Sigmund Freud & the interpretation of everyday life

Sigmund Freud & the interpretation of everyday life

It was the German sociologist Marianne Krüll who analysed Freud’s handling of the Oedipus story in the light of his own family history. In her view it was a creative compromise of the kind sometimes used by children with parental conflicts. Instead of seeking the real source of hostility toward his father, Freud made the Oedipus myth one of the most pervasive parables of intellectual life. Thus, she claimed, he may have stood Oedipus on his ear and a ‘Laius complex’ would have been more accurate.

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In other words, it was Laius, the father, who, because of a prophecy that he would one day be murdered by his son, left the infant Oedipus on a mountaintop. Freud chose to believe that the power of Sophocles’ drama lay in the tragic destiny of the son who, not knowing his real parentage, unwittingly murders his father and marries his mother. Krüll claims it was only Freud’s bias that prevented him from recognizing the guilt of Laius. Nevertheless there remain convincing reasons behind Freud’s interpretation and one of these ironically comes not from The Interpretation of Dreams but from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

The strange fact that the [Oedipus] legend finds nothing objectionable in Queen Jocasta’s age seemed to me to fit in well with the conclusion that in being in love with one’s mother one is never concerned with her as she is in the present but with her youthful… image carried over from childhood.”

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life deals mainly with the type of error (parapraxis) which has become the everyday concept of the Freudian slip. Apart from the many vivid examples of slips of the tongue and pen, and of forgetting and bungling, we should be interested too in a comment he makes on the losing of objects of value. He says it may be the offering of a sacrifice to the obscure powers of destiny to which homage is still paid today. This is one explanation of karma: despite logically ridiculing superstitions, often we are unconsciously superstitious and will attract misfortune because we believe deep down we deserve it, for something we have done or failed to do. Another lies in the fact that bad behaviour that earns an advantage in one situation often rebounds in another.

Later in the book he unsurprisingly states that superstition is in large part the expectation of trouble. In this light, Oedipus is trouble. He too is a sacrifice to the obscure powers of destiny; a lost object of value. A Greek tragedy reflects that life is a tragedy. Is it any surprise then that Freud’s favourite cynical joke concerned a brandy drinker who was ordered by his doctor to give it up on the chance that might save his failing hearing? As soon as he did, his hearing improved, but when his doctor hailed him to no effect on the street, months later, he knew he’d gone back on it. In a loud voice, he asked the man why. Solange ich nicht getrunken hab’, hab’ ich gehört; aber alles, was ich gehört, war nicht so gut wie der Branntwein (‘When I didn’t drink, I heard, but nothing I heard was as good as the brandy’).

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life shows us that many absurdities in human interaction are almost miraculously capable of rational explanation but moreover his work also carries the implication that the surreal aspects of existence evoked by slips and superstitions are part of the eternal order of human affairs and therefore comprehensible, at least to a figure like Freud. Given his field of interest, he doubled up for a twentieth-century casting out of spirits.

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Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich – August 2015

Dr. John Flynn

At Keleti station in Budapest, in an August heatwave in 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the office was slow chaos, with backpackers getting the most awkward tickets possible and people farther back in the queue having to hold open the heavy door that led into the tight space with the hatches. With the low chairs at those hatches, it was like a small dole office. A fair-haired North American chap with dreadlocks eventually came away from one of them to relay the news to his two female dreadlocked companions – also white – that they would have to make five changes, wherever the f*ck they were going. The set-up might have done with a few of the goose-stepping Hungarian soldiers we’d seen up on the Vár the day before.

A guy in front of me watching them wore a t-shirt advertising Iron Maiden and The Trooper. He must have…

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Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle – February 2015

Salzburg, Innsbruck, the Munich triangle – February 2015

Dr. John Flynn

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The easiest way to get from Ireland to western Austria is via Munich but at Dublin airport in February 2015 the flight was overbooked until three people took an Aer Lingus bribe to stay behind: €250 plus a free hotel night. I didn’t try to sleep on the plane because I had to eat something i.e. two sandwiches. The Munich airport train seemed to take an age before reaching Marienplatz. The Neues Rathaus looked great in the fog but there was a hint of snow too. It was the most Gothic-looking thing I’d seen.

At the Stachus hotel the room was fine, it had a heated floor. I had a shower and went down to the Augustinerbräu for a couple of steins and a bowl of soup. From there I sought out the Hofbräuhaus but at midnight it was closing. The odd fleck of snow landed on my lips…

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Vienna, October 2013

Vienna, October 2013

Dr. John Flynn

Vienna Riesenrad Oct 2013

In October 2013, once aboard the plane to Vienna, I would have fallen asleep right away but for having to stay awake to order the breakfast. Awake all night with an upset stomach and then a long drive to the airport, I got less than an hour after that. At the Schweizerhof I had a shower and then slept for another three. Then it was time to head off, a bit like a zombie. That changed at Harry Lime’s doorway, by the smooth, sloping cobbles of Schreyvogelgasse. There was still daylight but lights shone from scattered windows. They reflected in others. Evening traffic hummed and rumbled on the nearby Ringstrasse, beyond which the university rose in the dusk.

Under the pale, yellowy pillars and ceiling arches, the Café Central was a temple for reflection on some of the characters – Freud, Hitler, Lenin, Trotsky, Tito – who had taken a…

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Austria, a notebook #1

Austria, a notebook #1

Dr. John Flynn

Austrians tend to make their lives easier, so first of all they are very polite and second they don’t mean it… The difference between Austrians and Germans is very much like Irish and English.

– Christoph Waltz

In Michael Frayn’s Travels with a Typewriter, a collection of articles from the 1960s and 1970s, the penultimate piece finds him in Vienna in 1975. His acquaintance there with a mathematics student from Berlin “outraged by all this charm” makes him consider “these two German worlds” but the effort to reconcile them in his head proves disconcerting. Frayn is, after all, English, and the irony of Austria can be rather more spiritually familiar to an Irish person. That’s if it even bears thinking about.

On the subject of the unwillingness of the Irish to step beyond the English-speaking world, economically or culturally, it is true that most of them…

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Robert Musil’s Diaries

Robert Musil (1880-1942) is best known for Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (‘The Man Without Qualities’), an unending, unfinished novel, of which the first volume appeared in 1930. I tried to read it once but found it too essayistic – Musil’s diaries concede that – and boring and thus gave up. The first funny thing I came across in the diaries was the farcical account of the seduction of a seventeen-year-old pal of his. Let us call the story The Cougar of Brno. Musil’s early years were strange, to put it mildly. The sleeping rule (hands outside the covers), the presence of ‘Uncle’ Heinrich in the house and Musil’s deal with Herma Dietz are just three of the oddities.

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Musil was small but combative and from early on he exhibited the small-man syndrome. Herma was a servant girl who looked after Musil’s grandmother but was let go after the old woman died. Musil, then a student in Berlin, offered her a place to live on condition she became his ‘mistress’. His flat description of her reaction (“She doesn’t say yes nor no nor thank you”) seems repulsive to modern eyes. He later gave her syphilis, she had a miscarriage and she died in 1907. Soon afterwards he married a widow (Martha) seven years his senior and they stayed together until his death from a stroke in Switzerland in 1942.

Reading Musil’s account of his ill friend Alice’s crazy adventure (1910) that ended with her being locked up in Venice, I made a note at the end. This is mental, in more ways than one. It appears in a context where he expresses an interest in sodomy and incest. Raised an only child, he was long obsessed with a sister who had died before he was born. Musil was a bit of a perv (i.e. prurient) and only occasional passages are worth reading until the seventh notebook (1913). The translator says Musil was “at the height of his receptive powers” then but he probably means most observant, with less navel-gazing.

Musil is quite morbid too. A brief passage about dying consumptives in Rome exemplifies how morbid, while his description of a tour of a mental asylum there reads like a thriller. In that light, Musil’s wartime notebooks are also well worth reading. He was an officer on the Italian front before his transfer to a desk job in propaganda. There are touches of everything from The Good Soldier Švejk to Apocalypse Now.

In the Thirties he’s again very interesting, this time on the Nazi takeover, which happened while he lived in Berlin. It is seen as a spell of bad weather… a police car with swastika flags and singing officers, speeding down the Kurfürstendamm. It is alarming that Germans today possess so little sense of reality… the streets are full of people – “Life goes on” – even though, each day, hundreds are killed, imprisoned, beaten up

Usually, otherwise, these are not really diaries at all, more often just notebook ráiméis, to use the Irish language word for rambling nonsense. There’s not a huge amount of comedy and not much observation outside of key historical and personal moments.

Der Herr Karl

Der Herr Karl

On 15 November 1961 Austrian television broadcast an hour-long dramatic monologue set in the basement store room of a Viennese delicatessen. Therein a middle-aged character called Karl talked to an unseen younger colleague while intermittently replying to the voice of his female boss upstairs and helping himself to samples of the stock. The public response to the play was uproar but the hour had made the performer – Helmut Qualtinger – immortal.

Der Herr Karl was no invention from scratch. Another actor, Nikolaus Haenel, had worked in such a deli and with such a character just after the war. The establishment stood on the corner of Führichgasse and Tegetthofstrasse and the chap was called Max, though Haenel forgot his surname. Nevertheless he later drew a picture of a bespectacled and rather thin-faced figure, aged about fifty, with a moustache a little wider than Hitler’s. While going through the motions at work, stocking shelves and mopping the floor, this Man of the Crowd had told Haenel his life story.

Years later, Haenel became aware that Qualtinger was in search of a character with a Nazi past so he approached him with the idea of Max. Though Qualtinger was still in his early thirties and much heavier than the original, he was intrigued and the pair met in a restaurant over three or four days, wherein Haenel told him all he remembered and Qualtinger took copious notes, which he later turned into a script with his writing partner, Carl Merz.

Married three times, their Herr Karl seems amiable at first but bit by bit, in a mixture of Viennese dialect (what he really thinks) and imperfect standard German (for what he thinks his audience wants to hear), he reveals himself to be a Mitläufer (a camp follower) and opportunist who rode each wave as it came.

Until 1934 he was a socialist but it didn’t pay. He demonstrated for rent-a-crowd right-wing groups because there was a bit of money going (fünf Schilling). Karl then vividly describes the arrival of Hitler in Vienna, the rapture of the multitude on the Ring and Heldenplatz and the police all wearing swastika armbands. To Karl the intoxicating atmosphere felt like the buzz of a wine tavern. Qualtinger’s impression of the blue-eyed Führer passing close to where Karl stood and simply grunting Jaja! at him is blackly comic. Da hab i alles g’wusst, wir haben uns verstanden (‘Then I knew everything, we understood each other’).

A Jewish neighbour in his apartment block – sonst a netter Mensch (‘otherwise a nice guy’) is forced to wash the pavements. Karl describes the block’s Hausmeister laughing at this, though, as a Nazi party member, it is Karl himself who supervises the cleaning. When the neighbour (somehow) returns after the war, Karl raises his hat and greets him in a simpering fashion but the neighbour won’t even look at him. This hurts Karl’s feelings. He argues that someone had to clean the pavement. I war ein Opfer. Andere san reich worden, i war a Idealist (‘I was a victim. Others got rich, I was an idealist’).

When the Russians came, people rushed to throw their Hitler portraits on the nearest dung heap but Karl kept his on the wall and deliberately encouraged some Russian soldiers into his apartment. He tore down the picture and trampled on it and then, satisfied with this gesture, they left him alone. Karl subsequently got the chance to suck up to the Americans, whom, he notes, had good food. Wangling a job as a civilian guard, he had ample opportunity to chase away hungry compatriots now that he was a self-styled defender of the West.

An excellent introduction to Qualtinger and Der Herr Karl is available in Georg Markus’ Wenn man trotzdem lacht – Geschichten und Geschichte des österreichischen Humors (2012), which has Quasi, as he was known, as the main figure on the cover.

Markus

Both a history and compendium of Austrian humour, this book begins with a chapter on Wiener Schmäh, which Markus links to Vienna’s ethnic mix and then defines as including melancholy, sarcasm and a little malice. Nevertheless, in the very first paragraph the author makes a rather dubious claim. Das Lachen ist hierzulande von geradezu existenzieller Bedeutung und die Heiterkeit mit der anderer Völker nicht vergleichbar (‘Laughter is, in this sense, of an almost existential importance and the amusement is not comparable with that of other peoples’).

The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics (1986) is a book by Breandán Ó hEithir (1930-90) that traces the political evolution – even thirty years on from publication, development may still be too strong a word – of the Irish state and its adjoining northern statelet over sixty years, from the early 1920s to the mid-1980s. The writer defines the begrudger of the title as the most common type of Irish character. Such a person is usually cynical, snide and hungry for the next unflattering story about an official role model or public event that won’t bore anyone else in the retelling.

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Ó hEithir describes most Irish people as really time-serving sycophants but, to be fair, the begrudger is often justifiably cynical, as the author also points out. One may easily be short of a job, a house, regular sex, drink (rarely) or food in Ireland: one is rarely short of a bitter belly laugh.

The book begins with an anecdote from the morning after the signing of the Treaty (1921) that partitioned the island and created the Irish Free State. A passing priest asks a blacksmith why he looks so glum.

It was the gentry that kept me going and what’s left of them will leave the country now. I’m ruined.

The priest assures him that freedom will mean the Irish will have their own gentry but this only causes the blacksmith to mutter darkly in his wake.

Our own gentry!? We will in our arse have our own gentry.

The blacksmith was right. Instead, we got opportunists, the post-colonial class whose innermost vocation Frantz Fanon saw as remaining part of the racket. The success of the Irish in America magnifies the awareness – learnt from the Brits – that electoral politics is the safest form of organised crime, where privileged access to the trough of opportunity is tolerated thanks to successful patronage. Incidentally, charity-sector fiddling has emerged in recent years as a type of scam at which the Irish in-crowd have proved themselves world-class.

In a nation of embezzlers, though, this phenomenon of camp-following and opportunism isn’t just restricted to politics and those with political connections. To give a simple example, there was a party for the elderly in one rural parish at Christmas in 1999, the year the Irish prime minister had issued a national apology in the wake of the States of Fear TV series, which had documented our children’s gulag. Just imagine, the number of children in institutional ‘care’ in the Irish state between the 1930s and 1970s had been, in absolute terms, greater than that in Britain, while our population had been little more than 5% of that across the water.

Of course it became fashionable and convenient to blame the Church alone for such horrors but what of the society that gave the Church such power? In 2017 the latest such scandal is that of the mother-and-baby homes, those institutions where unwed mothers were put and where their babies – if they didn’t die and get thrown into unmarked graves – were often secretly sold for adoption. These places were never secret, the people knew the score, that’s how things were done. 2017 is also the year that Brunhilde Pomsel died. She was Goebbels’ secretary and lived to be 106.

‘The people who today say they would have done more for those poor, persecuted Jews… I really believe that they sincerely mean it,’ she said in interviews for A German Life. ‘But they wouldn’t have done it either.’

On a lighter note, the Christmas party committee had asked a relative of mine to help out at the event. The members had already gathered a lot of good food and drink in the form of donations. At the party in the parish hall, a retired nurse advised that some hot whiskey punch would be the best drink for the old people in the winter but that suggestion was shot down. Instead, the committee gave them sherry. They had plenty of sherry. Soon there was a crash. An old lady had keeled over. After that the guests only got tea and sandwiches. The wine, the chocolates, the brandy and whiskey bottles and the beautiful cakes remained untouched. Soon the old people were packed off on a bus.

What happened to the goodies? The cars reversed in, loaded up and drove away. “Never again,” said my relative. What happened to Max? According to Markus, all is known is that he got fired from the delicatessen after he was caught trying to take home some bottles of vermouth in a small case.

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