On “Das Unheimliche”

Within the first pages of his essay on The Uncanny, Freud adopts a humble tone, acknowledging that his analysis is limited by the lack of exposure to foreign literature due to conditions in the immediate post-World War I period. Within this historical context, the psychoanalyst’s interest and fascination with the uncanny arose from his experience treating post-war traumatic cases. This is evident in his essay, which consistently gravitates towards the subject of neurosis and the significance of repressed content of thought in the manifestation of the uncanny. 

Despite the humbleness, Freud sets off with the goal of providing an illuminating work on the subject, yet as expected from the nature of it, this task proves to be problematic. Freud’s work itself turns out to possess some of the uncanny characteristics it describes. First of all, its purpose is to reveal something that is concealed within the parameters of subjectivity of feeling, of experience, and memories. More than once, Freud reaches the conclusion that some factors of the uncanny may be perceived as such by some individuals but not by others, depending on their awareness of the world around them and the world within. One such example, in real-life experience, would be the recurrence of the same situation, or same number several times in one day, which would impress someone who has not fully surmounted old beliefs of supernatural events and signs, but not others who are more anchored in science.

Another aspect that Das Unheimliche shares with its subject and with many uncanny narratives is that it is haunting, repetitive, and filled with uncertainty. 

In Freud’s view, in the field of art, authors can use elements of real-life uncanny experiences whilst adding more to them, so as to intensify or distort them in order to evoke feeling and induce an uncanny response. He states that mere representation is not enough: what would normally arouse feelings of uncanny in real life might not work in stories, therefore there are other factors at play. Cases of the return of the repressed and infantile complexes do not necessarily arouse uncanniness in themselves, Freud confesses, neither do each of the elements mentioned work on their own – for instance, the double, the silence, repetition, or ghosts are not inherently uncanny. As we read through the essay, we feel the struggle of the master of psychoanalysis to describe the indescribable, to grasp something which does not want to be grasped.

Whether we are talking about a piece of art or real life, the uncanny effect is something that has to be experienced in order to be understood. In some films, silence can indeed significantly contribute to a certain atemporal eeriness, and combined with dim lights and emptiness, can be suggestive of death in a way that surpasses the dread induced by the presence of the ghost of a man.

Freud points out that although generally, primitive beliefs in ghosts and the return of the dead are surmounted, they resurface in many of us at the sight or hint of something we perceive as unusual. However, such sources of the uncanny don’t apply to people who are convinced of reality in their beliefs for instance, and who are thus less likely to be affected by such literary apparitions. Prolonged silence, however, springing from the real world, but given deathly connotations, arouses the infantile anxieties Freud alludes to, which we are all susceptible to.

Certain works of art encompass that combination of factors through which the uncanny is born out of art and transcends into life, making the reader and the viewer experience it.