[extract from my forthcoming book]
It is clear (or, at least, intensely apparent) that bodies are the sites of discourse. This is amply demonstrated at the Habsburg twilight by the proliferation of theses on pathology, disease, gender and sexuality, which concentrate their energies on the fleshly; they constitute a powerfully overdetermined focusing of discursive activity on the body. Whilst it is certainly the case that the Habsburg fin de siècle deals with the body in ways deeply indebted to a long and vigorous humanist tradition of the body, the particularity of the re-figuration of that tradition is what concerns us here: how did the new sciences of the body circumscribe the public experience of Mahler’s body? And how did public debates about the body and its appropriation frame Mahler’s private figurations of his own body? To attempt to answer this last question is no simple matter: unlike many of his contemporaries, Mahler has left us very little of the usual material for biographical speculation – no diaries, no memoirs, very little in his letters as to the way he saw himself, his oeuvre or his milieu. This chapter will thus attempt to think through the problematic of Mahler’s body as an historical object of analysis by scrutinising some of the contemporaneous literatures (fiction, psychoanalysis, medicine) that help form a cultural currency of the body, and will employ a series of interpretative strategies that centre on Mahler’s body as an agent in the formation of that currency.
Mahler’s body, it seems, was a deviant body: in the late nineteenth-century (racio-)criminological mind, there is an unbroken continuity from the deviant bodies of prostitutes, harridans, perverts, homosexuals, criminals, through to the bearers of sickness, the insane and ‘lower’ racial types such as the Hottentot, the Negro and the Gypsy; the Jewish male body is similarly marked in the raciological discourses of the time by its physical ‘inadequacy’ and deviant genus. As we shall see, it is a crucial determining inclination of Viennese raciology to read the surfaces of bodies and their morphology as bedeutsam (‘meaningful’) of their Charakter (‘character’) or Gattung (‘species’). The inclusion of the Jewish body amongst the other ‘deviant’ bodies is grounded in a logic of marginalisation through embodiment: this structural trope identified by Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain is strictly binaristic. Her most useful observation for our purposes is that one encounters in a range of literary sources from the fin de siècle a tendency to juxtapose the seamless, ‘light’ and ‘invisible’ body of hegemonic masculinity with the intensely visible and over-signified fleshly bodies of its deviant Others. Something of this alteritous formulation is captured in a short diary entry made by that most eloquent of witnesses to the Habsburg twilight, Franz Kafka, in 1914, three years after Mahler’s death, in which he observed two men in a room in the building opposite his window:
29 July. The two friends, one of them blond, resembling Richard Strauss, smiling, reserved, clever; the other dark, correctly dressed, mild-mannered yet firm, too dainty, lisped;
This striking duality, one that Sander Gilman has also recognised in the Mahler/Straus juxtaposition, is a telling addendum to Scarry: not only were hegemonic masculinities characterised by their ‘lightness’ but they were also marked by a comfortable physicality (‘smiling, reserved, clever’). The overdetermined embodiment of the Other of that comfortable physicality, the thin, dark, slightly fussily dressed, ‘too dainty’ masculinity of the ‘smart Jew’ (or any smart Other), is achieved – unlike Scarry’s British colonial examples of the overdetermined healthy bodies of, for example, ‘black’ men – through a sickliness or over-articulated counter-physicality: it is in the Other that the body seems to be under a kind of malevolent erasure, not in the wielders of discourse, as in Scarry’s model. If we nonetheless accept Scarry’s thesis that ‘those without power’ will have a ‘body made emphatic by being continually altered through various forms of creation, instruction and wounding’ (my emphasis), and that this body marks a territory that contracts one’s sphere of existence, ‘down to the small circle of one’s immediate presence’, we must also recognise the specificity of the Austro-German imagining of the duality in the slenderness and wistful cerebrality of the Jewish Other and the healthy physicality of the hegemon. The ‘wounding’ that Scarry so eloquently outlines is manifest here in an internalised (racial) mark of difference: the Jew is marked out as suffering from (wounded by) its peculiar ontogeny, from its very biological givenness. The urgent problem for a public male Jew like Mahler was not how to attempt to acquire the comfortable public physicality of the hegemon, but how to erase or somehow challenge the bodily impediment (of the sickly Jewish ‘intellectual’ body) to the wielding of public cultural power. The consequences of Scarry’s theory of embodiment are far-reaching, but of usefulness in this context only if modified slightly: whilst intense representation (embodiment) can function as a way of regulating the symbolic meanings of bodies, which stand outside the hegemonic physicality of ‘upright’ bourgeois propriety, that embodiment can work as a kind of pathologisation and ‘thinning’ rather than as a thickening of the physicality of the racial Other.
At the Habsburg fin de siècle, one certainly encounters a range of body types that are wilfully and consistently marginalised from dominant discourses, thereby safeguarding the putative ‘normality’ of certain forms of military, bourgeois and public masculinities. The deviant bodies are often marked by their racial difference and, as we have seen, the Jewish male body stands as an exemplar of the dissidence of ‘non-German’ masculinities. Like Kafka’s huge (baby-)father in the Das Urteil, the upright male body of the empowered Austro-German hegemon is a highly discursive graphism (an emptied ‘shape’ or shell) that can expand itself to cover an inordinate amount of cultural space and, like the Kaiser-figure in Heinrich Mann’s ironic novel Der Untertan, that hegemonic graphism is empty, unfettered by deviant ‘character’ and has ‘no limits on [its] extension out into the world’ despite (perhaps because of) its fleshly physicality. To use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, it is a completely deterritorialized body. For the Jewish body, conversely, it is the perception of its very particularly embodied ‘character’ (its thin, spindly awkwardness) that marks it as an impediment to the experience of and pleasuring in cultural space. As we shall see, the anxiety about space finds particularly powerful expression in German-Jewish literature from the period and has been linked by Deleuze and Guattari to Kafka’s notion of a ‘minor literature’. The attempt to disrupt that impediment, the strategic dislocation of the body (as a kind of internalised flesh(l)y ghetto) from Jewish male creativity, a strategy followed with zeal by Mahler, Kafka, Brod, Werfel, Buber and other German-Jewish intellectuals from the long fin de siècle, is a crucially assimilationist project, and one which, as we shall see, finds resonance in Kafka’s view of writing and Mahler’s view of composing.