Grief, Dying, & Arthur Schnitzler’s “Desire and Delusion”

I have a new line on my face.  It is vertical, on my forehead.

I am still mourning my cat, Helen.  Torrents of tears. In her last moments, my husband said, “Kat, she’s still looking for you.”  I quickly moved my face to  the side where she had moved her darling face.

Helen with iPad

We picked up Helen’s ashes this week. The box is so tiny, wrapped in bubble wrap. And yet it’s still a connection to her.  It’s what’s left, and we’ll bury her in the spring.

Crying is what we women are told not to do. We stifle our emotions because  wrinkles will spoil our looks.  After a certain age, we don’t care.

I do feel sad.  And this week I have experimented with not smiling in public. Why should I smile at clerks, cashiers, dog-walkers (though the dogs are adorable), mammography technicians, or rude Millennials and iGens hogging the sidewalk as they text while walking? The only time I see people smiling in public these days is when they’re trying to “hook up” with someone (and isn’t that a distasteful phrase? Like a phone!)

And guess what I learned?  Smile or don’t smile, it doesn’t matter.

People barely look up from their phones anyway.


I am a fan of the neglected Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1930), a Modernist playwright and fiction writer who was a member of a circle of artists and writers in fin-de-siècle Vienna.  He was a doctor who graduated from the University of  Vienna School of Medicine, and his special areas of interest were psychology and psychiatry.

His fiction is strangely modern, and his quiet style an effective  underpinning of psychological realism and a contrast to the violence.  I recommend Vienna 1900:  Games of Life and Death, a Penguin collection of four short stories published in the 1970s.

Recently I discovered Margaret Schaefer’s modern translations, which are published by Ivan R. Dee, and are more accessible.  I love long-form fiction, so I was eager to read Desire and Delusion:  Three Novellas.  These superb novellas,  Flight into Darkness, Dying, and Fräulein Else,  are linked by the theme of death and delusion.

In the Dostoevskian novella, Flight into Darkness, the antihero, Robert, a commissioner, struggles with paranoia at the end of the  six-month trip which a doctor prescribed as a cure for a nervous breakdown. The story begins at a hotel after Robert breaks up with his girlfriend Alberta, who fell in love and left him for  an American tourist.  He second-guesses himself :  was he right to let her go?  Was that crazy?  Should he have fought for her?  Would it have made a difference?  But he feels quite calm as he  says goodbye to his acquaintances at the hotel.  On the train, however, he loses “his pleasant feeling of anticipation.”

Schnitzler’s interior monologue captures his horrifying psychological imbalance.

What he found…was no longer delight but rather a strange anxiety, as though he were being carried toward a crisis involving a significant, serious decision….  Would he now, after the many restful and easy moments of the last few months, be overcome once more by that incomprehensible something that could hardly be captured in thought–let alone words–and that seemed ominously to threaten something worse.

As Robert descends into madness, he  wonders if his ex-girlfriend Alberta really left him for another man, or if he killed her in the woods. He is  relieved to get a letter saying she has gotten married in Chicago. Thank God!  He was delusional!   But then he begins to fixate on his brother Otto, who years ago agreed to kill Robert if he ever went out of his mind.  He thinks Robert is planning to kill him.

This does not end well!

In the second novella, Dying, Felix and Marie are lovers who have been happy until Felix consults a doctor who says he has only a year to live.  Felix’s best friend Alfred, also a doctor, says his colleague was only trying to scare Felix so he would take better care of himself.  But Felix fixates on death, and allows it to dictate his emotions–and perhaps the future.  And Marie is terrified when he tries to get her to agree to a suicide pact.  Fortunately, the sanity of Marie and Alfred balances Felix’s madness.  In Flight into Darkness, the horror was unremitting.

In  Fräulein Else, Schnitzler employs elegant  stream-of-consciousness as he explores the thoughts and associations of a sensitive young woman at a hotel with her aunt.   In the preface, the  translator Margaret Schaefer compares Else to a teenage Mrs. Dalloway.  Through Else’s reflections,  we comprehend her horror and rage when her mother telegrams her with a request that she borrow  a huge sum of money to keep her embezzler father out of jail.  She is told to approach a lecherous old man who has been leering at her.   He says he will lend the money if she has sex with him..  But Else decides on a proto-feminist act, which is not recognized as such by the conventional guests.

Masterful, realistic, and beautifully-written psychological fiction.

We Will Always Miss Helen the Cat

Helen, 2013.  She’s the queen of lounging!

Helen, our 18-year-old tortoiseshell, died last week.  It has been hard on me, harder than any other pet’s death.  Helen and I were like bonded cats at the pound.  We did everything together: played string, read books (sometimes aloud), watched birds, had elevenses, watched six seasons of The Americans, prepared dinner (hers came in a can), napped, and listened to music.  She was fond of “You’re so Vain” (Carly Simon), “Year of the Cat” (Al Stewart), and “Mellow Yellow (Donovan).  Cats like simple songs.

As she got older, she spent most of her waking hours sitting with me (or on top of me) as I reclined and read.  She carefully marked the books by rubbing against the corners.   She was fond of books, because I’d read poetry to her as a kitten.  She enjoyed Edward Lear’s “The Jumblies:  “Far and few, far and few,/Are the lands where the Jumblies live…”

She didn’t meow, she chirped.  It was so sweet.  She was also a survivalist:  she liked to hop in the tub and lick the faucet. And she had a strong will.  She dominated the household.  She was a  fascinating person!  She ignored other cats, but they followed her around the house.

I had so much fun with her.  But In the last few years she had health problems and surgeries. She lost too much weight, shed clumps of fur, her kidneys were failing.  All the problems of aging cats.

I miss her.

Helen forever!

In Helen’s honor, I have translated and adapted the Roman poet Martial’s poem on the death of a pet dog, Issa.  In the first line, Martial refers to  Catullus’s famous poem about the dead pet sparrow of his girlfriend, Lesbia.

I have substituted the name Helen for Issa.

My adapted translation of Martial, Epigrams, I.109

Helen is more mischievous than Catullus’s sparrow,
Helen is purer than the kiss of a dove,
Helen is lovelier than all the maidens,
Helen is more precious than Indian stones,
Helen the cat is my darling.
If she meows, you will think she speaks;
She feels both sadness and joy.
Resting in my lap she stretches and snatches sleep
so that no breath is sensed.
In order that the last light may not wholly steal her,
I am painting a picture
In which you will see a cat so like Helen
That she herself is not more like herself.
Compare Helen with her picture
And you will think each one is real,
Or you will think each one is painted.

Floor mosaic in ancient Rome, with cat and two ducks.

Was Helen Enamored or Abducted?

Who exactly was Helen?

Some poets portray Helen as a slut, others as a victim of rape. The usual story is: she committed adultery with Paris, a Trojan prince, and ran away from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta.  Helen, not Paris, is considered the cause of the Trojan War. It’s a pre-feminist thing.  But Homer is sympathetic: in the Iliad, Helen feels her disgrace deeply, and the Greek tragedians vary, with Euripides portraying her differently in two different plays. Modern writers similarly struggle with her character.

In Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, the Iliad is retold from a woman’s point of view.  The narrator, Briseis, a princess enslaved by the Greeks during the Trojan war, does not have a voice in her fate. She is assigned first as a chattel to Achilles, then to Agamemnon. She is raped by both: the best she can say of Achilles is that he is quick, and she suffers  extreme violence at the hands of Agamemnon.

Surprisingly, Helen, a friend of Briseis, and also a friend of King Priam, does have a voice. She is much hated by the Trojans, but she retains her dignity, boldly observing the battles from the ramparts, and  painting the war scenes in her room:  she is a talented artist.   One day, Helen and Briseis walked through the marketplace with only one maid, and Briseis is surprised by her daring.

…she said, “Well, why not?” There was no point in her worrying what people might think. The Trojan women—“the ladies,” as she always called them—couldn’t think any worse of her than they did already, and as for the men . . . We-ell, she had a pretty good idea what they were thinking—the same thing they’d been thinking since she was ten years old. Oh, yes, I got that story too. Poor Helen, raped on a river bank when she was only ten. Of course I believed her. It was quite a shock to me, later, to realize nobody else did.

I am particularly interested in the portrayal of Helen in Roman classics.  Among Roman poets, Ovid is perhaps most sympathetic. Though not a feminist, he portrayed many strong women, especially in Amores, a collection of elegies about love. And I recently read Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of poems in the form of letters between mythological lovers. The correspondence between Paris, portrayed as an attractive dum-dum prince, and Helen, a smart, flirtatious queen with a sense of decorum, is extraordinarily vivid. Helen  declines his invitation to run away to Troy: she cannot be bribed with the gifts, and she wonders what could possibly have given him hope of tori (bed, or if we’re prim, the marriage bed).  Helen asks, “Was it because Theseus took me by force? Once abducted, do I seem twice to deserve rape?”

She goes on to say she returned unharmed except for a few stolen kisses from Theseus.  And Theseus apologized. She asks, “Did Theseus repent so that Paris might succeed him, and my name be always on men’s lips?”

Helen, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

She tells him bawdily how attractive she finds him, and teases him about their flirtation at a dinner party.  If only they had met earlier…but being a king’s wife is not to be taken lightly.  Menelaus went away on business, leaving Helen as hostess.  But she points out that if she left Menelaus there would be war, and that Paris is a beauty, made for love not war.

Helen has said no.

Whether Paris persuades her or abducts her is not treated in the poem. But I have never read a more sympathetic portrayal of Helen.