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Historical Thinking and Concepts of Historical Transmission in the Writings of Freud, Kafka and Heine

Birgit Erdle, Fellowship project

This project investigates how Jewish authors addressed the problem of historical transmission (Tradierung) from the early 19th century onwards. It will analyse selected texts by Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Erwin Straus, Theodor W. Adorno and others, covering a period from 1826 to 1944. The project tries to reconstruct how these writings reveal the process of historical transmission and which concepts, figures and images are created by the authors to represent it. The question of how to conceptualise historical transmission will be combined with a Theorie des Ereignisses (theory of incidence), which focuses on the concept of trauma and thus on the connections between shock, repetition, language and narrative. In order to reconstruct the connection between trauma and historical transmission and place it in the context of German-Jewish history, this study will investigate a series of exemplary textual constellations. In Heine's work these are three prose texts dealing with correspondences between the past and the present where Heine's specific authorial position - involving multiple references to traditional Jewish texts (e. g. the Bible and the Haggada) as well as to Hegel's philosophy of history and to sources of Jewish historiography - becomes clear. The texts selected from Kafka's work deal with the experience of being unable - in Kafka's sense - ‹historisch zu werden›. Among these are the many different figures of historical transmission such as the various messengers and couriers appearing in Kafka's texts. The messages which either never arrive or which have become meaningless by the time they arrive are significant in this context as well. Trauma and historical transmission are also discussed with regard to Freud's work, albeit in a different way. In this case the project will try to reconstruct the dislocated textual history of the concept of trauma in Freud's writings and to explore the meaning of other concepts such as ‹archaische Erbschaft› and ‹Latenz›. In addition, it will be shown how Freudian concepts and those used by the psychiatrist Erwin Straus should be interpreted in comparison with a model of historical transmission implicit in a theory of genetics in the early 20th century which centres on biological heredity. Located at the intersection of literature, science and philosophy this study attempts to show how the connection between historical transmission and trauma links various discourses and how this connection is discussed across disparate fields of knowledge. This, in turn, might also enable us to clarify the nuances of a Jewish intellectual position in modernity. This project is guided by the question whether the texts under investigation represent a counter-discourse to the prevailing view of history in the modern age and whether they therefore also express an attempt to analyse and come to terms with the dominant gentile culture that surrounds them.