02 November 2011

The War Of Nerves: From Peter Altenberg To Emily Holmes Coleman

"I will break all their heads
and lay them in neat rows
and we shall wave high the keys
and all of us shall dance in the snow." 
 - Emily Holmes Coleman, published in The Liberator

An abundance of trained psychologists in late 19th century Vienna coincided neatly with the discovery of nerves.  Psychoanalysis became its classification system.  Nervous disorders were diagnosed as the response of the refined and affluent to modern life and doctors profited handsomely by treating them.  For this, Josef  Hoffmann was commissioned to design the Purkersdorf Sanitorium in 1905.   If that name is not familiar, Koloman Moser’s black and white checkered chairs are.

Mental illness, on the other hand,  had a long history, exemplified architecturally by the Vienna Narrenturn, or Fools’ Tower, the oldest asylum  in Europe.  A stone fortress built in 1784, it was a step up from the basic dank dungeon where people who were ‘difficult’ to deal with had long been confined. Distinctions between sanatorium and asylum were largely based on class differences. 

Our old friend Peter Altenberg,  social critic of fin-de-siecle Vienna, was of the class of brain-workers who suffered from a vexing assortment of melancholy symptoms that was labeled as neurasthenia: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, fatigue, mood swings, migraines, phobias, and sexual dysfunction.  In his  Confessions of a Neurasthenic (1908), William Taylor Marrs wrote  "the best thing about neurasthenia is that it allows one to move in neurasthenic circles"  A sure sign of an exclusive club.. A steady diet of coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol kept Altenberg going.
.One of Altenberg's personal hells was the Steinhof Sanitorium where his brother Georg Egblander had him committed in April, 1913.  Being a writer, Altenberg told his side of the story in Das Alternberg Buch: 

You rotten sod!  Despite my spending the last five months explaining to you that the Superintendant has it in for me and wants to ensure my physical, spiritual, and intellectual ruin, you have nevertheless collaborated with him…although he had declared to me of his own free will: “You are of course released by us doctors as fully cured.  It requires only the simple formality that the person who brought you here contacts us and fetches you. ‘…Since this message of redemption you have allowed days to pass, brother-murderer!
In Sanatorium for Nervous Disorders (1913) Altenberg skewered doctors who turn a medical consultation into a battle of wits with their shallow ‘depth’ psychology.   He understood that it is difficult to live with mental problems in a society whose duplicities are only fortified by the uncooperative  individual. 

It was Peter Altenberg whose  review  for Simplicissmus in 1911 launched the career of painter Oskar Kokoschka as the "mad modernist."    Altenberg's skeptical attitude toward the linking of madness and talent was eminently reasonable, yet still unconventional.  

 “Van Gogh was a famous painter who was nevertheless interned in an asylum seven times.  But those who run around free are by no means ‘van Goghs’ for that reason…Madness is a chance additional extra, like a pimple or a bad cold. My dear sirs, whether normal or abnormal,  it is all a question of ‘original genius.’  Just because you think you are the ‘Emperor of China’ is of limited importance for humanity and, is significant only for the one sanatorium in which the worthless idiot, thanks to money paid by his relatives, terminates his days, that is to say years.   Nowadays people have a colossal concern for madmen who are nothing but madmen.  Just because there have been some who besides the remarkable performance of the brain, are also able to show evidence of other, more important achievements.– 1911, translated from the German by Edward Neather. 

Alone in her room at night she stood and pressed her face against the window.  It was the end of March and turned cold again.  And all the thumbs of ice began to whirl in shaking circles, keeping with the wind.  I shall have snow on my glassy fingers, and a shutter of snow on my grave tonight.- excerpted from The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman, 1930.

Call it a sanitorium or an asylum, the individual is there because of an inability to function in the larger world.    The Shutter of Snow is a remarkable novel in both subject and technique, its author Emily Holmes Coleman unjustly forgotten.   Its title comes from Coleman’s intuitive connection of "heat with destruction and cold with freedom”.  The novel draws on Coleman's experience after the birth of her son John in 1924.

The novel's protagonist Marthe Gail is a young mother  unable to  care for her baby, confined to a mental hospital when she begins to hear voices.  Marthe's suffering is now understood as postpartum depression. Coleman brings us inside  Marthe's struggle to regain a stable identity and her desperate attempts to make herself heard. Her character  is a direct descendant of the narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic The Yellow Wallpaper (1892).

Visits from Marthe's widowed father are occasions of emotional turmoil,  his aggressive neediness is suffocating Marthe. Making. her frantic to escape their shared past, she retreats  into silence.  At the same she needs to speak her mind to important people in her life, her husband Christopher and her psychiatrist Dr. Brainerd, to explain herself to the world.  In  her struggle to regain a sense of self and her desperate attempts to make herself heard, Marthe Gail is the direct descendant of the narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic The Yellow Wallpaper (1892).

The Shutter Of Snow got a negative reception when it was published in 1930. Coleman's use of shifting viewpoints and her subject matter made critics uneasy. They expressed annoyance at the lack of quotation marks to set off conversations, forgetting that these same techniques had been used by Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert.  When it came to the war of nerves the gift of a double vision was not enough; Alternberg's irony was more acceptable than Coleman's seriousness.

For an obscure author, Emily Holmes Coleman had an illustrious career. Born in Oakland, California in 1899, she lost her mother while a young girl, first by mental illness and then to death. Lonely years at boarding school were followed by four demanding years at Wellesley College. After graduation Emily Holmes married Lloyd Rig (Deke) Coleman, a psychologist. In 1925 they moved to France where Emily was the society editor for the Chicago Tribune and Lloyd worked in advertising. Coleman published stories and poems in transition, a magazine that styled itself the purveyor of "the revolution of the word."

Coleman's time in Europe was eventful. She spent a year in St. Tropez working as secretary to Emma Goldman, editing the anarchist's autobiography Living My Life (1931). While on the Riviera, Coleman became friends with the eccentric art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Back in Paris, Coleman read the manuscript version of Nightwood by fellow. Djuna Barnes. Few people remember that it was Coleman who engineered the publication of Nightwood in 1936. Her skills at suggestion and persuasion worked so well that editor T.S. Eliot and the general public believed it had been Eliot's idea. His enthusiasm for the book led him to call Nightwood "the best book written by a woman in the 20th century."  The Shutter Of Snow should have been so lucky.

The Shutter of Snow is published in the U.S. by Dalkey Archive.
1 & 3..  Richard Lutsch - Figures for entrance to Purkersdorf Sanitorium, 1905, Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg.,
2. Koloman Moser - chairs for Purkersdorf Sanitorium, c. 1904, Leopold Museum, Vienna.
4.Oskar Kokoschka - The Tempest, 1914, Kunstmuseum, Basel.
5.. Erika Giovanna Klein - Eyes, 1922, Kovacek-Spiegelgasse Gemaldegalerie, Vienna.
6. Lucy Schwob a/k/a Claude Cahun  Self-portrait with Masks, c. 1919, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes.
7. Lucy Schwob a/k/a/ Claude Cahun - title attributed: Behind Bars, private collection, France.
8. unidentified photographer - Emma Goldman and Emily Holmes Coleman, Virago Books, London.


Neil said...

Fascinating mix of literature, art, and social history, Jane. Reading Altenberg's letters from the sanitorium reminded me of similar complaints by Gérard de Nerval. Heartrending.

Jane said...

Neil, is there any chance that the Gerard de Nerval writing that you mention is available in English? Some of us can manage the French, some not.

Neil said...

Well, I've found the book I was thinking of, which is in English: Gérard de Nerval, Selected Writings, tr. Richard Sieburth. It does contain some letters of complaint from his sanitorium ("I am the living tomb of the Gérard de Nerval whom you have loved"), but they don't completely chime with my recollections. So I may have been muddling Nerval up with some other C19th French writer.

Jane said...

Thanks, Neil. Although a room with furniture designed by Koloman Moser (I've seen photos of Purkersdorf) may look appealing, the reality is emotional distress and the isolation and rejection by one's fellows. Nerval and Altenberg were among the lucky ones: they were articulate and their letters weren't ripped up and thrown away. Lutsch's statues don't begin to tell the story, admirable though they are.