July 2012

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Erasure: Reading “The Memory Factory”

It’s summer, but I’ve been thinking about a day at the end of one of the Januaries I missed. Sigmund Freud was sitting there, eighty two years old, with his face all messed up, attacked by mouth cancer. He’d made it out of Vienna with some of his family. Some of the others had committed suicide, years before out of agony or depression or grief, or just recently, preemptively, out of fear. On the morning he left Vienna, in early June, Freud had a soft-boiled egg and some vermouth, sometimes vermouth is just vermouth and sometimes it isn’t, and then in January he was safe in London, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf came by. He’d never met them before. He gave Virginia a narcissus. It was Freud’s last January. Virginia didn’t live much longer than that, two years maybe, she didn’t have mouth cancer or anyone trying to cart her off to a death camp. I’m in the coffee shop reading David Cohen’s The Escape of Sigmund Freud, and I have the sudden thought that I’ve missed out on billions of Januaries on my own planet. Most of them were cold and dangerous, but still, I don’t like the thought of missing so much. Also of all the people I’ll never meet.

“Nearly all famous men are disappointing or bores or both,” said Leonard Woolf, who knew Yeats and Eliot and Nehru and Keynes and Bertrand Russell. “Freud was neither; he had an aura not of fame but of greatness.”

The other night I was having drinks at a friend’s friend’s apartment, and people started talking about Tasmanian devils, which are the size of little dogs. They have (sometimes bloody) fangs, and since the thylacine went extinct forever in 1936, three years before the mouth-cancer death of Sigmund Freud, they are the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial. Now, most of them are dying off from Devil facial tumour disease, which is a contagious cancer that gets transmitted when the Tasmanian devils bite each other’s faces, and even though Freud’s messed-up old face didn’t come from anyone biting him during fucking or fighting, now their cancers are all twisted up in my mind, Freud’s and the devils’. Freud was “a screwed up shrunken very old man with a monkey’s light eyes paralysed spasmodic movements inarticulate; but alert.” Virginia noted, “Difficult talk. Immense potential, an old fire now flickering.” There was “something about him of the half-extinct volcano.”

History -- and today and tomorrow are part of history too, it keeps eating up the future like a sick little devil -- is more surreal than surrealism, I think. (Dali came to visit after Freud fled to London. “I had been inclined till then to take the surrealists who seem to have chosen me as their patron saint as absolutely mad -- 95% mad let’s say as if we were discussing alcohol.”) The fact that it’s real makes me feel psychopathological. (Dali never needed psychoanalysis, he said later, “because I am not crazy. You see my kind of craziness is a craziness of precision and clarity, to the contrary of a psychopathological’s craziness.”) The more history books I read, the weirder it all gets -- marsupials that eat each other, Freud analyzing his 23-year-old daughter last thing every night just before he went to bed (he compared the pleasure she gave him to the pleasure of a good cigar, told her suitors that she had no sexual longings, and called her “his Antigone”), flying dinosaurs, alpha decay, genocide.

In Vienna, at the turn of Freud’s century, there was a Russian girl who sculpted like Rodin. She made a man-sized Lucifer, a witch with toenail clippers, a girl sleepwalking, and a naked Eve, whose buttocks were vandalized years later, spray painted over. (The witch was vandalized, too. They sprayed out her face.) She sculpted Mark Twain when he came to her studio, his profile, his fabulous moustache. Like Freud, she was one of the Jews who made it out of Vienna and never went back. Her Lucifer was mostly destroyed by shrapnel. If you look for her name, Teresa Ries, in most history textbooks, you won’t find it anywhere. Unlike some of the other Jewish women artists, she fled Vienna and didn’t die in the camps. To claims that her devil was influenced by Rodin’s Thinker, she responded: “That is often the first impression of lay people, somewhat in the way that for Europeans, all blacks look alike. I will admit that Rodin and I have similar temperaments, and the temperament is what reminds you of Rodin in my Lucifer…(But) my Lucifer was already shown at the Vienna exhibition in 1897, while Rodin’s Thinker was first created after 1898!”

I’m reading about Teresa Ries in Julie Johnson’s The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of 1900 Vienna, and now she’s haunting me, the way artists from history or living artists can haunt. I keep staring at her Eve, curled into a fetal position with her hand between her legs. Before Teresa Ries was twenty, she’d married and divorced, she’d lost a child. She’s been kicked out of art school for challenging her teacher’s authority in the classroom. When she moved to Vienna alone, she talked Edmund Hellmer into taking her on as a private student. He asked her to take over two of his commissions secretly, under his name. One is still on display in Vienna; the other won the Grande Medaille d’Or at the Paris World exhibition in 1900. (According to the National Library in Vienna’s copy of her mostly-lost 1928 autobiography, The Language of Stones -- kept in the basement for rare books -- Ries was thrilled with the award. It made her blush.) She painted a 1902 self-portrait. She’s wearing a smock, staring right at us or staring right at herself, staring the way you aren’t supposed to at another animal. Her hand is on her hip. I can’t describe the look on her face.

The Memory Factory -- the title refers to Vienna as a site for “fabricating history,” meaning for making it up. There’s a German word, Vergangenheitsbewaltigung -- “overcoming the past.” In art history, “the canon’s very existence depends upon silencing the things on its periphery. Any center, as historian Joan W. Scott remarks, ‘rests on -- contains -- repressed or negated material, and so is unstable, not unified.’…Scott believes that all history writing depends on identification -- a selective delving into the past -- in a process that uses fantasy to create coherence out of chaos.” History is centerless, just a big periphery with nothing in the middle. We fantasize it into a story, but we’re always missing something.

January 28, 1939. Sigmund Freud gives Virginia Woolf a narcissus. (Really?) Yeats dies. Teresa Ries’s studio has been “Aryanized.” The thylacines have already been hunted out.

Yesterday I was carrying a heavy bag with The Memory Factory in it, and The Escape of Sigmund Freud, and The Chemical Choir: A History of Alchemy, and I had the thought again, a thought I can’t shake off lately, that everything is so precarious, that if I take a wrong turn I could miss the most important moment of my own life. I turned down 17th street, and there was a strange little estate sale on the sidewalk, a box of free things like embroidered pillowcases and flowered skirts and peasant shirts. I was eating a pint of tiny greenmarket strawberries, the kind that are sweet. If I’d turned down 16th street there wouldn’t have been any estate sale. Who knows what was down 16th street? Someone I haven’t met yet, someone great and not a disappointment or a bore, and now we’ll never meet. Last year I turned down a street and the man I loved was there, unexpectedly, and if I hadn’t turned down that street I wouldn’t have seen him, people in mutual love see each other on purpose, though, I guess. Shoppers find pillowcases on purpose. Lots of things happen on purpose and not accidentally, people who aren’t psychopathological supposedly have some sense or some idea of what’s important. We choose which books to read, but we can’t know what’s in them before we read them. It’s chaos, or a tension between chaos and order. There must be a special psychiatric term for the disease of wondering about missed possibilities. It might be contagious even, like Devil cancer.

I’m home reading The Memory Factory and trying to make a stovetop espresso. A different man I loved at a different time calls me, he says, “Guess where I am?” and weirdly he’s in Vienna. He’s looking at the Schieles and the Klimts, they’re “the closest thing to heaven” for him, he says. We haven’t talked in longer than usual. We used to talk every day. Some years, we were only really apart to walk down the dirty hall to some European hotel bathroom. I think about telling him about Teresa Ries, how maybe he should go looking through the city for her, but I don’t mention her. He gets off the phone, to call me back after he’s in the airport, and then he’ll leave Vienna, and I’m thinking about what to tell him and not tell him about my life when he calls back. I tell him about the cannibalistic Tasmanian devils, about the extinct Tasmanian tigers that people still claim, sometimes, to see in the wild. I say, “Those Tasmanian animals are kind of on the wrong side of evolution.” He tells me Vienna is hot, almost as hot as when we were living in North Cyprus and we were too hot to move around, we just lay there like corpses being eaten by the bugs that flew through our windows.

I remember sometime just after September 11, 2001, here in Manhattan, a woman standing up, a vibrant, pretty woman. She said, as if it was simple: “D. is gone, the center of my universe.”

“In the history of art,” writes Julie Johnson, in a chapter called ‘Erasure,’ “the gap between fame during life and what remains after the artist is dead is often attributed to the quality of the work. Memory for an artist is presumed to reside in the works of art and things they leave behind. But memory is much more fragile than that; works of art and their authors require active interventions by curators and academics. They are vulnerable even without the systematic destructions and erasures that happened in Vienna…”

I’m flipping through The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present by Eric Kandel, with its beautiful paintings by great artists, all of them male, some of them portraits of women who existed once in real life -- Schiele’s girlfriend Wally, Kokoschka’s art school classmate Lilith Lang, Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Brauer. The protagonist of my one-third-written novel is named after Klimt’s Adele, mostly because she never painted herself.

I start reading, all about the fragile workings of my brain and my spinal cord, how I create fantasies and memories and visions, how the world itself is a “fantasy that coincides with reality.” I read what Francis Crick wrote about words as symbols: “The word *dog* stands for a particular sort of animal. Nobody would mistake the word itself for the actual animal,” and I wonder whether that’s true of me, whether I’m mistaking words for real things all the time, pictures for real things -- Tasmanian devil for Tasmanian devil, vermouth for vermouth, Freud for Freud, Vienna for Vienna, Adele for Adele. I read that the neurons in my visual cortex respond to a virtual line -- a line the artist left out, a line that isn’t really there -- the same way they respond to a real line. “Our brains create much of what we see by adding what ‘ought’ to be there.” We love to tell stories, because, “Storytelling and representational visual art are low-risk, imaginary ways of solving problems.” In fiction and in painting, “the beholder plays an active role in the narrative arc -- the work is incomplete without his or her participation.”

“Artists and scientists alike are reductionists,” writes Kandel, but what about muses and models, what about characters in history, characters as written or unwritten, real but entirely imaginary? Other people choose how we appear or disappear. One thing that happened in 1938, of the many things that happened in 1938, was that a decree that Jews could not be cited in dissertations or other scholarly works was made official in Austria.

The end of The Age of Insight, where Eric Kandel talks about himself, is one of the most fascinating parts -- the story of a neurobiologist, born in Vienna in 1929, who loves art and Freud, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on how memories are stored in the brain. He says, as he came to see the connection between the Vienna School of Medicine, psychoanalysis, and the Viennese modernists, “I became an even firmer believer in psychic determinism, Freud’s idea that nothing in one’s mental life occurs by chance.” At one time, Kandel studied the ganglia of sea slugs, the way Freud studied the sex lives of eels. I’m looking up pictures of those little Tasmanian devils, their fangs, I think I have more in common with the devils than with Viennese neuroscientists. The healthy devils look cute and ferocious. The sick ones look so sad. Eels and sea slugs and Tasmanian devils don’t tell stories the way that we do, they don’t give each other narcissi or sell their peasant blouses on 17th street, they don’t paint glittering portraits of themselves or each other, but the way we all operate has some similarities, all the living and dying and responding to stimuli. All the self-sabotage, even.

I don’t like to miss anything, but I’m designed to miss almost everything -- to see one center of one universe when really there are billions, to live through less than one-hundred of countless Januaries, to turn down only one street in New York City when there are so many streets all over the world, to miss moments with people because I’m looking at one thing instead of at another, noticing one thing instead of another, holding on to an idea.

I’m looking at these pictures of Teresa Ries’s Witch. In the picture taken after the vandals came, the witch’s right hand and forearm are missing, her right foot, with its long toenails, has been destroyed. Her nose is gone. She’s still biting her lip. She still has that expression on her face, that marble broom under her naked marble body, but her face is painted out. Your eyes finish the image, they bring back her foot, they bring back her nose and her hand, but you’d never know to see the nail clippers she was holding. You’d never be able to know exactly what she looked like -- exactly what it was like to really see her -- before she was erased.