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Sigmund Freud

The Uncanny

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1919

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The Uncanny, published in 1919, is one of the most famous of Sigmund Freud’s essays. This is not only because many of his most foundational ideas had their genesis here but because the essay pertains to aesthetics and popular culture, making it both accessible and gripping for a broad readership. The Uncanny is a good example of Freud’s predilection for drawing on aesthetics to support his arguments, and thus a useful introduction to the ideas of this vastly influential thinker. It is also in The Uncanny that Freud sets out some of the most radical tenets of his thought: the primacy of the unconscious and the recurrence of repressed material from childhood.

The Uncanny is also a seminal text in the canon of literary criticism, and an extremely useful codex for any student of literature. Freud’s ideas about literature strongly inform almost any example of contemporary literary criticism that one reads. Although he claims at the beginning of the title essay that he “rarely” dabbles in aesthetics, literature is foundational to Freud’s theories of the structure of the human psyche. There are few texts that so compellingly make the case for literature as a route into the deepest parts of the self. Freud’s basic premise in the essay is to define the uncanny as any experience that reminds us of earlier moments in our psychic development, both individually and as a species.

The Uncanny is a collection of essays that culminates in Freud’s essay of the same name. The first three essays in the collection, “Screen Memories,” “The Creative Writer and Daydreaming,” and “Family Romances,” are brief, and develop Freud’s theories about the connection between infantile development and creative ability. “Screen Memories” establishes the idea that many childhood memories are fictions. “The Creative Writer and Daydreaming” finds a synergy between children’s play, adult imagination, and creative writing. Finally, “Family Romances” elucidates the psychosexual fantasies constructed in the mind of the developing infant.

Freud builds on these brief essays in his essay “Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of this Childhood.” The essay is broken into six sections. It opens with Freud claiming that Da Vinci is exemplary not only for his achievements, but for his capacity to sublimate rather than repress his libidinal drives. Parts 2-4 explicate a bizarre childhood memory Da Vinci recorded in his notebooks of being hit on the mouth by the tail of a vulture as a baby. The fifth section focuses on Leonardo’s relationship with his father and its impact on Da Vinci’s work and spiritual beliefs. Freud closes the essay by claiming that Da Vinci was an obsessional neurotic whose capacity to sublimate was inexplicable via psychoanalysis. Freud argues that psychoanalysis can clarify the character but not the origin of Da Vinci’s genius.

Freud’s essay, “The Uncanny,” is divided into three parts. In the opening section, Freud defines his central concept of the uncanny through an examination of the etymology of the term’s German translation, unheimlich. The second section considers Jensch’s reading of E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman,” which is foundational to Jensch’s definition of the uncanny, and Freud’s elaboration of it. The final section of Freud’s essay works through the effect of the uncanny in both literature and real-life case studies.

The first part of “The Uncanny” opens with the declaration that the psychoanalytic paper will concern itself with aesthetics. Freud has investigated the underdiscussed realm of literature’s unpleasurable effects, which include the uncanny. He proceeds with an analysis of the semantics of the terms heimlich (or “familiar), and unheimlich. Freud then takes up the only previous examination of the uncanny, Ernst Jentsch’s 1906 publication On the Psychology of the Uncanny. Jentsch’s definition of the uncanny involves a fear of the unfamiliar, and the experience of intellectual uncertainty. Freud will critique both aspects of Jentsch’s definition.

In the second section of “The Uncanny,” Freud reviews an example of uncanniness in the story “The Sandman,” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, which was originally drawn by Jentsch. Whereas Jentsch considers the most uncanny element of the story to be Olympia, the lifelike doll, Freud argues that the source of the uncanny is the eponymous Sandman, a bogeyman said to tear out children’s eyes. Freud claims that the protagonist’s recurrent fear is traceable to this childhood fantasy, behind which lies an unresolved castration complex. The castration complex is the early childhood fear of retribution from the same-sex parent for unconsciously desiring the opposite-sex parent.

In this section, Freud also examines the theories of Otto Rank and Schelling, as they pertain to the concept of the uncanny. Rank’s notion is that the double is created to preserve the ego from the threat of death. Schelling’s notion is that the uncanny is the appearance of something that should have remained hidden. Freud claims that latent in both theories is the fear of death, which was resolved by what he calls “primitive” societies by animistic beliefs in the power of the mind to manipulate matter. At the close of the section, Freud links this fear induced and inducing doubling to the return of repressed psychic material. The uncanny is about remembering what we would prefer not to recall. For example, being buried alive is uncanny because it recalls the familiar, or “the phantasy of […] intra-uterine existence” (15).

In the final section of the essay, Freud promises to allay the reader’s doubts through clinical examples. For the remainder of the essay, Freud offers examples of the uncanny that involve a repetition of the same thing, linking repetition compulsion as represented in literature to the symptoms displayed by his patients. Fairytales and instances of the dead coming back to life in Snow White and the Bible are not uncanny. Thus, Freud concludes, there is more to the definition. An uncanny effect is produced, he asserts, when repressed infantile complexes are revived by some experience in the adult’s life. Infantile complexes are intimately connected with animistic beliefs.

Finally, Freud returns to a discussion of the uncanny in literature. Storytellers “take advantage” of their readers’ “superstitiousness” to “control the current of their feelings” (19).Silence, solitude, and darkness are trademarks of the uncanny that relate to the infantile morbid anxiety “from which the majority of human beings have never become quite free” (20).