Saturday, October 31, 2009

receding surfaces

Perhaps one of the differences between literary versions of schizophrenia and delusion at the turn of the century and contemporary memoirs of people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder is the role of society. Much has happened to society, and to the concept of society, in the interim period of the twentieth century. So it would not be surprising to say that here again the difference is social. In Alfred Schnitzler’s “Leutnant Gustl,” the narrator moves restlessly through the streets of Vienna after hours, and we get some of this external environment through the surface of his perceptions. So it seems that this recedes, the surface of these social phenomenon, Vienna beneath his fingers. Somewhat like touching things that are too close, or trying to see things that are too close, the receding surface of the social mirrors the psychic inability to touch those things that have been disavowed in the process of psychotic mental life. I have gone a long way from thinking about psychosis as a sort of break in the structure of the normal, as it is usually understood, particularly in contemporary memoir literature. In these memoirs, accounts, and experiences, this break with the social is the determining feature of psychotic existence. Society is seen to induce this break, and medicine to repair the rift connections. Emily Martin’s Bipolar Expeditions, which traces the cultural phenomenon of bipolar disorder is one such book that extrapolates the social coordinates of mental illness. Martin’s book is not a memoir, rather it is a sociological study, which includes case studies of bipolar individuals in Orange County, California. But the gist that I am attributing to her work and to contemporary memoirs is that society overwhelms, that the flash of images, the technology of the screen, the rapid pace of life, that all of these things contribute to the structure of mania in contemporary society. In a similar way goes the argument that the violence of video games begets a more violent society.

This is an outgrowth of some thoughts I have had about the difference between attributing an aggressive nature to society and talking about the aggression inherent in individuals. And it begs the question of what the relationship is between these contemporary analyses of the state of society and the decadence of turn of the century Europe? Discussions of Viennese modernism even seem tired or belabored, in a certain way. In Robert B. Pynsent’s concluding essay in Decadence, Decay, and Innovation, he provides a short description of the Austrian fin de Siecle as that which “records the decay of civilization, but also suggests a cure for that decay” (111). And it seems that much of this decay can be attributed to the “world-weariness,” as Pynsent calls it, that is related to the instability and economic disparity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite what seems to be the pressure not to identify Vienna as the center of this activity, or to identity phenomena of Modernity with geographical locations, there are nonetheless the identified “circles” of Viennese intellectual life. In her recent book, Viennese Jewish Modernism: Freud, Hofmannsthal, Beer-Hofmann, and Schnitzler, Abigail Gillman references Edward Timms’s diagrams of the circles of Vienna, and her book involves the overlap of two of the more prominent ones, the psychoanalytic circle of Freud and his followers and the circle of writers associated with “Jung Wien.” However it is called, it does seem that there is something that can be described as decadent art in Austria, which Pynsent does, identifying it with the characteristic of “the instability of the self and the anguished attempt to construct an alternative identity,” and associating it with Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Kafka, and Musil.

So it is that decadence seems to be constructed out of the dynamic of self-destruction and self-cure. In Schnitzler’s Gustl, the narrator deliberates over two events, primarily, neither of which ever happens, it seems: an incident at the opera in which he thinks that the baker of the coffeehouse he often frequents, insults him and takes hold of his sword; and his suicide. Given the above notion of narrative uncertainty, it seems that the first event is a hallucination, a delusion, and one which seems to take place in a string of racing thoughts. He wavers between wanting to kill the baker and to kill himself; in the end, neither happens because he hears from the waiter at the coffeehouse that the baker has already died, having fallen on the opera house stairs. His death allows Gustl to live. Schnizler writes, “Die Hauptsach’ ist: er ist tot, und ich darf leben, und alles g’hört wieder mein [The main thing is: he is dead, and I am allowed to live, and everything is mine again].” But it is perhaps not so much his death as the fact that Gustl’s death wish is fulfilled, or, he survives. Nothing of his mental state is resolved; nothing disrupts him nor is he able to confront its contents with the reality he moves about in, and yet, society also does not contribute in a visible way to his state. He experiences a “Mordsglück,” the luck, not the wish, of death.

picture: Lightposts, LACMA

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