THE EYELESS AUTOMATON
Just as the fleshless human skull with worms and snakes writhing out of its hollow eye-sockets became a popular image of mortal doom during the Middle Ages, the android double with unblinking, black pools for eyes in The Stepford Wives (1975) was, for a late 20th-century audience, anyway, definitely among the more fearsome of unnatural depictions. The original eyeless automaton was the Romantic horror writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s bleak invention — a wooden doll’s face with dark, empty orbs where there should have been eyes; a specter of lifeless beauty to which Sigmund Freud over one hundred years afterwards dedicated the significant part of his interpretation of the uncanny. While subsequent storytellers like Robert Bloch tended to favor Freud’s clinical read, downplaying the more disturbing symbolism of Hoffmann’s allegorical monster, Stepford Wives Director Bryan Forbes saw the far greater potential of assimilating the superstitious and occult iconography of the Romantic horror story into his depiction of the twisted male fantasy of the suburban, robot housefrau.
Hoffmann’s “The Sand-man”, upon which Freud relied heavily for his analysis of primitive fear, was in large part a product of the prevailing cultural mood of subjective uncertainty and psychic turmoil at the beginning of the 19th-century. Maybe Hoffmann’s contemporary Heinrich von Kleist expressed the general anxiety best in a couple of letters written in 1801. “Lately,” Kleist wrote to his then fiancée Wilhelmine von Zenge, “I became acquainted with the recent so called Kantian philosophy.” The challenge to Enlightenment principals apparently had a profound affect on the writer. Thereafter the tone of his dispatches takes a turn for the worse. To Wilhelmine, he complained, “We cannot determine whether what we call truth really is truth, or only seems so to us.” To his half-sister Ulrike, Kleist melodramatically opined, “The thought that here on earth we know nothing of the truth, absolutely nothing... has shaken me in the very sanctuary of my soul — my only purpose, my supreme purpose has collapsed; I have none left.” Hoffmann, it appeared, thrived, if only creatively, on such anxiety and indecision. The characters he created could seldom tell fantasy from reality; a great fan of the doppelgänger motif, veracity and identity in his stories was constantly cast into doubt; advances in science and technology provided a regular source of phenomenon which cruelly tricked the senses and played havoc on the mind; and, just as significantly, old-world magic and superstition were never too far afield, and always lurked around the very next corner. Throughout “The Sand-man” things are rarely, if ever, what they seem. Nathanael has great trouble distinguishing the folk tale of the ogre who pours fine particles of sand on children’s eyes to make their lids feel heavy with sleep, and the trauma of his father’s death in a laboratory explosion. In fact, Nathanael’s fragile, ever more fallible mental state colors every detail of the story. The most common objects, like a spy-glass, gain, by inference, magical powers. Nathanael’s own faculties of perception constantly betray him. So much so, the object of his over-passionate adoration, it turns out, is nothing more than a wooden mannequin.
Freud recognized in “The Sand-man” a virtual lexicon of Romantic horror motifs by which he could describe the uncanny. Nathanael’s confusion of the Olimpia doll for an actual living being was not, however, what most resonated with the analyst. Freud found Hoffmann’s appropriation of the childhood legend of the Sand-man much more compelling. For greater effect, Hoffmann had embellished the tale a little bit, and, consequently, the phantom was given a slightly more lurid spin than usual. In Hoffmann’s version the fiend came at night to little children in their sleep to rob them of their eyeballs. According to the nursemaid: “He is a bad man who comes to children when they won’t go to bed and throws a handful of sand in their eyes, so that their eyes jump out of their heads, all bleeding. He then throws their eyes in his bag and takes them off to the half-moon as food for his children. These children sit up there in their nest; they have hooked beaks like owls, and use them to peck up the eyes of the naughty little girls and boys.” Freud’s argument was that the uncanny was not frightening because it was alien to our sensibility. More accurately, such a fear came about at the moment when what was previously considered familiar was rendered unfamiliar. So the argument went, folk tales like the one about the Sand-man, told over time, may have come to appear innocuous at first but they have not entirely lost the gravity of their original meaning; in some cases they still provide us with a link to our most primitive archetypes. The uncanny pertained particularly to those primal fears which, to quote Evil Dead II (1987), “were and will be again”. Freud, of course, had his own peculiar agenda for focusing exclusively on the theft of the eyeballs. In “The Uncanny” the “loss of the eyes” was offered as the single most important motif in Hoffmann’s tale. All other myriad possibilities, no matter how probable, were dismissed out of hand. The predictably single-minded psychoanalyst wasted absolutely no time in ascribing the bedtime story to his own nightmare scenario of “castration anxiety”.
Robert Bloch (best known for Psycho) was among the rare writers, in the wake of Freud’s take on the uncanny, to revisit Hoffmann’s theme of a wooden doll mysteriously brought to life. Originally published in the 1939 volume of Weird Tales, “Mannikins of Horror” is essentially the story of Edgar Colin’s God complex. Once a doctor, Colin marks his days and nights in an asylum for the incurably insane feverishly making pint-sized clay figures that are anatomically perfectly correct. Although Bloch primarily wrote horror stories, he couldn’t help but share in the general modern-day skepticism for primitive superstition. Unlike Freud, however, Bloch was not afraid to take on the more cryptic implications in Hoffmann’s motif of an animated man-made object. Boundaries between science and sorcery understandably become blurred when the subject is artificial life. Bloch’s representation of the mannequin was further updated by the Frankenstein monster which had already given a stark form to the theme of fragmented subjectivity. The Hans Belmer-like image of the schizophrenic body as an assemblage of many parts which barely hold together is Bloch’s own touch. It is a theme that is, admittedly, more developed in the original story than it is in the Amicus film version, Asylum (1972). In crucial ways the picture favored Freud’s scientific gloss of the Sand-man over Hoffmann’s darker meaning. Amicus was an early champion of the comic book inspired multi-story movie format. To increase the suspense, Director Roy Ward Baker used “Mannikins of Horror” as a loose framework in which to present a number of other Bloch stories as shorter vignettes: notably including “Frozen Fear”, a tale of marital discord and murder gone awry; and, “Lucy Comes To Stay”, about a mentally disturbed woman who is haunted by a diabolical make-believe friend (played by Britt Ekland). There are, in the screenplay, a number of minor alterations to Bloch’s original story. Colin’s name, for example, is mysteriously changed to Byron. The major distinction between the two versions, however, are the details of how the mannequin is brought to life. In a strangely comical moment in Asylum, Byron is pictured desperately willing his consciousness into the clay automaton by staring at it as hard as he can; found no where in the original Hoffmann tale, it is an image which instead makes clear reference to Freud’s anecdote of a little girl who was convinced her dolls would come to life if she simply looked at them “as intensely as possible”. While “Mannekins of Horror” dabbles with the theme of telepathic transference, it is, on the whole, much more faithful to Hoffmann’s idiosyncratic obsession with the significance of the doll’s eyes.
“The Sand-man” is as much about the black visions and terrible omens that hound Nathanael to his eventual death as it is about the art of telling a tall tale. To underscore Hoffmann’s experimentation with the artifice of narrative voice, the story is itself proposed as a segmented composite of at least three distinct personalities. He did not set out to sensationalize the rantings of a crazy subject. Hoffmann’s intention was to write a story from a delusional point of view. His aim was to actually attempt to construct a mood of incoherence and dementia, to see the world, in other words, as Nathanael might have seen it. But Hoffmann was not content to simply give us Nathanael’s voice of insanity. His fiancée Clara’s clinical and reasonable response to his alarming letter also provides the reader with a rational perspective that allows us to suffer shock and embarrassment at the frightening delusions which characterize the young man’s rapid descent into madness. The result is a fragmented story based on Nathanael’s paranoid reoccurring nightmare from childhood in which the old man Coppelius is actually the Sand-man who goes around stealing the eyes from little children in order to bring to life the eyeless automatons he and his father build in the laboratory at night. Nathanael’s initial decent into total mental depravity occurs at the moment when he realizes the object of his adoration was nothing more than an inanimate puppet. Not only are many of the characters in the story interchangeable, so are Hoffmann’s symbols for madness and death. Frantic with despair Nathanael imagines it is the cursed Sand-man, this time in the guise of Coppola, who has played this treacherous and evil trick on him. Hoffmann wrote: “Nathanael was stupefied — he could see only too distinctly that in Olimpia’s pallid waxed face there were no eyes, merely black holes in their stead.”
“Mannikins of Horror” and The Stepford Wives pick up on the motif of the eyeless automaton slightly differently. Bloch only subtly alludes to it when he describes one of Colin’s doll-sized, clay puppets: “It was a perfect man, with unusually muscled arms, and very long fingernails. The teeth, too, were very good. But the figure was incomplete. It had no face.” To complete the automaton and grant it life, Colin, so it follows, must give it a face and eyes. The Stepford Wives, which begins with the ironic foreshadowing of a man awkwardly carrying a naked mannequin down a Manhattan street, makes much more overt references to Hoffmann’s eyeless doll. As a number of critics were quick to point out, while it is difficult to gauge the sincerity of the film’s satirical, political intent (is it a stab at misogynist male fantasy, or a poke at mainstream feminist paranoia?), the outcome of The Stepford Wives is very predictable. In the era of the big American station wagon with faux wood paneling, Joanna Eberhart, a self- described “hopeful, would-be semi-professional” shutterbug, moves to a small suburban community with her husband and two children. Everything seems perfectly placid and idyllic in this bucolic world far from the noise and hazards of the big city. There is, however, something wrong with the women of Stepford. They have no more personality than your average television commercial housewife. One by one they all eventually turn into these automaton-like house fraus, and Joanna soon realizes it’s her turn next. As she puts it: “There’ll be somebody with my name, she’ll cook and clean like crazy, but she won’t take pictures and she won’t be me! — She’ll be like one of those robots in Disneyland.” The Stepford Wives, like the Ira Levin novel by the same title upon which it was based, is, for the most part, content to play mild homage to Hoffmann’s specter of the life-like doll. The full weight of the connection only becomes abundantly clear in the dramatic finale of the film, when Joanna is finally forced to confront her automaton double. As the robot turns her head to meet Joanna’s gaze we see that it has no eyes, only big black pools. In order for the automaton double to become complete and finally replace Joanna it must first take her eyes. For Joanna, the skull-like face of the eyeless automaton is the last thing she will ever see — the image of her own death.
It’s as if Freud refused to look the eyeless automaton squarely in the face. The potentially far more sinister implication of the acquisition of human eyes for the final and necessary step of animating the automaton, which Hoffmann hinted at and The Stepford Wives keenly picked up on, was not even considered in “The Uncanny”; nor was the obvious comparison of the eyeless doll’s face to a skull-like death-mask deemed worthy of mention. Freud’s selective examination of “The Sand-man” is all the more puzzling given his definition of the uncanny as a return of the primitive and supernatural in a secular or modern context. But, if the uncanny derives from a once familiar fear that was repressed, is it then not more accurately characterized by the form it takes at the moment of its re-invention? Primitive fears are conceivably ahistorical. Fear of the unknown, or of death, for example, never goes away. What presumably does change is how a culture chooses to represent those primitive fears. When the basis of rational reality was cast into doubt by Romantic thinkers, Hoffmann might have imagined that death would resemble a life-like automaton. At the height of our own technological and scientific optimism, it was not far-fetched to imagine that death might very well have reappeared as an android double. The origin of the uncanny in our most primitive fears is never in doubt. What remains unknown is the shape fear will take next.
© Daniel Mendel-Black, 2004, originally published for the exhibition catalogue for Kommando Pfannenkuchen: Deutsche und Amerikanische Kunst