On Freud's examination of the Uncanny in Literature

byKyriakosCH 2mo14th Jun 2019No comments

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It is often mentioned that Freud’s Psychoanalytical theory has influenced literature very considerably. Regarding stories that aspire to cause dread, his article on the Uncanny in Literature provides good insight – particularly his interpretation of “The Sandman”,  E.T.A. Hoffmann’s bleak and magical story of fiery circles, monsters and doppelgangers,  is worth mentioning...

The Sandman, the eponymous fiend of this story, is both a magical entity (a flying beaked demon that abducts little children and uses their eyes so as to feed his own offspring) and a dyad of mysterious men: an ominously looking old lawyer, Coppelius, and a merchant of eyeglasses, called Giuseppe Coppola. Both names etymologically are derived from the Italian word for “eye”, and their links to the monstrous Sandman of legend do not stop there.

The Lawyer Coppelius

Coppelius is a very unpleasant-looking man, who seems to despise children. The protagonist of the story, the student Nathaniel, recalls how he hated and feared Coppelius ever since he was a boy. While at first the antipathy was caused by disgust at how the old man looked, as well as due to the antagonistic attitude he consistently demonstrated when invited to Nathaniel's family home by his father, later on Nathaniel comes to regard Coppelius as the actual murderer of his father – whose death took place during a chemical, possibly alchemy-related, experiment.  

Coppelius had already been fused in Nathaniel's mind with the mythical Sandman – the child’s governess was reckless enough to fill his mind with tales of horror, and it should be noted that she was the one who first suggested that his father’s night-time guest was the Sandman. Nathaniel always loved stories of mystery and the macabre, so the repugnant and terrifying figure of the winged and beaked Sandman soon assumed a central position in his personal pantheon of ghouls.

Coppelius manages to escape after the apparent accident that killed Nathaniel's father, and Nathaniel will only see him again – or at any rate believe he saw him – years later, while studying far away from his home city.

The optometrist Giuseppe Coppola

Coppola first appears to the student Nathaniel wishing to sell him some of his wares – lenses, small telescopes and eyeglasses. Nathaniel immediately feels repulsed, because the visage of this merchant is uncannily similar to the lawyer Coppelius'. At length, he decides to buy one of the elegant lenses, which he will soon put to use so to have a better look at the object of his desires: the university professor’s beautiful daughter, Olympia.

Unfortunately for Nathaniel the gained ability to have a closer look at Olympia - a girl normally isolated and confined to her room and only making her appearance by the window - results to dangerous infatuation and the dreaded sense that something is not quite right with her... For the rest of the story he will persistently attempt to negate his worries, despite the fact that they are consequently fueled by rumors circulating among the students, according to which Olympia is bizarrely wooden and barely ever speaks. Nathaniel is enamored and distances himself from his old friends as well as his old fiancee who stayed back at their hometown.

Two fathers, two father-killers and two sons

Hoffmann uses doppelgangers in most of his works. In the Sandman there are at least two notable pairs: Nathaniel has two fathers, the one who died during the alchemy experiment and his university professor (who wishes Nathaniel to marry Olympia, his daughter, and thus become his son-in-law). There are also two killers of the father figure: Coppelius (said to have caused the death of the father) and Coppola, who comes to fight with the university professor over ownership of the wooden automaton known as Olympia and mortally wounds him…

There are also, according to Freud, far more crucially two sons:

Freud does make a very convincing case when he argues that Olympia, the life-like piece of machinery, appears to be in reality part of Nathaniel. Indeed, the reader should note that while Nathaniel lost his father, Olympia is virtually next to her father all of the time, and whereas Nathaniel was scared by Coppola/Coppelius and the Sandman, Olympia is perfectly fine with being restricted and ordered around, docile and well-behaved. Freud argues that Olympia alludes to what the child, threatened by a potentially dangerous father, created as a means to avoid friction with the source of dread. Olympia can never antagonize the father, whereas Nathaniel keeps getting into considerable trouble in his attempt to come to terms with the various splits of the father-image.

In the end, Nathaniel only wishes to become one with Olympia, and if Freud’s analysis is correct then this wish is only one for self-completion. The split part of the youth can no longer stay away, it cannot be pushed away to another city and live in perpetual exile. Of course Nathaniel himself is not aware of the special tie to Olympia, yet everything about the story leads to the conclusion that this uncanny dance of living and wooden forms is orchestrated as an unwitting ceremony in honor of the father-image: Nathaniel and Olympia risk losing their very eyes – with Freud referring his reader to the psychoanalytic theory that links fear of losing one’s eyes to fear of castration.

In conclusion

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman is, arguably, one of the most elegant works of dark romanticism. An uncanny story, presented masterfully – and one where the deeper meaning is allowed to remain hidden, so that the reader is free to be dazzled, surprised, horrified and indeed take part mentally in this macabre dance of hidden emotions and repressed memories. It was certainly a poignant decision by Freud to focus on this work in his article, since its use of the uncanny in high literature is paradigmatic.

By Kyriakos Chalkopoulos (https://www.patreon.com/posts/27630785)

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