled in the shadow recesses of the unconscious. However, as Walter Benjamin succinctly asserts “by their waste shall you know them” (1999, 82), hence, the unconscious is also a place where narratives of truth, unmediated by the ego reside. As a form of cultural expression Spider provides a compelling commentary on the powerful interaction between matter and memory and the hidden anxieties that embody them both.

References

Bad Boy Bubby. 1993. Directed by Rolf de Heer. Australia. South Australian Film Corporation.

Benjamin, Walter. 1999. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Cambridge Massachusetts: Belknap Press.

Brittan, Arthur. 1989. Masculinity and Power. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Carroll, John. 1985. Guilt: The Grey Eminence Behind Character, History, and Culture. London: Routledge.

Edwards, Tim. 2006. Cultures and Masculinity. London: Routledge.

Freud, Sigmund. 1919. The Uncanny. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XVII: An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. London: Vintage, 2001, 217-256.

__________. 1930. Civilization and its Discontents. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XXI: The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works. London: Vintage, 2001, 59-148.

Gelder, Ken and Jane Jacobs. 1995. Uncanny Australia. Cultural Geographies 2: 171-183.

Lacan, Jacques. 1938. Family Complexes and the Individual. Translated by Cormac Gallagher.  London: Anthony Rowe.

Spider. 2002. Directed by David Cronenberg. Canada/England. Capitol Films.

Spider the Movie Official Web Site. 2003. http://spiderthemovie.com (Accessed October 3rd 2010).

Trigg, Dylan. 2006. The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason. New York: Peter Lang.

Vider, Anthony. 1994. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. London and New York: MIT Press.

Wieland, Christina. 2002. The Undead Mother: Psychoanalytic Explorations of Masculinity, Femininity, and Matricide. London: Rebus Press.

 

Bio

Samantha Lindop holds a Masters degree in Psychoanalytic Studies from Deakin University and is currently a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland, School of English, Media Studies, and Art History. She is researching the fatale figure in postmillennial neo-noir North American cinema.  Email: slindop1@bigpond.com