Sie sind auf Seite 1von 13

Existential Analysis 16.2: July 2005

Reflections on Freud’s The Uncanny

Noam Israeli

In memory of Judith Rabin who enlightened me in the most uncanny of times.

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from his troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect. He was lying on his hard shell-like back and by lifting his head a little he could see his curved round belly, divided by stiff arching ribs, on top of which bed quilt was precariously poised and seemed about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pathetically thin compared with the rest of his bulk, danced helplessly before his eyes. ‘What has happened to me?’ he thought. It was no dream. His room, an ordinary human room, if somewhat small, lay peacefully between the four familiar walls.’ (Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis)

but then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical and then they showed me a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical ’ (Logical Song- Supertramp)

I have not always been a psychotherapist. Like other neurologists, I was trained to employ local diagnosis and electro-prognosis, and it still strikes me myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the stamp of science. I must console myself with the reflection that the nature of the subject is evidently responsible for this, rather than any preference of my own. (Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria)


I find Freud’s writing interesting and fascinating. Surprisingly, his writing was mainly interpreted by psychoanalysts and was looked at through their perspective. I very much share Ricoeur’s view (1970) that Freud can have various readings. I find some of Freud’s writings to be phenomenological texts (whether in client case studies or in other essays, such as The Uncanny). I will try to use this paper to reflect on some of the issues that reading The Uncanny evokes, those that are relevant to phenomenological- existential psychotherapy.


Reflections on Freud’s The Uncanny

Freud was a physician and often wrote from this position. In this mode in the uncanny essay he uses literature and art to convey scientific knowledge. Hence, it may be argued that he approaches the topic from different and perhaps even contradictory positions. Throughout the essay, Freud was trying to ground the notion of the uncanny into psychoanalysis. However, it is unclear what Freud attempted to describe and ground. I am unsure whether Freud had a clear idea of how his essay would develop when he started writing it. It appears that in the process of writing, Freud struggled to describe the notion of the uncanny, which troubled him. I am interested in exploring the process of writing as a metaphor; similar to the process of creating meanings and the way it may emerge in the therapeutic process. At the same time, I will also try to look into the notion of the uncanny.

Key words

uncanny, knowledge, science.

Freud’s Uncanny (1919) and Uncanny Notion

Freud wrote The Uncanny in 1919 after the end of World War I. The Great War had a strong impact on him and his views. He became pessimistic about humans’ ability to live peacefully in societies. Throughout the war, Freud’s sons served at the frontline as most of his colleagues, students and patients. In the meantime, in his hometown, Vienna, he lost all his savings and most of his practice. Moreover, the destruction and the length of the war made a strong impression on him (Jacobs, 2003). Freud was shaken by the constant worry for his relatives and friends and the magnitude of the destruction in Europe. He also felt that he was in a similar professional position to when he started practicing psychoanalysis, only twenty years older, what made him more sombre (Gay, 1998). This state of mind led him to look into the dark side of human motivation and capabilities. The uncanny aims to deal with a notion of familiarity and threat that manifest itself through the same event, person or object. In many respects, the violence and aggression manifested in the war were always a concealed potential of mankind. At the beginning of the essay, Freud declares himself as a scientist who took a task in aesthetics (Freud, 1955). Therefore, he draws most of the examples describing the uncanny from literature, but then puts these examples in his scientific dogma, psychoanalysis. Eco (1994) describes natural and fictional narratives with regards to writing. Natural narratives aim at describing real life and fictional events that pretend to tell the truth of the actual universes through using a story. Freud uses fictional narratives to convey the properties of the uncanny, although he wants to consider it as natural phenomena. The movement between the narratives in The Uncanny essay follows the ambiguity of the


Noam Israeli

subject. The Uncanny folds two different notions and the fictional possibilities offered do not satisfy Freud ‘the scientist’. The outcome is an essay that comprises two somewhat contradictory narratives, and as readers we are left with a text that could be read as Freud’s interpretation (Ricoeur, 1970). Freud tries to link the fictional narrative to the natural one, but after each option he provides, there is a possibility that it may not have been a successful and a comprehensive attempt. The Uncanny (Freud, 1955) is an example of this process. Freud starts the essay by looking at the notion of familiarity and threat happening concurrently, embodied through concealment. Freud tries to unravel the ‘Unhemlich’ through various languages; it is not the opposite of Heimlich, which in its English translation is not exactly what it means in German (‘at home’ or ‘Homey’). The difficulty and lack of definition leaves the uncanny as a loose notion that cannot be subjected to verbal reasoning. Freud’s review of the many languages for the definition of the uncanny leads him the conclusion that the uncanny belongs to two sets of ideas that are different but not contradictory to each other. ‘Heimlich’

is all that is agreeable and familiar and on the other hand all that is concealed and that is kept out of sight (Freud, 1955:345).

‘Unhemlich’ is used as a contradiction to the first set of ideas, hence what is unfamiliar and not agreeable is therefore not in the awareness. The opening of the essay demonstrates the dialectics within the notion, as the second contradiction is a subspecies of the first. At this point, Freud sets out on a long description of the uncanny, taken from Jentsch and Hoffmann. Through this detailed process, Freud gradually loses sight of the uncanny and it becomes confusing for the reader. In order to overcome this confusion, Freud tries to ground these descriptions of the uncanny into psychoanalysis. However, the conclusion that Freud ends up with is an ambiguous one (the manifestation of the ‘double’)

But after thus considered the manifest of motivation of the figure of a ‘double’, we have to admit that none of this helps us to understand the extraordinarily strong feeling of something that is uncanny that pervades the conception (Freud, 1955:358).

The theoretical explanation is confusing and unclear, often shifts between the phenomenological writing and the psychoanalytic language. However, after these explanations Freud is left with the same difficulty. The conclusion at the end of the second part of the essay implies that the uncanny is an irrational concept and therefore could be frightening,


Reflections on Freud’s The Uncanny

especially due to its unfamiliarity. The notion that emerges from the encounter with the text is an uncanny one, especially in Freud’s aim to convey:

…Nor shall we conceal the fact that for almost every example adduced in support of our hypothesis one may be found which rebuts it, (Freud, 1955:368)

Freud concludes the essay in further examples of the uncanny that he finds descriptive in attempt to provide the reader with some understanding. It feels that Freud wants to leave himself in a position of comfort as a writer and a scientist. However, the essence of the uncanny experience leaves the reader with a great sense of uncertainty and dread. It is difficult for Freud to close his essay in an open and dynamic manner.

This class is 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 has extended das Hemlich (‘Homey’) into its opposite das Unhemlich; for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something that is familiar and old fashioned in the mind and which has become alienated from it through process of repression. (Freud 1955: 363-4)

Freud tries to examine how certain familiar notions become threatening. However, it is unclear why Freud approaches the topic from an aesthetics’ perspective. His conclusion is that the threat that underlies in the familiarity of the object provokes uncanny feelings. Freud describes situations of anxiety and dread that rational explanations are short in clarifying. The uncanny notion does not appear but equally is felt to be present all the time. The object/notion is in the encounter and known to the observer but still there is a notion of a discrepancy in making sense of it. The concealment, appearance, familiarity and uncertainty create ambiguity of two different notions that converge into one. Freud describes the Uncanny by looking at ‘home’, with ‘not being at home’ at the same time. This description could be subject to several interpretations, as Freud does not clarify what he means by ‘home’. Could it be the proximity to one’s environment that is still unfamiliar? Freud elaborates on other possibilities of the uncanny: the contrast between known and thought; judgement and experiential; possibilities behind the experienced world that lay in darkness and solitude that our perception cannot fully comprehend. Throughout the essay, I believe that


Noam Israeli

Freud is aware of these dialectics of the Uncanny and the inconclusiveness of his attempts to describe it.


Throughout his career Freud was fascinated with art and literature and was an enthusiastic archaeology collector (Gay, 1998). The context and complexity of this text may indicate a somewhat different process of writing. One of the manifestations of this process could be the shift Freud makes between different narratives and positions. In the beginning of the essay, Freud states that he is writing beyond the usual remits of his preoccupation, hence science. The inconclusiveness at the end of the paper leaves it as almost a ‘free association’ essay. Freud’s writing embodies and creates an uncanny notion, as he brings ideas and stories that he considers relevant but without scientific coherence. His writing becomes and creates a dialogue of meanings. Ambiguous topics are described through several narratives that blend together to create an interpretative and explorative essay. Freud’s traditional style is still evident in parts of the text, as he provides references to his own writings, and there is still a traditional psychoanalytic logic. Equally, Freud discloses his mood by choosing the topic and explorations of threat and uncertainty.

That is that an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effected, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes and so on (Freud, 1955: 366).

This notion continues with his loose manner of writing that creates a sense of interpretation of the uncanny. Having read the text many times, I find that different meanings, interpretations and relational possibilities are left open and the traditional psychoanalytic/scientific stamp is somewhat missing. This form of writing resembles phenomenological exploration, as Freud lets the meanings develop through the act of writing. The act of writing as a metaphor brings to mind the co-creation of meanings in therapy. In this respect, it is similar to the change that occurs through the exchange of meanings in the psychotherapeutic dialogue.

The Writer/ Author

Freud’s task was to understand the human psyche through comprehensive methodology (Gay 1998). Freud’s training was a medical one and he aimed at coinciding psychoanalysis to this approach. Psychoanalysis argues that


Reflections on Freud’s The Uncanny

through rationality most psychological deviations could be understood and possibly rectified. Freud loved the arts (literature, poetry, music) and this essay is an example of how he uses them to affirm and describe his ideas. The most obvious example of this process in his writing is the Oedipus complex. Freud borrowed a metaphor/story from a Greek tragedy to describe human sexual development (Derrida, 2001). Eco (1994) believed that fictional narratives strive towards a description of universal truths. However, it is the interpretation of the author that may create or accommodate these universal notions. It is not a report of recorded observations but a stance of a writer that varies. The scientist aims at analysis of observations that could form repeatable and predictable patterns and Freud construed psychoanalysis in this manner. The description of the uncanny in the essay shifts between literature and personal descriptions to scientific observations. In order to overcome this discrepancy of The Uncanny, Freud moves to the psychoanalytic narrative that he is most familiar with…

…How exactly we can trace back to infantile psychology the uncanny effect of such similar recurrences is a question I can only lightly touch on in these pages; and I must refer the reader instead to an earlier work, already completed in which this has been gone through in detail, but indifferent connection (Freud 1955: 360).

This dialectic dialogue could be seen as a contradictory and inconclusive as Freud shifts between positions of a scientist to an author. However, this dialectic also can create a complimentary description of the uncanny. I believe that the change in position stems from Freud’s uncertainty and search for meanings. This provides a double text with many possibilities to describe the uncanny as an ambiguous domain. This ambiguity provides possibility to reflect on the position of knowledge and its usage in therapeutic situations.


Ricoeur (1970) and Derrida (2001) provide arguments relating to the way Freud can be read. I will use these arguments to discuss the relevance of the uncanny to phenomenological psychotherapeutic practice. Both theorists argue for the possibility of reading Freud as a narrative and an interpretation rather than in the context of psychoanalytic language i.e. as science. Derrida argues that Freud takes metaphorical models and builds theories around them. In this process, these metaphors receive new meanings (2001:250). The terminology Freud uses to describe the apparatus of human existence derives from his investment in writing. Derrida believes that Freud aims to describe the psyche, which creates a


Noam Israeli

metaphoric transition (Derrida, 2001). The metaphorical usage in The Uncanny creates similar possibilities and interpretations. Ricoeur (1970) examines the breakdown of the symbol in the representation relationship and the way it could help understand psychoanalysis as interpretation, rather than a scientific truth. The phenomenological outlook could enhance the understanding of meanings by using the full richness in language. Ricoeur (1970) argues that the dialectic between old myths and new interpretations provides us with knowledge of the familiar along with a sense of play. In his writings, Freud uses dramas and re-interpretations that provide new visions of totality. The reader has Freud’s interpretation, but there is no room to contrast the narratives in mutual expropriation of meanings and their exchange. Extracting these ideas from Freud provides a wider variance for using his thoughts beyond the psychoanalytic paradigm that he assigned them to. The duality in the nature of the uncanny and its ambiguity opens a wide arena for exploration with relevance to the therapeutic process. Spinelli (1998) discusses the uncanny through experiences of participants in psychological experiments, who were able to identify symbols other participants were viewing with no means of conventional communication. Spinelli has no explanation for this outcome of his study. He argues for something uncanny that happened beyond the boundaries of the reflective self. Spinelli defines the uncanny as a dimension beyond the human awareness. The ambiguity lies in the ability to experience something that is not familiar. Sartre’s book Nausea (2000) is a description of life with a known reality and feelings. In the familiarity there is a creation of gradual threatening heaviness with a deterministic conclusion. However, there is nothing particular that happened out of the ordinary and the threatening notion is part of the lived experience. The Uncanny Freud describes is closer to the one Sartre tries to convey. In this process, there is a breakdown/discrepancy between what is known and what is disclosed. This gap does not always make sense and the lack of clarity compounded with the familiarity that does not help in relieving the threatening nature of the notion. Nietzsche (2000) mentions the nausea in suffering, where repetition does not help in relieving it. Nietzsche continues to argue that science and logic create ‘cheerful appearance’ of the phenomena of suffering, whereby utilising either of them does not clarify the uncanny essence of suffering. In therapy, repetitive appearance of a phenomena, that may have already been encountered in similar presentations, does not change the feeling of something threatening or illogical in the current presentation. The knowledge from previous encounters may not change this feeling for the client or therapist. The angst in suffering in the life of either the therapist


Reflections on Freud’s The Uncanny

or client is familiar, but equally contains a threat of discomfort and uncertainty within the therapeutic experience. The uncanny can manifest in therapy as a metaphor for the gap between knowledge and nausea, when there is no definable sense. The description of the notion of the uncanny gets slightly more complicated when there is an act of concealment but the object or feeling remains animated. This somewhat coincides with Spinelli’s suggestion (1994) of dissociative consciousness, whereby awareness of an event/experience dissociated from epistemological knowledge, however it still remains accessible to the person who has the experience. The uncanny comes from the dissociative awareness to the experiential one in the therapeutic encounter and unravels itself, as a possibility that has always been there. This process occurs as the therapeutic dialogue carries the potential for the uncanny to emerge. The uncanny that manifests through known language that cannot be fully comprehended and can not describe the experience. The dialogue as Buber (2002) describes it, whether expressed in silence or words, is with the other. As such, the process of turning towards the other is done with the aim to understand, using inter- relationship and to have a felt sense of what the person tries to convey. In this process, there is always something uncanny, due to what Buber (2002) describes as the multiplicity of reference points to reality and the dialogue that will always have its shortcomings. The therapeutic dialogue, in which there is an aim of turning towards the other, the gap of partial comprehension, of what has been conveyed, always exists. Hence, in the therapist’s aim to understand the other, the uncanny will arise. As a dynamic, that is built in the psychotherapeutic process, due to the distance between individuals’ awareness and the difference in the usage of language, the ambivalence and the decoding of narratives often occur. These notions would compound the uncanny when there is an inability in making sense of the familiar. However, language in its various manifestations is a therapeutic tool (when considered familiar), carries multiplicity of the interpretations, possibilities of the experience and possibilities of expressing them. Here the probability of encountering the Uncanny would arise in the dialogue. The ‘differa’nce’ Derrida (2000) talks about is what alienates the familiar in the encounter, due to multiplicity. The uncanny component arises in the gap between the expediential phenomena and the attempt of making sense, by creating shared understanding in a dialogue. We can also encounter the uncanny in the intricate understanding between humans in therapy, where emotions are condensed. The uncanny would manifest as a possibility in the attempt of mutual understanding, by what the other speaks of and what is also concealed by language. This could lead to the discussion on the act of writing, as a metaphor of creating meanings. While writing this essay, I am trying to express the


Noam Israeli

ideas I had when I first started thinking about the essay. However, through the expression of these ideas in writing, I find myself in a different place from when I started thinking about this paper. Judging by the way Freud’s Uncanny has been written, there is a contrast with his other writings, as this essay lacks the usual conviction and analytic coherence. The process of writing appears to be phenomenological one, closer to free association. The various examples and narratives create

a sense of exploration that is not focused on a certain outcome, but a

description. Through the process of writing the essay, Freud tries to construct a context to the uncanny. The creation of meanings happens between Freud and his flow of thoughts. Freud shares his thoughts on the uncanny with the reader using an explorative process. Therapy happens as a dialogue between the therapist and the client, their relationship and different understandings of each other and the world. Writing is similar to therapy, as a process of co-creation of meanings through continuous dialogue: between the writer and his ideas, the reader and the text process and therapy between individuals. Similar to Sartre’s argument that it is the nature of language and it’s understanding, which happens through the experience, without a presumption of its structures (Cannon, 1994). This implies that therapy as a co-creation process contains unknown potential. The structures of language narratives cannot predict the development of the relationship. Therapy is a process between two individuals, and each encounter holds its own language and understandings. The initial encounter within the context of therapy cannot predict the course and development of the process. Writing in therapy is a co-creating process. The third dialectic that emerges from The Uncanny relates to the shifts between the notions of knowing and not knowing. HusserI idea of phenomenology was that it would become a science that would not be disturbed by prior knowledge. So that through observations there shall be a pathway to the disclosure of pure phenomena (Spinelli, 1989). However,

the ability of un-knowing notions, feelings, experiences and objects resides

in prior repetition (even if it is used for the description through language).

Therapists operate in this complex and intricate field of language and knowledge. It is ambiguous domain, as Harding suggests, due to the fact that language that is a communicative tool has many possibilities (Harding


The challenge of the using knowledge in therapy is ascertaining that it does not camouflage whatever is presented. This could manifest in compartmentalising phenomena into preconceived schemas. Equally, it is almost impossible to assume that there is no knowledge in the encounter that happens within language. Through my work with clients, I have often


Reflections on Freud’s The Uncanny

wondered whether I could only stay on the premises of the descriptive level, whilst bracketing my knowledge and predisposition. I became to realise that the attempt not to know is paradoxical and almost impossible, as there is always something that I do know and could make tangible. However, whilst using knowledge, I aim to be open to the other and find meanings in the encounter through shared language. The work with clients at Eating Disorders Service taught me that self-starvation was attributed to control. After having this ‘knowledge’ from induction and supervision, I found myself trying to link it with new clients’ experience. I learnt that self-starvation could have many properties, other than control. This is one example that reflects the dual position Freud presents in the uncanny, when he uses psychoanalysis in order to rational the intangible multiple phenomena (Freud, 1955). The realisation of a phenomena, recognition and interpretation, demands some form of knowledge. Most therapists go through some form of academic training (which provides them with knowledge, whatever it may be) and that has a place in the therapeutic relationship. Nietzsche criticised the modern culture’s constant need to make sense by creating absolute paradigms and truths that their sense should be questioned (Robinson, 2001). Nietzsche’s sceptical approach and the awareness of knowledge create tension for the therapist, that could be experienced as uncanny. The tension continues to exist in the phenomenological act of bracketing (whether successful or not), as it is an action that aims to tackle this conflict. In the uncanny, Freud embodies this tension, as he tries to ground his own bewilderment. In my own experience as a psychotherapist with a psychological training, the tension between the scientific paradigm and the experiential one is alive in practice. I realised that extreme usage of knowledge has at times detrimental effect on people’s lives and may cause clinicians to lose sight of the human aspect of their ‘patients’. I also realised that total abandonment of all knowledge and logic (as Nietzsche’s challenge) could bring to the loss of sight of any essence and possibly human suffering. The position of Freud as a writer in The Uncanny represents this shift.


In this paper, I attempted to discuss and reflect on issues that were provoked by Freud’s Uncanny; the Uncanny as a theme in therapy, the creation of meanings between individuals and the discrepancies that intricate in this process; the aim to place knowledge in the therapeutic encounter and the tension it may create. I did not find much literature on the Uncanny and even less so on Freud’s essay. I found it a bit disappointing, as it is a rich text with various dimensions that could benefit clinicians. I resonate with Freud’s use of the


Noam Israeli

arts in attempt to convey his insights and ideas. I find that the notion of the Uncanny was described to a greater extent in the arts and literature i.e. David Lynch, Francis Bacon, Paul Auster, Edward Hopper, Franz Kafka, Lucian Freud, Woody Allen, P.T. Anderson and many others. However, it did not translate to the psychotherapeutic discourse, which I hope this essay would help to achieve. I value the impact Freud has on my thinking. I find categorisation of writers in compartment of schools of thought to be limiting to practice. Thompson (2004) provides a detailed analysis of the shared premises of Nietzsche’s thought and psychoanalysis. This reflects on the dimensions that could related to phenomenological- existential practice. Cooper (2003) notes that the common denominator of what is considered existential philosophy is the concern and interest in human existence and its dimensions. I think that in this paper, Freud provides a description and a challenge to the lived experience. The further challenge is to open as many avenues of dialogue by examining the essence and relevance of texts to the practice of psychotherapy. This would help to overcome professional seclusion between different approaches and create a fruitful dialogue. This dialogue could transcend to the one that could be between science and the arts, as Freud demonstrated in this paper: one is not sufficient to describe the lived experience and at times they may compliment one another. As Sartre (1943) states ‘it is the aim of therapeutic venture not to be postulation of the therapist but holistic part of the human absurdities of Being-in-the- World’.

Noam Israeli is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist and has finished his training as an existential psychotherapist. In the last five years, Noam has been working for South Essex NHS Partnership with clients who present long-term and complex psychological difficulties. He is interested in practicing the Existential-Phenomenological approach in this setting, in particular with trauma and different manifestations of dissociation. He also lectures on the MA in Existential Counselling Psychology at Regent’s College. E-MAIL:


Buber, M. (2002). Between Man and Man. London: Routledge. Cannon, B. (1991). Sartre and Psychoanalysis. USA: University of Kansas Press. Cooper, M. (2003). Existential Therapies. London: Sage. Derrida, J. (2001). Writing and Difference. London: Routledge. Eco, U. (1994). Six walks in the fictional woods. USA: Harvard University Press.


Reflections on Freud’s The Uncanny

Freud, S. (1955). The Uncanny in Art and Literature (2 nd Edition). London:

Penguin Books. Gay, P. (1998). Freud- A Life Got Our Time. London: Dent & Sons Ltd. Harding, M. (2002). Understanding Language. In du Plock, S. (ed) Further Existential Challenges to Psychotherapeutic Theory and Practice. London: Society of Existential Analysis. Jacobs, M. (2003). Freud. London: Sage. Nietzsche, F. (2000). Beyond good & evil. In Kaufmann, W. (ed. and Trans.) Basic writings of Nietzsche. USA: The Modern Library. Nietzsche, F. (2000a). The Gay Science, In Kaufmann, W. (ed. and Trans.) Basic writings of Nietzsche. USA: The Modern Library. Ricouer, P. (1970). Freud & Philosophy- An Essay in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press. Robinson, D. (2001). Nietzsche and Postmodernism. UK: Icon Books Sartre, J.P. (2000). Nausea. London: Penguin. Sartre, J.P. (1943). Being & Nothingness. London: Routledge. Spinelli E. (1989). The Interpreted World. London: Sage. Spinelli, E. (1994). Demystifying Therapy. UK: Constable & Sons. Spinelli, E. (1998). Existential encounters with the paranormal and the uncanny. Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 9.2: pp 2-17. Thompson, M.G. (2004). Nietzsche & Psychoanalysis. Existential Analysis, 15.2: pp 203-218.