Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Schnitzler's substitute for the talking cure - He felt as if nothing bad could happen to him now

It’s all so Freudian, isn’t it, the basis of all these Schnitzler stories?  Schnitzler’s characters reveal or discover  themselves as the result of a crisis, but not through any action they take themselves.   The characters attempt to defend themselves, but the truth resides in the unconscious and is made apparent by a breach in the defenses.

Schnitzler is anticipating the Freudian “talking cure,” in which the therapist guides the patient to create his own breach without having to suffer through the actual crisis.  The errant wife can resolve to confess her affair to her husband (or not) without having the lover die in a carriage accident.  This is the idea, right?  Let no one assume I know too much about Freud or Freudianism.*

 Schnitzler was an avid reader of his neighbor Freud, but it turns out Freud was also an enthusiastic reader of Schnitzler.  Although a late novella like “Dream Story” (1926) is obviously, even blatantly indebted to The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), several of the stories in Night Games, including the ones I have written about so far, precede any significant contact with Freud’s ideas, making me wonder just how much Schnitzler there might be in Freud.  They were both studying the same set of clinical subjects, the bourgeois Viennese.

The one story in the Night Games collection not about Sex and Death, “Blind Geronimo and His Brother” (1900), shows how guilt is actually Schnitzler’s central concern.  Carlo blinded his brother when they were children, accidentally of course, but he has devoted his life to leading his blind brother around Austria and Italy, living off Geronimo’s earnings as a street musician.  A meaningless chance encounter causes a sort of crisis of faith – has Carlo’s lifetime of sacrifice been meaningless?  Rather than atone for his guilt, has he only committed more sins? And Schnitzler then woks through some plotty stuff to get us to this point, which is the end of the story – I am always quoting from the ending:

For he saw Geronimo smile in the mild, blissful way that he had not seen him do since childhood.  And Carlo also smiled.  He felt as if nothing bad could happen to him now – neither before the judge, nor anywhere else in the world – for he had his brother again…  No, he had him for the first time…  (124)

All of those ellipses are Schnitzler’s, not mine.  Please note that the Sex and Death story I wrote about yesterday, “The Dead Are Silent” (1897) literally ends with “a great calm comes over her,  as though everything will be all right again…” – in other words, with an almost identical ending.

The mention of the judge reminds me that Carlo and Geronimo end their story at a material low point, but at a psychological peak.  The intervention of a trained therapist earlier in the story would have been helpful.

*  Although I am old enough to have been assigned Freud in college, in a class called, and also about – youngsters will find this hard to believe, but it is true – “Western Civilization.”  Freud was assigned to every student getting a BA!   And read by about one in ten, I would guess.


  1. A brief note on Freud (who is good - the case studies in particular are fab, although literary criticism was not his forte). One of the main Freudian ideas is Nachtraglichkeit - or the fact that we become scared in anticipation of traumas which have actually happened in the past. The mind, outraged that it has allowed trauma to happen, becomes extra vigilant, on the offchance that it can prevent whatever it was from happening again. So the idea of the talking cure is to trace symptoms back to original causes. Hysteria, the first illness to be 'treated' by the talking cure was a way of encouraging patients to express what was on their minds, rather than have it expressed psychosomatically by the body. But funnily enough, it could more accurately be described as a listening cure, as Freud would listen to what was odd, inexplicable, irrational, etc, in the patient's story, as a way to find clues to the original trauma.

    In any case, Freud was an Enlightenment sort of thinker - we might not be acceptable to ourselves, but we are intelligible. We are a problem that can be solved. And he believed problems to be resolvable through creating a neat and tidy narrative of events that was satisfactorily explanatory.

    Now we live in a post-Enlightenment phase in psychotherapy, which is to say that therapists believe that there will always be gaps and lacunae in people; we can't be solved, tidied up or fixed. Mostly, it's about coming to terms with who we are and accepting it.

    For guilt, you really need Melanie Klein. But another day, another therapist. Just thought you might like a few extra thoughts about Freud.

  2. The reader of Schnitzler takes on the "listening" role.

    Except for the immense difference that in Schnitzler there is no original, hidden or suppressed. A huge difference between Schnitzler and Freud. Schnitzler's traumas take place here and now, not in childhood. In this way Schnitzler's "system," such as it is, is much simpler than Freud's.

    To what extent Schnitzler was also more of a child of the Enlightenment - good question! I think your description of Freud probably works pretty well for Schnitzler, too, given that we do not demand methodological soundness from fiction.