‘Following the Universe’ or ‘Freud and the Uncanny’

I’ve read once, I can’t remember where, that once upon a time, Sir Isaac Newton had a friend over for dinner. A friend who turned out to be quite intrigued by a horseshoe nailed to one of the walls. Not resisting his own curiosity, the guest asked the man who discovered gravity whether he truly believed the object could bring him good luck. To which the scientist replied: ‘Of course not. But I’m told it works anyway’.

After doing a little research, I found out that the sentence was already attributed also to both Bohr and Einstein, among others, but in reality no one knows for sure if it is anything but ‘urban legend’. In any case, the anecdote has its appeal: even minds that were gifted with the most acute powers of reasoning will never put aside all of their superstitions. Even if in many cases they try and do their best not to believe them.

Even minds that were gifted with the most acute powers of reasoning will never put aside all of their superstitions.

As a matter of fact, it is hard to neglect coincidences when they become recurring. Imagine the case of a number that keeps popping up (the room number in the hotel is the same as the seat in the theater, which also happens to be the value of the taxi ride, for instance). It is not that it is simply going to be noticed. It will likely be felt as uncomfortably strange… This is precisely the kind of feeling that Freud deals with in his essay on “The Uncanny” (1919). Uncanny is the English translation for the German original unheimliche, which, as per Wikipedia, refers to ‘the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious’.

According to Freud, uncanny feelings may originate from the ‘omnipotence of thoughts’, characterized by ‘the subject’s narcissistic overvaluation of his own mental processes’. In other words, an archaic belief in the magic power of thoughts, thoughts thus capable of making wishes come true. ‘We – or our primitive forefathers – once believed that these possibilities were realities, and were convinced that they actually happened. Nowadays we no longer believe in them, we have surmounted these modes of thought; but we do not feel quite sure of our new beliefs […]. As soon as something actually happens in our lives, which seems to confirm the old, discarded beliefs we get a feeling of the uncanny’. ‘An uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed’.

For instance: before going to bed, I wish it rained tomorrow so that I wouldn’t feel obliged to be out. Next morning I wake up with the thunderstorm noises. Something deep inside seems to be telling me I was able to change the weather.

Indeed, a thought like that seems to be a bit exaggerated nowadays. The advance of rationality and, consequently, of science made ‘magic thoughts’ sound somewhat ridiculous. The irony is that they were replaced by at least one surrogate feeling, which someway somehow appeals to the narcissism prevailing in each and every one of us. I’d say it is something like a belief in the “omnipotence of actions”. Only work creates wealth? Only that which I have strived for should be appreciated? Whatever I do effortlessly should not be noteworthy? The corporate world salivates.

To work is, in a way, to put in practice something that would not happen spontaneously. Whatever work we do, we always “changes the world”, even if infinitesimally. Therefore, the more we make things happen in a certain way, the more we will be rewarded for that. After all, more value will have been created the further we are from the natural flow of things. Obsessive-prone people will end up being ‘reinforced’ in a negative way: promotions and higher wages suggesting that trying to control everything is worth the effort. Eventually, the ‘omnipotence of actions’ becomes addictive.

The more we are successful on professional grounds, the more we’ll be conditioned to believe that we can and must make things happen in a certain and pre-conceived way. We’ll be tempted to try and interfere in everything happening around us. In all of the other spheres of our lives. We receive lots of signs that our job is not compatible with our vocation, still we do all we can to make it work. We have an injury but go to the gym anyway because withstanding the pain seems to be more important than giving up on a certain goal – even if this goal was entirely set by ourselves to start with.

The maxim of “following the universe” may sound a bit esoteric – even though the universe, or the cosmos, was once the paradigm for life in the tales that gave birth to Western rationality, the Greek mythology. However, it doesn’t have to be anything supernatural. No faith is required to have other tools than reason as a guide for action. An intuition that something feels right may be enough. The capacity to change our minds or to simply give up. According to Freud’s own terminology, to pursue the pleasure principle. And not only that blind drive for doing. Water always finds the path of least resistance, especially because it doesn’t want to defy any law of physics. Effortlessly.

This is maybe why Newton once discovered the law of gravity: for leaving open the channels to his intuition! What would all the rationality of Newtonian physics be good for without that first apple hunch?

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