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Imagination and procreation: Schnitzler's "Andreas Thameyers letzter Brief".

Metaphors of birth and procreation are familiar occurrences in poetic and philosophical discourses. From the origin of an artwork to the birth of a genre, generative metaphors have coded instances of artistic and intellectual labor so often that one could speak of a metaphorical relation between art and procreation themselves. (1) If art and imagination are fed by the imagery of birth and sexuality, discourses like gender or motherhood incorporate in return imaginative resources so as to expand their limits. In Vienna around 1900, literature and psychoanalysis reinforced the link between sexuality and creativity.

Schnitzler's lesser-known short story "Andreas Thameyers letzter Brief" is the suicide letter with which Thameyer, thirty-four, employee at the Austrian Savings Bank, is trying to defend his wife's fidelity. Yet his attempts seem ridiculous in the face of the evidence: just fourteen days before, his wife had given birth to a child whose father Thameyer cannot possibly be, since the child is black. Apparently, she had to spend some time alone during a promenade in Vienna's famous zoo, which sheltered at the time an ethnographic exhibition of African people. Their sight must have frightened her terribly: "Sie sagte mir, niemals in ihrem Leben habe sie ein solches Grauen empfunden als an jenem Abend, da sie allein bei den Negern war," writes Thameyer (Schnitzler 1: 518). Since she understandably denies any intercourse of a sexual nature, and her husband is also unwilling to acknowledge a possible betrayal, the awkward birth can only be explained by some mysterious influence that the scare must have had upon her. Andre, as Thameyer's last letter tries to prove, by appealing to philosophical and popular science arguments, that this is a real possibility and that the unsettling sight of the black people, by leaving such strong traces in the woman's imagination, was eventually imprinted onto the unborn child.

The proofs Thameyer brings to his wife's defense oscillate between naive superstition and philosophical speculation. He reiterates some of the old fantastic stories about how a mother's imagination can influence at the moment of conception the physical aspect of the future child. From simple birthmarks to severe deformities, various marks on the child's body are thought to be caused by the imagination--or desire--of the mother. Thameyer takes great care in emphasizing that many such phenomena are mentioned by authoritative writers, like Malebranche, Martin Luther, or Heliodorus. Moreover, he has to take them at face value and insist that they are "beglaubigte, wissenschaftlich feststehende Tatsachen" (515) if he wants to base his wife's defense upon them. For example, he cites Malebranche, who tells of a woman who bore a child resembling St. Plus, which was explained at the time as being the result of the intensity with which she beheld his portrait. Thameyer's mention of Malebranche's work on imagination inevitably has the character of hearsay, especially when he lists less-than-relevant details of a forced resemblance: "seine Arme waren tiber die Brust gekreuzt, seine Augen gen Himmel gerichtet" (514).

The piece de resistance in Thameyer's argument is the incident documented by Heliodorus in his Libri Aethiopicorum, according to which the black queen Persina, after ten years of childless marriage with the king of Ethiopia, gave birth to a white daughter (Heliodorus 251-83). This remarkable incident was explained by the queen's admiring gaze being directed at marble statues of Greek gods during lovemaking. What neither Schnitzler nor Thameyer brings up is that one of the most popular histories of monstrous births, Ambroise Pare's On Monsters and Marvels from 1573, also lists the reverse case--a black child born from white parents--which overlaps perfectly with Thameyer's situation:
   Hippocrates saved a princess accused of adultery, because she had
   given birth to a child black like a Moor, her husband and she both
   having white skin; which woman was absolved upon Hippocrates'
   persuasion that it was [caused by] a portrait of a Moor, similar to
   the child, which was customarily attached to her bed. (2)

Thus, Thameyer sets up his own case as a mere continuation of the incidents in Heliodorus's book; by assembling these "case-studies," he easily inscribes his own story in the history of the pathological imagination, saving thereby his honor as a husband.

However, while propping up the husband's authority, endangered by the birth of a child who does not resemble him, such stories set a precedent of endowing female imagination with both creative and procreative powers. This can turn against the father's supremacy in the chain of generations. As Marie-Helene Huet remarks, "the female contribution to generation was never considered equal to that of the man. In cases of monstrous births, however, particularly those caused by the power of the maternal imagination, the mother's role gained considerable importance" (14). Birth deformities were not the only monstrosities attributed to a deranged female imagination. A lack of resemblance was also considered monstrous, since it could have called into question the man's adequacy as a husband. It has been noted by critics (Reid 449) that this must have been an important issue to Andreas Thameyer: he had postponed his wedding for seven years and had produced no child in four years of marriage. So arguing against his wife's adultery meant arguing for his validity as a husband and a father. Yet blaming it on the mother's fancy has a remarkable downside: heightening the maternal imagination diminishes the father's role, his contribution to the act of conception is placed under erasure, and the act of imaginative procreation becomes an example of parental singularity.

The case of maternal singularity however, unlike "motherless" technologies for generating artificial life in fantastic stories for example, goes against the grain of time. It short-circuits a patriarchal tradition weakened by the questioning--by Freud and others--of the stability of sexual roles around the turn of the century, so much so that the idea of a feminization of cultural standards is put into circulation. (3) While the name of the father assured tradition and the transmission of goods, both material and symbolic, maternal procreation brought on disruption of genealogy and an interruption of history; kinship could no longer be considered linear. This model of parental singularity refers to a prehistoric time, when, according to Freud, archaic beliefs like animism or totemism endorsed such patterns of singular procreation by holding that women conceived while inhabited by spirits. Freud nonetheless emphasizes the role of the mother's imagination in this process; in Totem and Taboo, he offers an explanation according to which "the animal, plant, stone or other object, with which her imagination was occupied at the moment when she first felt she was a mother, actually made its way into her and was later born in human form" (SE 13: 117). Moreover, Freud not only draws attention to the crucial role the mother's imagination must have played in procreation, but he also points to what I would argue is a crucial element in this process: by means of imagination, the connection between the sexual act and conception was practically eliminated, and sexuality was severed from procreation.

The grounds for integrating odd offspring among the monstrous creations of the mother's fancy take the form of a genuine mimesis judgment. Marie-Helene Huet attributes to Aristotle the conviction that "anyone who does not take after his parents is really in a way a monstrosity" (33). In both cases mentioned by Heliodorus (concerning children of a color different from that of their known parents), it is obvious that the mother took art rather than nature as a model: the Ethiopian queen beheld Greek statues with admiration, while the white princess constantly had in her sight the portrait of a Moor. Imitating art rather than nature means turning upside down the mimetic principle and the traditional opposition between nature and culture. (4) If giving life by artistic creation was hitherto a masculine privilege, fitting into the Pygmalion pattern, procreating by the power of imagination was, again, a usurpation of male authority: it flipped around the traditionally gendered division of labor, according to which creativity is primarily masculine, and reproduction feminine.

While Thameyer's wife did not behold any particular work of art in the moment of conception, the visual element is still crucial to the act of monstrous procreation. It is noteworthy that the Latin root of monster, the verb monstrare, is all about vision: it can mean to show, to display, to exhibit. The Blacks in the Tiergarten-exhibition were from this point of view, by being exposed, genuine monsters. Schnitzler's story exploits here the effect of the objectifying, sexualized gaze, on which he elaborates more in stories like "Fraulein Else," where the female body becomes visible and available as an image. (5) Reinhard Urbach and, later, Bernard Dieterle mention the source that Schnitzler used to gather examples of monstruous procreation: it is the 1899 work of the gynecologist Gerhard von Welsenburg (disguised in text as Limbock Basel), Das Versehen der Frauen in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart und die Anschauungen der Arzte, Naturforscher und Philosophen daruber. While Versehen is usually translated as fault or mistake, its connection to sehen, to see, is obvious; it can also mean oversight, or, if one takes into account the negative meaning of the particle vet-, distorted or disturbed vision.

One of Andreas Huyssen's articles on Austrian literature around 1900 is titled precisely thus: "The Disturbance of Vision in Vienna Modernism." It claims that dysfunctional vision, which Huyssen finds crucial to issues of class, gender, race, and sexuality, is due not only to the alienating experiences of urban life, but also to unsettling private experiences like dreams, hallucinations, phantasms, or Doppelganger. This ambivalence between inner and outer underlies the mutated sexual gaze, which in Schnitzler's story can engender monsters. Huyssen does not hesitate to claim that this discourse must lead to the Freudian concept of the uncanny and to the reading of the threat to eyesight as fear of castration, as laid out in Freud's analysis of Hoffmann's Der Sandmann (34). It may also be worth mentioning that both Schnitzler and Freud were avid readers of Hoffmanns's fantastic stories. The terrifying image of the black people violates visual habits and shifts the status of vision from a perceptual system to a sexual and eventually a reproductive one. Although he had written "Andreas Thameyer" nineteen years before Freud published "Das Unheimliche," Schnitzler's text anticipates the discourse of the uncanny, and even its terminology: it refers to the "diese unheimlichen Schwarzen" (1:188) and the feeling of awe they provoke. By referring to them as frightening or threatening in his farewell letter, Thameyer describes rather his own feelings, and not necessarily those of his wife. The free indirect speech in Thameyer's confession--"niemals in ihrem Leben habe sic ein solches Grauen empfunden ... "-- adds to the difficulty of deciding whether this fear accurately depicts what Thameyer's wife had experienced, or is his alone. Free indirect speech is a hybrid genre in which the voice of the narrator, here Thameyer, is mixed to the point of indiscernibility with the voice it reproduces. Monsters themselves are hybrid creatures composed of ill-fitting, heterogeneous parts. The fear and awe they induce in their spectators are likewise intertwined in a hybrid, ambivalent feeling of terror and veneration. In the discourse of monstrous imagination, awe consists in the double move of recognition and rejection of the product of the imagination, in the simultaneous process of alienation from and identification with the Other.

In a letter to Arthur Schnitzler on 14 May 1922, Freud leerily acknowledged this process and recognized his own scientific concerns in the writing of the Other: "I think I have avoided you from a kind of awe of meeting my double." (6) Among the correspondences that Freud establishes between his and Schnitzler's thought are the awareness of a tight connection between love and death and of the contradictory laws of the unconscious, which turn man into an unpredictable mixture of psyche and biology. Their methods do not particularly differ: narrated monologue, a technique in which Schnitzler excels, is part obsessional neurosis and part talking cure. It is rich in free associations and entertains the tension between dynamic mechanisms of defense and irreducible psychic constellations. Thameyer experiences this kind of conflict when his familiar, bourgeois setting is disturbed by atavistic influences, and the presence of the Blacks sets off the confrontation with the uncanny. There is a religious latency in the concept of awe, best described as dread mingled with veneration before numinous phenomena. At the intersection of the mythical with the everyday, fear and veneration merge into a religious feeling: for Thameyer, the uncanny Blacks in Vienna's Tiergarten mutate into totemic figures. (7)

The insistence with which Thameyer tries to convince his audience--and himself--of his wife's fidelity and the fantastic stories he brings as proof turn him, for some critics, into a paranoid, unable to accept reality, caught up in "his pathetic efforts to deny the truth" (Robert Weiss quoted in Reid 445-46). While none of these judgments is inaccurate, none of them explicitly reads Andreas Thameyer's plea as a proper act of negation--Verneinung--in Freudian terms. "Negation is a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed," writes Freud in Negation (SE 19; 235); so, when Tharneyer obsessively asserts that his wife had been faithful, he just acknowledges by negation the truth he has repressed. (8) In The Language of Psycho-Analysis, Laplanche and Pontalis argue that under radical forms of negation runs the fear of castration: "castration is the prototype--and perhaps even the origin--of the other kinds of disavowal of reality" (120). If this assumption is correct, then behind Thameyer's strong denial hides the fear of the paternal threat.

If concepts like denial, the uncanny, or even castration can indeed be discerned in Schnitzler's text some twenty-five years before being formulated by Freud, they might themselves disrupt a traditional chronology. How plausible is an assumption like the castration complex in Schnitzler's story? What are its connections with the motif of the procreative imagination, and how do these figures connect with the literary discourse of gender and sexuality in turn-of-the-century Vienna? As mentioned before, Freud connects the motif of fatherless conception with archaic societies regulated by animism and totemism, as observed in the life of an Australian tribe. The imprint on the woman's imagination is made then not by a work of art, but by a totemic spirit:
   The Arunta have a peculiar theory of conception and reincarnation.
   They believe that there are places scattered all over the country.
   ("totem centres") at each of which the spirits of the dead of some
   one totem await reincarnation and enter the body of any woman who
   passes by the spot. When a child is born, the mother reports at
   which of these places she thinks it was conceived, and the child's
   totem is determined accordingly. (SE 13:114)

Totemism is nevertheless the primitive formulation of the law of the father; the members of the primal hoard will transfer upon the totemic animal the ambivalent feelings they originally experienced for their leader: love, but also fear of castration stemming from sexual competition. The Oedipus complex would be the reenactment of this prehistoric scenario in different times and places, just as the prehistoric separation between sexuality and conception reemerges as more-or-less-biased stories of singular procreation in sites such as antiquity, the Renaissance, or turn-of-the-century Vienna. While organizing his story around the ethnographic exhibition in Vienna's Tiergarten, Schnitzler stages at the beginning of the twentieth century nothing more or less than a totem center.

It is not only that the Blacks were displayed like animals in a zoo or that savages were associated with bestiality and instinct, which turns them into totemic figures, able to impregnate a passing woman just by their being there, but also the whole perception of their origin, which is saturated with the nostalgia of a prehistoric paradise. They were referred to as Paradies-Menschen. Those caught in the gravity field of this totemic center were forced to repeat the archaic Oedipal scenario that set up the conflict between desire and prohibition. Thameyer's relationship with his wife had to be an acte manque, if we consider that her primary connection was with the ancient totemic figure. The Tiergarten then makes possible the overt, literal display of the phylogenetic scenario usually reiterated only in the privacy of our own psyche, thus offsetting the balance between inside and outside. Importing a totem center in the middle of turn-of-the-century Vienna has an estranging effect upon the understanding of both sexuality and law. If desire is timeless, law is not. Law is precisely what holds desire in check; it is a historical confinement of desire, which is highly irreverent of time and place. While withdrawing procreation from the sphere of sexuality was a gesture protected by totemic law in archaic societies, sexuality without procreation in modern society became yet another instance of illicit sexuality. This has been wonderfully put into words in Frau Bertha Garlan, one of Schnitzler's memorable novellas dedicated to female figures:
   Und sie ahnte das ungeheure Unrecht in der Welt, class die
   Selmsucht nach Wonne ebenso in die Frau gelegt ward als in den
   Mann; und class es bei den Frauen Sunde wird und Suhne fordert,
   wenn die Selmsucht nach Wonne nicht zugleich die Sehnsucht nach
   dem Kinde ist. (1: 513)

For many of Schnitzler's women, sexuality has to be coupled with procreation in order to be allowed; it is thus the separation of sexuality from reproduction, and not their association in the cycle of birth and death, that has been programmatically branded as a sin and dissimulated as a fall from Paradise. At the same time, the male sexual discourse, however, could pursue sexuality for its own sake as yet another occasion to partake in the paradisiacal bliss. Peter Altenberg, Schnitzler's contemporary, dedicates to these "unforgettable paradise people," as he calls them, that is, to the black females from Ashantee hosted in Vienna's Tiergarden, a short volume in which he glorifies their living in the present and the unsophisticated sexuality withdrawn from history. The women he courts in his writing are never mothers and linger indefinitely on the threshold between childhood and womanhood. (9)

Reviving an archaic spot in the middle of fin de siecle Vienna, and thus disturbing laws of history and procreation, should call into question this double standard of sexuality at the end of the nineteenth century. But, while this local paradise might have the power to reinstate a transient severance between conception and sexuality so as to justify accidental births, it is still not powerful enough to deconstruct the gender specificity of discourses like imagination and procreation. Because however empowering a claim like that of the procreative imagination might be to women, it has been revived only to be appropriated by the masculine code of honor, which underwrote phenomena like dueling and suicide. As a byproduct of a militarized society, the duel, often ridiculed by Schnitzler, found its expression in suicide when it began to be suppressed by an increasingly bureaucratized society. Lieutenant Gustl's fruitless turmoil shows that, as long as dueling was out of the question, suicide remained the only way to safeguard honor and masculinity when challenged. Likewise, Thameyer, the employee, tries in vain to defend his honor against a gossipy community and ends up in the muddle of the Oedipal scenario, having to choose between being invalidated by a stronger paternal figure or displaced by a self-sufficient maternal authority.


Altenberg, Peter. Wie ich es sehe. Berlin: Fischer, 1922.

Anderson, Susan C. "The Power of the Gaze: Visual Metaphors in Schnitzler's Prose Works and Dramas." A Companion to the Works of Arthur Schnitzler. Ed. Dagmar C. G. Lorenz. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2003. 303-24.

Dieterle, Bernard. "'Keineswegs karm ich weiterleben'--Figurationen des Schreibens bei Arthur Schnitzler." MAL 30.1 (1997): 20-38.

Freud, Sigmund. Briefe, 1873-1939. Ed Ernst L. Freud and Lucie Freud. Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1980.

--. Totem and Taboo. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Trans. James Strachey. Ed. James Strachey and Anna Freud. London: Hogarth, 1953-1974. 24 vols. 13:1-161.

Gilman, Sander L. Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Heliodorus. An Aethiopian History of Heliodorus. Trans. Thomas Underdown. London: Chapman and Dodd, 1924.

Huet, Marie Helene. Monstrous Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

Huyssen, Andreas. "The Disturbance of Vision in Vienna Modernism" Modernism/Modernity 5.3 (1998): 33-47.

Jones, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth, 1953.3 vols.

Laplanche, Jean, and J. B. Pontalis. The Language of Psycho-Analysis. London: Hogarth, 1973.

Pare, Ambroise. On Monsters and Marvels. Trans. Janis L. Pallister. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.

Reid, Maja D. "'Andreas Thameyers letzter Brief' and 'Der letzte Brief eines Literaten': Two Neglected Schnitzler Stories." GQ 45.3 (1972): 443-60.

Schnitzler, Arthur. Die erzahlenden Schriften. Frankfurt aM.: Fischer, 1961.2 vols.

Urbach, Reinhard. Schnitzler-Kommentar zu den erzahlenden Schriften und dramatischen Werken. Munchen: Winkler, 1974.

Wellbery, David E. "Kunst, Zeugung. Geburt: Uberlegungen zu emer anthropologischen Grundfigur." Kunst, Zeugung, Geburt: Theorien und Metaphern asthetischer Produktion in der Neuzeit. Ed. Christian Begemann and David E. Wellbery. Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach, 2002. 9-36.

Welsenburg, Gerhard von. Das Versehen der Frauen in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart und die Anschauungen der Arzte, Naturforscher und Philosophen daruber. Leipzig: Barsdorf. 1889.






(1) David Wenbery points out that many influential concepts of the philosophical tradition are set up as generative metaphors: "Von der 'Maieutik' des Sokrates uber Kants 'Selbstgebarung unsexes Verstandes' und Nietzsches 'Geburt der Tragodie' bis bin zu Sloterdijks 'Poetik der Entbindung' stecken Begriffe wie Zeugang, Empfangnis und Konzeption, Schwangerschaft and Geburt, Genealogie, Vaterschaft and Mutterschaft ein diskursives Feld ab, auf dem Theorien der kunstlerischen bzw. intellektuellen Hervorbringung entworfen werden und das Verhaltnis von Natur und Kultur schlechthin zur Debatte steht" (9-10).

(2) Pare 38-39. The two examples are also discussed by Marie-Helene Huet 22.

(3) "In den Jahrzehnten vor and nach 1900 liefen Theorien der Geschlechtsubergange und der Bisexualitat (Fliess, Weininger, Freud) die Grundlage fur spekulative Entwurfe, die eine allgemeine Verweiblichung tier Kultur unterstellen" (Wellbery 29-30).

(4) David Wellbery shows throughout his introductory article how the intersection between art, procreation, and generation disturbed the understanding of nature and culture at various historical stages. He points out that this metaphorical complex is to be understood as the site where the opposition between nature and culture can paradoxically mutate into a unity: "In diesem Sinne ist der Komplex Kunst-Zeugang-Geburt als ein Topos zu begreifen, an dem die paradoxe Einheit der semantischen Unterscheidung Natur-Kultur verhandelt wird" (13; original emphasis). In this respect, the esthetic turn around 1800 cannot be separated from the figure of singular procreation, which supplied the metaphorical and conceptual frame for concepts such as autonomy of art or originality. Overcoming the opposition between nature and culture was on the hidden agenda of Romantic art; according to Marie-Helene Huet, the Romantic portrait, for example, fulfilled this ambition by overturning the mimetic principle: "The Romantic portrait at once exceeded and betrayed the concept of classical mimesis. The representation does not imitate nature, it seizes it. The canvas does not simply mirror the living, it seems itself to be alive, fantastically and fatally" (168).

(5) For Susan C. Anderson, for example, Schnitzler configures gender roles in his narratives by means of visual metaphors: perspectives and ways of seeing can be said literally to become identity-shaping. The increased exposure of the female body follows the changes in the dynamics of the city life with its fluctuations between public presence and intimacy.

(6) "Ich meine, ich habe Sie gemieden aus einer Art von Doppelgangerscheu" (Briefe 357). Freud outlines in his letter the affinity between Schnitzler's work and his own as follows: "Whenever I get deeply interested in your beautiful creations I always seem to find behind their poetic sheen the same presuppositions, interests and conclusions as those familiar to me as my own ... your deep grasp of the truths of the unconscious and of the biological nature of man, the way you take to pieces the social conventions of our society, and the extent to which your thoughts are preoccupied with the polarity of love and death; all that moves me with an uncanny feeling of familiarity" (translation in Jones 443-44).

(7) Sander L. Gilman points to the mythical importance assigned to the "Ashantis," the Blacks originary from shamee in Western Africa, who were populating the Tiergarlen exhibition: "It is important to understand that the Ashantis were simply substitutes for a mythic image of the black, just as such "blacks" in turn signified the diseased yet attractive Other" (110). Gilman also refers to the already cliched intersection of racial and sexual aspects: "The black, both male and female, becomes by the eighteenth century an icon for deviant sexuality in general, almost always, however, paired with a white figure of opposite sex" (81).

(8) In the same essay, Freud makes the connection between negation in general and the death drive: "Affirmation--as a substitute for uniting--belongs to Eros; negation--the successor to expulsions--belongs to the instinct of destruction" (SE 19: 239). Thus, Thameyer's announced suicide can be seen as the highest instance of his refusal to acknowledge the betrayal.

(9) As Sander Gilman writes, "[I]t is Indeed the pure child as sexual object, the child free from the curse of adult sexuality ... which is projected onto the exotic as sexual object" (119). The exotic stands for the metaphorical distance which makes the perception of a sexualized female-child acceptable.
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Author:Costache, Florentina
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Geographic Code:4EUAU
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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