Freud – The Uncanny – 1919

In response to my symposium, Shaun Hydes said it might be worth looking at the Uncanny. I am not sure wether I am going to be using it because my talk already runs 11 minutes, so instead of doing an in depth analysis on the original text I will look at other people’s summaries and go from there.

David Morris’ notes

The German word “unheimlich” is considered untranslatable; our rough English equivalent, “uncanny”, is itself difficult to define. This indescribable quality is actually an integral part of our understanding of the uncanny experience, which is terrifying precisely because it can not be adequately explained. Rather than attempting a definition, most critics resort to describing the uncanny experience, usually by way of the dream-like visions of doubling and death that invariably seem to accompany it. These recurrent themes, which trigger our most primitive desires and fears, are the very hallmarks of Gothic fiction.

According to Freud’s description, the uncanny “derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but–on the contrary–from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it” (Morris). Freud discusses how an author can evoke an uncanny response on the part of the reader by straddling the line between reality and unreality within the fiction itself. In The Fantastic, Todorov goes to some length to distinguish his structuralist approach to this genre from a Freudian psychoanalytic approach; nonetheless, he shares many of Freud’s conclusions, especially in attributing literary terror to the collapsing of the psychic boundaries of self and other, life and death, reality and unreality.

Although Freud never mentions Gothic fiction in his essay, and Todorov partially excludes it from his, critics of the Gothic have drawn heavily upon both of them, often in conjunction with one another. Terry Castle’s article on the “other” in Radcliffe’s novels and Peter Brook’s essay on The Monk are two examples of this combined theoretical approach. Although Margaret Anne Doody does not mention Freud or Todorov specifically, her essay–which describes how Radcliffe blurs the distinction between dreams and reality within her novels–seems indebted to both of them. This emphasis on dreams is also essential to any analysis of Frankenstein, a text which is itself the product of a dream-vision and which seems to capture the very essence of the uncanny.

From this I learn that the Uncanny is something that doesn’t quite sit right, but not because it’s unusual to us, most times it is familiar but something has been added, changed or removed to make it seem strange. This is relevant to the activists work I am talking about in my project, they play with context to make sure the audience feels uncomfortable enough to question what they are seeing. I will now re-read my talk and decided wether it’s worth taking something out to add this point in.

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