The Uncanny

The Uncanny Freud and Literature

Freud's Uncanny is striking for the way that it teases out what Freud claims are universal psychic truths from a study of literature, especially that of E.T.A. Hoffmann. To the English-language reader, and in fact, to many German readers, it might go unnoticed that Freud draws heavily on literature throughout the essay, and not just with reference to Hoffmann. When Freud mentions in a footnote that "two souls dwell in my breast," during an analysis of the double, he is referring to a famous line from J.W. Goethe's verse drama Faust, a poem that Freud often cites. "The Ring of Polycrates" is a poem by Friedrich Schiller, a contemporary of Goethe's, often regarded as the German Shakespeare. (More familiar to English language readers might be The Strand Magazine, which Freud mentions at the essay's end. The Strand published the Sherlock Holmes stories.) The references to literature largely abound, too, in the linguistic analyses. The linguistic analysis itself is taken from Grimms' dictionary, compiled by the same brothers Grimm who gathered and recorded fairy tales. The authors cited are a who's who of German literature in the eighteen-thirties and forties, including Romantic poets like Clemens Brentano, but largely covering Realist authors like Jeremias Gotthelf, Karl Pestalozzi, and Berthold Auerbach—perhaps appropriately, given that the Realists were the first to depict domestic, or heimlich, life in detail. In this way, The Uncanny is not simply an investigation of an isolated effect; it also positions Freud as a commentator on the German literary tradition itself, bringing to light an effect, an "affective nucleus," as Freud calls it, a bundle of emotions, that has lain hidden and unexplored, offering the reader a new vantage point from which to consider familiar authors. By the same token, Freud erases the distinction between great writers and lesser ones: the uncanny taps into a feeling so primary that it cuts across all literature, from the greatest to the pulpiest.