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Eerie, Eldritch Erlkönig Essay

1170 words - 5 pages

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is an ominous image of the dark vision of humanity. A man sleeps, apparently peacefully, even though he is besieged by creatures associated in Spanish folk tradition with mystery and evil. There is an ‘unhomely’ feeling of darkness as the brutes seem to move in closer towards to the man that accomplishes a scary environment in the aquatint (a method of etching that creates a rough sketch). A mysterious creature sits at the center of the frame, staring not at the sleeping figure, but at us, the viewer. Goya forces the viewer to become an active participant in the painting — the monsters of his dreams even threaten us. This creates a blur between the dream and the real world; an obscure boundary between fantasy and reality. As Freud would claim, “we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary.” This negative quality of feeling, filled with dread and horror, repulsion and anxiety, where the supernatural becomes a part of common reality, is one of the uncanny. It is a frightening feeling which leads back to something forgotten and lost. Similar to The Sleep of Reason, there is a sense of ambivalence in what is real in Hoffman’s tale The Sandman. The uncanniness attaches directly to the figure of the Sandman, which a boy believed to be true in his childhood. Hoffman exploits disturbances of the ego that involve regression to times when the ego had not yet clearly set itself off against the world outside and from others. Freud writes that the “uncanny [unheimlich] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich], which has undergone repression and then returned from it.”
The music of Schubert’s Erlkönig dramatizes Goethe’s haunting poem in an uncanny nature. In the poem, a father rides through the woods around the witching hour of the night carrying a child, who claims to see a murderous demon. The Erlking first beckons the child, then cajoles him, then threatens and assaults him. The father, a symbol of modernity*, tries to quiet the boy. But by the time they reach home, the boy is — dead! The uncertainty of reality portrayed in Goethe’s poem brings a crucial tension between the highly rational reality of the father and the haunted reality of the boy encountering the Erlking. This uncanniness prefigures Freud’s concern with the sudden intrusion of the strange on the familiar, the combination the unheimlich and the heimlich. The composition opens with a G minor piano introduction of rapidly repeating triplets and an arpeggiated base motive introduce horses galloping on a stormy nocturnal journey. There is an interplay between the boy’s high range voice and the father’s lowest range voice in the minor key. The Erlking always has stanzas to himself for which Schubert uses the major mode until the end. The triplets are muffled during the Erlking’s speeches - because the child shifts his attention from the horses’ galloping to hearing the monster in a feverish daze....

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