Jimmy's Reviews > The Uncanny

The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud
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Sep 09, 08

bookshelves: psychology
Read in September, 2008

The essays that comprise this edition are basically Freud's answer to literary/art criticism. Included here is an introduction that doesn't exactly encourage reading the book, and which is actually half the size of the five essays contained in it. Haughton describes Freud's theories on creative motivation as poorly researched, vague, and inconclusive. He certainly finds it to be a minor contribution to the Freud canon. So, my question still is, is it?

As far as psychoanalytic theory goes, yes, because this is an example of Freud merely applying psychoanalytic ideas to an interpretation of art.

The first essay, Screen Memories, generally states that the artist creates works of fantasized scenarios in order to replace unpleasant memories from the past, or to imagine more pleasant situations that the future may possess.

The Creative Writer and Daydreaming tells us much of the same. However, Freud does make an interesting distinction between the writer's creation (fantasy) and the dream. People are usually ashamed of the latter, the writer on the other hand is more than willing to share their innermost desires and longings in the form of a fictional narrative, or even (and this is slightly anachronistic) a film.

Family Romances applies the Oedipal complex to the erotic content of these fictional fantasies. Freud explains that the child's knowledge of the sexual roles of mother and father, leads young boys to imagine different sexual fantasies or acts of Oedipal infidelity with the mother.

So it's all here; repression, neuroses, the Oedipal complex, etc. The problem is that Freud rarely uses examples from literature, or art until the last two essays. The first essay fails from a certain theoretical weakness. There are just too many examples of works of art that are entirely unpleasant. These works function in order to reveal certain tragedies and social atrocities. Not all art emanates from the perspective of an imagination that wants to experience nothing but pleasure.

His biographical sketch on Leonardo da Vinci seemed much more thought out. Freud explains that Leonardo replaced his passion for art with that of scientific study as the result of as an attempt to remove himself from sexual passion. He also psychoanalyzes a dream that da Vinci once had about a vulture swooping down into his cradle and brushing it's tail against his open mouth. Of course the tail is representative of the male sex organ which has thus replaced the act of da Vinci's early memory of sucking at his mother's breast. Da Vinci thus develops a passive homosexual fantasy, and these were the motivations behind his homosexual leanings. Also, the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa is Leonardo's most sublime representation of motherhood.

The titular essay was very interesting. Using a somewhat convoluted example from E.T.A Hoffman's, Tales of Hoffman, Freud presents the uncanny (unheimlich) as the discomfort of intellectual certainty, at times this merges with the comfortable or easily understandable phenomena (heimlich). This results in people attributing certain occurrences to mythology or an animistic mode of thinking. Through the repetition of an uncanny occurrence, the line becomes blurred between art and reality.

Psychoanalysis has obviously held a widespread influence upon twentieth century art, which is why it seems strange that Freud is somewhat inept at applying his theory while interpreting art. It's possible that he just couldn't devote enough time to these works. I must say that the last two essays were the finest accomplishments in this edition, and maybe if Freud would've kept at it, then he could have written more well executed opinions on art. However, these essays make psychoanalysis seem as effective a method of analyzing artistic motivation as sociobiology does human behavior.
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