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Our March LMCC meeting took place on Wednesday, March 29 at 5:30pm in Greenlaw 509 (temporarily relocated from Greenlaw 225) and via Zoom. We discussed John Zilcosky’sCover of Zilcosky's The Language of Trauma 2021 monograph, The Language of Trauma: War and Technology in Hoffman, Freud, and Kafka from the University of Toronto Press. Specifically, we discussed:

  • Introduction: “Literature, Trauma, and the Sign of Illness” (pp. 3-15)
  • Chapter 2: “Freud and World War I: The Uncanny Trauma of Contagion” (pp. 41-67)

If you missed the meeting, you can still access the text on the Readings page of this site!

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In April, we continued our discussion of Zilcosky, and you can see the notes from that meeting here.


Zilcosky, John. The Language of Trauma: War and Technology in Hoffman, Freud, and Kafka. U of Toronto P, 2021.

Some key passages:

Introduction: “Literature, Trauma, and the Sign of Illness” (pp. 3-15)

“With this group of seemingly self-enclosed modern texts in mind, my first, more modest, goal is to add other works that are likewise quietly permeated by war and by industrial trauma – especially that associated with travel by railway. For this, I have chosen exemplary writings: from romanticism (E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’), from modernism’s crossover genre of fiction mixed with science or philosophy (Freud’s ‘strange theoretical novel,’ The Uncanny), and from literary modernism itself (Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as well as his late stories). In each of these cases, I engage in close readings to reveal the contemporaneous discourse of trauma that has, till now, remained concealed: in ‘The Sandman,’ the Napoleonic Wars; in The Uncanny, shell shock from World War I; in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the pathology of the railway journey; and in his late stories, the trauma caused precisely by the desire to have one’s trauma recognized. Medical researchers referred to this desire as ‘pension neurosis’ – a neurosis created by the longing for a pension – and later as ‘pension-struggle neurosis’ (Rentenkampfneurose): a neurosis caused by the stress of trying to convince the bureaucracy to release one’s pension. This bureaucratic catch-22 indeed plagues many of Kafka’s characters” (Zilcosky 6).

“My second, more ambitious, goal is to connect this medical language of trauma with the language of scepticism in romanticism and modernism, specifically, through the two discourses’ obsession with inscrutability. The modern science of trauma – issuing from the nineteenth-century concurrence of industrial violence and medical empiricism – faced a particularly hermeneutic, ‘literary’ problem. Weeks after surviving a battle or a railway accident, patients presented a baffling series of symptoms: sobbing, shaking, twitching, sleeplessness, blurred vision, and so on. Because doctors could find no physical source to which these symptoms pointed, they invented one” (Zilcosky 6-7).

“Instead it [a supposed submicroscopic or molecular source of one’s trauma] created only further uncertainty; neither patient nor doctor could see or touch the source of suffering. The physical lesion that was supposed to be the symptom’s underlying truth now became its anxiogenic missing origin” (Zilcosky 7).

“This ‘ultramodern’ hermeneutical language of the ‘undetectable pathological-anatomical substrate’ dovetailed with the linguistic scepticism of the literature and philosophy of the period. Whether we begin in the early nineteenth century with the playwright Heinrich von Kleist’s ‘Kant crisis’ – his despair over our inability to access ‘truth’ – or romantic irony’s general sense that the literary text referred primarily to itself, we see a growing suspicion, from 1800 onward, that words could not describe a world beyond themselves” (Zilcosky 7).

“In 1906, the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure began his famous Course in General Linguistics, in which he examined the instability of all linguistic signs. The sign, he argued, was split. It consisted of the signifier (the written or spoken word) and the signified (the concept or object towards which the signifier pointed). The relation between these two was ‘arbitrary,’ Saussure contended, in that there was no ‘natural connection’ between, say, the letters C-A-T and the furry four-legged creature to which these supposedly referred. Saussure’s insights deepened the crisis of signification – leading eventually to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s claim that signifiers can ‘float’ over and above the content of a particular signified, and to poststructuralism’s vaunted insistence on the signifier’s ‘free play’” (Zilcosky 8).

“The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century discourses of medical trauma and of language scepticism converged in this disconnection of the signifier from the signified. Although medical researchers never stated this, they knew implicitly that medical symptoms resembled linguistic signs” (Zilcosky 8).

“…the new ‘uninjured’ bodies suffering from the traumatic effects of modern weapons and vehicles resisted this medical semiotics. The symptom no longer referred to a physical substrate” (Zilcosky 8).

“If we can speak in this way of a hermeneutic crisis in the medical history of trauma, can we likewise speak of a traumatic form of narration in romanticism and modernism? The trauma of trains and war appears in the subtexts of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, and more important, these traumas affect the authors’ ways of telling stories” (Zilcosky 9).

“We discover in The Uncanny hidden references to soldiers buried alive in the trenches, to a traumatized soldier returning from colonial New Guinea, and to a series of shaking, amputated bodies that mimicked the shell-shocked veterans on Europe’s streets. The fact that Freud never named these victims creates an uncanny effect within the text itself, making it a traumatic narrative twice over: it stages the same ‘return of the repressed’ that Freud diagnosed and also demonstrates how the concealed symptoms of shock, like the floating signs of trauma within The Uncanny, peregrinate contagiously from subject to subject. This effect infects the style of the text, whose authority is undone by an erratic mixture of evidence, legend, and personal anecdote. Within this, the perspective shifts from the objective third person of science to the first person of ‘Freud,’ who becomes a fragile character in his own ‘strange theoretical novel.’ He is the ‘elderly gentleman’ spooked on a night train, susceptible to the same hysterical contagion that threatened the war veterans” (Zilcosky 9-10).

“I do not mean to imply that these novels are free of the formal literary crisis that I am analysing in romanticism and modernism. But I have chosen texts that do not directly address war and modern technology because, precisely in their silence around any actual event, they engage with trauma on a secondary level. They thus recreate the semiotic crisis at the heart of the medical trauma discourse. Moreover, they perform that crisis in a peculiar way of writing history – an anti-history. They precisely do not name history’s equivalent for the anatomical substrate: the ‘real’ causal occurrence at the heart of traditional historiography” (Zilcosky 11-12).

“I am indeed claiming that Hoffmann, Kafka, and Freud reacted to the traumas – and corresponding crises in medical discourses – created by the Napoleonic Wars, train travel, the Balkan Wars, and World War I” (Zilcosky 12).

“This complication is necessary because one cannot speak of ‘medical’ and ‘literary/philosophical’ discourses as if they were two separate things. As Mark Micale argues, these two worlds were much closer in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than they are today…. This blurring of medical and humanistic discourses expressed itself powerfully in the problem of causality. The very idea that doctors should find an anatomical source for a traumatic symptom sprang initially from humanistic thinking” (Zilcosky 12).

“Modern literature destroys the traditional sign and refuses to name causal events, thereby undermining determinate ways of writing the history of trauma” (Zilcosky 14).

“For although medical and literary discourses are intertwined, as revealed in the literary texts I discuss here, the literary texts demolish strict causalities. If they point to any historical causes, these are undermined in the moment of gesturing. Yet at the same time this undoing itself points towards a historical truth: the broken semiotics of trauma” (Zilcosky 14).

“My argument about the relation between modern literature and the medical history of trauma is meant to be neither comprehensive nor conclusive. I aim to make a bold theoretical intervention that allows for new ways of looking at modern literature from the perspective of a crisis in the semiotics of traumatic illness. To put it succinctly, my goal is twofold. First, I aim to delineate how those who suffered from trauma, those who tried to heal it, and those who represented it searched for a language that would explain and give voice to the suffering. Second, I want to reveal how this quest for a language of trauma defined a broader cultural crisis that extended across medical and literary discourses” (Zilcosky 14).

“The similarities and differences between these discourses are at the heart of my book. Medical doctors and literary authors tried to develop a new way of speaking about trauma, with doctors focusing on a language of explanation and writers seeking a language of expression. Yet Freud uniquely created a form of writing that encompassed both. And, as I argue here, Hoffmann and Kafka did likewise. They constructed figures like Nathanael and Gregor to explain traumatic suffering and let it speak” (Zilcosky 14-15).

“Perhaps these works now need to be read together, within the same constellation of trauma and the same crisis of meaning – a crisis that is at once medical and literary” (Zilcosky 15).

Chapter 2: “Freud and World War I: The Uncanny Trauma of Contagion” (pp. 41-67)

“[Anthony] Vidler’s association of Freud’s essay to World War I strikes us today as obvious. Although Freud did not complete The Uncanny until 1919, he wrote much of it during the hostilities, beginning even as early as 1913, and he mentions the war twice – once explicitly and once implicitly, as the ‘times in which we live’ (U 244, 220). More than this, he composed the essay in the midst of his other attempts to grapple, directly or indirectly, with the war’s effects” (Zilcosky 42).

“Freud’s observations on war and shock in The Uncanny have never been catalogued, perhaps because they are generally indirect. But they are numerous enough to constitute a sustained collective unconscious” (Zilcosky 42).

“This tale [the 1917 story “Inexplicable” in Strand Magazine] turns out to be vital to Freud’s central claim about the uncanny: that it results from the unexpected return of the repressed. For this story presents Freud with the most striking exemplar of such a return in postwar Europe: the traumatized soldier, given up for dead, coming back to haunt the home front – in the English story as well as in Freud’s own wartime dreams” (Zilcosky 43).

“The fact that Freud does not name this trauma in The Uncanny speaks only to the complexity of the problem it poses. In The Uncanny, I maintain, Freud begins to see phantasmagorical, psychosocial aspects to war shock that he could not address in his more clinical writings. His inability to state this directly even in The Uncanny ncreates a deeper uncanny effect within the essay itself. The Uncanny stages the same ‘return of the repressed’ that it diagnoses. In this chapter, I aim first to delineate this staging and, later, to propose its conceptual relevance. The shadow of the war forces us to understand the Freudian ‘uncanny’ differently: not just as a personal trauma but as a symptom of the social repression of this trauma. The real horror of the uncanny, Freud’s essay teaches us, is not our own but the other’s trauma – embodied in wartime Europe by the war neurotic and his apparently contagious affliction” (Zilcosky 43).

“This image of the dead man rising up to take revenge is of course ancient, but it would also have reminded Freud’s readers of the present: of stories circulating about German soldiers stuck in craters with enemy corpses for days, a major cause of the soldiers’ own ‘unheimlich’ belief in ghosts” (Zilcosky 45).

“…a premature burial would also have revived in Freud’s readers a different image, specifically the predominant traumatic one from World War I: being buried alive in the trenches – as opposed to the main vision of trauma from World War II, ‘Blitzkrieg.’” (Zilcosky 45).

“Freud’s insights drew on those of Hermann Oppenheim, one of Germany’s leading neurologists. Already in 1889, Oppenheim had identified ‘traumatic neurosis’ as a distinct clinical disorder, claiming that violent commotions caused by railway accidents damaged the fine tissue of the brain and produced neurotic symptoms. This theory was controversial, as I will discuss in the following chapter, but it led to changes in the insurance industry and rendered railways liable, for the first time, for neurotic injury” (Zilcosky 46).

“Ernst Simmel, a physician and self-trained psychoanalyst at a war hospital in Posen, took Oppenheim’s claim one step further – with the help of Freudian theory. In his 1918 book, praised by Freud at the time he was writing The Uncanny, Simmel claimed that Verschüttung was the single most important cause of all war traumas. He even coined a medical term: ‘burial-alive neurosis’ (Verschüttungsneurose)” (Zilcosky 46-47).

“For Simmel, the double meaning of Verschüttung perfectly captured the genesis of war trauma. When the soldier was buried alive (verschüttet), often beneath dead friends and with sand blocking his nose and mouth, his ego too became submerged (verschüttet), resulting in the ‘sudden burial [Verschütten] … of the personality-complex.’ This prevented him from dispelling his fright through normal affective reactions, leaving it to descend intact into his ‘unconscious.’ The fright settled there, as a repressed affect, which soon ossified into a neurosis. Enter here the psychoanalysts, who rushed to perform what Simmel called ‘mining work’ (Bergwerksarbeit) – Freud’s ‘work of spades,’ which complemented the military excavating of soldiers’ bodies from trenches after explosions. Penetrating the patient’s mind at its ‘highlands,’ Simmel’s psychological miners located the gate to the mind’s ‘depths’ and descended to its ‘chasms’ – where the man’s ego had plummeted during his burial. Here, they discovered the affect that became ‘stuck’ during the Verschüttung” (Zilcosky 47-48).

“This trauma would have been repeated on a second level for postwar readers. Descriptions of burial alive had indeed seemed uncanny from Edgar Allan Poe onward. But, as Freud argues, they had now become the ‘most uncanny thing of all.’ For in his time burial alive combined ancient fears and desires (including the fantasy of returning to the womb) with a vision of entombment so contemporary and raw that it was almost unspeakable” (Zilcosky 49).

“When Freud adds this dream to The Interpretation of Dreams in 1919, contemporaneously with The Uncanny, he interprets his son’s ‘climbing’ as its opposite: his ‘falling,’ or dying at war. Freud thus ignores a vitally troubling aspect of the dream – that the son is not dead but rather caught, uncannily, between life and death. What is more, Freud’s soldier-son, like Wilding, bears symptoms whose provenance could not have been a mystery to Freud: head injury, premature greying, exhaustion, muteness, and fidgeting fingers. Freud even states that his dream-son’s changed hair colour reminds him of his real-life son-in-law, whose hair had turned grey after being ‘hit hard by the war’ (SE 4:559–60). But this does not lead Freud, or his readers, to state the obvious. His soldier-son is not dead but traumatized, apparently by a war injury: confused, unable to speak, nervous, and lacking the motor skills to master the tasks of daily life” (Zilcosky 53).

“Like many of his colleagues in psychiatry Freud argued that ‘fright’ played a significant role in the creation of all war neuroses and, what is more, that injured soldiers were actually less likely to develop these neuroses than were uninjured ones” (Zilcosky 55).

“As I argued in chapter 1, Hoffmann’s copious writings about this battle predicted Nathanael’s experiences often verbatim – revealing that major aspects of ‘The Sandman’ are direct re-workings of Hoffmann’s war experiences. More than this, Hoffmann describes in both his war notes and ‘The Sandman’ a form of trauma that prefigured the ‘shell shock’ of World War I: the ‘wind-of-the-cannonball’ (vent du boulet) syndrome, which left soldiers with mysterious anxieties and phobias when shells passed nearby yet did not hit them. After nearly being hit, both Hoffmann and Nathanael suffer from the same psychological symptoms, feeling extremely ‘anxious’ (Dv 806, Sg 19)” (Zilcosky 56).

“Because Hoffmann’s war experience reappears in his description of Nathanael, and because Freud wrote The Uncanny in the shadow of his own war, an otherwise anachronistic reading suggests itself. Might Freud and his contemporaries have seen in the traumatized Nathanael aspects of World War I soldiers – especially their own traumatized sons?” (Zilcosky 56).

“War trauma is contagious not just from body to body but also from past to present – and not only in the classical Freudian sense of childhood traumas infecting adulthood” (Zilcosky 57).

“But we do see here how an external event – the Battle of Dresden – can complicate early psychoanalysis’s certainty about the etiology of trauma. First, the battle makes us question whether Nathanael’s symptoms issue from castration anxieties at all. This, in turn, unsettles the general psychoanalytic conviction that infantile sexual complexes are the source of all trauma. This problem was not lost on Freud and his disciples, who faced precisely this dilemma when diagnosing the war neurotics” (Zilcosky 57).

“Freud’s followers generally came down on the side of doctrine, with Ferenczi presaging Freud’s hypothesis that shell shock was only a precipitating cause: it chaotically ‘unbound’ sexual energies in people whose psychic systems were already not well ‘cathected’ – often due to neurotic fantasies from childhood. But Freud admitted that such theories were only speculations and that the war neuroses might indeed refer back only to this brute event of battle – specifically, because of submicroscopic brain damage that the battle might have caused” (Zilcosky 58).

“Freud’s sense that there must be a physical source connects him to the medical tradition going back to Hoffmann and the Napoleonic Wars, when doctors assumed that hysterical soldiers had suffered inner ear damage from passing shells: the ‘wind-of-the-cannonball’ syndrome. After this, they insisted that traumatized railway travellers had neurological injuries known as ‘railway spine,’ ‘railway brain,’ and, in Oppenheim’s 1889 terms, a ‘molecular rearrangement’ in the cerebrum. Today’s neuropsychologists similarly contend that traumatic symptoms must have a physical counterpart, although the majority of PTSD patients do not have brain lesions that can be detected through imaging. Scientists cite instead biochemical damage – ‘biological reactions’ or ‘dysfunctions’ of the brain – yet even here they waver on whether these are the causes or the effects of the symptoms” (Zilcosky 58).

“In the second of these paragraphs, Freud argues that all motion – from rocking on a parent’s knee to riding in a railway train – can produce ‘sexual excitation.’ The mechanical ‘violence’ generated by a railway crash or a bomb explosion incites this same excitation, but this is now combined with ‘anxiety.’ Freud refers here back to the first of the two paragraphs: to the ‘preparedness’ of the victim’s psychic system for such an excitation. If his system is highly ‘cathected’ – able to ‘bind’ new, strange energies coherently into psychic patterns and narratives – then the mechanical violence will not result in a neurosis. Likewise, if this violence results in a physical injury, the victim will successfully bind these energies to his worries about the wound (18:33, 31). But if the victim has no injury and a poorly cathected psyche, the sexual-anxious energy will circulate chaotically, not bound to any object or idea. The result is neurosis. Freud’s intervention peters out here. Although scholars have made ingenious attempts to reconstruct it more fully, the fact remains that Freud never did, and he never believed that he had satisfactorily ‘proved’ his speculations” (Zilcosky 59-60).

“This lack of proof was no small matter. For war neurosis was the most pressing psychiatric problem of Freud’s day and an urgent matter of national interest. As the number of shell-shock victims grew, both the Allied and Central Powers had to figure out ways to cure these victims and get them back to the front. This job went to psychiatrists in military hospitals, where the suspicion grew that many were faking…. Many psychiatrists were convinced that the majority of victims were malingerers, and they administered high-voltage electroshock treatments that rendered a cure worse than the disease. Soldiers fled back to the front” (Zilcosky 60).

“The source of the uncanny in ‘Inexplicable’ is the same as in this entire section of The Uncanny. The traumatized body returns from war and shocks civilians on the home front. Just as Freud is not fully aware of this connection, the narrator-wife of ‘Inexplicable’ admits in strikingly Freudian terms that she too is unable to state the obvious, to recognize what she knows to be true” (Zilcosky 61).

“Why can Freud, too, perceive these experiences only in his subconscious self? As is often the case with his own repressions, Freud hints at the answer: he might have suppressed the war neurotic from The Uncanny because of guilt. He had, like so many fathers, uncritically sent his sons off to war. More than this, he had wished for his son to die, as he admits in the interpretation of his wartime dream…. The half-living traumatized son, unlike the dead one, never allows the father to complete what Freud calls the ‘painful’ yet clean process of leave-taking (SE 4:560). This son remains forever in the Freud family’s psychic storeroom, threatening them – in their guilt” (Zilcosky 62).

“Freud’s addled ‘doppelgänger’ fits into the hidden series of traumatized figures in The Uncanny. By appearing to Freud in a mirror, this man, like these figures and all doppelgängers, reveals that our ego has not ‘marked itself off’ as sharply from others as we had thought (U 236). This insight is especially ominous in the case of war neuroses and other traumatic neuroses, which seemed to disconnect themselves from actual injuries and move, like a virus, from one person to the next” (Zilcosky 62-63).

“This uncanny closeness of the healthy man – the doctor – to the neurotic was a long-standing fear in the history of the traumatic neuroses. Because early researchers could not locate an organic cause, these disorders were deemed purely psychic and thus capable of striking anyone at any time. What is more, these ailments seemed to be contagious, like the bacteria – and the very idea of infectious disease – that Robert Koch discovered in the 1880s. Wilding’s hysteria and Stekel’s ‘war impotence’ were both apparently transmissible, especially because of the hysteric’s tendency to imitate” (Zilcosky 64).

“With the appearance of the first war neurotics at the onset of hostilities, such contagion became a matter of national interest. Already in the winter of 1914–15, German military doctors such as Kurt Singer claimed that traumatized soldiers could ‘contaminate’ the healthy ones. They warned against a ‘psychic epidemic.’ Singer himself became more convinced as the war progressed, insisting in 1918 that ‘a single hysteric’ is more dangerous ‘through contagion’ than an enemy who kills ‘a dozen healthy soldiers’ (Zilcosky 64-65).

“As Freud hints on the last page, the closeness of the healthy person to the neurotic double is not just one of many aspects of uncanniness. It is the uncanny’s essence” (Zilcosky 65).

“Uncanniness, Freud insists, is a matter of perspective…. We can only experience uncanniness when we surrender what Freud calls our ‘ironical’ position and adopt that of the person experiencing the shock (U 252)” (Zilcosky 65-66).

“Like the war neuroses themselves, uncanniness always concerns someone else’s trauma; more specifically, it describes the moment in which ‘our’ perspective disappears into ‘theirs.’ Recent psychoanalytic theorists make similar claims about trauma in general – without noticing this kernel in The Uncanny” (Zilcosky 66).

“This unconscious fear is what kept the war neurotic from being acknowledged – in society at large and in Freud’s essay, which can merely hint at his existence, here again, on this last page. You grab at the arm of the man next to you, only to find that this arm has been severed from its body. Through his hidden presence, the traumatized soldier generates within Freud’s The Uncanny precisely the ‘uncanny effect’ that Freud finds so ‘remarkable.’ This effect impels us to understand uncanniness itself differently: as not just a personal trauma but also as a symptom, and diagnosis, of the repression of this trauma during the Great War” (Zilcosky 66).

“This collective unconscious within The Uncanny accentuates the crisis that the war neurotics created for psychoanalysis. Freud’s inability to address the war neurotic directly in The Uncanny speaks more generally to his inability to solve the etiological problem of shell shock, which led him ultimately to abandon the topic” (Zilcosky 66).

“…we can now see how The Uncanny allowed Freud, however unconsciously, to explore the para-psychoanalytic aspects of that shock which otherwise exceeded his clinical and legal writings. Writ large here are the surrealist anxieties emerging from ego lability, bloodthirsty alter-egos, and invisible contagions” (Zilcosky 67).

“Such ghosts spawned others. Just as the conscripted soldier’s ‘peaceful ego’ feared its own murderous ‘parasitic doppelgänger’ – stimulating an internal conflict that contributed to war neurosis – so too was every ego (Ich) threatened by contagion from the internal and external other, the third person (Freud, SE 17:209; GW 12:323). And so too was every war, like the Great War, haunted by the one that preceded it, as in the covert presence here of Hoffmann’s trauma in Dresden. The traumatized other, past and present, continues to call out to us, and we assiduously make our ears deaf. Through this ‘voice that cries out to another,’ Freud implies a bond between trauma and testimony; he never fully theorizes this relation, as Caruth correctly states, but he does offer connected fragments of such a theory right here, in The Uncanny” (Zilcosky 67).

“Freud shows us how we, like the narrator of ‘Inexplicable,’ know that his affliction could infect anyone: the doctors who attempt to treat it; the civilians who try to describe it; and the readers who long to understand it. Like the readers of Freud’s Herodotus story, we ultimately do not take the other’s perspective; her trauma and its contagion must be kept at bay. We construct a protective shield – itself a product of modernity – just as Gregor Samsa does, as we will see in the next chapter. And we, like Samsa, watch with surprise as uncanniness hits us again. For the all-too-familiar shocks of war, industrialization, and terror keep returning to us, even today. Yet we still insist that they are strange – unheimlich – manifestations of ghosts” (Zilcosky 67).

Note: The Featured Image for this post is a cropped image from Zilcosky, chapter 2, Figure 4, page 51, an illustration from the story “Inexplicable” from Strand Magazine, 1917.


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