Reverse Psychology: On Ernst Weiss

Reverse Psychology: On Ernst Weiss

In Georg Letham, Ernst Weiss turned to psychoanalysis to tap an atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery.


In her autobiography A Backward Glance, published in 1934, Edith Wharton sketches a portrait of herself as a young woman in the 1880s: "Much less pretty than many of the girls, and less quick at the up-take than the young men, I might have suffered from an inferiority complex had such ailments been known." For all its plainness, Wharton’s sentence marks a bold transition in the history of psychoanalysis and literature: it is the moment when the writer places the diagnosis and its symptoms side by side. Wharton assumes that the characterization of her younger self is incomplete without one modifying the other. Ten years earlier, she could only have been descriptive; the phrase "inferiority complex" wasn’t popularized in English until around 1926, when Alfred Adler used it in the New York Times. Ten years later, the phrase was all she would need.

T.S. Eliot had foreseen this coming change in his September 1922 "London Letter" for The Dial. There were now three major kinds of the English novel, Eliot claimed: "the old narrative method" on one end, the "dangerous" model of Dostoyevsky on the other and the "psychoanalytic" mode in between. The last type was newly born, but because its examination of life’s intricacies drew upon "a dubious and contentious branch of science," Eliot believed its chances of survival were low. He complained that the psychoanalytic model extracted "as much pity and terror as can be extracted from the materials: but because the material is so clearly defined (the soul of man under psychoanalysis) there is no possibility of tapping the atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery in which our life is passed and which psychoanalysis has not yet analysed." The psychoanalytic novel was bound to disappoint because it only posed questions to which it could supply neat answers, reducing the stuff of human affairs to "a theory of human relationships." Such a technique, said Eliot, cannot be the stuff of literature.

Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer, a novel written by the little-known Czech-Jewish writer Ernst Weiss and recently translated by Joel Rotenberg, reads as if it were intended to disprove Eliot. First published in German in 1931, three years before Wharton’s autobiography, Georg Letham incorporates aspects of the old narrative method and the dangerous Dostoyevsky model; but it proceeds mostly on a psychoanalytic path, determined to expand the possibilities of the novel, not diminish them. Writing in the voice of the titular narrator, Weiss details his ambitions in the preface:

Too weak to be of help and lost to faith from childhood; given over to all the antisocial urges of his heart (the original sin?); never understood by his fellows and thus always profoundly alone; tugged this way and that by internal contradictions, like a malaria patient who sweats and shivers as he oscillates between subnormal and supranormal temperatures; with scientific ideas in his mind, but no hope in his heart, a heart that ages year by year but never grows up; with a human life on his conscience, but no real conscience among his contradictory and self-canceling character traits—is all that my self? No, only part of it. Yes, to give an account of such a life—not just some of it, but all of it—this might be a task for the modern novel.

More than thirty years earlier, an account of man’s internal contradictions, antisocial urges and self-canceling traits had already been attempted; it just wasn’t a novel. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud advanced one of his central theories about the human psyche—that infantile experience is the dominant force in the determination of the ego’s formation—and sought to demonstrate it through self-analysis. The Interpretation of Dreams was in many ways Freud’s attempt to colonize his unconscious, mapping the territory of his dreams and memories. In the words of historian Carl Schorske, this project was akin to "St. Augustine weaving his Confessions into The City of God, or Rousseau integrating his Confessions as a subliminal plot into The Origins of Inequality." Where St. Augustine and Rousseau cleaved reflections that we would call "autobiographical" and "philosophical" into two parts, Freud made no division, since the way we narrate our autobiographies—to an analyst; in his case, himself—is the basis for philosophical reflection.

Yet psychoanalysis went far beyond mere reflection. Freud saw it as a new science of the self capable of systematically unearthing what had been buried beneath layers of social sediment. Like his hero Heinrich Schliemann at Troy in the 1870s, Freud in fin de siècle Vienna led the excavation; just as Schliemann had relied on passages from Homer and Pausanias to locate the ancient city, Freud used literature to do much of his spadework. But while an archaeologist digs for decayed artifacts, a psychoanalyst seeks something that, for all its intangibility, is still very much alive. Freud understood the danger: "To express the matter boldly, it is as though a sexual preference becomes active at an early period, as though the boy regards his father as a rival in love, and as though the girl takes the same attitude toward her mother—a rival by getting rid of whom he or she cannot but profit. Before rejecting this idea as monstrous, let the reader consider the actual relations between parents and children." He then referred to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to demonstrate that the death wish toward one’s parent originates in earliest childhood. It didn’t take long for this modernized Oedipus to find his way back into literature: Hermann Hesse wrote in 1918 that Freudian thoughts were more discussed by young artists than by doctors, and that same year the psychiatric phrase "stream of consciousness" was first used in literary criticism. In 1920 an influential Berlin journal observed that most recent novels bore the marks of psychoanalysis.

Ernst Weiss became enamored of psychoanalysis as a medical student at the University of Vienna, a few years after Freud had been named a professor in 1902. Weiss was especially interested in hypnosis and dream analysis. He became a writer, he once said, because he had been asked by the Nobel Prize–winning doctor Theodor Kocher, whom he assisted in 1910, to write up his cases. Not long after his first novel, The Galley, was published in 1913, World War I broke out, and Weiss enlisted as a military physician. "I realized immediately," he later recalled, "that it was not poets that were needed, but doctors." He spent the duration of the war stationed on the Eastern Front and received a Golden Cross for bravery in 1918. The roles of poet and doctor did not, in the end, prove mutually exclusive: Weiss wrote Expressionist poems during the war, some of which featured a sleeping or sadistic "Anti-God."

During the Weimar years, he and his mistress, the actress Rahel Sanzara, lived in Berlin, where he wrote on average a novel per year and enjoyed considerable success: he received the Silver Medal for Prose Fiction at the 1928 Olympic Games. After the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, Weiss fled Germany, eventually settling in Paris. Working in increasing isolation—Sanzara died of cancer in 1936—he received a $30 monthly stipend from the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom, an arrangement facilitated by a writer with whom he shared mutual admiration, Thomas Mann, and Weiss’s friend Stefan Zweig. When Zweig sent two volumes of his novellas to Weiss in 1936, Weiss wrote back gratefully that one of them had proved "that the old world we love isn’t dead after all." If it was still alive then, it likely died around the same time as Weiss: he slit his wrists on June 14, 1940, the day the Nazis marched into Paris.

Weiss’s novels are uneven but remarkable for their ambitious conceits, stylistic variation and unusual characters. His second book, Franziska (originally published as Der Kampf in 1916), a lyrically written if unoriginally plotted tale, follows Franziska in her struggle to become a pianist, traveling from a small Czech town to pre-war Berlin—both of which are wonderfully evoked. Success can come only at the expense of her relationship with Erwin, a fickle young man who creates a love triangle with a shorthand typist named Hedy. (Franz Kafka, who vacationed with Weiss and Sanzara after he broke off his engagement in 1913, thought the indecisive character bore a resemblance to himself.) By entering the consciousness of Franziska, Erwin and, to a lesser extent, Hedy, Weiss confuses the reader’s sympathies. He favors ambiguity in matters moral and always has an interest in and compassion for deeply flawed, even malevolent characters—pimps, prostitutes, killers, kidnappers and suicides. He does not sentimentalize or judge. In 1924, for a series of books on contemporary criminals to which Mann also contributed, Weiss wrote The Vukobrankovics Case, which relied on court files and psychiatric evaluations to relate the story of a woman on trial for poisoning her lover’s wife and children. The same novellas that Zweig had sent Weiss inspired him in 1937 to compose one of his own, Jarmila. After completing this clean and unsettling work about a toymaker-arsonist’s attempts to reclaim his son, Weiss wrote to his friend, "What precision and subtlety and inner control this form requires." It is unfortunate Weiss hadn’t read Zweig’s books earlier: his mastery of those three qualities in this work trimmed his verbiage without impeding his ability to study character. These lessons were as yet unlearned when he wrote his ninth novel, Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer.

What remains so interesting about Georg Letham is Weiss’s overt use of psychoanalytic tools for its construction, and the novel, in its severity, is a reminder of how Freudianism influenced the structure and language of fiction. As in The Interpretation of Dreams, analytic observations, childhood experiences and the Oedipal conflict are paramount. Weiss swiftly establishes Letham as an unreliable narrator and antihero, conscious of and prone to lamenting his own antipathy. He likes to refer to Hamlet—reverse the two syllables of the Prince of Denmark’s name to reveal a familiar surname—whom he quotes on the subject of conscience. Letham is defined by two traits, misanthropy and monomindedness: he feverishly works to discover the pathogen for scarlet fever—the only activity that truly gives him pleasure—while outside his clinic he identifies man’s "destructive urges," "animalistic ravings," "psychological motives" and propensity for "schadenfreude." There are diagnostic sentences early on that would turn Eliot’s stomach. While Weiss is neither as subtle nor as philosophical as Dostoyevsky, and Letham’s asides don’t shock as much as those of the Underground Man, Letham still appeals to the reader, with his gallows humor and odd moments of compassion. As the novelty of Letham’s derisive and declarative statements turns rote, Weiss has him murder his wife and confess his crime to his old and overbearing father, a moment of honesty that sends him to jail.

Weiss’s plotting mirrors the process of analysis: the patient begins with various self-justifications and theories that, through the dirty and laborious work of therapy, he is gradually made to reassess. In solitary confinement, Letham finds himself recalling the formative experiences of his youth, of which his father is the locus. One of the life lessons Letham Sr. imparted to the boy required Letham to sleep in a rat-infested room for three days. After Letham’s retelling of his horrific boyhood, Weiss shifts attention from the boy to his father, the primary cause for Letham’s pathology. What follows is the novel’s most memorable passage: the tale of the young and optimistic geographer Letham Sr. on his journey to become the first man to reach the North Pole. The expedition goes horribly wrong: the ship gets stuck in ice; the crew’s mental and physical health deteriorate. During a last-ditch effort to smoke out the hordes of rats on board, the voracious rodents descend upon the men on shore in a bloody battle royal.

The Arctic episode is a vivid story within a story that could almost stand alone, like the Grand Inquisitor parable in The Brothers Karamazov, but its great strength is that it elucidates the Oedipal conflict at the heart of the novel. Through Letham’s recounting of his father’s journey, we glimpse Letham Sr. as a real man who suffered incredibly, his faith in man, God and the world gone the way of his sunken ship. The reader, like Letham, must reassess his position. At one point Letham wonders about his father: "Perhaps the world was not as bad, nowhere near as ghastly, as he made it out to be. Did he make it bad, or was it bad?" It’s a good question, and Weiss’s matter-of-fact attempts to show how and why people become who they are, his reliance on Freudian cause and effect, occasionally allow him to explore the human mind with surgical dexterity. Letham’s misanthropy and his monominded devotion to science are inseparable: precisely what makes him redeemable also makes him irredeemable. It is this complex network of "self-canceling character traits" that Weiss set out to examine.

Unfortunately, his increasingly undisciplined narrative and unimaginative sentences get in the way. Despite the thrill of intellectual obsession—at penal colony C Letham labors as an inmate-assistant searching for a yellow fever vaccine—and the return of a rival doctor from medical school, the second half of the story divides our interests into too many tributaries, characters and asides interesting and not. Yet Weiss’s ambition is as ever impressive, and the questions he raises are worthwhile. If man’s character is his fate, to what extent can we control either? How can one man save lives yet also take them away? Weiss doesn’t deal in definitive answers, and his insistent ambiguity taps "the unknown terror and mystery" in which Eliot believed our life is passed. Weiss uncovers the fear, apathy, longing and rage for which the now clichéd psychoanalytic terms were invented.

Weiss, like Wharton, was writing on an intellectual precipice—soon after psychoanalysis had upended Enlightenment notions of selfhood but before psychoanalytic practice, through misuse, overapplication and debunking, lost much of its efficacy for creative expression. Even in 1933, a year before Wharton’s autobiography and two years after Weiss’s novel were published, Freud wrote, "A writer who brings in the expression ‘inferiority-complex’ thinks he has satisfied all the demands of psycho-analysis…. As a matter of fact the phrase ‘inferiority-complex’ is hardly ever used in psycho-analysis." Phrases like "inferiority-complex" become a veil. They impart a knowing scientific air but can be used by a writer, or a patient, to protect himself from confronting the "unknown terror and mystery." Adam Phillips has noted that psychoanalysis can provide us with "too rational an account of irrationality," but that’s no reason to write off the enterprise entirely, as Eliot did. Letham is guilty of Phillips’s charge, often mistaking a diagnosis for an end instead of a means to one. It is not so simple, so clearly defined, for Weiss. His finest moments as a writer are when he plays the strict psychoanalyst, allowing his disturbed characters to speak their minds while he suspends judgment of right and wrong. The best writers, like the best analysts, practice their craft because of the terror and mystery, in search of the mystery and terror.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy