If Victor Frankenstein were a novelist: Arno Schmidt’s literary monster: 'Zettel’s Traum' ('Bottom’s Dream')

"Reading is terrible"

Arno Schmidt


Zettel’s Traum is one of the most radical literary experiments of the twentieth century. First published by German author and translator Arno Schmidt in 1970, this gargantuan novel in folio format weighs eight kilograms, has 1334 pages and presents the text – in three shifting columns – as a blend of notes, cross-references, collages, typewritten pages, handwritten comments and blackened content. Inspired by and compared to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Schmidt’s magnum opus Zettel’s Traum draws on Lewis Carroll and Laurence Sterne, and is considered one of the most controversial and difficult gems of German literature. Apart from the fact that Schmidt developed his own challenging orthography (revealing the ‘true meaning’ of words and their connections amongst each other), the reader has to be fluent in English and French in order to be able to try to read the German edition. Indeed, Schmidt himself was convinced that only about 400 readers would be able to understand the book at all, and only after much trouble with the (estimated) 1,100,000 words.


This seminar explores the monstrousness of Zettel’s Traum. It examines Schmidt’s ‘Etym’-theory in particular, a speculative theorem that adds a ‘4th Instance’ to Freud’s psychoanalysis. According to Schmidt, this psychic entity emerges in intelligent people from about the age of 50, and sublimates sexuality (that can no longer be lived in real life) into puns, roguish play with words and ambiguous allusions. Etyms are words and word clusters defined by sound resemblance; words that might have a ‘decent’ and poetic meaning at first glance (thus passing psychological censorship), while the ‘indecent’ meaning is ruled over, suppressed and ‘sublimated’. A play-on-words in the novel may serve as an example: according to Schmidt’s Etym-theory, the English ‘true’ can be read as French ‘trou’ (meaning ‘hole’, but also female genitalia). Unveiling this hidden, unconscious picture world in Edgar Allan Poe’s oeuvre the narrator in Zettel's Traum thus discovers both that Poe was an impotent, syphilitic voyeur, and that the etym-ised meaning of ‘Romantik’ (Engl. ‘Romanticism’) as ‘Roh=Mann=Tick‘ (‘brute=man=tick’) reveals romanticism as the craze of unsubtle men.


Following the publication of Zettel's Traum, Arno Schmidt was called a psychopath. Nowadays, Schmidt is perceived as the ingenious creator of one of the most legendary, eccentric books of the twentieth century – and by discussing reprints, translations and the work of enthusiastic scholars unearthing the bottomless richness of this novel, this seminar discloses why.




Anna-Sophie Jürgens is the Feodor Lynen Postdoctoral Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre. She works in the fields of Comparative Literature, Popular Entertainment Studies and Science in Fiction Studies, and has a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany (published in 2016).

Her primary research focus is on the popular arts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (in fiction). She seeks to get a better understanding of how they were, and are, formative for the present. She is particularly interested in the richness and multidimensionality of the cultural and aesthetic capital of the circus in fiction and other media (embodied, for instance, in violent and cannibal clowns, epileptic dancers and freak performers), on the one hand, and of pathological body aesthetics oscillating between humour and violence (as typified by Frankenstein-clowns and mad scientists), on the other. Over the last few years, she has also developed a special interest in the relationship between popular entertainment, fictional literature and science and technology (regarded as a kind of cultural practice), and therefore in the links between scientific research and creative imagination. She is currently exploring the representations and dynamics of scientist characters in Australian fiction with a focus on their relation to art and knowledge credibility/‘post-truth’ issues.

Date & time

Tue 02 Oct 2018, 4.30–5.45pm


Theatrette, Sir Roland Wilson Building


Dr Anna-Sophie Jürgens

Event series


Penny Brew
+61 2 6125 4357


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