Translated Memory

Readings of the Uncanny in Austrian Literature

Sigmund Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” (1919) has inspired a tradition of primarily French and American interpretations which translate psychoanalytical theory into post-structuralist theories of culture and text. This research project analyses these translations and the consequences they have for “uncanny” readings of texts in general and specifically for a repertoire of uncanny motives. The examination of various exemplary texts will show how postwar Austrian literature depicts the “uncanny” and how this very depiction refers to historical experience. 

The uncanny happens when the repressed and the secret surface in what seems to be familiar. The uncanny is a mode in which fear and alienation are encountered. Uncanny is when fiction appears as reality and reality as fiction. The uncanny is elusive to language and the translation of language, emanating from blind spots both of individuals and cultures. – A wide variety of approaches describe the uncanny and the kind of speech acts in which it is produced. Even this very ambiguity goes to the essence of its meaning: The uncanny, then, refers to the impossibility of grasping something in a clear-cut concept.All these attempts to define the uncanny have been made by post-structuralist French (Lacan, Vachs, Todorov, Derrida, Cixous, Kofman, Kristeva, Goldschmidt, et al.) and American (Cavell, Weber, et al.) readings of Sigmund Freud’s essay. These readings interfere with each other: They do not only redefine some concepts pivotal for the understanding of the uncanny (like the “unconscious”, “fear”, and the “repressed”); they also alter their approach to a repertoire of “uncanny” motives (like the hidden gaze, the labyrinth or the mirror-cabinet, the double).A systematic investigation of this theoretical tradition has so far been undertaken neither in German-speaking countries in general, nor specifically in Austria. This is true despite the fact that concepts of the “uncanny”, of fear and repression, as well as the analysis of specific motives of the uncanny have been ubiquitous in the interpretation of Austrian literature after 1945 (e.g. Fritsch, Lebert, Bernhard, Jelinek). This research project aims to develop the theoretical implications of concepts and motives of the uncanny in order to allow for a new perspective on how readings of the uncanny in Austrian literature reflect historical experience.

Project leader: Christoph Leitgeb
Funding: ÖAW

Photo: Tate Modern, (c) Cornelia Hülmbauer