The Essay Uncanny by Sigmund Freud
Freud developed the concept of the uncanny in the early 1900’s. He wanted to investigate the kind of creeping horror, that deviates from the standard fight or flight response to a scary situation.
The word ‘uncanny’ is derived from the German word, unheimliche. Unheimliche is the ‘not’ version of heimliche, a word which means homey, familiar, or private. After adding the ‘un,’ the meaning transforms to tell the story of something strange and foreign, but also with some aspect of familiarity to it.
In Freud’s essay about the uncanny, he explored the concept in two key ways. The first was delving into the meaning behind the word’s origin: unheimliche, as described above. The second was to look into different examples of the uncanny, and attempt to find any common threads.
There are a few key examples of the uncanny that Freud discussed that I would like to mention hear. One common one is the threat of not knowing if something is dead or alive, real or unreal. A classic way this concept is played with is with the case of automatons. Often automatons can appear to look or act like a real person, which can lead to an underlying uncertainty about their realness. Another example of the uncanny is repetition. This can manifest in a couple of different ways. One way is repeated coincidences. One example that Freud brought up was seeing one specific number somewhere. If you see that same specific number repeated in multiple different contexts on the same day, it can evoke feelings of the uncanny. The repetition of typically uncommon events relates to the uncanny, because part of the uncanny is everyday reality being disturbed in some ways. A final common example of the uncanny is separated body parts. It combines the familiar (the human body that we’re familiar with), with the foreign (body parts aren’t usually disembodied). It symbolizes a part of the uncanny that deals with weird or wrong intrusions into life.
Overall, the uncanny is a very interesting concept that Freud developed. It explores what the mind doesn’t typically like to think about in a way that is foreign yet familiar. It deals with where reality is slightly distorted in a way that’s barely perceptible, but you can still tell something is wrong. One of the more uncanny experiences I’ve had was during my junior year of high school. That year was my short-lived career (only a year long) as an assistant stage manager, and eventually a stage manager, of my high school’s theatre department. This meant I spent a lot of long hours in a deserted theatre long after the actors had left. Often, it would just be me, a couple of dedicated techies putting away the props, our stage manager, and the director.
The Freudian Essay the Uncanny and the Hound of the Baskervilles
In German, the word uncanny translates to unheimlich which means unhomely. However, Sigmund Freud’s definition of this word is one that is much more complex. In his essay The Uncanny, Freud writes “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud 1). In this quote, Freud is arguing that the uncanny, things that are seen as unfamiliar at the moment, ultimately comes from a familiar place. Freud defends his argument by listing “Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, as in a fairy tale of Hauff’s, feet which dance by themselves” (Freud 14) as things that are uncanny. With this example, Freud strengthens his argument by implying that at first, dismembered limbs, a severed head, and a hand cut off at the wrist are all gruesome things that have a significant effect on the mental health of any normal human. When these body parts are put together, however, they “lead back to what is known of old and long familiar”.
According to Freud’s definition of the word, I do believe Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is an uncanny text. This novel fits the criteria because it is a Gothic novel. Gothic novels tend to be filled with events that are strange and frightening yet familiar. In the novel, there is a constant reoccurrence of strange events. For example, early in the novel, Holmes is introduced to the marauding, supernatural hound. The hound reappears later on when it causes Stapleton’s death. Although they might seem frightening at first, these events are essentially familiar due to their constant occurrence throughout the novel.
In the novel, Doyle contrasts settings, the homely with the unfamiliar, to create a sense of an uncanny environment on the moor. As stated previously, the uncanny is something that is presently seen as frightening but comes from a familiar place. The moor is a great example of a setting that is homely and unhomely all at once. In the novel, the moor is described as a bleak, gloomy, and misty landscape. In that sense, it is quite similar to London, the city where Sherlock Holmes originates from. London is a gloomy city whose weather changes often and without warning. Due to the constant rain the city faces, it is considered by most as a misty city. The similarities between the weather of the two settings are what make the moor homely for Holmes. However, that is as far as the similarities go. On the other hand, the moor is a place filled with superstition. With a nearby prison, gloomy estates, and being the home of the hound, the moor is also an unfamiliar place for Holmes because he is used to the more urban landscape of London. The attributes of the moor are often utilized by authors or directors to create a frightening ambiance in a setting. Therefore, the moor is a frightening place for Holmes. In conclusion, through the use of creating subtle similarities between the moor and Sherlock’s hometown of London, Doyle is able to contrast settings to create a sense of an uncanny environment on the moor.
The Freudian Concept of the Uncanny and Its Influence on Psycho and La Poupee
Every person understands the feeling of underlying worry and fear without being able to pinpoint the source. Humans were designed to have emotions that they can not decipher. There was once a time that no one knew how one thought nor did they ask the question how do we think about how we think? Sigmund Freud is a psychoanalyst that picked up on these questions and feelings; he researched and wrote an extensive collection by the time he passed in 1939. He was born in 1856 in Czechia, then at the age of four, him and his family moved to Vienna where he would live, study, and work for the next 79 years before emigrating to London. He was a jew in the anti- semitism era in Austria; this led him to his interest and first studies ‘for at an early age [Freud] was made familiar with the fate of being in the opposition’ (Thurschwell 2000, p. 6). Thus, this helped him in his first ideas because his ideas were so out there he was used to people not agreeing with him. For ‘he enjoyed being the lone thinker, forging away at his revolutionary ideas without outside support’ (Thurschwell 2000, p. 6). As a young boy he was very intellectual and grew up to study medicine at the University of Vienna, however later he saw no future for himself in that course. He was more curious about human concerns like evolution. He ‘believed strongly in cause and effect and his theories indicated that every hysterical symptom he examined, every dream, every slip of the tongue, everything we say or think on a daily basis, has a cause. It may not always be possible to uncover this cause, but it is there’ (Thurschwell 2000, p. 6). His early theories included Symptoms, Dreams and Slips of the Tongue: Studies on Hysteria (1895), the Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901). Later in life, he focused much of his research on sexuality. This idea outraged society the most because he published these theories at the romantic period when writers were pushing the child as innocent. They portrayed children as being blank and not yet to have experienced anything. Moreover, Freud ‘proposed that childhood fantasies formed a continuum with sexual desires, and that all children has an innate curiosity about sex and about their own origins’ (Thurschwell 2000, p. 43). Some feel as if this claim is more or less absurd. They feel as if children do not understand and yes, they wonder where they came from and how they got here, but do not have sexual desires. People do not see how a young child at the age of ten or below could have sexual fantasies or even compare those to their own fantasies. Children are creative and have incredible imaginations but do not fantiscise their mothers womb. In addition, he wrote works on civilization and society and the idea of fetishism. Freud wanted to find an explanation for all of human psychology. He wanted to pick apart every part of the brain and wondered why humanity thought in certain ways.
In 1919, Sigmund Freaud wrote The Uncanny. He wrote this later in his life for he died twenty years later in 1939. The writing has the purpose of ‘uncovering the meanings of an aesthetic concept – the feeling of the uncanny’ (Thurschwell 2000, p. 117). Freud describes the uncanny as an eerie feeling we have when we read literature and in everyday life and that ‘when we encounter the uncanny we are left feeling spooked and perhaps, uncertain of the exact source of that fear’ (Thurschwell 2000, p. 117). Every person will have their own uncanny feelings. Freaud explores the dictionary definition of the german word heimlich and its opposite, unheimlich (the uncanny). Heimlich means house and therefore meaning a familiar and safe place; this is contrasted with its antonym of unheimlich which would mean the opposite. He describes it as ‘that species of the freightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar’ (Freud 2008, p. 124). Interpreted, this sounds contradictory; because it is. It’s in human nature that something familiar is not frightening, but here Freud says it can be. It depends on the situation; the cause can produce an uncanny effect. Even though the word heimlich means ‘homely’ and the opposite would mean ‘unhomely’, this is not always the case. Unheimlich means something is new and unfamiliar but not everything new is frightening. Sometimes things that are new are good and people are excited about it. Again, the uncanny is different for everyone and what one might think is unsettling, another may not. For instance, a modern example could be starting at a new job; one may think about the new things they will learn and the people they will meet while others may think of the copious amount of times they will miscalculate their work. From here, Freud goes into a long excerpt of Daniel Sanders Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache (1860) and concludes that ‘heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which are not mutually contradictory, but very different from each other — the one relating to what is familiar and comfortable, the other to what his concealed and kept hidden’ (Freud 2008, p. 132). This may be interpreted by a new definition of the uncanny. People may find an uncanny sense in something that was meant to be hidden but is now in the open. Something that is not meant to be known but somehow, the secret was leaked. The second part of the article is about the feelings and situations and people and things that evoke the uncanny. Freud analyzes E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sand- Man” in which a young boy has a fear of losing his eyes – symbolizing castration (the removal of the testicals of a male). Here, Fread is ‘using a heavy symbolic and sexual interpretation to uncover the one true (sexual) meaning of the story’ (Thurschwell 2000, p. 118). This is a very Freudian way of thinking – to think that everything has an underlying sexual meaning to it. After this, Freud goes on to talk about the double and the fear that some have about the doppelganger. The fear ‘is intensified by the spontaneous transmission of mental processes from one of these persons to the other –what we would call telepathically– so that the other one becomes co-owner of the others knowledge, emotions and experience. Moreover, a person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self; or he may substitute the other’s self for his own’ (Freud 2008, p. 141-142). This implies that people are in fear of annihilation and the fear of making a double in case the first human becomes damaged. As well, an identical twin could be a doppelganger and some say that they can read each other’s thoughts and feelings. This fear of the double relates to the fear of repetition and ‘the factor of unintended repetition that transforms what would otherwise seem quite harmless into something uncanny and forces us to entertain the idea of the fateful and the inescapable, when we should normally think of chance’ (Freud 2008, p. 144). Here, Fread is talking about the uncanny emotion we feel when we encounter something similar within a day. For example, they may not have any effect at first but once we see, say a number, multiple times a day, one may feel that uncanny feeling. That feeling that we are being watched or asking ourselves why we keep seeing this number or if it has a secret meaning that we need to take note of? That may evoke the uncanny in us. In the third and final part of the discussion, Freud gives an overview of all the things he has discussed. He talks about the uncanny in real experience versus what we read or see. Freud concluded that ‘the uncanny element we know from experience arises either when repressed childhood complexes are revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs that have been surmounted appear to be once again confirmed’ (Freud 2008, p. 155). Sigmund Freud was – and still is – a pinnacle leader in the move to understanding psychoanalysis. He influenced a multitude of artists including being recognized in the Surrealist Manifesto. In particular, he has influenced Alfred Hitchcock and his film Psycho as well as Hans Bellmer and his series on La Poupee.
The first work I will explore in the 1960s film Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The film follows a real estate secretary from Phoenix, Arizona named Marion Crane. Marion needs money to bail her boyfriend (Sam Loomis) out of debt so that they can marry each other. When a client comes in one day and pays $40,000 cash for a property, she sees this as her open door and decides to run with the money to Los Angeles. She doesn’t get far before she stops to stay the night at the Bates Motel. That night, she is murdered in the shoewer by Mrs Bates, Norman Bates’s mother. After she had been missing for a couple days, Lila (Marion’s sister) and Sam send an investigator out to look for her. He is dissatisfied with Normans answers about where Marion is so he goes to the house to talk to the mother but doesn’t make it to the top of the stairs before he is murdered. Lila and Sam finally go and tell the sheriff that Marion is missing and is at the Bates motel when the sheriff reveals that Norman’s mother has been dead for ten years. They go to investigate themselves and while Sam talks to Norman, Lila tries to find the mother. She finds the mothers corpse in the basement and at that moment, Norman runs in with a knife in his hand, dressed just like his mother. A detective reveals that Norman actually murdered his mother and the man she was seeing and that now Norman believes he is his mother. Norman and his mother clung to each other (because his father died when he was young) until she got a new man. Norman got extremely jealous of the man, so he killed them both. Once he did that, he had to erase the crime in his mind so he stole her corpse. She was there, but a corpse- so he gave her half his life. He could be both personalities and have a conversation with himself but as her. He was never all Norman, but many times all mother. He was so pathologically jealous of his mother, he assumed she was the same jealous about him so if he felt an attraction to any other woman than his mother, the mother side of him would go wild. When he met Marion, he was attracted to her -so mother killed Marion because she was jealous. After the crime, he was convinced that his mother killed Marion. He was keeping alive the reality that his mother was alive. He tried to be his mother. There is always a conflict when the mind holds two personalities. Sigmund Freud has had a multitude of influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie. For a start, there is Normans sexul obsession with his mother. Freud recalls in The Uncanny that feeling of attachment to the mother and that all young boys long for the ‘entrance to the old man’s home’ (Freud 2008, p. 151). He is talking here about the female genitals and how it is ‘the place where everyone onced lived’ (Freud 2008, p. 151) as a fetus. That feeling is uncanny to think about. It is a nurturing feeling as well thinking about the mother and being fed and looked after and once you grow up you do not have that luxury anymore. As well, the feeling of the uncanny comes up when the viewer realizes that Norman and Marion are opposites of each other. Marion lives the normal life and Norman lives the hermit life alone. It brings up the Freudian theme of the doppelganger except being complete opposites instead of the exact same. Marion and Norman mirror each other – quite literally by Hitchcock using mirrors throughout the movie to show Marion in front, and in the mirror – like an uncanny foreshadow to the future of her death and how no one saw it coming. The Freudian theme of three come into play in this film as well. Freud introduced the three levels of the human consciousness: the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious; just like the three levels of the Bates house and the three parts to the uncanny. In addition, there are numerous uncanny scenes in Psycho. These include the last scene where norman’s mother is talking inside Normans brain and the viewer can see how kooky he really is. The uncanny feeling comes when her skull is flashed over Normans smiling face. The viewer feels a drop in their stomach because how unknown Normans psyche is.
The second work I will analyze is Hans Bellmer and La Poupee. He was born in 1902 in Katowice when it was part of the German Empire. He is best known for his sculptures and photographs of erotic dolls. He grew up in the Nazi regime but was ‘against the relentless rise of National Socialism with its ostility towards ‘degenerate’ bodies’ (Smith 2013, p. 303). Instead, he was for femininity and wanted women to be able to express themselves and did not believe that there was one way people needed to look. The Nazi’s belived that the Aryan race was the master race. He begun la poupee when his ‘mother sent him a box of his childhood toys, including broken dolls, and this reawakened nostalgic and melancholic feelings for is adolescence’ (Smith 2013 p. 303). He worked with the female dolls and broke off limbs and part of their bodies and reassembled them using ball joints. He created them because he didnt belive in the Nazi Regime’s goal of so-called physical perfection. Bellmer held that the female body was calling on him to rearrange it and he could create endless forms o how a woman could look. The dolls he created were influenced by surrealism and evoke a sense of the uncanny. The dolls were made to ‘invoke a fetishist relation between the sexual(ised) fragments of a female corporeality and the producer/ viewer. Nurtured by an obsessive fixation on a model of androynous love and schizophrenic sensitivities his ‘new perspective organism’ seek to communicate sexuality with/ through the whole body with the aim to banish and dispel anxieties about male subjectivity, wholeness and power” (Mey 2006, p. 16). He made the dolls as oppositions to the male gaze and thus go against how men should look at women. This was monumental for his time being these ideas were unknown -and uncanny- for women were confined to the house. The viewer sees it and asks why he has a fetish with the female form. It is an uncanny feeling because it is liked to pedophilia and that feeling of wanting a young women like that is uneasy and uncanny to most. In current day, these dolls he creates look more like sex dolls and ones yoou would see in pornography. This idea can be linked to other works such as in Psycho, Norman is obsessed with his mother. This portrays the Freaudian theme that he mentions in the Uncanny about ‘there is something uncanny about the female genitals. But what they find uncanny is actually the place where everyone onced lived’ (Freud 2008, p. 151). Bellmer is interested in the psychological unconscious in the way that he uses dolls. Dolls have been a mechanism for the feeling of the unknown.
Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and Their Uncanny Friendship
Fast Friends With Faster Minds
The friendship between the legendary characters Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, known for their appearances in the various short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as well as all of the media based on these stories, is something that has long been discussed. It is a tenuous friendship, certainly, and one that has its roots in very unstable ground. However, this is just how the relationship looks on the surface. These two men actually understand each other very well, and get along in a strange sort of way. Watson and Holmes has a partnership that has been explored in various mediums, but it is most obvious in the original stories of Sir Doyle and in the television series Sherlock, written by Steven Moffat. The friendship between Holmes and Watson can be compared and contrasted through the short story “A Scandal in Bohemia” and the Sherlock episode “A Scandal in Belgravia.” Watson and Holmes have a friendship based in mutual understanding that nobody else has.
In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Sherlock and Watson have a true understanding of one another. Their friendship has supposedly been a long one, according to Watson at the beginning of the story. When asked to perform a task by Sherlock that seemingly makes no sense, Watson is completely willing to do it and does not hesitate for even a second. Holmes does, however, later describe his intentions to Watson. Watson does not falter from his dedication to Holmes, even when faced with a moral dilemma. Watson mentions in the story, “I never felt more heartily ashamed of myself in my life than when I saw the beautiful creature against whom I was conspiring… yet it would be the blackest treachery to Holmes to draw back now from the part which he had entrusted to me.” This shows that Watson has intense dedication to Holmes, and understands the way Holmes works. Watson is one of the few people that truly understands Holmes. Holmes is not an easy man to get along with, but Watson takes it in stride. Even though the two have been apart for quite some time in the beginning of the story, they act like they have never spent a moment apart since they have met.
This friendship is portrayed quite the same in the television episode. While they have yet to be separated by circumstance, they do have unwavering dedication to their cause and each other. Presented with a nearly identical task in the television show as was given to Watson in the story, Watson once again does not falter for even a second in doing as he is told. Watson and Sherlock truly understand one another’s idiosyncrasies.
The friendship between Watson and Holmes is, however, explored in greater depth in the television show. The modern setting gives a greater look into their lives through technology. Watson, for example, is creating a blog detailing the adventures of Holmes. This is an act that would normally upset Holmes a great deal, but he tolerates it from Watson. Watson understands Holmes obsessions, and puts up with them. Along with this, Watson has yet to be married and is in fact dating a woman during the episode. However, when Holmes upsets her by being unable to remember just which of Watson’s various previous relationships she is, she demands that Watson choose between her and Holmes. Watson, of course, decides on his long lasting friendship. Watson is not angry with Holmes, because he understands why he did what he did. This is the perfect example of their relationship.
It could be said that their relationship is seen quite differently in the two mediums. Watson and Holmes have a much shakier relationship on the surface when viewing the television show. They seem to argue more, and don’t quite mesh as well. This, however, makes sense when it is realized that a television show needs more obvious conflict than a short story. It also makes sense when looking at their relationship on a deeper level. For example, Watson does not get angry with Holmes for even a second when he inadvertently caused a breakup between Watson and his girlfriend. If they did have a problematic friendship, this wouldn’t be the case. Watson and Holmes have a legendary friendship for a good reason. Two odd men come together to make a friendship that has lasted many lifetimes.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: an Uncanny Sensation
The Uncanny Frankenstein
Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny displays an interesting and intriguing concept of evoking unsettling emotions in characters or readers. A main point that he focuses on in his essay involves repression and repetition of such emotions. These feelings are typically relatable to most and thus are intriguing as an audience to observe characters experiencing parallel instances of uncanny feelings. While I doubt that many people can literally identify with a created being of life, an example of a text that uses Freud’s concepts is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in that the association between Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature holds an uncanny sensation on the part of Dr. Frankenstein.
Toward the beginning of the novel, Dr. Frankenstein travels to the North Pole by dogsled and is then taken aboard a ship where he recounts his story of bringing the Creature to life (Shelley 4). Dr. Frankenstein displays Freud’s concept of repression of the uncanny in that he is weary and full of remorse over the creation of his Creature. Freud describes repression as simply an anxiety that you don’t want to remember, which aligns with Dr. Frankenstein wishing that the Creature were not successfully brought to life. Freud goes on to suggest that the said anxiety “can be shown to come from something repressed which recurs” (Freud 13). In other words, the repression is followed by the reoccurrence, or repetition, of bad thoughts concerning the anxiety.
Dr. Frankenstein tries to push bad thoughts about creating the monster out of his mind, but he can’t seem to escape the monster’s presence. When the monster demands that Frankenstein create a mate for him and the doctor agrees and then goes back on his word, we see Freud’s concept of repetition in action. His repressed and now repeatedly failed attempt at ignoring his regret of bringing life to the Creature exemplifies “uncanny as something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light” (Freud 13). Dr. Frankenstein repeatedly fails to completely ignore the repressed anxiety as well as try to completely fix it by providing a mate; thus he remains somewhere in the middle ground, harboring an uncanny sensation.
Freud suggests that humans find the concept of uncanny most prevalent when something inanimate takes on animate qualities, specifically in reference to children and dolls (Freud 9). Dr. Frankenstein experiences a similar sensation of the uncanny when the Creature comes to life. He’s not comfortable with the artificial life because it’s not really human, however it looks very human. The closeness to reality disturbed him, just as instances such as dolls may disturb people when they too closely resemble a real human. This middle place between human and not human is vast, thus there are infinite possibilities of experiencing Freud’s concept of the uncanny in literature and our surrounding world.
Aspects of the Normalcy and the Uncanny in Human Life
The significant aspect of normalcy in the lives of humankind thrives on the universal perception that the surrounding environment which we constantly, and impulsively, immerse ourselves in materializes before us without pretenses; however, the veneer of this perpetually dynamic world holds no true reality within the lurking labyrinth of ambiguity that plagues our unconscious without detection. Through the exploration of the often vague and intrinsic boundary between reality and the imagined, modernist authors like Sigmund Freud and renowned filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky implore the audience to reevaluate our perceptions of surrealism in the mundane that is often overlooked and overwhelmed by the facade of mediocrity, delving deeper into the intrinsically-tied relationship between idealistic and animistic ideologies that are still pervasive even in the digital age.
Through his psychoanalysis of the uncanny, Freud pinpoints how “an uncanny effect is often  easily produced” (Freud, 244) when there is no “distinction [established] between imagination and reality” (244); thus, in order to surpass the mask of the mundane and tread into the territory of the unknown, the notable boundary between the tangible and intangible must be subtlety “effaced” (244) to evoke the feeling of “unheimliche” (226) within a literary or aesthetic work. Freud further defines this concept in his comparison of fairy tales to reality and how it elicits a sense of absurdity, rather than uncanny, due to the explicit separation from what is perceived to be substantial in the fairy-tale realm and what is substantial in real life itself. More specifically, in Freud’s example of “The Three Wishes,” a woman and her husband quarrel over the woman’s desire for a sausage which concludes with the sausage “dangling from her nose” (246). Although the notion that a sausage dangling from one’s nose is perceived as ludicrous and “not in the least [bit] uncanny” (246), if the explicit partition between the story and reality were obscured or removed, if the husband’s intent for his wish was revealed to be nefarious and driven by ill-intentions towards his wife, then the story would provoke a less comical tone and, instead, conjure a more highly disturbing scenario between the husband and wife. In particular, the specific mechanism of blurring the confines between abstract imagination and reality plays a direct role in augmenting one’s feelings of “intellectual uncertainty” (3) regarding obsolete concepts and beliefs that we, as a society, have seemingly “surmounted” (244).
This form of “intellectual uncertainty” — of what is imagined or real — is highly exemplified in Tarkovsky’s film “The Mirror” which is set against the backdrop of Russian social turbulence during the 20th century. Although Tarkovsky utilizes rampant hyperrealistic imagery that frequently obscures the border between the imagined and the real, a notable dreamlike sequence from the young protagonist showcases how an ordinary afternoon of routine can metamorph into a grotesque visual composition of distortion and unfamiliarity in something as mundane as hair washing. By nulling the external static of the surrounding environment and focusing on the sound of the mother’s movements and the dripping water as she is washing her hair, Tarkovsky amplifies the effect of how something ordinary and familiar can readily mutate into the bizarre by merely dulling our sense of hearing and awareness of time. Furthermore, the instantaneous crumbling of the house’s walls and the sudden rush of water from the prominent cracks that have appeared on the wall at the end of the scene is a hyperbolic reflection of the violent sociocultural events occurring in the protagonist’s reality, symbolizing how the crisis experienced in reality can oftentimes seep into the dream world. Because Tarkovsky never implies if what the young boy is experiencing is real or not, a primal fear is evoked within not only the young protagonist but also the audience, embodying the Freudian postulation of the conflation of imagination and reality. As a consequence of the enigmatic yet highly intrinsic link between imagination and reality, the combination of the young protagonist’s naive perspective and his surrealistic vision of his mother washing her hair reinforces Freud’s assertion that our “primitive beliefs are most intimately connected with infantile complexes” (250), even when we have long conquered the “residues of animistic mental activity” (240).
Despite the fact that the uncanny is often disregarded and suppressed by the banality of everyday living, even with today’s accessibility to unbound knowledge and innovation, the uncanny continues to linger in the background; an ever-present force that creeps along the peripheral of our vision, straddling the fringes of imagination and reality, awaiting its chance to rear its ugly head once more.
Essay of the uncanny ability of fallen humans to view the world through their narrow reasonable lens
Madness, or the uncanny ability of fallen humans to view the world through their narrow reasonable lens. The deceivers play into the fears that already exist within the character. They do not create the calamity, they simply fuel it. The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed especially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours…
Nevertheless, he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way, the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable MARK of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way…
Or it might be the third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvellous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!” “O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!”
Indian Aesthetic Interventions into Freudian “Uncanny”: An Investigation
The science of Psychology has been far more success on the negative than on the positive side… It has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illness, his sins but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations or his psychological health. (Maslow 354)
Whereas Abraham Maslow critiques the science of psychology, for it tends to harp on pejorative sides of the human psyche; much before to it, Sigmund Freud intended to tread on the untraded path of the psyche in order to explore the strangeness and mystery associated with it.1 By virtue of being a physician, Freud could come to terms with varied psychological aberrations at his disposal and gradually developed interests in the cryptic workings of the psyche. In 1919, Freud published his ground-breaking essay – “The Uncanny” which reveals Freud’s take on the problematic dimensions of “uncanny”. The idea of “uncanny” deemed to Freud striking and startling so much so that he tended to render the enigmatic workings of unconscious mind uncanny. Whereas Keats in “Ode to Psyche” unleashes his aesthetic cravings for being the ‘priest’ of his mind and a fane “In some untrodden region of my mind” (Keats qtd. in Weekes 63); at the inception of “The Uncanny”, Freud lays stress on the compatibility between psychoanalysis and aesthetics by making this tellingly significant observation: “Only rarely does the psychoanalyst feel impelled to engage in aesthetic investigations, even when aesthetics is not restricted to the theory of beauty, but described as relating to the qualities of our feeling” ( Freud 123). This observation can be interpreted in two ways – either a psychoanalyst may have inhibition to take recourse to aesthetics or he is bound to take it into account, for the notion of “uncanny” can best be explored and explicated from an interdisciplinary viewpoint. The second interpretation seems plausible to me inasmuch as “uncanny” is soaked in aesthetic suggestions. This paper is thus intended to delve deep into Freudian “uncanny” to comprehend why this problematic term has been ceaselessly catering aesthetic pleasure to connoisseurs by taking resort to Indian aesthetic perspectives.
What is “uncanny”? Where does “uncanny” lie? How does it work as a liaison between psychoanalysis and aesthetics? Simply speaking, the notion of “uncanny” deems at times baffling and at once intriguing, for it can neither be grasped in rational terms nor can be left out of our critical conjectures and apprehensions so far these two paradigms are concerned. Some people suppose that it ‘belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread’ and some others reckon it as an amalgamation of dread, fear, mystery, strangeness, eeriness, unhomeliness, to name only a few. Etymologically, the word uncanny smacks of a sense of eeriness and is thought of to be an operational English rendering of its German origin “Unheimlich”. As this German phrase is hardly translatable into
English, it gives birth to a number of feasible connotations thereby leaving ordinary men in utter confusion regarding the actual meaning of it. Sometimes, we tend to situate “uncanny” in liminal space simply because a feeling of “uncanny” is triggered into being when the subtle discrepancy between reality and fantasy becomes blurry. A feeling of “uncanny” can be generated out of any horrendous and ghoulish site. Sometimes, it is supposed that the idea of “uncanny” remains quiescent in unfamiliar things. When familiarity concerning a known object dissolves into air, unfamiliarity crops up as a consequence of it, and then it brings ‘uncanny’ into comprehension. In a nutshell, it is an elusive notion and thus the experience of it can hardly be related in words. “Uncanny” can plausibly be reckoned as a conduit, as it were, in between the paradigms and therefore, it induces connoisseurs to approach it from the interdisciplinary perspective.
Freud conceptually splits up human mind into three different strata—unconscious, preconscious and conscious2. Whereas id yields instinctual impulses, super-ego posits certain restrictions on them and it is ego that strikes a balance between them. What is noteworthy is that according to Freud, the unconscious mind seems at times unfathomable and thus is quite unfamiliar. He holds that the workings of unconscious mind give the impression of uncanny to him and thus he has to devise to step into the uncanny realm of the human mind by pursuing a dream. The enigmatic nature of the unconscious mind ignites a sense of “uncanny” in him and compels him to arrive at that unfamiliarity tinged with fright breeds a sense of uncanny though he has reminded us of that “not everything new and unfamiliar is frightening …” (Freud 125). Since after the publication of this essay, psychoanalysts across the world have been making attempts to decipher the real nature of “uncanny”. Here one may reasonably ask why do psychoanalysts across the world still find interests in delving deep into it? Jentsch thinks that “intellectual uncertainty” could be the reason that accounts for the arousal of a feeling of uncanny in the minds of connoisseurs whereas Freud stands against it and implicitly holds that the cryptic nature of “uncanny” puts its meaning in a ceaseless deferral, as it were, which explains why; connoisseurs across the world find it to be a constant source of aesthetic pleasure and intervene into it time and again.
Bharatamuni in his Natyasastra laid down eight areas along with their corresponding permanent feelings. Bharata opines that the harmonious union among determinants, consequents and transitory feelings serve to produce rasa thereby leading connoisseurs to the realization of it. Terrible rasa is one of them among the eight races. The permanent feeling of it is ‘horror’. When ‘horror’ gets mixed up with other transitory feelings such as trepidations, fright, wonder, to name only a few, it yields terrible rasa. He argues that each aesthetic exploration comes to an end with the comprehension of one of the eight races. One may find it important to take note of that an object of fright can well cater aesthetic pleasure to connoisseurs since aesthetics is not solely restricted to the vicinity of Beauty.
Much later to Bharata, the eminent rhetorician Anandavardhana in his astounding work Dhvanyaloka moots that the comprehension rasadhvani in at the end of an aesthetic exploration gives immaculately aesthetic pleasure4. In other words, connoisseurs take up aesthetic journeys to reach the ‘suggestion’ and in course of it; they exact and extract aesthetic pleasure. When the function of suggestion is triggered into action, connoisseurs slowly but surely slip into the world of pure aesthetic pleasure through their constant pursuits of aesthetic implications. Since familiarity and unfamiliarity are complementary to each other, Anandavardhana insists connoisseurs rely on the familiar understanding of something for the time being by asking them to reckon the denotative and connotative meanings of it. He ultimately induces them to keep on heading towards the suggested meaning of something until it is comprehensibly grabbed.
Kuntaka in his Vakroktijibitam puts forward that ‘vakrokti’ is the tellingly distinctive trait of an aesthetically charged word, which accounts for the aesthetic pleasure in which connoisseurs indulge while pursuing it. In other words, ‘vakrokti’ is the aesthetic force that allures connoisseurs to the ‘signified’. The idea is that had the meaning of something been expressed in conspicuous terms, it would not have been equally pleasing and gratifying to what vakrokti is. So the oblique meaning of something induces connoisseurs to take up aesthetic voyages until the suggested meaning is gripped. Kuntaka thus is of this opinion that the understanding of ‘vakrokti’ is the crux of any aesthetic exploration.
Human emotional responses across the world hardly differ and it prompts me to think of making inroads into the problematic and aesthetic construct, i.e. “uncanny”, taking resort to Indian aesthetic perspectives. Denis Dutton in “Aesthetic Universals” foregrounds, “In the twentieth century, research into the existence of universal aesthetic values came primarily from psychology…” (Dutton qtd. in Gaut 206). Dutton underscores that empirical psychology requires the perceptive ability of the psychoanalyst who needs to be equipped with aesthetic power as well. In the domain of psychoanalytical research, aesthetic prowess is requisite for critical inquiries and interventions. Freud, too, had long before propounded by contending that “… Yet now and then it happens that he has to take an interest in a particular area of aesthetics …” (Freud 123).
Freud implicates that as familiarity and unfamiliarity cannot be torn apart, aesthetic pursuits culminate in the unfathomable depth of unfamiliarity thereby triggering a sense of uncanny in the minds of connoisseurs. Taking recourse to Rasa theory, one may pertinently put forward that Freudian uncanny is steeped in terrible rasa. A site of horror consisting of determinants, consequents, and transitory feelings stir up fear – the corresponding permanent feeling of horror and it ultimately leads connoisseurs to revel in terrible rasa. For instance, when one experiences something “uncanny” on the stage while watching a performance, he is immediately taken aback in fright and gradually rubs shoulders with terrible rasa due to the union among the trio – determinant, consequent and transitory feelings.
Following Anandavardhana one may explore the problematic facets of “uncanny”. It denotes unhomely feeling or eeriness. Apparently, connoisseurs are quite used to this feeling and have some sort of familiarity with it. But the word uncanny cannot be properly realized in terms of eeriness because it does not always bear the exact meaning of it in a given context. Therefore, it raises the necessity of connotative meaning to come into play. In specific contexts, “uncanny” sometimes refers to something horrendous and rouses fear in us. Again it will not suffice for connoisseurs who intend to get to the bottom of “uncanny”, for the suggestion of it gets deferred for the time being. Here one may reasonably ask: Is something spooky always tantamount to a feeling of “uncanny”? This query can be answered by making direct reference to the pertinent observation of Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle in An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory: “The uncanny is not just a matter of weird or spooky but has to do more specifically with a disturbance of the familiar … As an adjective ‘familiar’ means ‘well acquainted or intimate … but as a noun, it carries the more unsettling …” (34) implications to connoisseurs. The aesthetic infiltration into the virtual familiarity of something gradually uncovers multifaceted unfamiliarity lying latent in it. Thus, connoisseurs are forced to take resort to the suggestion of it. The repeated attempts to “uncanny” over the years prove that it is elusive in nature and nobody has been able to decipher its actual meaning as of now. But connoisseurs still retain their interest in it owing to its aesthetic potentials.
Taking Kuntaka’s view into account, one may plausibly put forward that had “uncanny” been something conspicuous, it would not have been as intriguing as it is now. It implies that the obliqueness of “uncanny” adds aesthetic grandeur to it. In other words, as “uncanny” turns out to be a cryptic construct, for it appeals to the aesthetic sensibility of connoisseurs thereby persuading them to approach it time and again. P.V. Kane in History of Sanskrit Poetics has understood vakrokti as “… striking mode of speech [that] … differing from the plain matter of fact an ordinary mode of speech” (384). Taking a cue from it, one may argue that as Freud unearths multiple oblique suggestions of “uncanny” from several points of view, it persuades connoisseurs to delve deep into it with the help of aesthetic insights.
The varied interpretations of “uncanny” can be compressed into the following observation: a sense of “uncanny” is an aesthetic experience that can hardly be grasped in words. It is an all-pervasive phenomenon that lies latent under the cover of familiarity and springs up when familiarity dissipates. In a nutshell, the reassessment of “uncanny” divulges that though it hails from an altogether different register, it is indisputably and unequivocally replete with aesthetic ingredients and thus has been subject to critical apprehensions over the decades.