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?