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The Uncanny

Review of Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny (New York: Routledge, 2003), x + 340pp. ISBN 0-415-96662-0 [ISBN-13: 978-0415966627].

Curtis Bowman

Royle, The Uncanny, cover image
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Many scholars regard Freud's essay on the uncanny as a work of great importance, but none of them, as far as I know, ever devoted a book to Freud's seminal text until Nicholas Royle, a professor of English at the University of Sussex, wrote the study under review here. Royle's book could thus have been a significant addition to the commentary on Freud in particular and to cultural studies in general. Unfortunately, however, the weaknesses in Royle's work greatly outnumber its strengths. Therefore, the book must be judged a missed opportunity.

Royle describes his project as follows: "In many respects the present study seeks to provide little more than a reading of Freud's short text" (6). What Royle accomplishes in over three hundred pages is difficult to discern. Although he purports to offer "close readings of different aspects of the topic" (vii), he really does nothing of the sort. This failure, sad to say, is only to be expected. Royle is a deconstructionist, and deconstructive criticism is all too often diffuse and underdeveloped.1 Royle's writing, alas, is no exception to this tendency.

Royle never manages to reveal to the reader the full complexity of Freud's concept of the uncanny. If we go back to Freud's essay, we see that he defines the uncanny as "that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar."2 One source of the uncanny, he says, is repressed infantile beliefs and desires, e.g., the Oedipus complex. The second source lies in surmounted beliefs, which, generally speaking, give expression to the animistic conception of the universe prevalent in mankind's infancy. Examples of surmounted beliefs include the omnipotence of thoughts, the belief that the dead can return as spirits, and the belief that the inanimate can become animate. Part of the process of intellectual maturation is to give up this class of beliefs, but most of us, perhaps all of us, fail to do so to a greater or lesser degree. Insofar as we abandon these beliefs, they can be said to be surmounted.

The experience of the uncanny occurs, according to Freud, whenever repressed or surmounted material reappears in consciousness. What we once believed or desired, but which has been repressed or surmounted up to now, is recognized upon its reappearance as something that we once believed or desired. This is the source of the feeling of familiarity mentioned in Freud's definition of the uncanny. Furthermore, the reappearance of repressed beliefs and desires greatly disturbs us. Why should this be so? According to Freud, repressed material is accompanied by anxiety as it returns to consciousness. Consequently, the experience of the uncanny, at least in the form of the reappearance of repressed material, involves a frightening feeling of familiarity, and thus not merely a feeling of familiarity.

Freud does not indicate whether or not surmounted material is subject to repression. Presumably, it is not; otherwise, Freud would not have needed to distinguish between being repressed and being surmounted. Nevertheless, it seems that the reappearance of surmounted material is disturbing to us. Perhaps it involves a painful loss of intellectual mastery. Whatever the cause or the nature of our distress may be, some sort of painful disturbance must be present because Freud obviously believes that the experience of the uncanny is frightening in some fashion or other. Consequently, there must be something distressing in the reactivation of surmounted material if its reappearance in consciousness is to qualify as a manifestation of the uncanny.

Very little of what is contained in my brief summary of Freud's account of the uncanny plays a significant role in Royle's book. Therefore, Royle's study is not grounded in a sufficiently complex appreciation of Freud's thought. Although Royle makes several references to the return of the repressed, he provides no analysis of the role of repression in the experience of the uncanny. Instead, we are treated to unfocused discussions of the experience of the uncanny as a peculiar commingling of the familiar and the unfamiliar, as the experience of something that should have remained secret, and so forth.

Such formulations are indebted to Freud, of course, but since Royle does not properly emphasize the role of repression, he frequently omits the frightening element in the experience of the uncanny. Consequently, Royle casts his net too widely as he looks at what he considers various forms of the uncanny. For example, there is nothing uncanny, in Freud's sense, about the narrator's knowledge of the characters in a story (256 ff.). This literary device is surely worth investigating, but Royle fails to make a case that it has anything to do with Freud's concept of the uncanny.

Royle says much too little about Freud's distinction between those elements of the uncanny that were once repressed and those that were once surmounted. Royle explicitly refers to surmounted beliefs (179-180), but he never subjects the notion to detailed analysis. He also speaks of surmounted desire (207). Once again, however, he does not provide us with an extended analysis. Of course, Royle mentions many examples of surmounted beliefs and desires, e.g., the thought of premature burial (144-145), but that does not excuse his failure to delve into the role that surmounted beliefs and desires play in Freud's theory of the uncanny.

A failure to analyze the various parts of some theory is usually followed by a failure to evaluate that theory as whole. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that Royle says next to nothing about whether or not we should accept Freud's account of the uncanny. Clearly, Royle believes that it is worth our while, but a study purporting to be an exercise in close reading should have addressed this concern at some point.

There are many important issues that Royle should have raised. Here are three series of questions that arise when trying to think through what Freud says about the uncanny:


Should we accept Freud's claim that the experience of the uncanny involves the experience of something that was once familiar to us? Perhaps this is true of some of our experiences of the uncanny, but is it true of all of them? Perhaps there are other forms of the uncanny.


Is everything that Freud considers an instance of uncanny experience genuinely uncanny? For example, do we really need to regard the fear of being buried alive as an instance of the uncanny? Isn't the thought itself sufficiently disturbing? It is hardly obvious that Freud's account of the uncanny needs to be brought into the picture in this case.


How convincing are the results of Freud's application of his account of the uncanny when he uses it as an interpretive device? How plausible is his reading of Hoffmann's "The Sandman"? If Freud's reading is a poor one, then that fact reflects poorly on the theory.3

Any reading of a theoretical text should concern itself, at least in part, with such questions, especially when the text possesses the status of Freud's essay on the uncanny. Royle's study contains little of such questioning. Furthermore, with regard to the third set of questions, Royle even goes so far as to refuse to take up the issue of Freud's misreading of literary texts (53). Instead, Royle says, he is concerned with what Freud's text brings to light.

Misreadings by themselves are not refutations of the theory that inspires the misreadings, but they provide grounds for suspicion. Not to be moved by misreadings is to give up one essential element in close reading. The claim that Freud's text brings interesting matters to light would be more convincing if Royle had looked at ways in which Freud possibly went astray. Then we would have a clearer idea of how to avoid repeating any mistakes that Freud might have made.

Royle's notion of close reading seems to be little more than writing about some particular issue until he tires of it, at which point he then turns to something else. Unfortunately, this is a frequent feature of deconstructionist writing. But because Royle is an erudite scholar, attentive readers will come across many interesting remarks and observations as they work through the book. For example, Royle's opening pages (3-6) make mention of ways in which the topic of the uncanny has been discussed by thinkers besides Freud, e.g., Martin Heidegger (4).

In my own work I have made use of Heidegger's concept of the uncanny as it is formulated in §40 of Being and Time.4 Consequently, I was happy to read Royle's brief discussion of Heidegger. What Heidegger has to say on the topic of the uncanny deserves a wider hearing, and Royle will help bring Heidegger's ideas to a larger audience.

Other readers will find other things of interest to them. But once the pages and pages of rambling prose finally come to an end, we are left with no significant accomplishment to show for all of our patience. The discussion of Freud's essay is insufficient, as I showed above, and Royle's many other topics do not hold his attention long enough to be adequately addressed.

Another problem with Royle's book is his conviction that Freud's psychoanalysis and Derrida's deconstruction have much to do with each other. From what Royle says it is clear that he believes that deconstructive criticism attempts to make the familiar unfamiliar, and thus in this regard deconstruction is a strategy grounded in uncanny thinking, in bringing the unfamiliar to light. Hence, according to Royle, its affinity with psychoanalysis (24-27). But any form of interpretation is supposed to take what is already familiar to us and make its unappreciated elements known to us. That is, any interpretive strategy seeks to bring to light what we have failed to comprehend up to now; in doing so interpretation makes the familiar unfamiliar. In short, what we thought we knew is shown to be more complicated than we realized. There is nothing uncanny about such a procedure. The rest of us call it paying attention.

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1. I learned this the hard way while writing the following article: "Speech and Phenomena on Expression and Indication: Derrida's Dual Critique of Husserl's Demand for Apodictic Evidence and the Phenomenological Reduction," International Studies in Philosophy 31 (1999): 1-21.

2. Sigmund Freud, "The 'Uncanny'," in James Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. (London: The Hogarth Press, 1953-74), vol. 17, 217-256. The quotation is from page 220.

3. Interested readers can find a brief exposition of my thoughts regarding Freud's reading of "The Sandman" in the following article: "Heidegger, the Uncanny, and Jacques Tourneur's Horror Films," in Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw (eds.), Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections On Cinematic Horror (Scarecrow Press, 2003), 65-83, especially 68-70, 72-73.

4. On pp. 70-73 of the essay mentioned in note 3, I explicate Heidegger's concept of the uncanny by situating it within the project of Being and Time. In the remainder of the essay I apply the concept to Jacques Tourneur's horror films.


About the Reviewer:

Curtis Bowman received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, LaSalle University, Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College. His research interests include the history of German philosophy, aesthetics, and contemporary continental thought. His recent work includes translations for the volume Notes and Fragments of the Cambridge Kant edition (ed. Paul Guyer) and reprint editions of works by Moses Mendelssohn and J. J. Winckelmann for Thoemmes Continuum. Currently he is living in Texas, working as an independent scholar and maintaining a blog of commentary and criticism.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Bowman, Curtis. "The Uncanny." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. March 30, 2017 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cbowman/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Curtis Bowman, The Uncanny. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cbowman/index.php› (accessed March 30, 2017)

APA Style Citation:
Bowman, Curtis. (2007, May). The Uncanny. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cbowman/index.php


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