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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The Irish Fight Clubs

The Irish Fight Clubs

The first credit on Na Chéad Fight Clubs means ‘Based on an idea by Michael McMahon and research by John Flynn’ (see above). In late 2007 I submitted a written proposal for a TV history documentary to an Irish production company that took it up with enthusiasm.

For a year or so it seemed I was in the loop. Then silence descended again, due to funding issues, I thought, until I discovered by accident in April 2010 that the thing had been commissioned by the Irish-language channel TG4 and was already in production. My father happened to be visiting an old friend who had whitewashed buildings in his yard when a location scout knocked on the door.

Legal advisers were then called in – a single letter from ours had the production company meekly offering to settle – and happily the project soon got put back on the rails, contractually. Plus we got paid. As did their very expensive lawyer. The legal lesson for all concerned was that copyright isn’t just about plagiarism, it also covers adaptation. Méaracha dóite is the Irish phrase for burnt fingers.

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Planet of the Naked Stranger

Planet of the Naked Stranger

…the Sixties trip viewed through the prism of three period classics: The Naked Ape (1967); Planet of the Apes (1968); and Naked Came the Stranger (1969). That two of the texts have a Taylor only adds to the minor challenge of quote attribution.

“You don’t seem too cut up about it…
It’s too late for a wake. She’s been dead nearly a year.”

“Ah, yes – the young ape with a shovel.”

“When a wife smashes a vase on the floor it is, of course, really her husband’s head that lies there, broken into small pieces.”

“Dammit, Taylor, if you break my chair,” he roared. But they didn’t hear him. For a moment Taylor lay there. “In a wheelchair,” his boss said softly. “That’s something, Taylor.”

“Taylor, don’t treat him that way!
Why not?
It’s humiliating!
The way you humiliated me? All of you? You led me around on a leash!
That was different. We thought you were inferior.
Now you know better.”

“I’d forgotten there was more to life than mowing a lawn.”

“Well, Taylor, we’re all fugitives now.
Do you have any weapons, any guns?
The best, but we won’t need them.
I’m glad to hear it. I want one anyway.”

“A belief in the validity of the acquisition of knowledge and a scientific understanding of the world we live in, the creation and appreciation of aesthetic phenomena in all their many forms, and the broadening and deepening of our range of experiences in day-to-day living, is rapidly becoming the ‘religion’ of our time.”

“It lacks the element of challenge, luck and risk so essential to the hunting male.”

“There’s got to be an answer.
Don’t look for it, Taylor. You may not like what you find.”

“Doctor, I’d like to kiss you goodbye.
All right, but you’re so damned ugly.”

“…faster, quicker, faster, needful… lost in immense, billowy softness and riotous colours and roaring winds; he was the sand, the sea and the star-pierced sky.”

“What will he find out there, Doctor?
His destiny.”

“It was easy enough to decipher loins, hores, bores, penny kings, panders, tapers and leapolds, but almost impossible to be certain of the species referred to as bettle twigs, the skipping worm, the otamus or the Coca Cola beast.”

“She was driving, floating actually, toward her new house, floating past the freshly butchered lawns dotted with the twisted golden butts that were the year’s first fallen leaves, past the homes built low and the swimming pools and the kempt hedges and all the trappings that went into the unincorporated village of King’s Neck.”

“The threat-faces of cars have become progressively improved and refined, imparting to their drivers a more and more aggressive image.”

“Ernie found what Cervantes and Milton had only sought. He thought the fillings in his teeth would melt.”

“Her skin, the colour of India tea at summer’s end, flowed nicely over a slender frame.”

“Imagine me needing someone. Back on Earth I never did. Oh, there were women. Lots of women. Lots of lovemaking but no love. You see, that was the kind of world we’d made. So I left, because there was no one to hold me there.”

“She knew she had aroused the creature in the torn, paint-spattered T-shirt.”

“In my world, when I left it, only kids your age wore beards.”

“He simply couldn’t. (He could.)”

“It is the white colour we have to watch for here: this spells activity.”

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“I’m pretty handy with this.
Of that I’m sure. All my life I’ve awaited your coming and dreaded it.”

“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”

“With that he thrust Gillian back onto the bed and made a flying leap with the clear intent of pinning her down to stay. But she swerved to one side and the holy man, stiff with lust, came down standard-first on the bedpost. For a full two minutes he did not rise; he lay there, crumpled up, hissing incoherently.”

“Anti-contact behaviour enables us to keep our number of acquaintances down to the correct level for our species.”

“She stretched the tiny member to its full length, and it seemed to shrink even more in embarrassment.”

“You are right, I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself.”

“Our fundamental biological tendency, inherited directly from our monkey and ape ancestors, is to submit ourselves to an all-powerful, dominant member of the group”

“The pre-copulatory patterns are brief and usually consist of no more than a few facial expressions and simple vocalizations.”

“… faster and faster they communicated. Fingers on skin, teeth on skin, then great shudders of total communication, and explosions of understanding.”

“The screams were not meant for him, they were meant for the other girls in the audience.”

“If these non-stop grooming sessions are to be successful, a sufficiently large number of guests must be invited in order to prevent new contacts from running out before the party is over. This explains the mysterious minimum size that is always automatically recognized as essential for gatherings of this kind.”

“Then methodically she drained him a second time, emptied him, calmed him and gentled him.”

“On this planet, it’s easy.”

“And that completes my final report until we reach touchdown. We’re now on full automatic, in the hands of the computers. I have tucked my crew in for the long sleep and I’ll be joining them soon. In less than an hour, we’ll finish our sixth month out of Cape Kennedy. Six months in deep space – by our time, that is… the Earth has aged nearly seven hundred years since we left it, while we’ve aged hardly at all. Maybe so. This much is probably true – the men who sent us on this journey are long since dead and gone. You who are reading me now are a different breed – I hope a better one. I leave the twentieth century with no regrets.”

“She was at that moment gently massaging him at his point of greatest altitude with a bottle of pink Johnson & Johnson baby lotion.”

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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. They tore down the picture excitedly and trampled on it but 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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Fiddlers Cross

Fiddlers Cross

There’s a new banker in town, making his name, scorching the earth around distressed loans. After another busy day working the guillotine for his employers, he heads down to a local pub to unwind. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it, someone with ambition, and now he needs something stronger than fishing. Silence descends when he walks in past the creaking door. Then, through a random act of kindness from a fellow stranger, with whom he finds he shares a love of angling, our banker turns up a further business opportunity. It will involve a touch of moonlighting but, if he plays his cards right, he’s in for a major bonus. First he needs to borrow some cash that’s just resting in the vault and that no one will miss between two working days.

Starring Gerry O’Brien of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, King Arthur, The Tudors and Father Ted, this 19 min film won first prize in the Best Screenplay category at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in August 2014.

PS The swearing wasn’t in the script but the lead actor got on a roll and the director let him at it.

PPS The lead actor’s coat is missing in the final scene because his house was burgled during the making of the film.

PPPS The actor playing the banker had to Heimlich the one playing the doorman in a restaurant during the making of the film.

http://vimeo.com/user28226516/fiddlerscross

Password: F1ddler5Cro55

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France #2 – Cannes, Antibes, 2011

France #2 – Cannes, Antibes, 2011

14th May, Saturday

The flight descended to Nice over pale red roofs looking more washed-out than baked. Palm trees were new to me the previous time, in May 1998. When I got here I couldn’t contact M. N’s text messages then guided me to the accommodation and I left my bag at reception before heading off to Morrison’s, the pub I hadn’t managed to find by the night The General won a big prize in the festival, in 1998. While I was there, a text from S. told me he’d probably passed out in the apartment because that was what he’d done to him, last year.

Half past one, Irish time. When I gave his name at reception the black lad found it on a sheet and brought it and me (with my bag) upstairs. He unlocked the door and looked in and around it, to the left. Then his head re-emerged. Il dort (‘He sleeps’). M. is snoring in there now, on and off, fully dressed. I looked for any food, snacks, but there’s only a small bottle of Power’s whiskey. The Irish Film Board party was on earlier. This is bullshit.

15th May, Sunday

1 pm on the balcony. He burst into my room at 5.15 this morning. “I found you!” he exclaimed. It turned out he’d walked away from wherever he was. White wine was involved. They had kept refilling his glass. Jim McDaid, our former Cabinet minister, gave that explanation for driving the wrong way down a motorway. Anyway, he, not Jim, had collapsed here at ten.

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A little bottle of Stella is €11 in the bar of the Carlton. We went in there after picking up my badge and stopping off at the Irish Pavilion. From there we managed to find La Pharmacie du Festival, which then enabled M. to have three small beers in the Quay’s pub. I suggested dining on the way back to base.

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I knew he wouldn’t stir later but I too slept for a couple of hours. Then I showered again and headed off by ten.

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I climbed Le Suquet and took some photos of the night view; I got some ice cream on the side of the street below; and I went to Morrison’s. There I met an English director called Alan. He looked like he’d had a long day in his suit but I had three pints with him before he’d had enough, finally.

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I didn’t stay too long after him but on the way home via the Quay’s I stopped in McDonald’s where a French boy called Thomas, with sunglasses (on) and some kind of movie or video camera under his arm put his talk on me, as my father would say. He was on something, I’d say. The queue was going nowhere so when some big beard came in and started talking to him I left. The Quay’s was boring and when a Limerick group formed nearby I didn’t want to listen.

16th May, Monday

This morning I climbed Le Suquet again for some daylight shots. Then I got the hill from La Croisette.

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Later we went to Antibes. From there the Alps were snowy, far to the east. On the train down there a uniformed little conductress let us on last before she gave the all-clear to proceed. Her peaked cap was nearly bigger than herself but when I got a rear view of her grey pants I told M. that an arse like that wouldn’t be seen on CIE (Irish Rail).

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The Felix au Port in the vieux port in Antibes is now the Felix Café. After a ritual stop there in honour of Graham Greene we walked around and did some shopping. He got some dried lavender, as ordered by N., plus a couple of sailor tops for the baby. We sat down again at the Hop Store for another beer. At the nearest table, a beautiful girl was doing all the talking, holding court like an actress, but for a gorgeous chatterbox she looked humane. “J’étais folle, j’étais folle,” (‘I was mad, I was mad’) was the end of one story. She wasn’t skinny like a model either. She was normal for one so lovely. She had dark skin, short dark hair, white teeth: she looked French but with no hauteur. She wouldn’t have passed for any other Mediterranean nationality. She was at a low table, we were at a high one, and several times she glanced up at me looking down at her. Then M. looked down to see what a pigeon was doing under my feet. It was sucking water from the grooves of a metal insert in the flagstone (a manhole). Then another pigeon opportunistically started to ride it. M. started to laugh. When the nearby beauty was leaving, her parting words to those left at the table were “Bonne soirée!” Her mannerisms reminded me of an Irish girl more than a French one.

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17th May, Tuesday

Lying in bed before noon. We didn’t do much last night. We had dinner in the Babord half of the Babord Tribord, down by the boats, and then had one drink on the grass at the Grand. My flight home isn’t until ten tonight.

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We went swimming at the beach nearby but later I didn’t enjoy the swarm in the hot sun down by the Palais, where the red carpet was being used for something and the CRS were blowing whistles, trying to manage both the pedestrian and the motor traffic. At night the monkey suits mill around the Palais.

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I got another one euro ticket back to the airport later but, though I said, “Terminal un, monsieur, s’il vous plaît” to the guy when I boarded and he looked at me and said “Devant”, I thought he meant immediately devant. In other words, I thought the airport was the bus terminus. It wasn’t. The guy pulled up near the airport on the route nationale but said nothing. He closed the bus doors again and I stayed on for long enough to incur a half hour on foot, back the way. I wasn’t going to pay more than one euro over this f*cker. Before I disembarked, I told him I was a foreigner and it would have been kind, a little shout, but he said “Je peux pas le faire pour tout le monde” (‘I can’t do it for everybody’). So, when he opened the door, I dropped the diplomatic language with, “Merci beaucoup, con!

Austria, a notebook #4

Austria, a notebook #4

 

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Photo sources (above): montazsmagazin.hu and kino.de

In 2008 an Austrian-German co-production of a TV film version of Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame shifted the setting from Switzerland to Austria. The filming took place in Styria. Most importantly they picked a very good Claire Zachanassian in Christiane Hörbiger, niece of the porter in The Third Man and aunt of Falco’s manager in Verdammt wir leben noch. At the climax in the original play, though, the richest woman in the world does not waver from her initial goal: to return and exact deadly vengeance on the man and the town that ruined her life. Otherwise, given that Ill is still killed, it’s a good version of the classic play that Hollywood castrated in The Visit (Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Quinn, 1964) and watching it is an excellent way for students to improve their German. I don’t know why the old critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki dismissed the second half (“wird immer schlechter”). The acting is consistently good, as he conceded. The music by Matthias Weber is suitably sinister. It is a horror film after all. Ich liebte dich. Du hast mich verraten (‘I loved you. You betrayed me’).

Shifting from Medea to Oedipus, 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. 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.