Lecture on Freud’s Uncanny essay

It’s an overview for a humanities graduate class.

Freud’s “The ‘Uncanny’” (1919)

January 20, 2016

How in the short time given to us today (and the short time I had last night to type up these thoughts while facing the headache of a cold) can I hope to provide something like the “uncanny,” to not just give you some theorization of it, but to present it, to give you the thing itself, that is, the uncanny not in so many words, but here and now in all its grostequeness? How else to teach it, or indeed to learn from it? Or rather—and I will come to this—to learn that there is nothing to be learned from it, to open an avenue to thinking a certain experience as beyond the will to know. I will come to this point, namely that perhaps there is something irreducible about the uncanny, that it can’t be brought back within the representable or as a mere affect of some primal narcissism. At least that’s what I want to think through today, a problem for which (again, writing this late last night and facing a cold) I would appreciate your help.

Written in 1919, Freud published this essay just after he had sent off for publication Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a masterwork that anyone interested in Freud or, you know, being alive in general should read. There Freud, who had previously argued that the unconscious had been led by the pleasure principle, has a counterpart in the death drive. Where the reality principle previously held a cap on the pleasure principle (I want more…but must suffice for less given what is around me) he sees that the death drive is an ancillary force or drive (Trieb) in the unconscious. Not an unsurprising advance given the untold deaths of World War I and the time in which he is writing—or indeed when we are reading. This aggressive drive is almost never found alone (we take pleasure in pain, and so on), but is always connected to the pleasure principle and vice-versa. The job of what he calls the conscience and later the super-ego is to cap these drives given the realities of our inter-social lives. [If there is confusion on Freud’s basic categories, this is the time to stop and take a pause, namely that we are born with drives that by way of the oedipal conflict are repressed in the unconscious, which becomes a repository for our earliest and deepest memories; that we develop a conscience that does this work of repression; and that our conscious life is largely determined by these unconscious drives while adhering to the reality principle.]

Freud’s essay, he suggests, is a “rare” inquiry into the aesthetic, since he will be looking at books and such where the “uncanny” (“unheimlich”) have a central place—or are said to. His point will not be to give an a priori account of it, but to begin with background cultural assumptions: “It undoubtedly belongs [gehört] to all [a word not in the German, but Freud is being definitional] that is terrible [Schreckhaften]—to all that arouses dread [Angst] and creeping horror [Grauenerregenden]; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense,” and he sets for himself the task of defining just what is meant by das Unheimlichkeit, the uncanny. But the universal claim of Freud’s is interesting: the uncanny undoubtedly (Kein Zweifel), he writes, belongs to all that arouses dread: the grave yard at dusk, the noise in the house that awakened you at the time I was writing this, the dread that everything I know and will do will have been, after all this and more, for nothing.


Freud begins by noting, “Naturally not everything which is new and unfamiliar is frightening,” though that is often assumed to be the case. How many vague social theories are based on the supposition that we reject what we fear, and we fear precisely what is foreign, strange, or new. It’s such a truism that we fear what we don’t know that it makes for a clichéd line in various Hollywood movies. But not just there: the view that we expel the foreign or the Other is at the heart of much of what we read when we critique Trump’s views of Muslims or Merkel’s dubious efforts on behalf of Syrian refugees. Perhaps what is needed is a new social theory of the uncanny, not merely along Freud’s analysis in terms of the return of the repressed, but to think the fright found precisely in the “known and familiar” (1). Is this not the dread of modernity with boredom? The Angst we face each major holiday as we return to homes all too familiar and thus all too fraught? The disgust we mean when we describe a person as looking “homely”? Since we could never expel the home to the place of the foreign—it’s the very place in which we presume we are—then we need to understand a foreignness to the home itself, there in its inside where it flips into its very opposite, the outside, the thing that was to be expelled. Not to expel the other, but to expel precisely that which is our home or heimlich? In this way—again, I’m just thinking out loud for a moment—perhaps it’s the Other, the foreigner, or the event of the new that is a release from the uncanny.

This would be to reverse Professor Jentsch, whom Freud is reading at the very beginning, since he wants to ascribe the uncanny precisely to “to the novel and unfamiliar” (1). It is for him, an intellectual problem, a problem of knowledge as such: “The better oriented in [one’s] environment a person is, the less readily [one] will get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it” (1). Would that that were so! So at home are we with the theory that what is at home is the place of safety and tranquility that we are led to accept the view that “unheimlich is obviously [!] the opposite of heimlich, heimisch, meaning ‘familiar,’ ‘native,’ [etc.]” (1), though in just a page or so, Freud will note all the ambiguities of the term, and we will wonder too if Freud, the great thinker of the unconscious, has made this an “intellectual” problem as well, pulling back the uncanny to the rational (or the expression of how it fits rationally in a series of efficient causes going back to the primary narcissism of childhood) from its place as that which is, from within the home, has no home: the un/heimlich. In short does Freud too quickly domesticate the uncanny in terms of his psychosexual theories, determine its cause, and thus give it a precise home—for that which is precisely unheimlich?


But first a word about the term at the heart of this essay, unheimlich. As is known by anyone with Google translate, heimlich means belonging to a house, or at least to be familiar. But it also means to be secret or concealed. Freud will make much of this relation to what is private (i.e., private parts, when he is all too literal) but at his best he wants to show the ambiguity of the term, since the secret heimlich, the home is not familiar at all; it is the unconscious itself. He writes:

At this point I will put forward two considerations which, I think, contain the gist of this short study. In the first place, if psycho-analytic theory is correct in maintaining that every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety, then among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs. This class of frightening things would then constitute the uncanny; and it must be a matter of indifference whether what is uncanny was itself originally frightening or whether it carried some other affect. In the second place, if this is indeed the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why linguistic usage has extended das Heimliche [‘homely’] into its opposite, das Unheimliche; for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.

We can chart the various meanings of heimlich as follows:


Heimlich                                             Unheimlich

Home-ly                                              un-homely

well-known                                         unfamiliar

intimate                                               awkward

comfortable                                         eerie


But this leads to a secondary set of meanings:


Heimlich                                             Unheimlich

            secret                                                   publicly available

hidden                                     revealed

concealed                                             exposed


Thus the unheimlich is a revelation of what was once known to us, but has become a secret, which is why Freud can say that the psychoanalytic situation itself can be unheimlich since it exposes for the patient a truth once known to it, namely that which is repressed in the unconscious. This is why Freud repeats several times F.W.J. Schelling’s definition of the unheimlich as “the name for everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” It is, like the talking cure, an unwilled revelation of that which is hidden. Freud writes, “This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where everyone dwelt once upon a time in the beginning.” For this reason, Freud can write, “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” (4), which is to say that unfamiliarity is our home, and since “it undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible,” the terrifying lays in wait in every home, striking without expectation. But without giving into the logic that we can see it coming, that we can make a home with it, it’s worth listing (I think this is pretty much all of them) the examples of the unheimlich provided in the text.

Jentsch’s examples:

wax-work figures

artificial dolls


Freud’s examples

Epileptic seizures

manifestations of insanity, since they produce in us an idea that automatic processes are at work

doubles “in every shape and degree” (Doppelgänger)

the evil eye

the uncanniness that one has omnipotent thoughts (12)

Dead bodies (13)

Dismembered limbs

a severed head

a hand cut off at the wrist

feet which dance by themselves

being buried alive while appearing to be dead [!], which is linked to inter-uterine existence.


Freud’s point is that the uncanny marks any experience that brings before us early childhood psychological stages, or indeed, since this is all the same for Freud, whether the early primary narcissism, the castration complex (the fear that the father will take away the son’s penis because of his sensual feelings for the mother), the repetition compulsion (Widerholungszwang), or our wishes for omnipotence and immortality. He writes (after some of the examples above):

To conclude this collection of examples, which is certainly not complete, I will relate an instance taken from psycho-analytic experience; if it does not rest upon mere coincidence, it furnishes a beautiful confirmation of our theory of the uncanny. It often happens that neurotic men declare that they feel there is something uncanny about the female genital organs. This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning. there is a joking saying that ‘Love is home-sickness’; and whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself, while he is still dreaming: ‘this place is familiar to me, I’ve been here before’, we may interpret the place as being his mother’s genitals or her body. In this case too, then, the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, familiar; the prefix ‘un’ [‘un-’] is the token of repression. (15)

We could spend forever and a day circling around that last sentence: the negation (or negation itself?) is the place of repression in Freud. Above Freud brings together two types of “recurrence,”  one at the level of infantile psychosexual desires and the other from the supposedly early or “primitive” evolution of human beings, who had animistic views that are still with us: belief in the evil eye, demonic presences, that each of us has a double in the world, ghosts, or that a certain person can tell us our futures. The persistence of the desires of the child and the primitive views of early humans both bring forward an unwanted return of some past that should be past, that should have been overcome either by civilizational evolution or repression for the individual. He writes,

It would seem as though each of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to that animistic state in primitive men, that none of us has traversed it without preserving certain traces of it which can be re-activated, and that everything which now strikes us as uncanny fulfills the condition of stirring those vestiges of animistic mental activity withint us and bringing them to expression ….[A]nimism, magic and witchcraft, the omnipotence of thoughts, man’s attitude to death, involuntary repetition and the castration-complex comprise practically all the factors which turn something fearful into an uncanny thing (12-13).

The fear of castration, the double, the dead body refer us back to this past, this home that is now so unfamiliar but is the one in which we were raised. This repetition compulsion is, Freud argues, a primary form of how the psyche organizes itself, and we are doomed to repeat what we would have thought we had mastered, outgrown, or repressed. But I am compelled to repeat a concern that in Freud, the uncanny is left to a feeling, rather than, say, as in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, playing an important existential role of de-familiarity in our being at home in the world. Driving right past that whole thicket of woods, I will end simply by wondering if the uncanny is so manageable as to be brought within a theory, even a psychoanalytic one, or simply depicted as a “feeling” (in Freud’s description) that comes less from the inside (the unconscious) than is a striking real that comes to us—always unique, singular, and returning us to the uncanniness of existence itself (and that it exists), since philosophy’s most grotesque or uncanny question is simply: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”



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