The term estrangement connotes an idea of novelty or even bizarreness. Freud, in his essay "The Uncanny" (1919h), added an additional meaning when he emphasized that this feeling, an experience close to a sensation, is at its peak when it is triggered by the reappearance of a familiar object that has been forgotten or repressed for a long time. The feeling of estrangement can be compared to the phenomena of déjà vu or déjà vécu (previously lived). Although the concept is developed in The psychopathology of everyday life (Freud, 1901), it is referred to as such only in his short essay "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis" (Freud, 1936a).
The concept of estrangement has been extensively described in classical psychiatry, which views it as a delusion associated with the inability to recognize a known object or person. Pierre Janet considered estrangement to be a disturbance of the reality function and a breakdown in the process of mental synthesis. Freud, however, distinguished such phenomena (which he also studied) from those described in the literature, where uncertainty about the nature of objects (living or dead, human or automata) is voluntarily maintained to create in the reader a feeling of anxiety, a sense of the uncanny.
Starting from Friedrich Schelling's idea that the feeling of estrangement arises from exposure to something that is revealed but should have remained hidden, Freud went on to stress the return of the repressed. In terms of symptoms, the feeling of estrangement appears as an anxiety that something is about to be revealed. It can be seen as a form of transgression, like crossing to the other side of an imaginary line without knowing how or why one got there. This transgression is not only prohibited by the superego but is associated with the subject's identity and simultaneously concerns the limit between internal and external, the limits among past, present, and future, and the limit between life and death. The feeling of estrangement is associated with a mysterious imaginary time before life, which is therefore unrecognizable and yet insists on revealing its familiarity.
Freud had already developed these ideas in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a). There he wrote that what is felt as strange in the outside world initially belonged to the self and was then projected to the exterior. The nonself, the object of perception, is only recognizable through this process of projection (an animist conception of the world). This feeling of estrangement is also related to the dialectic between the strange and the familiar among the dead, who are not completely separated from the living but rather continue to hover around them (the taboo against the dead).
The psychoanalytic feeling of estrangement arises from a sudden confrontation between a perception of the outside world and repressed primitive internal perceptions. These internal perceptions are not apprehended as such and appear in the subject's mental space only after having been projected onto the outside world. Consequently, they are bound to the objects that support them. This crossing of a limit, whether it involves the before or after, the animate or inanimate, the internal or external, is always associated with the death drive, whose final goal is the initial state—an expression of the inertia of organic life.
In "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis" (1936a), Freud, deepening and restricting the feeling of estrangement, saw it essentially as a defense mechanism that attempts to distance something from the ego (depersonalization) or include something external (false recognition, déjà vu, previously narrated). The oedipal explanation of Freud's disturbance of memory (guilt for surpassing his father, realization of his desire to escape his family) does not cover all there is to estrangement.
The feeling of estrangement, which is so difficult to grasp, is an inherent part of psychoanalysis itself when it attempts to revivify repressed contents. It is associated with what Freud defined in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) as the demonic, which characterizes the repetition compulsion. To a considerable extent, it has the characteristics of a drive, yet it is hostile to the pleasure principle. In a sense, estrangement, in its unconscious dimension, may impose limits on our understanding, like an iceberg, which remains largely submerged.
Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor
See also: Certainty; Déjà vu; Depersonalization; "Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis, A"; Double, the; Premonitory dream; Ego; German romanticism and psychoanalysis; Illusion; Phantom; Repetition; Secret; Self-consciousness; Telepathy; "'Uncanny, The"'.
Freud, Sigmund. (1901b). The psychopathology of everyday life. SE,6.
——. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
——. (1919h). The uncanny. SE, 17: 217-256.
——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
——. (1936a). A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis. SE, 22: 239-248.