Psychological Solipsism and Salvation in Schnitzler

Vienna at the turn of the century witnessed a newly evolved variation on the old Protagorean mantra, “Man is the measure of all things.” As Carl E. Schorske explains in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, “psychological man” now occupied that central, precarious position in the age-old search for truth. Political and social dissonance, coupled with a new aesthetic and understanding of reality, spawned a movement inward—into the psyche—among the Viennese intelligentsia. Channeling much of its artistic and scientific energies inward, a generation of creative thinkers expressed the, often bleak, ramifications of “psychological man” in various ways. Arthur Schnitzler, the son of a bourgeois doctor, was no exception.

As if to shine a spotlight into his subjects’ minds, Arthur Schnitzler composed works of literature that dwelled deeply in the psychological world. His piercing insights into humans’ instinctual drives bring an element of realism to a hidden interior cosmos. But within that realism swirls an amorphousness—an illusory consciousness—that hinders one’s grounding in the real. Indeed, Schnitzler dissolves the boundaries between dream and reality, entrusting a weighty task to his reader: Find meaning in the interface between the unconscious abyss and the ultimately rootless parameters set by society. Comparing his stories, “Lieutenant Gustl” and Dream Story, one discovers a subtle nuance in the latter novella that illuminates an escape route out of the perilous solipsism that Schnitzler identifies as psychical reality. This solipsism, expressed through a narrative technique that denies the reader access to truth outside of the protagonist’s head, epitomizes the epistemological impasse indicative of fin-de-siècle Vienna’s aesthetic. However, Schnitzler depicts in Dream Story a moral framework—here, institutional marriage—tweaked to allow for interpersonal understanding and instinctual gratification that could rescue humans from the prison of their individuated minds.

Carl Schorske explains that Arthur Schnitzler was suspended between the traditional moralistic principles of his father’s generation and the application of rational science to a new, irrational psychological reality. Like Freud, Schnitzler “resolved his ambivalence by detaching the scientific outlook from its moralistic matrix and turned it boldly upon the life of instinct.”[1] But the amorality inherent in a world of increasing anti-Semitism drove Schnitzler nostalgically back to the previous generation’s ethical sentiments, precipitating a lasting tension within the author. Schorske concludes that Schnitzler’s inability to reconcile these opposing historical phenomena gives way to a complacent pessimism in his works that pollutes and dilutes any pretension to resolution. “Aspiring to tragedy,” says Schorske, “Schnitzler achieved only sadness.”[2] An apt exemplification of the latter statement, “Lieutenant Gustl” begins and ends in mental isolation. What ensues is an absurd, at times comical, trek through Vienna as Lieutenant Gustl wrestles with his dignity and flirts with suicide.

Schnitzler employs his invented narrative technique—interior monologue—throughout “Lieutenant Gustl,” encapsulating his reader in the disjointed and ultimately vacant mind of an army officer. Like Mach’s “Self-Portrait” (figure 1) in The Analysis of Sensations,[3] Schnitzler represents reality from the limited perspective of an individual person. Here, in a disjointed collection of platitudes, instinct, and drives constituting the thought processes of an army officer, the reader gazes into a lonely abyss. Mulling over his own imagined funeral, Gustl wonders if anyone would attend on his or her own accord. He thinks, “Oh, it’s sad not to have anyone,” subsequently recalling his family relations and continuing, “What more is there to hold us together?”[4] Gustl’s thoughts surrounding his family seem authentically warm—nearly a breath of fresh air. However, they lead to his wondering, “but what do they know about me?” followed by, “The fact I often get good and sick of myself.”[5] Even the blood relationship between relatives lacks any connection beyond genetic similarities. Alienation and its consequential depression run amok in his imprisoned mind. Perceived social constructs inhibit his confessing to his family—and to his self—a deep depression that marks his personality. This is the consequence of “psychological man”: A vast disconnect between individuated minds. For Gustl, nothing outside of petty obligations—like those of his family to attend his funeral—hold sway in the world. He desperately yearns for something outside of himself that is true and real. Ironically, similar petty obligations nearly drive him to suicide. This longing, loneliness, and irony are made palpable in the reader’s own experience, as Schnitzler’s masterful narrative technique reflects the very psychic condition that shackles Gustl within his self.

Though brief instances of external dialogue occur, they merely serve to emphasize the inexistence of authentic interpersonal communication. For instance, after the concert, Gustl and a baker get into a tiff. The baker threatens the officer’s honor and asks, “’Do you understand me, you young fathead?’” to which Gustl wonders, “What did he say? Am I dreaming? Is he really talking to me?”[6] On one level, the passage depicts the absurd assumptions that result from an obsolete honor code within a new, more integrated Viennese social structure. On another level, and intertwined with the latter, it expresses a solipsistic failure to communicate—an unawareness and unwillingness to attribute real personhood to another body, imposing an unbridgeable gap between humans. Schnitzler makes this gap explicitly manifest in magnifying the narcissistic and ignorant character of Gustl. The army officer, an emblem of a fading honorific code, is made exceptionally pathetic through his open thoughts. He thinks, “Well I might really consider the whole affair in orderly sequence … All things must be considered … Life is like that … Well, then, let’s consider … Consider what? … My God, doesn’t the air feel good.”[7] Gustl is prone to unconscious impulse and external influences, but he remains acutely unaware of this fact. His sex drive—manifest partly in his overt misogyny—pulls his thoughts inward, exerting an imploding force over his mental faculties. He thinks, “But Mannheimer’s wife…Yes, that would have put me in a different social circle.”[8] Never mind his indifference to the married status of this particular individual; Gustl’s narcissism precludes attributing any real existence to her own set of thoughts, instincts, and drives. Her body serves only as a potential object of exploitation, a somber side effect of a solipsistic psychological universe.

That the reader can explicitly see Gustl’s contradictions, drives, and instincts illuminates an irony that carries throughout the story to the very end. Pure circumstance lands the baker in a coffin—Gustl’s manhood is restored; his personhood is reserved. But circumstance, by definition, is subject to change, as are Gustl’s psychological states and feigned stability. In the end, nothing is resolved and the prison of the self continues. Schnitzler abandons his reader in a vast ocean of doubt: If Gustl’s ego is merely constituted by inane thoughts and instinctual drives, does ego exist? The universe of “Lieutenant Gustl” comes dangerously close to nihilistic pessimism. Schorske writes, “As social observer and psychologist he drew the world he saw as necessitous, but not—like the true tragedian—as justified … Schnitzler could neither condone nor condemn.”[9] Schnitzler paints reality as he sees it, providing no escape in “Lieutenant Gustl.” But an inkling of hope survives in his Dream Story novella that throws a wrench into Schorske’s analysis.

Schnitzler applies a similar, yet distinct narrative device in Dream Story as he did in “Gustl.” Through a third-person subjective narration, the reader gains access into characters’ external behavior and descriptions of environmental elements, but only as they relate to Fridolin’s inner mentality. Others speak, but their intentions are concealed behind Schnitzler’s ambiguous language: characters act as if they intend something or other; they speak as if to communicate an inner truth. Fridolin, alone, explicitly feels and thinks. For instance, Fridolin feels “touched” when Marianne expresses her love for him[10] and, again, he feels “touched when he thought of [Mizzi]” the day after they met.[11] Schnitzler reserves this psychological intentional language—feel, think, be—for Fridolin, again expressing the limitations of communication in a world of isolated psyches.

This isolation surfaces in Fridolin as an absurd anxiety, a dance of Eros and Thanatos, and a confusion of reality’s boundaries. Fridolin attributes to the dead councillor an actively evil intention in the following passages: “It seemed to him that the dead man joined in the silence, not because he couldn’t talk anymore but on purpose and with malicious joy,”[12] and later he thinks, “I wonder if he can hear everything? … Maybe he isn’t really dead. Perhaps every man only seems dead the first few hours after he dies—?”[13] As Fridolin leaves Marianne, her fiancé, and the councillor’s corpse, he feels that “The people he had left behind up there, the living as well as the dead, seemed equally unreal and ghostlike.”[14] Fridolin cannot make meaningful distinctions between the living and the dead. Both categories are equally sentient and devoid of life. Trapped behind his impermeable psyche, Fridolin loses his ground in any notion of the real. This theme crops up most notably in the morgue scene, as Fridolin “entwined his fingers with those of the corpse as though in love play.”[15] This scene makes explicit the intimate relationship between the Eros and Thanatos drives and the psychological solipsism that plagues Schnitzler’s heroes. Drives and instincts deterministically guide Fridolin through and into a world of rootless, perverted action. Whether or not the corpse is Fridolin’s “savior” is no longer a concern. He thinks it is she, but her face—like a mask—distorts her identity. This is the perversion of the isolated psyche at its most extreme and instinctual: necrophilia. Only Dr. Adler’s words, “’What on earth are you doing?’”[16] break Fridolin from his purely instinctual gaze, as he immediately recalls society and its inhibiting will upon the human mind. Schnitzler offers salvation from the self in the form of a particular alchemical process. His elixir: mutual and unconditional acceptance of the instinct within a moralistic structure grounded in truth and transparency.

Marriage, like everything else, is a fluctuating organism in Schnitzler’s universe. Readers learn that Fridolin and Albertine “had sunk into each other’s arms in lovemaking more ardent than they had experienced for a long time”[17] after their excursion into lascivious territory. Importantly, the masquerade ball was a shared experience between the lovers—each flirted with extramarital relations, but retreated into familiarity before transgressing that threshold. Playing within structured limitations enabled them to harness the instinctual drive and reconnect with one another on a passionate, intimate level. The next morning, however, familiarity—daily routine, work, and the humdrum of modernity—turns oppressive. Almost as if to stir up excitement, the two decide to confess to one another their near-unfaithful excursions during a vacation in Denmark. Albertine resolves with the notion to “’always tell each other these kinds of things at once,’”[18] to which Fridolin agrees, but with jealousy and reserve. From within his own limited subjectivity, Fridolin ascribes to Albertine roguish motives, believing “he could read her thoughts.”[19] Albertine’s external behavior, the reader understands, does not necessarily correlate with Fridolin’s unreasonable assertion concerning her psyche. Schnitzler depicts the pitfalls that lie within language. It tempts one to unjustifiably leap into supposition regarding the other’s necessarily hidden intentions. Fridolin projects his own insecurities and jealousy onto Albertine, inserting a wedge by which he creates enough distance to feel justified in his bacchanalian, yet fruitless excursions throughout Vienna.

The final scene takes place after Fridolin reaches the deepest nihilistic depths of isolation in the morgue. Schnitzler writes, “he knew that what was lying behind him in that arched room…was a shadow among shadows, dark, without meaning or mystery like all shadows—and meant nothing to him.”[20] This symbolic death—an emersion into the deepest depths of despair—necessitates Fridolin’s rebirth upon his return home to the familiar. Finding the mask from the orgiastic masquerade the night before lying on his pillow next to Albertine, he breaks down, having reached an assertion regarding Albertine’s motives. This assertion is at the whim of his present, unexpected “feeling of tenderness, even of protectiveness,” and he attributes to her a “playful, almost joking manner.”[21] Thus far, Fridolin is subject to the same frailty and speculation that characterizes his personality at the story’s beginning. Instead, the Christ-like actions of Albertine deliver the two from their impasse into some kind of salvation. Albertine softly strokes Fridolin’s hair, lifting her hand in a silencing gesture when he attempts to speak. Her physically intimate actions—an intimacy lacking throughout the story until now—transcend the limitations of language and communicate a more wholesome message: unconditional acceptance and love. The mask, simultaneously symbolic of instinctual gratification and deceit, remains out in the open. Albertine accepts Fridolin as he is: an amalgam of flawed thoughts, drives, and instincts. Their marriage can proceed in this new understanding and acceptance of the inevitable fluctuation that permeates the subjective mind and, therefore, marriage.

Admittedly, this analysis remains naively hopeful, which I believe Schnitzler’s work permits. Precisely in his ambiguity, Schnitzler captures a real, fleeting essence of life. Carl Schorske correctly identified dominant aspects of his work, summing it up with the statement, “Schnitzler was a profit without wrath.”[22] Yet, Schorske fails to take Schnitzler’s own lessons to heart: a simultaneous realization and wholehearted acceptance of isolation as an inherent reality of “psychological man.” Marriage provides one outlet by which isolated individuals might break through the binds of the psyche. Collective experience within a moral structure that acknowledges the instinct yet exerts a check over its complete release offers Fridolin and Albertine an escape from their inner prisons. Ascribing to Schnitzler the wholesale label “pessimist” presupposes knowledge of the author’s true intent. Perhaps Schnitzler, alone, was wise enough an author to leave intentions to the wind.

[1] Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, 11.
[2] Ibid., 14.
[3] Mach, The Analysis of Sensations, 19.
[4] Schnitzler, Austrian Identities, 46.
[5] Ibid., 47.
[6] Ibid., 34.
[7] Ibid., 41.
[8] Ibid., 42.
[9] Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, 14.
[10] Schnitzler, Night Games, 212.
[11] Ibid., 261.
[12] Ibid., 211.
[13] Ibid., 213.
[14] Ibid., 214.
[15] Ibid., 269.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 201.
[18] Ibid., 207.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 270.
[21] Ibid., 271.
[22] Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, 14.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s