The Un-Freud, for Better or Worse


“The Uncanny” begins with Freud’s admission that he doesn’t know much about the subject: he is not prone to the uncanny feeling.  He is also not prone, he says, to writing about art and literature, since “it is only rarely that a psychoanalyst feels impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics.”  Except, all the evidence speaks to the contrary: writings on Dostoevsky, on Leonardo, on Jensen’s “Gradiva,” on Michelangelo’s Moses, on HamletThe Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and Macbeth, on Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit, on fairy tales, on mythology, and, in “The Uncanny,” on E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sand Man.”  So why, in “The Uncanny,” in which the uncanny feeling and the aesthetic are so closely aligned, does Freud exclude himself from both?

Mladen Dolar writes that in his investigation of the uncanny, “Freud is gradually forced to use the entire panoply of psychoanalytic concepts” such that “one could simply say that it is the pivotal point around which psychoanalytic concepts revolve.”  The uncanny, as code for psychoanalysis itself, is in Freud’s essay further linked not only to aesthetics, but also to castration, femininity, interiority, and domesticity; and to writing.  This paper will examine this complex in the essay to pose a question about the position, ignorance, and exclusion of the analyst, and about what it means to write as a psychoanalyst.

I have dreamt of a letter”

 -Sigmund Freud,The Interpretation of Dreams


“How can an autobiographical writing, in the abyss of an unterminated self-analysis, give to a world-wide institution its birth?”  This is Derrida’s question of Freud, and it is one that may properly have no answer. Freud created psychoanalysis by writing of himself: by carrying out a self-analysis in writing and by addressing it, in part, to another, in his letters to Fleiss. The profound intimacy of this act created an entire discursive field. There is something boggling in this, so much so that it can perhaps only be addressed as an interrogative.

I am calling on Derrida here merely to underline, because he does, the place of writing at the origin and theoretical center of psychoanalysis. Derrida shows us the ways that the talking cure is founded on, is an effect of, a writing that is that of the psyche—since in “A Note on the Mystic Writing Pad,” in The Interpretation of Dreams, and elsewhere, Freud figures the psyche as a technology of writing—and of Freud himself. There may have been other ways to transmit psychoanalysis in those early days, but presumably it is significant that Freud was a writer.

In 1897, Freud wrote to Fleiss about the progress of his self-analysis.  He had for the past three days come to a stall in his thinking, with a “feeling of being tied up on the inside,” and was in despair until he realized that, twenty-eight days previously, he had experienced the exact same feeling for approximately the same amount of time.  Both months, the work recommenced “punctually,” on the fourth day.  He writes, “from this one should draw the conclusion that the female period is not conducive to work.”  And yet, “the pause also had another determinant—the resistance to something surprisingly new.”  Freud then goes on, in the letter, to theorize, for the first time, the Oedipus complex.

What do menstruation and pregnancy have to do with psychic resistance; with the surprise of the new; and with writing?  If the epistolary genre is central to psychoanalysis, femininity, perhaps as code for both the technology of reproduction and a certain question about address, is central to letter-writing.  This is the case even when letter-writing is a homoerotic project, something carried out between men. Thus I want to think through these questions of reproduction, femininity, and writing, in the Freudian canon and particularly in his essay on “The Uncanny,” where they come together particularly closely; and I want to do so in order ultimately to ask a question about writing about psychoanalysis and what it means to write as an analyst—perhaps also what it means to write as a woman analyst. Derrida claims that “like all those who write,” “Freud performs for us the scene of writing,” and this is inevitably the scene that, in asking these questions, I am performing as well.  The theatricality of writing should never be overlooked.

Shoshana Felman thinks through the birth of psychoanalysis by way of Freud’s dream of Irma’s injection, and writes that the navel of the dream is the nodal point at which three women in Freud’s life are, in the dream, figurally layered: three women joined by a navel at the limit of language and knowledge, that limit figured in the dream precisely as the tie among women. The simultaneity of Freud’s discovery, as a result of the Irma dream, of wish-fulfillment as the meaning of dreams and of the dream navel as the limit of meaning functions to undercut forms of wishful mastery—the dream’s male “solutions” (semen, trymethylamine) to the problem of female desire—as they are applied to femininity and sexual difference, thus assuring that the discovery of the centrality of wish-fulfillment in dreams itself refuses those false solutions.  In this sense the female resistance that provokes the dream (Irma’s resistance to cure) is figured paradoxically as the inexhaustibility of the unconscious, much as Irma’s hysterical pain in the dream—her knot in the throat, by which she is umbilically knotted to the dream’s other women—is also the knotting, nodal action of the dream navel.  Likewise, the pause of menstruation in Freud’s letter is also a beat before the revelation of the new; it marks the incipience of discovery, of creation.  Menstruation, as a strange sign of origin, a figuration of both fertility and loss—I could have a baby; I didn’t have a baby—comes to stand in for the place of resistance in psychoanalysis, the extent to which, rather than representing the inability to work, it creates an interval through which work can proceed.

The place of Irma’s dream in Freud’s theory is in part what leads Felman to call for an increased attention to something that she calls “feminine resistance” in texts, by which she means not so much the feminism of a given work but rather “the forms of resistance present in the text,” including its “transgression of its [own] male assumptions and prescriptions.”  This would be, as she says, “a literary process of surprise,” that is, the surprise of realizing that the “‘feminine resistance’ in the text…has effectively…addressed some forces, some desires, some events in our own life.”  Feminine resistance interpellates the reader and asks her to bear witness to something of her own life as the text calls to it, and it is no coincidence that portions of What Does a Woman Want, the book in which Felman writes these things, are autobiographical: the chapter on Irma an address or letter to her analyst, the one on Balzac a thinking through of her separation from a man.  This process of literary surprise—this call by a text in which the subject finds herself addressed precisely where she both does and doesn’t expect herself to be; this action of the aesthetic that is also the action of the feminine as it founds both resistance and production, or resistance as production—is then perhaps the same as, or similar to, or homologous to, the call or address by the uncanny: the moment at which the gaze gazes back, at which you see yourself in another scene, where you shouldn’t be or maybe you really should, and the framing shifts. The uncanny is finding yourself in a forgotten book which you don’t yet know.

I think that Felman’s vocabulary opens up a reading of Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” and its relationship to the E.T.A. Hoffmann story at its center.  I’m considering “The Uncanny” here as a specimen case not only of the relationship, in the Freudian canon, between writing and psychoanalysis and between forms of text (that is, psychoanalytic and literary), but also of the question of what it means to read and write as an analyst.  Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” is marked by feminine resistance from the start, if we are attentive to it.  In its opening, Nathaniel’s letter is sent not to its supposed addressee, Lothair, but to Clara, thus reaching its destination by resisting the assumptions of the text that houses it, and which announces the letter, “Nathaniel to Lothair.”  In that heading, address and itinerary are conflated only to be sundered, which then reveals the duplicity of the address, and the textual prescription that articulates it, in the first place.  Clara admits the postal mistake but reads on—and responds—nevertheless, her reading and writing thus acts of resistance against these various claims.  She knew she had been called by these letters between men.

Hélène Cixous claims that Freud’s hypothesis that castration anxiety lies at the heart of the uncanny is an effect more than anything of his position as a writer, since without this potential solution, “the narration would be castrated.”  Thus “the fear of castration comes to the rescue of the fear of castration.” Through the thesis of castration anxiety, Freud asserts his mastery over his text; in so doing, he stakes his place against the creative writers that, throughout the essay, he seems to envy for their ability to do without his own tactics of proof and explanation.  Freud’s essay may be read, in part, as a battle, over the grounds of the uncanny, between psychoanalytic and literary texts, the latter of which is as he says a distinctively “fertile province” for the uncanny effect.  He further announces himself, at the start of the essay, as immune to the uncanny feeling, though he does include himself in the uncanny scene twice: once on a train, where he glimpses himself in a window and fails to recognize the old man in the reflection, and once in a foreign city, in which he unintentionally circles back, over and over, to a square filled with painted women.  This action then mimics the movement of his essay, which gravitates both to castration anxiety and to the question of creative writing: a “field of research” that, as he says, he “drift[s] into…half involuntarily.” The uncanny thus maps the action of a repetitive, involuntary return to the fertile provinces of both the feminine and the aesthetic, which may be codes for each other (painted/women)

I think that Freud’s self-exclusion, at the start of “The Uncanny,” from both the uncanny and the aesthetic—as he says, “it is only rarely that a psychoanalyst feels impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics,” though really all evidence speaks to the contrary—is part of a struggle with femininity that is also bound up with a refusal of writerly castration that he takes up at times, but that he also regrets and at other times is able to do without.  He might have taken a lesson here from his dream of Irma.  But he doesn’t, and this means that, in “The Uncanny,” Freud mistakes something of his subject, as though he could only be lured into the dislocations of the uncanny while away from the space that is its proper location—to the extent that in both of the instances of the uncanny in which Freud includes himself in the essay, he is away from home.  He more than anyone should know that if the home is also the un-home—if the home already inscribes separation, alienation—then one need not wait for a vacation to send a dispatch from the uncanny.  There is something here that is keeping Freud from properly locating himself in the scene of his own writing.

Cixous points out that, as representatives of the Heimlichin “The Sandman,” Clara and her brother are “attenuate[d]…to the point of effacement” in Freud’s essay, with Freud repeating Nathaniel’s gesture of eliding the centrality of the woman.  But perhaps more to the point is that, in serving as representatives of the Heimlich, Clara and her brother also necessarily represent the Unheimlichas well, to which their peculiar relationship attests.  What indeed is going on with the love triangle between Clara, her brother, and Nathaniel?  Something dank is brewing underneath the comforts of the domestic, and this may determine Freud’s elision as much as anything else.  One might have expected him to put Clara to question, ending the story as she does absolutely couched in the domestic, with a husband at her side and two sons at her feet, having given up doing any writing—since why write from within such bliss—and no longer acting, broadly speaking, as an analyst: since as Mladen Dolar writes, Clara (among others) takes on the psychoanalytic position with respect to Nathaniel.  But to interrogate Clara’s domestic tableau on the register of the uncanny would mean resisting the marriage plot as the story installs it, which might also mean interrogating one’s own relationship to domesticity, marriage, and the image of the happy family—perhaps even to love triangles with, I don’t know, one’s spouse’s sibling. Both of those gestures would then be acts of feminine resistance as Felman identifies it, and Freud, in his reading, does not perform them.

To Derrida, further, one element of the scene of writing is a writing of oneself through one’s proper name, which, for Freud, if he had engaged it, might have meant an interrogation of his name’s inevitable binding up with its own negative in the field of marriage: that is, “in Freud und Leid,” or, “for better or worse.”  Plenty of people have criticized Freud’s reading of Hoffmann’s story and, though I’m loathe to jump on the bandwagon, I am interested in whyhis reading falters; and though this is purely speculative and admittedly wild, what I’m suggesting is that it is because, perhaps for defensive reasons having to do with his own deeply-inscribed relationship to marriage, femininity, domesticity, and eros, he does not instantiate himself in his writing and reading.  This is not to knock Freud too much, since though he explicitly excludes himself from the scene of “The Uncanny,” he also, in other places—places at which he was distinctively attentive to feminine resistance and its fertility—was a marvelous self-reader and self-writer whose autobiographical writing, as Derrida says, birthed psychoanalysis.

I’ll allow myself to be interpellated here to say that my interest in these matters is very personal, in that they have come up for me in important ways toward the end of my analysis as it imbricates the question of my becoming an analyst and my writing as an analyst.  For me, both the end of my analysis and my self-authorization as an analyst will have been the effect of the writing of a book that is both a testimony of my analysis, and a letter to the man from whom I had to separate in order to end my analysis and become an analyst: the book a breaking of our vows—the better and worse—which would make these things possible.  It is a dream book, one that is old, forgotten, known, unknown, predicted, and new: the coming to be of a book that I saw in a dream from the beginning of my analysis, which itself, I suspect, may have been a response to seeing, on Amazon, a book called God’s Children published by one Emma Lieber in 1921, and released by a publisher called Forgotten Books.  Among many other things, the book interrogates my name—Lieber, German for “Dear one,” like at the start of a letter (masculine form); Liber, Latin noun meaning book, adjective meaning free—and attempts to explain something of the scene of my desire, as it relates to psychoanalysis, writing, and love, to my two sons.  You can see why I felt called to write about Clara’s place in the uncanny.

This isn’t to say that every analysis should end with a book, or that every analytic self-authorization need be carried out in writing as an effect of a separation from the domestic scene.  I do though think that it must necessarily involve a reorientation to the familiar or Heimlichmore generally, which may also mean a new appraisal of the feminine as it has been historically associated with domesticity, as well as of the forms of work affiliated with it.  But more so, it is to say that, to the extent that writing is important for psychoanalysis, I think that psychoanalysts are distinctively tasked with instantiating themselves in the scene of their own writing and their own engagement with text, whatever form it takes: tasked with attending to the transferential aspects of the acts of writing and reading, and with allowing themselves to be called by the texts they both produce and engage. Felman might call this an attention to feminine resistance in the production and reception of text; contemporary literary culture might call it something like auto-theory (a practice that has some of its origins in feminist and queer writing).  It is here I think that the written text takes up its proper place in psychoanalysis, as an object that might move something as much in the writer as in the reader, just as analytic listening acts on us along with our patients, bringing always with it the surprise of the new.


Emma Lieber is a writer and psychoanalyst in formation in New York, where she sees patients.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Point Magazine, New England Review, The Massachusetts Review, Cabinet, LA Review of Books, and various academic and psychoanalytic publications.  She is currently at work on a book manuscript, The Writing Cure, as well as an edited volume, The Queerness of Childhood: Essays From the Other Side of the Looking Glass (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, with Anna Fishzon).  She teaches psychoanalysis and literature at The New School and Cooper Union and is on the editorial board of The Candidate Journal.

Publication Date:

December 2, 2018

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis