Freud's Essay The Uncanny

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Freud's essay The Uncanny


Freud's essay on “The uncanny” (1919) is an exploration of what he terms a relatively neglected province of the Aesthetic, and concentrates upon works of Art that provoke feelings of unease, dread, or horror.. The “uncanny familiar” is a fairly obvious expression of ambivalence, but Freud is also influenced here by his reading of the philologist Karl Abel's theories about the antithetical meaning of primal words and the thesis that dreams and ancient languages often have only a single word to describe two contraries (Freud, 25).

Thesis Statement

The uncanny represents the emergence of something which was once familiar (animism) and which has been repressed and alienated from the mind.


Freud's approach centers on a thematic reading of Hoffman's stories “The sandman” and “The Devil's elixir.” It is also a highly selective reading. Freud concentrates on elements which can be related to fear of castration (severed limbs, the children's eyes which the sandman magically removes and carries off to feed his children). The uncanny can now be associated with a male neurotic claim that there is something uncanny about the female genitals, a theme also explored in the brief paper on Medusa's head (Freud, 89). That unheimlich place is of course the entrance to the original home (Heim) of all human beings. It was once a familiar place, and the prefix un is an index of its repression.

Other variants on classical psychoanalytic criticism adopt a slightly different approach and successfully exploit other areas of Freud's oeuvre. The French critic Marthe Robert (1972) skillfully mines the short paper on “Family romance” (Freud, 1909) to produce a broad narrative typology and even an account of the desire to write fiction. Freud uses “family romance” to refer to the Oedipal fantasies in which children construct a different relationship with their parents, imagining that they are the offspring, not of their real father and mother, but of kings and queens, or warding off sibling rivalry with fantasies that their brothers and sisters are illegitimate. Robert applies this fantasy structure to Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote, viewed as prototypical novels, and constructs a typology of bastard and foundling, of fictional structures based respectively on the self-creation of the hero and the omnipotence of wishes. A very different typology, but one which again relates Oedipal structures to literary structures, is supplied by Harold Bloom's thesis about poetry and the anxiety of influence (Bloom, 85). The anxiety of influence is seen as an equivalent to the experience of the Uncanny; the young poet comes to recognize in his work the influence of precursors with whom he must wrestle in order to emerge as a “strong poet” capable of absorbing and creating his precursors without dying as a poet. Tradition is likened to the repressed material in the psychic life of individuals, and relations between poetic generations as a form of Transference. Bloom's Freud is a very literary figure, cast in the role of a strong poet.

Freud's Approach and the movie, Children of Men

Children of Men's opening scene ...
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