On ‘The Uncanny’

There is in fact a path from phantasy back to reality again – and that is art.

Sigmund Freud, ‘Introductory Lectures’, 1922


Freud’s essay on ‘The Uncanny’ is one of those seminal texts that was always brought up throughout my art-life, especially in my undergrad in GSA, and particularly 2nd year in which everything we made was somehow uncanny. It was one of those works that, like Game of Thrones or Love Island, I heard so much about through conversation, crits, books and talks that actually reading it seemed unnecessary.

However, I always did want to get to grips with original Freud, not relying on other people’s interpretations of his writings, and I’m obviously glad I finally got round to it. Particularly ‘uncanny’, for me, was the way the essays in this collection seemed to verbalise concepts that were floating around in my brain, not yet fully formed but taking shape, somehow finding perfect expression in the arguments of this collection.

On the subject of Freud himself, I think it’s irrelevant to talk about his writing, especially in this more creative, experimental series of essays in this edition, in terms of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, correct or incorrect; instead I prefer to think of them as collections of interesting ideas, some of which will resonate with the reader and some won’t.

I liked, in particular, how the essays themselves didn’t really fit into genres, not being either formal, or scientific, or research-based, or fully creative and fictional; they were thought experiments that took whatever form they wanted. I wasn’t expecting this fluency as other works I’ve read by Freud have been more structured and dense, but this lightness of touch and quickness of pace was enjoyable.

I’ll go through the ideas I really liked one by one and how they relate to my practice, to make a fun listicle:

1. The Foundling and the Bastard

Our desire for stories, Freud suggests, is inevitably rooted in our childhood stories of desire, not least the desire to be confirmed as someone else’s child.

Harry Potter: the Foundling


Jon Snow: the Bastard

In his essay ‘Family Romance’ (1909), Freud sketches out an idea that is further developed by Marthe Roberts amongst others, that pretty much all central characters in Western fiction fall into two categories: the Bastard and the Foundling. These characters can also encompass their authors, as those who write from either of these perspectives.

This reflection in fiction is founded in a deeper psychological complex from childhood which most of us will recognise, which is the fantasy of being discovered to be someone else’s child, someone important and romantic. Harry Potter and Jon Snow are obvious recent examples, but stories of orphans, foundlings, bastards and lost noble lineages are abundant. As the introduction suggests, these stories are ‘expressly conceived to account for the unaccountable fact of being un-aristocratic, unlucky and unloved,’ and demonstrate our irrepressible desire to rise above our station.

The Foundling character represents a drive to change and alter the status quo, to ‘deliberately create another world’; while the Bastard exists within reality, is broadly ‘for reality’. In my writing I have focussed on the Foundling, indeed the ‘hero’ of the story I’m currently working on is a foundling and is named Unloved, and his quest is to escape the reality of the world he finds himself in, so I enjoyed this succinct summation that rang true to my own writing activities.

2. The Hero and the Ego

This is about the relationship between the creative and their work, specifically the author and their fictions. It posits the motivations behind world-building: correcting an unsatisfactory reality, fantasy, restructuring the universe to revolve around the ego of the writer. I’m interested in this explanation of why people make things like books or paintings, as a rather negative need that comes from unfulfilment, dissatisfaction, not being given enough attention or not being loved enough.

“From adolescence onwards, we increasingly dream our lives in the form of a particular romantic story, our own defiantly narcissistic myth of the hero.”

“We cannot help being struck by one special feature of their [authors of Western fiction] writings: above all, they have a hero who is the centre of interest, for whom the author seeks to win over sympathy by every possible means, and whom he seems to place under the protection of a special providence. … Nothing can happen to you! We have no difficulty in recognising His Majesty the Ego, the hero of every daydream and every novel.”

Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-dreaming’, 1908

“The same is true if the other characters are sharply divided into good and bad, in spite of the rich variety of characters we encounter in everyday life; the ‘good’ ones are the helpers, the ‘bad’ ones the enemies and rivals of the ego that has become the hero of the story.”

Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-dreaming’, 1908

3. The Uncanny

The Uncanny is a particular feeling only recorded after the death of widespread belief in the supernatural, in the 19th century. It is kind of like what we now call a glitch in the Matrix, a feeling that reality has shifted; I’ve heard the exact feeling described as being on a train sitting in the station with a moving train passing past your window, fooling you into thinking your own train is moving when you are actually standing still. Uncanniness has several origins, as Freud shows by several pages of dictionary definitions in several languages, and in practice arises from certain categories of stimuli:

  • The home (the home becoming unhomely, the familiar unfamiliar)
  • Dead and undead (death, dead bodies, revenants, spirits and ghosts; when we glimpse these uncanny undead/dead creatures, it is not only the dead we see, but also dead beliefs about death)
  • Omnipotence of thoughts (thinking something and then it happening in real life, noticing the same phenomena in several coincidences, feeling like your thoughts have control over the external world)
  • Animism (belief in the existence of the soul, giving souls to sentient or non-sentient things; ‘for the Uncanny is not just about the souls of the departed, but also the departed, or departing, idea of souls’)

4. Intersex Divinities

Amulet representing the Goddess Mut, Ancient Egypt

My project Delphyne, Guardian of the Oracle of Delphi revolves around the character of a hermaphrodite golden dragon, and uses this creature to talk about women in religion, sacrifice, martyrdom, sex, gender and faith. Delphyne, a female dragon, was interchangeable with a male dragon called Python, so I decided to give her attributes of both sexes to further complicate her character; she is something very sacred and special but also weird, alienated, rejected.

When I came across this musing by Freud about intersex deities of the ancient world (another example being Dionysus), it very beautifully put into words why it is important that Delphyne, representing a divine being and a monster at once, should be both sexes; I knew it was important for her to be so, but I hadn’t managed to verbalise why exactly, aside from the obvious reference to her male counterpart in the original mythology.

“In Egyptian mythology, in most depictions this vulture-headed goddess (Mut) was endowed with a phallus; her body, though characterised as female by the breasts, was also provided with a male organ in the erect state.”

Freud, ‘Leonardo Da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood’, 1910

“Mythology may then offer the explanation that the phallus, added to the female body, was meant to signify the primal creative force of nature, and that all these hermaphrodite deities convey the idea that only the union of male and female can properly represent divine perfection.”

Freud, ‘Leonardo Da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood’, 1910

Mut, vulture-headed goddess of Ancient Egypt

5. Fantasies and Writing

This is very related to the ‘Hero and the Ego’ section but a bit more depressing. I like this idea because it confirms my belief that people who make things up, fantasise, create, world-build probably are unhappy and dissatisfied or generally lacking in some fundamental way, in which the real world isn’t enough for them. Either not enough or possibly too much.

“Precise observation of daydreams shows that their purpose is wish-fulfillment and the correction of real life, and that they have two principal aims: one erotic, the other ambitious (though behind the latter the erotic aim is usually present too).”

Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-dreaming’, 1908

“An essential feature of neurosis, and of any considerable talent, is a special imaginative activity, which reveals itself first in childhood games and then, beginning roughly in the pre-pubertal period, seizes upon the theme of family relations.”

Freud, ‘Family Romances’, 1912

“It may be said that those who are happy never fantasize – only the dissatisfied. Unsatisfied desires are the motive forces behind fantasies, every fantasy being a wish-fulfillment, correcting an unsatisfactory reality.”

Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-dreaming’, 1908

“This is the daydream or the fantasy, which has its origins in present experiences and recollections of the past: so that past, present and future are strung together on the thread of one desire that unites all three.”

Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-dreaming’, 1908

“Kindly nature has granted the artist the ability to express his most secret psychical impulses, hidden even from himself, by creating works that have a powerful emotive effect on others – people who are strangers to him and themselves unaware of the source of their emotion.”

Freud, ‘Leonardo Da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood’, 1910

6. Archaeo-Psychic Timelines

This phrase ‘archaeo-psychic timelines’ is based on something a tutor in my BA mentioned and has stuck with me ever since, particularly taking the form of the Giglets. It is called many other things in other writings, such as ‘inherited cultural narratives’ or ‘public fantasies’.

For me in my work it’s about what we inherit from outside of our immediate experience, bodies and families; what part of our identities comes from such things as evolutionary instincts, animal brains, history, religion, myth, costume, tradition. And how much of these things have been distorted, how many stories have been retold to prop up a culture that is not as old as it seems, to strengthen truths that began as fictions.

My characters in a way represent these non-corporeal concepts into a single unified body and narrative that personifies these tensions of stories, histories and identities.

“The writing of history, which had begun as a continuous record of current events, now looked back into the past, collected traditions and legends, interpreted remnants of earlier times that survived in customs and usages, and so created a history of the primeval period. Inevitably, this primeval history was more an expression of present opinions and wishes than a depiction of the past, for so many things have been eliminated from popular memory and others had been distorted.”

Freud, ‘Leornardo Da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood’, 1910

“The creative writer is left with some independence, which can manifest itself in the choice of the material and the often extensive modifications to which he subjects it. However, insofar as the material is given, it has its origin in the popular treasury of myth, legend and fairytale. The study of these products of folk-psychology is by no means complete; however, it is highly likely that myths, for instance, correspond to the distorted remains of the wishful fantasies of whole nations, the secular dreams of youthful humanity.”

Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-dreaming’, 1908

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