I re-read Gregor von Rezzori’s novel Oedipus at Stalingrad in early May—it’s been about 18 years since my first read. The book, written in the 1950s, drops Freud into the heart of late 1930s Germany. The protagonist, Traugott von Jassilkowski, gets married, then stews in a typical Freudian conflict involving his “tendency toward debasement.” The novel’s obsession with Freud relates, rekindles and re-examines Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism, a prominent reading of the German war effort and the post-war reconstruction. The narrator of OAS, a gabby barfly well-up on Freud, excels at drawing parallels between textbook cases and the debased tendencies of the era:
“It would be both
conceivable and desirable to reinvigorate stunted erotic instincts with
new impulses—perhaps through the planned use on a broad popular basis of
the psyche’s masochistic urge, which might alleviate at least for a
while the catastrophic impotence afflicting manhood today.”
The barfly adeptly moves from considering psychosis on a national scale to observations of the patrons he observes from his barstool. He tries to connect individual trauma (the erotic instincts stunted in the dissolution of Traugott’s Oedipus Complex) with a more general malaise (the impotence and masochism of the public as a whole). Traugott is a perfect foil since he too is at work trying to transform his folksy (volkisch) morals into a set of blueblood ethics distilled from nationalistic, aristocratic and chauvinistic ideas. He uses Traugott to sort through the tensions between, respectively, Nazi ideals and Nazi killing, ethics and debauchery, time and the absence of time, Traugott's tendency toward debasement (in practice) and incest with his mother (in theory), and, most importantly, between psychoanalysis as a cure and the inability of psychoanalysis to address morals and ethics. That is, as the barfly points out, psychoanalysis “can cure you in a clinical sense [by uncovering repression and neurosis]—but never in a moral-ethical one." In other words, though the source of one’s neurosis can be unveiled, the reasons for its coming into being cannot be addressed in terms of ethics. Oedipus Complexes don’t come under scrutiny for their moral underpinnings: they’re symptoms of a situation set into motion by one’s instinctual responses. So the barfly, who has mostly sought recourse to psychoanalytic explanations of Traugott’s behavior, instead has to address the moral question of Traugott's faith in the Third Reich from outside his preferred psychoanalytic framework.
More interestingly, von Rezzori takes on death and dying. The novel treats death as rendition, practice, or simulation of death, through frequent speculation about what death is like. It brings to mind Maurice Blanchot’s essay “Death as Possibility,” which was written in the same era. Blanchot asks the ironic question, “Can I die?” Or, “Is death even possible?” For Blanchot, the possibility of death can’t be approached from the mode of reason, because reason is inextricably a measure of, as he says, “our action and of our presence in the world... Whereas death, that which makes one disappear from the world cannot find its guarantee there.” Meaning is inextricably tied to language, to consciousness, that which death makes disappear.
Von Rezzori adopts a very similar approach as he sucks the life out of Traugott. The barfly adopts a jaunty tone, a loquacious (drunken) hilarity that insists everything can be explained, that in time he will get to the bottom of the problems that afflict Traugott. But eventually, he recognizes that, like psychoanalysis, his explanations are interminable, that instead of clarifying matters, he only succeeds in mucking them up. For much of the novel, Traugott's essentially waiting to be put out of his misery.
At Stalingrad, Traugott dies, an end that the barfly describes as not a real death, but a case of having been “taken away” from reality into a hyperreality that exists beyond the illusion of the real. When Traugott’s debased fantasies of his wife with other men become real, reality collapses into his imagination, stripping away his faith in nobility, pedigree, and ethics. This is expected. Traugott’s Oedipus Complex is laid out rather plainly in the early pages of the book. From the start we are told that “this whole conflict [Oedipus Complex] was already present” in the young Traugott. For instance, this scene from his childhood:
Papá possessed, if I may say so, a rather strongly erotic disposition. On many nights, extremely tumultuous scenes of courtship and obstinate resistance were enacted in the Jassilkowski bedroom—resistance no doubt made all the more stubborn because Mamá’s sense of social self-esteem (God knows) stood in internal contradiction to a certain willingness in principle on her part... In any case, the spatial dimensions of the inspector’s quarters were rather tight, and more than once, young Traugott, sleeping in a dark adjacent room, was awakened by the heated, incantatory, and increasingly angry mutterings of Papá and the alternately brusque and scornful, always nakedly contemptuous rejections of the former Miss Bremse, which, after loud and prolonged rumblings and crashes of furniture, the clattering fall of bedside lamps, et cetera, gradually subsided into wounded lamentations and other woeful sounds that occasionally lent themselves to alternative interpretation.
The former Miss Bremse, a passive participant in the sexual act, engages only because it is her duty as a wife; she otherwise would have maintained her purity. Papa, a farm inspector, possesses “a rather strong erotic disposition” that frightens Traugott:
The boy’s interpretations must have been all the more frightening as his imagination lacked the appropriate pictorial images that would have allowed him to understand that what was transpiring on the other side of the door was, if I may say so, harmless and natural. Quaking in terror, his heart pounding, plagued by dark suspicions and vague surmises about monstrous and despicable acts which, as far as he could see, or better yet hear, the participants seemed to value highly, he followed with avid ear the noises behind the door until his inability to translate them into actual images became unbearable torture…[his father’s] masculinity simultaneously repelled and excited him and also humiliated him by making him aware of his own physical weakness.
Young Traugott’s initial suffering arose also from a lack of corresponding pictorial images. The proper images might have allowed him to understand what was going on in his parent’s bedroom. Such a failure of translation (or, interpretation) obstructs the practical application of ethics in his adult years, the promised transferal of the abstract (the imagination) into the literal. Moreover, his monstrous suspicions are validated and further complicated by his parent’s attempt to explain the sex act. When his father orders Traugott to work in the fields one summer prior to Traugott’s leaving for an academy, he does so in the name of ensuring that “practice had its proper place in the boy’s education.” Since Papa von Jassilkowski disdained “book-learning,” he sent his boy to work in the cow-barns. Traugott had to learn “expert milking, starting with the flirtatious and playful preparation of the udder, from the tenderly arousing and fortifying massage of the teat all the way to the actual draining of all four." In addition to receiving an education in animal husbandry, Traugott was told by Papa that such work is a starting point in the creation of the young nobleman, a connection between the aesthetics of nobility and the practice of farm labor that Traugott was unable to comprehend. He was mystified by how working in the cow-barns could be considered preparation for the nobility. His confusion between practice and aristocratic codes was further muddled on the day he came home and described to his mother how he had aided in the birth of a calf. She was horrified that a young boy would be allowed to witness a calf’s birth. Nor was she “pleased by her son’s overfluent use of terms like ‘dry mounting’ and ‘vaginal prolepsis,’ although they were as familiar to her from the professional vocabulary of her father, the chief district veterinarian.” Furthermore:
In order to protect little Traugott from any possible harm to his psyche (knowledge is power!), she decided to enlighten him in decent language about sexual matters... It was true, she freely admitted, that in the case of human beings and other vertebrates, mild breezes and butterflies were uncommon as means of conveyance, but, she hastened to add, this was of course regrettable. She went on and did not fail to provide both aesthetic and ethical rationales for her opinion. Little Traugott was dumbfounded. As far as he could grasp, the whole thing was obviously screwed up from the start; it was, so to speak, the cloven hoof of creation… But that was all useless theory. In practice, this much was certain: it simply was what it was, horrible, violent, brutal, humiliating. And dirty, most of all dirty.
In the cleave Mother Bremse makes between “dirty sex” and “its conveyance through mild breezes and butterflies,” we see the work of a theoretical and ethical approach to sexual relations. She believes that since a sexual vocabulary would imply a certain familiarity in Traugott’s knowledge, even if lacking the appropriate images, the boy must retain his composure, rely on “decent language” to deny that which most offends his mother. This denial entails the separation of the so-called “real,” the dirty game of sex, from the aesthetic—and hence ethical—interpretation. The ethical then floats superficially over the actual, in a kind of cultural balloon, which, if not filled with the hot air of “decent language,” would fall to the ground and be mired in the cow-barn muck of incivility. Or, in terms of the Oedipus Complex, the boy’s faith in his mother’s purity would be further reinforced by her explanation. He comes to understand that her “frigidity” is a preferred trait for both a mother and a wife.
On the other hand, he struggles with Papa’s demeanor. From a standpoint completely opposed to his wife’s, Papa insists that practice is what little Traugott needs, and that, as von Rezzori describes it, sufficient yanking on an udder will eventually “translate” into acquiring the necessary “rustic” components of nobility. So Traugott is given two opposing views, one that privileges aesthetics as that which keeps civilized man out of the muck of the real, through bleached language, and conversely, the necessity of agricultural practice that literalizes rustic notions of nobility. In between these Traugott is forced to make his own interpretation.
Initially, the barfly refrains from analyzing Traugott. Instead, the reader is invited to make his or her own interpretations, as the elements have been laid out. Freud writes that “the infantile ego fortifies itself in order to carry out the repression of the Oedipus conflict, by erecting this same obstacle within itself.” This obstacle involves the development of the boy’s conscience, that is, an obstacle to the boy’s Oedipal desires, an obstacle that erects itself as a system of ethics, a conscience housing his unconscious guilt of desiring his mother. More importantly, for Freud, the son must “borrow strength from the father,” that is, from the figure of the father as an obstacle of his desires, or, to turn this metaphor one more time, he must borrow strength from his super-ego, his conscience, in order to sufficiently repress his Oedipus Complex. In OAS, this borrowing of strength from the father becomes literal when Traugott, on a return trip home after his father’s death, discovers his father’s old inspector’s rod:
A knotty oak stick, ending not with the usual metal tip, but with a tiny rectangular shovel designed for probing and examining topsoil.
“Why, you don’t recognize it, m’boy?” Mother Bremse asks.
Examining the rustic instrument, Traugott wonders, “May I keep it, Mamá? I don’t have anything at all to remind me of Papá.”
Mama gladly hands it over, and replies, “You sure won’t be able to use it much in the city. Have it fitted with a regular tip instead of the little shovel.”
So Traugott finally possesses the symbol of his father’s virility, the symbol of his father’s power over his mother. The last quip by Mother Bremse regarding the removal of the little shovel at the tip further points to the alteration of the father’s strength now in the hands of the son. With regard to this borrowing from the father, however, a Freudian might hasten to add that the more powerful the Oedipus complex “and the more rapidly it succumbs to repression, then the stricter will be the domination of the super-ego over the ego later on.” This domination will take the form of an unconscious sense of guilt, a rootedness to ethics and values that keep the ego under control. Freud writes that ethics arise when “the individual attempts to master his Oedipus Complex and divert his libido from its infantile attachments into the social ones that are ultimately desired.” For Traugott, who succumbs to this rapid repression of the complex (threatened, as he was, by his father’s severity), his super-ego’s domination eventually turns into a kind of arrogance, his constantly extolling the ethical virtues of his noble class at the expense of his bourgeois upbringing. Yet Freud also warns that “the super-ego, by giving permanent expression to the influence of the parents, perpetuates the factors to which it owes its origin. It becomes an heir then to the Oedipus Complex.” Thus, the super-ego is also in danger of being dominated by that which it has repressed. In other words, the initial repression of the complex is never completely actualized. The Oedipus Complex is never totally dissolved, and the super-ego is thus forever in danger of being subsumed by its origins. The dissolution of Traugott’s super-ego coincides with the recurrence of various Oedipal symptoms that corrupt his marriage to the woman who is audaciously, and generically, referred to throughout the novel as “the blond thoroughbred.”
In Freud’s analysis of the dissolution of the Oedipus Complex, there is a relation between an individual’s “tendency toward debasement of a sexual partner” and an individual’s “tendency toward masochism.” Freud writes that inasmuch as an individual is likely to idealize his mother, he is also likely to find a partner who in many respects possesses the qualities he cherishes in his mother. A paradox arises at this point: as the individual’s sexual desire is inevitably driven by the id, this sexual desire, when directed toward a lover (a mother-figure), comes into conflict with the individual’s childhood repression of his Oedipal desires. As the individual has already repressed his desires toward his mother, he substitutes his former desire with his belief in her purity, thereby stalling his libido. If this same repression of the id is then transferred to an individual’s relations with a lover, then his sex drive may likewise be debilitated by the “high social-esteem” which he holds for his lover. Freud writes that in order for the individual to reanimate his sexual desire, he must resort to a tendency to debase his lover as a sexual object. Such debasement of the love object, however, can result in a masochistic backlash that injures the debaser. For Traugott, he will be unable to compartmentalize this debased view of his lover solely within sexual relations. Thus, his ideal view of the thoroughbred will suffer from a debased reality, and likewise he will suffer from his own libidinal impulses, locking him in a masochistic relationship with his lover. After the diffusion of Traugott’s libidinal instinct, “the super-ego, the conscience at work in the ego, may then become cruel, harsh against the ego which is in its charge.” For Freud, this masochistic tendency arises from an inner sense of guilt, a result of the repression of the initial Oedipal impulse.
Traugott’s adult sex-life is riddled with these tendencies toward masochism and debasement. At one point in his late twenties, he tries to decide between marrying two women, the bourgeois blond thoroughbred and a woman of nobility. Initially, as he is still intent on claiming a noble rank, he decides to marry the noble woman, whom he reveres as a symbol of the ethical purity of her class. But the woman’s willingness to enter into sexual relations with him almost immediately shatters his pure view of her as an ideal wife. Instead, he decides to marry the blond thoroughbred, who from the start had been his more preferred object of sexual desire. The first instance of the id’s reemergence from repression under his super-ego.
Coincidentally, his marriage to the blond thoroughbred also marks the abrupt end to a flirtatious relationship with his landlady. On his last day in her house, as he moves out of his apartment, Traugott attempts to flirt with this older woman one last time by making an explicit sexual overture. His landlady, Ms. von Schrader, blushes and almost passes out, and just as she relents to his overture, he rejects her and makes a cruel reference to her age. Von Schrader, as an obvious mother figure in the two years he lived in her home, is rejected in favor of the blond thoroughbred, who Traugott describes as possessing a “robust carnality, which he must give into defenseless, to the blissful feeling of being extinguished.” Here, he breaks with his prior ordered reliance on ethics and purity, and, with a characteristic rationality, he convinces himself that he should marry the blond thoroughbred:
She was a girl with a bad reputation, but so uniquely persuasive, so divinely assertive in her unencumbered carnal presence!... In the course of repeated and thorough deliberation, Traugott arrived at an unusually perspicacious line of reasoning. Dogmatic insistence on one’s principles, said Mr. von Jassilkowski to himself, even insistence on purity, is a characteristic of petit bourgeois philistinism. The bride’s unsullied virginity is an imperative that originated in legal claims regulating hereditary succession, as a guarantee of the genuineness of the breeding object. In patrician communities, the lack of such a guarantee is bound to be treated tolerantly, since it is almost certain that any indiscretion has been committed with another member of one’s own caste. As a pure matter of breeding, then, such a blemish carried little relevant weight. It’s truly a question of how sophisticated you are. Erotic emancipation is and will always remain a prerogative of the upper classes. There’s no room for sexuality in an eat-in kitchen—try as you might, you can’t change this fact. Truly, I tell you: the German language wouldn’t be among the world’s most profound if the similar sound and nearly identical spelling of “Hahnrei” (cuckold) and “Ahnenreihe” (lineage) were only an accident.
Traugott, as he was typically inclined, reverses himself from his insistence on “noble purity” and instead comes to regard such an ethical insistence as a middle class value. (Indeed, it may be argued that his previous belief in noble purity, in the values held by the noble caste, was actually a projection of his own “bourgeois philistinism.”) In doing so, he retains his assumed privilege as a noble—circumscribed by an exclusionary rule allowing “indiscretions within one’s own caste”—such as that enjoyed by his new wife prior to their marriage. At this point in the novel, it remains to be seen if he can hold to this noble virtue by suppressing his more folksy upbringing. In fact, the tension between his ingrained morality and this newfound relaxation forms the central interest of his marriage to the thoroughbred.
Predictably he’s unable to maintain the pretense. At first, he seems entirely comfortable with his wife’s past. But the first hint of his secret dissatisfaction arises in his dreams—he dreams of himself waking in bed next to the thoroughbred only to discover a man sleeping on the other side of her, a man whom he initially recognizes as a circus athlete they’d met at a bar. The thoroughbred is curled up next to the man, and when she wakes (in the dream) and finds Traugott staring at her, she laughs at him. And yet Traugott cannot bring himself to react to her dreamed infidelity. He is “powerless from weakness and lust. For it had been lust to see her thus, as nothing but body, coupling, sex: nothing but sin... he desired her with an intensity he had never before known or experienced. As if suddenly the most secret dungeons of his soul were torn open, the flood of irrepressible, self-destructive lust for the vulgar and the obscene and the filthy that swelled over him only intensified his desire... He hated her. But even more so he hated himself, hated his flesh and its impetuous desire, this feverish sweat-soaked lust which shook him.” Here, the narrator lays bare the play between Traugott’s unconscious-yet-still-lingering faith in purity, in ethics, and the release of the id that insists on lust, on objectifying the sex object, seeing it as a “body.” This results in self-hatred, even as he craves her, even as lust wells up in him, so that the play between the super-ego and the id can be read in the tendency toward masochism (self-punishment for failing to live up to his moral expectations) and debasement (the untenable repression of the id).
For months after this dream of the thoroughbred’s infidelity, he’s disposed to sexual arousal only when he imagines his wife with other men. In fact, at one point, his jealousies get the better of him and he insists that his wife reveal to him her affairs before she met him—all in order to arouse him sexually. The barfly goes on to tell us that the thoroughbred’s storytelling was certainly not confined to that first night: “Although the munitions heiress [the thoroughbred] was nowhere near as blessed with verbal gifts as the vizier’s daughter or Schahriah’s sly wife, she had no fear of running out of material for the next thousand nights, for she found in a drawer of her desk—call it accident, if you will—the register of past sins that she had remorsefully drawn up a few weeks before her wedding and had lazily never consulted." Eventually, however, the thoroughbred tires of Traugott’s relentless need to hear of her real or imagined infidelities. She confronts him at one point by asking, “What are you turning me into?” She seems caught up in her own expectations of married life. She imagines that a wife is not supposed to have thoughts of infidelity, and that her attractions to other men are not her fault, but are directly attributable to the stories that Traugott insists she tell. The thoroughbred is convinced that she could remain faithful, repress her desires, if only he’d cease his requests. She also seems to threaten him with the possibility that his fantasies—which are isolated now to the realm of abstraction, imagination, theory—have the potential of being actualized in the present. Traugott doesn’t seem to realize the dangers of his play. As long as he can restrain his masochistic debasement solely in dreams and imagination, it may be possible to maintain his belief in virtues. He recalls though that in that first dream of the circus athlete he was unable to control his anger—an anger that resulted from the shame and degradation he heaped on himself for lusting the thoroughbred while she was in the arms of another man—so he lifted his inspector’s rod and began to bash it over the head of the circus athlete. Then he “realized with terror and horror (against his will, but yet with guilt, primal guilt) that he had murdered his father... He knew then that he bore the mark of a mysterious curse, that he was stricken with something unspeakable, contemptible, with a destiny that came from primal guilt and at the same time clothed him in a new, most deplorable innocence: the innocence of not being able to do otherwise. And he knew there would be no redemption for him—save in death.”
Von Rezzori’s obvious phrasing helps the barfly to gauge the depth of Traugott’s innocence. The barfly calls it deplorable. He affirms that it cannot be otherwise, because the conflict was always there (subsumed in the subconscious), but yet he deplores this state of affairs which cannot address the moral stakes of Traugott’s situation in any way other than simply unveiling the cause of his masochistic urges. So, because of Traugott’s inability to address his situation as anything other than inevitable, he believes that his only redemption is in death.
For the rest of the novel, this death is cast as a false redemption. The barfly offers the reader a supplemental reading, one that isn’t at all redemptive. Traugott’s reliance on ethics to explain his situation, and likewise the barfly’s reliance on psychoanalysis, result in interpretations based on cause and effect, on theory and practice, in a search for an origin that is interminable. Traugott at one point realizes what was at the heart of his lust: “the craftiest and most secret of all sins, the preservation of evil by means of guilty love.” Later in Charley’s Bar, he asks a doctor to explain to him the intricacies of the Oedipal triangle and then to help him remember the proper psychoanalytic name given to this conflict:
“Someone,” Traugott asks, “who was a bit overattached to his mother in early youth and quite naturally developed feelings of envy and hatred toward his father might, in his later years—how shall I put it?—confuse these latent impressions, isn’t that right? So that, for example, he not only does not fear, but plainly wishes that the present object of his erotic desire—let’s say, for fun, his wife, okay?—that he’s not only not afraid, or better yet, he’s so afraid his wife may sleep with other men that he actually wishes it would happen—I mean, that just imagining it gives him pleasure...?”
“Yes?” came the voice of the dissolute doctor. “Interesting acquaintance of yours, that. Let me have his address one of these days.”
But the answer—or rather, the next question—came promptly and unaffected by that dreary joke: “I merely wanted to know: what do you call that?”
This is the distinction between finding redemption in one’s Oedipal innocence—or rather in one’s primal guilt—and the possibility of addressing ethics. Traugott wants to understand his dilemma as a natural illness that afflicts all men. That he would find succor in learning the proper name of the conflict he suffers still hints at his faith in categories, his faith in theories that can explain his situation, and indeed, his fear of things that can't be concluded. The barfly chastises him for still maintaining his faith in theories and categories:
You [reader] are astounded, aren’t you? Exactly as I was at the time: what a touching faith in the exorcising power of the word! “What do you call that”—as if perhaps some answer like “suppurating psychic ichthyosis” would have brought immediate relief. The man who knows the secrets of the body becomes a father confessor. But only the one who knows the secrets of the word can administer the blessing of absolution. That’s what it means, isn’t it? Anyway, the witty doctor failed to grasp the deeper significance of the question. He replied with his usual sarcasm and rattling emphysema: “What do you call it? All depends on how sophisticated you are: either loving thy neighbor or being a pig motherfucker.”
Traugott draws precise boundaries to allow himself the luxury of lusting the thoroughbred while imagining her with other men, as long as she never cheats on him. His wife understands the impossibility of separating reality from imagination: “What are you turning me into?” In naming the Oedipus Complex, in deeming it a proper explanation of instinctual causes and effects, he finds comfort in an explanation for what's happening to him.
The inter-relation of the Super-Ego, Ego and Id within the workings of the Oedipus conflict constitute for Freud a separation between imagination and reality: what Freud refers to as “the Reality Principle.” Freud writes that “by setting up the Super-Ego, the Ego has mastered the Oedipus Complex and at the same time placed itself in subjection to the Id. Whereas the Ego is essentially the representative of the external world, of reality, the Super-Ego stands in contrast to it as the representative of the internal world. Conflicts between the Ego and the Super-Ego, as we are now prepared to find, ultimately reflect the contrast between what is real and what is psychical, between the external world and the internal world.” With such a model, Traugott may be able to conceive of his suffering in terms of a prior trauma. Through the concept of the Ego and Super-Ego, he grounds his experience of reality as separate from imagination. And though this model provides him with an explanation of his suffering, it leaves him with little more than a method for analyzing the conflict’s effects. Ultimately, the ego falls short in its attempt to put into practice the ideal world set up by the super-ego, and in constant self-judgment under the specter of his father’s authority, it renders the son powerless, humiliated, both falsely privileged as an innocent and primally condemned as guilty.
When the thoroughbred reveals to him that, during their marriage, she has slept with another man—“I slept with a guy,” she says matter-of-factly—the unsustainable separation between imagination and reality result in his spiritual death. At this point the barfly, no longer insisting on a diagnosis, begins to taunt Traugott:
Did you catch that? Isn’t it just like a fairy tale? The ghosts that haunt him now relent: the past is overcome, its song no longer entices. The present approaches and, with it, the ultimate and most difficult of all tests, the seduction of reality... Jassilkowski felt in the pit of his stomach the purplish darkness of a sharp pain of oddly scintillating splendor, as his spirit separated from his earthly presence in an ineffably luminous, unattainable brightness, and he knew--knew with the blissful certitude of recognition (Plato’s anamnesis): “This is death!” Death. “The great death that everyone carries within—for we are but leaf and skin: great death is the fruit,” isn’t it? And he also knew at the same time that this—DEATH—was not the extinction of the flesh, for his flesh remained here on earth, rooted in it, in the earth and in its dreamlike unreal reality.
For the barfly, spiritual death is defined as the collapse between reality and imagination. The barfly says, “The solution lies in Asymptote.”
Asymptote is for him the approach of theory toward a practice that is
never realized. As a recurring theme throughout the novel, asymptote
allows for a supplemental analysis of Traugott’s problems. Traugott’s
death drive, for instance, collapses into the story of his “spiritual”
death—quite literally, his self-deceptions and illusions about the
Nazis—and doubles into his bodily death. The barfly capsulates this
spiritual death by knocking Traugott for his inability “to approach the
always antagonistic hyperboles of thesis and antithesis without
identifying oneself with either, to transfer evidence to the realm of
infinity, to assign your meager ratio to the a priori logic of
associations, and to condense logical abstraction to analogy.” Traugott
couldn’t exist without ethics and love for “purity.” When he realizes
the corrupt nature of the Nazi ideals he once cherished, he’s dead, the
barfly repeatedly states, yet his death is a death of the idealized
spirit. As a spiritual death—the spirit’s failure to translate theory
into practice—it’s Traugott’s only “real” death. We’re told that only
an asymptotic understanding of his existence—a perspective that doesn’t
require the transfer of theory into practice—could have saved him.
The barfly explains that Traugott knew that he had been “SEEN THROUGH.” That his knowledge of the frauds and deceits of his existence, “which smoldered underground and oscillated between dreams and waking,” was part of reality itself. Furthermore, this collapse between reality and imagination corresponds to “the terrors and torments of consciousness and its self-destructive bastard offspring, conscience, which is always the conscience of being between realities, distorted and torn by flight and longings, fleeing and longing whose sole ultimate objective is death,” so that even the interminable interplay between the Ego, Super-Ego and Id cannot support him. When Traugott dies spiritually, when the theoretical succor he regularly drew from ethics no longer protects him, he realizes “how invalid his fear of life—his fear of dying—actually was: he had suffered his death and yet lived on, blessed by his pure unsullied serenity.” He could no longer die:
[He] was eventually shipped out…all the way to Stalingrad. And that’s where he stayed... Only, HE did not die. HE was taken from us. You may not want to, but believe me: HE was taken from us. HE did not fall in battle nor was HE wounded. HE was not overrun or taken prisoner. HE was simply no longer there. Disappeared. Disintegrated...What became of HIM? What do you think? Was HE instantaneously compressed, turned into a glimmer of earth? Did HE suckle at the breast of Mother Earth like Gregor at the stone? Will HE come back some day and become pope? Will Thomas Mann nominate HIM the next German king, as he did once for Gerhart Hauptmann? Or was HE secretly called out of the world like Oedipus in the fields of Eumenides? For, you see, HE left behind a message of redemption. HIS life has become an example: as we know, HE lived out all of our lives in heightened symbolic form—and HE did not die. Therefore, we won’t die either, you can count on it. None of us will die—how could we? We don’t even exist, my friend.
Like Oedipus blinding himself, Traugott rejects his ability to view “real” images in the “real” world. Blindness, in Oedipus Rex, is both the cause and symptom of the King’s inability to traverse the border between the perceptible and the intelligible. Traugott risks suffering a similar, though figurative, sensorial deprivation, by becoming incapable of separating illusion from reality. By the time Traugott “disappears from the face of the earth” at Stalingrad, he has already experienced a kind of death—the death of ethics, the death of the spirit. Von Rezzori’s protagonist learns to read beyond the illusion of presence, the very “sight” of mediation between reality and imagination. Traugott, like Oedipus in the fields of Eumenides, disappears from the world, beyond it, where death yields no meaning.
For his part, the barfly can’t solve the impasse between ethics and practice by employing psychoanalysis, and so he starts to apply his asymptotic perspective to more generalized conclusions about German collective guilt. He points out the inevitable shortcomings of such diagnoses: “I don’t know whether you can feel that summer of 1938 so deeply in your bones; as for myself, I can’t help it. It is still in my marrow, and all the talk of collective guilt can’t rid me of it. Say what you will, it was something new, something that defied all previous experience.” His experience of fascination, what he labels as German collective consciousness during the pre-war years, is ignored in psychoanalytic readings of mass psychosis. He looks back and traces the faulty logic of the era, the detestable rationales, yet still the experience of the summer of 1938, for him, defies interpretation. In such a reality, he writes, “time flows inexorably, time in which nothing happens or in which what happens is of no weight, of no importance whatsoever in relation to what is going to happen... In times of expectation, when time has no other notion than flowing ahead, no weight to carry on the happening of things, things freeze in their actual state.” The summer of 1938 is cast as “a present without a link to either past or future.” For the barfly, this “time” can only be read and analyzed in terms of its production of collective guilt (i.e. analyzed only for its psychological effect). The memory of that summer remains attached to the barfly’s feelings of fascination, to an experience that remains frozen in his mind. So, you need recourse to another reading in order to account for this trauma in a moral sense, that is, to account for it not in terms of its psychological impact. If you ignore this, you fail to address the philosophical, moral impasse between theory and practice.
Of course, in a hilarious letter that von Rezzori wrote me shortly before his death, he stated “Oedipus at Stalingrad is a satire that pokes fun at everything, mainly Freud, and that taking it too seriously is a sort of falling into its trap.” Given von Rezzori’s warning, I might say that the barfly’s recourse to asymptotic collapse as a possible response to the disappearance of metaphysical ground stems from his suspicion of what he perceives as the “either/or” proposition of classical theory. He cites Plato’s thought as a prime example of such lose-lose propositions:
Plato says that the good men are those who content themselves with merely dreaming about what evil ones actually do. Well, isn’t that just typical? Like a rude official, this dictum forces you to decide on short notice whether you wish to belong to the infamous evil group or displace the lion’s share of your existence into the dream realm. Let’s put it in concrete terms: just for fun, let’s say an Oedipus complex. Mamá in Allenstein would no doubt protest against a vote for the first alternative—if not with conscious indignation, then certainly with great alarm. On the other hand, the latter alternative would expose you to the worrisome consequences, which in extreme cases might even undermine your physical health, of inadequate repression and neurotic substitute formations.
Von Rezzori’s talent, throughout the novel, lies in his ability to instill such questions of philosophy, ethics and metaphysics, almost seamlessly into the psychological analysis of an individual. Eventually the barfly comes to understand that the dead-end proposition of metaphysics, forcing one to choose between reality and imagination, is exactly the dilemma posed by Freud’s construction of the Oedipus Complex. Every reading of the German War effort renders its generalized meaning, determined as a system of causes and effects through the use of metaphysics, aesthetics or psychoanalysis, but for von Rezzori it ultimately fails to address the essential atemporality (asymptoticity) of the incidents that comprise the constellation of the war, incidents that tend to defy interpretation:
Your aesthetic sadism demands tragedy, dear sir. But where do you see any possibility for it? Show me a heroic downfall! Show me an atonement! The miracle of postwar reconstruction perhaps? Where is there Nietzsche’s “victory within failure,” since we seem to be succeeding in everything we do? What is culpability anyway? Even that most enigmatic form of innocent complicity—the guilt of being thus, the contrition of consciousness faced with its lowly condition and its rebellion, the miserably heroic defiance of our predestined inadequacy—what is that? I ask you. A psychopathic extravagance? Inner emigration? And, of course, we reject the idea of collective guilt, as everybody knows: so what should we fear?
To determine the forces that caused the war, you have to keep still long enough to create a total analysis of the situation. The measure of civility and normality that might explain the horrors of war can’t be activated. I can postulate, for example, that the war resulted from a German disposition to authoritarian figures, a disposition that, when read psychoanalytically as the super-ego’s severe reaction to guilt, can only be relieved in aggression against others. Yet such an explanation renders the flux of events stable and tends to approach the war through a system of interpretation that doesn’t take into account its own status as a process influenced by history. The significance of the battle of Stalingrad (as the war’s turning point) to the German nation, for example, resides in a kind of unspoken self-punishment inflicted after the war, not related to any understanding of collective guilt, but rather to a symbolic Oedipal blinding that disables the nation’s ability to envision itself in its former image. Germany casts off its folksy-ethical base and incorporates a new version of itself. The barfly never conceals his contempt for the “economic miracle.” As an emblem of German contrition, it's rendered as a sort of zombification of the German soul. Only an act of asymptotic interpretation can address the need for contrition, one that relates the imagination’s status within the subset of the real, a conflation of theory and practice.