As a young man I read an essay by Sigmund Freud called “The Uncanny” that continues to ripen and haunt me year-after-year as I am continually pressed to re-examine the realm of ghosts as wish fulfillment, how unrequited love compels a longing for a return to the womb and why the psychoanalyst becomes the mediator of these aesthetic spirits that chase and terrify us in our waking lives while they visit us in dreams and nightmares.

Freud sets the table of expectation with his introduction that the Uncanny and aesthetics are humanly bound:

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.

He continues as he dissects common literature and local myth surrounding the power and meaning of “the unexplainable.”

Freud then sexualizes his analyses by explaining how a male losing an eye holds the same consequential fear as castration and that horror — expressed in longing and comportment — becomes Uncanny and uncomfortable:

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.

He then makes a fascinating leap that the most “Uncanny” experience a man can have is one relating to the female womb because of its power to create and comfort and the womb is something a man can never really understand except in aesthetic hauntings from a logical mind about what could be or might be.

Freud then associates the idea of wanting to be in love with a longing to return to home — or to return to the womb — which men hope to replicate with sexual intercourse to give their longings both meaning and purpose; but men are never able move beyond the Uncannily sexually perplexed as they release and shrivel away instead of staying home and being loved forever. Is sexual intercourse an Uncanny experience for women as well?

Does penetration take her home again to a revitalization of spirit she cannot fully comprehend or accept on her own without male stimulation?

How else can a woman experience her homesickness unless she internalizes that longing by becoming vulnerable and opening her core for expression?

I will relate an instance taken from psycho-analytic experience; if it does not rest upon mere coincidence, it furnishes a beautiful confirmation of our theory of the uncanny. It often happens that neurotic men declare that they feel there is something uncanny about the female genital organs.

This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning. There is a joking saying that ‘Love is home-sickness’; and whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself, while he is still dreaming: ‘this place is familiar to me, I’ve been here before’, we may interpret the place as being his mother’s genitals or her body. In this case too, then, the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, familiar; the prefix ‘un’ [‘un-‘] is the token of repression.

Finally, Freud determines why expressed Uncanny experiences are moments of insight into our shared wish-fulfillment and longing — of testing the real against the imagined — and since we can never really know or understand our Uncanny experiences we keep creating them in the false hope we can make them comprehensible and definable and safe.

Let us take the uncanny associated with the omnipotence of thoughts, with the prompt fulfillment of wishes, with secret injurious powers and with the return of the dead. The condition under which the feeling of uncanniness arises here is unmistakable. We — or our primitive forefathers — once believed that these possibilities were realities, and were convinced that they actually happened. Nowadays we no longer believe in them, we have surmounted these modes of thought; but we do not feel quite sure of our new beliefs, and the old ones still exist within us ready to seize upon any confirmation.

As soon as something actually happens in our lives which seems to confirm the old, discarded beliefs we get a feeling of the uncanny; it is as though we were making a judgment something like this: ‘So, after all, it is true that one can kill a person by the mere wish!’ or, ‘So the dead do live on and appear on the scene of their former activities!’ and so on. Conversely, anyone who has completely and finally rid himself of animistic beliefs will be insensible to this type of the uncanny.

The most remarkable coincidences of wish and fulfillment, the most mysterious repetition of similar experiences in a particular place or on a particular date, the most deceptive sights and suspicious noises — none of these things will disconcert him or raise the kind of fear which can be described as ‘a fear of something uncanny’. The whole thing is purely an affair of ‘reality-testing’, a question of the material reality of the phenomena.

Have you ever had any Uncanny experiences?

Have there been events or happenings that you could not explain in the real world?

Have you ever been haunted by a ghost or an entity that you alone felt and saw? If so, how do you feel about that experience today?

35 Comments

  1. That’s part of his argument, Karvain. Falling in love is actually the want to return to the safe and the familiar of your childhood home and you get there ethereally — Uncannily — by trying to return to the womb by having sex with people you “love” because the womb is the first, and safest, home for all of us.

  2. Ha! Well, that’s the end of us all, right? We try to get back home and in the process we create our own intruders — the ghosts of us — who then move from the Uncanny womb and into the real to replace our lives with theirs to finish our horror.

  3. The moment I read this article 2 words flashed in my mind: Electra Complex. I’d have thought somebody would have mentioned it by now.
    “Does penetration take her home again to a revitalization of spirit she cannot fully comprehend or accept on her own without male stimulation? How else can a woman experience her homesickness unless she internalizes that longing by becoming vulnerable and opening her core for expression?”
    I don’t think it’s about ‘homesickness’ with a woman, and neither is she vulnerable during intercourse. She’s simply possessing what she may have ‘desired’ on a deep unconscious level during in the early stages of her sexual discovery:
    Freud’s argument:
    The complex has its roots in the little girl’s discovery that she, along with her mother and all other women, lack the penis which her father and other men posses. Her love for her father then becomes both erotic and envious, as she yearns for a penis of her own. She comes to blame her mother for her perceived castration, and is struck by penis envy, the apparent counterpart to the boy’s castration anxiety.
    http://www.victorianweb.org/science/freud/develop.html
    Another model proposes:
    Karen Horney (1939) disputed this model of gender identity development. Unlike Freud, she did not believe that gender identity was biologically determined, and she resisted forcefully the idea of penis envy. Not only did girls not feel a deficit of a penis, she said, boys may actually feel a womb envy! Male over-achievement, she claimed, might be an overcompensation for the inability to reproduce. Nevertheless, Freud’s view continued to hold sway, and found its way into popular culture in depictions of castrating women achievers who are miserable until they find the love of a male and settle down.
    http://www.gt-cybersource.org/Record.aspx?NavID=2_0&rid=11379
    [This article has many interesting points, perhaps for future topics David! 🙂 ]
    Her theory, in turn, suggests that men may not feel longing to ‘return to the womb’ out of ‘homesickness’, but for their lack of such an organ. That would give both gender a similar motivation: women feel for their lack of a penis the same way men feel for their lack of a uterus. – I think it is from this premise Horney and Freud theories could find a common ground, because clearly by themselves they clearly are too partial for each sex, too gender-oriented.
    That standing, sexual intercourse probably is an Uncanny experience for both genders. It’s as close as each can get to their suppressed longing.

  4. Yeah, iris, I love seeing your incredible face over there, but that same face should be showing here in the MyBlogLog sidebar. Click on some of the icons and you’ll see you are as a link but with the wrong face!
    Are you going to bring that Avatar here as your WP.com Avatar, too?

  5. iris —
    As I tell my new acting students — they all tend to cover their faces with their hands at the highest moment of drama when we, as the audience, want to “read” the emotion in their face — “Remove your hands and lift your eyes to the light so we can always see your shining, beautiful, face.”
    To you, I will always make the same request.

  6. Well, I don’t know if this is really classed as being “haunted” as such. I have several spirits that visit me, not so much on a regular basis any more, but one in particular seemed to “stay” with me for a time.
    I haven’t seen any of them, except for one, but I’ve smelled them all, and felt the touch of them on more than one occasion.
    I know who they all are, and I know when they’re around me. It’s nothing scary, and I find it’s usually a comforting and loving feeling that they bring with them.

  7. Sure I can. My grandmother in life was a very heavy smoker. She smoked all her life, and after my grandfather died, she started smoking even more.
    When she comes to visit me now, she announces her presence by bringing a strong smell of cigarette smoke.
    It’s not a regular occurrence, and she only seems to visit when I’m stressed about something (most recently a rather grave situation with my kids) but she stops by, and her presence serves to calm my mind so that I’m able to think more rationally about things.

  8. I am so sick for love lost.. thank you for writing such a beautiful essay on an unusual topic. There is something awful about the late afternoon sunlight coming through the window, illuminating a few folds in the curtains…I know it is the same sunlight that I will see when I am very old, still thinking about him, where he is, if he will ever come back, if I will ever see him again, if he will suddenly appear in the window with a smile, with love in his eyes again. This same sunlight when I am very, very old and ready to die. He will be there but not there. It is impossible. The contradiction is intolerable. I will never see him again, never, never.

  9. Thank you for your intensive expression of love, loyalty and longing, cr003. Your spirit is inspiring and honorable and you must be an incredibly fine and devoted person. I may just use your comment as the foundation for a future article. This is a difficult topic and your keen understanding has given the matter a sharp, new, life, and for that, I thank you.

  10. Well, there was a time when I thought I knew everything there was to know. Since reading this article, uh, what was I about to say? Oh yes, popcorn is really good with butter. Uh. Wait a minute. What has popcorn to do with sex? Oh yea. Put some butter on the vagina and sex is better. Where in the Hell did this come from?