The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
At this time in our collective political history, when comprehension of the dynamics of power are at their most urgent, it is puzzling that the work of Efriede Jelinek has encountered such dismissal and devaluation. Jelinek enters a primitive psychological realm. In some ways she’s a “fundamentalist” of the psyche: she adheres to psychosexual principles and reinstates them with passion and conviction. Her work relies on the echoes language makes against mountains of human bedrock. Where writers once articulated our deepest phantoms and drives, scorching us with brutal flames of truth about ourselves, Jelinek’s work is now an exception in the literary world, not a rule. For her work depicts characters who can’t help themselves, their “unconscious” is their sole, cruel master. Relationships, especially in The Piano Teacher, are borne from the ugly passions and scars of childhood. Sadomasochistic appetites prevail, and relentless perversions raise their disturbing flags, reminding us again that our only nation is the nation of the psyche and body. And it can be a loveless place where our souls, too, are abandoned to fester in repression under the laws of the “State” and the “Family”.
Jelinek mirrors the models of conformity that systems of capitalism inflict and create by obverse reflections emanating from the passions of the non-conforming. In Jelinek’s work, patriarchal hierarchies define the engines of commerce and commerce defines personal relationships, its individuals’ sexuality. By portraying Erika in The Piano Teacher, Jelinek’s work extends beyond just the depiction of a character’s inner, explosive self -- it attempts to give a language for the sadomasochism she feels is inherent in the capitalistic structures which dictate public and private lives. She wrote more directly about these themes in other novels such as Lust and Women as Lovers depicting “bosses” of “companies” coming home to plunder their wives’ bodies, treating them as mules, but it is in The Piano Teacher that Jelinek centres on the consequences of female autonomy, of independence from the inevitable norm.
In The Piano Teacher, a woman tottering on the broken edges of a post World War II Austrian culture, is caught between the posturing exteriors of that “norm” and her own darkest desires. Quite differently than in her other novels, The Piano Teacher shows the savagery of desire, even as it separates from the demands of society. It asks what would be unleashed if a woman confronts her illicit desires, escaping the repressive hold of “State” and Family. What makes the novel extraordinary is that it does not propose a facile answer to the questions of power and violence. It works only to tell their truths.
In her Nobel Prize speech, delivered in 2004, Jelinek wrote:
Is writing the gift of curling up, of curling up with reality? One would so love to curl up, of course, but what happens to me then? What happens to those, who don’t really know reality at all? It’s so very disheveled. No comb, that could smooth it down. How can the writer know reality, if it is that which gets into him and sweeps him away, forever onto the sidelines. From there, on the one hand, he can see better, on the other he himself cannot remain on the way of reality. There is no place for him there. His place is always outside ...
At the beginning of The Piano Teacher, Erika enters a sordid sex booth. Amidst men masturbating from booths next to Erika’s as they watch strippers, Jelinek writes of Erika: “All Erika wants to do is watch. Here, in this booth she becomes nothing. Nothing fits into Erika, but she, she fits exactly into this cell. Erika is a compact tool in human form. Nature seems to have no apertures in her. Erika feels solid wood in the place where the carpenter made a hole in any genuine female.” It is from this “outside,” that Erika’s desires loom to haunt us as readers, it is also from this “outside” that one can begin to understand that Jelinek is not offering a politically correct portrait in sync with feminist ideals where soon, though some sentimental act of courage or independence, a female character might learn triumph over victimhood. Jelinek has, instead, made Erika a “human tool”, as well as a “nothing”. That is, both a phallic aggressive force and a female suffering annihilation, nothingness. Erika’s desires are both labile and androgynous. What stands out, also, in this portrait of Erika is that she does not feel like a “nothing” solely because of a consequential set of events and relationships, though her father’s death and her mother’s suffocating control play a large part in her life. It is in keeping with Jelinek psychological fundamentalism that Erika’s desires are innately inside her, and have assembled into a kind of erupting, unmanageable energy she can no longer contain. Unlike many characters from feminist writers, the ownership of conflicts, of drives and even of disastrous disintegrations is held firmly in Erika’s hands. Her hands also take responsibility for being unable to prevent them from taking control of her person, her whole existence. She is, in other scenes, capable of self-mutilation. She slices into her flesh with a razor blade inside a bathtub after feeling an incontrollable desire for sex with a man, and because of it. The Piano Teacher hinges on such extremes, as well as the easily interchangeable positions of power.
Jelinek describes Erika, as “hoping to get into her room without being seen. But her mother looms before her, confronts her.” Jelinek continues: “She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation -- inquisitor and executioner in one, unanimously recognized as Mother by the State and by the Family.” The novel follows Erika as she moves away from the hold of her mother and enters her own metaphorical private room, replacing their bond by forming a new relationship with one of her young male students. She goes from the position of a strict, sadistic professor demanding obedience from her student to a place where her own passion to be submissive and abused by the same student finally undoes her.
Nietzche once wrote: “It is the slave who has absolute tyranny over the master.” Through Erika’s transformation from oppressor to oppressed, this paradox has never been better dramatized. As the power roles change and the young student is driven into his own innate torments, he must recognize his need to subjugate the object of his once most tender attraction. “Teacher and student face each other,” Jelinek writes, “woman and man. Between them: heat, an insurmountable wall. The wall prevents them from climbing across and sucking out the other’s blood. Teacher and student are seething with love and comprehensible desire for more love.”
There are many complex themes in The Piano Teacher and it would be a disservice to the complexity and multiplicity of issues in Jelinek’s work to say these are the only or most prevalent of them. The novel, for example, just as deftly takes on themes of conformity, of the consequences any member of society, male or female, suffers when trying to reach for individual differentiation and autonomy from the “State” and “Family”. Jelinek clearly satirizes and exposes the cliches and stereotypes of gender roles, of society in general. Her extraordinary linguistic energy and beauty could, alone, be admired as entirely unique, important -- glinting with abundant brilliance. But the questions of why her work is problematic for many, and why many critics and readers alike wish to push it away as if poisonous, too disturbing to read, are the questions that consumed me. It feels that The Piano Teacher in avoiding easier political statements and polemics in our current climate of comfortable absolutes -- that is, violence defined by nationality, gender, religious identity threads, and other surface parts -- is a rare gem. It is never welcome news that human beings are fragile, capable of sexual perversion, and the capacity to inflict human degradation on each other Or that the postures we carry around so confidently are vulnerable to explosions from deep within us. But I can’t imagine how deprived the world of literature would be if a writer like Jelinek wasn’t read and recognized. This is work that aims not to please, but to reveal. And perhaps the writer, as Jelinek stated in her Nobel Prize speech, is meant to to stay on the outside, in order to “see” better, to remain on the way of a truer “reality.”
“Row houses, one-family houses, the final rear guard of the day:,” Jelinek writes, “the people who live here have to listen to the distant rumpus all day long and into the night. Truck drivers from Eastern bloc countries, tanking up with a final spurt of the big world. A pair of sandals emerge from a plastic bag, and the customer has to check whether they are up to Free World standards. Barking of dogs. Amorous flickers from a TV screen. Outside a porno movie, a man shouts that you’ve never seen anything like what you can see here, just walk right in.” The same could be said of her novel. Though when the darkness in this porno movie theater falls, it is the outside world that seems to consist less and less of insight and light.