R. Gray
German 390/Comp. Lit. 396/Engl 363/CHID 498/JSIS 488/Lit 298

"Freud and the Literary Imagination"

Lecture Notes: Hofmannsthal, "A Tale of the Cavalry"

I. Background

A. Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) = precocious Austrian writer who published his first poems under a pseudonym ("Loris") when he was 16 years old. He attracted the attention of the great German modernist poet Stefan George and later in his life worked together with the composer Richard Strauss (Hofmannsthal wrote the text for the opera Der Rosenkavalier) and the theater director Max Reinhardt. Together with these two Hofmannsthal founded the Salzburg Festival Theater in 1917. Although he began his writing career as a lyric poet, Hofmannsthal experienced a "crisis of language" around 1900 and abandoned the lyric form, concentrating primarily on drama, essays, etc.

B. "Tale of the Cavalry" was written in July 1898. The action it describes occurred exactly 50 years previously, in July 1848. At this time the states of northern Italy (Milan; Lombardi; Venice) were part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Following the so-called "March Revolution" in March of 1848, Italian nationalist revolutionaries fought against the political control of the monarchy (under the rule of the Hapsburg family). The famous Austrian general Count Joseph Radetzky (1766-1858) was called upon to suppress the revolution. He was successful in this, insuring Austrian dominance over northern Italy for 2 more decades.
-- Note that Radetzky was a veteran of the (largely unsuccessful) Napoleonic Wars; his military success in 1848 came late in life. He came to be celebrated by Johann Strauss Sr. in the famous "Radetzky March." Perhaps there is a parallel to the aging Anton Lerch in Hofmannsthal's story and his drive for military and erotic conquests at precisely the time when he begins to recognize that he is "getting old"?

C. The historical background of Hofmannsthal's story thus presents a tale of the successful suppression of revolution. Hofmannsthal's story will repeat this tale of suppression, transferring it to the level of the individual, on the one hand, and, on the other, transforming it into a tale of psychic repression. The suppression of the Italian revolutionaries thus forms the external backdrop for a narrative dramatization of psychic repression and a catastrophic return of the repressed that (as in Mann's Death in Venice) precipitates the death of the protagonist.
-- The text plays out the parallel between sociopolitical oppression and psychological repression, both of which result in failed "liberation."

II. "Tale of the Cavalry" as an "uncanny" psychic narrative. Examination of the text on the basis of the five characteristics Freud ascribes to uncanny fiction in his essay on "The Uncanny."

A. The requirement of an objective external frame that possesses the typical qualities of realistic fiction.

1) The first 2 paragraphs of the text (pp. 321 to the middle of 323) describe in exact detail the skirmishes in which Sergeant Anton Lerch's cavalry troop participates on a very specific day.
-- Temporal precision: exact date, July 22, 1848;
-- Written in style of a newspaper report about the skirmishes. The soldiers celebrate their victories with a ride through the unprotected city of Milan. Descriptions here are geographically exact, but the details begin to take on an uncanny aspect, with the description of elusive figures in doorways. This ride through the city becomes a kind of empirical analogue for a sexual, libidinal conquest: "penetrating" the defenseless victim.
2) The final lines of the text, describing the fall of Lerch after he is shot by his commanding officer, and concluding with the return of the squadron to its outpost (p. 331). Here we also have distanced, objective, realistic depiction of events But here, too, the realistic aspects begin to take on a symbolic, "uncanny" luminosity.

B. Sandwiched in between this objective frame we have a narrative told exclusively from the perspective of the central figure, Anton Lerch. This has the quality of a dream sequence, beginning with the observation of a woman ("Vuic") who reminds him of past events in his life (day residue!), the stimulation of Lerch's erotic desires, the extension of these erotic wishes into desire for material gain and more success in combat, including the sequence in the village where Lerch encounters his double, the fight with the young enemy officer and the taking of the iron-gray horse as booty, and the stubborn refusal to sacrifice this prize.

C. Clash between realism and fantasy:

1) The text moves gradually from the description of external, empirical reality to the portrayal of Lerch's internal thoughts and perceptions; see the paragraph beginning in the middle of p. 323.

2) After Lerch has this encounter with Vuic and rides off with his troop, we experience above all the wild desires of his imagination. He fantasizes about Vuic, about the man he has glimpsed in a mirror in her room, about the war, about secret meetings of political insurgents, etc. See pp. 323-24.

3) The ride through the "uncanny" village (pp. 326-328) repeats in many details the ride through the city of Milan presented in the second paragraph of the text. But all the details have been shifted from positive to negative traits. The women are no longer sensual, but seem deathly and eerie. The animals (rats, dogs, cow, etc.) fight for survival and are all degenerate. Instead of marching through the city in triumph as part of a victorious army, Lerch marches alone through a mysteriously decrepit landscape. Note how structural doubling is one of the critical features of this text; this marks, as it were, the problem of the uncanny on the structural level of the text.

4) The new skirmish and the defeat of the enemy officer seems to return the text to the external frame; but this is not completely the case. When Baron Rofrano demands the release of the horses, we are returned to Lerch's psyche. We witness him struggling with himself, reflected in his "oppressed, doglike look" (p. 330) and the "bestial anger" (p. 331) he feels toward his superior officer. Here the rebellion of the Italian insurgents and Lerch's "mute insubordination" (p. 331) against his superior officer come together. Lerch's rebellion is squelched with the same violence that puts down the insurgency of the Italians fighting for their freedom.

5) The middle portions of the text, especially the ride through the eerie village, take on the quality of a dream text. The real and the fantastic seem to merge, symbolized by the encounter the "real" Anton Lerch has with his "imaginary" double on the bridge.

D. Lerch as "anchor figure":

This central scene (Lerch's encounter with his double) presents the fusion between objective and subjective narration; Lerch's psychic experiences have the appearance of empirical events; but they are dispelled by the appearance of his companions Holl and Scarmolin. Objective and subjective worlds become inseparable; psychological and empirical, internal and external reality merge indistinguishably into one another. But we as readers largely view events as Lerch views them; we share his perspective.

E. Readers view events from the same perspective as the protagonist:

Since we as readers experience events in the middle section of the text primarily thought the eyes of the anchor character, Anton Lerch, we also experience them with the same sense of the uncanny that Lerch feels. We are limited to his perspective, we view events with the same restrictions and distortions he experiences. Note how the phrase "it seemed to Sergeant Anton Lerch" (p. 323) signals the shift to Lerch's subjective perspective. This is what gives the text and its occurrences an uncanny, spooky, eerie quality for us. Note also how at the conclusion of the tale, the narrator emphasizes precisely how we share the privileged perspective of Lerch. The thoughts and motivations of other characters, such as Baron Rofrano, "we cannot know" (p. 331). Why can't we know these things? Because the narrative perspective is not omniscient, but "figural," that is, tied to what Lerch (as "figure") sees and knows. What he does not know, we (and the narrator) also cannot know. In this regard, the figural perspective is highly restricted, and it is the restriction of this perspective that makes our experience (as readers) of the uncanny possible.

III. What does "Tale of the Cavalry" imply when viewed from a Freudian perspective?

A. Anton Lerch and his Doubles:

1) Encounter with Vuic stimulates Lerch’s imagination:
-- The man in the mirror: stout, clean-shaven, elderly (324);
-- Fantasizes about war, secret meetings, bourgeois comfort;

2) Ride through uncanny village doubles ride through Milan; but reverses the emotional tenor from positive to negative: beautiful Ž ugly; stately Ž decrepit; vitality Ž death.

3) Encounter with doppelganger on bridge; exact mirroring.

4) New skirmish; repeats the earlier skirmish.

5) Encounter with enemy officer; young, pale; Lerch takes prize horse as booty, reward.

6) Baron Rofrano: Superior officer, shoots Lerch for insubordination; but there is a close association of these 2 figures, so that Rofrano also is a double of sorts. (We’ll see that he represents Lerch’s super-ego, is repressive, disciplinary self.)

B. A Tragedy of Ambivalence?

1) Central scene: Lerch’s meeting with his “double.”

2) Confrontation of real and imaginary.

3) Fusion of objective and subjective.

4) Composite of external and internal worlds (like a dream).

5) Lerch “identifies” with various figures:
-- The “young” revolutionaries;
-- The “elder” man in the mirror;
-- The ambitious sergeant (Lerch himself);
-- His superior officer.

6) Fictional world as the psychic “landscape” of conflicted, ambivalent Anton Lerch:
-- Restrictions and distortions of his perspective represented in the text;
-- His “uncanny” experiences become our “uncanny” experiences;
-- Text itself becomes “mysterious,” eerie, undecipherable.

C. Problem of the double. What does the double represent according to Freud? In the essay on "The Uncanny" he identifies it with the super-ego and ascribes to it 2 possible meanings:

1) The double can represent the disciplinary authority the character has internalized and turned against himself in the form of self-repression. Seen in this way, the double would be the internal equivalent of Baron Rofrano, Lerch's commanding officer.
-- In the external frame, Rofrano represents a kind of national self-repression in the sense that he is involved in the political suppression of his fellow Italians (his name, "Rofrano," is, after all, Italian, not German).

2) The double can represent all the suppressed desires, wishes, demands, dreams that the ego (Lerch) once entertained but which were suppressed and left unrealized due to the discipline of the super-ego. In this sense the double manifests all the unrealized potentials of Lerch's youth, his youthful rebelliousness, his sexual prowess, his freedom and lack of servitude, etc.
-- Thus the double would represent above all the return of the repressed. It, like Vuic, and the stout, pale, clean-shaven man from her bedroom who comes to occupy Lerch's imagination, marks the return to consciousness of Lerch's rebellious youthfulness.

3) In German, Lerch's military rank is that of "Wachtmeister," which means not only "sergeant," but, taken literally, "master watchman."
-- wachen = to guard," "to observe," "to watch over";
-- Meister = master
-- Wachtmeister = "master observer," or "master watchman"
Consistent with this is the reference to Lerch's "sharp eyes" (p. 323). In this sense Lerch is characterized as a keen-sighted individual who takes seriously the duty of watching over, or guarding, himself. In this regard, he is the very embodiment of Freud's disciplinary super-ego, whose task, as Freud reminds us, is -self-observation for the purposes of self-disciplining.
-- We are reminded here of the themes of eyes and observation in Hoffmann's "The Sandman," which formed the starting-point of Freud's analysis of the uncanny.

D. How does the text present and organize this theme of the return of the repressed?

The text itself is structured like a mirror, with ascending action, a culmination at the center (Lerch's fantasy about the clean-shaven man he sees in the mirror in Vuic's house), and then has a parallel descending action. It moves from a description of the morning of the day on which the events take place, to relating the skirmishes, then the ride through Milan, with the meeting of Vuic and the fantasy of wealth, success, victory, etc., then winds down in the opposite direction, to the march through the uncanny village (with the encounter with the double), a new skirmish, and concluding where it began, with a description of the evening sun-set as it colors the landscape red. (For a diagram of this mirror structure, click here.)

1) Lerch's subtle identification with the youthful rebels against whom he must fight. His struggle as a cavalry officer against this rebellion reflects his self-suppression of his own youthful rebelliousness, his own desire for "freedom." Lerch’s fantasy as he rides out of Milan after meeting Vuic recapitulates many of the experiences of that day: see pp. 324-25.
-- peace and war fused
-- paraphernalia of war and peace combined: slippers, dressing-gown, with saber
-- intrigues of Piedmontese (p. 325) invokes the liaison of the rebels with the Piedmontese army (p. 322)
-- the "Pope’s cook" (p. 325) alludes back to the "Papal officers" (p. 322) who command the Neapolitan irregulars Lerch's squadron defeats
-- the "suspect" houses Lerch imagines invoke the "suspicious figures" (p. 321) his troop encounters
-- the "irregularity" of the costume in which Lerch imagines himself reflects the "irregularity" of the uniforms worn by the revolutionaries. Like Lerch in his dream, they combine the weapons of war with the clothes of civilian existence.
-- Lerch's fantasies of success and wealth, tied with his desire to take possession of Vuic and her quarters, mark the secret, forbidden wishes of the repressed, highly disciplined sergeant.
-- Like the "wayfarer" Lerch’s troop discovers (p. 322), "whose very guilelessness and insignificance aroused suspicion," Lerch’s guilelessness also becomes suspect to his commanding officer. Like this wayfarer, who has "detailed plans of the greatest importance relating to the formation of irregular corps" sewn into the lining of his coat, Lerch has repressed plans for wealth, self-liberation, and a bourgeois lifestyle, free of servitude to a commanding officer, sewn into the lining of his psyche. His refusal to give up his prize horse is the concrete manifestation of this greater rebellion against his position as a military subordinate. His rebellion against the hierarchy of military rank reflects the revolutionaries' rebellion against the hierarchy of class, ethnicity, and national interests. Perhaps his refusal to give up the horse is itself symbolic, with the horse representing youth, vitality, energy, animalistic drive, etc.

2) Lerch's first encounter with his "double" actually occurs in the meeting with Vuic, represented by the man he sees reflected in a mirror in Vuic’s house.

3) Mirror motif anticipates the mirroring that will occur at the bridge when Lerch encounters his exact doppelganger.

4) This man is clean-shaven, elderly, stout = represents Lerch's lost youth; just as Vuic's "present stoutness" disguises the "slender figure" she had 10 years ago when Lerch first knew her (p. 324). Loss of youth and sexual prowess is reflected in the "misfiring pistol" when Lerch is in the uncanny village (p. 327)

5) In his imagination, Lerch associates this double with the revolutionaries, the suspicious figures who hold secret meetings, and in his fantasy he re-enacts the act of repression by which this figure is banished from his own life, associating it with his own success and wealth.

6) This double is a representative of the "in-between"; in the German text he is called a "Mittelding," a "thing-in-between" a priest and a footman.
-- This alludes to the problem of ambivalence that is portrayed at the conclusion of the story: Lerch as torn between his libidinal urges and the repressive super-ego, manifest in the authority of Baron Rofrano.
-- When Lerch dies, he falls explicitly between the two horses, his own cavalry steed and the captured iron-gray horse who represents his fantasies and desires.
-- The officer from whom Lerch has captured the horse is another one of his doubles: he is "youthful" and "pale" like the revolutionaries = Lerch's youthful, rebellious self. Here again Lerch re-enacts his own self-repression. The conclusion of the text plays this out again, but portrayed as the squelching of his drive toward insubordination by his commanding officer.
-- Lerch rides through the middle of the uncanny village; the dog tries to bury its bone in the middle of the street (p. 327); the rats fight in the middle of the street (p. 326).

E. "Tale of the Cavalry" thus tells a tale of ambivalence (One of Freud's favorite themes!).

1) The story depicts the struggle in the character of Sergeant Lerch between his erotic and ambitious impulses, his drive for freedom, independence, wealth, success, etc., and the repression of these desires by his own super-ego. When Lerch's repressed desires re-emerge, as the return of the repressed, they cause his death. The "flashing" in his face just prior to his death reflects his own ambivalence, the psychic struggle that is at the heart of the text. The story reflects this psychic struggle in its external, "empirical" description of the suppression of the 1848 revolution. The "uncanny" events of the narrative mark the intrusion of this psychic struggle into the narrative frame of the text.

2) The story itself, we might conclude, voices precisely that rebellion against oppressive discipline, subordination, repression, etc, that Lerch himself cannot successfully express and can never truly carry out for his own life.

3) In terms of structure, we see how the text is constructed as a kind of intratextual network in which particular words or ideas allude to similar or identical words/images, establishing paths of connective meaning. Instead of operating symbolically, pointing to meanings outside the text (the misfiring pistol!), textual elements refer to other elements in the text itself. It is on this basis that we can arrive at a deeper level of significance in the text, its implied or latent meaning, in particular Lerch's "secret" (repressed) identification with the young revolutionaries.

4) In "Tale" we begin to get the first inklings of a possible critique of Freud and his theories; for in this story the causes of repression are not purely psychic, not attributable to infantile experience, libidinal urges, etc., but rather are grounded in sociopolitical reality--in the reality principle. Repression is associated specifically with social oppression, with coercion, authoritarian social structures, discipline, and their internalization. The reality principle asserts itself here in the form of a totalitarian political power that squelches all forms of rebellion--both political and psychic.

5) There is one possibly redeeming perspective, however: Historically speaking, the Italian revolt depicted in this story was actually successful nearly 20 years later, in 1866--as Hofmannsthal knew when he wrote the story.
-- Still, the text seems to imply that in order to change psychic patterns, we must first alter oppressive sociopolitical structures.

Last Updated 11/15/13