The uncanny Uncanny
The uncanny Uncanny
The common modern use of the term uncanny is derived from Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay ‘Das Unheimliche’, an unusual work for the psychoanalyst as it strays into both aesthetics and literature. However this piece acts as a nexus for many of his key concepts in psychoanalysis; where Oedipus meets ego psychology, and castration ties in with the compulsion to repeat. Yet like many such terms, the everyday meaning of ‘uncanny’ appears on the surface to have shifted since the beginning of its usage. Certain nuances of the term seem to have been left behind and forgotten, repressed even.
Freud argued that the experience of the uncanny occurs when something that has been hidden by the conscious mind through repression is suddenly revealed, breaking through from the unconscious into everyday thought. Therefore what causes this emotion is not something new, instead it is something that was originally experienced, seen or felt in the past and disturbed the mind in such a way that it was forced to cover over the
the potential to damage the ego. When we experience something threatening which is unacceptable within society or everyday life (such as sexual perversion) the mind pushes this content into the unconscious so that it will be hidden from conscious thought. Freud argued that this is because these desires could never
be truly destroyed, only covered over. However, once repressed, such
However, covered over by these theories of castration is a constant emphasis on the desire to return home. Not just to one’s house, but to the original home – the womb:
It often happens that neurotic men declare that they feel there is something uncanny about the female genital organs. This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning. There is a joking saying that ‘Love is home-sickness’; and whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself, while he is still dreaming: ‘this place is familiar to me, I’ve been here before’, we may interpret the place as being his mother’s genitals or her body. In this case too, then, the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, familiar; the prefix ‘un’ [un-] is the token of repression. ((Freud, ibid.)
Note the words that Freud uses: “to the place where each and every one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning”. This desire to return home to the womb – and indeed our actual homes, which through their safety and comfort resemble a womb-like space – is linked instantly to both the fairy tale and religion. What was once heimlich and safe (our mother’s womb) is now unheimlich and abject (the castrating and unknown female genitals).
The original womb of the mother has been raised up to a mythic, near spiritual standing. Yet the female genitals as a whole are also a source of fear, horror and the unknown. It is the ultimate heimlich to unheimlich example. The common
(or repressed) meaning of the uncanny to come forward. These artists have created work that is not simply mysterious; it creates truth from fiction and fiction from truth, a not-quite-right déjà-vu. The works are tied to a sense of home, of coming from a place that is unique to us through our own personal associations.
Folklore lends itself to an uncanny experience because it is a recording of historical traditions, a mix of fact and fiction creating a sense of the known
Folklore is part of our culture as it gives us an identity, a connection to a specific place and a distinction from others. A ‘hooden horse’ may be heimlich to those in East Kent, but its clacking jaws and tomfoolery distinctly unheimlich to those from elsewhere. Folklore comes from the working man, from the fields and seas of Mother Nature. Its celebrations and ceremonies deal with fertility, abundance in farming and the raising of children, rather than commercialism and the capitalism of phallocentric society. It is this link to home that allows folklore to bring out the full meaning of the uncanny, of a return to origins and the covering over of fact with myth: the doubling of repression.