Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Freud / The Uncanny - reading notes


What is the ‘uncanny’?

Initial definition: A quality of feeling in response to all that is terrible, all that arouses creeping horror.

 Is it a feeling of hesitation, of “intellectual uncertainty” about whether something is supernatural?  Freud says this is too simple.  (We call that hesitation or uncertainty “the fantastic.”)

Freud calls the uncanny “that class of the terrifying which leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar (heimlich)” (620).

How does the familiar, the “heimlich” (home-like, familiar) become strange, uncanny, “unheimlich”?

Freud goes back to the meaning of the word “heimlich”:  it can mean “belonging to the house [heim],” “familiar,” “not strange.”  But it can ALSO mean “secret,” “concealed,” “kept from sight”—in other words UNCANNY—even Gothic.
So what was once familiar and “home-like” becomes weird and strange when it is hidden or repressed.

Borrowing from Schelling, Freud tries another definition:  “Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained . . . hidden and secret, and has become visible.”

Listing some uncanny things may help us get to the bottom of this:

·         It seems uncanny when a being which seems alive or animate is really dead or mechanical—and vice versa.  Examples:  the Chucky movies; The Stepford Wives; the belief that your doll is staring at you!
·         Childhood memories of losing your eyes, your hands, etc.—what Freud terms “castration anxiety” or “dread of castration” because he says that these are really symbols for the loss of that “precious organ,” the penis. 
·          The theme of the double.  Why are doubles uncanny?  Because they are created as an “energetic denial of the power of death” (Otto Rank).  The idea of the soul is a kind of double, as are statues, paintings, twins, etc.  Think of all the superstitions that surround these concepts—the notion that statues may come alive, that twins can read each other’s minds.  BUT what happens is that from being a “guarantee of immortality,” the double becomes a REMINDER of imortality:  “an uncanny harbinger of death.”  Why, we ask ourselves nervously, do we need a double unless we’re going to die?
·         The repetition compulsion (connected to what Freud calls “the death drive”).  What does it mean when coincidences occur, such as when as certain number keeps coming up for us in different situations during the day?  Probably nothing, but it can seem uncanny. 
·         The Evil Eye.
·         “Omnipotence of thought” or “primitive animism.”  Freud (in a politically incorrect moment) says that “we still think as savages do.”  We believe that things are secretly alive (did that chair just move?) or that the world is connected in some mysterious way that we barely grasp.  This is connected by Freud to tribal beliefs.

Freud’s explanation for these feelings:  the uncanny is the reactivation of archaic (old) beliefs that had been forgotten or repressed:  “a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it.”  So old beliefs, superstitions, unconscious childhood fears can re-emerge and seem uncanny. (In fact, any evidence of the workings of the unconscious mind can seem uncanny.)  The “heimlich,” or familiar, is repressed, hidden and becomes “unheimlich.”

Freud’s conclusion:  “An uncanny experience occurs either when repressed infantile complexes have been revived by some impression, or when the primitive beliefs we have surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.”

Do you mean that mommy and daddy really do want to kill me?  That my teddy bear walks around at night?  That witch doctors can cast spells?  That little old ladies with white hair can read the future?  How uncanny!

More by Freud:
The Ego and the Id