The Uncanny (1919) – by Sigmund Freud
During my symposium Shaun Hydes recommended reading Sigmund Freud’s The “Uncanny”, unfortunately I didn’t have time or space to add it in, so I briefly looked at online summaries. However it is an area I want to take forward in my final piece, my aim is to create images that are making a comment and put the audience in a reflective position. Creating an Uncanny character/image is one way of doing this. Making the audience uncomfortable enough to question the content.
This is my exploration into the text of The Uncanny.
Areas of study I derived from the text
– Aesthetics are vital to explore in regards to uncanny. Aesthetic is usually associated with theory on beauty, but it has much more to do with with the “qualities of feeling.” p.1
– “…given him and uncanny impression.” Freud talks of uncanny as a feeling, much like anyone would talk about a good impression or a bad impression. Uncanny= feeling. p1
– Freud starts by discussing previous writings on Uncanny and the limits of incomplete research, discussing E.Jentsch’s piece “Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen” in particular.
Intellectual Uncertainty – unable to determine the human nature/ intelligence of a character. Not quite human.
– “In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton;” – E.Jentsch quote used. Freud openly say that he isn’t 100% accepting of Jentsch’s ideas but points out there is truth in his writings. It just cannot be used as the ONLY reason behind the uncanny feeling, he also later goes on to explore how the dead coming back to life is not always uncanny, it depends on the relationship to reality.
– Hofman “The sand man” – “unparalleled atmosphere of uncanniness” Freud now refers to uncanny as an atmosphere rather than a feeling, perhaps it is both, it cannot be defined as one thing as it is not. Freud later uses the sand man to disprove Jentsch’s ideas about something new and feared being uncanny. He points out the sand man isn’t new to the man in the story, he is very familiar and every interaction with the sand man becomes more uncanny. So perhaps it is the recollection of a feared person that casues the uncanny in this situation.
– “children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and lifeless objects, and that they are especially fond of treating their dolls like live people… the idea of a “living doll” excites no fear at all; the child had no fear od its doll coming to life, it may even have desired it.” p.9 – again freud is disproving the idea of Intellectual Uncertainty as the sole reason for uncanny feelings. A child would not feel that their doll coming to life would be fearful or uncanny because they desire it and often wish for it. It makes me think of Toy Story, none of the characters seem uncanny apart from the “bad toys” if something is animated to life but is “good” we might not fear it.
– “Hoffmann is in literature the unrivalled master of conjuring up the uncanny.” p.9
– Twins, telepathy, reoccurring faces/events/places, mirrors and shadows – all types of double which Freud shows can evoke uncanny sensations. He then delves deeper into the meaning for this looking at psychology of childhood and self-observation.
– “The “double” has become a vision of terror, just as after the fall of their religion the gods took on daemonic shapes.”p.10 The Jeckyll and hyde effect, the fear of 2 personalities.
– “a feeling came over me which I can only describe as uncanny… an involuntary return to the same situation… feeling of helplessness and of something uncanny… fateful and inescapable” p.11 – Freuds personal stories which evoke uncanny, the idea of the double, when something happens again and again within a short amount of time it makes us feel uneasy or uncanny, we recognise something familiar but know it is not meant to happen.
-” “Well, I hope he’ll have a stroke and die.” A fortnight later the old gentleman really did have a stroke. My patient though this an “uncanny” experience.” p.12 Humans strive for an explanation of coincidence some resort to supernatural explanation, religion or magic. Freud see’s this coincidence as uncanny and purely coincidence.
Involuntary repetition & repression
– “for this uncanny is in reality nothing new of foreign, but something familiar and old- established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression” p.13
– “Two things account for our conservatism: the strength of our original emotional reaction to it, and the insufficiency of our scientific knowledge about it.” p.13 It is often said we fear wat we do not know, in essence Freud is saying this combined with emotional reaction to the object in question leads to uncanniness.
Reality and Imagination
– “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality, such as when something we have regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality.” p.15 When the line between reality and fantasy is blurred it provokes uncanny feelings.
– “We have heard that it is in the highest degree uncanny when inanimate objects – a picture or a doll – come to life… who would be so bold as to call it an uncanny moment, for instance, when Snow-White opens her eyes once more?” p.16 The most powerful point I think Freud makes, it shows how hard it is to define uncanny and you cannot simply say that one act makes something uncanny. uncanny is not a fact it is a feeling and within everyone a certain combination of the themes discussed in this text are what cause uncanniness.
– “As soon as something actually happen in our lives which seems to support the old, discarded beliefs, we get a feeling of the uncanny.“ p17
– “Primitive beliefs are most intimately connected with infantile complexes.” p.18
Within these few pages I see a connection between the fairtytales and reality and Imagination, fairytales open with “Once upon a time in a far away land” the spectator is instantly disconnected from the story by both time and space, therefore the strange events will not effect their lives, it is too detached from reality to have an emotional effect on us.
The main topic of discussion within this text is whilst trying to define Uncanny we cannot define it. Freud taking a psychological stand point looks at examples of uncanny and what evoked the emotion within that case. Each example has to be taken individually as it could use one or multiple reasonings. The text has made me understand the uncanny a lot more and now instead of seeing a photograph and thinking something is strange about it I might have more hope at breaking down what is making it uncanny to me and possibly to others.