Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Unheimlich Maneuvers: Enlightenment Dolls and Repetitions in Freud

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Unheimlich Maneuvers: Enlightenment Dolls and Repetitions in Freud

Article excerpt

More than a century after the age of Enlightenment, Freud, in "The 'Uncanny'" (1919) attempted to define a phenomenon that is above all a "subdued emotional impulse" and "a special core of feeling." Freud's essay-filled with dolls, automata, "painted ladies," optical instruments and fetishes-remains interested in objects that fascinated eighteenth-century England. Observing that the uncanny arises when "the subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which his self is," and when "a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes," Freud revisits a dilemma about subjectivity that troubled eighteenth-century subjects.1 From Hume's exploration of "the gross polytheism of the vulgar" in Natural History of Religion (1757) to Henry Fielding's excoriation of London's "People of Fashion" as a grotesquerie of moving objects in The Covent-Garden Journal, No. 37, eighteenth-century authors interrogated the relationship between persons and things, condemning those persons who displayed too strong an investment in the irrational pleasures of disparate and random things.2

Recent critics have regarded Freud's uncanny as a "historical allegory" for the consequences of Enlightenment productions of rational and objectifiable knowledge. For Mladen Dolar, the uncanny emerged as a direct result of the "historical rupture brought about by the Enlightenment." As a consequence, Dolar claims, "It seems that Freud speaks about a 'universal' of human experience when he speaks of the uncanny, yet his own examples tacitly point to its location in a specific historical conjuncture, to the . . . Enlightenment. There is a specific dimension of the uncanny that emerges with modernity."3 Similarly using Freud's interpretation of the uncanny to account for Western Europe's passage into Enlightened modernity, Terry Castle asks, "Might one argue, extrapolating from Freud, that the uncanny itself first 'comes to light'-becomes a part of human experience-in that period known as the Enlightenment?"4 These interpretations of the uncanny implicate the rationalizing and instrumentalizing energies associated with the Enlightenment with the Freudian structure of repression.5 In other words, the "Age of Reason," by attempting to suppress formerly acceptable beliefs in superstition and the supernatural, created a charged space for those beliefs to emerge as "the uncanny." Thus produced by "the Enlightenment," the uncanny represents the return of western civilization's repressed roots in such unenlightened beliefs as superstition, the supernatural and magic. In short, the uncanny signifies the dread return of excess and indeterminacy, remnants from the age of pre-Enlightenment.

Dolar's and Castle's motions of bringing Freud's psychoanalytical model of the uncanny to converge with the historical "moment" of "the Enlightenment" reveal that the boundary between the enlightened and the uncanny-and by extension, the unenlightened-are altogether more equivocal than we might otherwise believe. Not just resulting from Enlightenment standards of reason and lucidity, the uncanny constituted them in much the same way that the canny itself implicitly carries the seed of the uncanny in its own meaning. These critiques also carry traits of what Dorinda Outram has distinguished as the tendency to regard the Enlightenment as "our contemporary," a step taken "when we describe the twentieth century as latent in the eighteenth." Such a proleptic tendency, in addition to suggesting a problematic ownership, approaches the Enlightenment as "a mirror to ourselves," thus "sacrificing its specificity" to "the need to find projections of ourselves in the past."6

This essay too runs the risk of reiterating, for better or worse, a contemporary fiction of eighteenth-century culture-the fiction that this period forms the origins of "our modern age"-by elaborating further its status as an uneasy double in one of the pre-eminent texts of psychoanalysis. …

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