The uncanny (or ‘unheimlich’ in German) is not the strange, but ‘the familiar become strange’ according to Freud’s 1919 essay. He provides a useful catalogue of entities that trigger the feeling of uncanny (such as doppelgängers) and tries to explain it as a fear of castration (!). One mark of the uncanny is that it evades all attempts to catalogue it comprehensively. It is by definition an undermining of boundaries, territories. If something which starts as familiar can then transform into something not quite right – something a bit strange – such as our own house that no longer feels like our own house, then nothing is exempt from this slide, this blurring, this elision between clarity and murk.
Most of the examples Freud gives are related to the inanimate and the not-quite-human. The dolls that are fabricated to look ‘real’ and yet miss the mark slightly. Similarly, robots that try and fail to look human fall into the ‘uncanny valley’.
What about a city? Walking around the Römerplatz here in Frankfurt, I admire the famous medieval houses which were destroyed in WWII and rebuilt afterwards. A city can be uncanny if it looks old and yet, on closer inspection, proves to be a reconstruction. Is it old or not? What exactly is it? Coming to Frankfurt raises issues over how the past and the present are not neatly divided into separate boxes or astronomical eras but all mixed up. Parts of the city are allowed to look old, even when they’re not. Perhaps ‘old’ in this context relates more to the idea of the building than to the actual age of the bricks and mortar. Elsewhere, the very newness of the buildings (e.g. the shops along the Zeil and the ‘Mainhattan’ skyscrapers) act as a sort of ghostly reminder of what they have replaced, the buildings that are no longer here.
Not far from the Römerplatz is the Holocaust memorial– an extensive wall with plaques for each of the 11957 Holocaust victims who came from Frankfurt. It goes on for several hundred metres, if not actually over a kilometre. Anne Frank is here (because she and her family were originally from Frankfurt). And so are the Goldschmidts. A lot of Goldschmidts. One of them shares both her first name and her surname with me (my official first name, not ‘Pippa’). It gave me an odd feeling to look at this plaque, and I realised that for people who have encountered this memorial (or others such as Stolpersteine which bear the name ‘Goldschmidt’) and who then meet me, that perhaps I am a little bit uncanny. Are people like me an intrusion of the past into the present? Something misplaced, or back in its rightful place? Trying to fit ourselves into our old homes, our old haunts.