Scherzo and the Unheimlich: The Construct of Genre and Feeling in the Long 19th Century*

By Péteri, Lóránt | Studia Musicologica, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Scherzo and the Unheimlich: The Construct of Genre and Feeling in the Long 19th Century*


Péteri, Lóránt, Studia Musicologica


Sire!' cried Andres.... 'The effect of your princely edict concerning Enlightenment would perhaps be affected in an unpleasant way, if we do not combine it with a measure that certainly appears severe, but which common sense actually demands.'

'Before we progress with Enlightenment, i. e. before we hack down the forests, make the rivers navigable, grow potatoes, improve the village schools, plant acacias and poplars, teach the youth to sing the morning and evening hymns in two parts, lay high roads and inoculate against cowpox, it is necessary that all those of dangerous disposition, who lend no ear to reason and lead the people astray by sheer inanity, be expelled from the state.'

'You have read A Thousand and One Nights, dear Fürst... From these completely muddled books, you will, my noble Lord, probably know of the socalled fairies, but certainly not suspect that several of these dangerous persons have settled in your own beloved land, right in the vicinity of your palace, and are getting up to all sorts of mischief.'

'What? - What is the man saying? - Andres! Minister! Fairies - here in my land?'

Thus cried the Fürst, going deathly pale and sinking into the back of his chair.1

If Sigmund Freud is to be believed, sober, cultured citizens possessed of an enlightened education were going deathly pale and sinking back into their chairs for the next hundred years, whenever they were obliged to assume the fairies were at their door. An honest citizen had to think the fairies were up to tricks because he was constantly encountering on the acacia-lined road of life things that he could not squeeze into the frames of common sense, yet were too gross for him to ignore. According to Freud, certain situations turn uncanny for a Bildungsbürger because they seem to confirm a magical world-view he had hoped to find doubly superseded both historically, with the establishment of the scientific world-view, and individually, some time after receiving his smallpox inoculation, while he sang lustily in two parts, having left childhood and shed its complexes and animistic ideas. But it is not simply or even primarily by learning that people free themselves of their convictions about the secret, irrational side of the world. They do it more than anything else by suppressing it. And when these convictions seem to be confirmed after all by circumstances, the suppressed content of consciousness bursts forth again as anxiety. The Doppelgänger that served to protect our ego in distant history (as in ancient Egyptian sarcophaguses) and in childhood (as in dolls we clothed in our own characteristics), turns in enlightened adulthood into a bugbear, a danger that threatens identity. Similarly, the repetition compulsion associated in a child with the pleasure principle makes a ghastly or ghostly impression on an educated person. So the unheimlich is not the opposite of the heimlich - the long known, the familiar - but a distortion of it.

So far I have failed to answer the not wholly rhetorical question of whether Freud can be believed in all this. If the subject of my examination had been the slice of reality known as the psyche, I would have to say I have no idea - one should ask the psychologists. But my subject is actually another, no less important slice, known generally as cultural discourse. And the Freudian construct of the uncanny has made a comprehensive contribution to a discourse contained in literary and evaluative texts stretching from the late 18th century to the First World War.2 Freud himself cites several literary examples and analyses extensively the story Der Sandmann [The Sandman], also by Hoffmann, whom he called the unchallenged master of the uncanny.

Ernst Jentsch, whose 1906 evaluation of the uncanny3 inspired Freud much more than is apparent from his rather forced references and polemic comments on him, relies on Hoffmann's writings, too. Jentsch argues that we receive an uncanny impression from phenomena that slip the intellectual control we wish to exercise over them. …

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