Posted on 31st October 2022 at 19:31
I mentioned the uncanny in a previous blog discussing grief in the context of the recent pandemic. I stated that the experience of feeling unsafe from an invisible virus was the epitome of what Sigmund Freud called The Uncanny, in that we became debunked of our sense of place and being master of our own fate.
The term uncanny was first used by German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch in 1906, in an article entitled On the Psychology of the Uncanny. Jentsch describes the uncanny – in German 'unheimlich' (unhomely) – as something new and unknown that may initially be regarded as negative. Some years later, in 1919, Sigmund Freud wrote his essay on 'The Uncanny' which he described as 'that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar'. It is different from fear arising from a realistic basis such as physical danger. Many have experienced an uncanny feeling if they have had a déjà vu moment. An uncanny feeling can be evoked by the concept of inanimate objects coming to life, our thoughts appearing to have an effect in the real world, seeing our double (the doppelgänger effect), or death associations such as ghosts or spirits. In many ways, they represent childhood beliefs returning and seeming real. Freud called this "the return of the repressed."
“Uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.”
Freud distinguishes between two types or sources of repression, that cause an uncanny feeling when they remerge, though some argue these types overlap or merge at times. These are animistic beliefs and infantile complexes. Animistic beliefs include the return of the dead, magic and the power of thoughts in instances of mind over matter. Examples of infantile complexes include the unconscious compulsion to repeat (often manifested in the doppelgänger effect) and the fear of being buried alive.
Critics of Gothic fiction often draw upon Freud's theories, as this literature genre seems to depict many elements of the uncanny, including repression, paranoia and anxiety. Gothic elements have been present in what is regarded as children’s fiction since the eighteenth century. Freud himself does not refer to the Gothic genre but considers Hoffman, author of The Sandman, as “the unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature.” In The Sandman, a lifeless object comes to life in the form of the automaton Olimpia, with the most uncanny effect represented by the figure of the Sandman. The Sandman is associated with “the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes” which in turn symbolises the castration complex.
So what of the uncanny in therapy? I have already mentioned elements of the uncanny in repression, paranoia and anxiety. We can all have uncanny experiences from time to time and clients report specific instances of déjà vu, forboding and psychic experiences. There are some individuals who live with a permanent sense of estrangement from themselves and their environment. Uncanny experiences are predominant in adolescence with puberty changes in the body sometimes presenting difficulties in adolescents recognizing their body as their own either partially , or as a whole, in turn leading to a feeling of being inhabited by the double. One could regard the unconscious communication that goes on between client and therapist as uncanny or certainly giving that feeling. A similar feeling can present when a session appears to go full circle back to the first topic introduced, through a series of seemingly unrelated topics. So as effective therapists, we must be familiar and comfortable with the concept of the uncanny as it presents with our clients or within the session and help make sense of it in terms of what it might mean for the client.
Freud, S. (1919). The “Uncanny”. The Standard Edition 17 (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works (pp. 217-256). London: Vintage.
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