The Language of Trauma: War and Technology in Hoffmann, Freud, and Kafka

By John Zilcosky

© 2021

From the Napoleonic Wars to the shell shock of World War I, writers tried to give voice to the suffering they witnessed among the war wounded. Yet they, like the doctors who treated these victims, repeatedly ran up against the incapacity of language to describe such anguish; those who suffered trauma, those who tried to heal it, and those who represented it were all unable to find the appropriate words. In The Language of Trauma, author John Zilcosky uncovers the reactions of three major central European writers – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Sigmund Freud, and Franz Kafka – to the birth of modern trauma in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Zilcosky makes the case that Hoffmann, Freud, and Kafka managed to find the language of trauma precisely by not attempting to name it conclusively and instead allowing their writing to mimic the traumatic experience itself. Just as the victims’ symptoms seemed not to correspond to a physical cause, the writers’ words did not connect directly to the objects of the world. While doctors attempted to overcome this indeterminacy of language, these three writers embraced and investigated this uncertainty; they sought a language that described language’s tragic limits and that, in so doing, exemplified the wider literary and philosophical crisis of their time. Zilcosky boldly argues that this indeterminacy of language emerged together with the medical inability to name the industrial experience of trauma. He thereby places trauma where it belongs: at the heart of both medicine’s diagnostic predicament and modern literature’s most daring experiments.

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Product Details

  • World Rights
  • Page Count: 192 pages
  • Illustrations: 10
  • Dimensions: 6.0in x 1.0in x 9.0in
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Quick Overview

Richly nuanced and firmly grounded in literature, biography, and history, The Language of Trauma analyses three major central European writers, revealing how they incorporated and responded to psychological and historical trauma.

The Language of Trauma: War and Technology in Hoffmann, Freud, and Kafka

By John Zilcosky

© 2021

From the Napoleonic Wars to the shell shock of World War I, writers tried to give voice to the suffering they witnessed among the war wounded. Yet they, like the doctors who treated these victims, repeatedly ran up against the incapacity of language to describe such anguish; those who suffered trauma, those who tried to heal it, and those who represented it were all unable to find the appropriate words. In The Language of Trauma, author John Zilcosky uncovers the reactions of three major central European writers – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Sigmund Freud, and Franz Kafka – to the birth of modern trauma in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Zilcosky makes the case that Hoffmann, Freud, and Kafka managed to find the language of trauma precisely by not attempting to name it conclusively and instead allowing their writing to mimic the traumatic experience itself. Just as the victims’ symptoms seemed not to correspond to a physical cause, the writers’ words did not connect directly to the objects of the world. While doctors attempted to overcome this indeterminacy of language, these three writers embraced and investigated this uncertainty; they sought a language that described language’s tragic limits and that, in so doing, exemplified the wider literary and philosophical crisis of their time. Zilcosky boldly argues that this indeterminacy of language emerged together with the medical inability to name the industrial experience of trauma. He thereby places trauma where it belongs: at the heart of both medicine’s diagnostic predicament and modern literature’s most daring experiments.

Continue Reading Read Less

Product Details

  • World Rights
  • Page Count: 192 pages
  • Illustrations: 10
  • Dimensions: 6.0in x 1.0in x 9.0in
  • Reviews

    "This formidable scholar’s newest book – scrupulously researched and beautifully written – studies the inter-involvement of the modern discourses of law, medicine, and literature in historical fact, under the shadow of war. John Zilcosky describes the immense social, economic, and intellectual-historical effects of disciplines founded on the skeptical reading of signs and symptoms in the absence of substantial evidence – the literary criticism of works ‘quietly permeated by war and by industrialized trauma,’ medical detection, and accident insurance when confronted with trauma."


    Stanley Corngold, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature, Princeton University

    "This book uncovers the hidden traumas of technology and war in Hoffmann, Freud, and Kafka. As such, it represents a major contribution to our understanding of how modern writers gave voice to the experience of suffering and pain. Zilcosky deftly shows how the modern discourses of psychiatry, medicine, and insurance contribute to a crisis of causality that both troubles and fuels a distinctly modernist aesthetic."


    Kata Gellen, Associate Professor of German Studies and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Duke University

    "For about a century, psychoanalysis has been telling us that ‘the uncanny’ is an effect of infantile castration anxiety. And for about half a century, deconstruction has been claiming that it is the mirror hall of literature’s inherent self-reflexivity that produces the uncanny. By tracing the roots of this term in the battles of nineteenth- and twentieth-century mobile and industrialized warfare, John Zilcosky puts the uncanny and its corollary, ‘trauma,’ back on their historical feet."


    Wolf Kittler, Professor of Germanic and Slavic Studies and Comparative Literature, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Author Information

    John Zilcosky is a professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto.
  • Table of contents

    Acknowledgments
    List of Illustrations

    Introduction: Literature, Trauma, and the Sign of Illness

    1. Hoffmann at the Battle of Dresden: “The Sandman” and the Napoleonic Wars
    2. Freud and World War I: The Uncanny Trauma of Contagion
    3. Inexplicable Tears: Trains, Wars, and Kafka’s Aesthetic of Indeterminacy

    Conclusion: The Poetics of Trauma: Simulation, Causality, and the Crisis of Insurance

    Notes
    Index

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