He specifically says, however, that there are more opportunities for generating horror in fiction than in reality, and also that his present discussion concerns a variant of that has its roots in rejected or primitive notions.Horror based on repressed “infantile complexes” should, according to Freud, be seen as a somewhat different proposition, a view that undeniably fits in with his idea that and Freud of course stresses in his analysis of Hoffmann that the reader’s uncertainty gradually disappears: what happens in the story is real within the framework of the fiction, and not the confabulations of a disturbed mind (unless one refuses to budge from the helpfully diffuse term “unreliable narrator”).
: the word has a sinister ring – not least because of Freud’s famous essay of 1919, “The Uncanny” – an undertone that I always thought everyone could pick up, perhaps even without any grasp of German. [I am she who is dead, she said / Pick me the holly branch.], and this alone suffices to make the text of critical interest.
Straightaway, it seems to create associations with occult phenomena, ghosts, spirit doubles (, from the German), elementals and other apparitions from folklore. The essay has a boundless power to fascinate, which is due in the first instance to the special, focused gravitational force that it emits: “The Uncanny” pulls the reader into an animistic world populated by ghosts, phantoms and spirit doubles, where objects can come to life at any moment and people are subjected to portents of the most wondrous and terrifying kind.
Then he comes across the lifeless doll with empty eye sockets and it finally dawns on him what has been going on.
Spalanzani throws the automaton’s eyes on the floor and declares that Coppola has stolen them from Nathanael (who alternates between seeing them as dead objects, and aglow with “moist moonbeams”).
In Hoffmann’s mind, the essentially kindly spirit takes on positively demonic qualities.
He describes how an old nurse convinces Nathanael that, if the Sandman finds a child who won’t go to bed, he will steal the child’s eyes to feed his own offspring (the little Sandmen usually cluster together in a nest on the Half Moon and look like peculiarly nasty birds with hooked beaks; they eat human eyes, as other young birds eat worms or insects).7 Nathanael gradually comes to identify the unscrupulous lawyer Coppelius with the Sandman.
[While I tumbled into the depths/ there appeared before my eyes someone/ almost voiceless as though from a long silence] What, has this thing appear’d again tonight? Sverre Dahl’s translation) – in English, “sinister; uncanny” – but the German word is something of a translator’s conundrum.
Freud is clearly very much aware of this because, quite early in the essay, he examines several European languages to find possible, if often inadequate, words that are supposedly equivalent to , before scrutinizing his native language for shades of meaning, drawing on the German dictionaries by Daniel Sanders and the Brothers Grimm.
Throughout his childhood, Hoffmann’s protagonist Nathanael was tormented – even traumatized – by his imaginings about the Sandman, the German version of the Norwegian Ole Lukkøye or Jon Blund [Ole or Jon Shut-Eye].
A series of popular comic books by Neil Gaiman is called , but the characters and stories have remarkably little to do with the German figure.