Essays in Romanticism

E. T. A. Hoffmann and the Development of Trauma1

Essays in Romanticism (2017), 24, (1), 83–104.

Abstract

This essay reads E.T.A. Hoffmann’s gothic novel Die Elixiere des Teufels as a trauma narrative, arguing that it anticipates the scientific discovery of psychic trauma. It demonstrates that childhood trauma and transgenerational trauma deeply inform the novel’s plot, and that the text’s narration structurally performs traumatic processes such as repetition compulsion and dissociation with astonishing clinical accuracy. Hoffmann’s poetic knowledge of traumatic mechanisms, of the connection between incisive events and their deferred psychopathological effects, I argue, is unparalleled in the contemporary psychiatric discourse on mental illness that Hoffmann consulted. Hoffmann’s poetics of trauma indicate that psychic wounds formed a constitutive part of modern subjectivity as it emerged around 1800, suggesting that German Romanticism played an important role in the development of our current paradigm of trauma.

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Author details

Sütterlin, Nicole