The Weird's Relation to Society

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Weird Sh*t

Forming somewhere between old English to the modern uncanny, weirdness is its own language. Erik Davis offers a brief etymological look at weird, the word, and the place where it lurks in our imagination.

Weird is a wayward word: though it describes a set of singular effects that link the cultural fringe with peculiar personal experiences, it remains an elusive and marginal term. The similar notion of the uncanny is, on the other hand, basically an establishment term, a well-established literary effect with a sophisticated psychoanalytic pedigree. Weirdness, we might say then, is the uncanny’s low-brow doppelganger, a demotic country cousin that races hot-rods, wears mis-matched socks, and inhabits the strange borderlands between this world and the beyond.

The roots of weirdness lie in the noun wyrd, an Old English term that pops up in Beowulf and denotes the (usually grim) demands of destiny. The adjective first appears in the phrase weird sisters, which was used by Scottish poets to describe the classical Fates before Shakespeare attached the term to the witches of Macbeth. But Shakespeare’s spelling of weird is, well, a bit weird—“weyrd”, “weyward”, and “weyard” appear in the first folio, but never “weird”. These alternate spellings, again, suggest the term wayward, a word used by Shakespeare to denote the capricious refusal to follow rule or reason. This suggests to some Macbeth scholars that, in addition to their oracular knowledge, the witches are also defined by their willful resistance to the norm, a perverse and chaotic twist away from the law. Early on, then, weirdness already covers two contrasting but related forces: necessity and anomaly.
And yet: the sacred trace remains. Even in the most low-brow drive-in monster mash, weird culture generates a highly ambivalent blend of wonder and horror that recalls the famous definition of the numinous provided by the religious historian Rudolph Otto in The Idea of the Holy, where he described the sacred Other as mysterium tremendum et fascinans—a mystery that at once repels and attracts, terrifies and fascinates. Otto’s distinction also informed the religious historian Mircea Eliade’s influential notion of the paradoxical relationship between the sacred and profane. For Eliade, the sacred is a higher ontological realm, but it can manifest in just about anything on the profane plane—and especially strange things. “Everything unusual, unique, new, perfect or monstrous at once becomes imbued with magico-religious powers” he wrote. Here we once again find a key element of the weird, an element whose best name—at once technical and evocative—is anomaly.
 
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