Freud, The Uncanny (Part I)
by Sigmund Freud
It is only rarely that a psycho-analyst feels impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics, even when aesthetics is understood to mean not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling. He works in other strata of mental life and has little to do with the subdued emotional impulses which, inhibited in their aims and dependent on a host of concurrent factors, usually furnish the material for the study of aesthetics. But it does occasionally happen that he has to interest himself in some particular province of that subject; and this province usually proves to be a rather remote one, and one which has been neglected in the specialist literature of aesthetics.
The subject of the ‘uncanny’ is a province of this kind. It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror; equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general. Yet we may expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One is curious to know what this common core is which allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’; certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening. …
In his study of the ‘uncanny,’ Jentsch quite rightly lays stress on the obstacle presented by the fact that people vary so very greatly in their sensitivity to this quality of feeling. The writer of the present contribution, indeed, must himself plead guilty to a special obtuseness in the matter, where extreme delicacy of perception would be more in place. It is long since he has experienced or heard of anything which has given him an uncanny impression, and he must start by translating himself into that state of feeling, by awakening in himself the possibility of experiencing it. Still, such difficulties make themselves powerfully felt in many other branches of aesthetics; we need not on that account despair of finding instances in which the quality in question will be unhesitatingly recognized by most people.
Two courses are open to us at the outset. Either we can find out what meaning has come to be attached to the word ‘uncanny’ in the course of its history; or we can collect all those properties of persons, things, sense-impressions, experiences and situations which arouse in us the feeling of uncanniness, and then infer the unknown nature of the uncanny from what all these examples have in common. I will say at once that both courses lead to the same result: the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar. How this is possible, in what circumstances the familiar can become uncanny and frightening, I shall show in what follows. Let me also add that my investigation was actually begun by collecting a number of individual cases, and was only later confirmed by an examination of linguistic usage. In this discussion, however, I shall follow the reverse course.
The German word ‘unheimlich’ is obviously the opposite of ‘heimlich’ [‘homely’], … the opposite of what is familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar. Naturally not everything that is new and unfamiliar is frightening, however; the relation is not capable of inversion. … Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.
On the whole, Jentsch … ascribes the essential factor in the production of the feeling of uncanniness to intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always, as it were, be something one does not know one’s way about in. The better orientated in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it.
It is not difficult to see that this definition is incomplete, and we will therefore try to proceed beyond the equation ‘uncanny’ as ‘unfamiliar.’ We will first turn to other languages. But the dictionaries that we consult tell us nothing new, perhaps only because we ourselves speak a language that is foreign. Indeed, we get an impression that many languages are without a word for this particular shade of what is frightening. …
Latin: … An uncanny place: locus suspectus; at an uncanny time of night. …
Greek: … Eeros (i.e., strange, foreign).
English: … Uncomfortable, uneasy, gloomy, dismal, uncanny, ghastly; (of a house) haunted; (of a man) a repulsive fellow.
French: … Inquiétant, sinistre, lugubre, mal à son aise.
Spanish: … Sospechoso, de mal agüero, lúgubre, siniestro. …
In Arabic and Hebrew ‘uncanny’ means the same as ‘daemonic,’ ‘gruesome.’
Let us therefore return to the German language. In Daniel Sanders’s Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache (1860, 1, 729), the[re] is following entry… under the word ‘heimlich.’
“Heimlich, adj., … I. [B]elonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly, etc. … (b) Of animals: tame, companionable to man. … (c) Intimate, friendly comfortable; the enjoyment of quiet content, etc., arousing a sense of agreeable restfulness and security as in one within the four walls of his house. Is it still heimlich to you in your country where strangers are felling your woods?’ ‘She did not feel too heimlich with him.’ … II. Concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others. To do something heimlich, i.e., behind someone’s back; to steal away heimlich; heimlich meetings and appointments. … The heimlich art’ (magic). ‘Where public ventilation has to stop, there heimlich conspirators and the loud battle-cry of professed revolutionaries.’ ‘A holy, heimlich effect.’ … ‘learned in strange Heimlichkeiten’ (magic arts).
… Note especially the negative ‘un-’: eerie, weird, arousing gruesome fear: ‘Seeming quite unheimlich and ghostly to him.’ ‘The unheimlich, fearful hours of night.’ ‘I had already long since felt an unheimich,’ even gruesome feeling.’ ‘Now I am beginning to have an unheimlich feeling.’ … ‘Feels an unheimlich horror.’ ‘Unheimlich and motionless like a stone image.’ ‘The unheimlich mist called hill-fog.’ ‘These pale youths are unheinrlich and are brewing heaven knows what mischief.’ ‘Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained ... secret and hidden but has come to light’ (Schelling).— ‘To veil the divine, to surround it with a certain Unheimlichkeit.’ …”
What interests us most in this long extract is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word ‘heimlich’’ exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, ‘unheirnlich.’ What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich. (Cf. the quotation from Gutzkow: ‘We call it “unheimlich”; you call it “heimlich.”’) In general we are reminded that the word ‘heimlich’ is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other. what is concealed and kept out of sight. ‘Unheimlich’ is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of’ heimlich,’ and not of the second. Sanders tells us nothing concerning a possible genetic connection between these two meanings of heimlich. On the other hand, we notice that Schelling says something which throws quite a new light on the concept of the Unheimlich, for which we were certainly not prepared. According to him, everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light. …
Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich. Let us bear this discovery in mind, though we cannot yet rightly understand it, alongside of Schelling’s definition of the Unheimlich. If we go on to examine individual instances of uncanniness, these hints will become intelligible to us.
When we proceed to review things, persons, impressions, events and situations which are able to arouse in us a feeling of the uncanny in a particularly forcible and definite form, the first requirement is obviously to select a suitable example to start on. Jentsch has taken as a very good instance ‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate’; and he refers in this connection to the impression made by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata. To these he adds the uncanny effect of epileptic fits, and of manifestations of insanity, because these excite in the spectator the impression of automatic, mechanical processes at work behind the ‘ordinary appearance of mental activity. Without entirely accepting this author’s view, we will take it as a starting point for our own investigation because in what follows he reminds us of a writer who has succeeded in producing uncanny effects better than anyone else.
Jentsch writes: ‘In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately. That, as we have said, would quickly dissipate the peculiar emotional effect of the thing. E. T. A. Hoffmann has repeatedly employed this psychological artifice with success in his fantastic narratives.’
This observation, undoubtedly a correct one, refers primarily to the story of The Sand-Man” in Hoffmann’s Nachtstücken, which contains the original of Olympia, the doll that appears in the first act of Offenbach’s opera, Tales of Hoffmann, but I cannot think — and I hope most readers of the story will agree with me — that the theme of the doll Olympia, who is to all appearances a living being, is by any means the only, or indeed the most important, element that must be held responsible for the quite unparalleled atmosphere of uncanniness evoked by the story. Nor is this atmosphere heightened by the fact that the author himself treats the episode of Olympia with a faint touch of satire and uses it to poke fun at the young man’s idealization of his mistress. The main theme of the story is, on the contrary, something different, something which gives it its name, and which is always re-introduced at critical moments: it is the theme of the ‘Sand-Man’ who tears out children’s eyes.
This fantastic tale opens with the childhood recollections of the student Nathaniel. In spite of his present happiness, he cannot banish the memories associated with the mysterious and terrifying death of his beloved father. On certain evenings his mother used to send the children to bed early, warning them that ‘the Sand-Man was coming’; and, sure enough, Nathaniel would not fail to hear the heavy tread of a visitor, with whom his father would then be occupied for the evening. When questioned about the Sand-Man, his mother, it is true, denied that such a person existed except as a figure of speech; but his nurse could give him more definite information: ‘He’s a wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed, and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of their heads all bleeding. Then he puts the eyes in a sack and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children. They sit up there in their nest, and their beaks are hooked like owls’ beaks, and they use them to peck up naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes with.’
Although little Nathaniel was sensible and old enough not to credit the figure of the Sand-Man with such gruesome attributes, yet the dread of him became fixed in his heart. He determined to find out what the Sand-Man looked like; and one evening, when the Sand-Man was expected again, he hid in his father’s study. He recognized the visitor as the lawyer Coppelius, a repulsive person whom the children were frightened of when he occasionally came to a meal; and he now identified this Coppelius with the dreaded Sand-Man. As regards the rest of the scene, Hoffmann already leaves us in doubt whether what we are witnessing is tee first delirium of the panic-stricken boy, or a succession of events which are to be regarded in the story as being real. His father and the guest are at work at a brazier with glowing flames. The little eavesdropper hears Coppelius call out: ‘Eyes here! Eyes here!’ and betrays himself by screaming aloud. Coppelius seizes him and is on the point of dropping bits of red-hot coal from the fire into his eyes, and then of throwing them into the brazier, but his father begs him off and saves his eyes. After this the boy falls into a deep swoon; and a long illness brings his experience to an end. Those who decide in favour of the rationalistic interpretation of the Sand-Man will not fail to recognize in the child’s phantasy the persisting influence of his nurse’s story. The bits of sand that are to be thrown into the child’s eyes turn into bits of red-hot coal from the flames; and in both cases they are intended to make his eyes jump out. In the course of another visit of the Sand-Man’s, a year later, his father is killed in his study by an explosion. The lawyer Coppelius disappears from the place without leaving a trace behind.
Nathaniel, now a student, believes that he has recognized this phantom of horror from his childhood in an itinerant optician, an Italian called Giuseppe Coppola, who at his university town, offers him weather-glasses for sale. When Nathaniel refuses, the man goes on: ‘Not weather-glasses? not weather-glasses? also got fine eyes, fine eyes!’ The student’s terror is allayed when he finds that the proffered eyes are only harmless spectacles, and he buys a pocket spy-glass from Coppola. With its aid he looks across into Professor Spalanzani’s house opposite and there spies Spalanzani’s beautiful, but strangely silent and motionless daughter, Olympia. He soon falls in love with her so violently that, because of her, he quite forgets the clever and sensible girl to whom he is betrothed. But Olympia is an automaton whose clock-work has been made by Spalanzani, and whose eyes have been put in by Coppola, the Sand-Man. The student surprises the two Masters quarrelling over their handiwork. The optician carries off the wooden eyeless doll; and the mechanician, Spalanzani, picks up Olympia’s bleeding eyes from the ground and throws them at Nathaniel’s breast, saying that Coppola had stolen them from the student. Nathaniel succumbs to a fresh attack of madness, and in his delirium his recollection of his father’s death is mingled with this new experience. ‘Hurry up! hurry up! ring of fire!’ he cries. ‘Spin about, ring of fire — Hurrah! Hurry up, wooden doll! lovely wooden doll, spin about — .’ He then falls upon the professor, Olympia’s ‘father,’ and tries to strangle him.
Rallying from a long and serious illness, Nathaniel seems at last to have recovered. He intends to marry his betrothed, with whom he has become reconciled. One day he and she are walking through the city market-place, over which the high tower of the Town Hall throws its huge shadow. On the girl’s suggestion, they climb the tower, leaving her brother, who is walking with them, down below. From the top, Clara’s attention is drawn to a curious object moving along the street. Nathaniel looks at this thing through Coppola’s spy-glass, which he finds in his pocket, and falls into a new attack of madness. Shouting ‘Spin about, wooden doll!’ he tries to throw the girl into the gulf below. Her brother, brought to her side by her cries, rescues her and hastens down with her to safety. On the tower above, the madman rushes round, shrieking ‘Ring of fire, spin about!’ — and we know the origin of the words. Among the people who begin to gather below there comes forward the figure of the lawyer Coppelius, who has suddenly returned. We may suppose that it was his approach, seen through the spy-glass, which threw Nathaniel into his fit of madness. As the onlookers prepare to go up and overpower the madman, Coppelius laughs and says: ‘Wait a bit; he’ll come down of himself.’ Nathaniel suddenly stands still, catches sight of Coppelius, and with a wild shriek ‘Yes! “fine eyes — fine eyes”!’ flings himself over the parapet. While he lies on the paving-stones with a shattered skull the Sand-Man vanishes in the throng.
This short summary leaves no doubt, I think, that the feeling of something uncanny is directly attached to the figure of the Sand-Man, that is, to the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes, and that Jentsch’s point of an intellectual uncertainty has nothing to do with the effect. Uncertainty whether an object is living or inanimate, which admittedly applied to the doll Olympia, is quite irrelevant in connection with this other, more striking instance of uncanniness. It is true that the writer creates a kind of uncertainty in us in the beginning by not letting us know, no doubt purposely, whether he is taking us into the real world or into a purely fantastic one of his own creation. He has, of course, a right to do either; and if he chooses to stage his action in a world peopled with spirits, demons and ghosts, as Shakespeare does in Hamlet, in Macbeth and, in a different sense, in The Tempest and A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, we must bow to his decision and treat his setting as though it were real for as long as we put ourselves into this hands. But this uncertainty disappears in the course of Hoffmann’s story, and we perceive that he intends to make us, too, look through the demon optician’s spectacles or spy-glass — perhaps, indeed, that the author in his very own person once peered through such an instrument. For the conclusion of the story makes it quite clear that Coppola the optician really is the lawyer Coppelius and also, therefore, the Sand-Man.
There is no question therefore, of any intellectual uncertainty here: we know now that we are not supposed to be looking on at the products of a madman’s imagination, behind which we, with the superiority of rational minds, are able to detect the sober truth; and yet this knowledge does not lessen the impression of uncanniness in the least degree. The theory of intellectual uncertainty is thus incapable of explaining that impression.
We know from psycho-analytic experience, however, that the fear of damaging or losing one’s eyes is a terrible one in children. Many adults retain their apprehensiveness in this respect, and no physical injury is so much dreaded by them as an injury to the eye. We are accustomed to say, too, that we will treasure a thing as the apple of our eye. A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated. The self-blinding of the mythical criminal, Oedipus, was simply a mitigated form of the punishment of castration — the only punishment that was adequate for him by the lex talionis. We may try on rationalistic grounds to deny that fears about the eye are derived from the fear of castration, and may argue that it is very natural that so precious an organ as the eye should be guarded by a proportionate dread. Indeed, we might go further and say that the fear of castration itself contains no other significance and no deeper secret than a justifiable dread of this rational kind. But this view does not account adequately for the substitutive relation between the eye and the male organ which is seen to exist in dreams and myths and phantasies; nor can it dispel the impression that the threat of being castrated in especial excites a peculiarly violent and obscure emotion, and that this emotion is what first gives the idea of losing other organs its intense colouring. All further doubts are removed when we learn the details of their ‘castration complex’ from the analysis of neurotic patients, and realize its immense importance in their mental life.
Moreover, I would not recommend any opponent of the psycho-analytic view to select this particular story of the Sand-Man with which to support his argument that anxiety about the eyes has nothing to do with the castration complex. For why does Hoffmann bring the anxiety about eyes into such intimate connection with the father’s death? And why does the Sand-Man always appear as a disturber of love? ** He separates the unfortunate Nathaniel from his betrothed and from her brother, his best friend; he destroys the second object of his love, Olympia, the lovely doll; and he drives him into suicide at the moment when he has won back his Clara and is about to be happily united to her. Elements in the story like these, and many others, seem arbitrary and meaningless so long as we deny all connection between fears about the eye and castration; but they become intelligible as soon as we replace the Sand-Man by the dreaded father at whose hands castration is expected. **
We shall venture, therefore, to refer the uncanny effect of the Sand-Man to the anxiety belonging to the castration complex of childhood. But having reached the idea that we can make an infantile factor such as this responsible for feelings of uncanniness, we are encouraged to see whether we can apply it to other instances of the uncanny. We find in the story of the Sand-Man the other theme on which Jentsch lays stress, of a doll which appears to be alive. Jentsch believes that a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny feelings is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one. Now, dolls are of course rather closely connected with childhood life. We remember that in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and that they are especially fond of treating their dolls like live people. In fact, I have occasionally heard a woman patient declare that even at the age of eight she had still been convinced that her dolls would be certain to come to life if she were to look at them in a particular, extremely concentrated, way. So that here, too, it is not difficult to discover a factor from childhood. But, curiously enough, while the Sand-Man story deals with the arousing of an early childhood fear, the idea of a ‘living doll’ excites no fear at all; children have no fear of their dolls coming to life, they may even desire it. The source of uncanny feelings would not, therefore, be an infantile fear in this case, but rather an infantile wish or even merely an infantile belief. There seems to be a contradiction here; but perhaps it is only a complication, which may be helpful to us later on.