Freud on ‘The “Uncanny”’ - Extracts for Irish Studies

Sigmund Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’ [1919], in The Complete Psychological Works, Vol. XVII (London: Hogarth Press 1955 & Edns.), pp.217-56. [as above].

Examples of heimlich incl.: ‘The protestant land-owners do not feel ... heimlich among their catholic inferiors.’ (p.222.) See also ‘The unheimlich mist called hill-fog.’ (IBid., p.224.)

Ftn .23. Cf. my book Totem and Taboo (1912-13), Essay III, ‘Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts’, where the following footnote will be found: ‘We appear to attribute an “uncanny” quality to impres sions that seek to confirm the omnipotence of thoughts and the animistic mode of thinking in general, after we have reached a stage at which, in our judgement, we have abandoned such beliefs.’ [ Standard Edn., 13, 86.] (p.241.)

Summary remarks: ‘At this point I will put forward two considerations which, I think, contain the gist of this short study. In the first place, if psycho-analytic theory is correct in maintaining that every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety, then among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs. This class of frightening things would then constitute the uncanny; and it must be a matter of indifference whether what is uncanny was itself originally frightening or whether it carried some other affect. In the second place, if this is indeed the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why linguistic usage has extended das Heimliche [‘homely’] into its opposite, das Unheimliche (p.226); for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. This refer ence to the factor of repression enables us, furthermore, to understand Schelling’s definition [p. 224] of the uncanny as something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.’ (p.241.)

See also his conclusions: It may be true that the uncanny [ unheimlich ] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimisch], which has under gone repression and then returned from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfils this condition. But the selection of material on this basis does not enable us to solve the problem of the uncanny. For our proposition is clearly not convertible. Not everything that fulfils this condition - not everything that recalls repressed desires and surmounted modes of thinking be longing to the prehistory of the individual and of the race - is on that account uncanny.’ (p.245.)

Further: ‘Fairy tales quite frankly adopt the animistic standpoint of the omnipotence of thoughts and wishes, and yet I cannot think of any genuine fairy story which has anything uncanny about it.’ (p.246.)

‘We have noticed one point which may help us to resolve these uncertainties: nearly all the instances that contradict our hypothesis are taken from the realm of fiction, of imaginative writing. This suggests that we should differentiate between the uncanny that we actually experience and the uncanny that we merely picture or read about.’ (p.247.) Further: ‘The uncanny as it is depicted in literature, in stories and imaginative productions, merits in truth a separate discussion.’ (p.249.)

‘The imaginative writer has this licence among many others, that he can select his world of representation so that it either coincides with the realities we are familiar with or departs from them in what particulars he pleases. We accept his ruling in {249} every case. In fairy tales, for instance, the world of reality is left behind from the very start, and the animistic system of beliefs is frankly adopted. Wish-fulfilments, secret powers, omnipotence of thoughts, animation of inanimate objects, all the elements so common in fairy stories, can exert no uncanny influence here; for, as we have learnt, that feeling cannot arise unless there is a conflict of judgement as to whether things which have been ‘surmounted’ and are regarded as incredible may not, after all, be possible; and this problem is eliminated from the outset by the postulates of the world of fairy tales. Thus we see that fairy stories, which have furnished us with most of the contradictions to our hypothesis of the uncanny, confirm the first part of our proposition - that in the realm of fiction many things are not uncanny which would be so if they happened in real life. In the case of these stories there are other contributory factors, which we shall briefly touch upon later.’ (p.249.)

‘The creative writer can also choose a setting which though less imaginary than the world of fairy tales, does yet differ from the real world by admitting superior spiritual beings such as daemonic spirits or ghosts of the dead. So long as they remain within their setting of poetic reality, such figures lose any uncanniness which they might possess. […] The situation is altered as soon as the writer pretends to move in the world of common reality.’


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