Of all Freud’s essays on art and literature, “Das Unheimliche” [1919; “The Uncanny”, 1925] has enjoyed the greatest critical afterlife, partly because it eschews this emphasis on the psychoanalysis of the author. In this essay, Freud sets out to trace the nature of the uncanny, “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (340). The initial part of the essay shows how definitions of the German word “heimlich” (homely, familiar, cherished) can coincide with its opposite “unheimlich” (unhomely, weird, concealed, secret).
Freud traces the experience of the uncanny to the “primary narcissism” of early childhood and to an animistic conception of the universe amongst ‘primitive” and superstitious cultures, a formative phase of human history that corresponds to the early stages of infantile development. He discusses many of the characteristic features and situations associated with the uncanny, such as the uncertain boundaries between living and inanimate bodies, the figure of the double, involuntary repetition, the occult and womb phantasies.
Freud demonstrates the significance for psychoanalysis of many of these
uncanny phenomena through a discussion of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story,
“The Sand Man” which revolves around Nathaniel, a student haunted by his
memories of the Sand-Man, a figure of dread in nursery tales who is reputed
to steal children’s eyes when they refuse to go to bed. This imaginary figure
finds its living embodiment in a “real’ Sandman, the sinister lawyer Coppelius, who visits Nathaniel’s home and is
subsequently implicated in the death of his father. Later, while at
university, Nathaniel believes that he has recognised
the Sand-Man in the guise of Coppola, an optician who sells him an eyeglass
with which he spies a beautiful automaton,