Finding Entire Universes in the Gnarled Recesses of the Psyche

By Saul Austerlitz

Published November 21, 2003, issue of November 21, 2003.
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Desire and Delusion: Three Novellas

By Arthur Schnitzler

Ivan R. Dee, 264 pages, $28.50.

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Thomas Pynchon once noted that when reference is made to the notion of seriousness in the context of a work of art, what is invariably under discussion is its attitude toward death. Obviously, death has been a primary fixation of literature since Homer was a young bard, but Pynchon’s remark highlights the view that, regardless of surface veneer, the foundation of any serious work of art must be our inevitable final fate. By that reckoning, the Viennese novelist, short-story writer and playwright Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) was the prototype of the high-minded artist. In his work, love and death are the only two constants, with the former inevitably making way for the latter.

Schnitzler was a practicing physician, and the man of science’s eye for physical and psychological detail is on display in “Desire and Delusion,” a collection of three novellas, newly translated by Schnitzler scholar Margret Schaefer. What unites the three stories is a sensation of emergency: His protagonists all share the disease of inconstancy, unable to determine a course of action adequate to remove them from their worries of impending doom. In the collection’s first story, “Flight into Darkness,” the protagonist is a mentally unstable paranoid, convinced that his loving brother intends to murder him. In “Dying,” a man on the verge of death violently alternates between overwhelming surges of love toward his mistress and urgent demands that she die alongside him. And in the book’s best story, the first-person “Fräulein Else,” a young girl must decide whether she is willing to shame herself to save her family from financial ruin.

Like a scientist peering into a microscope, Schnitzler’s point of view in these stories is claustrophobically close. With the understanding that to allow the reader any distance from the characters’ plights would weaken the effect, Schnitzler plunges into the madness in medias res. In his world, madness is everywhere, the only rational reaction to the impossible-to-swallow reality of impending death. Like his contemporary, and fellow citizen of Vienna, Sigmund Freud, Schnitzler was an expert student of behavior, and his writing shows a sharp understanding of human frailty. The stories in “Desire and Delusion” plunge readers directly into the stream of their protagonists’ consciousnesses, all frazzled nervous energy and diseased paranoia. The interior life is relentless in its back-and-forth quality, veering sharply between two poles of potential action without ever coming to a conclusion.

In “Fräulein Else,” the main character is a 19-year-old on perpetual holiday, traveling from resort to resort in an endless loop of leisure. She receives notice from her parents that their eternal money troubles have flared up yet again, and that without 30,000 gulden, her father will be sent to prison. They beg her to contact Herr von Dorsday, a wealthy older gentleman who eased them out of a similar scrape some years back, in the hope that he may do so again. Having already encountered the somewhat frightening von Dorsday, Else is afraid of his reaction and puts off fulfilling her parents’ request. Her fears come true when von Dorsday demands an unpleasant favor in return for the money: He wants Else to come to his room and let him glimpse her naked body.

We are given access to Else’s stream of consciousness, and matters are complicated by her yearning to break free of the sexual strictures imposed by her world. Else is torn between her late-adolescent desire to express herself sexually and the gloomy, unattractive nature of von Dorsday’s offer. She knows that her family is using her to get the money they need, not caring what she might have to do to get it, and she also knows that even receiving the money will only delay the inevitable crash into poverty. Schnitzler impressively conveys the contradictory emotions of Else, giving the story a richly emotional narrative tone that presages later stream-of-consciousness modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Else’s position, torn between the constrictions of society and the demands of her heart, is as good a metaphor as any for the neither-here-nor-there status of the early 20th-century European Jew. Schnitzler mostly avoids the issue of religion, but it is difficult to see his characters, in these novellas and elsewhere, as anything other than Jewish.

Like Else, Robert in “Flight into Darkness” and Felix in “Dying” are traumatized by intimations of impending death. Their stories are marked by a losing battle to keep their interior lives to themselves. Each protagonist desperately attempts to control his or her socially unacceptable impulses. Schnitzler’s prose leaves you queasy, uncomfortable in the knowledge that your own neuroses, rendered large on the wide screen of literature, might be just as unpleasant.

Ultimately, Schnitzler the medical man is holding up a mirror to the world, revealing the cracks and imperfections beneath the alabaster surface of bourgeois Vienna. It should come as no surprise that the best film in recent memory to fully confront the reality of that centerpiece of bourgeois life, marriage, Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” was based on a Schnitzler novella.

Schnitzler is a realist, but he was among the first to change the notion of what constitutes realism. No longer was realism exclusively the province of Balzac or Dickens, with their wide swaths of society crammed into overstuffed books. Schnitzler grasped the idea that accurately transmitting the contents of one’s consciousness is an equally bravura act of realist storytelling. In his work, one can glimpse in embryonic form the advances of the later modernist masters, from Joyce’s effortless stream-of-consciousness, to Marcel Proust’s interior-looking obsessiveness, to Franz Kafka’s anguished, tormented characters. Like his contemporary, Proust, Schnitzler understood that entire universes, larger and more detailed than the external world, could be found within the gnarled recesses of a single psyche.

Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer based in New York.

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