Katsushika Hokusai, Big Eels, ca. 1840, woodblock print, 5 1/4″ x 7 1/2″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
In one of the twentieth century’s most memorable scenes from literature, a man is standing on a beach, pulling on a long rope that stretches out to sea. The rope is covered in thick seaweed. He yanks and tugs, and out of the foaming waves comes a horse’s head. It’s black and shiny and lies there at the water’s edge, its dead eyes staring while greenish eels slither from every orifice. The eels crawl out, shiny and entrails-like, more than two dozen of them; when the man has shoved them all into a potato sack, he pries open the horse’s grinning mouth, sticks his hands into its throat, and pulls out two more eels, as thick as his own arms.
This macabre fishing method is described in Günter Grass’s 1959 novel, The Tin Drum. Rarely has the eel been more detestable.
The eel does not appear frequently in literature or art, but when it does, it’s often an unsettling, slightly revolting creature. It’s slimy and slithering, oily and slippery, a scavenger of the dark that salaciously crawls out of cadavers with gaping mouth and beady black eyes.
Sometimes, however, it’s more than that. In The Tin Drum, the eel actually plays a rather important role. It both foreshadows and triggers tragedy.
The people standing on that Baltic beach, watching the man pull the horse’s head from the sea, are the novel’s main characters, the boy, Oskar Matzerath; his father, Alfred; his mother, Agnes; and her cousin and lover, Jan Bronski. Agnes is pregnant but hasn’t told anyone. We don’t know who the father is, Alfred or Jan, nor do we know if Alfred is really Oskar’s father. Agnes is depressed and self-destructive and seems to view the life growing within her more as a devouring tumor than a gift. What’s happening inside her is a mystery, to both her family and the reader.
The four of them have gone for a walk along the beach when they come across the eel fisherman. Agnes curiously asks what he’s doing, but he makes no reply. He just grins, flashing filthy teeth, and continues to tug on the rope. Once the horse’s head is out of the water and Agnes sees the eels crawling out of its skull, something happens to her. She’s revolted by them both physically and psychologically. She has to lean against her lover, Jan, to keep from swooning. The seagulls swarm above them, flying in ever-tighter circles, screeching like sirens; when the grinning man pulls the two fattest eels out of the horse’s throat, Agnes turns and vomits. It’s as though she’s trying to expel both her acute nausea and the unwanted fetus in her belly. As though one is inextricably linked to the other. She never fully recovers from the experience.
Jan eventually leads Agnes away down the beach; Oskar and Alfred stay behind, watching the man pull the last enormous eel, sticky with white, porridge-like brain substance, out of the horse’s ear. Eels don’t just eat horses’ heads, they eat human bodies, too, the man explains, and tells them the eels grew especially plump after the Battle of Skagerrak during World War I. Oskar stares, mesmerized, his white tin drum slung around his neck and resting on his belly. Alfred is thrilled and promptly buys four eels from the man, two large and two medium ones.
The event on the beach changes Agnes. The sight of the slithering eels and the grotesque horse’s head awakens something in her. She grows increasingly ill and tries to manage her condition with food. She eats constantly, binging and vomiting by turns. What she eats is fish, and eel in particular. She devours fatty pieces of eel swimming in cream sauce, and when her husband refuses to serve her more fish, she goes to the fishmonger and returns with an armful of smoked eels. She scrapes the skin clean of fat with a knife and licks it, then vomits once more. When her husband, Alfred, nervously asks if she is pregnant, she only snorts with derision and serves herself another piece of eel.
Agnes dies shortly after. Its unclear if she eats herself to death, or if perhaps her heart has broken. At her funeral, her son, Oskar, studies her in the open casket. Her face is haggard and slightly jaundiced. He pictures her suddenly sitting up and vomiting once more, imagines there’s still something inside her that has to come out, not just an unwanted child but also that alien and detestable thing that in such a short time devoured and killed her. Which is to say, the eel.
“From eel to eel,” Oskar thinks, standing by the coffin, “for eel thou art, to eel returnest.”
And when his dead mother doesn’t sit up and vomit, he experiences relief and closure. “She kept it down and it was evidently her intention to take it with her into the ground, that at last there might be peace.”
It’s a devastating metaphor. The eel as death incarnate. Or rather, not just death but also death’s opposite. The eel as a kind of symbolic link between beginning and end, between the origin of life and its demise. Ashes to ashes, eel to eel.
In the midtwentieth century, when The Tin Drum was published, science had teased out most of the eel’s secrets. It had been demystified and rendered comprehensible. Humanity had slowly but surely homed in on the answer to the eel question. Its origin had been found and its method of reproduction established. Progress had been slow, like a snail next to the bullet train of scientific advancement that had taken place since the Renaissance, but the eel was now for the most part understood. No longer limited to simply pointing to its undeniable existence, we were in a position to discuss the features of that existence. We knew not only that the eel is, we also knew some of what the eel is. We no longer had to rely solely on faith.
And yet the eel continued to be associated with the irrational psyche of humankind, with the alien and unfathomable, in both literature and art. It remained a slimy, frightening creature of the dark, slithering out of the depths. A creature unlike others.
In Fritiof Nilsson Piraten’s Swedish classic Bombi Bitt and Me, from 1932, the eel is a devil, a horned monster that has grown to more than ten feet long over the course of countless years in the depths. In a remote and possibly bottomless Scanian pond, it has hidden away from humanity, until the book’s main characters, Eli and Bombi Bitt, along with old man Vricklund set out to catch it one night. Vricklund manages to pull it out of the pond; it’s a “dark, monstrous creature, that whipped the water to foam”—and then a wild wrestling match ensues. The eel rises up like a “living telephone pole”; the moonlight outlines its large horns; the struggle ends only when Vricklund sinks his teeth into its enormous body.
“I bit that bastard to death,” Vricklund declares, blood still dripping from his mouth. But it’s a temporary victory. The eel is resurrected. It comes back to life with a heavy sigh, slithers away through the grass, and disappears into the underworld through a hole in the ground. Back to the place it evidently came from, the shadows, the subconscious, the lowest, darkest circles of the soul.
In Boris Vian’s surrealist love story The Foam of Days, from 1947, the eel is an absurd creature that foreshadows impending tragedy. It emerges from the kitchen faucet at the very start of the story. Every day, it pokes its head out of the tap, looks around, and vanishes again. Until, that is, a crafty cook one day places a pineapple on the kitchen counter, and the eel, unable to resist, sinks its teeth into it. The cook makes a delicious eel pâté, which the protagonist, Colin, eats, thinking of his love, Chloé, whom he has just met and is set to marry, but who will soon fall gravely ill. A water lily is growing inside her chest, an aquatic plant from the world of the eel. It grows like an aggressive tumor, killing her and leaving Colin heartbroken and alone.
The eel’s greatest performance, at least in literature, however, is in the 1983 novel Waterland by the English author Graham Swift. It tells the story of Tom Crick, a history teacher who tries to capture the imaginations of his bored and scientifically minded students with stories about himself and his childhood. He examines his own unreliable memory, trying to understand why things ended up the way they did. His marriage to Mary and their childlessness. Her nascent insanity. Where did it all start? Maybe with the live eel another boy stuck down her pants when she was a child?
Or with his brother, Dick, who also wooed Mary when they were young and who won a swimming competition just to impress her? Like an eel on its way to the Sargasso Sea, he swam farther than anyone else in order to reach his goal—the goal that is also the goal of existence. But why did he? And what does it really mean?
The story is vague and unreliable. Who really knows what the truth is? But the eel is ever present. From start to end. It slithers through the entire story like a constant reminder of everything that is hidden or forgotten.
Toward the end, Tom Crick tells his students about the eel itself. About the eel question and its scientific history, with all its guesswork and mysteries and misunderstandings. About Aristotle and the theory of the eel springing from mud. About Linnaeus, who thought the eel was self-propagating. About the famous Comacchio eel, about Mondini’s discovery and Spallanzani’s questioning of it. About Johannes Schmidt and his dogged search for the eel’s birthplace. About the curiosity that drove them all. This is what the eel can teach us, Tom Crick argues. It tells us something about the curiosity of humankind, about our unquenchable need to seek the truth and understand where everything comes from and what it means. But also about our need for mystery. “Now there is much the eel can tell us about curiosity—rather more indeed than curiosity can inform us of the eel.”
But why is the eel considered so unpleasant? Why does it arouse those kinds of feelings in us? Surely it’s not simply because it’s slippery and slimy, or because of what it eats, or because it likes the dark? Nor can it be based solely on religious misinterpretations. No, it’s probably also because it’s secretive, because there seems to be something hidden behind its apparently lifeless black eyes. On the one hand, we’ve seen it, touched it, tasted it. On the other hand, it’s keeping something from us. Even when we get really close to it, it somehow remains a stranger.
In psychology, and in art, there’s a particular kind of unpleasantness referred to as uncanniness. The German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch wrote an article in 1906 entitled “Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen,” in which he defines the concept of the unheimlich, the uncanny, as “the dark sense of insecurity” we are overcome with when we encounter something new and strange. What frightens us, Jentsch explains, what’s uncanny, is that which makes us intellectually unsure, what lack of experience or the limitations of our senses prevents us from immediately recognizing and explaining.
This was too glib an analysis for Sigmund Freud, who by that time had abandoned his eel studies and become the star of psychoanalysis. In 1919, he published the essay “Das Unheimliche,” in part as a rebuttal to Ernst Jentsch’s definition of the concept. Jentsch, Freud admitted, was right to say insecurity triggers that feeling of uncanniness; for instance, when looking at a body that we’re not sure is alive or dead, or when we encounter madness in another human being, or witness an epileptic fit. But not every new and strange thing is unpleasant. It takes something else, Freud claimed; another element has to be added to make the situation uncanny. What was needed was the familiar. More specifically, the uncanny is the unique unease we experience when something we think we know or understand turns out to be something else. The familiar that suddenly becomes unfamiliar. An object, a creature, a person, who is not what we first thought. A well-crafted wax figure. A stuffed animal. A rosy-cheeked corpse.
Freud turned to language to explain his thinking. “The German word unheimlich,” he wrote, “is obviously the opposite of heimlich, heimisch, meaning ‘familiar,’ ‘native,’ ‘belonging to the home’; and we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” But heimlich is also an ambiguous word, he claimed, since it can denote that which is secret and private, that which is hidden from the world. The word contains its own opposite. And the same is, of course, true of that which is unheimlich; it is at once both familiar and unfamiliar.
That is how, Freud states, we should understand the unique sense of unease called unheimlich. It overcomes us when what we recognize contains an element of strangeness and we become unsure of what we’re really looking at and what it means.
With his essay “Das Unheimliche,” Sigmund Freud gave fear a psychoanalytical foundation that authors and artists have used ever since. And I would like to think the eel played at least a small part in it.
Because, after establishing the linguistic ambiguity of the concept, Freud turns to E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Sandman” to demonstrate how this unique feeling of uncanniness is expressed. “The Sandman” tells the story of a young man named Nathanael, who while visiting a strange city for his studies is forced to encounter his repressed past and by extension his madness. As a child, Nathanael was told that a terrifying creature called the Sandman appears at children’s bedsides in the night and steals their eyes. As an adult, he believes he encounters a reincarnation of the Sandman in the form of a man who sells barometers and optical instruments. And when he falls in love with a mysterious woman by the name of Olimpia, it turns out she is in fact a robot created by the barometer salesman and a professor called Spalanzani. When Nathanael eventually realizes the truth, and beholds Olimpia’s lifeless body at the professor’s house, her eyes lying next to her on the floor, he is overcome with madness and tries to kill Spalanzani.
The entire short story teeters on the brink of uncertainty. The narrative perspective shifts continually, nothing is truly known, things may be happening in the material world, or possibly only in Nathanael’s tormented mind. To Freud, the woman who turns out to be a robot and the theft of the eyes are also central symbols at the core of the uncanny; here is an example of the uncertainty about whether a creature is alive or dead, but also the fear of being robbed of one’s sight, of losing one’s ability to observe and experience the world as it truly is.
But perhaps other elements of Hoffmann’s story also resonated with Freud. The story is about a young German-speaking man who travels to a strange city to study. The city is never named, but both Professor Spalanzani and the barometer salesman are said to speak Italian. Furthermore, the barometer salesman doesn’t just sell barometers but all kinds of optical instruments, including microscopes, the tool that is supposed to reveal the truth to the scientifically minded. Also—and this may be a coincidence, albeit an entertaining one—the mysterious Professor Spalanzani in “The Sandman” happens to share his name with the famous scientist Spallanzani, who in the eighteenth century traveled to Comacchio to seek the truth of the eel, in vain.
To top it off, Freud at the end of “Das Unheimliche” recounts one of his own uncanny experiences. He describes a walk in a “provincial town in Italy”; it is a hot afternoon and without quite knowing how, he ends up on a narrow street where everywhere he looks, painted women stare out of windows. He walks away, only to find himself a while later in the same place. He leaves again, but soon discovers he has circled back to the same street for a third time. Three times he has unconsciously been brought to exactly the same place, like being forced to relive the same experience again and again in a dream.
He finds it uncanny. The involuntary repetition, experiencing the exact same unwelcome scenario over and over again, kind of like standing in a dark laboratory week after week, dissecting fish after fish only to find something other than you expected. “I was glad enough to abandon my exploratory walk and get straight back to the piazza I had left a short while before.”
He is, in all likeliness, writing about Trieste. He described similar, dreamlike walks in his letters to Eduard Silberstein during his 1876 visit, when he unsuccessfully tried to find the eel’s testicles. The same narrow alleys and painted women watching him from the windows. It appears, then, that what came to mind when Freud himself tried to capture the unique feeling of unease and intellectual uncertainty was his frustrating and enigmatic weeks in Trieste. And surely it’s not too far-fetched to think the eel played on his mind, because what has it been throughout history—in literature and art, as well as in its hidden existence just beneath the surface—if not uncanny? If not unheimlich?
—Translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broomé
Patrik Svensson is an arts and culture journalist at Sydsvenskan newspaper. He lives with his family in Malmö, Sweden. The Book of Eels is his first book.
Agnes Broomé began her studies at the University of Edinburgh, where she completed an M.A. in linguistics. She then relocated to London, where she earned an M.A. in comparative literature at UCL and studied classics at King’s College before returning to UCL for doctoral studies in the department of Scandinavian studies. She received her Ph.D. in translation studies from UCL in 2015.
From The Book of Eels, by Patrik Svensson. Copyright © 2019 by Patrik Svensson. English translation copyright © 2020 by Agnes Broomé. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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