This third text comes as as a rebound from the previous one, which was a sort of chronicle of the times of the coronavirus that ended on a void.

With my permit to go out, I took to the streets of the city where I live to do some shopping. A feeling – let’s call it a strange feeling – then seized me. Paris is an empty city. I had earlier received a video of Venice, empty. Echoes of New York brought to a standstill. All the streets around me, empty; the squares, empty; the sites, empty. What an uncanny feeling!

Once back in my confinement, taking my cue from the word, I reread The Uncanny, Das Unheimliche, which belongs to a group of Freud’s texts that stand a little apart from the rest, since they fall between two periods in the development of analytic theory.

A dangerous expedition

The emptiness of the city renders it Unheimliche. It’s a term which, in French, has only this unfaithful translation: L’Inquiétante étrangeté. It’s English translation, by James Strachey, The Uncanny, is no more faithful. In short, Unheimliche is impossible to translate. Let’s remember that, in this form, the impossible is a key characteristic of the Unheimliche and we can note that it is also one of the names of the real for Lacan.

Freud had already used this term, Unheimliche, in 1911, in his correspondence with Ferenczi. After Ferenczi told him about an experiment in thought-transference in which the name of a person he did not know came to him even though he was not acquainted with either the person or his name, Freud replied that he found the story “unheimlich schön”, adding, with reference to the diverging path taken by Jung, “these are dangerous expeditions, and I can’t go along [with you] there”. He signed off his letter: “regards to you, uncanny one. Cordially Freud.”[1]

Declension of the Unheimliche: a Freudian experience

It is a curious text. It addresses the concept deposited in this word specific to the German language in three ways: first through dictionaries and the history of the word itself in language [langue]; then, in literature, through the work of E.T. Hoffman; and finally through his own clinical experience of the psychical phenomenon in question, by means of his self-analysis.[2](2) The two clinical vignettes are well-known. The first, introduced to illustrate the ‘factor of unintentional repetition”, sees Freud strolling through the streets of a small Italian town, then hurrying to leave the street he is in after realising it is part of the red light district, only then to find himself returning there three times, as if without his knowledge. Unknowingly drawn towards sex, he is then gripped by a feeling he says he can only describe as unheimlich. The second, in a footnote, recounts his experience “sitting alone in my wagon-lit” and seeing “an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a travel cap” entering his compartment. The factor in play here is the double, which comes to disturb what Freud calls “reality testing”. In these two experiences, the point in common, which Freud in fact does not indicate, is this collapse of what passes for ‘reality’ through the return of the same, under whatever avatar the same appears. In both these cases, the equivoque allows us to say that he does not recognise himself there [il ne s’y reconnaît pas].

Three sections and a path: Unheimlich to Entfremd

Freud quotes, in full, the different definitions of Heimlich in D. Sanders Dictionary of the German Language (1860). Heimlich refers to what is familiar, as: 1a) belonging to the house or family; 1b) tame in the sense of a tame or domesticated animal; 1c) intimate, friendly, comfortable and serene 1d) gay and cheerful. 2) hidden, concealed. Freud remarks that “among all these shades of meaning”, the word Heimlich “exhibits one which is identical with its opposite”,[3] a remark against which certain linguists, like Émile Benvéniste, have rebelled. At the end of this first section, Freud concludes that the word Heimlich develops in the direction of the Unheimlich, until these two notions finally coincide and overlap with one another.

The second part, based on a study of the tales of Hoffman, sets out the Freudian thesis.[4]

The Unheimlich s the return of repressed oedipal castration anxiety. “[T]his particular shade of what is frightening”,[5] thus marks the return of the repressed: “We have now only a few remarks to add—for animism, magic and sorcery, the omnipotence of thoughts, man’s attitude to death, involuntary repetition and the castration complex comprise practically all the factors which turn something frightening into something uncanny.”[6] To this reduction of the uncanny to the Oedipus theory, Freud nevertheless adds that “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between [fantasy] and reality is effaced”.[7]

In his third and final section, Freud seeks to clarify this point by distinguishing different modalities of what he calls reality: “material reality”, “psychical reality”, “common reality”, “poetic” or “[fictive] reality” [fingierten Realität in German, fictive in the French, ‘imaginary reality’ in the Strachey]. In short, we are witnessing the explosion of the term reality. It is the price to be paid for the Freudian dogma of truth, namely the so-called Oedipus complex, in so far as, for the Freudian subject, it entails an insuperability of the father. For in his letter to Romain Rolland, Freud, aged 80, in 1936, returned for the first time to an experience that he had had a long time before on the Acropolis. According to his analysis, in this moment when he takes a step beyond the father, he is invaded by a strange feeling, which he describes, not as Unheimlich, but as ‘entfremdungsgefühl’, owing to the feeling of depersonalisation that came upon him at the time and which he expresses with these words: “What I see here is not real.”[8] Entfremd takes the place of unheimlich when one passes beyond the father.

With Lacan, in this beyond

As should now be clear, in this experience of the empty city, what is at stake is the real.

What does Lacan say?

It is obviously in the Seminar on Anxiety that a few essential references can be found concerning the uncanny. In establishing the text, Jacques-Alain miller entitled Chapter 3 “From the Cosmos to the Unheimliche” and Chapter IV, “Beyond Castration Anxiety”. Miller traces the path with the latter title. It is a question of a beyond. Anxiety is thus the affect that does not fail to make out [qui ne trompe pas…], within the world of reality, scattered yet hidden amongst everyday objects, the sudden emergence of the objects a that provoke it.[9]

They are hidden just as much by the image of the body as by signifiers, by i(a), as much as by A.  One of the mainsprings of the Unheimliche is thus the function of -phi. The scene of the world, deserted of the speaking bodies that animate it, is empty of objects like the sound and fury of speech, of words and of sounds. The silence of the drive. However, we remain in a field in which the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real remain knotted. It remains inhabited. Lacan gives a striking reduction of this when he says: “As we know, man dwells [habite] and, though he knows not where, he is nevertheless used to it [l’habitude]”.[10]

But sometimes this knotting falters. One thus finds oneself confronted by what Roland Barthes called an “effect of the real”, an Uberdeutlichkeit, or ultra-clearness, according to the term Freud uses in relation to the Signorelli dream.[11] But let us correct this point at once. What is at stake is not a dream. What is at stake is sleep precisely when it is not disturbed by dreaming. It sleeps, for real [pour de vrai], even in New York. It is thus the unconscious that is in lockdown and shelters in place [C’est donc l’inconscient qui est confiné]. The emptiness signals the real, when it is no longer correlated to -phi, to the sign of the desire of the Other, an expression that I extract from a partly unpublished text by Jacques-Alain Miller.[12] To take up Lacan’s story about the praying mantis once again, the praying mantis is no longer there.

The effect of this emergence of the real there where reality used to be indicates the suddenness of the crossing of a threshold that is grasped precisely in this affect that is the unheimlick. The subject is dislodged both from their mode of drive enjoyment and from the Other, which has disappeared. Unheimlick gives way to the Entfremd.

An analysand’s words

All this is very theoretical, you will tell me. You are right. So, let’s give due place to the speech of an analysand. In lockdown with his family and a couple of old friends, he speaks of a strange affect that came over him suddenly. These are his words: “The morning after the decision to go into confinement, the two of us went to stock up at a local supermarket. Our trolley, empty at the start, began to fill up with groceries. A strange impression then came over me. The fuller my trolley became, the emptier I felt. When this impression subsided, after expressing this bizarre sensation I felt, I was able to name, for myself, this moment of emptiness by relating it to a tension between the need and even duty to feed my family and close friends and this piling up of consumables that then seemed obscene. A tension between the belly [bibe] and the void [vide] had become incarnated in my body.” Orality was one of the predominant modes of enjoyment for this subject, as it bears the mark of maternal speech in childhood. For his mother, he was the one whose role it was to finish the dishes served up at the family table. He did not have access to emptiness [le vide], but upon him rested the responsibility to empty [vider] the oral object.

Let us therefore propose that this confinement produces, in the speaking bodies that we are, an emptying of the drive enjoyment that traces out the path of our habitat, the one in which, as Lacan says, we dwell, and, regarding which, even though we do not know where we dwell, we are nevertheless used to it. There follows, in the suddenness of an instant, an encounter with the real, a crossing beyond the sign that anxiety constitutes for everyone. Beyond anxiety the real emerges. It is the void where the drive used to be.


Translated by Philip Dravers


[1] The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi, Volume 1, 1908-1914, trans. Peter T. Hoffer, Letter 216, May 11, 1911, pp. 274-275. [In Hoffer’s translation, “unheimlich schön” is rendered as “singularly beautiful” T.N.]

[2] Freud, S., “The Uncanny”, translation by James Strachey, SE XVII, pp. 217-256.

[3] Ibid. p. 224.

[4] Ibid. p. 241.

[5] Ibid. p. 221.

[6] Ibid. p. 243.

[7] Ibid. p. 244 [In the Standard Edition, Strachey translates the German word, Phatasie, as imagination, thereby obscuring what is at stake, topographically, in Freud’s formulation T.N.]

[8] Freud, S., “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”, SE XXII, p. 244.

[9] On this point see a fundamental passage from Seminar X, Anxiety, established by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. A.R. Price, Cambridge, Polity, 2014, p. 91.

[10] Lacan, J., Television, trans. Denis Holier, Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, New York, Norton, 1990, p. 39 (translation modified).

[11] [Freud, S. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, SE VI, p. 13.

[12] Jacques-Alain Miller, Introduction to the Reading of Jacques Lacan’s Anxiety Seminar, Part IV – Beyond Desire. Unpublished.

Published originally in Lacan Quotidien n° 878. Available online.