Midpoint in this astonishing short piece, “Memoirs from a Madhouse,” Christine Lavant describes her first interview with the county asylum’s staff psychiatrist. She has been incarcerated after a suicide attempt, and the year is 1935, the Nazi era. She writes: “The chief physician was there and the head nurse...and also a short bald gentleman, a stranger upon whom I now belatedly and sincerely wish a daughter who, after a suicide attempt, finds herself harassed by a court psychiatrist...but naturally she would be a lady and so everything would be entirely different from the beginning...”
Herself born on July 4, 1915, Christine Lavant was the ninth and youngest child (two of her siblings had died in infancy) of a miner father in the Lavant Valley in Crintham, Austria. Her mother labored as a seamstress.
“Another disheartening example of what happens when children of workers read novels instead of being raised to perform decent work,” The psychiatrist remarks later in the passage. Then Lavant writes: “…another doctor interrupts: “but why is she not working? Even if she appears to be somewhat frail she still could assume a less demanding job, and work drives away all sorts of stupidities which these young ladies sometimes encounter at a certain age. From school directly to a decent, stern workplace, that’s still the best remedy for hysteria.…‘All she wants to do is write,” said the sharp voice from the window. Everyone laughed.” Lavant ends the section posing this question to herself: “Why shouldn’t I have laughed, too?”
Ursula Schneider and Annette Steinsiek tell us in the preface of this book that, in place of becoming a writer and poetess, the impoverished, small mining village had offered Christine Lavant “other careers: poultry farming, nursery schools, horticulture, bookkeeping--such careers were supposed to turn the girls into capable farmers’ wives or domestic servants with secure positions.”
A frail young girl, often ill and bedridden, Christine was unable to perform the chores and duties a daughter of workers must, and found, instead, escape into what she called “alien worlds” through reading novels. Even reading “trash” was transportive, she wrote in one of her essays later in life, as reading anything at all brought her into “paradise.” By immersing herself in the works of Knut Hamsun, Lavant leapt finally and with no return into the full bosomed embrace of literature, as if held by a loving nurse, or angel. And she could not change, or ever give writing a less important place in her pursuit for personal survival.
“Hamsun’s novel Last Joy struck me like a sword in the middle of my heart,”Christine wrote, “Now I discovered that even the simplest and poorest life can partake of the magnificence of a destiny and I began to describe mine.” The medical dossier and records of her brief incarceration in 1935 describe Christine Lavant (she changed her last name after her home village’s valley, “Lavant” ) as “psychically troubled” but, at last, a “Writer”. The county paid for her treatment as she was officially notarized the “crazy person” of the community.
I stumbled on this memoir quite accidentally. The reason for me doing so was not originally to discover this startling writer, (though halfway into the poetic and literary inventiveness of this book I knew I had, indeed done just that). But, initially, I opened “Memoirs From a Memoir” because I had become exhausted, wearing down as I plowed and trudged through all the prose I could find in the libraries written by people diagnosed as “mentally ill” since around the 1920s. My research did not include poetry or poets, I am limited in analyzing poems, and so the texts I studied were either novels, stories, or memoirs. I was researching institutionalized madness for a novel of my own, one I was writing myself.
Whenever I set down to write fiction based on such over-used theme such as this, I try as hard as possible not to repeat what has already been written. And I am also very hard on what has been written since I want to do it, too, and shameless competitive urges well inside me. Nevertheless, aware of my sensitivities and failings in looking through contemporary material, I still believed something profoundly important was lacking as I went through even the most excellent fiction and memoirs written from the forties through today on being “mentally ill” and institutionalized for it. What was missing suddenly became apparent to me as soon as I read Lavant’s slim work. Stopping at “Prozac Nation” and other contemporary work which kept stressing the biological , neuron-affecting medicines as the turning point towards health for the writer, accepting his or her “mental illness” as an “illness”, it wasn’t that I didn’t agree with the miracle of biological research and its life-saving, life-altercating success with formerly hopeless cases of madness. I also wasn’t condemning the biological revolution as invalid, surely the medicines available now have revolutionized treatment and how society understands mental illness, all for the good.
The dissatisfaction I felt in being inundated in the most available books about depression and “mental illness” was less a result of having to read bad work--for some of the work was superb---but more a result of feeling that literature was relying on a medical model, losing a sort of metaphorical richness in its haste to agree with and join a reality-based paradigm of madness-- treatment, cure and recovery. And thereby, fiction was not reaching artistically further. In fact, it seemed as if fiction was avoiding rather than approaching that ineffable still point at the extremest edges of existence. Dodging the possible metaphorical and lyrical richness inner chaos could offer. the language, the story and its dimension. Any romanticization of depression was felt as dangerous. Whereas in medical practice, prescription and treatment is the central job, valuable beyond words, life-saving and life-caring, the work of literature, at least to me, is different, and it has very places to take us to: nightmares and surrealities, dreams and enigmas, awakenings and mysteries. I should say, in being literature and not a prescriptive instruction on emotional health and well-being, prose needn’t undercut or betray what is medically real and curative. But it is art and literature which can stretch further, reach for the ineffable mysteries of existence--in short, literature needn’t rely nor be limited on only the scientific and literal and obvious. In the end, it was Sontag’s position that I had begun to take issue for. Illness, in literary work, can be metaphorical, and maybe the hardcore adherence to the medical model, in avoidance of “romanticizing” mental illness had depleted rather than deepened our understanding of the psyche, the “soul”, the societal and political factors which give context to what is labeled “mentally ill”. Perhaps the very power of literature was diminished by, what Eliot might call “so much reality”.
What my wandering back to Lavant did was show me again the metaphorical richness I had forgotten in the scramble to join the reality-based literature that has sprung up in relation to the enigma called “madness”. Perhaps the most obvious example is Susan Sontag’s “Illness As Metaphor”, published in 1979, which argued that illness was just that: illness. A concrete condition. It is neither the devil’s work nor a sin ,nor any metaphor for something larger and more meaningful than a treatable or fatal condition One must imagine a kind of biological hardware within the soul. When one’s screws get loose, one has to go “fix” oneself.
The discovery of Lavant’s work was a voltaged reminder of how the power of literature can rescue us from one dimensionality and such measured reason. In Lavant’s memoir, literal thinking is subverted by this writer’s masterful sleight of hand. Irony, the realm of the mysterious, even the sublime as well as larger philosophical, political, and social questions were allowed to lurk again in her sentences. “Madness” presented as a black hole in a kind of human galaxy where some very unfortunate souls fall into vacant space, vacuumed into darkness under the cover of infinite night. Despite the sorrow and raw pain of its subject matter Lavant’s memoir returns us into the “paradise” Christine Lavant found herself as a young girl reading books, drawn into their “alien worlds,“ where even the “poorest life can have the magnificence of destiny”. In Lavant, language and literary technique in combination become a guide through hell, yes, but they also offer us a firm, protective hand. A novel about falling apart becomes a journey, our journey, too.
Rather than focusing on the contemporary books which have differed in how work before has approached madness but adapting themselves to the literal world of sickness non-fiction and the medical have proscribed, I thought it would be more valuable to underline and underscore the choices Lavant meant in contrast to them. While remaining factual the poetic language offers ambiguity and even a sense of farce which lends a kind of philosophical depth to imaginative, poetic prose.
“Ah, I’m laughing,” Lavant writes about the hot bath she is given in the asylum to cure her crying spells, “Indeed I’m still laughing, disgusting how little control one has over oneself. A laughing fit is in no way better than a crying fit, ridiculous. I’m not laughing about my shame which was too slight, it really vanished at once when I felt the pleasure of the warm water on my body. After all it’s just a matter of having something, anything on one’s body, an intermediate between one’s own palpable being and a future self. Well, well. I am expressing myself almost like a philosopher and just a moment ago I was lying in there like an object on display...”
In many other passages like this, Lavant’s modest flow of thoughts, the precision of her language give the memoir a quiet but subversive, poetic center. Even at its most harrowing points, Lavant can be funny and clear. And it becomes impossible for the reader not to become enchanted with this lucidly drawn world of outcasts. In one instance, Lavant tells us about a woman who believes she has seven beheaded sons in a chapel upstairs, each one , bodiless, only a head on a platter. One of these bodiless heads has remained unmarried and must marry Christine’s head, the woman demands. Later the same afternoon, after drifting into a sleep after a crying fit, Christine awakens to the sounds of the woman tearing at the railings of her bed screaming at her: “I want your head!“ The woman screeches. “You must give me your head! They have been waiting in the chapel for so long! “ Gracefully and comically, Christine convinces the woman to wait, “ ‘not today dear woman, ‘ I told her,” she writes, ” ‘Nurse Marianne is watching too closely today...we’ll get it done some time, you must go to bed now…”
In another passage, Lavant writes of a scene between a visiting son and a woman who “as Christ walks on water, this mother walks on the sea of her madness in the presence of her son. And he believes her. Not for a second is he afraid she could fall in again. And she doesn’t fall in. She never breaks through until the last door of the asylum has shut behind her son, but then it turns terrible.” There are: the ”hunchback”, who “revealed a glimmer of quiet goodness now in her otherwise so mean-spirited frowns, light and silky as if lit from somewhere” ; the “Crucified One” who removes her claws from the wall and collapses like an animal. Not until then, on the floor, when there is no longer an abyss beneath her into which she could sink, does she yield to the frenzy of folding her hands. Like wings they beat up and down, like weapons she hurls them up from below, like ropes she winds them around the feet of passerbys.”; and, among the most memorable to me, the nameless “ The Ivory Countess” who tends to walk now back and forth with quick, small steps in the hall, and her long dark skirt sweeps behind in an enterprising and yet reserved manner and it happens very rarely that one hears her voice.”
In the course of her stay, Lavant observes, with beautifully focused eyes, the plights and aspirations of so many of the incarcerated others. Then, gradually, her story turns farcical, and moving plotting of events and visits. Christine learns from the other that the only way to be released back into the world is to convince the staff a man will be the guardian of her outside life. After a visit from her brother-in-law, Anton, Christine begins to feign and exaggerate her love for him in order to be noticed as a woman who can be released back into society. Meanwhile she conceals the real love that broke her and brought her to the asylum in the first place--a passionate love for a distant and important physician, Herr Primarus. She comes to realize the staff will only imagine her as a woman who can be cured of some suffering love affair she might have had, by finds another, and then returning to her life. “What not get a boyfriend and get over the other one?” the staff psychiatrist asks her. “But what if he is you? What if I choose you for that boyfriend? Then what’re you going to do ?“ Christine answers him. Although there is a gentle comical touch here, this farce also serves to draw us towards some larger social and political questions about her both her ‘mental illness’“ and her state of incarceration.
The cynicism and the violence-potential of the court psychiatrists,” the brilliant afterword by Ms. Schneider and Ms. Steinsiek reminds us, “...his concept of judgement were for her an analysis of the “eternally inhuman.” “So that’s how it was, “ Christine writes after her interview with the staff psychiatrist “and an expert can not detect the new graduation in the mosaic. I say we are surrounded by devils who nothing so much as disguising themselves as love, and so we can pretend to love. In truth we are more capable of doing anything than summoning up even one grain of love.” Then: “Unfortunately nothing grows on my body except poverty”. As to the authentic, passionate love she had suffered for Herr Primarus, her probing proposes yet another “graduation” in the “new mosaic” of this era’s malignant pretenses. “It just occurs to me,” she write, “how did this nocturnal animal excite and then finally kill itself when there was no artificial light yet? Ah, who will tell me that? “
To spare her family and grandchildren embarrassment Lavant did not let “Memoirs from the Madhouse” into print once she learned she could not use a pseudonym as its author. She begged her publisher to stop its publication. “Please, please I implore you, “ she wrote, her publisher “I have nothing in my life but my siblings and they will be embarrassed and compromised and their marriages will be destroyed.”
Finally, Christine's closest friend, Nora Wydenbruck convinced Lavant to not burn the piece but to put a note in her literary estate that “Memoirs from a Madhouse” could be published thirty to fifty years after Lavant’s death. In the afterword, Ms. Schneider and Ms. Steinsiek speculate as to whether, once Christine Lavant became aware of the layers of historic abomination during this period, she might have been ashamed by her “self-absorption” and her “ fixation on a love story”. And, perhaps this was the reason for the halt of publication of the text.
On the reasons for writing Christine Lavant has said of her own artistic ambitions: “I adhere to personal experience---without historical experience---so that my writing remains true.” Ironically, by the sticking to what was emotionally urgent and authentic for her, Lavant has concomitantly presented a scorching but enlightening picture of the forces at play and at large during this most horrible of eras---the time of Nazi rule in Austria and Germany. “But finally there is no need to play a historical dimension off against a personal one in the text?‘ Ms. Schneider and Ms. Sieck conclude. “The text contains such a comprehensive cultural analysis that historical events would only be a further manifestation of an illness which expresses itself in everything and for which there is simple diagnosis.”
In one clear statement Lavant seems to sum up her own cure, if not her diagnoses-- both for the poverty and discrimination she faces and the discrimination and as justification for her writing. Or as she said it so much better, all the cruelty and injustice around her was “a weight I could only bear by if I created an inner counter-weight. The gift to us of this inner counter-weight, her writing, personal but always intelligent, lucid and sound is her gift to us.
”Illusions,” Lavant wrote, “to be sure, are safe, are precious, but the truth is usually more important.”
Her work which continues to draw on what is real even in or own era, what is of the body and of yearnings seemed to have an even greater importance to me now, as the literature of madness and recovery, all admirably non-metaphorical and knowledgeable about the biology of love and sadness and loss and “mentally ill” world had not included this poet’s more soulful guide through history and states of feeling., and, indeed, inquiry into the “eternally inhuman”.
“Tomorrow it will be,” she writes of her stake for psychic survival in such a world that surrounded her. “I alone had to take fate into my hands whereas others let themselves be guided by it. I sought out love for myself, I needed it to make a clean break with so-called adolescence. I nourished and raised this love completely alone and now I will gather and enjoy the fruits no matter how they turn out.”
It was my good fortune, and I hope it will become the good fortune for many, to find these fruits as Christine Lavant’s work gains a more visible place on all shelves.