Part 1: On Yearning and the Uncanny
“We dream of journeying throughout the universe, but is not the universe in us?” – Novalis, Blütenstaub 16, (2008, 392).
Prelude: An uncanny presence in the White House
Imagine it is 2016. Clinton is still ahead in the polls, she has every hope of gaining the White House. One night she dreams she has won, and, just as she steps into the Oval Office she glances in a mirror to find, glaring back at her, none other than Trump.
Trump’s presence in the White House is the eruption of what I shall go on to explore as the uncanny; a rupture of form; an intrusion of something monstrous into the heart of the body politic.
It is easy to follow liberals who see Trump as a temporary disruption, and that order will once again prevail. Yet there is a deep contradiction in their stance. By idealising the presidency in the first place, they declare their investment in the system of power responsible for the torsions in US society that gave rise to Trump. They fail to grasp Trump as their Döppelganger, or Double. They fail to heed the ‘warning to the curious’ that we find when paying attention to writers such as ETA Hoffmann and Mary Shelly.
Introduction: Romanticism and the stalled poetry of the future
“Romantic poetry is progressive universal poetry… The Romantic form of poetry is in a state of becoming, it can never reach completion. No theory can exhaust it.” – Friedrich Schlegel, Athenäums Fragmente, (1978, 90-1).
“Nothing is more poetic than recollection or anticipation... Representations of the past draw us towards death… Representations of the future drive us on to an enlivened, embodied and assimilated reality. Therefore, all recollection is sadness and anticipation joyful.” – Novalis, Blütenstaub 109, (2008,415).
2018 marks the bi-centenary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and the birth of Karl Marx. In left cultural thought the presence of Romanticism and Idealism has been like Banquo’s ghost – an uncomfortable remainder of an inheritance some cultural materialists have failed to exorcise.
Over a series of three pieces, my aim is to explore the resources that Romanticism and Idealism have to offer contemporary left cultural critiques of capitalist modernity. The pieces are exploratory rather than an expository, as I wish the reader to develop their own conclusions.
My treatment of Romanticism turns on the question of a utopia that turned into a bad dream - a desired future, opened by the French Revolution that stalled with the rise of Napoleon. The impact was to split Romanticism into two streams, the one which became increasingly reactionary, and the other, diverting the more politically progressive features of early Romanticism towards an exploration of the nightmarish features of an emerging modernity. Crystallised around the figure of the artificially constructed being (or automaton), I hope to explore this second stream through ETA Hoffmann’s story, der Sandmann, and, in a follow up piece, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.
Der Sandmann prefigures psychoanalysis (directly influencing Freud) and, indirectly, Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. The story draws on the uncanny to show how our true relation to society can be inverted by the distorting effect of commodities that enflame fantasies and nightmares that turn into destructive obsessions.
Frankenstein prefigures the ecological critique of capitalist modernity, as well as providing an allegory of the working class as an artificially constructed entity, whose growing self-awareness threatens the basis of its creation. The piece Frankenstein will probe the novel in terms of the politics of transgression, questioning how the subject of transgression can become a subject of transcendence.
The third piece will bring the perspectives of the previous pieces to bear on trends in contemporary capitalism by looking at the influence of Romantic tropes in Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the Bladerunner movies.
Sehnsucht and the uncanny
“With anxious yearning [Sehnsucht] we yearn for you, shrouded in the darkest night, in a time when we cannot quench the heat of our thirst.” – Novalis, Hymen an die Nacht, (2998, 132).
Key to grasping the period is the centrality of subjectivity in philosophy and the arts. By subjectivity I am referring to a subject not only of cognition, but of suffering, passion, hope and action – a subject aware of their historicity. The modern Western conceptions of subjectivity were not born in this period, but what was new was the rejection of all static notions of the I, or self, as in Descartes’ notion of a thinking substance. Rather subjectivity produces the subject in dynamic terms. We shall see how this has emancipatory and destructive potential that Romantics explored to the full.
For this piece, the primary focus is on how the early Romantic concept of Sehnsucht (yearning) transformed into the Unheimlich (the uncanny). Sehnsucht is the effect on the self, when it realises that its ordinary relationship with the external world is fringed by the infinite – that the objects it encounters produce a magnifying effect on the self: resulting in a state of yearning for the beyond. This also produces a deep dissatisfaction and suffering which pushes the subject to seek that beyond.
Novalis’ work is perhaps the signal instance of Sehnsucht. His unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen begins with the Sehnsucht that is realised by a dream of a blue flower that sends the Medieval poet, Heinrich on a search to find it. His prose poem Hymen an die Nacht (Hymns to the Night), published in 1800 gives us perhaps his strongest rendition of the concept. The narrator contemplates the night as the co-mingled source of hope, fear and final reconciliation (in this case with death and god, combined in the transgressive image of the womb of the father – ‘a dream breaks our chains loose and sinks us into the womb of our father’.)
The first mention of Sehnsucht is in a passage where the narrator describes himself alone, in tears and suffering, searching for help. He describes his life as bound up in Sehnsucht, but:
Then out of the blue distance -… a shudder of twilight – and in a moment the bonds of birth, the light’s fetters, cracked apart. The earthly glory fled and with it my agony – my melancholy flowed into a new unfathomable world. … Over the whole region my newly released spirit [Geist] hovered [schwebt]. – Novalis, Hymen an die Nacht, (2008, 122).
Conceptually, Sehnsucht was rooted in Fichte’s Wissenschaftlehre of the mid-1790s, and influenced the early Romantics collected around the University of Jena, where they published their ideas in the Athenäeum journal (from 1797-1800, Friedrich Schlegel provided intellectual cohesion). Sehnsucht captures the Jena circle’s utopian desire, to be released from suffering, and to transform the objects of everyday life into hieroglyphs of a more potent reality, in which our inner selves and the outer world would become unified ecstatically.
This was also a period in which the French Revolution had kindled hopes that such an exercise in philosophy and the arts would unite with real political developments. That Liberté would be coming to the petty provincial German states. Even following the terror, the Jena Romantics remained inspired by the revolution (though we should not fall into the trap of describing them as revolutionaries).
With the rise of Napoleon attitudes became complex. In 1797, Friedrich Schlegel could remark:
Mirabeau had played a great role in the revolution, because his character and intellectual spirit (Geist) was revolutionary; Robespierre, because he unconditionally belonged to the revolution, gave himself over to it, prayed to it, and held to be god itself; Buonaparte, because he was formed and shaped by revolutions, can equally annihilate them. (1978, 135).
As the wars unfolded and German states fell under French occupation, most Romantics drifted rightwards. Friedrich Schlegel turned to the Catholic church (Novalis was dead, but there is plenty of textual evidence to show similar potential), and others embraced nationalism and an emerging counter-Enlightenment. This gave rise to the long-lasting association of Romanticism with right-wing or reactionary ideals.
These political changes were mediated through the conceptual darkening of key Romantic categories. During this period the poetics of Senhsucht is increasingly overtaken by the uncanny. Here the ecstatic sense of the infinite is replaced by a threatening infinite. Anyone who has read the tales of ETA Hoffmann will be familiar with heroes who encounter the uncanny - mirrors without reflections, automatons displacing real people, döppelgänger, people being taken possession of by Mesmeric forces and other quasi-paranormal phenomena that marks the dark inversion of Sehnsucht.
Epistemologically, the uncanny primarily concerns our visual relation to objects that haunt us – by object I am referring to an object of perception rather than simply an inanimate object (the status of automatons is a case in point). Ontologically the uncanny hovers between two conceptions of reality – one in which dark forces really exist, and the other in which they are subjective projections – this notion of hovering (Schweben, which we met with Novalis above) is one Fichte had developed to characterise the role of the imagination.
ETA Hoffmann and the story as form
ETA Hoffmann lived from 1776-1822. His life and works are characterised by two features – first, a profound gulf between his identity as a member of an emerging bourgeois society and his inner life, and second an itinerant existence imposed partly by his fractious relations with the authorities, and partly down to the experience of migration and disruption caused by the Napoleonic wars. Much of his life was spent taking up government posts within cities in east Prussia and Saxony – Berlin, Dresden, Bamberg, Warsaw (Poland had been dismembered by Prussia, Russia and Sweden). For a time, he worked as a criminal investigator and a judge, which brought him into contact with murders and other criminal activities that exposed the darker side of urban life.
His extra mural activities were equally dispersed, including musical composition, music criticism, sketching, drama, literary criticism and journalism. Of all these activities it was his stories that became synonymous with his name – ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’.
The Romantics were drawn to fantasy and story-telling. Stories allowed for juxtapositions of realism and fantasy, while providing ample scope for narrative experimentation. The boundaries between the short-story and Märchen (fairy-tale is an inadequate translation), were not clear cut, and while Novalis and Ludwig Tieck had developed the form, by around 1815 Hoffmann had developed his own sub-genres.
Phantasiestücke, or ‘Fantasies’, include pieces like die goldene Topf (‘The Golden Flower Pot’) which focus on the thin membrane that separates ordinary life in a German city like Dresden from a vast mythical world that we can reach through poetry and the imagination. The stories typically present the hero with an experience that triggers an overpowering sense of Sehnsucht, revealing a utopian dimension hidden within the city, but also beyond it.
The Nachtstücke, or ‘Nightpieces’, on the other hand, foregrounded the notion that ordinary society is a thin membrane that holds off dark and destructive forces at work within us. It is in these stories that the uncanny gets to work on Sehnsucht. Just as Sehnsucht is mediated by visual experiences, so it is with the uncanny – objects like mirrors, eyes, glasses, windows and telescopes act as mediators between normality and heightened states of horror - or where the bliss they invoke is a trap.
Reading his stories is like stepping within a dialectical process, and there is no standpoint within or outside the narrative from which we – the readers – can situate ourselves. To get a sense of this we shall look at der Sandmann – perhaps his darkest and most influential story.
Der Sandmann: ‘The whole is an allegory, an ongoing metaphor’
“Something terrifying has crept into my life! Dark forebodings of a hideous destiny are threatening me, it spreads over me like the black shadow of clouds, through which no ray of friendly sunlight can penetrate. Now I will tell you what befell me.” – Letter from Nathanael to his fiancé’s brother Lothar, 1991,3.
“There is a dark power, which treacherously… lays its threads in our inner-selves, by which it seizes us and forces us onto a dangerous path towards destruction, that, otherwise, we would have never trod – for such a power to exist, it must lie within us, as we ourselves give it form, and it becomes ourselves; it is only because we thus believe it to be, that we create the space in which it can bring its secret (geheime) work to completion… In this way uncanny (unheimliche) powers proceed in a vicious circle, giving rise to a form that becomes our own reflection… It is the phantom of our own-most-I (eigenen-Ichs), whose… deepest workings on our mind casts us into hell or draws us up into heaven. – Clara, responding to Nathanael, 1991, 14-15.
“Have you, most esteemed reader, ever fully experienced something that so completely takes over your heart, senses and mind that it suppresses (verdrängend)  everything else? It ferments and cooks inside to a boiling heat that, enflamed, pulses through the veins and colours your cheeks. Your look becomes strange, locked onto empty space, as if you see forms invisible to other eyes, and your speech dissolves into obscure sighs. Friends ask you: ‘What is up dear friend?...’ But you can only speak of inner images, with all their glowing colours, shadows and lights and struggle to find the words that would begin to explain. It is as if with the first word all that is wonderful, noble, terrifying, full of desire and dread… strikes like an electric shock. Every word you manage to say comes out colourless, frosty and dead. You search and search, and stutter and mutter, but your friends’ sober questions strike within your inner heart (innere Glut) like the breath of an icy wind.” – The narrator directly addressing the reader after having presented the exchange of letters quoted above, 1991, 18).
The story charts the psychic crisis of a young student Nathanael. It opens with a letter in which he gives an account of a recent uncanny experience; an encounter at his digs with a barometer seller called Coppola, who Nathanael has taken to be the ‘double’ (Döppelganger) of a man called Coppelius, who traumatised his childhood.
Nathanael’s account begins idyllically with the family seated around the hearth. The circle is broken up at bed time, when the children are told to go bed, or the sandman will get them. On hearing the lugubrious sound of something coming up the stairs each night and entering his father’s workshop, Nathanael asks the nursemaid about the sandman who explains:
Aye, little Taniel, you do not yet know? He is an evil man who comes to children who refuse to go to bed, and throws a handful of sand in their eyes; all full of blood, the eyes pop of their sockets and he packs them in a bag before taking them off to the half-moon where he nourishes his young on them; the young sit in the nest with hooked beaks like owls, which they use to peck at the naughty little children’s eyeballs. (1991,5)
The fear engendered by this story is an echo of the real concern Nathanael has over the figure mounting the stairs. He can see that on the evenings when this happens, his father falls silent and his mother is upset. To learn who the figure is Nathanael steals into the workshop and hides. He learns that the figure is none other than the Advocate Coppelius, a man who visited them at meal times and who seemed to have a hold over Nathanael’s father.
Coppelius appears as a terrifying figure to the children:
Never has a horrifying form caused such terror in me than this Coppelius. Imagine a large broad-shouldered man with a thick misshapen head, an earthy yellow face, grey bushy eyebrows, under which a pair of green cats’ eyes sparkle, a great strong nose that bends over the lips. The slanting mouth is distorted by a malicious grin; then on his cheeks there is a pair of dark red stains, and he gives out a strange hissing sound between crooked teeth… but what to us children was most detestable was his large, knobbly and hairy fists. (1991, 7-8)
Nathanael not only learns the identity of the ‘sandman’, but discovers they are working on the creation of an automaton. He can no longer hold in his terror, and on being discovered Coppelius immediately threatens to tear out the child’s eyes and implant them in the automaton. His father persuades him not to – but the terror emanating from Coppelius remains, and a year later this is actualised by an incident where an explosion in the workshop leaves the father dead and mutilated, while Coppelius is nowhere to be found (Hoffmann leaves open the question of whether a murder took place, and never qualifies or verifies Nathanael’s first-hand account; Nathanael is convinced it was murder and claims his mother and the authorities agreed).
Nathanael receives a response from his fiancé Clara, in which she questions whether his uncanny experience with a Döppelganger, is a psychological projection. His insistence on literality of the uncanny and hers on its symbolic and projectional qualities, forms an axis of interpretation that structures the story and, which Hoffmann toys with, without resolving.
The first part of the story ends with Nathanael recounting in a third letter to Clara’s brother Lothar a new incident. While visiting his professor, Spalanzani, he comes across a curtain covering a glass door that he decided to peer through. Through the glass he encounters Olimpia, a female figure who appears seated passively with hands folded, staring directly ahead as if she was blind. He describes the uncanny (unheimlich) effect this had on him. The incident is recounted almost in parenthesis, but later becomes a central focus for the drama.
The opening section of the narrative ends with Nathanael’s return home to recover from his recent experiences. Everyone notes how sunk he is in a world of ‘dreams and intimations’ (1991,21), and apparently in the grip of some external power. Tensions between Nathanael and Clara are brought to the surface.
Things come to a head when Nathanael reads aloud a poem he has composed, in which Coppelius appears as the destroyer of Nathanael’s ‘joyful love’ (Liebesglück).
Finally, as they are standing at the altar, the terrifying figure of Coppelius appears and reaches for Clara’s noble eyes: they spring out hitting Nathanael’s chest like bloody sparks singed and burning, then Coppelius grabs him… but amid the wild clamour he hears Clara’s voice: ‘can’t you see me? Coppelius has deceived you, those were not my eyes… they were the glowing drops of your heart’s blood, I have my own eyes, look at me.’ Nathanael thought, that is Clara and I am eternally hers… Nathanael looked into Clara’s eyes, but it was death in Clara’s eyes that looked friendlily upon him. (1991, 23-4)
While he read the poem, Clara showed her boredom and began to knit, then dropped her kitting as the poem went on. When Nathanael finished she asks him to throw the poem into the fire. To which Nathanael reacts: ‘you lifeless, damned automaton!’ (1991, 25) This provokes a crisis which almost destroys the circle of lovers and friends, before Nathanael backs down.
The third part begins when Nathanael returns to his university only to discover his lodgings have been burnt down. He moves to a house opposite Professor Spalanzani, where again he sees Olimpia through a window.
At this point Coppola reappears, and despite the disgust Nathanael feels, he lets him in. Coppola lays out on a table an array of spectacles and in a squeaking Italian accent: ‘Eya, lovely eya’.
A thousand eyes looked and twitched convulsively, staring out at Nathanael; but he could not look away from the table, and as Coppola laid down ever more glasses, the flaming look of the eyes became wilder and wilder flashing through each other and shooting their blood-red rays into Nathanael’s breast. (1991, 27-8).
Nathanael rejects the wares on offer, then, feeling much better is reminded of Clara and agrees with her that ‘Copolla is a most respectable maker of optical instruments, and in no way Coppelius’ cursed Döppelganger.’ (1991, 28) Now the glasses have lost their ghostly quality and are mere objects on display. He decides to buy a pocket telescope that he tests by looking through the window.
Never in his life had he come across a glass that displays objects with such clarity, distinctiveness and sharpness. Unconsciously he looked into Spalanzani’s room; Olimpia sat, as usual by the table… with hands folded. Now Nathanael for the first time looked upon Olimpia’s wonderfully formed features. Only the eyes appeared to him as strange, stiff and dead. Yet as she appeared clearer and clearer through the glass, it was as if moist rays of moonlight entered Olimpia’s eyes. It appeared as if for the first time his ability to see had been ignited… Nathanael lay like one magically fixed to the window, contemplating ever and ever Olimpia’s heavenly beauty. (1996, 28-9).
Nathanael is compelled to purchase the spyglass, and thus begins his obsession. Soon his obsessiveness is for all to see when Professor Spalanzani invites members of local society to a ball in his house, where his ‘daughter’ will perform songs on the piano followed by dancing. To the society gathered she is nothing but a curio, a very clever piece of work by Spalanzani. To Nathanael she is perfection and grace. He sits with her, talks lovingly to her, dances with her, and loses all sense of the rest of the society gathered.
As the obsession develops he finds in Olimpia precisely what was lacking in Clara – a woman who would listen to him endlessly, without knitting, picking up a book, looking out of the window or criticising in any way. He confuses this fantasy for a perfect human relationship in which there is no boundary between self and other, but the other is a perfect reflection of the self. Quoting ironically from Novalis, he sees in her glassy stare and monotonous ‘ahh’ to everything he says a hieroglyph, a symbolic expression of a higher and deeper truth than what we can articulate through words.
Nathanael’s solipsistic state of reverie and Sehnsucht is shattered one evening when he arrives at Spalanzani’s house to find the professor and Coppola fighting over Olimpia’s body – the professor claiming that she is his as he had created the mechanisms and the eyes. In the fight, Olimpia’s eyes are torn out and thrown at Nathanael. Coppola gets away with the waxwork figure, and Nathanael is forced to confront the truth about Olimpia. He succumbs to rage and tries to kill Spalanzani before being taken to the madhouse (‘tollhaus’).
While Nathanael is in recovery Hoffman shifts the focus of the story away from Nathanael’s inner drama to the way society has been coming to terms with these strange events. The questions thrown up by this uncanny experience of a young man, an automaton, and a strange ‘foreign’ man who appears to be the double of another such figure are debated legally, socially, and in terms of where this whole thing sits within respectable society. It is decided that no laws have been broken, because it is not illegal to make artificial beings or break them to pieces (their property status is also unresolved). Certainly, a professor who makes artificial beings should not belong in the university, yet he can stage demonstrations to the public and give public talks (in fact, the public crave this, and he sells performances at soirées). Here the satiric side of Hoffmann comes to the fore, which is a feature we should never overlook with Romanticism – he is working through a mixing of extreme genres, while laughing at how bourgeois society cannot cope with the strange things that come from within. This marks a kind of pact between the perspectives of the author and Clara.
On recovery Nathanael returns home to Clara and Lothar. On discovering that his mother has inherited a property in the country, they decide to move out, and on leaving the city, Clara asks Nathanael to take her up to the top of the tower in the City Hall, to take a final look out over the landscape. While on the balcony, Clara points to what looks like a moving bush. Using Coppola’s spyglasses Nathanael sees that Coppelius has returned, which triggers his final breakdown. As events draw to their fateful close, Nathanael sees Coppelius’ form surging up in the crowd below. In the end he is overwhelmed by the terror that began with the story of the sandman and he falls, victim to the Döppelganger.
Psychoanalytic approaches to the uncanny
Freud wrote his essay on the uncanny a century ago. Ever since, the concept has filtered through psychoanalysis, literary and critical theory and deep into artistic practice.
There are two lines of debate within the psychoanalytic reception of the uncanny – the Freudian and the Lacanian, the former basing itself heavily on Hoffmann’s der Sandmann, and the latter, ironically, providing a more adequate model for the story. Both centre on the question of eyes and the visual in constituting the uncanny.
Both readings are rooted in the crisis of identity that emerges when a child first develops an ego that is sharply separated from a prior state of unity (primary narcissism). For Freud, the repeated references to eyes being ripped out reflected Nathanael’s fear of castration and inability to move through the Oedipal crisis and become a fully functioning Ego.
The problem with this view is that it struggles to accommodate the eye’s visual dimension. Also, by locating the struggle within the familial context, it adopts a one-sided reading of Hoffmann’s story. While Nathanael’s opening letter could be straight out of one of Freud’s case histories, we see toward the end, with the ball at Spalanzani’s house and the satiric episode, where Hoffmann describes the wider public treatment of the events – that the story is about how society deals with the uncanny. Nathanael’s inability to adjust relates as much to his current position as a student in an emergent bourgeois city, as it does to his childhood.
The Lacanian approach to the uncanny situates the phenomenon within the development of the Ego though the relation of its specular image and the symbolic domain of society. While for Freud the removal of eyes is a motif of castration for Lacan this is more about disintegration. In his famous mirror stage, Lacan revised Freud’s theory of ego-development, by showing that the Ego is formed at the point where it first identifies with the body in the mirror looking back. As we shall see with Fichte, this creates an encounter in which the self is integrated by an image projected from some internal space onto a reflective surface that back projects, creating the transformation we describe as subjectivity. The challenge for the subject, however is how to ground that imaginary sense of unity with other more collective forms of identification, mediated symbolically via public use of language, but also in terms of an unknowable deeper reality The Real.
The visual tropes in der Sandmann allow Hoffmann to create a story of psychic disintegration. To understand this on terms familiar to Hoffmann, we shall move from 20th century psychoanalysis to Fichte and German Idealism.
Excursus – Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Romantic epistemology
“The greatest challenge facing all efforts at cultivation [Bildung] lies in the strengthening of the transcendental self; for the I to be its I… Without complete self-understanding one cannot learn to understand another.” – Novalis Blütenstaub 28, (2008, 396).
Fichte’s reworking of Kantian philosophy was critically important to early Romanticism and to Hoffmann. When Kant wrote his three critiques, he took the subject to be an observer who adopts a contemplative relation to the object. In the first critique, the subject is the observer of the natural world, in the second the observer of the moral world, and in the third the observer of the aesthetic world (and nature now apprehended aesthetically rather than scientifically). The position and role of the subject is static, observational and finite – and strangely eternal – a subject without a history.
Whenever a subject passively contemplates the world, it is impossible to reconcile the fact that the world can be judged aesthetically, on scientific grounds or on moral/political grounds. Kant’s key, unintentional, achievement was to show how our basic knowledge of the world is subject to antagonistic demands, based on mutually exclusive (yet internally coherent) standpoints. What should have been the unity of the subject becomes the unity of three subjects – a logical one, a moral one, and an aesthetic one.
In 1794 Fichte revolutionised Kant, by treating the subject (the Transcendental Ego) as a force rather than an object. What we think of as our subjectivity is the product of an unconscious force – a Tathandlung (Fichte’s term is untranslatable, containing notions of action and acted upon, which is played out in all his categories) – that grounds our sense of reality because it encounters a block (Anstoss) from the Nicht-ich (Not-I) that resists it from infinitely expanding. What follows is a lengthy and complex Wechselbestimmung (Mutual determination) between the expulsive force of the I and the resistive force of the Not-I. It is only through this mutual determination that what was called, at the time, the Absolute (das Absolute), as a totality (Totalität) can be constituted.
Neither [I and Not-I] must be determined by the other, but rather both must determine the other, that is to say; -… the absolute and relative grounds for the determination of a totality must be one and the same thing; the relation must be absolute, and the absolute must be nothing more than a relation. (2016, 93)
No individual element of what has been contemplated up to now is the sought-after totality, rather both mutually… determine this totality. Thus, discussion is based on the relation between both forms of determination of the absolute through relation; and through this relation is the sought-after totality first established. [Algebraically speaking] A cannot be an absolute totality, neither can A+B, but rather A as it has been determined through A+B. (2016,93)
Fichte differentiated the Absolute from the empirical I. The latter is a product of the mutual determination not its cause. Johan Gottleib Fichte the living philosopher in Jena was an empirical I, and there are as many of them as there are people. The Absolute I, rather, is an unconscious subjectively striving force. It is centrifugal in that it projects out towards infinity, but has no identifiable locus of origin, except as an inner sense that can only arise following an encounter with the object world – here Fichte introduces the concept of the infinite (die Unendliche). What we think of as a subject in the sense of a person (the empirical I) is a product not a cause. It was through this encounter, that Fichte detected how the empirical self begins to intuit something much vaster than the objects it encounters, evoking a yearning (Sehnen) for that beyond.
There have been many misunderstandings of Fichte, which confuse the Absolute with the empirical I. When he placed the Absolute I as the starting point for his analysis, he was not talking in creationist terms (in fact the consequences of his theory were atheistic, and he lost his job in Jena due to accusations of atheism). Rather, he was writing a kind of existential account, which had to begin from subjectivity.
Fichte was very clear that the ‘theoretical’ part of his account was predicated on the ‘practical and moral’ part. In other words, it is only because we are acting as social subjects, making political and moral decisions that we are required to investigate the philosophical grounds of why this is possible. In this sense, Fichte was developing the first form of a philosophy of praxis, in which the task of philosophy is to explain the logical possibility for self-aware actors who can transform their world.
Der Sandmann – via Fichte
“Mental confusion [Verworrenheit] signifies an abundance of power and capacities, but an inability to relate. Mental clarity [Bestimmtheit] denotes an ability to relate but lacks in power and capacity. Therefore, the mentally confused are progressive and perfectible, while the sound minded too quickly settle down as philistines… Through working on themselves, the mentally confused can reach a heavenly clarity… which the sound minded rarely achieve. The true genius combines these extremes.” – Novalis, Blütenstaub 54 (2008, 401)
Already in 1797 Novalis and the Jena Romantics had moved from Fichte’s philosophical theory of the subject to look at how this opens-up mental states normally banished from theoretical questions relating to knowledge and rationality. The ground that Hoffman would explore twenty years later was prepared by Fichte’s philosophy and its early Romantic reception.
As we saw above, Fichte thought that the encounter of the Absolute I (the infinite) and the Not-I (the finite) created a stable totality, of an equilibrium (Gleichgewicht). Here the empirical I (product of the encounter) can navigate the world as a successful subject of praxis. Yet what happens when such an equilibrium fails to materialise? What happens if the yearning that arises once the subject is constituted remains too strong for them to become a stable subject, or if the terror of the object world remains overwhelming? These are questions psychoanalysis would treat as home territory, but that have their first outing in stories like der Sandmann, where Fichte’s attempt to prevent the fragmentation he detected in Kant, and its early Romantic rendering as Sehnsucht, is thrown into question.
Through Nathanael, Hoffmann explores what happens to the empirical I (what he calls his Innerer) if the Not-I turns out to be stronger than the Absolute I. Hoffmann translates the process to the question of childhood development. For a traumatised child, the experience is not one of harmonious synthesis, but of the Not-I overwhelming the Absolute I, of the finite dominating the infinite (Coppelius/Coppola being the manifestation of such an experience). The block (Anstoss) that the Absolute I encounters is so powerful that it thrusts the Absolute I violently back into itself, creating an over-reflective empirical I, trapped within its imagination and forced to live in a solipsistic world.
Instead of seeking to change his external environment or adapt, Nathanael seeks to regain the lost harmony that he remembers before the interruption of the sandman and Coppelius. The tensions in his relations with Clara and the rest of society lie in the fact that he sees their questioning as an existential threat, as if they too want to rip out his eyes.
Nathanael’s empirical I is forced back on itself, beyond the point where it can even reflect itself. In Olimpia he imagines that he has altogether transcended the Not-I. She is neither automaton, nor an independent other, but an idealised reflection of himself. As a heterosexual male he seems to have found a libidinal path that is blocked in his dealings with other men and real existing women. This is a powerful critique of the more ambitious claims of the Romantics, placing Sehnsucht in troubled light and marking the transition to the uncanny. Here, Sehnsucht, rather than breaking the chains as Novalis had hoped, turns out to be a form of enslavement, feeding obsessions and keeping Nathanael trapped by external forces he imagines himself to have transcended through Olimpia.
At this point we can explore the roles being played by the pair Coppelius/Coppola and Olimpia. By rejecting a real social relation for an imaginary one, Nathanael enacts an imaginary split between that which he idealises (Olimpia) and that which he dreads (Coppelius/Coppola).
The narrator’s ambivalence on the epistemological status of these figures, suggest that we should follow Clara in seeing them as manifestations of his mind, but also follow Nathanael in recognising them as objectifications of material forces.
Through the Döppelganger and the automaton Hoffmann found a way to explore what happens when we libidinally invest too much in a person, institution or object. When our investment masks a threatening world we dare not face. The Döppelganger is a threatening figure who produces a sense of visceral revulsion. They can stalk everyday life, appearing in broad daylight, entering the family circle, people’s private dwellings, and appearing larger than life in crowds (Coppelius/Coppola does all three).
The automaton becomes a kind of inoculation against the influence of the Döppelganger. The fact that they are lifeless makes them the ideal companion. What Hoffmann developed through the story of Nathanael’s descent into mental disintegration, provides a template for societal crises of representation in the symbolic domains that structure our lives.
The ocular uncanny and commodity exchange
We hold fast to a piece of lifeless material according to its relations, which gives it a form. We love the material insofar as it has belonged to a loved being, betrays a trace of them, or is similar to them.” – Novalis, Blütenstaub 42 (2008, 398)
“Society is nothing but a universal existence: an indivisible thinking and feeling person. Every person is a society in miniature.” – Novalis, Blütenstaub 44 (2008, 399)
The world of der Sandmann is one in which vision plays a vital role. The eye is threaded through the story as mediator between self and world – but most significantly visuality performs a second level mediation –through commodities that magnify and transform vision.
We have seen how Nathanael was forced by the shock of the Anstoss, represented by Coppelius/Coppola into a passive and reflective relation to the world. In this it is perhaps possible to see the eye, and visuality, as an allegorical prefiguring of the critique of a commodity exchanging society, that would be developed by Marx and 20th century critical theory. Here we complete the definition of the uncanny by replacing objects per se with objects in the form of a commodity. Now the uncanny becomes the unnerving quality aroused in the subject when commodities cast a spell on them. Here it is the commodity, appearing as self-active and magical, that projects the subject into extremes of bliss and terror, leaving them enmeshed.
Coppelius/Coppola exists as a real force because he has control over the means of visuality in its commodity form. Nathanael as a child experiences the horror of him trying to create artificial eyes to put into the automaton he was making with Nathanael’s father, and how this pursuit precipitated his father’s death. Coppola appears as a seller of commodities that enhance vision, and in the struggle with Spalanzani appears as an appropriator of the professor’s labour.
The pocket telescope is an object in the form of a phallus, whose social existence is in the form of a commodity. While for Freud the phallus is an object that gives the Ego power, as a commodity it becomes inverted, because the possessor is not the one who bought the commodity but the one who controls the means of exchange and takes the money. This means that Coppelius/Coppola gains in power over Nathanael, even though in crude Freudian terms he now possesses a penis substitute. Powers that should belong to the subject are transferred to the commodity. In the final scene it is same commodity that mediates what Nathanael sees turning it into an image of terror that completes his disintegration. It is also no accident that Coppelius appears in the crowd as a form that grows like an expanding shadow, marking the culmination of his power over the totality of a commodity exchanging society (we should note this final scene is a crowd scene taking place in the centre of the city, and Nathanael appears to see Coppelius surging up above this crowd).
By telling the familiar story of commodity fetishism through Hoffmann, we can see how his tales of the uncanny can be seen as an early form of the critical thinking we see in works of fantasy, science fiction and other ‘genres’ that use the imagination to estrange us within our current world.
As Freud remarked, it was the poets who discovered the unconscious, and perhaps we could say the same for curse of the commodity.
Coda – back in the USA
Nathanael is the perfect US liberal and supporter of Clinton. In her they can project all that is great about their inner America (their empirical I’s as Americans), and in Trump they encounter Coppelius, a viscerally disgusting figure who threatens to overwhelm them with imaginings of disaster. All a good president needs to do is mirror the idealised self of the liberal (which in respectable bipartisan fashion could accommodate Republicans like Ike or Bush the Elder). As with Olimpia, the president does not need to say anything, the less content the better. But it is Trump the real estate seller, who is the sandman stalking in the White House. Trump’s lies and snake oil sales tactics are very much at work with Coppola and his ‘eyas lovely eyas’ - products that enchant and bewitch the buyer.
What they fail to ‘see’ is that this is primarily a passive, contemplative, ocular relationship connecting their inner fantasy with the totality of social life. Just as Fichte pointed out a way for the imagination through the encounter between the Absolute I and the Not-I, so his categories, used ironically by Hoffmann, demonstrate, how a failed synthesis can result in the opposite of Fichte’s intention – a damaged subject, depending on commodities and the comforts of a specular ideal to keep reality out. The problem with such a strategy for psychic survival, is that real social relations constitute our world, and these come back, seeping in as the uncanny. Nathanael succumbed to the truth that the Not-I in capitalism is far stronger than the Absolute I. If we are to avoid his fate, we will have to listen to Clara and start from there.
Red Wedge relies on your support. If you enjoyed this essay then please consider the Red Wedge Patreon. If you want to get early access to exclusive subscriber only content, along with a subscription to our print publication, then support us today!
Beiser, F., (2003), The Romantic Imperative: The concept of early German romanticism, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.).
Ffytche, M., ‘Night of the unexpected: A critique of the “Uncanny” and its apotheosis within cultural and social theory’, New Formations (2012, 75, pp.63-81).
Fichte, J.G., (2016), Grundlage der gesammten Wissenaschaftslehre, (Holzinger, Berlin).
Hoffman, E.T.A., (1991) Der Sandmann, (Reclam, Stuttgart).
Novalis, (2008), Gesammelte Werke, (Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt).
Rahimi, S., ‘The ego, the ocular, and the uncanny: Why are the metaphors of vision central in accounts of the uncanny?’, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, (2013, 94, pp. 453-476).
Schlegel, F., (1978), “Athenäums” – Fragmente und andere Schriften, (Reclam, Stuttgart).
 Blütenstaub, or Pollen, is the title Friedrich von Hardenberg (aka Novalis) gave to a collection of aphorisms, that were published alongside Friedrich Schlegel’s and other writers’ aphorisms in the Athenäum journal that they edited. These form a kind of manifesto of early Romanticism. All translations in this piece are my own.
 Ffytche (2012) provides an excellent account of the political use and abuses of the concept of the uncanny in the 1990s, when it became a fashionable trope in deconstruction (along with Derrida’s notions of spectrality and haunting). The adoption of the uncanny as a resource for left cultural critique owes much to his article.
 The relationship between Romanticism and Idealism was not straightforward. Mannfred Frank has explored this issue in depth and his work has influenced my treatment of the whole question.
 Freud’s essay – ‘The Uncanny’ was based heavily on Hoffmann’s story. We touch on his interpretation below, though, because it has dominated readings of the story in academia for nearly a century, I have focused on aspects that are occluded by Freud – notably, the intellectual context in terms of Idealism and early Romanticism, and the proto-Marxist features of Hoffmann’s treatment of the uncanny.
 Novalis, (2008, 133). There is insufficient space to explore the relation between Christianity, religion and myth in early German Romanticism. Suffice to say it is bound up with questions of art, utopia, the golden age, and how that can be achieved in the here and now.
 The Wissenschaftlehre is not a book, but a project – the Doctrine of Science, developed through a series of writings.
 On the reception of the early Jena Romantics to the French Revolution see Beiser’s essay ‘Early Romanticism and the Aufklärung’ (2003).
 As Beiser notes, the dichotomy of Enlightenment and Romanticism is a product of the post-Napoleonic period. The Jena circle’s promotion of a Romantic aesthetic was an internal critique if the Enlightenment, reacting to the political tendency of many Enlightenment figures to see absolute monarchy as a vehicle for their reforms, and to mechanical determinist philosophies.
 By describing the cities Hoffmann worked in as ‘emerging bourgois’, I am referring to the impact of increasing commodification, resulting from the global expansion of capitalist social relations centuries. A potted biography can be found under his Wikipedia entry.
 References are to the German Reclam edition of Der Sandmann (1991). For German readers this is a very cheap and available edition, with excellent editorial apparatus. English translations are readily available, though they vary in quality.
 Verdrängen, is the German verb translated in English as ‘repression’ in Freud’s writings.
 This section is largely a summary of the argument in Rahimi (2013).
 Lukács drew on this fragmentation of the subject when developing his theory of reification in History and Class Consciousness, which I have relied on when thinking through these problems.
 I have not developed this theme here, as is it something I wish to foreground in the piece on Frankenstein.
Joe Sabatini is a member of the Red Wedge editorial collective and edits Revolutionary Reflections for rs21 in Britain.