Research Programs: Fellowships for University Teachers

Period of Performance

12/1/2013 - 11/30/2014

Funding Totals

$50,400.00 (approved)
$50,400.00 (awarded)

The Concept of the "Uncanny" in 20th-Century Austro-German Thought

FAIN: FA-57426-13

John Theodore Zilcosky
University of Toronto (Toronto M5S 1A5 Canada)

The concept of “the uncanny” emerged astoundingly late, only after 1900. I propose to complete a book that, for the first time, explains this belatedness. The uncanny is so modern, I argue, because its peculiar mix of foreignness and familiarity was unthinkable before three late 19th-century developments: the mapping of the world’s last “blank” spaces; the Westernization of non-Europeans through colonialism; and the arrival of tourists onto previously untrodden territory. Because the uncanny ("das Unheimliche") was first conceptualized in Germany and Austria, I focus on this context, specifically on the accounts of travelers who documented their shock at finding ‘civilized’ natives and, even worse, European doppelgangers in faraway lands. Where these travelers had expected the spectacularly foreign, they discovered the uncannily “long familiar” (Freud). In so doing, they created a secret pre-history to the famous theorizations of the uncanny in psychoanalysis and literary modernism.

Media Coverage

An Uncanny Encounter with John Zilcosky (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Kelly Rankin
Publication: University of Toronto News
Date: 7/23/2013

German and Comparative Literature Professor Wins Germany's Prestigious Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Award (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Alex Zulak
Publication: Arts and Science News
Date: 2/13/2018

Associated Products

“Hermann Hesse’s Colonial Uncanny: *Robert Aghion*, 1913” (Article)
Title: “Hermann Hesse’s Colonial Uncanny: *Robert Aghion*, 1913”
Author: John Zilcosky
Abstract: Hermann Hesse's readers associate him with the “East” yet generally ignore his earliest writing on the topic: the mixed-genre masterpiece about India, *Robert Aghion* (1913). I argue that *Aghion* is a sophisticated critique of colonialism in which no one is innocent, not even the “anticolonial” hero Aghion. Through Hesse's self-fictionalization as Aghion, he casts a critical light on his own anticolonial exoticism: Aghion, like the young Hesse, hates colonialism because it creates a frighteningly “uncanny” ("unheimlich") mixture of India and Europe, and so ruins Aghion's fantasies of purity. By referring to India as "unheimlich," Hesse connects his story to an early twentieth-century psychoanalytic discourse more apt for understanding *Aghion* than late twentieth-century postcolonial theory, specifically Homi Bhabha's “hybridity.” Whereas Bhabha focuses on the colonialist's fear of difference, Hesse presents an India so full of hybrid “natives” and European doppelgängers that Aghion cannot find the difference that he would, in Bhabha's model, have to disavow. Mirror images are everywhere, troubling Aghion with the same returns that Freud will describe only six years later: of ancient narcissisms, primitive beliefs, and repressed infantile ideas. *Aghion* thus presents us with a new concept for understanding colonialism psychoanalytically—uncanniness—at the same time that it prefigures Freud's theorizations.
Year: 2014
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: John Zilcosky, "Hermann Hesse's Colonial Uncanny: *Robert Aghion*, 1913," *New German Critique* 41 (Fall/Winter 2014): 199-218
Access Model: subscription only
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: New German Critique
Publisher: Duke University Press

Uncanny Encounters: Literature, Psychoanalysis, and the End of Alterity (Book)
Title: Uncanny Encounters: Literature, Psychoanalysis, and the End of Alterity
Author: John Zilcosky
Abstract: Around 1900, when the last blank spaces on their maps were filled, Europeans traveled to far-flung places hoping to find the spectacularly foreign. They discovered instead what Freud called, several years later, the uncannily familiar: disturbing reflections of themselves—either actual Europeans or Westernized natives. This experience was most extreme for German travelers, who arrived in the contact zones late, on the heels of other European colonialists, and it resulted not in understanding or tolerance but in an increased propensity for violence and destruction. The quest for a “virginal,” exotic existence proved to be ruined at its source, mirroring back to the travelers demonic parodies of their own worst aspects. In this strikingly original book, John Zilcosky demonstrates how these popular “uncanny” encounters influenced Freud’s—and the literary modernists’—use of the term, and how these encounters remain at the heart of our cross-cultural anxieties today.
Year: 2016
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Northwestern University Press
Secondary URL:
Secondary URL Description:
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 0-8101-3209-5
Copy sent to NEH?: Yes


Friedrich-Wilhelm-Bessel Research Prize
Date: 12/1/2017
Organization: Alexander von Humboldt Foundation
Abstract: The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation presents approximately 20 Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Awards annually to internationally renowned academics from abroad in recognition of their outstanding accomplishments in research. The award is named for German astronomer and mathematician Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784–1846) and funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Hermann Hesses unheimliches Fernweh (Book Section)
Title: Hermann Hesses unheimliches Fernweh
Author: John Zilcosky
Editor: Irmtraud Hnilica
Editor: Malte Kleinwort
Editor: Patrick Ramponi
Abstract: n/a
Year: 2017
Publisher: Rombach Verlag
Book Title: Fernweh nach der Romantik: Begriff, Diskurs, Phänomen
ISBN: 978-3-7930-985

"'The Times in Which We Live': Freud's 'The Uncanny,' World War I, and the Trauma of Contagion." (Article)
Title: "'The Times in Which We Live': Freud's 'The Uncanny,' World War I, and the Trauma of Contagion."
Author: John Zilcosky
Abstract: The effect of World War I 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 and profound, as exemplified by the essay's many implicit references to the war: its recalling of the return of the fallen and of burial alive in the trenches; of a 1917 British story about trauma in colonial New Guinea; and, through "The Sandman," of E.T.A. Hoffmann's own experiences of shock during the Napoleonic Wars? The fact that Freud does not connect these traumas directly to "uncanniness" speaks to the problem they pose – for him and for psychoanalytic theory in general. This silence creates an uncanny effect within the essay itself: "The Uncanny" stages the same "return of the repressed" that it diagnoses. I aim, first, 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 apparently contagious affliction.
Year: 2018
Primary URL:
Access Model: subscription only
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: Psychoanalysis and History
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press