It is only rarely that a psycho-analyst feels impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics, even when aesthetics is understood to mean not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling. He works in other strata of mental life and has little to do with the subdued emotional impulses which, inhibited in their aims and dependent on a host of concurrent factors, usually furnish the material for the study of aesthetics. But it does occasionally happen that he has to interest himself in some particular province of that subject; and this province usually proves to be a rather remote one, and one which has been neglected in the specialist literature of aesthetics.
The subject of the 'uncanny' is a province of this kind. It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror; equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general. Yet we may expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One is curious to know what this common core is which allows us to distinguish as 'uncanny'; certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening.
As good as nothing is to be found upon this subject in comprehensive treatises on aesthetics, which in general prefer to concern themselves with what is beautiful, attractive and sublime; that is, with feelings of a positive nature; and with the circumstances and the objects that call them forth, rather than with the opposite feelings of repulsion and distress. I know of only one attempt in medico-psychological literature, a fertile but not exhaustive paper by Jentsch (1906). But I must confess that I have not made a very thorough examination of the literature, especially the foreign literature, relating to this present modest contribution of mine, for reasons which, as may easily be guessed, lie in the times in which we live; so that my paper is presented to the reader without any claim to priority.
In his study of the 'uncanny'; Jentsch quite rightly lays stress on the obstacle presented by the fact that people vary so very greatly in their sensitivity to this quality of feeling. The writer of the present contribution, indeed, must himself plead guilty to a special obtuseness in the matter, where extreme delicacy of perception would be more in place. It is long since he has experienced or heard of anything which has given him an uncanny impression, and he must start by translating himself into that state of feeling, by awakening in himself the possibility of experiencing it. Still, such difficulties make themselves powerfully felt in many other branches of aesthetics; we need not on that account despair of finding instances in which tee quality in question will be unhesitatingly recognized by most people.
Two courses are open to us at the outset. Either we can find out what meaning has come to be attached to the word 'uncanny' in the course of its history; or we can collect all those properties of persons, things, sense-impressions, experiences and situations which arouse in us the feeling of uncanniness, and then infer the unknown nature of the uncanny from what all these examples have in common. I will say at once that both courses lead to the same result: the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar. How this is possible, in what circumstances the familiar can become uncanny and frightening, I shall show in what follows. Let me also add that my investigation was actually begun by collecting a number of individual cases, and was only later confirmed by an examination of linguistic usage. In this discussion, however, I shall follow the reverse course.
The German word 'unheimlich'is obviously the opposite of 'heimlich' ['homely'], 'heimisch' ['native'] the opposite of what is familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is 'uncanny' is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar. Naturally not everything that is new and unfamiliar is frightening, however; the relation is not capable of inversion.
We can only say that what is novel can easily become frightening but not by any means all. Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.
On the whole, Jentsch did not get beyond this relation of the uncanny to the novel and unfamiliar. He ascribes the essential factor in the production of the feeling of uncanniness to intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always, as it were, be something one does not know one's way about in. The better orientated in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it.
It is not difficult to see that this definition is incomplete, and we will therefore try to proceed beyond the equation 'uncanny' as 'unfamiliar'. We will first turn to other languages. But the dictionaries that we consult tell us nothing new, perhaps only because we ourselves speak a language that is foreign. Indeed, we get an impression that many languages are without a word for this particular shade of what is frightening.
I should like to express my indebtedness to Dr. Theodor Reik for the following excerpts:
Latin: (K.E. Georges, Deutschlateinisches buch, 1898). An uncanny place: locus suspectus; at an uncanny time of night: intempesta nocte.
Greek: (Rost's and Schenkl's Lexikons). Eeros (i.e., strange, foreign).
English: (from the dictionaries of Lucas, Bellows, Flumlgel and Muret-Sanders). Uncomfortable, uneasy, gloomy, dismal, uncanny, ghastly; (of a house) haunted; (of a man) a repulsive fellow.
French: (Sachs-Villatte). Inquiétant, sinistre, lugubre, mal à son aise.
Spanish: (Tollhausen, 1889). Sospechoso, de mal aguëro, lúgubre, siniestro.
The Italian and Portuguese languages seem to content themselves with words which we should describe as circumlocutions. In Arabic and Hebrew ‘uncanny’ means the same as ‘daemonic’, ‘gruesome’.
Let us therefore return to the German language. In Daniel Sanders’s Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache (1860, 1, 729), the following entry, which I here reproduce in full, is to be found
under the word ‘heimlich’. I have laid stress on one or two passages by italicizing them.
Heimlich, adj., subst. Heimlichkeit (pl. Heimlichkeiten): I. Also heimelich, heimelig, belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly, etc.
(a) (Obsolete) belonging to the house or the family, or regarded as so belonging (cf. Latin familiaris, familiar); Die Heimlichen, the members of the household; Der heimliche Rat (Gen. xli, 45; 2 Sam. xxiii, 23; I Chron. xii, 25; Wisd. viii. 4), now more usually Geheimer Rat [Privy Councillor].
(b) Of animals: tame, companionable to man. As opposed to wild, e.g., ‘Animals which are neither wild nor heimlich’, etc. ‘Wild animals … that are trained to be heimlich and accustomed to men.’ ‘If these young creatures are brought up from early days among men they become quite heimlich, friendly’ etc. — So also: ‘It (the lamb) is so heimlich and eats out of my hand.’ ‘Nevertheless, the stork is a beautiful heimelich bird.’
( c) Intimate, friendly comfortable; the enjoyment of quiet content, etc., arousing a sense of agreeable restfulness and security as in one within the four walls of his house. Is it still heimlich to you in your country where strangers are felling your woods?’ ‘She did not feel too heimlich with him.’ ‘Along a high, heimlich, shady path …, beside a purling, gushing and babbling woodland brook.’ ‘To destroy the Heimlichkeit of the home.’ ‘I could not readily find another spot so intimate and heimlich as this.’ ‘We pictured it so comfortable, so nice, so cosy and heimlich.’ ‘In quiet Heimlichkeit, surrounded by close walls.’ ‘A careful housewife, who knows how to make a pleasing Heimlichkeit (Häuslichkeit [domesticity]) out of the smallest means.’ ‘The man who till recently had been so strange to him now seemed to him all the more heimlich.’ ‘The protestant land-owners do not feel … heimlich among their catholic inferiors.’ ‘When it grows heimlich and still, and the evening quiet alone watches over your cell.’ ‘Quiet, lovely and heimlich, no place more fitted for the rest.’ ‘He did not feel at all heimlich about it.’ — Also, [in compounds] ‘The place was so peaceful, so lonely, so shadily-heimlich.’ ‘The in- and outflowing waves of the current, dreamy and lullaby-heimlich.’ Cf. in especial Unheimlich [see below]. Among Swabian Swiss authors in especial, often as a trisyllable: ‘How heimelich it seemed to Ivo again of an evening, when he was at home.’ ‘It was so heimelig in the house.’ ‘The warm room and the heimelig afternoon.’ ‘When a man feels in his heart that he is so small and the Lord so great — that is what is truly heimelig.’ ‘Little by little they grew at ease and heimelig among themselves.’ ‘Friendly Heimeligkeit.’ ‘ I shall be nowhere more heimelich than I am here.’ ‘That which comes from afar … assuredly does not live quite heimelig (heimatlich [at home], freundnachbarlich [in a neighbourly way]) among the people.’ ‘The cottage where he had once sat so often among his own people, so heimelig, so happy.’ ‘The sentinel’s horn sounds so heimelig from the tower, and his voice invites so hospitably.’ ‘You go to sleep there so soft and warm, so wonderfully heim’lig.’ — This form of the word deserves to become general in order to protect this perfectly good sense of the word from becoming obsolete through an easy confusion with II [see below]. Cf: ‘"The Zecks [a family name] are all ‘heimlich’." (in sense II) "’Heimlich’? … What do you understand by ‘heimlich’?" "Well, … they are like a buried spring or a dried-up pond. One cannot walk over it without always having the feeling that water might come up there again." "Oh, we call it ‘unheimlich’; you call it ‘heimlich’. Well, what makes you think that there is something secret and untrustworthy about this family"?"’ (Gutzkow).
- (d) Especially in Silesia: gay, cheerful; also of the weather.
II. Concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others. To do something heimlich, i.e., behind someone’s back; to steal away heimlich; heimlich meetings and appointments; to look on with heimlich pleasure at someone’s discomfiture; to sigh or weep heimlich; to behave heimlich, as though there was something to conceal; heimlich love-affair, love, sin; heimlich places (which good manners oblige us to conceal) (1 Sam. V. 6. ‘The heimlich chamber’ (privy) (2 Kings x. 27.). Also, ‘the heimlich chair’. ‘To throw into pits or Heimlichkeiten’. — ‘Led the steeds heimlich before Laomedon.’ — ‘As secretive, heimlich, deceitful and malicious towards cruet masters … as frank, open, sympathetic and helpful towards a friend in misfortune.’ ‘You have still to learn what is heimlich holiest to me.’ ‘The heimlich art’ (magic). ‘Where public ventilation has to stop, there heimlich conspirators and the loud battle-cry of professed revolutionaries.’ ‘A holy, heimlich effect.’ ‘I have roots that are most heimlich. I am grown in the deep earth.’ ‘My heimlich pranks.’ ‘If he is not given it openly and scrupulously he may seize it heimlich and unscrupulously.’ ‘He had achromatic telescopes constructed heimlich and secretly.’ ‘Henceforth I desire that there should be nothing heimlich any longer between us.’ — To discover, disclose, betray someone’s Hleimlichkeiten; ‘to concoct Heimlichkeiten behind my back’. ‘In my time we studied Heimlichkeit.’ ‘The hand of understanding can alone undo the powerless spell of the Heimlichkeit (of hidden gold).’ ‘Say, where is the place of concealment … in what place of hidden Heimlichkeit?’ ‘Bees, who make the lock of Heimlichkeiten’ (i.e., sealing-wax). "learned in strange Heimlichkeiten’ (magic arts).
For compounds see above, Ic. Note especially the negative ‘un-‘: eerie, weird, arousing gruesome fear: ‘Seeming quite unheimlich and ghostly to him.’ ‘The unheimlich, fearful hours of night.’ ‘I had already long since felt an unheimich’, even gruesome feeling.’ ‘Now I am beginning to have an unheimlich feeling.’ … ‘Feels an unheimlich horror.’ ‘Unheimlich and motionless like a stone image.’ ‘The unheimlich mist called hill-fog.’ ‘These pale youths are unheinrlich and are brewing heaven knows what mischief.’ ‘"Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained ... secret and hidden but has come to light’ (Schelling).— ‘To veil the divine, to surround it with a certain Unheimlichkeit.’ — Unheimlich is not often used as opposite to meaning II (above).
What interests us most in this long extract is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word ‘heimlich’’ exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, ‘unheirnlich’. What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich. (Cf. the quotation from Gutzkow: ‘We call it "unheimlich"; you call it "heimlich".’) In general we are reminded that the word ‘heimlich’ is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other. what is concealed and kept out of sight. ‘Unheimlich’ is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of’ heimlich’, and not of the second. Sanders tells us nothing concerning a possible genetic connection between these two meanings of heimlich. On the other hand, we notice that Schelling says something which throws quite a new light on the concept of the Unheimlich, for which we were certainly not prepared. According to him, everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.
Some of the doubts that have thus arisen are removed if we consult Grimm’s dictionary. (1877, 4. Part 2, 873 ff.)
Heimlich; adj. and adv. vernaculus, occultus; MHG, heimelich, heimlich.
(P. 874.) In a slightly different sense: ‘I feel heimlich, well, free from fear.’ . . .
 (b) Heimlich is also used of a place free from ghostly influences … familiar, friendly, intimate.
(P. 875: ß) Familiar, amicable, unreserved.
From the idea of ‘homelike’, ‘belonging to the house’, the further idea is developed of
something withdrawn from the eyes of strangers, something concealed, secret; and this idea is expanded in many ways …
(P. 876.) ‘On the left bank of the lake there lies a meadow heimlich in the wood.’ (Schiller, Wilhelm Tell, 1. 4.) … Poetic licence, rarely so used in modern speech … Heimlich is used in conjunction with a verb expressing the act of concealing: ‘In the secret of his tabernacle he shall hide me heimlich.’ (Ps. xxvii. 5.) … Heimlich parts of the human body, pudenda … ‘the men that died not were smitten on their heimlich parts.’ (1 Samuel v. 12.) …
- Officials who give important advice which has to be kept secret in matters of state are called heimlich councillors; the adjective, according to modern usage, has been replaced by geheim [secret] ... ‘Pharaoh called Joseph’s name "him to whom secrets are revealed"’ (heimlich councillor). (Gen. xli. 45.)
(P. 878.) 6. Heimlich, as used of knowledge — mystic, allegorical: a heimlich meaning, mysticus, divinus, occultus, figuratus.
(P. 878.) Heimlich in a different sense, as withdrawn from knowledge, unconscious … Heimlich also has the meaning of that which is obscure, inaccessible to knowledge … ‘Do you not see? They do not trust us; they fear the heimlich face of the Duke of Friedland.’ (Schiller, Wallensteins Lager, Scene 2.)
9. The notion of something hidden and dangerous, which is expressed in the last
paragraph, is still further developed, so that ‘heimlich’ comes to have the meaning usually ascribed to ‘unheimlich’. Thus: ‘At times I feel like a man who walks in the night and believes in ghosts; every corner is heimlich and full of terrors for him’. (Klinger, Theater, 3. 298.)
Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich. Let us bear this discovery in mind, though we cannot yet rightly understand it, alongside of Schelling’s definition of the Unheimlich. If we go on to examine individual instances of uncanniness, these hints will become intelligible to us.