Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sigmund Freud – "The Uncanny" – summary and review

Sigmund's Freud's "The Uncanny" ("Das Unheimliche") was published in 1919 as part of his somewhat dismal account of the modern human condition (the Uncanny was complemented my Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle", published a year later). Freud's notion of the uncanny draws on the lingual origins of the German word "Unheimliche", opposed to "heimlisch" which signifies "homely" in the cozy-intimate sense of the word. Unheimliche, translated as "uncanny" is not exactly the opposite of homely but rather a word that describes a sense of estrangement within the home, the presence of something threatening, tempting and unknown that lies within the bounds of the intimate.

Freud was not the first to tackle the notion of the uncanny, and in fact his article is a response to Earnest Jentsch account on the subject. Both Jentsch and Freud relate to E.T.A. Hoffman's short story The Sandman as an example of the uncanny, though they draw somewhat different conclusions.

At the beginning of "The Uncanny" Freud holds that the uncanny is that type of dread which returns to which is long familiar. The uncanny, in that sense, is something new that exists in something already known. But the uncanny for Freud in not simply something which is unknown that enters our consciousness.  After a long lingual discussion, Freud argues that the notion of Heimlich, "homely", relates to something which is known and comfortable on the one hand and hidden and concealed on the other. The home, for Freud, is a type of secret place, and the unhomely, the uncanny, is something which should have been kept a secret but is revealed. This means that the "canny-homely" and uncanny-unhomley are two opposites that bear each other's meaning. To give a concrete example: the mannequin is an example of something which appears to be familiar as a human figure, but is in fact lifeless and therefore a potential cause of dread as a result of this dissonance of not knowing at first glance whether we are looking at a human or a piece of plastic.

For Freud, if psychoanalysis is correct in holding that an emotional effect of any kind can turn into anxiety by means of repression it follows that there must be types of anxiety that are the result of something repressed that has resurfaced. Such a feeling of anxiety is the uncanny, which is something rediscovered only after repression has rendered it strange and unfamiliar – the uncanny, in other words, is something that should have been kept concealed but is discovered. Freud argues that we experience a sense of uncanny when a certain trigger brings back repressed childhood conflicts or primitive beliefs that we have overcome but suddenly, seemingly, receive renewed affirmation.

Freud's concept of the Uncanny is difficult to understand and even more difficult to explain, the best way to understand Freud's Uncanny is simply to read the short book:


  1. Really helpful breakdown of the text.

  2. Thank you, this is an incredibly clear explanation and summary!