Saturday, March 13, 2010
Close Reading Questions for Freud's "The Uncanny" (handouts are in my box if you missed class on Thursday)
(at right: Rene Magritte's painting, The Blank Check, 1965. Uncanny, eh?).
Freud published this influential essay in 1919, which is a hundred years after Frankenstein; nevertheless, it has profoundly transformed how we read earlier literature and the Gothic in particular. The essay is an imaginative tour de force, as it combines psychoanalysis, literary analysis, and elements of a short story—the feminist critic Helene Cixous called it “a strange theoretical novel.” Hopefully, reading this essay will remind you that the critical can be creative, and the speculative can be theoretical. You might want to look up several Freudian terms used without context in this essay, such as ego, superego, pleasure principle, etc.
NOTE: I left out Part I of the essay which is only 3-4 pages long and concerns various definitions of the word “uncanny” in German and other cultures. Note that in German, das Unheimliche is “uncanny,” whereas das Heimliche is “homely” or “familiar,” which is a “double” relationship that does not exist in English.
Answer TWO of the following…
1. In the opening pages of the essay, Freud offers a close reading of E.T.A Hoffmann’s story, “The Sandman.” What is the purpose of this close reading—what is he trying to prove or reveal about the uncanny from this reading?
2. According to Freud, why do people typically describe an experience or event as “uncanny,” and what psychological motive lies behind it? Why might he link this to “a primitive phase in our mental development”(143)?
3. Toward the end of Part II, Freud writes, “an uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary, when a symbol takes on the full function and significance of what it symbolizes” (150). How might this statement (and the argument he makes in this passage) relate directly to our studies of the Gothic?
4. Why does the uncanny function differently in literature than in real life? What rules or principles affect a sense of the uncanny in literature, and how might fairy tales (using his example) be somehow exempt from the uncanny, whereas works like The Vampyre and Frankenstein are not?