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The Uncanny / from 1994 ‘Working Through Objects’

Susan Hiller

Heimlich, as those of you familiar with Freud’s writings on the uncanny will know, is a very important word with reference to the German word unheimlich, un-homelike, which is translated into English as ‘uncanny’, Heimlich means homelike, homely, cosy, from the word heim, home”. But in Freud’s essay on the uncanny he says something that in English seems very paradoxical, that the heimlich and the unheimlich are very close. If you look up heimlich in a German-English dictionary, what you find is that it says ‘homelike’, ‘homely’, ‘cosy’, ‘comfortable’, then goes on to ‘private’, ‘secretive’, ‘furtive’, ‘hidden’, ‘forbidden’, a range of suggestions about what goes on and is protected within the home, within the family, and you suddenly get to the unheimlich without any break. You’re led from cosy to incest. All those meanings of home exist in English, but not explicitly, and our word ‘uncanny’ doesn’t relate to the root of ‘home’.