....nothing in [The Uncanny] explains the uncanny likeness of Hoffmann's story to a Freudian case history. Unless we choose to see the Freudian case-history as a transposition of a Gothic tale into everyday Viennese life.
The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud
Translated by David McLintock with an Introduction by Hugh Haughton
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[My notes on "The Uncanny" by Freud are here.]
My notes on the 2003 Introduction by Hugh Haughton:
The Uncanny (1919)
[....]It was at the outset of 'The Uncanny' that Freud announced 'Only rarely does the psychoanalyst feel impelled to engage in aesthetic investigations.' The uncanny is, of course, about such obscure compulsions. One of the earliest psychological investigators of the aesthetic, Edmund Burke, opposed the economy of beauty, built up around positive experience of pleasure, to the sublime, built up around the negative experiences of awe, terror and dread. In this essay Freud, like Burke, moves beyond an idea of aesthetics 'restricted to the theory of beauty', as he puts it, to explore an aesthetics of anxiety. Leaving behind the scenarios of wishful fantasy sketched out in 'Family Romances', 'The Uncanny' explores wishful fears. In this respect, it is part of the profound re-mapping of the whole psychoanalytic project during and after the First World War culminating in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).
[....]Freud's essay on Gothic reveals the increasingly Gothic story of psychoanalysis itself as it starts to report back from the psychic underworld of the death drive.
[....]'The Uncanny' is one of Freud's strangest essays and it is about a particularly intense experience of strangeness. Hélène Cixous describes 'The Uncanny' as itself uncanny, treating it 'less like an essay than like a strange theoretical novel'.
[....]his fundamental tactic here, which, taking off from the German dictionary, is to trace the uncanny (' das Unheimlich ') back to the most familiar and homely (' das Heimlich '), and to see it as 'something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed'. With the death of the supernatural, it is our own and our culture's disowned past that haunts us. Setting out to unravel what he calls the 'puzzle of the uncanny' (' das Rätsel des Unheimlichen '), Freud casts himself, as is his wont, in the role of riddle-solver, and, as is his wont, sees the answers to the riddle in traces of early childhood.
[....]revolves around a vertiginous reading of a vertiginous and hallucinatory story by the romantic writer, music critic and musician E. T. A. Hoffmann.
[....]Much of it is a commentary on Hoffman's exercise in psychological Gothic, 'The Sand-Man', prompting Harold Bloom to say that 'for once Freud allows himself to be a useful practical critic of an imaginative story'.
[....]the essay on 'The Uncanny' represents an exploration of unfamiliar territory, the sublime territory of unfamiliarity itself.
[....]commentary on the power of strangeness, but one of the weirdest theoretical texts in the Freudian canon.
[....]If it re-tells Hoffmann's story, it is also, as Samuel Weber reminds us, remarkable for the multiplying 'Musterung' of allusions and examples. As a work 'The Uncanny' is an absolutely sui generis portmanteau work
[....]it is also.... to rebuff Jentsch's opening claim that 'it is a well-known mistake to assume that the spirit of languages is a particularly acute psychologist', the first section, a summary of the different definitions of the 'uncanny' in German dictionaries and in various foreign-language ones, is a virtuoso display of lexicographical research. It involves the most sustained close reading of the dictionary in all of Freud's writings.
[....]foreign-ness and familiarity that Freud treats as integral to the logic of uncanniness.
[....]the semantic structure which provides the crux of Freud's account of the relation between the Heimlich and the Unheimlich, which simply can't be domesticated into English.
[....]Freud gives a compelling summary of Hoffmann's story but makes no reference to its complex narrative structure. Indeed, elsewhere he treats dreams as much more textual constructs than he does the Romantic writer's highly self-conscious literary text.
[....]first appeared in his Nackstücke of 1816–17, a hundred years before Freud's essay, is its air of being so deeply influenced by Freud.
[....]Nathaniel is as neurotically haunted a German Romantic as one could invent, a poet with a taste for the supernatural, the melancholic and the daemonic
[....]The second letter, from Clara to Nathaniel, shows her as a shrewd secular psychologist, who argues that 'all the horrors' of which he speaks are in his 'own self, and that the real true outer world had but little to do with it'.
[....]If there is a 'dark and hostile power', she says, prophesying the reign of Freud, then 'it must assume a form like ourselves, nay, it must be ourselves'.
[....]the self-conscious narrator of the story says that 'nothing is more wonderful, nothing more fantastic than real life, and that all a writer can do is to present it as "in a glass darkly"'.
[....]continues via a series of contested, unstable readings of the present in terms of the past, and an account of Nathaniel's obsessional reading of his life in terms of 'dreams' and unconscious destiny. It is shot through with the kind of shifting hesitation between psychological and supernatural interpretations
[....]The uncanniness of the story, then, has nothing to do with intellectual uncertainty
on Freud's account, but the infantile terror of castration based on 'the substitutive relation between the eye and the male member that is manifested in dreams, fantasies and myths'. It is this that explains that the Sand-Man, so mysteriously associated with the father, is also 'the disruptor of love' and, in the person of Coppola, comes between Nathaniel and Clara, precipitating his murderous violence towards her and himself at the end of the story.
[....]Hoffmann's tale about vision and blindness is indeed built up around the motive of eyes and eyelessness.
[....]we might argue that Nathaniel is a kind of automaton himself, a fictional creation which Freud takes as real, just as Nathaniel takes Olimpia to be real.
[....]Hoffmann's story is itself both a study of imaginative artifices (represented by his father's alchemical studies, the Professor's scientific interest in automata, and Coppola's eye-glasses and telescopes), and a portrait of a would-be artist in the grip of a doctrine of romantic inspiration who 'went so far as to maintain that it was foolish to believe that a man could do anything in art or science of his own accord'.
[....]When Freud treats the story as 'sober truth' in this way, without any 'intellectual uncertainty', he discounts something of the vertiginous complexity of Hoffmann's narrative machinery, with its capacity to generate material of uncertain epistemological status.
[....]clear that comparable mirror structures of the Heimlich and the Unheimlich could be read out in other Gothic works of the same period, including Coleridge's Christabel , Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre . In all of them daemonic or unheimlich encounters could be read as encounters with the repressed and heimlich familial life of their protagonists.
[....]The question Freud's essay raises but does not answer is: whose repressed childhood returns in the uncanny in works of this kind? That of fictional characters such as Nathaniel or Frankenstein, Jane Eyre or the governess in The Turn of the Screw ? Or that of their authors, Hoffmann, Shelley, Brontë or Henry James?
[....]whereas Jensen, like Schnitzler, lived in the Freudian era, nothing in the essay explains the uncanny likeness of Hoffmann's story to a Freudian case history. Unless we choose to see the Freudian case-history as a transposition of a Gothic tale into everyday Viennese life.
[....]Having discussed Hoffmann as 'the unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature', Freud leaves the Sand-Man behind. Thereafter he wanders between different textual and empirical instances of the uncanny. Though strangely, in this text of returns, he does not return to Hoffmann again, he suggests that the literary uncanny 'is above all much richer than what we know from experience' but also intensely different from it, mainly because of our historical consciousness of genre. The supernaturalism of the fairy tale does not inspire a sense of the uncanny because there is no conflict of judgement, no clash of different models of the real in it. The same, Freud argues, is true of the supernatural in Homer or Shakespeare. Since we adapt our judgement to the conditions of a writer's 'fictional reality' ('vom Dichter fingierten Realität'), 'the souls in Dante's Inferno or the ghostly apparitions in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth or Julius Caesar may be dark and terrifying but at bottom they are no more uncanny than, say, the serene world of Homer's gods'. The uncanny, that is, unlike Burke's Sublime, is a paradoxical mark of modernity. It is associated with moments when an author, fictional character or reader experiences the return of the primitive in an apparently modern and secular context. For Freud as uncanny theorist, however, this is also a survival from the abandoned psychic culture of our own childhood, bearing the Gothic signature of our own earliest terrors and desires. For the author of The Interpretation of Dreams, childhood is where the repressed, archaic pre-Enlightenment world of primitive religion, returns in perpetually re-invented home-made forms, forcing us in some sense to repeat or recapitulate such primal myths as those of Oedipus or Moses, and such beliefs as animism and 'the omnipotence of thoughts'. For Freud, though, those nightmarish myths and primitive beliefs themselves are only estranged childhood fantasies writ large. 'The Uncanny' reminds us not only that there is no place like home, but that, in another sense, there is no other place. For Freud, our most haunting experiences of otherness tell us that the alien begins at home, wherever that may be.
[....]The early uses are Scottish, and the OED 's first four senses relate to the Scottish dialect term 'canny', with 'uncanny' meaning 'mischievous', 'careless', 'unreliable' and 'not quite safe to trust to'. It is the OED's fifth sense that Freud is concerned with: 'partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar (common from circa 1850)'. OED quotes Bulwer Lytton ('If men, gentlemen born, will read uncanny books… why they must resolve to reap what they sow') and Emerson, who describes visiting England's most famous prehistoric survivals at Stonehenge ('We walked in and out, and took again and again, a fresh look at the uncanny stones'). I have found no examples of 'uncanny' in this sense prior to the nineteenth century. It gains its spectral aesthetic currency after 1850, during the period in which the modern ghost story developed. Like the ghost story, born in the era of Poe, Henry James, M. R. James and Vernon Lee, the feeling of the uncanny seems to be an experience that postdates belief in the supernatural.
In fact most of the early literary examples are Scots, from Sir Walter Scott ('Now this wad be an uncanny night to meet him in'), Galt '(Hogmanae, for it was thought uncanny to have a dead corpse') and Hogg ('maist part of foils countit uncanny, had gane awa'). Thereafter it flickers through the developing literature of the uncanny itself. After figuring in Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner , surely one of the most uncanny works in modern literature, it crops up in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre when Jane, while learning German, feels herself transfixed by the blue eye of St John Rivers ('so keen was it and yet so cold, I felt for the moment superstitious – as if I were sitting in the room with something uncanny'). It then recurs in landmark late nineteenth-century Gothic texts such as Le Fanu's Uncle Silas ('eyeing those thievish and uncanny neighbours'), R. L. Stevenson's Kidnapped ('a picture of that uncanny instrument came into my head'), Rider Haggard's She ('the whole scene was an uncanny one'), Bram Stoker's Dracula ('all so strange and uncanny that a dreadful fear came') and Henry James's primal modern ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, where the narrator speaks of the story as being marked by 'general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain'. It also figures in the archetypal fable of colonial Gothic, Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, where the narrator Marlow finds in an old woman knitting in Belgium an eerie pre-figurement at home of the unheimlich darkness at the heart of European imperialism in Africa ('She seemed uncanny and fateful').
[....]Freud's haunted essay certainly put the uncanny onto the aesthetic map in ways not even he could have predicted. 'The Uncanny' has come back to haunt subsequent commentary on literature, film, photography and art ever since. And not only commentary. From the period of Kafka's The Trial, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté, the Freudian uncanny has also haunted art and artists. Though written under the sign of the returning past, the Freudian uncanny, as both theory and narrative, shows every sign of persisting in new forms into the foreseeable future.
[cf also Tod Browning's film "The Unknown" (1928)]
[....]uncanny sense is intimately related to the antiquated primitive beliefs and forces that psycho-analysis identified as surviving in modern childhood and the unconscious.
[....]Starting out as a trip down a puzzling aesthetic by-way, 'The Uncanny' ends up reflecting on the eeriness of the psychoanalytic account of the world he has himself invented.
[....]Nothing in the Freudian world is ever given up and, as the double becomes 'an object of terror, just as the gods become demons after the collapse of their cult', as Heine shows in 'Die Götter im Exil', so it is the most familiar ( heimlich ) childhood fantasies, which lie behind the apparently shockingly unfamiliar ( unheimlich ) figures, that evoke the feeling of the uncanny.
[....]his familiar anthropological theory that the development of modern childhood continues to recapitulate the history of the species, Freud says: 'It appears that we have all, in the course of our individual development, been through a phase corresponding to the animistic phase in the development of primitive peoples, that this phase did not pass without leaving behind in us residual traces that can still make themselves felt, and that everything we now find "uncanny" meets the criterion that it is linked with these remnants of animistic mental activity and stimulates them to express themselves.'
[....]Alluding to Otto Rank's The Double, with its theory of the double as an insurance against the extinction of self, the essay goes on to give the uncanny idea of the double an eerily central place in the whole experience of modern selfhood:
In the civilization of ancient Egypt it became a spur to artists to form images of the dead in durable materials. But the ideas arose on the soil of the boundless self-love of childhood that dominates the mental life of both the child and primitive man, and when this phase is surmounted, the meaning of the 'double' changes: having once been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.
[....]an 'unintentional return' may produce 'the same feeling of helplessness, the same sense of the uncanny', such as being lost in a wood but returning to a familiar spot, or 'groping around in the dark in an unfamiliar room' and colliding with 'the same piece of furniture'.
[....] ["The Uncanny"] has a distinctly personal edge. Amid a welter of literary references, for example, it includes two allusions to his personal reading. One of these is a story he had read during the war in the Strand Magazine which he had found 'extraordinarily uncanny'. The other is Arthur Schnitzler's story 'The Prophecy', which aroused a particularly keen sense of dissatisfaction in him for the way the author promises us 'everyday reality' and then goes 'beyond it'.
[....]The uncanny, that is, unlike Burke's Sublime, is a paradoxical mark of modernity. It is associated with moments when an author, fictional character or reader experiences the return of the primitive in an apparently modern and secular context.
[....]a survival from the abandoned psychic culture of our own childhood, bearing the Gothic signature of our own earliest terrors and desires.
[....]repeat or recapitulate such primal myths as those of Oedipus or Moses, and such beliefs as animism and 'the omnipotence of thoughts'.
[....]For Freud.... those nightmarish myths and primitive beliefs themselves are only estranged childhood fantasies writ large.
[....]'The Uncanny' reminds us not only that there is no place like home, but that, in another sense, there is no other place.
[....]the literary uncanny 'is above all much richer than what we know from experience' but also intensely different from it, mainly because of our historical consciousness of genre. The supernaturalism of the fairy tale does not inspire a sense of the uncanny because there is no conflict of judgement, no clash of different models of the real in it.
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Haughton's comments on other essays in literary observation by Freud in the same volume:
'Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood' (1910)
[....]a study of the homosexual as scientist, and of scientific research as sublimated perversion. And how, we might ask, does this affect our own reading of Freud's passion for research, including his research into the life of Leonardo?
[....]Psychoanalysis is poised between science and art, between the natural and human sciences, and it has exponents and opponents on both fronts. Freud's study offers the first sustained experiment in psychoanalysis of an artist, but from the word go, paradoxically, it presents itself as both a quasi-scientific case history and a work of experimental fiction, a work of art. It is a quasi-scientific portrait of an artist who is not only an artist but a scientist, indeed an artist
who, despite himself (or because of himself), succumbs to science. Its subject, that is, is the problematic relationship of art and science – and of both to desire. The key in this study of 'Leonardo's double nature as artist and scientist' (' Dopelnatur als Künstler und Forscher ') is 'research' (' Forschung '). The essay is above all a piece of research into the idea of research itself, the Forschertrieb or Forscherdranges that drives artistic and, more primarily, scientific research. Its first words raise the idea of 'seelendrztliche Forschung' (psychiatric research) and the essay that follows, while embodying this ideal and legitimating it, also in a sense pathologizes it, tracing it back to infantile sexual fantasies, and in particular 'infantile sexual research' (' infantilen Sexualforschung ').
[....]'Leonardo is the Hamlet of art criticism', Kenneth Clark said at the conclusion of his study, 'each of us must recreate him for himself. 33 In his own conclusion, Freud says 'I have yielded, like others, to the fascination of this great and enigmatic [ rätselhafte ] figure.' Leo Bersani speaks tellingly of the 'theoretical turbulence' of Freud's essay and emphasizes Freud's 'inability to be conclusive in his own investigation'. 34 Freud may not have made a contribution to art historical research as usually understood. We should think of 'Leonardo' rather as a Borgesian fiction about an artist, an exercise in the theory of research, an 'imaginary portrait' of a homosexual genius, a speculative experiment in psychoanalytic biography, or a fantastic intervention in the critical literature on Leonardo comparable to Wilde's 'Portrait of Mr W.H.' in Shakespeare studies. It is also, to some degree, a self-portrait in a convex mirror.
[....]many of the early reviews were scathing, particularly that by R. K. Neumann-Lankwitz in Der Sturm entitled 'The Spat-on Genius'. It described analysts like Freud as 'necro-philes and necrophagi', calling them 'psychoanalytic hyenas' who have 'invaded the literary churchyards'. Their 'latest victim', we are told, 'is Leonardo'. He tells us furthermore, in a curious reading of the paper, that though Freud 'doesn't dare to touch his paintings, he consoles himself by touching Leonardo's genitals' (this tells us as much about the fantasies of the reviewer as the author). 36 Neumann-Lanwitz is still smarting from reading Little Hans's case-history and, while avowedly grateful for the absence of references to erections and horse shit in the new study, is particularly vexed by Freudian theories of bisexuality.
[....]he later told Lou-Andreas Salomé that 'Leonardo' was 'the most beautiful thing I have ever written'. In the final analysis, Freud ironically came to value it as much for its aesthetic beauty as its scientific truth.
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'Family Romances' (1909)
[....]Freud makes us think about the centrality of the family to the development of both romance and the novel. He also makes us think about our need to displace and replace our parents, revealed by the special currency of stories of foundlings, orphans, bastards and noble lineage. It seems that children, like adults, need the idea of a double life in order to survive the family. By providing an alternative genealogy, the family romance enables the child to protest against the constitutional inadequacy of history and its real family by projecting itself into the Utopian bosom of that seductive phantasm, an elective family that confirms its own narcissistic self-evaluation. There is always, that is, an imaginary family as well as a real one. The family romance plays out and explores the discrepancies between one and the other, while confirming our 'overestimation of the earliest years of childhood' and the numinous and terrible idealizations of and disappointments with our parents which lie behind most of our stories of identity. Our desire for stories, Freud suggests, is inevitably rooted in our childhood stories of desire, not least the desire to be confirmed as someone else's child.
26 November 2021