An Interpretation of Peter Kien’s Dreams in Elias Canetti’s "Auto Da Fé". An Illustration of Freud’s Method of Psychoanalysis

Term Paper, 2014

9 Pages, Grade: 1,3


As “the turn of the century itself encouraged a sense of crisis and discontinuity, as ends of centuries generally do” (Kershner 32), not only reforms concerning society, philosophy, science, economics, education and religion took place (Lewis 3), but there was also a drastic change in the field of literature as

an international aesthetic movement, involving artists and writers from a multitude of countries frequently featuring writers who were somehow geographically displaced (Kershner 39)

was established. The international aesthetic movement mentioned above is the so- called “Modern Break” or the period of literary modernism. A famous author of this movement can be found in Elias Canetti who “depicts himself as a lone traveler” (Murphy 21) and who was geographically displaced from his home in Austria while spending a significant part of his life either living or travelling through Western Europe (Canetti, Die gerettete Zunge, 19).

His first novel Auto Da F é, which was published in 1936 by Herbert Reichner in Vienna and which is “internationally the best known of all of Canetti’s works” (Murphy 53), is “available in twenty-two different languages” (Bensel 26). Moreover, Auto Da F é contains a number of dreams which the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud interpreted and analyzed in his Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. Consequently, this essay will demonstrate in how far Freud’s concept of psychoanalysis can be defined and which features are commonly associated with it according to Canetti and Freud.

To prove this statement, the following essay initially gives a short overview of the Freudian concept of psychoanalysis and identifies its common features. Moreover, the second part of the essay will analyze and interpret Peter Kien’s dreams in Elias Canetti’s Auto Da F é with regard to psychoanalysis. The third and last part will finally sum up all the important points mentioned in this paper.

In 1899, the Austrian neurologist and psychologist Sigmund Freud, who was born in 1856 and died in 1939, published his work The Interpretation of Dreams and therefore, became known as the founder of psychoanalysis (cf. BBC 1st paragraph). His whole life long, Freud dealt with the issue of consciousness and unconsciousness, the human psyche and its development. Within those topics, the interpretation of dreams played a major role in Freud’s studies. In the course of his research for The Interpretation of Dreams,

Freud developed the theory that humans have an unconscious in which sexual and aggressive impulses are in perpetual conflict for supremacy with the defences against them. (BBC 4th paragraph)

Accordingly, Freud analyzed his own dreams with regard to unconscious desires and experiences in order to substantiate his claims. Freud’s research showed that areas related to the unconsciousness of mind, such as dreams, have a large impact on every individual’s psyche as dreams represent a possibility to fulfill wishes which reality refuses to fulfill. The “dreamwork” is seen as a transformation of “secondary process thought”, led by the rules of language and the reality principle into the “primary process” of unconscious thought (Freud 187) which is led by the pleasure principle, the wish of gratification and the repressed sexual scenarios of one’s childhood (Gabbard et al. 58).

As these desires and experiences in dreams are often represented by symbols, Freud claims that every symbol has an absolutely different meaning according to the individual’s own experiences, biography and the context in which the symbols occur (Freud 113). Consequently, it is regarded as impossible to tell the meaning of a dream only by looking at symbols as the process of interpreting dreams is a very complex one.

Living in the epoch of literary modernism, Freud and his research had a big impact on educated people during his time. Especially writers used his discovery of the importance of dreams in their works not only to enrich their story line but also to rehabilitate issues in their own real life. Consequently, it can be stated that “Freud’s theory appealed to writers in part because of the tremendous emphasis it placed on the power of language” (Lewis 23).

This method of processing traumas and fatal experiences brought up a completely new way of writing, not only to entertain an audience but for writing’s and writer’s sake. The word “trauma” in this context originated from Greek and means “wound” in English. From a psychological point of view, a trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. (SAMHSA, 2nd paragraph)

The word stem is closely linked to the German word “Traum” which means “dream” in English. Considering this, the relation between dream (“Traum”) and trauma becomes more obvious. Dreams can be seen as a way to rehabilitate with one’s trauma or base at least an occasion for them. Writing about dreams and knowing about Freud’s research, allows writers to reflect their own dreaming, interpret it and draw conclusions about one’s own life or creates a chance to “invent” dreams which are symbols for their statements and have to be interpreted by the reader in order to be understood.

In addition to this, the great influence Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams had on major works of the literary period of modernism, can also be found in the case of the structure and the psychological state of the protagonist, Peter Kien, in a work by Elias Canetti as

the distinctive feature of modernist fiction is that it presents not the mimesis of a world, not even the self-conscious mimesis of a world, but the self-conscious mimesis of the perception and the constitution of a world through minds that are also constituted in and through that world (ordinary minds on an ordinary day). (Waugh 79)

However, it’s great influence can also be detected when taking a closer look at Canetti’s attitude toward Freud as he claimed shortly before receiving the Nobel prize that Freud “war, wie Muttermilch, wir waren alle in dieser Freudschen Atmosphäre” (Hanuschek 125) (Engl.: he was like mother’s milk, we were all in this Freudian atmosphere). Besides, Canetti once admitted that there are several similarities between the protagonist of his first novel and himself as he also owns a library (Reiss 64) and that he used the Freudian method of psychoanalysis in order to interpret his own dreams or “illusions”, as he calls them in 1924 (Erdheim 159).

In his first novel, Auto Da F é 1, which was first published in Austria in 1936 by Herbert Reichner in Vienna, Elias Canetti tells the story of Peter Kien, a renowned sinologist who dedicates his whole life to the study of books and sciences. The novel itself is divided into three different parts: “A Head without a World”, “Headless World” and “The World in the Head”.


1 In this essay, I examine the English translation of Auto Da F é (Translation C.V. Wedgwood. London: Random House; 2005), which was published in the U.S. under the title of The Tower of Babel and whose original German title is Die Blendung (Engl. “the blending/bedazzlement”). the center of attention. The housekeeper manipulates Kien and uses physical force in order to gain power over him (Canetti, Auto Da F é , 119). Her power struggle

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An Interpretation of Peter Kien’s Dreams in Elias Canetti’s "Auto Da Fé". An Illustration of Freud’s Method of Psychoanalysis
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interpretation, peter, kien’s, dreams, elias, canetti’s, auto, illustration, freud’s, method, psychoanalysis
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Ann-Kathrin Stahl (Author), 2014, An Interpretation of Peter Kien’s Dreams in Elias Canetti’s "Auto Da Fé". An Illustration of Freud’s Method of Psychoanalysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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