Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler in Turn of the Century Vienna

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Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler in Turn of the Century Vienna

Sara Tapsak

Carleton College

March 2006

Though society may be seen as a reflection of the people who are in it, Vienna at the turn of the century can be considered a place in which the people were greatly impacted by society. Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler are two men who were greatly impacted by the Viennese culture in which they lived. They are two of the great figureheads that emerged from Vienna at this time, eternally influencing both the fields of psychology and literature. Though they can be compared in many respects and thought about in similar ways, the two were never close. Freud actually considered Schnitzler to be his Doppelgänger, or other half and one can never meet his Doppelgänger without the consequence of death. 1 Despite the fact that they were never close, these two men are undeniably linked by the pervasive façade that controlled the citizens of Vienna at the time. Freud’s feelings about Schnitzler are expressed in a letter he wrote to him in 1922 in which he states:

”I have formed the impression…that you know through intuition—or rather through detailed self-observation—everything that I have discovered by laborious work on other people.” 2

While Freud struggled to develop his theory of psychoanalysis, Schnitzler appeared to reach the same conclusions through his writing. The influences of love and death in Vienna at the turn of the century can be seen in the psychoanalytic theory of Freud and the literary works of Schnitzler, and therefore these men are a product of the society in which they lived.

Before looking specifically at the lives and relationship of Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler during turn of the century Vienna, it is important to briefly outline the cultural context by which these men were influenced. Vienna at this time was a very active place. There was an air of uncertainty that consumed Vienna and with it came feelings of nervousness for the citizens of the city. The Tagblatt in 1889 wrote:

“Nervousness is the modern sickness…it is the sickness of the century…outside, everything is gleam and gorgeousness. One lives only on the outside, one is led astray by the dancing phosphorescence…one no longer expects anything from the inner life, from thinking or believing.” 3

This illustrates perfectly the struggle that the citizens of Vienna endured to find a resolution to the conflict of leading the glamorous life that was expected of them and the nervousness caused by the unavoidable act of thinking. Frederic Morton further described this struggle as follows:

“Only in Vienna had the bourgeoisie, this sustaining class of modernity, been born so psychically frail. Here it sickened faster of the machines and the depersonalizing schemes of its own making. And here it became especially nervous at those rooting about in the malaise, namely artists and thinkers.”4

The nervousness deeply rooted in the people of Vienna was an issue that inevitably could not be avoided. This will be discussed in the context of Freud’s theory and seen in Schnitzler’s writing.

The Viennese along with this nervousness were dealing with a cultural identity crisis of sorts. People were forced to deal with how society wanted them to act, as well as the way they truly wanted to live and express themselves, two states often at odds with one another. The younger generation in Vienna at the turn of the century, a category in which Freud and Schnitzler would be placed, is described as:

“…free and glamorous in theory, crushingly impotent in action; freely skeptical yet unable to establish one skeptic-proof premise; free to see themselves as unbounded individuals without ever arriving at successful individuality; free to press pleasure to numb excess; free to demand the absolute of their senses and their ideals only to be failed by both, overprivileged and hapless at once; free to sound the depths of sophisticated frustration.”5

The struggle between opposing dyads of possibility profoundly affected the people of Vienna. In the same moment, they possessed freedom to achieve contentment or even happiness, but lacked the resolve to actually achieve either.

Finally, it was very difficult to be Jewish in Vienna at the turn of the century. For Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler this specifically meant difficulties in professional advancement. Many Jewish citizens as a result decided to convert to Catholicism, some gave up religion completely, and some remained faithful to their Jewish faith. With the appointment of anti-Semite Karl Lueger in 1897, Austrian liberalism lost its hold in Vienna entirely in only 3 years thereafter. 6 Steven Beller in his book, Rethinking Vienna 1900, describes turn of the century in relation to Judaism and Arthur Schnitzler saying:

“Schnitzler’s Vienna [is a] world of anxiety-ridden Jewish individuals, whose lives have been cast adrift by the failure of liberalism to produce the enlightened society promised by the ideology of emancipation, and who are confronted with the need to respond to an anti-Semitic reality any way they can.”7

One can make the argument that it is partially through their struggle of being Jewish in an anti-Semitic society that Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler were driven to the success that they eventually experienced.

In order to demonstrate the ways in which these two men are linked, it is important to look at their personal histories, specifically the aspects that are parallel. Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856 to Jewish parents in Freiberg, Moravia, a part of Austria-Hungary, which now belongs to the Czech Republic. When he was four years old, his family moved to Vienna. Here Freud lived almost his entire life, until he had to flee the Nazi threat in 1938 and moved with his family to London.8 In 1873, at the age of 17, Freud entered the University of Vienna to study medicine. An essay on nature written by Goethe inspired him to pursue this academic field. Fifteen years later, in 1885, Freud spent a semester in Paris working with Jean-Martin Charcot. After seeing Charcot’s hysterical patients and his treatment methods, Freud came to believe that mental illness might be caused not only by the brain, but by the mind as well. He was also inspired by Charcot’s use of hypnosis. In the same year, Freud became a lecturer on neuropathology at the University of Vienna. 9

In 1886, after a four-year engagement, Sigmund married Martha Bernays, who was the daughter of a very affluent Jewish family in Vienna. In the same year, Freud set up his private practice. Sigmund and Martha started their family and eventually had six children. A year later Freud began treating patients with nervous diseases in his private practice and started using hypnosis as a treatment method. After having worked with Wilhelm Fleiss and Josef Breuer, Freud and his contemporaries discovered that having a patient simply talk about his or her psychological ailments provided some relief. In 1896, Freud began using the term psychoanalysis and decided that he must develop a complete theory of the mind and began to do so by analyzing his own psyche.10 Freud’s father died on October 23 of the same year and still trying to cope with his death, Freud started to interpret his own dreams. The death of a father, in his own words is “the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life.”11 This led to the eventual publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. 12 For the next two decades Freud continued to work, develop and publish his psychoanalytic theories. Devastatingly, Freud’s daughter, Sophie died in 1920 from Influenza. The pandemic killed an estimated twenty million people throughout the world, including Vienna’s artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, as well as architect Otto Wagner.13

Turning to Arthur Schnitzler, he was born on May 15, 1862 in Vienna. He was the eldest son of Dr. Johann Schnitzler, a laryngologist, and Loiuse Markbreiter, daughter of a wealthy Viennese Physician.14 Johann Schnitzler came from a Hungarian Jewish family of modest means and moved to Vienna in order to make his fortune. Arthur Schnitzler followed in his father’s footsteps, although unwillingly, and studied medicine at the University of Vienna from 1879 to 1884. He received his doctoral degree in 1885, specializing in laryngology, like his father. He joined the Vienna Polyclinic, which his father started, and worked as a surgeon at the Vienna General Hospital. In 1886 he became the assistant of psychiatrist, Theodor Meynert. Schnitzler, like Freud, was interested in Meynert’s experiments with suggestion and hypnosis. Schnitzler also had a great passion for literature. However, his literary ambition always competed with his medical career, but with the death of his father in 1893, he turned towards writing though he never gave up medicine completely. Schnitzler always felt a tremendous amount of pressure from his father; he was the primary reason Schnitzler studied medicine. The death of his father provided an opportunity for him to pursue his passion for writing. Schnitzler was known for his many affairs with women throughout his life, who were mostly with singers and actresses. However, in 1903 he married Viennese singer, Olga Gussman, and they had two children, Heinrich and Lily. After years of fighting the couple divorced in 1921, but remained in touch. A tremendous blow to Arthur Schnitzler came with the suicide of his daughter, Lily in 1928, a year after marrying an Italian officer. She was only 18 years old.15

Through the accounts of both Freud and Schnitzler’s lives parallels between the two men can be seen. Both men were Jewish in Vienna at the turn of the century. Both men studied medicine and were affected professionally by their fathers. The death of Freud’s father inspired him to write The Interpretation of Dreams, while Schnitzler’s father was the reason he studied medicine and with his father’s death, Schnitzler was able to pursue his literary career. Finally both men dealt with the unnatural and traumatic event of losing a child. It is interesting to see the similarities between their personal lives and then to see the similarities in their work as well.

Sigmund Freud is best known for his psychoanalytic theory, which he began intensively focusing on and developing in 1896 after working with Wilhelm Fleiss and Josef Breuer the year before. Freud developed his idea of the life and death instincts and published them in Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1905. He wanted to develop a theory that was much removed from sexuality, since he had been criticized in the past for being too sexual in his theories. Within this theory he combined his ideas of the conscious and unconscious with the more structured components of the id, ego, and superego. The id represents the human unconscious, including instinctual drives, the superego represents the morals and values imposed by society, and the ego works to resolve conflicts caused by the interaction of the id and the superego. Within in the framework of the id, Freud determined that human beings are driven by two major instinctual drives. These two instinctual drives are in conflict with one another and while one is seeking gratification, the other wants to return to the quiet of non-existence. The first instinct is Eros, which encompasses the sexual instincts and works to preserve life.16 The second is Thanatos, the death instinct, which is defined as “a drive toward destruction that can be turned inward toward the self or toward the outside world in an aggressive way.”17 It is also seen as the bodily instinct to return to the state of stillness that preceded birth. The idea of destruction in conjunction with the death drive, explains why people are drawn to repeat painful or traumatic events; even though these behaviors contradict the instinct one has to seek pleasure. This idea allowed Freud to make sense of the human tendency towards destruction, often including self-destructive tendencies.18 Further explanations of the death drive clarify that “ every living being aspires to death by virtue of its most fundamental internal tendency…the organism wants not simply to die, but to die in its own way.”19 These instincts, according to psychoanalytic theory, are constantly at odds within the human psyche, thus causing people to continually work to maintain a psychological equilibrium. When that equilibrium is disrupted, according to Freud, psychological disorders emerge.20

While Freud appeared to struggle with developing his psychoanalytic theory, Schnitzler appeared to reach the same conclusions more naturally through literature. It is important to note that most literature on Schnitzler adamantly claims that he was not attempting to connect his work with psychoanalysis in any way. However, the ways in which he writes and the topics he discusses are indeed linked to psychoanalysis. In response to Theodor Reik’s essay, Arthur Schnitzler as Psychologist, Schnitzler wrote a letter, in which he asserts: “more paths [lead] into the darkness of the soul…than psychoanalysts can dream of (or interpret).”21 Arthur Schnitzler clearly wanted to distinguish himself from the field of psychology in his writing, arguing even that literature was a better means of understanding human nature than psychoanalysis. However, many critics maintain that a connection, whether desired or not exists. Despite his assertions, Schnitzler’s medical training makes it abundantly clear that he was very intrigued by psychological problems, specifically neurology, hypnosis, and suggestion. 22 In describing the work of Schnitzler, Martin Swales, professor of German at University College in London, wrote:

“…one can easily imagine a psycho-analyst taking the stories as specific case-histories whose documentation is sufficiently accurate and detailed for an actual medical diagnosis to be made.”23

This psychoanalytic style can be seen in many works by Schnitzler, however, this analysis will focus on only two of them: Traumnovelle and Fräulein Else. Psychoanalysis can be generally categorized as a verbal form of therapy and this is exactly what Schnitzler’s characters are often doing in his writing. He achieves this by writing in a very stream of conscious manner, focusing on an “inward narration,” illustrating the “case-history” style Martin Swales speaks of.

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