David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Freud on the Uncanny/Unheimlich

The uncanny as it is depicted in literature, in stories and imaginative productions, merits in truth a separate discussion. Above all, it is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter and something more besides, something that cannot be found in real life. The contrast between what has been repressed and what has been surmounted cannot be transposed on to the uncanny in fiction without profound modification; for the realm of phantasy depends for its effect on the fact that its content is not submitted to reality-testing. The somewhat paradoxical result is that in the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place, that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.

The Uncanny

Elsewhere in the essay Freud (taking off, magpie-like, from Ernst Jentsch’s conception of the uncanny) discusses the partial synonymy between heimlich and unheimlich, suggesting that the latter is a product of the repression of the former. But I like the idea that fiction and presumably other forms of art and writing as well bring with it its own set of standards for what is and is not uncanny, and these standards are in no way mimetic of the real world. It seems like an obvious enough point, but how many discussions of the uncanny ignore the clear difference between those standards for what one experiences in reading and those standards for what one experiences in life? (Benjamin, for one, as with when he treats Kafka.) And how often do one’s expectations of uncanniness in stories get projected mistakenly onto life itself?

Moreover, the writer works overtime to create uncanny effects well beyond anything that we tend to encounter in life (or that if we encounter in real life, we think it to be is “stranger than fiction”), then has to be held to the ever-shifting standards of the uncanny, and how robust the writer’s conception was determines the reception of their work in the ensuing years. (That is, the nature of the “reality testing” changes as the social conception of reality does.) Private, unshared neuroses may cause any would-be uncanny effects to quickly fade from the page.

(As an example of the shifting, take Freud’s essay and larger work itself. Since so many versions of Freud’s ideas have passed into conventional wisdom, every time Freud doesn’t match one of the common conceptions in his writing, there’s an uncanny experience that Freud has greatly departed from what Freud is supposed to be.)

One other, metatextual point, is that you can hypothesize that the fictional standards from the uncanny bear an uncanny relation to the real-life standards; our laxer standards in fiction allow for the airing of more repression. Maybe this is too clever a formulation, but at least it merits bearing in mind before a critic jumps at the opportunity to point out every quirk in a novel as being uncanny. It’s become an overused category, and it would be better to document it descriptively than to postulate instances of it willy-nilly.

(The most famous application of the idea of the uncanny as nearly-familiar is Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley.)


  1. A very cool application is Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny.

  2. Fascinating paper, which I’d never heard of, and the diagram is almost Blanchotian. I like where he puts Bunraku, on the moving graph. “We are learning / What to be moved means.”

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