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04/03/2014 / rooswrites

From Repression To Memory: The ‘Un-heim’ (not-home) in Austerlitz

No one can explain exactly what happens within us when the doors behind which our childhood terrors lurk are flung open.

— Sebald, Austerlitz (30)

 W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz centers around a character who has no recollection of his past. By dealing with the journey upon which  Jacques Austerlitz has to embark as a consquence of his forgotten or either repressed memories, it immediately brushes up against the discourse of psychoanalysis. It is easily done to note that the story’s main protagonist, Austerlitz, in fact repressed his memories as a means to deal with his trauma. However, one of the most dominant themes in the novel is connected to space and buildings. Austerlitz’s favourite pastime entails studying architecture and he manages to relive some of his most important memories through certain places or buildings that he visits. Thereby a very literal presence of spatiality plays a dominant role in the story. One of psychoanalysis’ keynote terms is that of Freudian unheimlichkeit (literally: unhomeliness), which on a semantic level deals with the space of the home – the realm of the familiar and alien.Das Unheimliche is often mentioned as being the central notion to psychoanalysis, since it provides a location where all other psychoanalytical concepts can amalgamate (see e.g. Dolar 12). That the uncanny is often referred to as ‘the return of the repressed’ already points to Freud’s other well-known works and theories in the framework of psychoanalysis. Various elements from Freud’s Das Unheimliche can be tied to his other works, such as the Freudian slips (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life 1901) in which the repressed expresses itself in the mis-saying of words or thoughts so that they come indeed to express the subconscious. The ‘un’ in unheimliche is to Freud merely a mark of the repressed – that which differs heimlich from unheimlich is not that ‘it’ is not there, but that it is simply repressed. Freudian practices put the ‘un’ of unconscious back into unheimlichkeit.

The experience of das Unheimliche is a feeling, an experience, it is “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar” (124). The largest part of Freud’s study on the uncanny is taken up by tracing its semantic history, which is most interesting in a dialogue with Austerlitz. The initial meaning of  heimlich consists of “referring to the house, friendly, familiar, intimate, secure” and its second meaning is “concealed, hidden, private” (130). However, at the same time it is possible for something which is familiar (heimlich) to one – an insider, someone who is at home – at the same time to be highly unfamiliar (unheimlich) and secretive to the outsider. The meaning of the word unheimlich is initially defined as a negation of heimlich: “unhomey, unfamiliar, uncomfortable”, but also as “no longer concealed, revealed” – that which was meant to remain hidden, but inadvertently became to be unhidden, public (131). The great difference is that the heimlich is private and the unheimlich is not private (anymore). Freud mentions Schelling who explains this duality by arguing that the term “unheimlich [is applicable] to everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come into the open” (132). What follows is that das Unheimliche (the uncanny) is the revelation of that what is private and concealed (hidden); hidden not only from others, but also from the self. The feeling of unheimlichkeit arises because of an inner memory that was long forgotten is somehow resurfacing. Feeling uncanny is therefore the mark of the return of the repressed.

Jacques Austerlitz has been tormented by a very literal feeling of unhomeliness ever since he can remember – the pivotal point being here of course that he cannot remember the earliest years of his livelihood. Jacques experiences a constant subconscious looming presence that he is in some way not at home there where his home is. His first home, in his memory, is in the town of Bala in Wales.

 I have never liked looking back at the time I spent in that unhappy house, which stood in isolation on a hill just outside the town and was much too large for two people and an only child. Several rooms on the top floor were kept shut up year in, year out.  Even today I still dream sometimes dream that one of those locked doors opens and I step through it, into a friendlier, more familiar world. (italics mine – 61)

Austerlitz’s home is not only devoid of love and attention, also the house itself is unhappy (in the German original “dieses unglückliche Haus” 65) and too big for the little family that Austerlitz is part of. The house, as he continues, is literally un-familiar, as he craves to open one of the unoccupied rooms to find a more familar world – a “weniger fremde Welt” (65). What makes the house, therefore, unhomey, is the fact that it is unfamiliar. Clearly, the Welsh home is literally unfamiliar (as in: of the family) to Austerlitz, as they are not his family. The experiences of uncanniness, can often have something to do with death – and especially with its (often paradoxical) relationship with the living (Freud 141). When Austerlitz, still living in the town of Bala with Elias and Gwendolyn, is shown photographs of the drowned people from Llanwddyn, he too experiences “as if I […] had been submerged in the dark water” (74). He even thinks he sometimes recognises these people wandering through the town. Not only can the photograph be interpreted as a problematic double of reality, it is also a recording device for a memory that apparently somehow triggers Jacques’ repressed unhomeliness. Photography, as a medium, has also in itself been regarded as linked to death and trauma (see e.g. Duttlinger). The subsequent recording of Austerlitz’s own travel through discovering memory by means of these photographs illustates as if he himself is ‘working through’ these memories – this death of memory, this repressed trauma. Austerlitz himself is conscious of something hidden away in himself, from himself – a part of him that he cannot seem to reach:

 […] through all the years that I spent at the manse in Bala I never shook off the feeling that something very obvious, very manifest in itself was hidden from me. Sometimes it was as if I were in a dream and trying to perceive reality; then again I felt as if an invisible twin brother were walking beside me, the reverse of a shadow, so to speak. (76).

The notion of doubling reoccurs in the citation above, with the presence of an invisible twin brother – here signifying the boy Jacques was before he came to Wales – the Jacques who is now repressed. This process of coming to terms with his past and the preceding resurfacing of memory that happens to Austerlitz itself reminds of the actual process of unheimlichkeit. What happens in the case of an uncanny experience is that a repressed memory returns – which is exactly what Austerlitz experiences. Jacques’ system of self-protection through repression enabled him to live in a fictional (or moreso: absent) history in order to protect him from the traumatic events of his past. However, past present and future are tied closely together. Even though Austerlitz, later on in life, does (very consciously) not want to deal with the second world war events, he is indirectly confronted with the pre-memory of what he does not want to know. He may ignore this part of history, the past is already haunted by the future:

 I dared to go no further than that [the nineteenth century], although in fact the whole history of the architecture and civilization of the bourgeois age, the subject of my research, pointed in the direction of the catastrophic events already casting their shadows before them at the time. (197)

Subsequently, the Kindertransport, the deportation,  that Austerlitz is on, in the beginning of his life and at the end of the narrative, is a very literal deplacement of the home. Living out of a rucksack, all the travelling and the continuous journeying, are all manifestations of a movement that attempts to flee from feeling literally not-at-home, ever-present in Austerlitz. John Zilcosky, in his article on disorientation in Sebald’s oeuvre, also touches upon this idea of travel and the uncanny:

 Sebald destabilized this attempt to turn the margin into a new center (and make disorientation a new form of orientation) by destructing the traditional opposition between “home” and “away”. More disturbing than the fact that we might be always lost was, for Sebald, the fact that we might always know where we are, whether we like it or not: when we find ourselves in the same hotel in a city we once visited long ago; when we become disoriented only to keep circling back to the same spot; when we move away from our homes only to see our pasts creeping in everywhere around us. (783)

Even though Austerlitz tries to, you can never escape your own self, your memories and your past – no matter how repressed they are. These activities are clearly mirrored in Jacques’ travels. Austerlitz’s everlasting travels additionally remind to one of Freudian unheimlichkeit’s key notions, namely the Wiederholungszwang – the compulsion to repeat. Jacques’s wanderings – through countries, cities as well as through buildings and streets – embody not only a haunted search for the repressed, these actions themselves also denote a feeling of unheimlichkeit itself.

The notion of memory and history, how the past, present and future are all at once somehow present within space, is also reminiscent of the uncanny. Cooppan, in his article on world literature stresses the notion of the uncanny in relation to historical fluidity by referring to the whole realm of literature as  if “[t]emporally, it haunts [this realm], ghosting new texts with the residual presence of older ones, or indeed, old texts with the anticipatory presence of new ones” (24). This idea returns in Austerlitz, when Jacques comments on the fluidity of history, memory and forgetting:

 [f]or instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last. (359-60)

All roam around in the same space, but are not all there in process yet, since that is where time comes in – which denotes when what will be in process within a certain space.

However, the notion of the uncanny is also present on a completely different level in the story. The play with different narrative layers and the presence of the photographs and images of fine art in de text also play an important role here. Not only is the experience of reliving the repressed past uncanny to Jacques Austerlitz, since the reader has to tackle many notions of the uncanny within the narrative – as well as surrounding the narrative. The photographs and the art are ‘proof’ of the subconscious journey of Austerlitz – by which means he attempts to document his attempting to recover his memories. Through architecture – epitomes of lifeless things that will always remember but never can (re)produce memory themselves – Austerlitz manages to remind himself. He comments on photographs he takes of Parisian outskirts by saying that these “pictures which in their very emptiness, as I realised only later, reflected my orphaned frame of mind” (370). Duttlinger also refers to this problematic relationship between the photographs and the dichtomy of latency and forgetting (159) . The photographs simultaneously attempts to hold on to the memory, whereas they also make the remembering more impossible – less ‘real’ – as they illustrate the very process of not-remembering (forgetting).

Thereby W.G. Sebald’s novel, apart from simply dealing with trauma and memory, also deals with the usage and experience of repression and reliving memory through and because of das Unheimliche. Because of the physical loss of home and family, but moreso through the inability to remember the home he once had and to which he belonged, Austerlitz will probably always remain heim-los. This un-heim is present around and within him – in the state of the lacking of a home and the flashes of memory of the home that once was. However, the memories remain resurfacing parts of repressed past. It is the constant, inherent lack of these kinds of being-at-home that drives Jacques Austerlitz’s constant search for something that he may never find.

Works Cited


Cooppan, Vilashini. “Ghosts in the Disciplinary Machine:  The Uncanny Life of World

Literature”. In: Comparative Literature Studies. Volume 41, Number 1, 2004. pp. 10-


Dolar, Mladen. “‘I shall be with you on your wedding night’: Lacan and the uncanny”. In:

Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 2004. Botting, Fred (Ed).  p. 12-31.

Duttlinger, Carolin. “Traumatic Photographs: Remembrance and the Technical Media in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz”. In: W.G. Sebald – A Critical Companion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh

University Press, 2004.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny”. In: The Uncanny. London: Penguin Classics, 2003. pp.121–


Sebald, W. G. Austerlitz. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Penguin, 2001.

—                    Austerlitz. München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2001.

Zilcosky, John. “Lost and Found: Disorientation, Nostalgia, and Holocaust Melodrama in

Sebald’s Austerlitz”. In: MLN. Volume: 121, Issue: 3 (April 25, 2006). pp: 679-698.


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