William Lennon

“No one can explain exactly what happens within us when the doors behind which our childhood terrors lurk are flung open.”[1]

W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz is a text that is very open to the possibility of psychoanalytic criticism. It is the story of a man, Jacques Austerlitz, and his search, driven by hidden motives unknown to him, to discover who he is. Set in Antwerp, London, Wales, Prague and Paris, the form of the novel is given as a series of stories told by Austerlitz to the narrator. Not only does a psychoanalytic reading of Austerlitz as a character prove fruitful, the narrative itself is an informal version of psychoanalytic treatment itself. As such, we can identify with the listening narrator and imagine that we are in the position of a theoretical analyst. Through reading Austerlitz’ past with the concepts of repression, identification, and object cathexis in mind, we can gain a better understanding of Austerlitz and conclude that in order for time to move forward for Austerlitz, as well as for Austerlitz to consolidate his discoveries of himself, he had to tell his story to the narrator, showing the necessity of some sort of linguistic relation to alterity for psychoanalysis to succeed.

The narrative is set in the early nineties in Belgium, London, and Paris. The narrator often runs into a person named Austerlitz in various cities while travelling, and their conversations almost always revolve around architecture. After they ran into each other in Antwerp and have a long talk about Antwerp’s architecture in the twentieth century, they run into each other twenty years, in the nineties, later at a hotel near Liverpool Street station (Austerlitz lives on the outskirts of London). Austerlitz relates to the narrator that “he must find someone to whom he could relate his own story, a story which he had learned only in the last few years and for which he needed the kind of listener I had once been in Antwerp.”[2] (“I” being the narrator). Austerlitz then begins one of the narrative’s four “sessions” during which he recollects his past and consolidates memories. We learn that his parents in Wales, where he grew up, were foster parents, that he only learned about his real name at the age of fifteen, that he led a life of study and scholarship, that he was originally from Prague and had to leave at a very young age due to World War II, and that his parents died during the Holocaust. There are breaks between meetings, but Austerlitz essentially relates four parts of his life through storytelling within the narrative, which mirrors the structure of psychoanalytic treatment.

Jean François Lyotard, in an essay entitled “Rewriting Modernity,” gives a very straightforward definition of psychoanalytic free association. He writes,

“We know that Freud especially stresses the rule of so-called ‘freely floating attention’ which the analyst is to observe with respect to the patient. It consists in according the same attention to every element of the sentences proffered by the analysand, however tiny and futile it may appear… on his or her side the patient must respect the symmetrical rule: let speech run, give free rein to all the ‘ideas’, figures, scenes, names, sentences, as they come onto the tongue and the body, in their ‘disorder’… a rule of this sort obliges the mind to give itself as a passage to the events which come to it from a ‘something’ that it does not know.”[3]

As Lyotard states, the analyst has to be patient with the patient. Being an analyst means being a certain kind of listener. Austerlitz, when he tells the narrator that he needs him because he is a certain kind of listener, is essentially entering into a proxy psychoanalytic treatment, and the narrator, by becoming the proxy analyst, is the condition for Austerlitz to talk as freely about his past as he does and, consequently, for the narrative to push forward. Further, in order to actually understand how the text is working, the reader needs to read with the same kind of patience as a good analyst listens. A psychoanalytic reading of this text will not prove fruitful if read explicitly through the lens of psychoanalytic concepts. Rather, one must listen to Austerlitz with love and care, and think about his story in relation to psychoanalytic concepts after the fact. Austerlitz demands a reading qua analysis, not a reading through a specifically psychoanalytic lens.

ŸWhen looking back at the text, the most omnipresent psychical phenomenon in Austerlitz is repression. The best understanding of the concept comes from a reading of Freud’s paper titled “Repression.” Freud says that repression may occur when an instinctual impulse “meets with resistances which seem to make it inoperative”, in which case the instinct becomes repressed.[4] If it was an external stimulus that the subject was reacting to, the proper adaptive mode would be flight, but “with an instinct, flight is of no avail, for the ego cannot escape from itself.”[5] (We will find in time that Austerlitz is only able to begin something like a psychoanalytic treatment after he exhausts the method of flight and realizes he truly can’t escape from himself and his unconscious instincts.) Freud goes on and says that a necessary condition of repression’s happening is that its fulfillment would be “irreconcilable with other claims and intentions” and “cause pleasure in one place and unpleasure in another.”[6] Repression’s essence lies in “turning something away, and keeping it at a distance from the conscious.” [7]


But something being repressed does not simply make it inoperative. Rather, the instinctual representative still exists “in the unconscious… organizing itself further, putting out derivatives and establishing connections.” Repression “interferes only with the relation of the instinctual representative to one psychical system, namely, to that of the conscious.”[8] The goal of the analyst will be to have the analysand “free associate and bring to consciousness derivatives of the primary repression.”[9] Repression does not happen only once, but is constant, and requires a continual expenditure of force.

While repression is, to Freud, successful when it allows the subject to succeed at having some instinctual drive not interfere with other “claims and intentions” that are more important to the subject, in Austerlitz’s case repression (namely, his particular set of instincts that, if followed, would lead to the knowledge of his origins) seems to be taking up far too much psychical energy, and is based upon some sort of trauma that he must confront. Like Oedipus confronting his own past as a matter of destiny, Austerlitz’s repression, while for most of his life being necessary for him grow and create himself, eventually becomes something that literally hinders his ability to function and leads to linguistic paralyses and anxiety attacks. While repression is a success in certain instances, it seems that the same mechanism of repression can cause time to come to a virtual standstill and end up repressing drives that, for an unknown reason, must eventually be reckoned with.

Austerlitz, while not realizing that it is precisely these concepts he is obsessed with, is fascinated, to the point of being possessed, by defense mechanisms, instincts and repression. We learn this early on when, in Antwerp, Austerlitz is talking to the narrator about the logic behind building eighteenth century military fortresses. Austerlitz says,

“The largest fortifications will naturally attract the largest enemy forces, and the more you entrench yourself the more you must remain on the defensive, so that in the end you might find yourself in a placed fortified in every possible way, watching helplessly while the enemy troops, moving on to their own choice of terrain elsewhere, simply ignored their adversaries’ fortresses… the frequent result… was that you drew attention to your weakest point, practically inviting the enemy to attack it.”[10]

The instincts that are being repressed remain unknown to the subject, since recognizing them and fulfilling them would either be intolerable or conflict with some other interest of the subject. Like the fortress, what is being repressed is a weak point of the subject. By building up a fortress, the builders simultaneously negatively reveal a weak point that they are not aware of, which is obvious to enemy soldiers, which is similarly structured to the subject who is unaware of what he is repressing, even at a point where it becomes obvious to the analyst, other people, and the unconscious drives themselves. This obliviousness is evident in the case of the taking of Antwerp and their fortresses in the nineteenth century, when, as Austerlitz says, “the only conclusion (the Antwerp people) drew from it, incredibly, was that the defenses surrounding the city must be rebuilt even more strongly than before, and moved further out.” (17) While it seems entirely reasonable that the Antwerp military strategists are ignoring a blind spot, which is what must truly be reckoned in order to avoid a repetition of failure, repression is not something consciously controlled by the subject and does not listen to reason. So, for Austerlitz, while he may reach a point where it is safe to have his repression cease and save energy “from an economic point of view”, and while it may seem obvious to him that he must follow some deep instincts and reckon with his origins, that does not mean that the repression stops and alters its logic.[11]

Further, Austerlitz literally defines what his repression was doing right before he embarked on telling his story to the narrator. He says,

“It has become clear to me of late why an agency greater than or superior to my own capacity for thought, which circumspectly directs operations somewhere in my brain, has always preserved me from my own secret, systematically preventing me from drawing the obvious conclusions and embarking on the inquiries they would have suggested to me.”[12]

We find Austerlitz, whose psychical structure is clearly juxtaposed to the construction of the fortresses, repeating this sentiment over and over again, of him being blind to something very obvious about himself due to some mental faculty keeping him from learning it. He says at one point, “I never shook off the feeling that something very obvious, very manifest in itself was hidden from me. Sometimes it was as if I were in a dream and trying to perceive reality.”[13] And again later, “I feared unwelcome revelations… I was always refining my defense mechanisms.”[14] This repression allowed him to cope with the fact that he “was not at home now but very far away, in some kind of captivity.”[15] In looking at Austerlitz, we see that his survival depended on repressing the intolerable knowledge of his past in Prague with his family before being shipped off to Wales, since that knowledge would’ve conflicted with his other unconscious vital interests of moving forward and surviving. At a certain point, however, his repression paralyzes him, and he is forced to finally confront his past. This is terrifying to Austerlitz, since his repression is what allowed him to construct his identity in the first place, and coming face to face with his past is literally risking everything.

ŸAusterlitz spent most of his childhood in Wales, living with a minister and his wife. The town he lived in was very isolated, and he was cut off from the world. In fact, “they never opened a window.”[16] In terms of books and intellectual stimulation, he was only exposed to the Bible and the minister’s sermons. As such, there wasn’t much that Austerlitz could latch onto in constructing his identity. However, this changed when he was sent to a private school in 1946 at the age of twelve, due to the minister’s wife becoming terribly ill. His world opened up somewhat, and despite not particularly liking the strict rules of this all boy school, he “ read everything in the school library… and everything I could borrow from my teachers” and “it seemed as if a new door were opening whenever I turned a page.”[17] At school, Austerlitz was exposed to many more stimuli, which allowed his inclinations to have objects and ideas to engage with, which kickstarted the process of him constructing his identity.

The most important identification for Austerlitz was with his history teacher, André Hilary, whose major scholarly interest was Napoleon. Freud recognizes different types of identification. He writes,

“We have already made out a little of what it is that creates character. First and foremost there is the incorporation of the formal parental agency as a super-ego, which is no doubt its most important and decisive portion, and, further, identifications with the two parents of the later period and other influential figures…”[18] (emphasis mine).

Unconscious object cathexes and identifications with people are what comprise character formation. Austerlitz forms cathexes (almost monomaniacal mental energy focused on some object or idea) with books, and later on meets Hilary, who takes Austerlitz under his wing and is a figure that Austerlitz models himself after.

The result of this identification is quite evident: Austerlitz became a scholar himself. He was a “lecturer at a London institute of art history.”[19] (later in the book it is suggested that it is the Courtauld Institute). Scholarship and reading, from early on, became the concrete things that Austerlitz’s impulses were able to attach to. Sebald writes, “Why (Austerlitz) had embarked on such a wide field… he did not know. But then again, it was also true that he was still obeying an impulse which he, himself, to this day, did not really understand, but which was somehow linked to his early fascination with the idea of a network such as that of the entire railway system.”[20] The identification with Hilary allowed Austerlitz (who went to Cambridge and was often visited by Hilary) to attach himself to the concrete activities that subsequently made and gave form to his life.

Austerlitz’s relationship with Hilary did not just propel him toward becoming who he is, but gave him indirect insight into who he was already. At age 15 Austerlitz, due to his success in school, was awarded a sixth-form scholarship, which would send him on a track to Cambridge. However, he would have to write his real name, “Jacques Austerlitz” (which he had just learned of), on his exam papers rather than the Welsh name he was given, Dafydd Elias. The headmaster, who told him this, also told Austerlitz that the only thing he, or anyone, learned about his origins was that the Elias family took him in at the beginning of World War II. What affected Austerlitz the most initially was not that his origins remained unclear, but that “I could connect no ideas at all with the word Austerlitz. If my new name had been Morgan or Jones, I would have related it to reality.”[21] However, Hilary gave a lecture on a battle that Napoleon fought in called the Battle of Austerlitz, which is now a town in the modern day Czech Republic. Austerlitz said, “The more often Hilary mentioned the word Austerlitz in front of the class, the more it really did become my own name, and the more clearly I thought I saw that what had at first seemed like an ignominious flaw was changing into a bright light always hovering before me…”[22] Hilary gave Austerlitz’s name life, and allowed for Hilary’s lectures to better resonate with Austerlitz, which in part led to Austerlitz’s becoming a scholar and academic.

Now, Austerlitz’s repression is what afforded him the chance to make these identifications that set him on the path toward becoming the man that he is. But, as I said earlier, there was a point at which Austerlitz seemingly out of necessity confronts his past,. Learning about his origins would seemingly threaten the identity he has consciously and unconsciously, through his repression, built after so many years.

The point where Austerlitz unconsciously realizes he has to confront his origins is when, a few years before he is meeting with the narrator in the present day, he suffers from a bout of linguistic and general paralysis. For all of these years, he had been an academic and gotten along relatively well. Austerlitz repeatedly talks about having avoided anything that could connect to his origins, and he “had constantly been preoccupied by that accumulation of [academic] knowledge which I had pursued for decades, and which served as a substitute or compensatory memory.”[23] As has been said, he built up his whole identity as a scholar on top of the void of his repressed early childhood. But at a certain point, the repression took up too much energy for him to bear. He tells the narrator,

“Yet this self-censorship of my mind, the constant suppression of the memories surfacing in me… demanded ever greater efforts and finally, and unavoidably, led to the almost total paralysis of my linguistic faculties, the destruction of all my notes and sketches, my endless nocturnal peregrinations through London, and the hallucinations which plagued me with increasing frequency up to the point of my nervous breakdown in the summer of 1992.”[24]

For some reason that is truly inexplicable, perhaps due to some necessity to actually figure out who he is, Austerlitz broke down, and all of his simple pleasures in life seemed to be taken away from him. But about six months later (and interestingly on the very next page after the above passage) he was in a bookstore where a radio was on. On the radio, two women were talking about being sent to England on a special transport from Prague. Austerlitz knew “without any doubt that these fragments of memory were part of my own as well.”[25]

So, Austerlitz went back to Prague to search for his parents very shortly after his discovery. Walking through Prague, he found himself “back among the scenes of my early childhood, every trace of which had been expunged from my memory for as long as I could recollect.”[26] He eventually finds the address to his mother’s old apartment, and goes there. His old caretaker and babysitter, Vera, greeted him and they embraced. They spent a long time catching up, and Austerlitz soaked in the atmosphere of the place where he used to live. He eventually found out, during his time in Prague, that his socialist father who resisted the Nazis went to Paris during the war never to be heard from again, and that his mother presumably died while in a forced labor camp in Eastern Europe. As Austerlitz was confronted by all of these images and stories from his past, he felt various things “shattering inside my brain.”[27] Something about Austerlitz confronting his past allowed all of the energy his mind was using to repress this past to become free.

The tragic part of Austerlitz confronting his past is that, despite having this psychical energy built up, the psychological damage from his initial childhood trauma that was being repressed already took its toll on him. For example, Austerlitz, who was always somewhat of a lone wolf, is pretty much incapable of making romantic attachments, despite being in objectively safe situations. When he went to a resort after he had learned about his origins with a woman he was somewhat involved with named Marie, they went to bed together, and Austerlitz felt safe. He said that he felt “the belief rise within me that I had found release at last.”[28] However, upon waking up the next day he felt severe anxiety about what happened, and rejected this potential romantic attachment like he was throwing up a nasty piece of food, despite wanting to form this attachment and get relief. He “felt obliged to turn away when anyone came too close to me,” despite Marie telling him that “it isn’t true that we need absence and loneliness. It isn’t true. It’s only in your mind. You are afraid of I don’t know what. You have always been rather remote, of course, I could tell that, but now it’s as if you stood on a threshold and you dared not step over it.”[29] As I said, the damage has already been hard-wired into him, and it keeps Austerlitz from forming attachments. While he has confronted his origins, his defense mechanisms developed due to his initial repression have become a part of him. While, echoing the work of D.W. Winnicott, Austerlitz has been able to relate to culture, the world, and books through his transitional experiences, the fact that he was ripped away from the people he made his primary attachments to at a young age makes him too fearful to make those kinds of intense connections again. At a certain point, psychological illnesses seem incurable, and become a part of one’s identity that can only be managed, rather than done away with once and for all.

Austerlitz perfectly describes the lack of redemption he felt after discovering his origins (in fact, he suffered from intense anxiety attacks after confronting his childhood). He says,

“It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the sources of my distress and, looking back, over all those years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed, and which was now breaking through the walls of its confinement.”[30]

There is no great redemption for Austerlitz. There is only a tragic childhood moment that leads to him becoming he is.

ŸBoth mental illnesses and personal identities do not form in a vacuum. They form in relation to a complex world that affects an individual in an incredible amount of random, contingent ways. What is tragic about Austerlitz is that all of his struggles were precipitated by the holocaust, which ended the lives of both of his parents and displaced him from his home. He did not just become a lonely person who could not form attachments, a person who could have these attributes cured. Rather, they were the result of a large-scale event that affected so many people in Europe, both abstractly, and, more importantly in this context, in a personal way for each individual. Everybody negatively affected by the Holocaust had their own unique way of internalizing and experiencing their pain.

Austerlitz’s scars became him, and his repression gave him the opportunity to build some sort of life after the traumatic event that affected his whole life. If there is any consolation, it is precisely this fact. He had his studies and his travels, and despite all of his hardships, he was able to incorporate all of them into one scarred, but fascinating and unified identity. And, despite not knowing what happens to him after he tells his story to the narrator, I would like to think that telling his story was one last thing that he had to do before he could attain some sort of peace of mind. Whether or not psychoanalytic talking therapy finds a cure, at the very least it can provide some relief, and help a patient consolidate memories. Austerlitz talking to the narrator is a proxy analysis, and while we don’t know what happens to him, it was totally necessary and provided some sort of relief for him. And that is enough.

Works Cited

  1. Sigmund Freud, ‘Repression’, in The Freud Reader, ed. by Peter Gay (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995)
  2. Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Rewriting Modernity’, in The Inhuman, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1991)
  3. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. by Anthea Bell (New York: Modern Library, 2001)


[1] W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. by Anthea Bell (New York: Modern Library, 2001), p 25.

[2] Sebald, 43.

[3] Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Rewriting Modernity’, in The Inhuman, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press), p. 30.

[4] Sigmund Freud, ‘Repression’, in The Freud Reader, ed. by Peter Gay (New York: W.W. Norton and Company), p. 569.

[5] Freud, ‘Repression’, p. 569.

[6] Freud, ‘Repression’, p. 569.

[7] Freud, ‘Repression’, pp. 569-570.

[8] Freud, ‘Repression’, p. 570.

[9] Freud, ‘Repression’, p. 571.

[10] Sebald, p. 16.

[11] Freud, ‘Repression’, p. 572.

[12] Sebald, p. 44.

[13] Sebald, p. 54.

[14] Sebald, p. 140.

[15] Sebald, p. 45.

[16] Sebald, p. 45.

[17] Sebald, p. 61.

[18] Sigmund Freud, ‘Anxiety and Instinctual Life’, in The Freud Reader, ed. by Peter Gay (New York: W.W. Norton and Company), p. 780.

[19] Sebald, p. 31.

[20] Sebald, p. 33.

[21] Sebald, p. 67.

[22] Sebald, p. 72.

[23] Sebald, p. 140.

[24] Sebald, p. 140.

[25] Sebald, p. 141.

[26] Sebald, p. 151.

[27] Sebald, p. 161,

[28] Sebald, p. 211.

[29] Sebald, p. 216.

[30] Sebald, p. 228.


  1. Featured image is from Amazon.
  2. Image of Freud is from http://scalar.usc.edu/works/index-2/media/sigmund-freud-portrait.

William Lennon is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio, and the editor-in-chief of CRB.

Posted by CRB

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