"It is only rarely that a psychoanalyst feels impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics even when aesthetics is understood to mean not merely the theory of beauty, but the theory of the qualities of feeling. He works in other planes of mental life and has little to do with those subdued emotional activities which, inhibited in their aims and dependent upon a multitude of concurrent factors, usually furnish the material for the study of aesthetics. But it does occasionally happen that he has to interest himself in some particular province of that subject; and then it usually proves to be a rather remote region of it and one that has been neglected in standard works."
Here Freud stresses the uniqueness of his psychoanalytic approach to aesthetics. Typically, studies of art focus on art's positive, desired effects, like the beautiful or the grand. Freud wants to focus on a remote corner of art, namely horror, in order to shed light on the relationship of art to the human psyche.
"I will say at once that both courses lead to the same result: the “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar."
Freud offers his hypothesis about the uncanny: it something we have forgotten or repressed that is now coming to light against our will. Freud's hypothesis builds in this way on Jentsch's, which is that the uncanny is anything that is unfamiliar, or occurs any time we are in a state of intellectual uncertainty.
"Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops towards an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich."
Through his linguistic analysis, Freud is able to confirm his hypothesis by noting that the word heimlich, which means familiar, homey, or related to the home, can also be used to mean the hidden, the forbidding, and the dangerous. Language, like art, is a repository for our collective assumptions, feelings, and experiences.
"A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that a morbid anxiety connected with the eyes and with going blind is often enough a substitute for the dread of castration...We may try to reject the derivation of fears about the eye from the fear of castration on rationalistic grounds, and say that it is very natural that so precious an organ as the eye should be guarded by a proportionate dread; indeed, we might go further and say that the fear of castration itself contains no other significance and no deeper secret than a justifiable dread of this kind. But this view does not...dispel the impression one gains that it is the threat of being castrated in especial which excites a peculiarly violent and obscure emotion, and that this emotion is what first gives the idea of losing other organs its intense colouring."
Freud offers his first concrete explanation of an uncanny phenomenon: the host of feelings attached to losing one's eyes or eyesight. Freud believes that the uncanny is a recollection of the childhood fear of being castrated by one's father, losing the capacity to feel any pleasure at all. Freud's guiding assumption is that feelings that we cannot express, whether out of embarrassment or because we had to repress them as our consciousness developed, often come back in the form of symbols and signs. The fear of the loss of the eyes is then connected to fear of the loss of the testicles.
"In the story from Nathaniel’s childhood, the figures of his father and Coppelius represent the two opposites into which the father-imago is split by the ambivalence of the child’s feeling; whereas the one threatens to blind him, that is, to castrate him, the other, the loving father, intercedes for his sight. That part of the complex which is most strongly repressed, the death-wish against the father, finds expression in the death of the good father, and Coppelius is made answerable for it."
Here Freud offers his famous reading of Hoffman's "The Sand-Man." Freud reads the story as being about the castration complex, with the Sand-Man, or Coppelius, embodying the frightening, pleasure-destroying side of his father. Nathaniel's belief that Coppelius murdered his father is actually a projection of Nathaniel's own desire to kill his father. Nathaniel's actual father is the repository of all of his positive feelings towards his father, as he is protective and loving.
"For the “double” was originally an insurance against destruction to the ego, an “energetic denial of the power of death,” as Rank says; and probably the “immortal” soul was the first “double” of the body. This invention of doubling as a preservation against extinction has its counterpart in the language of dreams, which is fond of representing castration by a doubling or multiplication of the genital symbol; the same desire spurred on the ancient Egyptians to the art of making images of the dead in some lasting material."
Freud explains the sense of uncanniness around perfect doubles—as with twins, or two unconnected people who look exactly alike—by tracing the double back to primitive beliefs about copies as insuring the continued existence of the thing that they are copying, as Egyptians made images of the dead. Freud surmises that the concept of the soul was the first double. Now that this belief has been "overcome," seeing doubles feels uncanny.
Once, as I was walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was strange to me, on a hot summer afternoon, I found myself in a quarter the character of which could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after having wandered about for a while without being directed, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, but only to arrive yet a third time by devious paths in the same place. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad enough to abandon my exploratory walk and get straight back to the piazza I had left a short while before.
This example is striking for the way that Freud inserts himself into his own argumentation, despite claiming in the first section to be himself largely unsusceptible to the uncanny. The example is also striking for its largely sexual nature, and the way that Freud insists that he doesn't want to be in this clearly lascivious and alluring part of town. In any case, the example is meant to prove that helplessness and repetition are also uncanny effects.
It must be explained that we are able to postulate the principle of a repetition-compulsion in the unconscious mind, based upon instinctual activity and probably inherent in the very nature of the instincts—a principle powerful enough to overrule the pleasure-principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character, and still very clearly expressed in the tendencies of small children; a principle, too, which is responsible for a part of the course taken by the analyses of neurotic patients. Taken in all, the foregoing prepares us for the discovery that whatever reminds us of this inner repetition-compulsion is perceived as uncanny.
Freud explains the previous example, about helplessness and repetition, by clarifying that infant children, and all life forms that act on instinct, repeat behaviors again and again—it is a fact of nature. Repetition unsettles us because it suggests a regression against our will into that natural state from which we've extricated ourselves.
The uncanny effect of epilepsy and of madness has the same origin. The ordinary person sees in them the workings of forces hitherto unsuspected in his fellow-man, but which at the same time he is dimly aware of in a remote corner of his own being. The Middle Ages quite consistently ascribed all such maladies to daemonic influences, and in this, their psychology was not so far out. Indeed, I should not be surprised to hear that psychoanalysis, which is concerned with laying bare these hidden forces, has itself become uncanny to many people for that very reason.
Freud has covered the uncanny effects of inanimate objects that might appear real, but here he argues that the inverse is true, too: that living things that are possibly inanimate are also uncanny. We might think here of the sense of dread attached to the mentally ill in horror movies, or of people who suffer epileptic fits in real life. Here, again, it is striking the way that Freud inserts himself, and psychoanalysis, into the argument: the psychoanalyst's office is also uncanny because it reveals that human beings are governed by forces beyond their control. Once again, a limit case has shown something fundamental about humanity.
Concerning the factors of silence, solitude and darkness, we can only say that they are actually elements in the production of that infantile morbid anxiety from which the majority of human beings have never become quite free.
Throughout the essay, Freud argues that people who have not worked through their memories of infancy are more susceptible to the uncanny. Freud claims to be completely immune to it himself. But he closes the essay with the observation that there are certain experiences that are uncanny for all people. Freud closes by blurring the line between sickness and health, a limit case of art and its very essence.
The Uncanny Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Uncanny is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.