Returning to The Uncanny

November 4, 2008

Having begun this blog with the discovery of The Uncanny on my doorstep (still no explanation btw), it’s time to return to it here….


The Uncanny – or ‘unheimlich’ / ‘unhomely’ – is associated with the repression of something which was once familiar. It manifests itself in strange returns, reappearances, doublings and hauntings. (Freud also connects it with the fear of castration and losing one’s eyes and with severed limbs but I’ve not processed the implications of that yet!)


It seems to me that there might be something uncanny about our interest in the past. I know that the feeling I get when looking at a handwritten note in an archive or retracing the steps of an historical figure seems to be profoundly uncanny. And the notions of ‘returning’ and ‘reappearing’ seem particularly appropriate.


This isn’t a million miles away from established interpretations of history. For instance, J. H. Plumb has argued that the development of western historical practices can be attributed to the problematic duality of our Pagan/Christian and (later Catholic/Protestant) past.[1] In other words, it was a way of coming to terms with the unsettled nature of the past and with the traces of earlier belief systems which continue to haunt us.


Of course, it could be the exact opposite – that the handwritten note and the steps retraced are not familiar at all, but we’re trying to convince ourselves that they are. It feels as if there should be something in us that would respond to and recognise these traces of the past and it is the lack of such a recognition that unsettles us.



I’m getting a bit out of my depth here. Any psycho-analysts want to contribute??


[1] J. H. Plumb, Death of the Past (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1969)


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