In dieser Nacht schlief ich mit großen Gedanken ein. Weniger großartig war mein Traum, den ich seiner Sonderbarkeit wegen doch hierher setzen möchte.
(Kubin , 138)
My first post. And then I chose to write about an Austrian piece of writing. How come you may justifiably ask. During my year abroad at UCL (University College London), I am currently partaking in a class called “German Literature and Psychology”. As it so happens, this surprisingly thrilling novel was part of the course reading. Since I have only just finished reading it, it seems appropriate to me that it will be used as the primary example of what this blog is (hopefully) going to look like in the future. Let me say, however, that a close reading of the texts I will be trying to dismantle, can only be beneficial in understanding my points. Also, I will be honest with you: I am not going to present my own synopsis of what happens in the book. There will be a synopsis, yes. But be aware that I have copied it. Naturally, I will only put a synopsis in the post that I am satisfied with myself. Besides, the synopsis I will choose will always be spoiler free. But as already mentioned: just read the book. It makes your life, and my life, much easier and these texts are certainly worth your time.
For this first post, we will consider a couple of different aspects that I stumbled upon when reading “Die Andere Seite”. Although some might consider this topic of literary studies a little bit stale, we will first consider the idea of dreams and reality in this novel. As you can imagine by the subtitle of the novel “Ein phantastischer Roman”, there are a lot of things that cross the realm from the natural to the supernatural, questioning the notions of reality, and in terms of narrative development, the narrator’s reliability. This will ultimately lead to considerations about what the text would like to say about its historical context and the 20th century in German literature before finishing off with an attempt to classify the novel in its entirety, not only in the way it was written and the time it was published, but also in the way it can be read.
So, let us dive into the phantastic world of Alfred Kubin’s (quite limited) literary legacy!
Today’s synopsis of the novel is (with sheer gratefulness on my part) provided by Goodreads user “Marjan” :
On the surface, this is a story about a person who gets an invitation from his old school friend Patera to join him in his newly founded Dream Country. Patera build Dream Country after he inherited an immense wealth in a series of fortunate events. The narrator decides to move there in the utmost secrecy (taking with him only his wife) and from the moment they arrive they are bewildered by the uncanny nature of the Dream Country. But it doesn’t take long after they settle into the odd habits of the Dream Country nation that an arrival of a new citizen challenges the Status Quo of the Dreamers’ way of life and thus brings upon it’s destruction.
Dreams and reality
As already established in my introduction and also by Marjan’s synopsis, one of the novel’s major elements is the “uncanny nature of the dream country”. In that regard, let us take a step back and think about the dream country: In terms of its geographical location, we know that the country must be located somewhere in Asia. It is not entirely clear, where exactly that is. Yet, there are references in the book that support the assumption that it is somewhere close to the capital of Uzbekistan: “Ich selbst trat die Heimreise über Tashkent an […]” (Kubin, 249). At the end of the day, however, this seems to be irrelevant as Kubin is playing with the idea, that the dream country is actually a dream and does, possibly, not even exist. Beyond that, throughout several instances in the novel, the protagonist mentions situations in which either he himself or other inhabitants of the dream country, struggle to stay awake. Although not a revolutionary twist in the writing of the 20th century, this keeps the reader in the uncertainty of whether what we read can actually be trusted. Is the protagonist really experiencing all of this or are we stuck, together with him, in his mind? Kubin definitely knows how to blur the lines between reality and the dream country but the question is, how does he establish the dream world? Here are three things that contribute to the dream country’s degree of reality:
- The journey to the dream country: Making the dream country part of the real world ( located somewhere in Asia), it is easier for us, the reader, to imagine it’s existence. The idea that we are capable of travelling there (for example by train as the protagonist and his wife do) makes it tangible for us. On a cognitive side, this creates the effect of physicality and since our mind and brain knows that “real” things are usually tangible, we jump to the conclusion that the dream country must be to some extent real.
- Societal Norms: The dream country, as the majority of countries in the world, consists of a society. This society branches into different layers of societal class, just like in reality. Yet, it is not only the existence of those societal regulations that support the degree of reality of the dream country, it is also the fact that this society is frequently facing similar issues as a real society might be (famine, poverty, crime).
- The map: Some of you might have noticed the protagonist’s remark about the map of the dream country that can be found at the end of the book. The mapping of locations is a very simple tool to make fictional places appear real. What Lord of the Rings-Fan doesn’t know the routes and ways of Middle-earth or Mordor? And even historical fiction uses maps to establish family relationships that otherwise might be too confusing to follow. A good old map is the answer to creating a vivid mental image in the readers’ mind.
Beyond that, Kubin keeps embedding hints and clues that might as well convince the reader of the complete opposite, the inexistence of the dream country. One such clue, for example, is the fact that the inhabitants of the dream country are referred to as “Traummenschen” (engl. dream people) (Kubin, 57) or occasionally also as “Traumstäder” (engl. dream city people) (58) or “Träumer”. This composition ( here’s a bit of morphological theory for the linguistics people among us), of dream+people seems to be an oxymoron as people are real, yet dreams are only real to a certain extent in that they are only manifested in brain waves and the dreamer’s recollection of their dream. It is therefore only natural, that “Traummenschen” does not initially create a mental image as clear as an image of geographical nature. Yet, Kubin also plays with the physics of the world in his dream country. Whereas gravity and space seem to be acting normally (up to the point of decline and deconstruction of the dream country) as the reader would expect them to from the real world, time plays an important role in exemplifying the surreality of the dream country. Besides the ban on progress, the dream country also puts a ban on clocks/watches (71). Yet, as I am sure that everyone who has ever experienced a boring job or waited for something important to them knows, time can pass very slowly. Especially if it coincides for time to be an inconvenience not to pass. The same phenomenon can be found in the dream country. Additionally, the time leaps made in the protagonist’s narration underline the mundanity that he and his wife experience in the dream country. This is also mentioned a bit more explicit by him but to underline the idea of timelessness we will not look into this in further detail.
Now, you might ask yourself:”What has all this to do with psychology?” (Remember? I read this book for a university class). Well, let me try to broach this subject:
The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activity of the mind – Sigmund Freud
Who would have guessed that Freud has his fingers in the pie when we talk about psychology and literature? Total plot twist, right? Yet, if you come to think about it for a serious second, you realise that Freud’s theory about dreams does not quite apply to what we have so far found in the novel. Yes, the character might be dreaming. And yes, these dreams might be interpretable by a psychotherapist. But for us, the reader, it is unfortunately impossible to know what these dreams (or maybe even hallucinations?) mean. What I am trying to say here is quite a simple idea:
We know too little about the protagonist to fully understand to what extent his mind works!
Again, not really a revolutionary thought and yet a very significant if you come to think about that there are several key areas in which Kubin’s novel could be read in a psychoanalytical way. Compare, for example, the fact that the protagonist, just like Freud, differentiates between different “I” personas (87). Another place in which we can find this differentiation is when he feels that someone taps him on the shoulder : “Ich musste übrigens auch ein anderes <<Ich>> haben, denn öfters erhielt ich einen scherzhaften Schlag auf die Schulter und sah einen fremden Mann, der sich missvergnügt entschuldigte” (149). Additionally, we know that Freud started off as a neuroscientist investigating (female forms of) hysteria, one of the symptoms the protagonist’s wife shows briefly after they arrived in the dream country. And as it so happens, “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” was published 8 years prior to “Die Andere Seite” suggesting, that Kubin could have been well aware of Freud’s account of psychoanalysis.
The 20th century “phantastic” novel and genre
Now that we have already broached the question of the historical context (namely psychoanalysis) of “Die Andere Seite”, let’s think about the time in which the novel was published.
Not romanticism, and yet not quite modernism. We know that the beginning of modernism (or rather German modernism) is usually roughly estimated to be in 1910 ( Encyclopædia Britannica, German Literature, accessed 29.01.2018). So… where exactly do we place Alfred Kubin’s novel? I want to say that his writing exists on the edge of expressionism and surrealism. Why? Well, we know that Alfred Kubin was not primarily a writer, he was an artist. If you look at some of the drawings he produced during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, it will become obvious to you too that he creates different worlds, tells supernatural stories or maybe just tries to cope with mental health issues.(?) (In that regard, I am not going to post any of the drawings, just google them. Also, I am going to include one of his illustrations, quite suitably a drawing of someone dreaming, in the header so make sure to scroll back up and explore that). His pictures are very obviously not trying to create comfort in whoever is looking at them. Rather, it feels like the artist is fighting a battle with himself, being his own opponent. It seems that there is a tension in the pictures that desperately tries to resolve itself, yet as we all know, classic drawings tend to be rather static in that they cannot change. The novel, however, allows for exactly this change. There is a resolution at the end that can be read in different ways. The two ways I found most appealing are by far:
- An awakening
- The opposite, a neverending state of living in the unconscious
#inception , right? There are undoubtedly more readings, but the question is really, what is your reading? Do you think we are looking into the protagonists mind? Are we seeing a dream ( and subsequently a dream within a dream?)? What exactly do you make of the protagonist’s experiences?
I guess what I am trying to say is:
His only novel has opened a new discourse in German literature, allowing for epochal fluidity between expressionism and surrealism. This is remarkable in that it enables different readings of the novel which makes it a very dynamic text of which everyone has to make their own reading.
There it is. My first post. Tell me what you think. Does it maybe encourage you to read the book? Or are you rather disinclined by my reading of it? Most importantly: I will still have to write an essay about this book so give me feedback if you have read the book and let us get into an exchange of ideas.
Kubin, Alfred. Die Andere Seite. Hamburg: RoRoRo, 1909.
Encyclopædia Britannica. “German Literature” accessed: 28.01.18. https://www.britannica.com/art/German-literature/The-20th-century