This post contains reading notes on Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ and ‘The unconscious’ (parallel theory). I am interested in psychoanalysis both because of its influence on Surrealism, and because of my own interest in affecting my audience on an unconscious/intuitive level.
Freud – The Uncanny (1919)
“unheimlich” is literally “unhomely” though translated as “uncanny”
“The uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.”
Jentsch was the first to define “unheimlich”:
“for him, the essential condition for the emergence of a sense of the uncanny is intellectual uncertainty.”
“Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open.”
Freud makes a long etymology of the word “heimlich”:
“heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which are not mutually contradictory, but very different from each other – the one relating to what is familiar and comfortable, the other to what is concealed and kept hidden. Unheimlich is the antonym of heimlich only in the latter’s first sense.”
“among the various shades of meaning that are recorded for the word heimlich, there is one in which it merges with its formal antonym, unheimlich, so that what is called heimlich becomes unheimlich”
“Starting from the homely and the domestic, there is a further development towards the notion of something removed from the eyes of strangers, hidden, secret.”
Freud talks about “the substitutive relation between the eye and the male member that is manifested in dreams, fantasies and myths”. This reminds me of witnesses describing Diane Arbus using her camera both as a shield and a weapon of aggression.
“the double was originally an insurance against the extinction of the self or, as Rank puts it, ‘an energetic denial of the power of death’, and it seems likely that the ‘immortal’ soul was the first double of the body. […] But these ideas arose on the soil of boundless self-love, the primordial narcissism 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.”
What can be “embodied in the figure of the double”: “the possibilities which, had they been realized, might have shaped our destiny, and to which our imagination still clings, all the strivings of the ego that were frustrated by adverse circumstances, all the suppressed acts of volition that fostered the illusion of free will.”
“”every affect arising from an emotional impulse – of whatever kind – is converted into fear by being repressed, it follows that amongst those things that are felt to be frightening there must be one group in which it can be shown that the frightening element is something that has been repressed and now returns. […] something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed. […] ‘Something that should have remained hidden and has come into the open’.”
Freud rejects Jentsch’s vision of the uncanny as caused by “intellectual uncertainty” yet he somehow comes back to it:
“an uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary, when a symbol takes on the full function and significance of what it symbolizes.”
Maybe this is not so much intellectual uncertainty, where the doubt can be lifted by rational investigation (Jentsch’s example was the uncertainty whether someone is a person or an automaton, which can be lifted by close investigation), but rather the shattering of intellectual certainty, of one’s vision of the world, that is uncanny.
“the infantile element about this, which also dominates the mental life of neurotics, is the excessive stress that is laid on psychical reality, as opposed to material reality.”
“where does the uncanny effect of silence, solitude and darkness come from?”
“the uncanny derived from what was once familiar and then repressed.”
How the fiction writer can create an uncanny feeling in the reader:
“he betrays us to a superstition we thought we had ‘surmounted’; he tricks us by promising us everyday reality and then going beyond it”
The creative writer and daydreaming (1907)
“the opposite of play is not seriousness – it is reality”
“now the creative writer acts no differently from the child at play: he creates a fantasy world, which he takes very seriously; that is to say, he invests large amounts of emotion in it, while marking it off sharply from reality.”
“the true ars poetica lies in the technique by which he [the creative writer] overcomes our repulsion, which certainly has to do with the barriers that arise between each single ego and the others.”
Introduction by Hugh Haughton
Oscar Wilde :
it is not the artist but “rather the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and makes it marvellous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age”
Oscar wilde, Complete Works, ed Vivyan Holland, 1966, p1028
“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. […] 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.”
Freud quotation, is it from the Uncanny itself ? Unclear, check if used
“a person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self, or he may substitute the other’s self for his own […] the self may be duplicated, divided and interchanged”
→ psychogenic fugue in David Lynch’s Lost Highway
This collection of essays is a work in progress written while Freud developed his theory of the unconscious, therefore some concepts vary/evolute/remain undetermined.
Grossly, Freud defined 3 parts of the psyche:
the conscious: psychic material consciously available
the preconscious: psychic material not consciously available, but that has not been actively repressed, it is merely latent.
the unconscious: psychic material not consciously available because it has been actively repressed.
There are censorship mechanisms at the border between the unconscious and the preconscious, and between the preconscious and the conscious.
It is mostly the preconscious concept that is a bit unclear and changing in Freud’s thought: In the earlier essays, it is described as latent material in which the conscious can pick material as it needs it, the preconscious and the conscious are not separated by censorship, the preconscious is merely a reserve of available material for the conscious. In later essays, the concept changes and the idea of censorship between the preconscious and the conscious is introduced. The psychic material in the preconscious starts to be described as things that the subject is not uncomfortable enough to repress as long as it remains merely latent, but not explicitly comfortable with either. As I understand it, it is psychic material that is unobtrusive enough for the subject to be able to ignore it for the time being and not to have to take an actual decision about repressing it or not. But, when this material gets “pushy” and tries to break through into the conscious, it is subject to censorship: either it is judged harmless/acceptable and let in, or it is judged unacceptable and repressed down into the unconscious.
Introduction by Mark Cousins
“he makes a further distinction between the preconscious and the unconscious which corresponds to the distinction between psychic material which is merely latent and psychic material which is made unconscious by the act of repression.”
“Without noticing it, Freud makes here a contribution to the very idea of ‘reality’. We might think that most philosophers would assert that ‘reality’ is whatever is the case; the human science might adjust that by thinking that ‘reality’ is all that people think is the case. Freud’s concern to think out the difference between phantasy and reality leads him to the novel proposal that reality is an obstacle. It follows that the boundary between reality and phantasy is no longer something like the difference between a mental event and a real event. I am always within a phantasy as long as I meet no obstacle to its satisfaction. Reality is not a topographical category, it is not that which is outside my skin, it is whatever is an obstacle to the satisfaction of a wish. One way of charting the progress of Freud’s thought is that he finds the obstacles of reality more and more efficacious in the block they offer to desire just as he becomes increasingly convinced by the archaic character of desire and its relative ineducability by reason and the world. The very existence of the unconscious had alienated the subject from his own consciousness. Now the unconscious alienates the subject from full acceptance of external reality. Ultimately, the subject is the very battleground over which reality and phantasy lay their claims.”
Formulations on the Two Principles of Psychic Functioning (1911)
“every neurosis has the effect, and so probably the purpose, of forcing the patient out of real life, of alienating him from reality. […] The neurotic turns away from reality because he finds either the whole or parts of it unbearable.”
“Art brings about a reconciliation of the two principles [the pleasure principle and the reality principle] in a unique way. The artist is originally someone who, unable to come to term with the renunciation of drive satisfaction initially demanded by reality, turns away from it and gives free rein to erotic and ambitious wishes in his fantasy life. Thanks to special gifts, however, he finds his way back to reality from this fantasy world by shaping his fantasies into new kinds of reality, which are appreciated by people as valid representations of the real world. […] But he can achieve this only because other people feel the same dissatisfaction he does at the renunciations imposed by reality.”
Drives and their Fates (1915)
“The outside world is divided up into a pleasurable part, which it [the ego] incorporates into itself, and the rest which is alien to it.”
“failed repressions will be of more interest to us than successful ones, which for the most part will elude our scrutiny”
some repressions are actually successful: the repressed content does not come back as unpleasant symptoms.
I like the subtly subversive implications of Freud’s theory: the outside world/reality is an obstacle for the individual, and the individual may try to circumvent it as any other obstacle. And in a the case of a successful repression of something unpleasant (a successful repression is one that does not come back with incapacitating symptoms), it will never be noticed as an “illness” and will never need to be cured: in the (rare but existing) case of a successful repression, the individual will have improved their happiness by negating reality. Freud’s theory is not moral: “accepting reality” is not better than “repressing it”. It’s only the unpleasant symptoms of an unsuccessful repression that needs to be cured. Freud’s theory appears almost utilitarian to me, that’s why I like it.
In defense of the Unconscious (1915)
Latency = “psychic unconsciousness”
The special properties of the Ucs system (1915)
Ucs = Unconscious
“Ucs processes pay equally little heed to reality. They are subject to the pleasure principle: their fate depends only on how strong they are and whether they meet the requirements of pleasure-unpleasure regulation.”
“the essential difference between neurosis and psychosis was that in neurosis, the ego, at the behest of reality, suppresses a piece of the id [represses it ???], whereas in psychosis it is impelled by the id to detach itself from a piece of reality.”
id = latin for “it” = unconscious