Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Uncanny sewing machines

I believe in synchronicity. And when several threads come together I have to write about it. So this time I'll write about uncanny sewing machines.
I'm scouring Rotterdam for places with atmosphere. They are difficult to find. But last December I started exploring the Feijenoord area, on the South (poor) side of the river. And here I found this upholstery shop.
Feijenoord was the first expansion area of Rotterdam south of the river Nieuwe Maas. The district is surrounded by old docks, the old harbours and the river. It is bisected by the railway line between Rotterdam and Dordrecht. The district was founded in 1870 when the Rotterdam population grew with 32,000 inhabitants. Speculators had free reign and the quality of the housing was low. Most buildings were demolished after 1970 and replaced by social housing. The majority of the inhabitants are immigrants.
The upholstery shop is a surviving relic of the 19th century and the industrial revolution. The ancient atmosphere is enhanced by the collection of old radios and sewing machines in the shop window. It fits the area perfectly.
The repressed retains its initial impulse, its urge to penetrate consciousness.
There is something old lurking in this area. The 19th century is still alive with its smoky, greasy and metallic atmosphere. With ghosts made of soot and poverty. With vampires hunting for drunks in dark streets. With working class mothers mending clothes for large families. Maybe the atmosphere of poverty and class struggle has never left the district.
The patterns on the sewing machines remind me of medieval armor and tarot cards. I'm sure that the owner of the upholstery shop is a master of occult arts and that he's been practicing his secret craft here since the 1800s. If I walk into the shop and say the right password I will be initiated in the secrets of this area.
Repressed contents are not destroyed in the unconscious: rather, they are forever re-emerging in the form of "derivatives of the unconscious". Such derivatives include fantasies, slips of the tongue, parapraxes and even certain character traits. They are expressions of the unconscious manifesting itself in consciousness, without this necessarily implying that the repressed becomes conscious: The repressed returns, but often remains unrecognizable.
The interaction of this area, the shop, the machines and the patterns enhances the uncanny atmosphere of this district. I'm pleasantly bewitched and obsessed and I have to return regularly. A weird kind of pilgrimage. The place charges some spiritual batteries I didn't know I had.
Freud describes uncanny effects that result from instances of  "repetition of the same thing," including incidents wherein one becomes lost and accidentally retraces one's steps, and instances wherein random numbers recur, seemingly meaningfully (here Freud may be said to be prefiguring the concept that Jung would later refer to as synchronicity).
So I have been sensitized to the uncanny character of sewing machines. Some of this is explained by their power to do real damage.
I learned that if a sewing machine will sew through quadruple-layer canvas coveralls, it will also sew through an eleven-year old's thumb. Thankfully, I did not have to learn that on my thumb; I learned it on my cousin Stacey's thumb. I also learned that it's better to learn from other peoples' mistakes.
This power to damage is recognized by Kafka, who has written a famous (and widely interpreted) short story about a sewing-machine like device.
"In the Penal Colony" describes the use of an elaborate execution device that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin before letting him die, all in the course of twelve hours. The condemned prisoners experience a religious epiphany in their last six hours in the machine.
And the fantasies of Kafka are echoed in reality.
A 52-year-old man, called Zhou, has been arrested for injuring his girlfriend (42) by etching words across her body, a report said today. When the victim wanted to end their relationship, Zhou detained her in their residence and dipped a sewing machine needle in ink and carved out defamatory phrases, consisting of more than 100 Chinese characters, over her body.
There are more uncanny sewing machines in Rotterdam. I had forgotten about their existence. But during a recent visit to Boijmans museum they called to me and I came. The first sewing machine was in a painting by the magical realist Pyke Koch. I had picked up the signals correctly.
The radar tower could symbolize  consciousness, picking up signals in the dark, not using the normal senses.
The objects around the girl show an undeniable erotic connotation. In a Freudian way the artist investigates his own psyche, in this case his problematic feelings towards women: the candle, pin-cushion and sewing machine all seem to point in this direction. More specific, the girl's fruitless efforts to light the candle may indicate a physical or psychological impotence on the artist's part.
This fits wonderfully with my attraction to the district of Feijenoord and its strange atmosphere. I wonder what I'll discover if I visit the area more frequently. I don't think it is anything erotic. I suspect it is the lost city of Prague that I'm trying to rediscover. I miss that eternal city.
Basically, the Uncanny is what unconsciously reminds us of our own forbidden and thus repressed impulses perceived as a threatening force by our super-ego. Thus, the items and individuals that we project our own repressed impulses upon become a most uncanny threat to us, uncanny monsters and freaks akin to fairy-tale folk-devils, and subsequently often become scapegoats we blame for all sorts of perceived miseries, calamities, and maladies.
And there is another, hidden, sewing machine in Boijmans museum. And this one was also calling me. But it was also warning me: Do not disturb!

"The Mystery of Isidore Ducasse" from 1920 refers back to "Les Chants de Maldoror" that Ducasse wrote under the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont. The book appeared in 1869 and was rediscovered in the 1920s by the Surrealists, who considered Ducasse to be a kindred spirit. In this book, which seems to have been written in a fit of delirium, they recognized their method of automatic writing. They also encountered anew their preference for absurd combinations of things which they believed were poetic sparks that would kindle a great fire. They adopted one sentence from the book as their motto: "as beautiful as a chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table".
Maybe I should be careful with my explorations of Feijenoord and stop trying to uncover the hidden secrets of this district? Should I be careful with absurd combinations of things, because they are poetic sparks that can kindle a great fire? Or should I just bring an umbrella next time?

References and sources of quotes
Pyke Koch - Sleeping Somnabulist - Better reproduction
Pyke Koch - Sleeping Somnabulist - Description
Sewing machine horror  Mighty_Emperor on Fortean Times forum
Old sewing machine restoration
Chance encounter of a sewing machine
Chance encounter of a sewing machine
Chance encounter of a sewing machine
In the Penal Colony
Man Ray Enigme Isidore Ducasse Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam


  1. got to love synchroni(city)Please go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbfxNoYxMhI and to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YTUfUe49Cg

  2. Wow, what an uncanny music and film! Thanks for sharing.