Freud begins by noting that it is rare for a psychoanalyst to enter into considerations of art and aesthetics. Aesthetics, as the study of art, and, more specifically, of the way appearances cause feelings, is too restricted, and too bound up with formal and social considerations, to be the subject of investigation for the psychoanalyst. But there are aspects at the edge of aesthetics that have been neglected. Freud believes that the psychoanalyst is uniquely qualified to consider these aspects.
Freud wants to turn his attention to what he calls “the uncanny.” The uncanny is an experience that frightens us, that makes us feel dread. We often use the word in a sloppy way to means things that are generally frightening. But Freud believes that the feeling of uncanniness is caused by a particular tangle of emotions. He wants to start by distinguishing the uncanny from the merely scary.
The body of aesthetic literature isn’t very helpful here, because up until now aesthetics has focused on the beautiful, or at least the grandiose. Freud finds one study by Ernst Jentsch, but he thinks there are major gaps in it.
Jentsch’s first claim is that different people are differently sensitive to the feeling of the uncanny. Freud agrees, and claims to be totally insensitive to the uncanny. In order to write the study, he has to think his way back into the feeling itself—already one of the major difficulties of studying the feeling.
Freud proposes two courses of action: (1) a linguistic excavation of the word itself, the German unheimlich, rendered in English as uncanny or eerie, but directly translating to “unhomely”; and (2) a list of uncanny experiences, to try and find the common link. Freud believes that both courses lead to the same conclusion: the uncanny is that frightening thing that was once familiar.
Freud proposes to begin with the linguistic analysis, though both paths will lead to the same conclusion. The German word unheimlich is the opposite of heimlich, which means homely, related to the home—cozy, familiar, friendly. This makes sense: the frightening is that which is unfamiliar. Jentsch’s study accepts this definition of the uncanny. The uncanny is that which is unfamiliar, a feeling where one doesn’t know one’s way around.
Freud is not satisfied. He consults Latin, Greek, English, French, and Spanish, all of which yield the same insight for the German word unheimlich: that which is frightening because it is foreign, alien, unfamiliar.
Freud returns to German. He points out that the German word heimlich, of which unheimlich is a negation, has, in fact, several definitions. In an older usage, it meant, ‘belonging to the house,’ as for example with a friend of the family, or a privy councilor (a domestic adviser to a ruler). The second means domestic, as with animals or plants. The third refers to the feeling of well-being attached to being home, a kind of quiet contentment.
Here Freud highlights a particular shade of this third definition that refers to that which is hidden, that which is safe because it is concealed—in English we might say tucked-away. This sub-meaning brings him to the fourth meaning: mysterious, secret, or veiled, as in the word Geheimnis, a mystery or secret. The word heimlich also connotes danger, as in a “secret” or “veiled” knowledge.
Freud concludes that the word heimlich actually combines two sets of feelings: that of the homey, the familiar, the secure; and that of the frightening, the concealed, and the dangerous. He hypothesizes that the same is true for its negative, unheimlich, or uncanny. His working supposition is that the uncanny is the frightening return of that which was once familiar but is now foreign.
The first section of Freud’s Uncanny briefly summarizes the hypothesis of his essay, namely, that there is something called the “uncanny,” a feeling of dread and discomfort distinct from fear as we usually understand it. This feeling occurs with the unexpected and unwelcome return of something once familiar that is now foreign and imposing.
Freud takes for granted that the reader is familiar with many of the central conceptions of psychoanalysis, and navigating his terminology can be off-putting for the first-time reader. Nonetheless, this first section offers us some crucial insights about Freud’s assumptions and methodologies, especially concerning the use of psychoanalysis to approach problems in culture and the arts.
To this end, we should note that The Uncanny was published relatively late in Freud’s career, in 1919, at a point where most of the major concepts of psychoanalysis were already in place, and when Freud felt confident enough to expand the scope of the psychoanalytic project to include areas of inquiry like culture and anthropology. (We will discuss Freud’s anthropology at further length in the second section.)
As a psychoanalyst, Freud is interested in art because art is situated in the realm of fantasy, the instinctive, the irrational. Freud believes that in art our unconscious expresses itself in images, symbols and signs. Though in other works of Freud, he talks about the artwork as a personal expression of the artist’s wishes or repressed memories, here art, and especially literature, is treated more as a collective, universal repository for humanity’s fears and repressed memories.
This view of art dovetails with Freud’s recourse to language and linguistics as a source of insight into shared cultural beliefs. Freud believes that seemingly-innocuous turns of phrase often reveal meanings and affinities between ideas or feelings that were once present in our minds but remain latent—hidden, and yet still very much present.
Here, a linguistic analysis yields the insight that the word unheimlich, or uncanny, is closely linked to its opposite, heimlich, which means familiar, related to the home, but also secret, and dangerous. A German speaker uses these words without giving them a second thought because it makes intuitive, emotional sense to him or to her that they are linked.
Not accidentally, every sample sentence that Freud considers in his linguistic analysis of the word unheimlich is taken from literature. His linguistic analysis doubles as a survey of nineteenth-century German literature, sampling writers greater—J.W. Goethe, Friedrich Schiller—and lesser—Jeremias Gotthelf, Berthold Auerbach, Karl Gutzkow, Johann Pestalozzi.
The Uncanny is typical of Freud’s argumentative style in that he slips these larger cultural and psychological arguments into the study of an extreme or isolated case. Freud is largely correct when he says that, up until his essay, aesthetics has largely focused on the positive effects produced by art, like beauty and grandeur. Freud, by contrast, is interested in horror, discomfort, anxiety. By examining a phenomenon at the edge of artistic respectability, often invoked by genre literature that struggles for respectability, like horror, Freud hopes to illuminate something fundamental about the relationship between art and our psychic lives.
This rhetorical strategy echoes Freud’s psychoanalytic writings, which often blur the distinction between “neurotic” cases and all human beings, and more broadly, between the healthy and the sick. Freud is often sly about whether he is taking only about the “morbidly anxious” and the “neurotic,” or whether he is talking about a psychic process undergone by all human beings. Freud here is similarly sly about who is sensitive to the “uncanny,” claiming to be immune to it himself, while citing his own experiences as evidence. We will have more opportunity to consider Freud himself, and the porous boundary between the sick and the healthy, in the following sections.