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Unheimlich Thoughts from Abroad
In the midst of the isolation of war-time a number of the English Strand Magazine fell into my hands; and, amongst other not very interesting matter, I read a story about a young married couple, who move into a furnished flat in which there is a curiously shaped table with carvings of crocodiles on it...


Thus Freud, writing his essay on "The Uncanny" in 1919. I tracked down the story in question, which turns out to be called "Inexplicable" by L. G. Moberly and was published in The Strand in 1917. Freud describes it as "a thoroughly silly story" but adds that "the uncanny feeling it produced was quite remarkable." It's an example of an obliquely ghostly genre that was very popular at the time, though no more than a journeyman piece. I wish I could have pressed a copy of M. R. James or even E. F. Benson into Freud's hands, with a cry of "You call that uncanny? This is uncanny." Would a reading of "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" have affected Freud's conclusions about the unheimlich, I wonder?

Mostly, though, I wonder how Freud got hold of that copy of The Strand magazine. By his own account it must have been between its publication in 1917 and the end of the war. Since he was living in an enemy capital, how did that happen? Also, it seems likely that he no longer possessed it in 1919 when he came to write his essay, for he misremembers the alligators on the table as crocodiles. It's uncanny - but not, perhaps, inexplicable. The obvious inference is that Freud was involved in some kind of espionage, and that secret messages were being conveyed between London and Vienna by means of underlined words in The Strand. No doubt, once he had decrypted them, he was required to burn the evidence - probably with one of his trademark cigars. What is certain is that the Armistice followed soon after. Can we doubt that it was brought about, in part, with the unwitting assistance of L. G. Moberly?

I don't know for sure, but it seems at least as likely as some of Freud's own inferences.

M.R. James leaves me comletely cold. All I can feel on finishing any of his tales, is that I've read a lazy story fragment, rather than a coherent and internally logical story, and that everyone involved (including me) has had an utterly rotten time for no apparent good reason.

I couldn't disagree more, but I'm not sure that I know how to convince you!

(no subject) - oonaseckar, 2013-09-25 04:37 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-25 04:38 pm (UTC)(Expand)
On the fragmentariness, though - I think of his reticence as one of his great strengths. Take the final paragraph of 'Casting the Runes', which demonstrates it eloquently:

Only one detail shall be added. At Karswell's sale a set of Bewick, sold with all faults, was acquired by Harrington. The page with the woodcut of the traveller and the demon was, as he had expected, mutilated. Also, after a judicious interval, Harrington repeated to Dunning something of what he had heard his brother say in his sleep: but it was not long before Dunning stopped him.


That final clause always makes me shudder! But as, ever, de gustibus and all that...

(no subject) - oonaseckar, 2013-09-25 04:45 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-25 06:30 pm (UTC)(Expand)
HOW COME YOU ARE NOT WRITING THIS NOVEL RIGHT NOW? I want to read it NOW.

...of course, such a novel would only underline later Nazi claims that Jews were untrustworthy traitors, so maybe not. Unless Freud was receiving messages from a spy IN England, I guess.

Unless Freud was receiving messages from a spy IN England, I guess.

There's something quite suggestive about the phrase "fell into my hands", I think. I'm not sure how it comes across in German, but things and people often fall into that hands of the enemy, don't they? So possibly he intercepted a copy of the magazine that was intended for someone else. That still doesn't determine which side he was ultimately working for, of course. Espionage, like psychoanalysis, is a game of bluff and double-bluff. (Hmm, I'm warming to this novel idea...)

That is way cool.

I want to relate it to the conversation about crocodiles in Antony and Cleopatra.

The German has Krokodile too, so it wasn't Strachey's slip.

But I wonder whether Alligator was too technical a word, in German, for Freud to think that accuracy trumped familiarity. I don't know, but I have a somewhat informed hunch that Krokodile is colloquial in German for both alligators and crocodiles, as (in the US) turtle is in English for both turtles and tortoises (and not doves), or dolphin for both dolphins and porpoises, or porcupine for both porcupines and hedgehogs....

My German isn't good enough to resolve that question, but I can add that anyone who had recently read the story should have no doubt that the animal concerned was an alligator, since the word is used at least eight times.

(no subject) - ethelmay, 2013-09-26 06:34 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - nightspore, 2013-09-25 10:49 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Having now spoken to a German friend (and translator), I can confirm your hunch.

I can actually think of a couple of possibilities (e.g., the Strand may well have had an international edition, or Freud may have received it as packing material around a book he'd ordered), but your theory is more fun.

Lucy Gertrude Moberly must be one of the granddaughters of Bishop George Moberly.

I don't know - it seems kind of unlikely they were sending mail or magazines back and forth between Britain and Austria-Hungary while the two countries were at war?

You're quite likely right about Lucy Gertrude. That would also make her the niece of Charlotte Moberly, who encountered Marie-Antoinette in the grounds of Versaille in 1901. Spookiness upon spookiness!

I seem to remember that there was mail, at least of sorts (and people were chary of sending/receiving lest they be assumed to be not nice). If I could remember where I saw it, this would help. I read it in my twenties, though, and stared wondering about other communications between countries at war and it turns out that there are quite a few vectors.

(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-26 05:54 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillpolack, 2013-09-26 06:32 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-26 06:41 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillpolack, 2013-09-26 10:54 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-26 02:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillpolack, 2013-09-27 12:35 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2013-09-27 12:49 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-27 07:00 am (UTC)(Expand)
In the spirit of steepholm's closing line, I must say that it seems entirely appropriate, in discussing Freud, to value the potentially interesting above the potentially plausible ;-)

Edited at 2013-09-26 12:03 am (UTC)

You are finely attuned to my methods. :)

The Strand *did* have an international edition, because of the Commonwealth. I don't know the dates, though. I have a few copies from WWII.

(no subject) - steepholm, 2013-09-26 06:43 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - gillpolack, 2013-09-26 10:53 am (UTC)(Expand)
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