Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’

February 25, 2010

I’ve been doing some research into objects, strange collections and general weirdness to get a better feel for Anthony’s world. As part of this research I’ve been reading Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’. ‘The Uncanny’ is an essay he wrote in 1919 in which he explores why some strange events and occurrences can unsettle us, with a particular focus on literature.

 Freud concludes that the uncanny is derived from two things. Firstly, from primitive superstitions that we no longer believe in, suddenly seeming possible – our primitive instincts lay just beneath the surface waiting for such things to be proven real. Secondly, uncanny feelings can be caused by the resurfacing of repressed infantile complexes such as fear of the father or castration complex (see below).

 It’s been a while since I’ve read any Freud and the years have been a little reductive – it’s all about sex and wanting to kill my father (or does he want to kill me?) So it’s been good to revisit.

 His prose style is sometimes a little difficult. He has a tendency to make assertions about one thing meaning something else and we’ll have to just take his work for it: ‘The study of dreams fantasies and myths has taught us also that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind is quite often a substitute for the fear of castration.’ (p139) Of course, he has the weight of the greater part of 20th century criticism behind him so we do take his word for it. Which is just as well because I’ve already got a shrunken head with burnt out eyes in my novel – just the unconscious mind at work, though I’m still pretty sure my father never tried to castrate me.

 Freud goes on to state that to achieve the uncanny in a literary work the writer must create a world that simulates reality so that the reader’s mind reacts to unusual occurrences with the same reaction it would in real life.   

                 “In a sense then he [the writer] betrays us to a superstition we thought we had surmounted; he tricks us by promising everyday reality and then going beyond it. We react to his fictions as if they had been our own experiences.” (p157)

 So when strange things happen in a fairytale we are not disturbed by it as it’s just what we expect – fairy tales are set in strange worlds in which strange things happen. But if we are to be disturbed by something then the uncanny needs to be contrasted with normality. 

 Currently, I don’t intend to have anything of the supernatural manifest itself in my story. In fact my intention is to demystify curios by representing them as cultural artefacts rather than arcane things used in savage rituals.

 If I’m honest Freud’s essay has given me plenty to think about, but I’m still not exactly sure how or to what extent I’ll be incorporating what he has to say. Psychoanalysts might argue that I’ll be incorporating his theories whether I like it or not.

 Quotes taken from the 2003 Penguin edition of ‘The Uncanny’.