UBC Lectures, Seminars, and Symposia

The Times in Which We Live : Freud’s The Uncanny, World War One, and Trauma of Contagion Zilcosky, John


The effect of World War One on Freud is well known, yet its relation to The Uncanny (1919) remains mysterious. Although scholars have mentioned the war’s atmospheric effect, I ask: What if the connection to The Uncanny is more essential, as exemplified by the essay’s implicit references to the war—including a 1917 story about trauma in colonial New Guinea and Napoleonic war shock resonating through Hoffmann’s “The Sandman”? The fact that Freud does not connect these traumas directly to “uncanniness” speaks to the problem they pose—to him and to psychoanalytic theory. This silence creates an uncanny effect within the essay itself: The Uncanny stages the same “return of the repressed” that it diagnoses. I aim to delineate this staging and, later, propose its conceptual relevance. The shadow of the war forces us to understand the uncanny differently: not just as a personal trauma but as a social symptom of the repression of this suffering. The real horror of the uncanny, Freud’s essay teaches us, is not our own but the other’s trauma—as embodied in wartime Europe by the “war neurotic” and his contagious afflictions. An article-length version of this research has been published in the journal Psychoanalysis and History, vol 20, issue 2, pp. 165-190, https://doi.org/10.3366/pah.2018.0257.

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