Uncanny Encounters

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Publication Date
February 2016
Page Count
280 pages
Trim Size
6 x 9

Uncanny Encounters

Literature, Psychoanalysis, and the End of Alterity
John Zilcosky

Around 1900, when the last blank spaces on their maps were filled, Europeans traveled to far-flung places hoping to find the spectacularly foreign. They discovered instead what Freud called, several years later, the uncannily familiar: disturbing reflections of themselves—either actual Europeans or Westernized natives. This experience was most extreme for German travelers, who arrived in the contact zones late, on the heels of other European colonialists, and it resulted not in understanding or tolerance but in an increased propensity for violence and destruction. The quest for a “virginal,” exotic existence proved to be ruined at its source, mirroring back to the travelers demonic parodies of their own worst aspects. In this strikingly original book, John Zilcosky demonstrates how these popular “uncanny” encounters influenced Freud’s—and the literary modernists’—use of the term, and how these encounters remain at the heart of our cross-cultural anxieties today.

About the Author

JOHN ZILCOSKY is a professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Toronto. His previous publications include Kafka’s Travels: Exoticism, Colonialism, and the Traffic of Writing (2003), winner of the MLA’s 2004 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize, and Writing Travel: The Poetics and Politics of the Modern Journey (2008).

“A stimulating and thought-provoking book.” —Journal of European Studies

"Zilcosky (Univ. of Toronto) maps out striking interdisciplinary connections among early-20th-century German literature, Freud's psychoanalytic theories, the emerging field of anthropology, and international travel. Highly recommended."  —CHOICE

"[A] unique and innovative study... Zilcosky successfully interprets texts as travel writing that one would not normally group under this rubric and in that way, expands the confines of the genre. Uncanny Encounters is elegantly composed to lead straight back into the heart of darkness constituting Europe and the West... For readers interested in the discipline of psychoanalysis, this link to travel writing is especially useful. It is a timely contribution to the growing body of scholarship on gender and alterity in the context of German and Jewish studies." —Monatshefte 

"John Zilcosky’s Uncanny Encounters: Literature, Psychoanalysis, and the End of Alterity argues that in the works of early twentieth-century German literature, modernist and popular, there are “uncanny encounters” in which Europeans find not an Orientalized or otherwise reified Other but instead, shockingly, versions of themselves, either actual Europeans or Europeanized natives. The result is not, however, understanding or tolerance, but rather an increased propensity for violence and destruction, as the quest for an exoticized existence, innocent, traditional, and sacred, is shown to be already ruined at the source, reflecting back at them the demonic parodies of their own worst aspects. This is an original and striking book."  —Daniel O'Hara, author of Empire Burlesque: The Fate of Critical Culture in Global America

"This book is a major achievement in terms of its methodology and large scope. With its thoughtful attention to a litany of historical references and both real and imagined geographical encounters, Zilcosky’s book shows a breadth of study that is vital to comparative literature and cultural studies, as well as to their multidisciplinary value." —European Legacy 

"Uncanny Encounters is a wonderfully authoritative book, filled with superb readings of travel books rarely discussed or known, combined with original analyses of more canonical authors like Hesse, Mann, Musil, and von Hofmannstahl.”  —Jean-Michel Rabaté, author of Psychoanalysis and the Subject of Literature and Crimes of the Future: Theory and Its Global Reproduction

 "Juxtaposing nuanced and highly detailed re-readings of canonical works with innovative explorations of lesser-known writings, Zilcosky’s study succeeds in casting new light on the multiple intersections between classical European modernism, travel writing in late colonialism, and psychoanalytic theory as a tool for textual analysis." —Seminar

"...ambitious, striking, and... in many ways, compelling. The argument—that our fear of uncanny similarity produces a violent attempt to pull up the drawbridges and confirm ourselves in the ‘fortified camp’ of our westernized and, increasingly, nationalist social egos—speaks powerfully, and painfully, to our present moment." —Psychoanalysis and History

"John Zilcosky’s Uncanny Encounters is a compelling book in many respects... While there have been several texts documenting the conceptual genesis of the uncanny—research on the theme has almost become oversaturated—none have quite taken the approach offered by Zilcosky. Indeed, his thesis is quite original." —Modernism/modernity 

"[A] historically grounded and theoretically and literarily rich book... Uncanny Encounters also shows that one cannot provide a critical study of imperialism, and the traces of colonialism in the present, through the discourse of psychoanalysis alone. If one does, one will always encounter the uncanny sameness that the book maps so well." —American Imago 

"John Zilcosky has written a book that is expertly argued, deftly written, rich in perspectives and replete with intellectual excitements." —Studies in Travel Writing

"With Uncanny Encounters, John Zilcosky presents a brilliant study of the origins of the uncanny as a concept and experience at the turn of the 20th century. The volume's originality lies in its rigorous development of a previously overlooked interdisciplinary constellation... Deeply reflective, readable, and compelling."—The Germanic Review
“…well-researched and convincingly argued… What makes Zilcosky's monograph such a fascinating and thought-provoking read is its author's broad knowledge of the intellectual discourses that shaped the post-colonial discussion, his keen ability for close readings of primary sources in their historical context, and his theoretical courage to question long-standing assumptions in cultural history. This monograph is an important contribution to post-colonial theory, discussions concerning German identity, and contemporary issues in multicultural societies.” –South Atlantic Review