The Uncanny

The Uncanny Essay Questions

  1. 1

    In what ways is Freud's The Uncanny a typical artistic study, and in what ways is it atypical?

    Freud's Uncanny is a typical study in that it contains a close reading of a well-known work of art, in this case, Hoffmann's "Sand-Man," and offers an interpretation of it, parsing the author's intentions, and examining how it achieves its effects. It takes these conclusions and makes some hypotheses about art and how art functions. Freud's reading suggests that art serves as a repository for the fears and wishes of infancy and of human pre-history, which, because they have been repressed or overcome, cannot be directly expressed and find symbolic expression in art. Freud's study is atypical in several ways, however. First, Freud does not come to literature as a student of art, but rather with a pre-made methodology and anthropology—that of psychoanalysis—which he wants to extend to art. Second, Freud does not focus on art's positive aspects, like beauty or grandeur, but rather on a single negative effect, that of anxiety or discomfort, that is usually used by artworks looked down upon as "popular," e.g., horror. And finally, Freud is less concerned with art itself than the structures of the mind that allow artistic effects to be possible.

  2. 2

    Reconstruct Freud's linguistic analysis of the word unheimlich, or "uncanny." In light of the literary analysis, why do you think Freud relies on this dictionary definition?

    Freud demonstrates that the word unheimlich is actually one of the meanings of its antonym, heimlich. Heimlich can be used to refer to anything that is familiar or cozy. It also refers to anything of or relating to the home, as in a family friend, or, in politics, a privy councilor, someone who advises a monarch on domestic affairs. It can mean something that is tame, in the sense of a domestic plant or animal. It also refers to the sense of safety that comes with being concealed or tucked away. From this latter meaning, Freud is able to extract a range of meanings that contradict the previous ones. Heimlich can mean "secret," or mysterious, and from there it also has a range of usages that connote the unknown, or danger, like "hidden" knowledge. Freud concludes that the word unheimlich contains in itself two opposite meanings: that of the familiar and the frightening. Freud's treatment of language runs parallel to his treatment of literature. He sees language as a repository for common cultural assumptions that all people find intuitively and emotionally familiar. By exploring linguistic usage, Freud believes that we can get to the origin of these assumptions.

  3. 3

    Summarize Freud's reading of E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Sand-Man." Consider the pros and cons of his reading.

    In Freud's reading of "The Sand-Man," Nathaniel suffers from an un-worked-through castration complex. As a child, he has ambivalent feelings towards his father, as a possible castrator who interferes with his capacity for pleasure, and also as his defender and a source of love. Nathaniel splits these ambivalent feelings into two father figures: the Sand-Man/Coppola and his actual father. He believes the Sand-Man murdered his father because he transfers his own wish to kill his father onto the menacing figure. The fear of castration is attached to his obsession with the loss of his eyes. As an adult, he falls in love with the doll Olympia because she is the ideal screen for his infant narcissism, which he has not worked through as a result of his trauma. His narcissism causes him to recognize in her his own feminine stance towards his father. Once again, the Sand-Man returns as a castrating figure who separates him from Olympia, in the guise of the eye-glass merchant Coppola.

    Freud's reading of "The Sand-Man" has the advantage of linking the childhood episode and the Olympia-automaton episode. Though Freud acknowledges the satirical tone with which Hoffmann treats the Olympia episode, Freud doesn't address whether this substantively changes the "uncanny" aspect of it. Freud also overlooks the role played by technology in Hoffmann. Freud does not address the role of optical media and scientific measurements, and the frightening technological progress that allows Professor Spalanzani to create Olympia.

  4. 4

    Choose three instances of the uncanny and summarize Freud's explanation for them.

    Freud believes that the fear of loss of one's eyes, or of damage done to one's eyes, has its roots in the childhood fear of castration. When male infants develop a sexuality they soon begin believing that their father will castrate them to eliminate sexual competition for their mother. Freud believes that the fear of losing one's eyes is a manifestation of this fear, which has been repressed as the ego develops. Freud believes that the uncanny feeling generated by two doubles—people who look exactly alike—comes from infant narcissism, and the narcissism of primitive humanity. Primitive people, like the Ancient Egyptians, believed that the double was insurance against death, and preserved the individual. Later, the double came to embody the conscience, or a critical faculty of self-reflection. Both of these earlier beliefs have been repressed. Freud believes that fear of living dolls is a recurrence of the belief that inanimate objects can be brought to life with one's thoughts, which infants and primitive peoples have. All of these thoughts have been repressed, which is why they are forbidding and yet familiar.

  5. 5

    Explain Freud's argument about uncanny effects in the third section. Why are potentially uncanny phenomena sometimes not uncanny?

    Freud believes that one key decisive factor is whether the uncanny effect takes place in real life, or an artwork supposed to take place in real life or not. The uncanny must take place in a context we believe to be real, perceived by someone who believes themselves to be in the real world. If we consciously know that the phenomena are taking place in a make-believe world, as for example in a fairy tale, the effect won't be uncanny. Freud makes a further distinction. On the one hand are those uncanny phenomena that have their roots in earlier phases of human consciousness, like worry about whether dolls will come to life. These kinds of uncanny effects are more likely to occur in real life. On the other hand are those uncanny phenomena rooted in childhood, like limbs coming to life on their own. These effects are more likely to occur in art, since for children these kinds of fantasies are rooted completely in the mind—they never had anything to do with real experiences. Freud believes that the uncanny effect of the former is in the clash between two modes of experiencing reality, whereas in the latter, the clash is between two phases of ego development.