Today I went on a field trip to the Freud Museum in North London to see the exhibition marking the centenary of the publication of Sigmund Freud’s essay on ‘The Uncanny’, a term often used to describe certain aspects of folklore. I’ve always found trying to define uncanny a tricky beast, but also I suspect it’s because uncanny is quite subjective. Certainly my friend Alex wasn’t nearly as unsettled as I was by one particular image. The closest I have to understanding what uncanny is, is when I feel something is just out of kilter; a bit, but not quite, like that feeling when you find a hair in your soup. Does that make sense?
Anyhow, the museum is delightful (despite the slightly ghoulish addition of the actual couch Freud died on) and is situated in the house he lived in after fleeing Vienna before the Second World War. I know very little about Freud, other than the obvious, so walking round looking at all his books, his desk, all the statues and masks, the family tree, hearing his daughter narrating old footage of them was fascinating.
And then I went round the museum again, but this time wearing headphones and listening to The Sandman app. The Sandman is a short story by ETA Hoffman, a 19th century gothic romance author, that Freud used to illustrate the uncanny. In this instance though, the folklorist and artist, Elizabeth Dearnley had woven Hoffman’s story of the protagonist Nathanael into the structure and fabric of the house to brilliant effect. Listening to Nathanael’s narration, the entrance hall became a site of anticipation, the masks in Freud’s study took on personalities, and the brightly lit balcony above the landing became fraught and ominous. And because all of this was being relayed through headphones, it was like being inducted into a secret world, everyone else was just wandering around, while I was being directed by the voices in my head.
So if you’re in the area, or even if you’re not, the exhibition is on until 9 February 2020, and once you buy a ticket for the museum it’s valid for a year. There’s even an excellent gift shop.
One last shout out to the museum’s toilet. It was in the house’s bathroom. Never in my life have I wanted to have a bath more as in that moment. I’m sure there’s probably something very Freudian about that…