Fragmentation and Sigmund Freud’s Concept of the Uncanny

January 5, 2022 by Essay Writer

Fragmentation is further established in the Dutch National Theatre’s portrayal of Les Contes d’Hoffman. In Stella’s final scene, she is nowhere to be found. Instead director, Tobias Kratzer has Olympia, Antonia, and Guiletta all sing her final lines. The mix of the voices demonstrate Hoffmann’s descent into madness as he is no longer able to separate and treat the women as individuals, instead he dis-identifies his muse into three separate facets of being. This fragmentation reflects Nathanael and Franz’s inability to clearly see the women in their respective lives as anything more than the narcissistic reflection of their own self-interests. The concept of narcissism through the use of mirroring as found in Coppelia and Der Sandman created is demonstrated here and hailed as a recurring theme throughout the adaptations. The diseased perceptive faculties with which Nathanael operates are therefore shown to not only affect Nathanael’s life, but also the lives of those around him who ultimately end up suffering for Nathanael’s deceptive perception.

Physically demonstrating the diseased faculties that Nathanael works with throughout Der Sandmann, Coppelia and Les Contes d’Hoffmann allows Kratzer to develop the concept of diseased perception beyond simply reinforcing that the stories are three individual facets of our prima donna, Stella. This leaves Nathanael in the position of potentially losing Stella because he cannot clearly see her. Stella therefore steps further into the role of Clara than any previous direction of the character has. She is not only the muse to whom Nathanael loses his sense of identity, but she also doubles as Olympia as she is disenfranchised by Nathanael’s loss of sight. As Nathanael cannot see her for who she truly is, she becomes a caricature of herself and the audience of the opera views an incomplete identity. In this scenario, Nathanael and the audience lose their perception and their eyes by a shared inability to recognise Stella. The doubled position of the audience and Nathanael and the triple identity of Stella leads to an uncertainty of identity.

Incomplete identities are a key theme in Hoffmann’s text. Freud creates a psychoanalytical reading of the uncanny, to explain underlying psychological issues resulting from a diseased perception of reality. In his reflections on Hoffmann’s tale “Der Sandmann,” Freud identifies Nathanael’s childhood trauma, the death of his father, as the fundamental source of the obsession with the sandman in later life. Questioning his intentions to distinguish between psychoanalytical realities and ‘fiction in rhetoric’ (Cixous, 1976: 533), Cixous demonstrates the problematic nature of the novella through issues of narrative authenticity. Although Freud’s response to the text legitimises Nathanael’s perspective, ‘the two version of the sandman… have to be read in order to notice what has been slipped into one version from the other’ (Cixous, 1976: 533). While this allows Freud to analyse Nathanael as if he were a real person, literature cannot create real people. For Cixous, Freud’s desire to understand Nathanael as a real person is understandable as perceiving complete identities is reassuring (Cixous, 1976: 537). However, the perception of incomplete identities allows a reader to fully engage in the act of reading. Freud’s determination to create a corporeal identity for Nathanael results in his new role as storyteller. He writes a new form of fiction in order to explain his diagnosis of Nathanael in his response to Hoffmann’s text. While many traditional readers of Hoffmann’s tale rely on Freud’s interaction with the text and psychoanalysis, his response is better categorised as an adaptation than psychoanalysis.

Conversely, Jentsch’s original essay avoids a reading of Nathanael’s mental health and instead focuses on the feeling of uncertainty. In this essay, the concept of uncertainty provides the feeling of the uncanny, as ‘the child such little experiences that even simple things become unexplainable and simple situations are perceived as dark secrets’ (Jentsch, 1906: 196). For Jentsch, children exhibit a noticeable level of uncertainty and fluctuating subjectivity because of their limited experiences. Here, Jenkins analyses the concept that Nathanael’s mind is naturally predisposed to the uncanny because he is unable to discriminate between situations he is unable to comprehend. For the reader, this creates a sense of danger precisely because the text reimagines the same trauma experienced by Nathanael in his initial interaction with his father and Coppola and re-examines it in various different circumstances throughout the book. Moreover, this uncertainty also applies to the lives of the readers. As the sandman is a well-known children’s tale, when the story is retold in a sinister capacity, there is a return to a child-like remembrance of the story which is familiar. Familiar, in this sense refers both to the known and to the familial sense of the word. Children’s tales are often told to children by their parents before they sleep, demonstrating the key connection between childhood and the known. This familiarity is adapted to become a warning, thus removing some of the fondness of the association and ensuring that the uncertainty arises from the familiar and the safe.

For Freud, this return to childhood serves a different purpose. The double is the primary source of narcissism for a child. In early childhood, this produces projections of multiple selves. By doing this, the child insures their immortality. But when it is encountered later in life, after childhood narcissism has been overcome, the double invokes a sensation of the uncanny or the return to the primitive state. In his essay Das Unheimliche, Freud negates the impression that Olympia is the source of the uncanny in Der Sandmann, and instead points to the Sandman himself. However, Freud’s interpretation is reductive, even if we ignore his omission of narration, plot and figuration on a literary level. He attempts to analyse the author and not the story. As Freud’s attempt to analyse his location of the uncanny within the text treats the characters as though they were non-fictional patients of his, he takes the story as non-fiction and thus Hoffmann as a journalist rather than an author. Freud’s analysis of Nathanael as a real person suggests that Hoffmann is super-imposing himself into the narrative. This refusal to review the text as fiction delegitimises the psychonalytical aspect of his response as it no longer has any evidentiary backing.

Moreover, his interpretation ignores the linguistic elements of das unheimlische. Heimlische is translated into English as ‘homely’ or ‘familiar’. In Jentsch’s interpretation of the concept, he discusses how even linguistically the word unheimliche is able to portray something new that exists in something already known, ‘it is thus comprehensible if a correlation ‘new, foreign, hostile’ corresponds to the psychical association of ‘old, known, familiar’. In the former case, one’s lack of orientation will then easily be able to take on the shading of the uncanny’ (Jentsch, 4-5). The key aspect of homely and familiar seem applicable to the story of the sandman as the site of the original trauma is located within the family home and within the familial relationship. Coppola is connected to the experience of Nathanael with his father. In connecting the site of the trauma with the family and the home, all further experiences are automatically connected to the trauma of loss of family.

Freud attempts to analyse the effect of defamiliarising the familiar when he discusses the concept of perspective. Whilst he correctly argues that from the perspective of those who are at home, the scene is familiar and those who are away from home will find themselves in unfamiliar territory, this argument never really links to his conception of the uncanny as a return to the infantile state and is therefore redundant.


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