FREUD'S REQUIEM by Matthew von Unwerth
In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
years into my psychoanalysis my analyst died. An old world Viennese of
immense culture, he had opened up the world anew for me when I felt it might
swallow me instead. In his office, accompanied by the tympan rhythm of his
old man's rasp, life became boundless; what had seemed to me an impossible
existence was reawakened to the art of the possible. A Jew, he had fled
Vienna in the wake of the Anschluss, leaving his family, home and world
behind. He came to New York under the sign of mourning, an exile,
improvising a new life to replace the one he had lost. The journey that led
him to the bookish cavern of his office must have been painful; I know that
illness and the pains of age made it so at the end. But in his wry humor, I
first understood the depths of the capacity for forbearance in the face of
suffering, through what Bertolt Brecht called the singing about the dark
Far from the dour encounters of analytic myth, our meetings were often
lively conversations on poetry or music or nature or the political world.
They were suffused with laughter, and mutual respect, with hope and love.
Though we were separated in age, culture and experience by more than half a
century, I knew a closeness with this venerable stranger whom I saw but an
hour a day that I had not known before with anyone. This closeness allowed
me the security and courage to create and explore an inner world of which I
had been only dimly sensible, filled with chaos and grace, the musical world
I was frequently reminded in those sessions of the Greek myth of the lovers
Orpheus and Eurydice. Finding Eurydice torn apart by lions, the poet Orpheus
follows her down into the underworld, and with his sublime song prevails
upon Hades to allow him to lead her back into life, on condition that he not
look back at her while they returned to the world of the living. But Orpheus
is unable to resist, and he sees her for the last time, as she is cast back
forever into the kingdom of death. Grief-stricken, Orpheus kills himself and
the two are reunited forever in death.
In analysis, lying on the couch, speaking to an unseen presence, like
Orpheus I ached to turn around and assure myself of my companion's
existence, to reconcile this physical being with the intimate and strange
communion that he purveyed. When inevitably I yielded to the temptation,
unlike Eurydice in the underworld, my analyst would always be there behind,
unperturbed and unharmed by my anxious insecurity.
My conversations with the analyst turned often towards the prospect of his
death. He wondered how it would affect me, whether I had any fears or
feelings about an event which, he pointed out, was imminent in a man of his
age. But in my mind, conditioned by its inexperience with loss, he was
immortal and could not die, and so the possibility of his death, it seemed
to me, did not exist.
And then one day the chair stood empty. My analyst's death ushered into my
life a new darkness, from which I only gradually emerged.
It was during the time of my analysis that I first learned of “On
Transience,” the essay of Freud’s upon which this book is based, and of the
circumstances surrounding its genesis. At the time I was interested in the
ways that writers reinvent themselves through writing, and how that process
of reinvention resembles the subtle subterfuge in which we all engage to
cause the world of our experience to conform to the world of our desires.
The story of the frustrated relationship of Sigmund Freud, Rainer Maria
Rilke, and Lou Andreas-Salomé, and its reincarnation in a radiant essay by
Freud appealed to me, because in its fictional alterations I thought I
discerned just such a subterfuge. At the time my interest had little to do
with the substance of the essay, which dealt with the transience of nature
and of life.
But circumstance intervened. Freud's Requiem is much transformed from its
original conception as a somewhat skeptical inquiry into the deceptive
qualities intrinsic to artistic endeavor. Such deception may indeed be at
the heart of creativity, of our ability to change the world through our own
imagination, but I have found that it is a work born not of calculation, but
of necessity and hope. Confronted with the unfathomable fact of loss, we
find ways to make that loss bearable, to make the medicine go down better.
Because without the medicine of mourning, we cannot go on.
In mourning, like Orpheus, we make our way underground by singing, by
telling stories about our lives that give sense and form and meaning to the
events and feelings whose enormity threatens to overwhelm us. In telling
ourselves the stories of our lives—especially stories of the dark times—in
making sense of them, we reclaim lost aspects of our lives, just as Freud
did in telling the story now about to unfold, of his afternoon walk with a
poet and a taciturn companion.
About the author
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Matthew von Unwerth is Director of the
Abraham A. Brill Library of The New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and a
coordinator of the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of
the Imagination. He is an advanced candidate in psychoanalytic training
in New York City, where he is in private practice. He is currently
writing a second book, a novel.
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