Germanic Languages | Historical Study of German Literature III
G575 | 2821 | Prof. Breithaupt

G575 Historical Study of German Literature III:
Topic:  The Invention of Trauma

Are human actions and decisions repetitions of childhood events?

In the entanglement of ideas surrounding the invention of the ego,
none is as powerful as the idea of trauma. According to the idea of
trauma, the ego is in its very essence not a free entity but an
unconscious reaction to some overwhelming event (or to a series of
events). The too-powerful event imprints itself into the individual in
such a way that the individual later is forced to repeat and replay
this event in an attempt to control, tame, and heal the wound
(Wiederholungszwang), an attempt however that might fail. This
repetition presupposes that there is some "unconsciousness" in which
the trauma can imprint itself. In fact, trauma serves as the first
proof of anything that deserves the name "unconscious," be it an
individual or collective unconsciousness. Trauma, thus, has the burden
not only to justify the existence of the "unconscious" but also of the
self or the identity of a culture.

In this course, we will treat "trauma" (as well as ‘unconscious’,
‘ego’, etc.) as an idea. That means we will examine which functions
this idea serves, which development it has, and which problems arise
from it. This also means that we cannot simply assume that there is
such a thing called ‘trauma’ and instead focus on the formation of
this idea. For doing this, we will look at the origin of trauma in
Romanticism and we will do close readings of strong stories by Moritz,
Tieck, Kleist, Hoffmann, Balzac, Büchner, Lewald, Poe, and Storm. We
will also examine texts from the two other golden days of trauma,
namely psychoanalytical theory around 1900, and recent trauma theory
that examines historical trauma in reaction to the Shoa. The plan is
not to ‘apply’ psychoanalytical or trauma theory to older texts but to
read trauma theory with the same scrutiny as the other texts. The
course will also give us the opportunity to explore concepts of
(auto)biography, childhood, crime, ego, freedom, ghosts, historical
and collective trauma, madness, memory, religious trauma, among

Students are required to write a total of 20 pages split up in as many
papers as desired. Projects on texts not currently listed in the
syllabus are welcome. Also, each student should contribute to the
discussion by either submitting a short discussion paper or by giving
a presentation. Readings in German and English, class discussion in
English or German as desired by participants.


Karl Philipp Moritz, Anton Reiser RUB 4813

Ludwig Tieck, Blonde Eckbert RUB 8178

Georg Büchner, Lenz RUB 8210

Theodor Storm, Der Schimmelreiter RUB 6015


Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy. U of Chicago Press 1999, ISBN