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Explaining Freud’s concept of the uncanny

According to his friend and biographer Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud was fond regaling him with “strange or uncanny experiences with patients.” Freud had a “particular relish” for such stories.

2019 marks the centenary of the publication of Freud’s essay, “The ‘Uncanny”. Although much has been written on the essay during that time, Freud’s concept of the uncanny is often not well understood. Typically, Freud’s theory of the uncanny is referred to under the heading of “the return of the repressed.” But Freud also offered another, more often overlooked, explanation for why we experience certain phenomena as uncanny. This has to do with the apparent confirmation of “surmounted primitive beliefs.”

According to this theory, we all inherit, both from our individual and collective pasts, certain beliefs in animistic and magical phenomena—such as belief in the existence of spirits—which most of us, Freud thought, have largely, but not totally, surmounted. “As soon as something actually happens in our lives,” Freud wrote, which seems to confirm a surmounted primitive belief, we get a feeling of the uncanny. Not only must the phenomenon be experienced as taking place in reality, however, it must also bring about uncertainty about what is real. As Freud put it, the phenomenon must bring about “a conflict of judgement as to whether things which been ‘surmounted’ and are regarded as incredible may not, after all, be possible.”

Consider some examples. Apparent acts of telepathy and precognition can appear to confirm belief in the omnipotence of thoughts. Waxworks and other highly lifelike human figures can appear to affirm belief in animism—the doctrine that everything is imbued with a living soul.

A remarkable illustration of Freud’s theory can be found in Carl Jung’s autobiography. In 1909, during a meeting between Jung and Freud, Jung “had a curious sensation,” as if his “diaphragm were made of iron and were becoming red-hot—a glowing vault.” “And at that moment,” Jung wrote, there was such a “loud report” that came from the bookcase that was standing next to them that he and Freud “started up in alarm, fearing the thing was going to topple over.” Jung said to Freud: “There, that is an example of a so-called catalytic exteriorization phenomenon.” “Oh come,’” Freud replied. “That is sheer bosh.” “You are mistaken, Herr Professor,” said Jung. “And to prove my point, I now predict that in a moment there will be another such loud report!” Jung wrote that no sooner had said these words “than the same detonation went off in the bookcase.”

“To this day I do not know what gave me this certainty.” Jung wrote. “But I knew beyond all doubt that the report would come again. Freud only stared aghast at me.”

Following the incident, Freud wrote a letter to Jung advising him to keep a “cool head.” Freud was first inclined “to ascribe some meaning” to the noise. But he subsequently made some investigations, and numerous times had observed the same noise coming from the bookcase, yet never in connection with his thoughts. “My credulity,” Freud wrote, “or at least my readiness to believe, vanished along with the spell of your personal presence.”

Freud’s theory of surmounted primitive beliefs provides an explanation for why Freud experienced the sounding bookcase uncanny. It also provides an explanation for why the event had a different effect on Jung. For Freud causal connection between Jung’s thoughts and the noise was impossible. For Jung, it merely affirmed his belief in the reality of the “catalytic exteriorization phenomenon.”

Can this theory of Freud’s be used to explain all uncanny phenomena? This does not seem likely. For a start, one may have qualms about Freud’s characterisation of primitive beliefs. It also does not seem plausible that in order to experience something as uncanny one must first have held and then surmounted a belief in its reality. What if I had never believed in the existence of ghosts, does that mean I cannot experience a ghost-like apparition as uncanny?

Can these problems with Freud’s theory be overcome? That is a task for another occasion.

Featured image credit: “Early morning in NZ” by Tobias Tullius. Public domain via Unsplash.

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