In his essay “The Uncanny,” Freud proposes that the uncanny consists of those feelings of dread, uncertainty, and uneasiness. But he adds that the uncanny is much more than a feeling of uneasiness and that it is something concealed or kept from sight, or something familiar that has unexpectedly reappeared. He traces the source of these feelings and believes that they originate from infantile complexes that have been repressed and primitive beliefs that have been overcome but now seem to be confirmed.
Freud’s first task is to define “uncanny.” He begins with a very broad definition that the uncanny is intellectual uncertainty, meaning “something one does not know one’s way about in” (221). Yet he admits that this definition doesn’t capture the true essence of the word. He compares/contrasts the English “uncanny” with the German “heimlich.” Heimlich has many definitions but the principle one means “belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly, etc” (222). This word then comes to mean what is “concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others” (223). “‘Unheimlich’ is the name for everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (224). Freud concludes, “On the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight” (224-5). This expanded definition is important because it opens up the rest of Freud’s argument, which is that one of the critical elements of the uncanny is that it is something familiar which we have repressed but has now surfaced.
Freud looks to examples of situations that produce this feeling of uncanniness. He references Jentsch’s work saying, “Doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate,” which alludes to “the impression of automatic, mechanical processes at work behind the ordinary appearance of mental activity” (226). He adds that fear of being robbed of one’s eyes, the castration complex, uncertainty over what is real and what is fantasy, and the phenomenon of the double are all instances that can produce uncanniness.
On 245 he writes, “It may be true that the uncanny [unheimlich] is something which is secretly familiar, which has undergone repression and then returned from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfills this condition.” This passage is important because it shows that the uncanny is not simply the unfamiliar but that these feelings arise from something that has long been buried in our minds. He admits that this definition doesn’t apply to all circumstances and that it is incomplete, but it does get us closer to solving our problem. He adds, “everything which now strikes us as ‘uncanny’ fulfills the condition of touching those residues of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression” (240-1).
- Freud gives several examples of uncanniness in literature but then says that the uncanny must be based on real-life experiences and not on fiction. Aren’t fairy tales incredibly impressionable on young children and may seem real? They would then repress those feelings once they grow older and discover that fairy tales aren’t real. But isn’t this repression of past feelings exactly what Freud is arguing? It would seem that fairy tales are indeed a source of uncanniness.
I’m confused about the passages that discuss the “subject’s narcissistic overvaluation of his own mental processes” (240). Does he mean that we as humans have too much faith in our minds? What does “omnipotence of thoughts” really mean?
- He doesn’t seem to actually come to a conclusion, hinting time and again that we have almost solved our problem only to say that there are other elements at play. Is it possible that there are aspects of uncanniness that we simply cannot understand? What would prevent us from this understanding?