Elfriede Jelinek

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Michael Hulse (review date 21-27 July 1989)

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SOURCE: Hulse, Michael. “Brute Encounters.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4503 (21-27 July 1989): 802.

[In the following review, Hulse discusses the satiric elements and disturbing subject matter of Lust.]

The main characters in Elfriede Jelinek's new novel Lust are the managing director of an Austrian paper-mill and his much-abused wife Gerti. The man is referred to as “der Direktor”, much as one might refer to “der Führer”; his attitude to women matches that expressed in Hitler's table talk. Hermann is Schiller's “Ewig-Gestrige” with a vengeance, a man whose life is spent in the pursuit of power.

His exploitation of Gerti's body is rendered in formidably horrible terms. In the age of AIDS, the Direktor has reluctantly decided that gratification begins at home, and he uses his passive wife to satisfy his needs. There is nothing mutual about this satisfaction: Gerti is merely a machine for fornication, and she no longer even attempts to express her wishes. Deploying a repertoire of familiar images for the genitals and the sexual act, Jelinek gives us many that are singularly degrading. Those who found Die Klavierspielerin painful to read will find Lust altogether repugnant.

But then, that is the point. Elfriede Jelinek has said that she set out to write an erotic, indeed pornographic novel from the woman's point of view but found it impossible because the brutalized language used to describe sex was a purely male language of exploitation. If the unrelenting, nasty sameness here reminds us of “the inescapable monotony of pornographic writing” (in George Steiner's phrase), that too is part of Jelinek's intention.

Gerti, who has taken to drink, wanders out for a winter stroll, where she has a brute encounter with a self-centred student who then discards her for the younger women he routinely seduces. Gerti, however, mistakes this for love, has her hair done, and goes to find Michael on the ski-slopes he frequents; there he abuses her physically before a giggling crowd of youngsters. If the lonely middle-aged wife thought she had found the archangel to deliver her from her sorrows, she was pathetically wrong. The novel ends on a despairing note reminiscent of the infanticide dramas (written by men) of the Sturm und Drang: Gerti suffocates her son, already grasping and domineering, and sinks the child's corpse in the stream. The killing is the inevitable outcome of a growing abhorrence of the self-perpetuating male principle.

There are no new insights into sexuality, language and power in Lust. Jelinek avoids originality and achieves her satiric effects through pastiche and misprision. As in Die Ausgesperrten, she is still keen to épater les bourgeois, and is particularly scathing on sports, cars and savings banks. But her more searching scrutiny is reserved for the old gods of male culture; and textually, her satire is impressively rich. Her sardonic approach to “Natur”, with its exaggerated sense of concomitant savagery, often reads like a commentary on Goethe's “Wie ist Natur so hold und gut, / Die mich am Busen hält!” In the processes of assimilation and absorption that underpin power in her world-view, Jelinek seems to be restating the gist of Elias Canetti's Masse und Macht in a form that exposes the limits of its maleness. Above all, Jelinek's obsessive subtext is the history and teachings of Christ, for her apparently the archetype of male domination.

With twenty years of fiction, theatre and a little poetry behind her, Elfriede Jelinek has now attracted a wide readership. Like Die Ausgesperrten and Die Klavierspielerin,Lust is written in a vigorous, metaphoric prose unlike anybody else's in German. Her wit, contempt, satiric observation, and...

(This entire section contains 621 words.)

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taste for the distasteful, are all impressive. But for a writer who does not intend to remain anenfant terrible, these gifts may not suffice.

Carole Morin (review date 28 July 1989)

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SOURCE: Morin, Carole. “Dreamed of Depths.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 60 (28 July 1989): 33-4.

[In the following review, Morin praises The Piano Teacher as a “dramatic” and “seriously comic” work of fiction.]

Good books, like haircuts, should fill you with awe, change your life, or make you long for another. Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher manages to fulfil at least two of these demands in a reckless recital that is difficult to read and difficult to stop reading. The racy, relentless, consuming style is a metaphor for passion: impossible to ignore.

Of course, thwarted passion and unrequited love have been themes of fiction for centuries but the repressed piano teacher, Erika, and her “averagely handsome, averagely talented” pupil, Klemmer, reach dreamed of depths of mutual humiliation and dashed hopes.

These dashed hopes are expected, longed for, engineered and dreaded by Erika from the first signs of desire in her young pupil; but her middle-aged familiarity with pain, and her knowledge that “vice is basically the love of failure” makes the pain no less painful, this time.

By day Erika teaches piano, at night she watches TV with her attentive mother, whose love for her child is another selfish and all-consuming passion that “provides security, and security creates fear of uncertainty”. Mother and Erika are seldom apart. They have shared the same bed since “delivering the feeble-minded … disoriented father to the sanitarium in Lower Austria”.

Walking home from lessons, Erika rebels against Mother by buying vivacious dresses to hide in her closet, visiting peep shows, and observing copulating couples with fear and longing through the long grass of an infamous Viennese field.

The pupil Klemmer, who identifies with Nietzsche, is a debonair young Walter (who should be played in the forthcoming movie by Crispin Glover). He first pounces upon his teacher in a toilet, but Erika—afraid of losing the affection he hasn't yet given her—reacts to his advances by writing him a masochistic letter detailing perverse desires that she secretly hopes he will reject in the name of love.

Walter can't believe that “a woman who plays Chopin so marvellously” could long for these base acts, but he eventually complies by breaking her nose and cracking a couple of ribs while Mother—hilariously—is locked in the adjoining bedroom.

Because as well as being disturbing and dramatic, The Piano Teacher is seriously comic, even during the appalling scene when Erika inserts broken glass into the pocket of a pretty 18 year old piano student who has been smiled at by Klemmer. Because Erika knows that “ultimately the only things that count are creases, wrinkles, cellulite, grey hair, bags under the eyes, large pores, artificial teeth, glasses and loss of the figure”.

The most grotesque scene in this spiritually reckless book is not when Erika, during some rare time alone, nonchalantly slashes her genitalia with a razor blade; but the moment when frustration and desperation lead her to make a shameful pass at ugly old Mother, showering her with promiscuous kisses in the middle of the night, “sucking and gnawing on her big body” because the closest Klemmer comes to sensuality is to “keep barking Erika's name (which she knows anyway) into her mouth”.

The morning after Walter breaks her nose, Erika walks the streets of Vienna wearing one of the vivacious dresses, now ridiculously short and tight, with a blade in her handbag. When she spots her pupil laughing on distant steps with his young student friends in the sunlight the piano teacher has a choice. She knows that “only death is free, and even death costs you your life”.

Dagmar C. G. Lorenz (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Lorenz, Dagmar C. G. “Elfriede Jelinek's Political Feminism: Die Ausgesperrten.Modern Austrian Literature 23, nos. 3-4 (1990): 111-19.

[In the following essay, Lorenz explores Jelinek's attitudes toward feminism and the role of women in Die Ausgesperrten.]

While Elfriede Jelinek addresses women's issues she rejects the epithet “Feminist.” Her works focus on sexual politics, the socioeconomic plight of women to which she subordinates the theme of the female body and sexuality.1 Jelinek's literary tool, satire, is an oddity in the post-Holocaust literary scene in Austria and Germany, according to Jelinek, “weil die Juden nicht mehr leben.” Jelinek identifies with the Viennese Jewish tradition mentioning, among others, Kraus's and Canetti's method of dissection as a major influence.2 She places herself in the tradition of political and aesthetic antifascism.

Jelinek believes that the answer to the question about the meaning of life and women's opportunity for gainful employment are immediately connected. In her opinion, the position of a woman working at a conveyer belt is preferable to that of a housewife because the former has an economic basis on which to develop some measure of self-esteem, whereas the latter depends financially on her husband.3 When in the 70s feminist debates tended to deal with feminist separatism, an autonomous women's culture, women's history, and gender specificity, Jelinek demonstrated little interest in such issues isolated from the entire social system.4 She is rooted in the Marxist Feminist tradition, in the 1968 student movement. She herself experienced life in a Berlin Maoist commune,5 and she is a member of the Austrian Communist Party.

In the nineteenth century Marxist and bourgeois feminism evolved side by side, however, representing different interests. The former was political, the latter cultural. The names Zetkin and Bäumer exemplify the two opposite poles.6 Marxist-based feminism was concerned with systems, means of production, and gender roles resulting from social conditioning. Middle-class feminism with its theoretical link to anthropology and psychology stressed genetic and psychological differences between men and women. Jelinek's aversion to the term feminist may indicate distance from cultural feminism as institutionalized in Women's Studies Programs as well as from feminist critical debates which address predominantly white middle-class women's concerns.

Jelinek's feminism is political. It originated with her criticism of postwar Austrian culture and does not exclusively focus on women. Her topic is oppression. In keeping with Engels' Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State she portrays women and children as the most oppressed of all classes. Individualism is no longer possible.7 Jelinek does not regret the demise of this favorite bourgeois ideal. In the unegalitarian systems she describes, men and women are incapable of working together because they have been raised to view each other as different. Indoctrination about gender roles prevents communication. All males consider themselves potential owners of all females. Jelinek's characters are prisoners of reactionary language patterns and stimuli reinforced by media and popular culture, a situation that Marcuse analyzed as follows:

The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandising, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means of perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives. The authorities in education, morals, and psychology are vociferous against the increase in juvenile delinquency; they are less vociferous against the proud presentation in word and deed and pictures, of ever more powerful missiles, rockets, bombs—the mature delinquency of a whole civilization.8

Jelinek's Die Ausgesperrten is based on an actual criminal case. In 1965 Wunderer, a seventeen-year-old high school student, killed his parents and brother with a handgun, an ax, and a bayonet inflicting 180 injuries.9 But the novel is not intended as a documentary. Details of the incident were changed to develop a dialectic historical perspective. The names Hans Sepp and Sophie Pachofen recall Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, the “great” K. and K. tradition, and its bourgeois critic Musil to indicate that there is a continuity from the turn of the century into the post-Holocaust republic. Witkowski and Sepp's mother, the former Nazi perpetrator and the widow of a victim of fascism, a proletarian murdered at Mauthausen, establish the connection with the Nazi past. The novel is set in the 1950s, the years of Austria's culture crisis and its inability to come to terms with Austrofascism.10 Jelinek's discourse links the collapsing Danube monarchy and its bourgeois values with the misguided individual anarchy of the pop culture.

The youthful gangster and killer in Die Ausgesperrten—here his name is Rainer Witkowski—continues the legacy of the mass murderers in the concentration camps. For this purpose Jelinek changed Wunderer's father, an unresocialized World-War-I officer, into the former SS officer Witkowski. Other characteristics of Wunderer senior, such as his sadism and his compulsion to make pornographic photos of his wife, needed no change. The disabled veteran's preoccupation with pornography calls to mind Hitler's drawings of Geli Raubal, his fiancée who committed suicide, and literary figures such as Canetti's “Good Father” in Die Blendung,11 a protofascist sadist and pervert. Jelinek's interest in women's issues is evidenced by the fact that she replaced Wunderer's brother by a sister, Anna, and by the well-developed mother characters as well as Sophie Pachofen.

Anna is by no means a contrast figure to Rainer. Womanhood or femininity in Jelinek's discourse denote no alternative to the status quo. As the child of a wife abuser and a codependent mother, Anna is as incapable as her brother of resolving the conflicts inherent in her environment. Her mother—martyr and masochist—is a negative role model. Jelinek smashes the myth of the potential of femininity by virtue of its “otherness.” Anna represents more of the same: she is more brainwashed and less functional than her brother. Socialized as a female she does not even have the option of aggression as a form of rebellion. Internalized gender stereotypes as propagated in popular culture, but no less in the literature and art that represent high culture, make Anna's situation even more hopeless than her brother's. Rainer, much like Sepp, envisions sex as a means of social advancement, an illusionary notion, to be sure, because Sophie has no intention of accepting either boy's advances.

Anna accepts emotions and sex as an end in itself. She turns her aggression inwards. The results are a speech impediment and an eating disorder. Even when she demonstrates defiance, for instance in the sexual encounter in the toilet with a fellow student she abhors, she turns against herself by acting against her own values. To Anna love is the ultimate woman's fate, her fate. She submits to it after having become sexually involved with Hans who, in keeping with her society's standards, is her inferior. For Hans and Rainer, on the other hand, love is an issue only with Sophie, the girl who impresses them because of the opportunities she can provide them. Anna is a sex object to Hans, a substitute, useful until a better opportunity arises. Anna, on the other hand, becomes fixated on him, unable to envision an alternative. While the males have been trained to distinguish between sex and love, subject and object, women—and that also applies to Sophie—are indoctrinated to believe in the unity of body and mind, which makes them controllable.

Although the external circumstances of the women's lives differ, common to all of them is their passivity. Having no options, they are not involved in decision-making processes. Worse yet, they would be unable to recognize options if there were any. The most Anna is capable of is inflicting pain on defenseless victims under the watchful gaze of Rainer and Hans. “Anna hat einen Zorn auf alle Menschen, was schlecht ist, weil es den Blick vernebelt und den Zugang verstellt. Allerdings hat Anna ohnedies wenig Zugang zu den schönen Dingen, die es so gibt, weil man sie mit Geld kaufen muβ,” the narrator comments sarcastically.12

“Das positive Gegenmodell läβt sich mit meinen iterarischen Techniken nicht vereinbaren,” stated Jelinek.13 Indeed, there is not one hope-inspiring character in her novel. Sophie Pachofen is free of the illusions that blind her proletarian and lumpenproletarian acquaintances—after all, it is her own class that fabricates the mass-media dreams to keep the underprivileged ignorant. She is, however, little more than her family's pawn in the capitalists' power play. Her carefully cultivated image of impeccable cleanliness and her sexual frigidity are her selling points for a later marriage. The closest she comes to showing interest in sexual matters is when she has Sepp—in the hierarchy of the gang he represents the body—masturbate while she watches and worries about spots on her upholstery. Her mother's hypochondria and drug abuse foreshadow Sophie's adult years, the existence of a luxury object. In her own way she may be a time-bomb like Rainer. Her involvement with Sepp and the Witkowskis is a field trip, a privileged woman's study of the lower classes, yet not without a hint of exploitation: Sophie without fail has her poor friends pick up the tab for her.

While there is an instinctive acknowledgement of class differences, none of the characters has a political awareness except for Mrs. Sepp. Her Marxist class-consciousness is a leftover of the Austrian workers' movement, which, like the German Left, was destroyed by the Nazis. To an extent reflecting the author's own ideological predicament, Jelinek belongs to the KPÖ, a small party, almost an anachronism on the political scene, and yet the only one with an alternative program, and historically with a theoretical commitment to women's equality. The satirical stance taken toward Mrs. Sepp corresponds with Jelinek's dissatisfaction with any existing socialist society.14

Mrs. Sepp remains loyal to the party whose meetings her son rejects in favor of the jazz clubs15 and his vague hopes of making Sophie a vehicle for his social advancement. Rather than admirable, however, her clinging to an ideology without a future is pathetic. She is no less caught up in a misleading discourse than the other characters, rendered no less incapable of learning. Despite the murder of her husband, the never ending drudgery and poverty, and the movement's failure in the 30s and in the present she repeats her litanies of struggle and suffering as lessons to her son16 who is “a worker, degenerated from Marx to Elvis,” as Sichrovsky puts it.17

Yet Hans' mother is the only character with some kind of integrity, some kind of historical perspective and commitment to an antifascist program, ineffective as it may be in the era of postmodernity, a euphemism for post-Holocaust as far as the Austrian and German scene is concerned.

The placement of the gang's activities in the 1950s implies a connection between its anarchism and that of contemporary artistic movements, the Wiener Gruppe and Aktionismus. Jelinek is familiar with both movements, which in spite of their self-proclaimed progressiveness took no political course of action nor attempted to come to terms with fascism. Their protest, which in all likelihood was sparked by desperation over the past, remained diffuse at best, and at worst became an imitation of Nazi terror. Rainer Witkowski's atavistic blood-bath is in nuce fascist rage which Theweleit termed “the white terror,” only Rainer is unaware of it because he never analyzes anything as profane as politics or history.18 Much less does Anna, who is stuck somewhere in Schoenberg's pre-atonal phase and would-be elitist irrationality. Both twins' intellectual claims are pretense, originating in the unarticulated outrage at having been given a raw deal and in their impotence to understand and change their situation. In that respect they reproduce their parents' dilemma. Their Mittelschul-education alienates them from social and economical reality, teaching them that their needs are actually not their needs, and their desires not their desires. Sepp, in contrast, states his aspirations bluntly without sentimental and pseudointellectual embroidery.

Die Ausgesperrten establishes a complex net of interactions between individuals of different social strata, of both genders, and of different generations. While the young people are at the center of the work, older individuals provide the historical and social background and foreshadow the insurmountable rift between the social classes after the school years are over. Through the parents it becomes manifest that for the postwar children as well—for each class in a different way—there is no way out. All possibilities are limited, even if popular culture suggests the opposite. Birth determines the future. Postwar culture is shown as fascist in an insidious way: no external force is necessary to keep people in their place. Indoctrination through schools, pop culture, and homes creates concentration camps of the mind. Rainer seems to have vaguely sensed this reality while committing an Existentialist acte gratuit.19 It is no accident that he slaughters his family after the fateful Five O'Clock Tea at school with his parents, who destroy Rainer's debonnair façade.20

While the twin brother turns to murder, Anna and her mother are killed in passing, as it were, for Rainer's foremost hatred is directed against his father. As in warfare women and children are the incidental victims, so is Anna the victim of her brother's private revolution. While Rainer survives, she dies as his last victim.

Jelinek's narrator is omniscient in a fundamental way. She is cognizant of all events and not only interprets and psychology of the individual characters but also articulates the values of society. As the mouthpiece of the collective subconscious, a quasi chorus, the narrator makes transparent the dynamics that direct the behavior of the characters. The narrator has an intimate knowledge of her time's metalanguage, the ideology of postwar Austrian capitalism. As a hidden blueprint it determines social patterns by suggesting individualism, freedom, equal chances, and paying lip service to education and intellectual endeavors. In the final analysis all of these are mechanisms to keep the oppressed divided: the apparent chances are no chances, the education is communication of useless information to ensure that no social change will occur.

Yet that there is a voice from outside the prison of the mind that exposes and criticizes the mass culture is a sign of hope in a novel without heroes. Although Jelinek's characters have no chance—after all, they are representative of the norm—they are made transparent from a detached point of view. The discrepancy between each individual's self-image and his or her actual situation is laid open.

The narrator's cynicism equals that of the directors of the totalitarian mass culture. She avoids getting caught up in the sentimentality that comprises the foremost barrier to understanding. She exposes a disabling collective discourse that determines actions by prescribing feelings and reactions even before the occasion for them arises.

Short of a revolutionary change of all existing conditions, but most of all, of all existing language habits, breaking out of the prison of the mind is the best that can be hoped for. The realistic assessment of social facts and an unsentimental approach to basic social phenomena are a first step, hence the brutal unmasking of family and sexual relationships as conveniences based on economic conditions, of feelings as manufactured by the media. Hence the iconoclastic assault on the collective's “holy cows”: disabled veterans, mother-and fatherhood, the home, love, and friendship.

Women as the most immediate victims of brainwashing by oppressive discourses ranging from Genesis to Freud, Weininger, and Elvis, have the greatest need for a revolutionary change—such is implied in Jelinek's novel. That for them such a liberation is the least likely is implied as well. There is hope in Jelinek's novel, and no hope.


  1. Die Liebhaberinnen became a feminist cult book. Cf. Donna Hoffmeister, “Access Routes into Postmodernism: Interviews with Innerhofer, Jelinek, Rosei, and Wolfgruber,” Modern Austrian Literature, 20 (1987) 97-130. Jelinek believes that a man could not have written Die Liebhaberinnen. “Es wäre nicht richtig, mich als Feministin zu bezeichnen,” (Hoffmeister, p. 116). Jelinek holds that male critics do not forgive her for writing about female sexuality from a woman's perspective. Interview with Sigrid Löffler, “Jedes ihrer Werke ist eine Provokation,” Brigitte Sonderhefte Bücher, 23, (1983) 27.

  2. Hoffmeister, “Access Routes into Postmodernism,” 109 and 111. Jelinek believes that “durch die Faschisten wichtige literarische Traditionen gewaltsam abgebrochen worden sind.”

  3. Ibid., 113.

  4. On the contrary, as Jacqueline Vansant, Against the Horizon.Feminism and Postwar Austrian Women Writers (New York, Westport, London: Greenwood, 1988), p. 129, points out about Die Liebhaberinnen, the protagonists never discover their communality, “the critical stance of the author points to the mechanisms that keep women apart and the consequences of encouraging rivalry.”

  5. Beyond her aesthetics rooted in the Austrian satirical tradition as well as the experimentalism of the Wiener Gruppe there is the political component of the 1968 student movement. Jelinek lived in Berlin in the early 1970s, considered herself a Maoist, and has been a member of the Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ) since 1973. However, she does not consider any existing socialist society a valid alternative. (Hoffmeister, “Access Routes into Postmodernism,” 112) Aesthetically she has no link with social realism, with which she associates most of the contemporary women authors.

  6. Gertrud Bäumer was the exponent of the middle-class women's movement that found it possible to coexist with Nazism.

  7. “Literatur muβ dem Rechnung tragen, daβ der Individualismus nicht mehr möglich ist.” Hoffmeister, “Access Routes into Postmodernism,” 115.

  8. Herbert Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” in “A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston: Beacon, 1965) p. 83.

  9. Heinz Sichrovsky, “Die Ausgesperrten,” Arbeiter Zeitung, Wien, 17. November 1979, pp. 8-9.

  10. Joseph McVeigh, Kontinuität und Vergangenheitsbewältigung in der österreichischen Literatur nach 1945 (Wien: Braumüller, 1988). “Zur sogenannten ‘Kulturkrise’ der 50er Jahre,” pp. 117ff.

  11. Elias Canetti, “Der gute Vater,” Die Blendung (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1963), pp. 326-335. Michael Zeller, “Haβ auf den Nazi-Vater,” Frankfurter Allgemeine, 4.6.80, beobachtet korrekt “haβerfüllte Abgrenzungsversuche der Zwillinge gegen den Nazi-Vater” und ihre letztliche Hilflosigkeit, da sie selbst vom Elternhaus geprägt sind.

  12. DA, p. 11.

  13. Hoffmeister, “Access Routes into Postmodernism,” 111.

  14. Jelinek does not consider any existing socialist society a valid alternative. Cf. Hoffmeister, “Access Routes into Postmodernism,” 112. For Jelinek the father's proletarian, Jewish-atheist background was the decisive ideological influence. Hoffmeister, ibid., 109.

  15. Elfriede Jelinek, Die Ausgesperrten (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1985), p. 27.

  16. Ibid., pp. 26-27.

  17. Heinz Sichrovsky, “Die Ausgesperrten,” p. 9.

  18. Klaus Theweleit, Männerphantasien, Band II, “Zur Psychoanalyse des weiβen Terrors” (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1980).

  19. DA, p. 263.

  20. Ibid., pp. 249ff.

Carole Morin (review date 31 August 1990)

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SOURCE: Morin, Carole. “Triumph of the Will.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 116 (31 August 1990): 38.

[In the following review, Morin offers a mixed assessment of Wonderful, Wonderful Times, calling the novel “a flawed triumph.”]

My husband gave up guilt for Lent. He says guilt, like masochism, can be a subtle pleasure. And S&M is now in fashion the way bisexuality was in the early eighties.

Elfriede Jelinek wrote Wonderful, Wonderful Times before she perfected her unique voice, which combines the immediacy of the first person and the detachment of the third, in the brilliant Piano Teacher. Her publisher is not doing her any favour in failing to mention that this is not a new book. While it is undeniably powerful, it lacks the beauty and wit of the later book, and the echoes of last year's masterpiece make it disappointing: like the unavoidable dismay you might feel admiring the Sistine Chapel fresco after witnessing the Resurrection.

Every character in this book is grotesque. They are all masochists, sadists, or both: designed to bring out the sado-masochistic Nazi in all of us. The lurid lives of individuals full of bitterness, failure, weakness and hatred are an obvious metaphor for bourgeois Austria's Nazi past and (possible) neo-Nazi future. Jelinek's fear of decay, decline and death, is described in a simultaneously brutal and subtle poetic flow.

Her concern with Taikyoku, the great emptiness, is shown through consistently revolting characters uncompromisingly presented without any appeal or hidden charm. The four teenagers, who relieve their insecurity and sexual tensions by beating random victims senseless, are the Nazis. Their mothers “swaddled in the human tea-cosy of the murdered, the hanged, the gassed” are the Jews. The father of the violent teenage twins is an ex-SS officer with one leg who takes degrading pictures of his decaying wife's genitalia and rapes her on the dirty kitchen floor, then beats her with his crutch.

This is one vision of an endless march in unforgettable images: the father masturbating in his car while being driven home by his son; the worker Hans “spitting a thick gobbet of phlegm” into his broken mother's soup; the speechless anorexic female twin Anna shrinking from a maternal embrace while practising piano.

Her brother Rainer, the self-proclaimed gang-leader—a nihilist existentialist ex-altar boy virgin who writes down boasts to say in school—believes in the triumph of his will. Jelinek's ironic striptease scorns the notion that “you can create your own light if none is available.”

Nevertheless, the ecstatic violence of the final scene challenges any celluloid holocaust and Wonderful, Wonderful Times is a flawed triumph.

Angela McRobbie (review date 2 November 1990)

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SOURCE: McRobbie, Angela. “A Universe of Pain.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4570 (2 November 1990): 1183.

[In the following review, McRobbie examines the depraved and bleak world portrayed in Wonderful, Wonderful Times.]

Elfriede Jelinek's Vienna is a city of sexual squalor. Its post-war population—men, women and children—is taking revenge on its once noble or dignified past. These people bear no resemblance to the voluptuous, sexually satisfied creatures of Klimt's paintings. Nor are they the sexually curious but refined patients who filled Freud's consulting-room. Jelinek's men and women inhabit a universe of pain for which there is no “talking cure”. They are victims so given over to intensifying their suffering, to pursuing their own degradation, that we can feel no sorrow, no sympathy. In The Piano Teacher (published in Britain last year), Erika, the novel's central character, is brought up by a refined but insane mother, her madness masked by respectability and love of the arts. Erika's mother jealously protects her daughter's musical talent by cutting her off from humanity. She even shares a bed with her. Erika's will is broken, her talent takes her no further than a modest teaching job at the conservatoire. Her sexuality is not so much extinguished as deflected. She stalks the Prater park, spying on prostitutes and their clients. She visits peep-shows and takes delight in the sperm-filled tissues which litter the floor. She also cuts herself. Sex is an opportunity only for confirming everything that is rotten. It is the ultimate act of self-hatred.

Wonderful, Wonderful Times is set in Vienna in the early 1950s. It was written before The Piano Teacher, and, although it is just as brutal, its concern with literary precedents (Sartre, Camus and even Cocteau) bestows on it a hint of playfulness. It is not quite as stripped, not quite as anguished as Jelinek's more recent writing (including the as yet untranslated Lust). The forces of history and those of the unconscious come together in the four young teenagers who represent the Austrian version of the age of affluence. Rainer and Anna have an ex-SS father who looks back with longing to the wonderful times of the title, when he could boot to death Polish peasants with impunity. Now with a wooden leg, an invalidity pension and a job as a night porter, he turns his attention to “art” photography. His only model is his wife, whom he forces to pose for full frontal nudes. He tries to capture something of the style of the porn magazines by having her “caught unaware” with nothing on but an apron. He complains when she doesn't look right, when her hair isn't clean and silky as it should be, when her body is more like a “piece of mouldy cheese” than that of a proper photographic model. When she objects he abuses her.

Rainer is psychically battered. He is clever and seeks in art not so much solace as guidance. He reads French literature and finds what he needs in 1950s existentialism. Like his sister, Anna, he more often resorts to violence. Anna periodically cannot speak. They are disturbed children for whom some allowances are made at the city Gymnasium. Sex is another of their weapons. Anna offers herself to a classmate in the school toilet and watches Gerhard losing his virginity with only a flicker of interest. Later, on the tram home, a man pushes his penis against her. When she doesn't move away he thinks he's in luck. Anna then signals to the gang who rifle his pockets as he edges closer.

Anna and Rainer are the leaders because they have the least to lose. Sophie is rich, which seems to give her something to live for, but in reality she too is already lost. Hans is a working-class youth whose mother is a communist and whose father died in the camps. Together this foursome rob, steal, drown cats, and eventually plant an incendiary device in the school cloakroom. Only Rainer aspires to truly psychopathic status. On achieving this he quickly and willingly turns himself in.

Wonderful, Wonderful Times is spartan in style and Jelinek's tone is dry and laconic. So debased is her world, so full of loathing, that there can be no beauty in language. That would be to veer too close to the version of art so valued by the various mother figures who crop up in her inner landscape of hate. If art, in Vienna, has been seen as something better, something out of the ordinary, something majestic, Jelinek will make of it something worse. She will insist that flat, unadorned and even ugly writing is what is required.

Jelinek writes as the child who has not recovered, the victim of abuse who has never made the transition to being a “survivor”. Like the child who fantasizes playing with its own excrement, Jelinek discovers humour only in moments of complete perversity. In Jelinek's world, pop culture, especially porn films and horror movies, offer something of a relief. Now celebrated as a major writer in France as well as in German-speaking Europe, Jelinek said of her writing in a recent interview in Die Zeit, “Yes. I am that in my hatred of myself.”

Richard Eder (review date 16 December 1990)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “A Cuckoo Clockwork Orange.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 December 1990): 3

[In the following review, Eder notes the “black irony and jarring distortion” in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, comparing Jelinek to Austrian author Thomas Bernhard.]

Since Wonderful, Wonderful Times is set in the 1950s gloom of postwar Vienna; since everyone in it is crass, corrupt or distorted; and since it ends in a horrible blood bath, the title could justifiably be taken as gallows humor of the crudest kind.

It is, in fact. Jelinek's characters, and the voice she uses to tell of them, are fashioned with black irony and jarring distortion. Yet the ultimate effect is grace, a dark image delivered in terms appropriate to it, but in a draftsmanship that conveys a hint of delicacy and lyricism, as if these had been ejected from the room but continued to haunt it. We think of George Grosz.

Like Thomas Bernhard, her older Austrian compatriot, Elfriede Jelinek writes of the still-unsettled accounts of the 20th Century. Austria is the place to do it, of course; with the dismemberment of her one-time empire, the bitter chaos following World War I, her acceptance of the Nazi version of being German, and her abdication of a version of her own.

The unhealed guilts were never confronted the way they largely were in Germany. Avoidance is paid for in the figure of an internationally shunned president whose history is as unclear as that of his country. And in the harsh, surreal denunciation by such writers as Bernhard and Jelinek.

The sleep of memory, like that of reason, produces monsters. Rainer, his twin sister Anna, and their buddies Hans and Sophie, are monsters of a sort, as they rampage around Vienna. They are teenagers for whom the word wilding would be invented 30 years later; they waylay passersby, rob and savagely beat them.

But Jelinek does not write of this violence as we write of American wilding—as awful and arbitrary acts afflicted upon a troubled but still coherent society. It is Vienna, and the society that emerged from its past without naming it, that is awful and arbitrary. Monstrosity is the history that the four young people breathe. And because it is, Jelinek can endow them with a measure of perverted innocence. Fleetingly, we perceive the innocence along with the perversion.

When we meet them at the start, the four are at work upon an unfortunate innocent who happens to be walking through the park. Anna, thin and perpetually raging, concentrates on scratching his face and eyes. Hans, a factory worker, punches stolidly away. Sophie, from a rich family, keeps her distance and uses the points of her expensive boots. Rainer, the intellectual, does little actual damage; he concentrates mainly on fumbling for the wallet.

I referred to the victim as “an innocent,” but Jelinek's narrator does not altogether agree. Its voice suggests that to have a wallet is already not to be altogether innocent. It is a disembodied voice, sardonic, amused, nihilistic, with an occasional moralizing phrase that parodies respectability, like a teenager trying on his aunt's hat.

We hear it describing the initiation of Sophie into the gang. Rainer—whose mother named him after the poet Rilke—is an existentialist, an admirer of Camus and Sartre. When he sits with the others in a cafe, something they do a lot of, he tries to practice Sartrean “nausea,” though he only manages queasiness. Sophie, he decides, must commit an existential free act, so they all go off to the Vienna Woods carrying a sack that twitches:

In Jean-Paul Sartre's The Age of Reason is a character who wants to drown his acts, and so today they are planning to drown this cat too, though this cat also has a right to live. Rainer says that he himself has an equal right to nonexistence, just as this cat does, this cat which he is going to assist on its way to nonexistence before it can count to three. The cat has its suspicions. Hence the brouhaha in the sack.

Sophie gets her designer dress muddy and botches the job. Hans smacks her on the mouth. Both the mud and the smack are piquancies for her; she hangs out with the others as a diversion from her privileged life. She brings the gang home mainly to annoy her mother; she makes Hans strip and masturbate but won't let him touch her. She has the coldness of the rich and powerful, and will leave the others at the end to go to school in Switzerland.

Hans, son of the widow of a Communist labor leader, rebuffs his mother's efforts to make him socially conscious. He burns her pamphlets; he wants to be a rock star; he is besotted with Sophie. Since he can't have her, he has energetic sex with Anna.

She, like her brother, is an intellectual, or tries to be. In fact, her philosophical fury masks perfectly conventional longings; she falls helplessly and romantically in love with Hans. As for Rainer, he too is obsessed with Sophie and tries to win her from Hans by talking incessantly. After one of the gang's sorties, he begs her to stay with him. “I need someone to explain everything to,” he says, imagining himself a fashionable savant to whom beautiful women are bound to flock the way they do—he has heard—in Paris.

If the gang's maraudings and arguments are narrated with a sardonic lightness, the comedy is grimmer when it comes to Anna's and Rainer's parents. The father is a former SS man, now crippled and working at a humdrum job. He is as filled with rage and fantasies as Anna is, but his are real and deadly.

“His one-time enemies got away through the chimneys and crematoria of Auschwitz and Treblinka,” the narrator savagely tells us. He can't kill Jews, but he can beat his wife. He interrupts her cooking to make her strip and pose for pornographic photographs; it is hard, he tells himself, for a man to be satisfied with one naked alive woman when he has seen piles of naked dead ones. For real arousal, he pulls out his pistol and rushes into the kitchen to “rape” his wife. She is wearily submissive, but it is necessary for him to think of it that way.

Hans, with his rock-star fantasies, represents the corruption of the working class; Rainer's father, the corrupt history of the middle class; Sophie's all-but-invisible parents, the continuing corruption of the wealthy and powerful. Their grotesquerie fills gradually with horror.

Rainer's intellectual fantasies, which have protected him from his own and the world's rage, give way in a scene of wild bloodiness. Until then, except for the manipulative Sophie, the young people were like frail and jaunty paper boats floating in a sewer. Its contents—Austria's unpurged history of denial—is backed up. Of course, it will rise and engulf them.

Tobe Levin (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Levin, Tobe. “Jelinek's Radical Radio: Deconstructing the Woman in Context.” Women's Studies International Forum 14, nos. 1-2 (1991): 85-97.

[In the following essay, Levin examines the gender and feminist themes explored in a selection of Jelinek's radio plays.]

Australian expert in bioethics, Paul Gerber, commenting on the possibility of using braindead women as incubators for implanted fertilized eggs and as storage for donor organs, stated that this development would not only be ethically sound but in fact “progressive” and “a great” idea. The professor from the University of Queensland made his views known at a recent conference on medical ethics.

(Brutkästen, 1988, p. 8)

At their international conference in July, 1985, FINRRAGE (Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering) issued a statement deploring the “expropriation” of “the female body,” its dissection “as raw material for the technological production of human beings.” Warning against the power relations informing the new technologies, the delegates declared: “We do not need to transform our biology, we need to transform patriarchal, social, political, and economic conditions” (Spallone & Steinberg, 1987, p. 211).

Central to any analysis of this threatening phenomenon is the context: In whose interest is the current “externalization of conception and gestation” occurring? Not in the interests of women. Technocrats claim they are helping the sterile. But desire to give birth at any cost betrays a suspect origin in male dominance. Patriarchy's control of female fertility has been a cornerstone of disempowerment; in a phallocratic world, genetic manipulations further cement women's exclusion from power.

In the 1980s, reproductive technologies have witnessed an astonishing rate of development. But the destructive logic behind such macabre procedures as fishing for eggs or grafting of species could have been foreseen earlier and appears in fact in a little known but startlingly revealing radio play by Austrian Marxist Elfriede Jelinek, broadcast on March 27, 1976, The King Bees. In it Jelinek addresses issues central to feminism—power relations between the sexes and who controls fertility—in a poetic language that unmasks the motives of the dominant discourse and, through displacement, irony, and emphasis on the context of an utterance, offers tools for resisting manipulation, hence of defying, as the FINRRAGE women do, the hegemony of the technocrats. In the most effective sense, The King Bees, because it addresses itself to a well-schooled audience conversant in these issues, can perhaps challenge the seeming inevitability of increasing power differentials between females and males that threaten to result from the reign of “male mothers.”

We can more easily understand how Jelinek's project works if we focus a deconstructive lens on it. More recently than their European counterparts, American feminist literary critics have turned to the French theorists for insight into the fundamental questions of subjectivity and language. In an issue of Feminist Studies devoted entirely to feminism and deconstruction, Mary Poovey sets the tone when she asks whether deconstruction constitutes an adequate methodology for feminist critics, pointing on the one hand to the theory's “antihumanist premises” that undermine “a feminism … [whose] epistemology and practice [build] on women's experience” (Poovey, 1988, pp. 51-52). In this view feminism is “simply another deluded humanism” (Poovey, 1988, p. 52). At the same time, post-structuralist theory is an “endeavor … to imagine some organization of fantasy, language, and reality other than one based on identity and binary oppositions” (Poovey, 1988, p. 56), although, admittedly, this is difficult: Images of utopian future(s) often elude the pen.

Jelinek's work has been discussed in terms of a similar conflict, between her humanism, inspired by Marxist/feminism, and her aesthetic, variously described as elitist, esoteric, inaccessible, but mainly faulted with negativity. Irony, her principal tool, reverses, opening up the void between expectation and fulfillment, emphasizing what is not. Similarly, deconstruction seems to feed into reaction: Its refusal of identity and its engagement in endless unravelings of meaning, while challenging the economy of the One, do not empower the Other. Insight into the mechanics of domination does not per se erase it. Yet, as a methodology, deconstruction has been held by some to be a useful arm in the radical's arsenal. Specifically, by destablizing the dyad male/female, uncoupling the sexual signifier from its anatomical referent, it may increase the range of options for “women” and “men.”

This explosion of the sign, an important dimension in Jelinek's novels, is perhaps even more striking in her radio plays. If a prose work like Michael: A Children's Book for the Infantile Society (1972a) functions as a take-off on the consciousness industries like radio and television, how much more cutting is the parody within those media themselves. Critiquing her form in her content while undermining content in her form, Jelinek refuses to participate in the illusionist tradition sucking an audience into the very structures that silence them. Instead her radio drama makes hierarchies the object of her radical reversals. If deconstruction offers a method of reading the individual's relation to the system, so Jelinek's metaproject would seem to be offering an inspired opportunity for deconstructive thinking.

To take an introductory example from The King Bees: Post-structuralism emphasizes moving beyond the production of meaning(s) dependent entirely on linked elements in a closed system. Jelinek sets up and explodes such a system. In Terrana I after the maximum holocaust, language, literally the same as that used in the contemporary world, is radically dislocated as soon as the context is invoked. One particularly macabre illustration is an ordinary “patriotic text”—the perennial discussion concerning relations between the individual and the state:

MALE voice 4:
(very affected, almost gay) That [soldiering] is a wonderful thing for a young person.
MALE voice 3:
(enthusiastic) When I was young I would have given my right arm for a job like that.

(Jelinek, 1982a, p. 29)

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: Such sentiment serves the ruling class. Here, however, the euphemism of sacrifice is unmasked by the context. The ruling technocrats, after discovering a life-prolonging substance, have determined to exterminate their younger male rivals and store their organs for future transplants, initiating an economy to harvest human beings. The figurative subjunctive statement—I would have given my right arm—must now be taken literally, and the interested ideology behind it is revealed. Similar pious language—“We'll think about them always, they'll live on in us”—is equally inverted by repartee perfect in this context: “Maybe even in the form of a kidney or a heart!” (Jelinek, 1982a, p. 29)

To continue the illustration, a second important moment in Jelinek's project is her deconstruction of the term “woman.” In Terrana, those with the power to name call themselves King Bees, a type that, significantly, does not exist at all in nature. Women they divide into the Mutas or incubators and the Hetis or courtesans. Because the Mutas have been isolated in cubicles like honeycombs, they have been styled euphemistically Queen Bees. Now, in Poovey's words, breaking the concept of “woman” into “independent variables … show[s] how consolidating all women into a falsely unified ‘woman’ has helped mask the operations of power that actually divide women's interests as much as unite them” (Poovey, 1988, p. 59). If the feminist task includes mitigating the political ramifications of essentialism or biologism, then a deconstructive vision can reveal the interests served by the ruling ideologies of “woman.”

At the same time, however, Jelinek's myth risks essentializing “man”: The patriarchy appears so seamless, so monolithic, that it suggests a “natural” marriage of masculinity and dominance. But a deconstructive reading discourages this impression: Women are not alone in their exclusion from power. Nor are all women equally far from the governing circles. In a gesture of Marxist inspiration, Jelinek links the Mutas to the technocrats and the Hetis to the sons, these new political alignments exploding “sex” as a marker of class. This, too, recalls post-structuralism: Disconnecting anatomical sexuality from gender, it might be possible, as Poovey notes, to cease “relegating all biological variants into the two categories, ‘male’ and ‘female’ (with ‘abnormal’ absorbing everything that is ‘leftover’), [and] enable us both to multiply the categories of sex and to detach reproduction from sex” (Poovey, 1988, pp. 59, 60). I see a similar projection in Jelinek's work.


Unmasking the context of veiled brutality is Jelinek's metaproject in two early radio plays, Demise of a Diver (1973) and Kasperl and the Chubby Princess or Kasperl and the Skinny Peasants (1974). Both offer an acoustical mirror of the early prose work Michael: A Children's Book for the Infantile Society (1972a) laced with the cartoon brutality of We're Decoys, Baby! (1970). Like the novel, they parody “die heile Welt,” the unsullied world of television and mass media. Written mainly in cliché, the platitudes of “performance” and “place” are revealed as antithetical to the interests of those for whom they are broadcast, mainly the powerless. As Jelinek explains in a 1978 interview, she is concerned with “this society of minors infantilized by a gigantic consciousness industry functioning like the Super-ego of psycho-analysis, like all-powerful fathers. … Models to emulate are placed so far above the norm, taken from the level of wealthy sports car drivers and lottery winners that people never even consider making any political demands. … Nobody thinks of questioning, let alone dismantling, the dominant structures” (Levin, 1979, p. 130).

Her principal theme is subjectivity: how the majority has come to think as it does, and how the sedative effect of ideology is to be counteracted. Demise of a Diver (1973), inspired by the bourgeois myth of individualism, suggests several answers. A caricature of the modern citizen, the title figure, with a wife and two children, is a professional snorkler despite old war wounds and has set out on holiday in hopes of encountering some famous person to adulate. Lassie and Flipper soon appear, emissaries of the “realm of the children's laughing eyes” who, however, reward expectations of kindness with brutality. Gratuitously, the television dolphin tells his “speechless” admirer, “I'll bite off two of your fingers and throw them in the trash” (Jelinek, 1973, p. 6). Threatened by this misfortune, the diver responds with the time-worn adage, “I'll pull myself back up by my own bootstraps” (Jelinek, 1973, p. 8) but the bourgeois promise of success and humanist view of the worthy idol are disappointed time and again. In fact, the radio drama translates the slogans of the status quo, like those of working yourself up, into literal catapults and stressful climbs, and the “diver,” although he surfaces for air, is headed straight down, doomed to experience the “demise” of his entire class, prey to its internalized illusions.

This radical critique extends to the very idea of the “Mensch,” the concept of the human being used to sedate suspicion and deflect awareness away from inequalities of power. The respected television personalities, parodied by Lassie or Flipper, constantly deny the possibility of differences in both essence and position, spouting such pieties as “There are no winners or losers, there are only people” (Jelinek, 1973, p. 41); or relying on the liberal illusion: “Wars would be superfluous with only a little understanding” (Jelinek, 1973, p. 29). Hence the call for “a little more kindness from mensch to mensch to mensch to mensch to mensch” (Jelinek, 1973, p. 20). The repetition heightens our awareness of the utterance as cliché and, while seeming to broaden the field of individuals designated “mensch,” it actually collapses distinctions, particularly in the context of brutality Jelinek presents, sparing no one. Extending from child abuse through rape to medieval methods of torture, the radio's play-by-play descriptives redefine menschlichkeit (humaneness) as cruelty. For example, the job interview à la Jelinek: “The boss is merely going to finish listening to Mozart's Symphony in G-minor. Then he'll be ready to crush your fingers and toes” (Jelinek, 1973, p. 32) Clearly, in this world of systemic violence, the “humanities” also fail.

Ute Nyssen, in her “Afterword” to the Prometh edition of Jelinek's plays, writes of the author's “overriding method,” that her reliance on “a pastiche of quotations from the media and advertising” evidences not only a satiric impulse, but perhaps more importantly constitutes an attack “against strategies of obfuscation” (Nyssen, 1984, p. 156). This is clearly the case in Kasperl and the Chubby Princess or Kasperl and the Skinny Peasants (Jelinek, 1974). An allegory in which the obese noblewoman represents the propertied class and her suppliers the working majority, the tale focuses once again on the myth of mobility and, in its didacticism, offers intellectual tools for unmasking it. The gourmand's royal father makes a proclamation in fine fairy-tale tradition: Whoever can help his daughter lose weight and regain her health will be rewarded with her hand. The effect is not unlike the appeal of a lottery, to individualism, for hypothetically, anyone can win. In fact, rigid material distinctions are maintained. The mystification this implies warrants such a clear lesson in political economy as the following:

If somebody wants more than anybody else, then he has to take it away from them. Of course it may happen that the others don't even notice that anything's being taken away, or else they think its O.K. to lose out if the person doing the taking is a powerful man or if he has a pretty face or simply drives a fat car or has a gigantic castle or even a private airplane and so forth.

(Jelinek, 1974, p. 32)

The icons of wealth identify the idols of the meek who are trained in self-effacement by those placing themselves above others. Here Jelinek attempts to disassociate the symbol from the emotion it evokes, to bring the powerful down to the level of selfish children for whom Kasperl is king. He in turn holds the discourse of the status quo: “Industry and sacrifice make the good child” (Jelinek, 1974, p. 8); “We always want to obey our King … by not eating too much and not drinking too much and not snacking too much and not playing too loud.” And “whoever gives up his lunch for a day makes the King particularly happy” (Jelinek, 1974, p. 7). The interests propagating “sacrifice” as a civic virtue are visible in this fable despite the masquerade: Motivated by fear of authority, the “altruistic” spirit is omnipotent Father State internalized by the infantile. Only the “common sense” of that underestimated outsider, the kitchen maid, breaks into the closed discourse of mystification.

If the princess—a woman—seems at first a dangerous choice to represent privilege, another female stands for the counterpart of sceptical resistance, creating an effect that makes biological sex far less significant as an indicator of status than type of work and distance from power. If the first remains a ruling class accomplice whose interests differ markedly from those females of the unpropertied group, the character called Gretel is the single questioning voice. The person in charge of the kitchen, who knows first when the pot is empty and whose stomach knots with what has been taken away, she is less easily duped, more strategic in her “morality,” the type of down-to-earth mother courage capable of rippling the smooth flow of jargon with her irreverence: “I didn't really hear that, did I? And you really believe all that junk your teachers stuffed your heads with?” (Jelinek, 1974, p. 7).


The silence of women (and the disempowered of both sexes) is a commonplace of feminist literary criticism, and, in fact, the princess in Kasperl never speaks. But slapstick disfigures the voice of the powerful also, treating it like white noise against which Gretel's “common sense” stands out. As the stage directions make clear, the king's language, for example, is incomprehensible apart from the key words: “Crisis, work, hard work, heavy work, love, the well-being of the people, sacrifice, work … ballet dancer …” (Jelinek, 1974, p. 18) while his sidekick Pezi echoes the ends of Kasperl's sentences. Thus floating freely without anchor in a comprehensive discourse of authority, the terms are easily deflated by the pinprick of audience complicity.

This manipulation of a sign's context is a strategy applied to portraits of biological women in a number of the radio plays and can be viewed as an attack on essentialist interpretations. Specifically in For Some, the Setting Sun Means the End of a Working Day (1972b), What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband or the Pillars of Society (1982b), and Bringing up a Vampire (1986). This reorientation is effected either by clearly equating “female” with “function”—no matter who, male or female, is subordinate, that is the “woman”—or by transgressing the boundaries of “sex,” exaggerating the exclusivity of the label “woman,” inadequate to cover the multiplicity of incompatible characteristics associated with anatomically female characters or, in the case of Emily, with disembodied female anatomies, the ultimate in reversal and absence.

Function, not biology, defines the female in Jelinek's prize-winning radio play For Some, the Setting Sun Means the End of a Working Day (1972b) where we encounter the familiar pastiche modus and self-conscious broadcast. Gaby, a dreamy teenage department store clerk, accepts the advances of Markus, an established man in his late thirties. He courts her gently, in the fashion of romance heroes, with suspense stemming from his frequent disappearances and reappearances in the company of a mystery woman. At last we learn she is his doctor; he is stricken with a fatal illness that he wishes to hide from Gaby in order to live out his last days in idyllic harmony. All the soporific appeal of the soaps is here, impinged on, however, by the media's self-reflection: This tale is itself a radio soap whose performance is frequently interrupted by a parody of audience involvement. After Gaby and Markus have exchanged good-byes, a professional announcer's voice initiates the “dialogue.” First with a hypothetical female listener:

Whom did you say I should ask your?—husband.—What do you think is important, that a woman should make herself pretty for her?—husband. You can tell what by looking at whom your?—that. husband. … What do you have that's the most beautiful in the world?—profession. Who always suffers when the mother works the?—children.

(Jelinek, 1972b, p. 8)

Then with a man:

What's your profession?—butcher. … What is it after all that men don't have the? children.—What is your ideal your?—work.

(Jelinek, 1972b, pp. 11, 12)

This takeoff of the magazine quiz parodies biologism as it informs the pedagogic impulse of the media and the slogans of the everyday. Prejudice thus becomes conscious. The catechism of female submission is sabotaged by turning declarative statements into interrogatives, the resulting broken clichés to be mended by the listener whose participation lends new meaning to the hackneyed phrases. They appear as the binary oppositions on which deconstructive critics find Western culture to be based and as such contain the source of their own displacement. That is, the man's ideal can be his work only so long as anatomy, and specifically the birthing of children, places “women” in a wholly separate category. This in turn is the case neither in the listeners' world nor in the radio play whose women also work, one as a sales clerk, the other as a doctor, even though marriage and motherhood represent the illusion in which Gaby is trapped. But as parts of a system dependent on each other, the wage-earning male implying the child-bearing female, challenge to one will also undermine the other and the system. Thus anatomy, the fact of women's bearing children, is significant only as part of a system of ideas, one also confronted by Jelinek's Nora (1982b).

In this radio play Jelinek continues to deconstruct the concept of “woman” by disassociating anatomy from social category in a gesture moving well beyond the ending of Ibsen's masterpiece, as implied by the title: What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband or the Pillars of Society. Similar in inspiration to Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (1982), which exposes the Victorian repressed by exploring the insanity of Jane Eyre's double in the attic, Jelinek deflates her model's upbeat implications by revealing the futility of various positivistic theories of women's advancement, in particular emancipation through entry into the wage economy. Instead the bourgeois woman's attempt to escape domination by men lands her in the working class where differences among women are highlighted, thereby calling the category itself into question. The factory workers stand by their men, against Nora's advice: “You've got to burn whatever makes you unfree. If you have to burn your men, too, so what? They've put machines in your hands and doubly and triply exploited you without giving you anything in return” (Jelinek, 1982b, p. 189). Nora, distinguished by her background and verbal skills, appears to be more radical than her colleagues in naming and denouncing sexism, going so far as to employ a deconstructive lens herself. But she ultimately reverts to a type of bourgeois individualism that allows events in context to cement and not dismantle gender and class hierarchies.

The context is the plot. In forsaking the security of bourgeois marriage, Nora drops in status but only temporarily. In a skillful parody of Ibsen's entertainment scene, she is selected from among the troupe of women workers to amuse the industrial bigwigs on their factory tour. Her tarantula seduces the politician Weyland who courts her with the material goods she has begun to miss, the “long done-without,” namely furs. The remainder of the action merely underscores the impotence of her feminist theory: As Weyland's consort, she gains privileged knowledge of secret plans to construct a nuclear power plant but cannot parley that information into any kind of constructive opposition. Instead, after having maneuvered her ex-husband Helmer out of a fortune, she rejoins him as a petit-bourgeois shopkeeper.

Staged in the twenties, events in the play occur under the sign of Hitler's and Mussolini's pronouncements on gender, which ironically encourage an equal-rights feminist response. The educated Nora quotes both men:

“A majority of the people are supposedly so feminine that its thought and action results less from cool reasoning and much more from emotionality,” says Mr. Hitler.

(Jelinek, 1982b, p. 174)


“The moment a woman touches a machine she loses her femininity, unmans the man at the same time and discourages him by taking the break out of his mouth,” says Mr. Mussolini.

(Jelinek, 1982b, p. 174)

Both statements lift the term “woman” from its exclusive application to female anatomies by including less powerful males in the category. Yet no female anatomy is freed from the stigma of “womanhood.” Difference means inferiority.

Historically there have been two responses to this, the equality vs. difference debate in which neither answer seems adequate. Illustrative of the latter, the contemporary radical feminist project, according to Chris Weedon, “is not to deconstruct the discursive processes whereby certain qualities come to be defined as feminine and others as masculine nor to challenge directly the power relations which these differences guarantee. It is rather to revalue the feminine the patriarchy devalues” (1987, p. 81). The women in the factory lean toward this position. Jelinek's Nora, however, begins by taking the former, but equally impotent, track, turning away from difference to claim political equality with men in an economy that makes a mockery of her pretensions. Claiming, “by working for wages I wanted to transform myself from object to subject. … And most importantly, … to become my own person” (Weedon, 1987, p. 171) she echoes the humanist school whose bankruptcy becomes even clearer as both terms, “person” and “woman,” are emptied of meaning.

This occurs in the political discussion among Nora, her former colleague Eva, and other women on the assembly line, Nora having dropped by the factory because she is experiencing a crisis “touching upon her existence as a feminine being” (Jelinek, 1982b, p. 159). Management's motives in having just agreed to provide the workers with both a library and a child care facility are being debated. Some of the workers take the liberal bourgeois line: This is progress, as woman worker number 2 suggests, “Since the French Revolution equality and justice have shimmered through the branches of the tree of enterprise” (Jelinek, 1982b, p. 198). But Eva, armed with Bebel and Marx, warns against cooptation. And Nora cuts in as an amazon:

If I have to listen to you for another minute I'll go crazy! I'm a woman. The history of women to this day has been a history of gynocide, and you're talking about your ridiculous books! I don't see how murder can ever be balanced out if not through another act of violence.

(Jelinek, 1982b, p. 197)

“Violence” is the key word here: Nora understands the present context as the result of force but experiences the dilemma of the intellectual whose insights are unacceptable to the women workers attached to husbands and their identities as mothers. Nora's statement that “a woman's refusal to please is the first step toward emancipation. A kick against the pyramide of covert violence” (Jelinek, 1982b, p. 199) is irrelevant to them because it is applicable to another class of creatures. Even though Eva claims, “I'm a woman, too! A woman like Nora here! I hop around with little cries of joys” (Jelinek, 1982b, p. 199) the consequences of her womanhood are so different as to belie the accuracy of the common label. When Nora admonishes the workers—“Anything's better than a sexual parasite, which I refuse to be any longer” (Jelinek, 1982b, p. 198)—it is clear that bourgeoise and laborer are not participating in the same discourse. Working women are hardly sexual parasites. And finally, when Nora claims that: “Woman has been decapitated and dismembered. Allowed to be only body, she's had her head knocked off” (Jelinek, 1982b, p. 198) her words apply not only to women but to the entire silenced working class. Only when she declares: “I want to find out what it means to be a woman because as yet nobody knows” (Jelinek, 1982b, p. 198), does she speak exclusively for women without regard to class, and although she may appear to universalize, her terms are so close to post-structuralist thought that this danger is avoided: “Woman stands in the place of the secret, that which cannot speak nor be spoken about” (Jelinek, 1982b, p. 178). Ultimately there are no “women.”

Jelinek's attacks on essentialist views of “woman” culminate in Bringing up a Vampire (1986) for in this very figure we have a complex transgression of sexual categories. In a gothic take-off of Emile Brontë's famous work, Jelinek literalizes aspects of the Victorian repressed suggested by the original, particularly the defiance of female sexuality. After all, Emily has visited the dentist and gynecologist Heidkliff—the vagina dentata inspiring this combination—to receive some extraordinary and transparently symbolic bridge work. She wants her incisors “to be made expandable. … They should be able to lunge forward and then disappear. Like me. I need an apparatus like men have! I want to impress! I want to be able to demonstrate my lust! I have juices, but they don't count for much in daily life. I want to be allowed to function according to a principle, too!” (Jelinek, 1986, p. 17).

This principle is elucidated in an article, “A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality of Dracula,” (1988) by John A. Stevenson, which sheds light on the Austrian writer's project. After noting that Dracula makes “blood and semen interchangeable,” Stevenson points to a discrepancy in that “the ‘vital fluid’ is being withdrawn from women, … the nightly visitor [being] a man.” And he concludes:

Clearly, in the vampire world traditional sexual roles are terribly confused. Dracula penetrates, but he receives the “vital fluid”; after Lucy becomes a vampire, she acts as a “penetrator” (and becomes sexually aggressive), but she now receives fluid from those she attacks.

(p. 146)

These liquids also include milk, as in one of Stoker's scenes Dracula forces his victim's face onto “‘his bosom,’” the couple's “‘attitude … [bearing] a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk …’” (Stevenson, 1988, p. 146). This breast-feeding combined with oral sex in a single tableau leads Stevenson to ask: “What is going on? Fellatio? Lactation? It seems that the vampire is sexually capable of everything, [and] like Tiresias, … has looked at sex from both sides … [thus making] it difficult to say, simply, that [Stoker's] novel is hostile to female sexuality.” Rather, “the nature of the ‘female’ has itself been made problematic” (Stevenson, 1988, p. 146).

That radio should be an especially appropriate medium for exploring these sex/gender fluidities and disconnections has been noticed by others. Frances Gray, for example, in her article “The Nature of Radio Drama” (1981) chooses Angela Carter's Vampirella (1976) to highlight this. She writes:

The play explores the attempts of reality and myth to come to terms with each other. The hero sensibly offers his beloved vampire-countess a context in which to be loved; he wants to take her to Vienna—where presumably Freud, who destroyed one lot of myths only to set up another, would psychoanalyze her out of existence after a dentist had fixed the fangs that deter the hero from taking her straight home to mother.

(Gray, 1981, p. 57)

The heroine, however, refuses. She will stand by her negativity, disparaging any comfortable identity: “I am not a demon, for a demon is incorporeal; not a phantom for phantoms are intangible. I have a shape; it is my own shape; but I am not alive, and so I cannot die. I need your life to sustain this physical show, myself” (Carter cited in Gray, 1981, p. 57). And Gray concludes, “Only on radio can this kind of nonbeing be given, a body without any kind of filmic illusion to falsify its nature” (Gray, 1981, p. 57).

Because “radio's ambiguity is its major strength” (Gray, 1981, p. 57), the “physical show” of which the vampire speaks is pure discourse, especially well suited to exploring sexual difference and alterity as a product of language. This would also appear to be Jelinek's foreground project in The King Bees (1982a).


“Irony,” writes Michael Seidel, “is a kind of subversive allegory, a doubling that cancels …” (1986, p. 14). Like science fiction generally, The King Bees stages such an allegory, its secondary “plot” implicating those citadels of unabridged male power, business and government colluding in the nuclear industry.

The tale of Terrana is narrated by one of the “boys” who survives a revolution directed by the Hetis or courtesan class of women. But leading up to liberation is a complex history. With the world's population having reached 35 billion and raw materials exhausted, the fear of increasing totalitarianism proves justified: “In an unprecedented economic and technical effort involving all the world's governments, they succeeded in centralizing energy production” (Jelinek, 1982a, p. 9). The docility of the masses has been assured by strict control of resources: “At that time, the fact that people had nothing left to drink, eat, or breath made them peaceful” (Jelinek, 1982a, p. 11).

At the south pole, a reactor complex is thus constructed on several levels underground, with male personnel assigned to the safer, lower regions, wives and children housed closer to the dangerous surface. This both literalizes and inverts organizational hierarchy, while also parodying that archetypal literary form, the descent into hell.

Due to their increased exposure, the women are more devastatingly affected by the catastrophe—a melt-down—which leads to a scarcity of females and a reproductive crisis. The population now consists of 250 males and 18 females, 8 fertile and 10 infertile women, divided according to the classic mother/whore dichotomy into Mutas and Hetis. The former however are unable to carry normally to term. Instead they expel two months' children four times per year. This requires construction of artificial wombs. Yet an additional problem remains: All the foetuses are male. Now, if Hélène Cixous (1981) is right, this eradication of the female has been at the base of Western phallocratic discourse all along:

In the extreme the world of “being” can function to the exclusion of the mother. No need for mother—provided there is something of the maternal; and it is the father then who acts as—is—the mother. Either the woman is passive; or she doesn't exist. What is left is unthinkable, unthought of. She does not enter into the oppositions, she is not coupled with the father (who is coupled with the son).

(Cixous cited in Marks and Courtivron, 1981, p. 92)

Jelinek merely translates the poorly repressed desire into “fact.”

The King Bees then explores the consequences of this demographic fluke. On the one hand, a daughter is needed for humanity's survival, but experimental efforts to produce one vie for priority with genetic engineering. Ultimately, having discovered both a means to considerably prolong their lives and youth while also exercising “positive” eugenics, the ruling technocrats recognize to their dismay that the too perfect male offspring being run off the assembly line can be expected to rival and displace their “betters.”

Question: Once it has a monopoly on technological power and knowledge, as well as having achieved a quasi-immortality, what does a kingly society do with a generation, many generations of growing sons, of maturing young men, who perhaps can be expected someday to challenge their rulers?

(Jelinek, 1982a, p. 27)

In this scenario echoing Freud's “primal horde,” the answer is “Auswahlverfahren”—to initiate a selection process equivalent to castration, to remove the rival sons from the very category of “men.”

They are unmanned in two ways: denied access to women and put in charge of raising babies, a task linking them to the Heti's or courtesans. Both restrictions are highly significant. Lévi-Strauss has pointed out how the exchange of women is central to patriarchal status; without this power, even possession of the phallus does not confer the title “man.” This is implied in the discussion among the male technocrats assessing the situation in the early years after the melt-down. At issue is how to deal with the women:

MALE voice 3:
(enthusiastic) It's not enough to have men who conquer the world; you've got to have the world made pleasant for the men by self-subordinating women.

(Jelinek, 1982a, p. 20)

A tautology, this argument slots both “men” and “women” into their classic places as active and passive, their positions mutually dependent. The reflexive pronoun, however, is suspect: It leaves the women their complicity, making them also active in their passivity. This seriously destabilizes the dyad by deferring closure. An additional threat proceeds from the others eliminated from the category—males without access to women. Like members of racial minorities, they remain “boys.” The meaning of gender is thus derived not from anatomy but from function and context.

Unmanning is a further consequence of shared parenting. Relevant here is Nancy Chodorow's hypothesis concerning the preoedipal stage of psychic development, in The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), linking differences in gender formation to the near-universality of the female parent with whom girls may identify strongly while boys feel compelled to separate. The conclusion for Chodorow's followers who wish to disrupt this order is precisely to disband the female monopoly on child care. This happens in Terrana: The socialization of women and introduction of “boys” as caregivers appear indeed to have initiated revolutionary consequences. The technocrats, no longer interested in perpetuating individual names and bloodlines through marriage, are content to engineer survival of the species with allegiance offered only to their own elites. This, too, functions ironically to unmake “men.”

Now the fact that, although all the powerful are males, not all males are powerful, marks a break between anatomy and sign, while power itself would seem to be no longer “phallocratic” but some other kind. Neither the Marxist nor as yet any feminist theory can define what it is, but coming closest is probably the deconstructive view for which it may comfortably remain unknown.

There are a significant number of other unknowns in the piece, among them the nature of “woman.” In Nora Jelinek has written: “Woman and nature together aren't necessarily natural. They can be separated” (Jelinek, 1982b, p. 186). The King Bees continues that disruptive project. Elsewhere Jelinek has pointed out the political folly of relying on procreative power as a route to empowerment. As Regine Friedrich notes in her “Afterword” to Illness or the Modern Woman:

The feminist movement has spread like a bacterial invasion, one of its varieties having landed in the same trap it had just broken out of. It sings in a witch's chorus of the mysterious link to nature, of the wonder of female biology …

(Friedrich, 1987, p. 85)

The King Bees takes the wonder of female anatomy to its logical conclusion, as the opponents of genetic engineering under male control have warned. Isolated from one another in cells like honeycombs, hooked up to “surveillance, feeding and impregnating systems” maintained in a twilight world of sedativa, biology becomes even more functional, legs atrophy and some women are no longer women but “Mutas,” mutations, allies of the Kings who, all together, are smothered in their cells when the Hetis and the sons revolt; inspired by the honeycomb, they seal all entrances/exits with wax as the entire ruling class assembles to celebrate the long-waited birth of daughters.

Clearly then it is not anatomy but function that determines class, although the seduction of essentialism is hard to resist. One heti, for example, is tempted to see herself and the mothers as allies: Female voice 5: “They're women like us.” But the others disagree:

FEMALE Voice 4:
We can't expect any help from the birthing women.
FEMALE Voice 5:
They are happy with a happiness reserved only for mothers.

(Jelinek, 1982a, p. 42)

This tautology mirrors the mutas' ideological entrapment. Declared “Queen Bees,” “bestowers of life,” “most precious possessions” (Jelinek, 1982a, p. 19) they receive compliments camouflaging condescension that create a seductive double bind. In sum, maternal subjectivity is the kings' creation: “They think with the heads of the kings” and must therefore be killed. “If you want to kill something, the head must die first” (Jelinek, 1982a, p. 43).

The attack on conventional thinking about “men” and “women” continues on a semantic plain. The “head” to be severed is a metonymy for the chain of signifiers bound into the binary opposition rational/emotional or scientific/mystical (which, as Cixous notes, leads back to the male/female dyad: “the fact that logocentrism subjects thought—all the concepts, the codes, the values—to a two-term system [is] related to ‘the’ couple man/woman …” (Cixous cited in Marks & Courtivron, 1981, p. 91). Jelinek clearly challenges the hegemony of instrumental thinking, but without denying its importance. When asked in an early interview to comment on trends revaluing the female body, she agreed with the benefits of raising individual women's confidence but moved quickly on to the collective, warning: “If they are really going to spend ten more years concentrating on their bodies, that will mean ten more years in which men rule the world. They are the ones studying nuclear physics and biology and so forth and are running things, while the women go on with their consciousness-raising.” (Münchner Literaturarbeitskreis, 1978, p. 174).

Although linking science with power, this is neither a plaidoyer for “equality” nor a defense of technocracy. It does, however, open up a void, expressing that negativity for which Jelinek is known. “Her engagement is directed against the ruling class,” explains Roland Heger in Austrian Radio Drama. “What she is working FOR, in her books as in her radio plays, remains unclear” (Heger, 1977, p. 221).

Actually, it isn't a lack of clarity the critic notes but a staging of the indefinable, that empty space between irony and understanding. To illustrate, a child has died but its hobby horse survives. Comment: “The horse is fine because I suppose it's made of such resistent stuff” (Jelinek, 1982a, p. 16). A mother's collapsed rib elicits the following: “She apparently wanted to throw herself over her son, to protect him with something as unperfected as her own body” (Jelinek, 1982a, p. 16). Irony is the discrepancy between expectation and delivery: Here we are waiting for a focus on the human. Instead, material is emphasized. But far from having our humanism reconfirmed, it too is undermined, the chain of metonymies for “human being” having already exploded the concept: People are spoken of as “simple organic compounds,” “copies,” “female hosts,” “relics of women and children” (Jelinek, 1982a, p. 15). Deconstruction would read these terms not as a human tendency to cruelty but as creating the context for cruelty, a sadistic language paving the way for increasingly exploitative circumstances. And these lead to revolt.

Jelinek's final scene attempts to confirm the absence of “women,” “men,” and “Menschen” from the world. Cultural values have been erased. The hetis and sons emerge on a terra nova offering a sensuous counterpart to critic Elizabeth Meese's view of “deconstruction's utopic projection … assert[ing] its motion toward the unthinkable, unknowable point(s) beyond the system it deconstructs” (Meese, 1986, p. 87). Jelinek's “so-called landscape,” “bottomless,” is indeed an unstructured space, not yet bearing the imprint of human subjectivity. But as Seidel notes of exile, “… supplemental spaces conceived are supplemental spaces controlled …” (Seidel, 1986, p. 13). Like artists, poets, and mathematicians, the voices inscribe their need for markers on the unscarred land:

YOUNG male speaker 3:
Like the beaten yolk of an egg.
YOUNG male speaker 4:
The sun is like a drop of cream in a bowl of water.
The horizon meets the so-called landscape in a far distant line.
YOUNG male speaker 4:
Shouldn't we try to move toward the horizon which is an imaginary, not a real line?
YOUNG male speaker 3:
It's like an egg-yolk being beaten in a bowl of milk.
YOUNG male speaker 4:
Namely the sun.
YOUNG male speaker 3:
It's like a draft in this deserted landscape. Everything is pulled away, it's like vacuumed off.

(Jelinek, 1982a, pp. 45-46)

This dialogue disrupts the economy of binary opposites, splits the sex/gender dyad, and levels the linguistic barrier between the poetic and the technocratic. First, Jelinek sets up oppositions staged throughout the piece: male/female, sciences/arts, truth/fiction. She then inverts these. For example, the male and female speakers are distinguished by their discursive fields but not in the way we have been lead to expect, the women in the arts, the men in sciences. Instead, the men parody literary creativity (while at the same time engaging in it), domesticating their strange new world with their culinary similes, thereby exhibiting a sensuousness in contrast to the women's mathematical approach.

And both subvert the approaches they have chosen. Specifically, the vocabulary of the sciences—of navigation (“coastline”), cartography (“distance”), surveying (“horizon”), and mathematics (“line”)—is used to negate the matter to which the terms refer. For example, the “imaginary line” as well as the “horizon” are at the same time mathematically calculable realities and mirages, ever-receding illusions. Thus, art and technology are no longer opposites but subversive dimensions in a larger project. For the current sweeping across this canvas is the seduction of the not-yet-inscribed and on this terrain, male and female meet not as themselves, but as others. Of course the threat of old history remains. Females voice the danger:

… At some point our lives will have woven themselves once again into a destiny.
Female and male destinies.

(Jelinek, 1982a, p. 47)

A destiny reflects the urge of human subjectivity to tell its story, and narratives have, thus far, included heroines and heroes, men and women.

But perhaps the decentering of the human subject will effect a change:

But do we dare weigh down the emptied earth with women's and men's destinies?
Do we dare take our goal orientation to prop up the landscape's goallessness?
Whose only goal is an imaginary line.
While our goals are more grounded in reality.

(Jelinek, 1982a, pp. 47-48)

The drama concludes with this tension. Facing the empty landscape that seems to beg for a signature, and tempted to exercise artistic mastery, Jelinek's characters give in to another vision. It is no longer a question of humanity imposing itself on the wilderness but rather of “reality” accommodating humans:

Can we trust something as empty as the earth to something as full as ourselves? … do we dare weigh down the emptied earth with women's and men's destinies?
That is very much the question.

(Jelinek, 1982a, p. 48)1


None of the Jelinek texts discussed are available in English. All quotations are therefore the author's translations. All quotations from German language texts listed in the Reference section have also been translated by the author.


The author would like to thank Josefine Carls for her translation of this article into German.


  1. Since this piece was written, Jelinek has become a cause célèbre with her latest work, Lust (Rowohlt, 1989). Attempting to take Georges Bataille as the model for an experiment in female pornography, the author asking whether heterosexual women become aroused by certain images and texts, Jelinek admits “failure” to critic Sigrid Loffler (1989, “Die Hose Runter im Feuilleton,” [Pants dropped in the culture section] Emma, May, 4-5): “I wanted to find a female equivalent of obscene language. But the very writing of such a text destroyed me—as a subject and in my intention to write pornography. I came to recognize that a woman can't do this, at least not given the contemporary social situation.”

Works Cited

“Brutkasten [Incubators].” (1988, September). Emma, 8.

Chodorow, Nancy. (1978). The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cixous, Hélène. (1981). “Sorties.” In Elaine Marks & Isabelle de Courtivron (Eds.), New French Feminisms. New York: Schocken.

Feminist Studies. (1988). 14(1).

Friedrich, Regine. (1987). “Nachwort [Afterword].” In Elfriede Jelinek. Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen [Illness or the Modern Woman]. Köln: Prometh Verlag.

Gray, Frances. (1981). “The Nature of Radio Drama.” In Peter Lewis (Ed.), Radio Drama. New York: Longman.

Heger, Roland. (1977). Das Österreichische hörspiel [Austrian Radio Drama]. Wien: Wilhelm Braunmüller Universitätsbuchhandlung.

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1970). Wir sind lockvögel, baby! [We're Decoys, Baby!]. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1972a). Michael: Ein jugendbuch für die infantilgesellschaft [Michael: A Children's Book for the Infantile Society]. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1972b). Wenn die Sonne sinkt ist für manche auch noch büroschluss! [For Some, the Setting Sun Means the End of a Working Day]. Süddeutscher Rundfunk Archivexemplar, 1470. (First broadcast 16 November.)

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1973). Untergang eines tauchers [Demise of a Diver]. Süddeutscher Rundfunk Archivexemplar, 1506. (First broadcast 22 November.)

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1974). Kasperl und die dicke Prinzessin oder Kasperl und die dünnen bauern [Kasperl and the Chubby Princess or Kasperl and the Skinny Peasants]. Süddeutscher Rundfunk Archivexemplar, 1541. (First broadcast 10 November.)

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1982a). Die Bienenkönige [The King Bees]. In Helga Geyer-Ryan (Ed.), Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren mann verlassen hatte? [What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband?]. München: DTV.

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1982b). Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren mann verlassen hatte oder Stutzen der Gesellschaften [What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband or the Pillars of Society]. In Helga Geyer-Ryan (Ed.), Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren mann verlassen hatte? [What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband?]. München: DTV.

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1983). Die Klavierspielerin [The Piano Player]. Reinbekbei. Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Jelinek, Elfriede. (1986). Erziehung eines Vampirs [Bringing up a Vampire]. Süddeutscher Rundfunk Archivexemplar, 2039. (First broadcast 12 June.)

Levin, Tobe Joyce. (1979). Ideology and Aesthetics in Neo-feminist German Fiction: Verena Stefan, Elfriede Jelinek, Margot Schroeder. Ph.D. Dissertation. University Microfilms: Ann Arbor.

Marks, Elaine, & de Courtivron, Isabelle. (1981). New French Feminisms. New York: Schocken.

Meese, Elizabeth, A. (1986). Crossing the Double-cross. The Practice of Feminist Criticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Münchner Literaturarbeitskreis. (1978). Gespräch mit Elfriede Jelinek [Talking with Elfriede Jelinek]. mamas pfirsiche 9/10, 170-181.

Nyssen, Ute. (1984). “Nachwort [Afterword].” In Elfriede Jelinek. Theaterstücke [Plays]. Köln: Prometh Verlag.

Poovey, Mary. (1988). “Feminism and Deconstruction.” Feminist Studies, 14, 51-65.

Rhys, Jean. (1982). Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W. W. Norton.

Seidel, Michael. (1986). Exile and the Narrative Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Spallone, Patricia & Steinberg, Deborah Lynn (Eds.). (1987). Made to Order. The Myth of Reproductive and Genetic Progress. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Stevenson, John Allen. (1988). “A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality of Dracula.PMLA 103 (2), 139-147.

Weedon, Chris. (1987). Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory. London: Basil Blackwell.

Charlotte Innes (review date 18 March 1991)

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SOURCE: Innes, Charlotte. “Death in Vienna.” Nation 252, no. 10 (18 March 1991): 346-48.

[In the following review, Innes compliments Jelinek's exploration of fascism in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, noting that the novel is “a comedy of the absurd.”]

In the summer of 1962, I spent a vacation in Austria with my family. One night, in a small village on the Danube, my father went to a Bierkeller with some friendly locals, who before long were singing Nazi songs and reminiscing about the good old days. I was only 11 years old, but I remember that it really spooked my father, who was not just an English tourist who spoke good German (and whom they oddly assumed to be sympathetic) but a German-Jewish refugee. Clearly, there was more to Austria than beautiful scenery—a suspicion that, thirty years later, is more than confirmed by two remarkable Austrian novels newly translated into English.

Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann and Wonderful, Wonderful Times by Elfriede Jelinek show us, in their different ways, that fascism is not a temporary madness, easily stamped out by allied victory, but a continuing presence—in the relationships between parents and children, men and women, those in authority and those who are not. Fascism, they say, is another word for patriarchy.

This tracing of dark undercurrents in the routines of daily life places Jelinek and Bachmann firmly in the company of other Austrian postwar writers, whose work is often fragmentary and introspective in nature and skeptical of taking on large subjects. Though not as internationally well-known as some of their peers (like Peter Handke, Elias Canetti or Thomas Bernhard), the two women have long struck a chord in German-speaking countries. Malina was a best seller when it came out in 1971, despite the disapproval critics had for Bachmann's discursive prose style—critics who had earlier applauded her tightly written, aesthetically beautiful poetry. Today, eighteen years after her death at the age of 47, Bachmann's prose is back in critical favor, having influenced writers like Günter Grass and Christa Wolf—and Elfriede Jelinek, who wrote the screenplay of the film version of Malina just released in Germany. Jelinek was born twenty years later than Bachmann and is more overtly political; she is the 1986 winner of the Heinrich Böll Prize for her contributions to German literature, which include five novels. …

If the Vienna of Malina is more a state of mind, the city in Wonderful, Wonderful Times is equally removed from its tourist-bureau image as a citadel of culture that carries echoes of Haydn, Mozart, Freud and Schnitzler. Set in the late 1950s, this Vienna is a poverty-stricken place of sexual sadists and youthful delinquents. Austria's impending “economic miracle” hangs over the book, but there is no sense of renewal, only a weary repetition of the past, which weaves like a snake through the lives of the characters, depositing a venom that isn't classifiable in a historical sense but clearly marks its victims. This is somewhat reminiscent of The Piano Teacher (1988), the only other of Jelinek's novels to appear in the United States; in that, the three main characters were caught in a web of love and torture that could also be seen as a brilliant if grim exploration of fascism, in which a woman, like the “I” in Malina, could take control of her life only by being a victim. Wonderful, Wonderful Times, for all its sickening images, is more a comedy of the absurd, yet it keeps the relationship between the powerful and the powerless central.

Sometimes painful, sometimes ludicrously comic in tone, the story concerns four teenage rebels and their efforts to assault citizens and relieve them of their wallets, not for money but for existentialist kicks. The more they rebel, the more they fall into patterns already laid down for them by society: The two middle-class would-be intellectuals find their books of little help; the working-class boy cannot break out of his groove; the rich girl reaps the benefits of her wealth; parents and children hate each other with a vengeful fury.

Their self-described leader is Rainer Witkowski, named for the Austrian lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Obsessed with Camus's hero in The Outsider (an early title of The Stranger in English), stuck in an existential literary rut, Rainer performs an act of meaningless violence to prove he exists—the powerless man's attempt at power. His twin sister, Anna, a brilliant young pianist who prefers difficult modernist works by Berg and Webern to traditional Austrian composers, struggles to keep her autonomy in a country that wants women to stay home and cook. She remains mute for long periods. When she falls in love with a muscular young worker, Hans, sex is her downfall. We see that she is repeating the pattern of her mother, a teacher from a “superior background” who suddenly found herself one half of a couple copulating on the floor; the man, Herr Witkowski, became her husband. This one-legged former S.S. officer is the most obvious symbol of continuing fascism in the book. He makes up for his demotion to the lowly position of porter by beating, raping and taking pornographic pictures of his protesting but compliant wife.

The only winner in this oppressive setup is Sophie, the rich girl. Between tennis games, she amuses herself with both Rainer and Hans—Sophie has a voyeur's interest in the social underclass—but really she cares for no one but herself. Chillingly uninvolved, a “will-o'-the-wisp” and a “white mirage,” wealthy Sophie is simultaneously the ghost of Austria's past—of the bourgeoisie that welcomed Nazism—and a sign of the prosperous future. Like fascist acolytes, Rainer and Hans are drawn toward her aura of power.

Clearly sympathetic to socialism and feminism, Jelinek nevertheless has no political ax to grind; in particular, she echoes Ilse Aichinger, whose 1946 “Call for Skepticism,” a magazine article that urged artists to reject all dogma, so influenced Handke and Bachmann. Her goal is to examine society with a cool, analytical eye. Youth, love, art, political systems, memory, religion, intellectualism and even nature are placed on the Jelinek operating table and stripped of all our most treasured notions. Her method, more that of a lunatic researcher than a novelist, involves presenting each chapter as a different cross section of the same bundle of themes; this may be as artificial a technique as any, but Jelinek knows it and has fun with it.

It can be said without qualification that after Bachmann and Jelinek, Austria will never seem quite the same. The remarkable winding beauty of Bachmann's prose and the crazy logic of Jelinek's make some familiar themes fresh and new. And as the world stumbles through yet another major war, their profound pessimism seems unnervingly on target.

Back in 1962, after my family left the village of nostalgic Nazis, we drove past Mauthausen, an Austrian concentration camp overlooking the Danube. As a child, I thought naïvely that the presence of such massive monuments to human cruelty would prevent the occurrence of further atrocities. Now I am not so sure. Perhaps we are all a little like Jelinek's Herr Witkowski, who “often thinks of the dark skeletons of people he killed. The white and immaculate snow of Poland turns bloody and maculate. But snow goes on falling, again and again, and by now it bears no trace of those who disappeared there.”

Barbara Kosta (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Kosta, Barbara. “Inscribing Erika: Mother-Daughter Bond/age in Elfriede Jelinek's Die Klavierspielerin.Monatshefte 86, no. 2 (1994): 218-34.

[In the following essay, Kosta analyzes the mother-daughter relationship in Die Klavierspielerin.]

Before they were mothers Leto and Niobe had been the most devoted of friends.


While the Oedipal battles that have informed much of Western literature continue to rage on, the figure of the mother, traditionally less visible, slowly begins to take her place among the dramas of identity. Only recently has the mother become a prominent presence in contemporary literature as well as in many psychological and critical studies. This figure's increasing appearance in contemporary texts stems largely from the women's movement and its focus on the private sphere and women's lives. In literature, the mother takes on a central role once daughters begin to map and assess their lives. For many women authors, dealing with the mother usually entails grappling with the internalization of the mother's voice. In essence, it represents a daughter's investigation of her own identity.

Recent examinations of the mother in texts by women authors, often autobiographical, have moved from a rejection of the mother as a model which stood for a dramatic performance of separation and the desire for autonomy in the early phases of second-wave feminism, to beginnings of a dialogue and an exploration of the constraints which have informed traditional mothers' lives. In both cases, the complexity of these representations opens up many questions about the configurations of female identity and about the mother's function in its formation.

At a time when the mother-daughter relationship has begun to constitute a “new psychic geography of feminist discourse,” Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek presents her novel Die Klavierspielerin, published in 1983.1 Unlike her contemporaries whose autobiographical descriptions of the mother-daughter dyad are often infused with a desire for the lost mother and based upon a continuing search for her (the realm of the pre-Oedipal bond), Jelinek describes a pathogenic symbiotic relationship that in effect entombs the daughter.2 A nightmarishly devouring mother is portrayed, one who never releases the daughter, Erika Kohut, from her attachment. She is a beast, the narrator reveals, “eine Niobe in Pension” (157), “Inquisitor und Erschieβungskommando in einer Person, in Staat und Familie einstimmig als Mutter anerkannt” (5).3

Given this portrait of the mother, could it be that Jelinek's caustic narrative of the mother-daughter relationship places her at odds with the feminist literature of her time? Is Die Klavierspielerin matrophobic in the way in which Adrienne Rich defines it as a daughter's desire to free herself from the mother's control, with the “mother standing for the victim in ourselves?”4 Or does Jelinek, like so many autobiographical narrators of the 1980s, attempt to come to terms with her own mother by initiating a dialogue?

With Die Klavierspielerin Jelinek takes a different tack. Rather than presenting a personal account, she ironically stages the psychodynamics of the mother-daughter relationship in order to inflate and pervert them to the point of their collapse. With her two Kohut women, mother and daughter, Jelinek looks at the cultural figuring and the socially inscribed structures that perpetuate a relationship of domination and subservience. At the same time, Jelinek targets the mother-daughter relationship to show how this relationship potentially lays the ground for female masochism, dependency, and the repression of female sexuality. She illustrates the daughter's masochistic disposition prepared, as I will argue, by the oppressive proximity of the maternal, and thereby rouses a discussion of female masochism which has received little attention in most theoretical discussions of this topic.

Psychoanalyst Gilles Deleuze's conceptualization of masochism sheds light on the very complex relationship Jelinek represents.5 Deleuze sees masochism as a pre-Oedipal phenomenon rooted in an infantile ambivalence toward the mother as love object and controlling agent, and recognizes the mother's vast influence as a cultural body on the child's psychic development. It is the mother to whom the infant surrenders to receive gratification and pleasure, and it is the mother who controls its denial. The mother, therefore, does not lack, as Freud's model implies. She is the imago of the oral mother, the nurturing mother associated with the critical oral stage as sustaining, yet threatening. Unfortunately, Deleuze discusses masochism only in terms of the male protagonist. But by interweaving his understanding with object-relation theory's complex interpretation of female dependency, Deleuze's model can lend insight into the mother-daughter and later the daughter-lover relationship Jelinek constructs.

In Die Klavierspielerin, the mother appears at the center of the narrative, overbearing and ever-present, just as she resides at the center of her daughter's life. Significantly, she plays the role of primary caretaker; she tends the private sphere, provides nourishment and security, and has full reign over the daughter; she stands as a replica of the oral mother. The mother is also the cold mother, who, “in Deleuze's construct,” Gaylyn Studlar observes, “becomes the familiar dual symbol of creation and death who crystallizes infantile ambivalence in the masochistic ideal of ‘coldness, solicitude and death.’ She is the figure of the cold oral mother who represents the good mother from the infantile stage of imagined dual unity or symbiosis between mother and child.”6 While nourishing her daughter, the mother simultaneously denies her daughter the possibility of separation.

The novel opens with Erika Kohut, the piano teacher, entering like a wild storm the apartment she shares with her mother. Her movements and the reference to her as “child” evoke the image of an adolescent. As the narrator, however, soberly points out: “Erika geht auf das Ende der Dreiβig zu” (5). Indeed, the introduction portends an unnaturally prolonged symbiosis between mother and daughter and suggests a dialectic of control in which one party ceases to exist. The mother is marked by a “large” presence that overshadows and engulfs the daughter to the point of her obliteration.

In addition to Deleuze's assertion that the primary function of the oral mother is to stimulate the masochist's active search for submission, object-relations theory and research compellingly illustrate how women develop relationships of dependency which confine them in what may be called masochistic bondage. Psychologist Nancy Chodorow discusses the effects of separation and individuation processes on gender arrangements. In contrast to male children's right to independence, she suggests, the daughter's autonomy is discouraged and the profound emotional bond never surrendered. For the daughter, this scheme has asserted itself widely through the social structures of Western society. Because girls are of the same gender as their mothers, they are less encouraged than sons to separate, to go off into the world, and to assert their difference. Consequently, for the daughter, the mother represents regression, inhibition, and lack of autonomy. Contrary to Freud's belief that daughters gain a sense of femaleness when they turn toward their fathers in search of a heterosexual love object, Chodorow ascertains that girls draw their sense of identity from the mother throughout their adolescence.7

The deep bond, whether it negates or affirms the daughter, results from the social conceptualization of the mother-daughter relationship. This configuration in Jelinek's narrative produces an intricate interweaving of psyches in which the daughter inevitably emerges as the effect of the mother. Jelinek describes the symbiotic merger with the mother as follows: “Mutter und Kind stecken die Köpfe ineinander, als wären sie nur ein einziger Mensch …” (127). Under the mother's strict tutelage, the child's psychic organization is molded to conform to the mother's, making the border between mother and daughter virtually intangible. Jelinek exaggerates these psychological maneuvers to show how ego boundaries dissipate through the mother's relentless imposition of her will onto the “other.” Frau Kohut, whose name suggests “caring for” (hüten) incessantly transgresses the boundaries essential for the daughter's assertion of herself as subject. As the more powerful voice, the mother authors the daughter; she determines Erika's identity and inscribes her laws and needs onto her daughter's body to the extent that Erika is fixed within the matrix of maternal control, where she stagnates. Even though Erika struggles to break away from the mother, she paradoxically longs for pre-Oedipal intimacy, to sit and watch television in the evenings in their cozy apartment, and—“sanft im warmen Leibwasser schaukeln” (76).

Erika's containment in a “pre-Oedipal” situation and the continued symbiosis with her mother manifests itself as perversion climactically portrayed when she turns to her mother in their shared bed and overwhelms her with infantile, though explicitly sexual overtures of intimacy. The pseudo-incestuous undercurrent emphasizes the claustrophobic confines of the relationship and the scarce possibilities of movement outward. An aggressive struggle for control takes place in which the child wishes to devour the mother to fulfill her insatiable oral needs. While Erika's gestures of domination indicate an attempt to seize power, a regression to the mother occurs in which the daughter tries to still her libidinal needs after being rejected by Walter Klemmer, her student and intended lover:

Erika drückt ihren nassen Mund der Mutter vielfach ins Antlitz und hält die Mutter eisern mit den Armen fest, damit sie sich nicht dagegen wehren kann. … Die Mutter wirft ihren Kopf wild herum, um den Küssen entkommen zu können, es ist wie bei einem Liebeskampf, und nicht Orgasmus ist das Ziel, sondern die Mutter an sich, die Person Mutter. … Erika saugt und nagt an diesem groβen Leib herum, als wollte sie gleich noch einmal hineinkriechen, sich darin verbergen. Erika gesteht der Mutter ihre Liebe, und die Mutter keucht das Gegenteil, nämlich, daβ sie ihr Kind ebenfalls liebe, doch solle dies Kind sofort aufhören!


“The Mother per se” (“die Mutter an sich”) as essence functions to soothe instinctual desires. She represents the oral mother, the nurturing mother associated with the masochist's desire for submission. As we will see, Frau Kohut leaves her daughter with few channels for her own desire independent of the mother's. Like the door that Walter Klemmer tries to open, Erika “bleibt kalt und stumm. Sie gibt keinen Millimeter nach, weil sie versperrt ist” (125).

Among the reasons which figure into a daughter's failed separation and subsequent inhibited independence are the social positioning of the mother within various dependencies and, historically, women's exclusive role as mother. Within traditional white, middle-class Austrian culture, particularly within the generations like that of the mother in Die Klavierspielerin, the mother is economically powerless, isolated and without social recognition. Even though the daughter's social situation is meant to resemble the mother's, the daughter provides a means for the mother's own empowerment. By virtue of possessing the child, the mother gains control, purpose, and a heightened sense of herself as subject within the mother (subject) and daughter (object) dyad. Thus the power relations within the mother-daughter relationship confine the daughter within the mirror image of the mother as sameness, instead of expressing the simultaneity of sameness and difference. A relationship of mutual recognition, as envisioned by Luce Irigaray in And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other, is impeded and patriarchy, which constructs the mother to perpetuate in her transmission of powerlessness, remains intact.8 In Die Klavierspielerin, the mother is reduced to the most basic descriptor “die Mutter” or represented as “Frau Kohut,” placing her in a dual tradition, one of a namelessness that anchors woman in a patriarchal lineage, and the other that scripts her as the “oral mother.”

As a constant companion, the mother influences the child's subject formation by laying much of the groundwork for the course of later psychological growth. She also inevitably exercises unconditional power over the child. To contain the daughter, in order to enforce their continuing bond, Erika learns to submit and obey. The term “dressieren” (“to train”), normally used in reference to animals, graphically emphasizes the tyrannical methods of discipline in child rearing. Her mother vanquishes Erika's will, and thus acquiescence, as the narrator notes, becomes second nature to her: “Doch das ist ihr dermaβen in Fleisch und Blut übergegangen, daβ sie es nicht mehr merkt” (199). The child, moreover, is treated like an object, a piece of property, that is, the mother's private domain. By contrast the “modern mothers” which Jelinek introduces allow their children “eine längere Leine.” Despite more leniency, their children desert them later on just the same (90). In response to children's penchant for straying, Frau Kohut frantically tries to contain her daughter by keeping Erika pre-Oedipally bound: “Das Hauptproblem der Mama besteht darin, ihr Besitztum möglichst unbeweglich an einem Ort zu fixieren” (7). The daughter is the mother's working capital. Frau Kohut, therefore, invests her life in her daughter, which guarantees her daughter's indebtedness. Jelinek skillfully represents the complex double bind of exchange. Since the mother lives only for her child, the child, without recourse, ends up owing her life to the mother. The narrator wittingly points out the underlying terms of this contract: “Das Kind ist der Abgott seiner Mutter, welche dem Kind dafür nur geringe Gebühr abverlangt: sein Leben” (28). Frau Kohut ensures the bond through self-sacrifice, which serves as the ultimate instrument to emotionally harness the daughter. The narrator sarcastically refers to the mother as an aging saint, “die alte Frau Heilige,” which assigns martyrdom as well as divinity to her position (268).

Elisabeth Badinter reveals the ideological underwriting of motherhood, which contains the discourse of self-denial and sacrifice, a type of masochism associated with the institution of motherhood rarely articulated:

Indeed, motherhood, as it was conceived in the nineteenth century, in close harmony with Rousseau, was understood as a holy office, a happy experience that necessarily brought with it pain and suffering, a literal sacrifice of oneself on the altar of devotion.9

Die Klavierspielerin exemplifies the narrative of “das grausame Land der Mutterliebe” (156). Jelinek unmasks devotion and self-sacrifice as a tactic of oppressive manipulation meshed with the mother's own interests. While this representation of the mother judicially absolves her of “wickedness” or even “sadism,” as opposed to many other literary representations of the “bad mother,” it points to the complex forms of interaction and negotiation that develop when emotional deficits and insufficiencies constitute the foundation of relationships. The relationship of power becomes more fragile.

To offset the potential loss of control, the mother targets the daughter's body, which is cautiously kept within close range through the unremitting surveillance of Erika's every move with the mother's so-called built-in radar system. When Erika enters puberty, for instance, mother and grandmother, together sardonically referred to as the “female brigade,” stand between Erika's emerging sexuality and any potential male stalker, ready to throw themselves into battle in order to protect their young against repossession.

The grandmother, as an accomplice, personifies a lineage of sexual repression: “Die beiden älteren Frauen mit ihren zugewachsenen verdorrten Geschlechtsteilen werfen sich vor jeden Mann, damit er zu ihrem Kitz nicht eindringen kann. Dem Jungtier sollen nicht Liebe, nicht Lust etwas anhaben können” (35). Jelinek's aggressive language describes mother and grandmother, whose own bodies have atrophied, killing Erika's budding sexuality by building a shield around the pubescent female body. She is robbed of her body through its denial, with the mother, as Jessica Benjamin points out, acting as “the restrictive prohibitor of desire” which stems from the experience of her own body.10 At night, we learn, Frau Kohut watches her daughter's hands, which are only meant for piano playing—a means of social mobility and recognition for the mother.11 Erika is denied her own sexuality because it represents a process of maturation and separation. Under the mother's panoptic regime, Erika's body atrophies too. Over and over again she is described as a corpse, a shell, a hole: “Sie ist Nichts” (199). She is detached from her body and left without the slightest feeling.

Undoubtedly, Erika is a prisoner of her body while the mother stands guard. Tyrannically shielding the daughter from the male gaze, the mother hovers over Erika, her possession. For the mother, men connote nothing but an intrusion into the sphere of the mother-daughter relationship and the potential loss of the daughter, in Erika's case, to heterosexual love. She chastises Erika for her elaborate attire, which she construes as her wish to attract men. Adornment not only becomes an economic issue of luxury, since the money Erika earns should be put toward a new apartment, but it simultaneously stands for individuation and for rejection of the mother. The clothes Erika illicitly buys, her desire for high-heel shoes, scarves and accessories, reflect her defiant attempts to assert her own boundaries. Yet these substitutes for her own sexuality remain limp in the closet, never worn.

To maintain sole property of the daughter, the mother conceals the daughter from men though simultaneously, Erika serves as a male-substitute, as provider. Jane Flax offers one symptomatic reading of the multiple roles that overburden daughters which seems to resonate in Jelinek's novel:

Oftentimes the daughter and not the father is the primary source of nurturance for the mother. … Daughters serve as confidants, friends, and even lovers in a way that is often confusing and inappropriate to the daughter's developmental process.12

Erika shares the marital bed with the mother. They are referred to as a couple, “das Ehepaar Erika/Mama,” with Erika's name notably appearing first, and their relationship, as Jelinek taunts, will last until “der Tod sie scheidet” (32). “Scheidet” functions as an unmistakable homology of “schneidet,” to cut, which plays upon Erika's later acts of self-mutilation. Finally, Erika financially supports the mother, which points to the mother's social powerlessness, her ultimate dependence and confined living situation.

The mother's power and influence increase with the absence of the father, who is admitted to an asylum and spatially exiled. Aside from the fact that the exclusive bond between mother and daughter remains uninterrupted and maternal domination unobstructed, his displacement suggests the cause for Erika's failed separation from the mother and her excessive masochistic drive.

The narrative implies that the absent father within the nuclear family and the mother's traditional role as primary caretaker both contribute to Erika's dysfunctional development.13 Viewed as such, Jelinek's text appears aligned with feminist texts that see the father (or similar caretakers other than the mother) as a necessary agent in the child's process of separation. He provides additional possibilities for detachment and distance from the child's primary relationship. Jessica Benjamin discusses the importance of the father in his representation of difference, of agency, excitement, and otherness.14 He not only embodies a point outside of the mother, but more significantly, he represents the outside world and mobility. Within the traditional family romance, the father facilitates movement from inside to outside, a necessary step in the individuation process typically frustrated by the mother. Like Deleuze, Benjamin roots women's masochistic disposition in the pre-Oedipal relationship, but then goes a step further to explain its persistence in the female's adult life. The “missing father,” exemplary of a girl's paternal relationship in Western culture, is the “key to [women's] missing desire,” Benjamin declares, “and to its return in the form of masochism” through the creation of an ideal love.15 In Benjamin's scheme, the female surrenders herself to the male in order to vicariously gain recognition and to experience agency through the male. Paraphrasing Chodorow and other object relations theorists, Coppelia Kahn problematically rewrites the daughter's desire for her own space outside of the mother as the daughter's desire for a penis:

Because she [the daughter] is of the same sex as her mother and thus is more profoundly attached to her than the boy is, she desires a penis as a crucial sign of difference, to serve as a defense against the undertow of merger with the mother and, as a symbol of power, to establish herself against the woman she has known as all-powerful.16

Yet rather than abet the misconception of a classical syndrome of penis envy, it is necessary at this juncture to distinguish between the child wanting a penis and the symbolic value she attributes to the phallus. Desiring the phallus does not mean equating the female body with lack, but rather signifies the daughter's desire to gain distance from the powerful oral mother. The phallus symbolically facilitates access to the outside world, the possibility of becoming actively desiring, instead of being confined to maternal domination and power. In Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel's words, the phallus provides a means “to beat back the mother” which the daughter is often denied. Through her alliance with her student Walter Klemmer as well as through her secret excursions, Erika seizes chances to evade the mother.

Jelinek alludes to the loss of the paternal symbol in the Kohut family when she has the local butcher philosophizing about the costs of life (or “Wurst”) while transporting the father to the asylum. Erika and Frau Kohut agree that everything has its price, which Jelinek describes as: “Die Damen K. stimmen ihm etwas wehmütig zu, weil ihnen ein Glied der Familie abgeht.” In the course of the conversation, the butcher inquires: “Welches spezielle Stück denn. …” (98). Later Erika appears to fetishize precisely this missing “member.”

Significantly, Erika escapes maternal control by standing in for the father in her regular visits to Vienna's Prater, described as a carnival sphere of lust. Equipped with her binoculars (inherited from her father), she prowls the area looking for scenes of sex in order to satisfy her scopophilic urges—the only way she can engage her body without risking distance. She becomes the voyeur par excellence, illicitly watching what is forbidden her: “Sie muβ und muβ schauen. Sie ist für sich selbst tabu. Anfassen gibt es nicht” (56). At peep shows, Erika explores the female body, albeit visually. Yet, within this arena, her position as spectator remains ambiguous. She not only occupies a “male” space, the cabin of the peep show, but assumes the male role of voyeur, since voyeurism is the property of the masculine spectator (the binoculars she uses belong to her father as well). Erika performs the act of looking, with woman as spectacle and the exhibitionistic object constructed for male pleasure.17

The gaze here is exploitative, just like the sexual relations Erika observes in porno films or between the male “guest worker” and an Austrian woman in the bushes. On one level, appropriation of the male gaze allows her to maintain a distance and relieves the threat of engulfment. Throughout the narrative Erika shuns proximity: “Man sagt gern von einer solchen Person, sie sei unnahbar” (93). On another level, occupying a male space perpetuates a “negative” female identity and further removes Erika from the possibility of finding a confirming, mirroring response in her confrontation with woman constructed as object or as other who is void of agency and her own desire. Female sexuality, or “the dark continent,” remains hidden, despite Erika's wish to see inside the female body, to gain “insight” or “Einblick” (109). The narrator chidingly reminds the reader that Erika pays for what she could view in the mirror at home.

Still, she perceives herself as an aberration of nature. In an allusion to creation stories, the narrator describes Erika's visit to the peep show: “Auch Erika will nichts weiter als zuschauen. Hier, in dieser Kabine, wird sie zu garnichts. … Die Natur scheint keine Öffnungen in ihr gelassen zu haben. … Dafür stolziert Erika als Herrin herum.” (53).18 The German word “Herrin”, a compound of male and female signifier, essentially marks her as a genderless oddity, neither here nor there.

Erika, however, finds few avenues of exploration outside of the maternal realm. As a result, she cuts or gouges herself in reaction to her inability to separate and as an expression of wishing to penetrate the cast that encases her. The daughter defiles the female body not only as an aggressive retaliation against her entrapment, but symptomatically attempts to cut through the ice (as one critic suggests, the German word for ice “EIS” is the mirror image of “SIE”) that envelops her and leads to dissociation from her body.19 Erika consequently punishes and negates herself as daughter and symbolically severs the umbilical cord in an effort to control her life.

Particularly after encounters with men who unleash her discordant desire to feel her own body and to separate from the maternal aegis, Erika, wielding a razor blade or knife, initiates her private rituals of self-mutilation. The narrator comments: “Die Klinge lacht wie der Bräutigam der Braut entgegen” (45). The bridegroom (the male), an ambiguous emblem of liberation (since he repossesses the daughter), takes the bride away from the mother. He, so to speak, “penetrates” the bond. Yet as Jelinek illustrates in Die Klavierspielerin, as well as in other works, the male picks up where the mother leaves off. The mother essentially prepares the daughter for masochist submission and further “bond/age.”

Jelinek graphically describes Erika's masochistic destruction of the body that imprisons her. In one scene, as soon as she hears her mother leave the house, the daughter attempts to extend an opening in herself by cutting the vagina with the father's all-purpose razor blade. Again, it is the fetishized “missing father” who provides the instrument of separation:

SIE setzt sich mit gespreizten Beinen vor die Vergröβerungsseite des Rasierspiegels und vollzieht einen Schnitt, der die Öffnung vergröβern soll, die als Tür in ihren Leib hineinführt. … SIE schneidet sich jedoch an der falschen Stelle und trennt damit, was Herr Gott und Mutter Natur in ungewohnter Einigkeit zusammengefügt haben. Der Mensch darf es nicht und es rächt sich. Sie fühlt nichts. Einen Augenblick lang starren die beiden zerschnittenen Fleischhälften einander betroffen an, weil plötzlich dieser Abstand entstanden ist, der vorher noch nicht da war. Sie haben viele Jahre lang Freud und Leid miteinander geteilt, und nun separiert man sie voneinander! Im Spiegel sehen die Hälften sich auch noch seiten-verkehrt, so daβ keine weiβ, welche Hälfte sie ist.


Implied is that the mother and daughter, as the same sex, are biologically connected. Within Erika's mirror no differentiation exists; they are interchangeable. Unlike Irigaray's positive description of the female genitals as autoerotic and self-contained, which resists the Freudian inscription of deficiency, punned in Jelinek's reference to “Freud und Leid,” Erika's genitals are mute.20 Just like her body, they too are besieged by the mother.

In Erika's relationship to Walter Klemmer, Jelinek shows how the mother-daughter relationship initiates Erika into asymmetrical power relationships of domination and subservience. The mother's authority, which does not recognize the daughter outside of her domain, veritably erases the daughter as subject. Consequently, Erika only knows submission, self-abnegation and obedience. For her, love translates into dependence and submission to another's will. Advertisements for pornographic movies that reinforce erotic fantasies of female subordination and male rule find fertile ground in the psychology prepared by the mother, but more importantly, they allude to the pervasive expression of this power structure. It is not surprising then that the dramaturgy of “love” that Erika directs with her student is masochistically choreographed. In a detailed letter to Klemmer, Erika finely outlines the stages of her abuse and humiliation: she wishes to be chained, beaten and gagged to the point of self-annihilation. As the letter shows, the masochist yields yet paradoxically exerts control by determining her own punishment.

Through slavery and obedience, the daughter attempts to attain freedom; through pain, she hopes to be reached and touched—as long as she stipulates the parameters. Jessica Benjamin speaks of submission as “the desire for independence and the desire for recognition” and ultimately the desire for love.21 She continues: “But current psychoanalytical theory appreciates that pain is a route to pleasure only when it involves submission to an idealized figure.”22 According to Benjamin's model, Walter Klemmer becomes the idealized figure who potentially liberates Erika from the mother and offers her a means of obtaining self-worth. Benjamin claims that “woman loses herself in the identification with the powerful other who embodies the missing desire and agency.”23 Klemmer is always described as healthy, athletic, “intakt und unbeschwert” (114); “Klemmer ist die Norm” (216). However, a second voice emerges in this masochistic fantasy of denial and humiliation that confers another dimension upon Erika's declaration of subjugation.

The daughter secretly hopes that Klemmer resists violating her—as an ultimate expression of love. This other voice resists penetration, contrary to Benjamin's prediction, and impedes orgasm or closure. Erika even recommends that their erotic exchange remain textual, i.e. fantasy: “Erika spricht nicht, sie schreibt” or “Nebst Brief ist sie eigentlich wunschlos” (218; 233). Since the masochist draws pleasure from postponement, such delays are intrinsic to masochistic desire. “Hence,” as Gaylyn Studlar concludes, “the need to control desire and suspend consummation.”24 At the same time, the masochist “depends upon separation to guarantee a pain/pleasure structure.”25 In other words, the masochist's pleasure is at stake if the boundaries between subject and object are violated, since the masochist's ego boundaries are too weak to sustain herself. It is the possibility of acting out obedience that belongs to the fantasy world of the masochist rather than pain.

Erika's three sexual encounters with Walter Klemmer illustrate the pinings and power of the masochistic text. Their first erotic confrontation takes place in a lavatory stall. Erika allows Klemmer access to her body, described as a discarded instrument—she remains remarkably passive during Klemmer's passionate outburst and energetic demonstration of agency. Upon taking Klemmer's penis into her hand, Erika takes command and regains power. With this gesture, she also initiates a delay and postpones consummation. The narrator comments: “In der Geschichte der Musik und auch nirgendwo sonst wird der werbende Mann aus dem Geschehen einfach entlassen” (79). Inactivated and reduced to “Liebeswörter,” Erika informs Klemmer that she will write him a letter, the pact of the masochist's madness, as Deleuze suggests.26

The second encounter takes place in a janitorial closet. Amidst antiseptic cleaners and brooms, Klemmer remains impotent (sterile). Finally, they meet inside the Kohut apartment “von Nahrungsmittel umgeben” which imperils the realm of the (oral) mother. It is here that Erika produces the letter in which she details the mechanics of her subjugation (211). Marking the longest single scene in the novel, she entreats Klemmer to participate in her masochistic fantasy. Full of delays and circuitous, descriptive meanderings, the masochistic fantasy evolves as an aesthetic expression of desire. During the fourth encounter, however, his feelings of agency violated once again, Klemmer's sense of frustration and humiliation climaxes. Disgusted by the role of dependence imposed upon him in Erika's fantasy, he wantonly retaliates. He returns to the Kohut apartment late at night seeking to annihilate the object of his degradation. By brutalizing and raping Erika, Klemmer reinstates his masculinity and the traditionally gendered power relationship: “Er geht nicht ohne Lohn” (276). Contrary to the belief of the intricate complementarity of sadistic and masochistic desire, Erika's desire finds no articulation at the sadist's hand. Abused and violated, she returns to the mother.

In Die Klavierspielerin, the mother represents the culprit. Undoubtedly, there are autobiographical shadings in Jelinek's novel. In an interview in Die Zeit, she admits: “Die Klavierspielerin ist ja nicht nur gegen mich, sondern auch gegen meine Mutter gerichtet. … Ich habe mir den Haβ gegen meine Mutter lange nicht eingestanden.”27 Yet despite the author's personal investment, it should not be forgotten that the mother, a caricature in this novel, primarily embodies a perspective of the institution of motherhood, of structures and not persons. Jelinek neither represents individual psychologies, nor produces a first-person confessional narrative. Rather, she banters with continuously shifting viewpoints and creates puppet-like figures which perform the conditions set by Anglo-European culture. She artfully exposes their contours in the same subversive manner as Irigaray, whose provocative reading of Freud's texts dissects the cultural fears and desires that underpin Western culture.28 With scathing wit, Jelinek moves her figures through the scripts prepared by patriarchy to induce some of the monstrous personality structures they evoke. She depicts mother and daughter as caricatures who perform the inhibiting social structures that significantly enforce their exclusive bond.29 At the same time, Jelinek brings behavioral norms that have entrenched themselves in Western culture into a play of excess.30 She explains her writing:

Was mich, glaube ich, von vielen Autoren unterscheidet, ist, daβ bei mir keine Menschen agieren. Es sind Kunstfiguren, die auf das Archetypische und Reliefartige wie bei einem Holzschnitt reduziert sind, oder ausschlieβlich Vertreter ihrer Klasse. Mir wird oft vorgeworfen: wo bleiben Psychologie, Subtilität und Differenzierungen? Ich halte es für absolut legitim, diese vergröbernde, ironisierte, satirische Darstellung zu verwenden, wenn man polemisch und agitatorisch wirken will.31

Jelinek wields language to provoke, agitate and unsettle. In her transgression of the boundaries of realism, it is clear that she distorts the socially choreographed notion of the mother-daughter relationship to such an extent that it must collapse and expose its operations. As Marlies Janz remarks, this narrative strategy characterizes many of Jelinek's works: “Jelinek begegnet den patriarchalisch geprägten Weiblichkeitsbildern nicht mit der abstrakten Behauptung weiblicher Alterität, sondern mit der Aneignung und Sinnentleerung dieser Bilder. Sie bleiben, absurd geworden, schlieβlich als leere Hülle zurück.”32 The inner dynamics which Jelinek lays open have been affixed by discourses that over the years have invented motherhood and continuously reconfigured women to meet what was thought to be the needs of the child.33 Within this configuration the daughter is left defenseless.

Erika, therefore, never breaks out of the mother's realm. At the end, she is seen returning to the mother's lair with a self-inflicted wound as a mark of her guilt. In fact, the beginning and end of the narrative share a common destination, namely the mother. The mother-daughter relationship within the bounds of its existent structure is doomed in its compulsion to repeat the dependencies cast by the mother-imago.

Unlike the autobiographical accusations which appeared in numerous protocols and published letters written during the 1970s in West Germany that blamed the mother for the daughter's social position as victim, Jelinek's novel depersonalizes the relationship. In contrast, she dissects a social arrangement. Neither mother nor daughter can be cured or salvaged in her work. They stay within the hermetically sealed world of the mother-daughter bond and do what they are destined to do, namely to perform the injunctions of Western culture and the epistemologies that negate them both.

Not interested in creating a utopian literature, Jelinek breaks into the sacrosanct territory of motherhood and critically exposes its cultural structuring. She allies herself with the notion that the family structure must be remodeled. As it stands now, the “family romance” in sociopolitical and psychological terms inscribes and perpetuates women's dual role of power/powerlessness. It promotes a social structure that is no longer tenable, if it ever was, especially in view of the psychic mapping that Jelinek describes.

The conclusions put forth by numerous feminist researchers that motherhood as an institution may be viewed as “the root cause of the oppression of women” is underscored by Jelinek, who shows how such a maternal voice promotes female masochism.34 Here motherhood is defined as the mother-involved, father-absent nuclear family that perpetuates traditional notions of gendered identities. The mother who must be dealt with in such a case is what Irigaray refers to as the traditionally phallic mother—an all-powerful/powerless mother for whom the child becomes the first and only love object for a considerable duration. This is not the woman in the mother, but the phallic mother within patriarchy. Irigaray asserts:

More of us have suffered from over-protection by our mothers which paralyzed them, as their own mothers were already. Because this investment corresponds to a guilty and prescribed motherhood, abstract function whose power is then without limits. Whence the threatening fantasms attached to the maternal functions. The fear of being engulfed by an abyss, of sinking into darkness.35

The mother's “love” ends up suffocating, (s)mothering the body she once nourished. Many contemporary feminists subscribe to the necessary separation between mother and daughter—especially on the part of the daughter in order to re-identify—and call for a heightened involvement of other caretakers. Picking up from there, other feminist scholars have strongly proposed that “maternal subjectivity must be erased for a daughterly subjectivity to develop.”36

Numerous texts written by women during the 1970s and 1980s in Germany attest to the early confrontations with the mother figure and the recognition of her internalization. Separation in these texts is a precondition for the daughter's selfhood, since leaving the “mother” implies not only growing up, but, more important, leaving the terms that have defined and thus confined the traditional dutiful daughter, impelling her to uphold the existing social practices.

So where does this leave the mothers, particularly in a social, political climate that reinforces the role of mother as primary caretaker? Perhaps when mothers' voices begin to contribute to the knowledge of the mother-child relationship, then daughters will be able to enter into a dialogue with their mothers as recognized subjects. Mutual recognition of each other as subjects in their own right comprises an essential step in the process of differentiation. Also, once the obstacles to mothering are reduced through additional support systems for parents, then the terms of motherhood can change.37 In the meantime, Jelinek turns the mother-daughter relationship into a cannibalistic ritual that devours itself, so that, in its present form, it will one day go away.


  1. Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989) 130.

  2. The mother/daughter relationship has been the central theme of many German women writers and filmmakers alike. See such novels as Gabriele Wohmann, Ausflug mit der Mutter (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1976); Jutta Heinrich, Das Geschlecht der Gedanken (München: Frauenoffensive, 1976); Brigitte Schwaiger, Wie kommt das Salz ins Meer (Reinbeck: Rowohlt, 1977); Helga Novak, Die Eisheiligen (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1979); Waltraud Anna Mitgutsch, Die Züchtigung (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1985). In films, see Jutta Brückner, Hungerjahre—In einem reichen Land (1980); Helma Sanders-Brahms, Deutschland, bleiche Mutter (1980) and Flügel und Fesseln (1984); Jeanine Meerapfel, Malou (1981). In addition to these texts, a plethora of protocols and interviews appeared during the 1970s. Among them are Barbara Franck, Ich schau in den Spiegel und sehe meine Mutter: Gesprächsprotokolle mit Töchtern (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1979); Roswitha Fröhlich, Ich und meine Mutter: Mädchen erzählen (Ravensburg: Otto Maier, 1980); Erika Schilling, Manchmal hasse ich meine Mutter (Ravensburg: Otto Maier, 1981); Monika Sperr, ed., Liebe Mutter Liebe Tochter: Frauenbriefe von heute (München: Rogner und Bernhard, 1981). For further discussions of the mother-daughter relationship, see Mütter-Töchter Frauen: Weiblichkeitsbilder in der Literatur, ed. Helga Kraft and Elke Liebs (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1993).

  3. All references are taken from Elfriede Jelinek, Die Klavierspielerin (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1986). Die Klavierspielerin has been translated into English as: The Piano Teacher, trans. Joachim Newgroschel (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988). This edition was reviewed in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani (17 December 1988).

  4. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Bantam Books, 1976) 238.

  5. My analysis of masochism is motivated, in part, by Gilles Deleuze's discussion of this perversion. His studies are based on Sacher-Masoch's novels in Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty (New York: Zone Books, 1991).

  6. Gaylyn Studlar, In the Realm of Pleasure: von Sternberg, Dietrich and the Masochistic Aesthetic (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988) 16.

  7. See Nancy Chodorow, “Family Structure and Feminine Personality,” Women, Culture and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Luise Lamphere (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1974) and The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: U of California P, 1978).

  8. Luce Irigaray, “And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other,” trans. Helene Vivienne Wenzel, Signs 7.1 (1981): 67-68.

  9. Elisabeth Badinter, Mother Love: Myth and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1980) 215.

  10. Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problems of Domination (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988) 97.

  11. A similar scene occurs in Jutta Brückner's film Hungerjahre (Years of Hunger, 1980). The daughter in the film resorts to self-mutilation and even suicide through pills in order to break through the vigilant regime of the mother. The social context is the 1950s in Germany, when sexual repression in the name of postwar stability was at a peak.

  12. Jane Flax, “Mother-Daughter Relationships: Psychodynamics, Politics, and Philosophy,” The Future of Difference, ed. Alice Jardine et al. (Boston: Halo, 1980) 31.

  13. With the increasing focus on the mother during the 1970s, interest in the father figure diminished. It is interesting that men play a marginal role in much of the literature written by German women during the 1970s.

  14. Benjamin 125.

  15. Benjamin 107.

  16. Coppelia Kahn, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: Recent Gender Theories and Their Implications,” The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, et al. (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985) 76.

  17. See E. Ann Kaplan, ed. Psychoanalysis and Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1990); Judith Mayne, The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women's Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990); Constance Penley, ed. Feminism and Film Theory (New York: Routledge, 1988).

  18. The German word “Herrin” may also be seen as a word play connoting a combination of male and female in one person that negates both male and female. Even though the power/superiority implied in the term “Herrin” tenuously proceeds from Erika's narcissistic image as artist, the incompatibility of woman and artist that Jelinek often thematizes but especially in her play Clara S., is alluded to here as well. In a video interview prepared by the Austrian consulate, “Elfriede Jelinek—Von der mangelnden Tragfähigkeit des Bodens,” Jelinek briefly and sarcastically comments on Freud's attitude toward women artists, which seems to influence her representation of the character Erika Kohut. The following quote has been transcribed from the tape: “Nach der freudschen Kulturtheorie sind Frauen zu künstlerischen Leistungen nicht fähig. Der hat recht, denn ich glaube, Frauen können sich doch durch künstlerischen Leistungen keineswegs die Liebe der Männer erringen, sondern im Gegenteil, sie werden vor den Männern eher etwas unheimlich. Ich habe die Erfahrung gemacht, daβ das Künstlerische oder die intellektuelle Leistung die Frau sexuell nicht aufwertet, sondern im Gegenteil, sie fast abwertet oder sie zumindest zu einem Neutrum macht.” See also the interview in Die Tiefe der Tinte, ed. Harald Friedl (Salzburg: Verlag Grauwerte im Institut für Alltagskultur, 1990) 27-51.

  19. Hedwig Appelt, Die leibhaftige Literatur: Das Phantasma und die Präsenz der Frau in der Schrift (Weinheim: Quadriga, 1989) 118.

  20. See Irigaray 67-68; This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985); “Le corps-a-corps avec la mere,” Zur Geschlechter differenz, trans. Xenia Rajewsky (Wien: Wiener Frauenverlag, 1987).

  21. Benjamin 52.

  22. Benjamin 60.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Studlar 27.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Deleuze 74-78.

  27. Elfriede Jelinek, “Ich lebe nicht,” interview with Andre Müller, Die Zeit 22 June 1990: 55. As in most of his interviews, Müller intrudes on the intimate sphere of his guests, performing a type of intellectual sensationalism. In the interview with Jelinek, he drives her to a confession, although in her case it is difficult to distinguish between exposure and self-stylization.

  28. Irigaray describes the suffocating merger between mother and daughter that restrains the daughter's experience of herself and the mother as two separate subjects differently than Jelinek's rendition, but with the same underlying critique. Rendered completely dependent, according to Irigaray, the symbolically paralyzed daughter appeals to the mother: “And look at me. I would like us to play together at being the same and different. You/I exchanging selves endlessly and each staying herself. Living mirrors” (61). See also Jane Gallop, “The Father's Seduction,” The (M)other Tongue: Essays on Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, eds. Shirley Nelson Garner, et al. (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985).

  29. Donna Hoffmeister, “Access Routes into Postmodernism: Interviews with Innerhofer, Jelinek, Rosei and Wolfgruber,” Modern Austrian Literature 20.2 (1987), 107-17. Here Jelinek discusses her perspective on the modern novel. She comments: “Die persönliche Identität des Einzelnen ist durch die Festigkeit und die Geschlossenheit des Systems kaum mehr zu verwirklichen. Das ist auch einer der Gründe, und das wird mir ständig vorgeworfen, daβ meine Figuren keine Menschen mehr sind. Sie sind Schablonen, Bedeutungsträger, nur Repräsentanten. Der psychologische Roman ist tot. Wer versucht, den psychologischen Roman zu schreiben, kann nur scheitern. Es ist nicht mehr möglich. Die Literatur muβ dem Rechnung tragen, daβ der Individualismus nicht mehr möglich ist” (115).

  30. In Jelinek's novel Lust (Reinbeck: Rowohlt, 1987), the sexual relationship between man and wife is reduced to a performance of male pleasure and female erasure. Here the violent interplay of subject and object is stripped to its barest and most brutal expression.

  31. Josef Hermann Sauter, “Interviews mit österreichischen Autoren,” Weimarer Beitrāge 27.6 (1981) 113.

  32. Marlies Janz “Falsche Spiegel: Über die Umkehrung als Verfahren bei Elfriede Jelinek,” Gegen den schōnen Schein, ed. Christa Gürtler (Frankfurt a.M.: Verlag neue Kritik, 1990) 136.

  33. See Badinter's discussion of the historical conceptualization of motherhood and the changing attitudes that are effected by science, philosophy, literature or myth in Mother Love: Myth and Reality. She reinforces the perspective of mother love as a social, historical institution, that is, a construct, and thereby questions the ideological appropriation of maternal instinct.

  34. Kahn 73.

  35. Irigaray cited in Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989) 122.

  36. Irigaray puts it in terms of learning to speak to the mother and not at her; “to talk to one's mother as a woman presupposes giving up the idea of maternal omnipotence. … To accept that one's mother is not all protective, the ultimate amorous recourse, the refuge against abandonment. Which then allows us to establish with her ties of reciprocity, where she could eventually also feel herself to be my daughter. Cited in Grosz 122: Luce Irigaray, “Meres et filles vues par Luce Irigaray,” Liberation (1979): 13.

  37. In Juanna Malamud Smith, “Mothers: Tired of Taking the Rap,” The New York Times Magazine (June 10, 1990): 32-38, she emphasizes psychology's grotesque form of mother-bashing in its blaming of the mother for any form of a child's disorder ranging from the emotional to the physical realm. In all of these “studies,” she writes, “the social context of mothering is largely left out of any account of parenting” (32).

Elfriede Jelinek and Gitta Honegger (interview date spring-summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Jelinek, Elfriede, and Gitta Honegger. “The German Language: An Interview with Elfriede Jelinek.” Theater 25, no. 1 (spring-summer 1994): 14-22.

[In the following interview, Jelinek discusses the influence of philosopher Martin Heidegger on her work, her role as an artist, and writing within the Austrian literary tradition.]

On a home movie screen a middle-aged woman carrying a suitcase wanders along a mountain path. Hannah Arendt is returning, after the war, to visit Heidegger in Todtnauberg, his beloved Black Forest country retreat. For her play's title, Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek extracts the root words hidden in the village's name. It only takes a slight adjustment to create Totenauberg,Mountain/Meadow of the Dead, to highlight what's in a (compound) name, and set up the ironic context for its most famous inhabitant and the central tenets of his philosophy. In that philosophy, Nature/home/habitation function like Duchampian “hinges” in a construct that enshrines the native and excludes the foreign—with catastrophic consequences, as the play points out.

On stage, the frail old man is stuck in an odd contraption, the literal rendering of Heidegger's famous term, Gestell, academically translated as “enframing,” a kind of existential walker that supports man on his intellectual hikes through the dark forests and dizzying peaks of abstraction. The woman sits on a bench, watching her former-lover-turned-Nazi-ally from the perspective of the Jewish refugee. Philosophically, she is an emigrée from the flights of German idealism to the more concrete grounds of Anglo-Saxon rationalism. Out of Heidegger's metaphysical speculations, with their monumental linguistic arches between Greek genius and its self-proclaimed Germanic double, arise the new myths of a self-consciously New Age: a new motherhood devoted to the birthing of a perfect generation, new philosophies of ethnic hygiene, the renewal of nature in perfectly controlled national parks, where tourists resembling refugees are the new game to be hunted and devoured.

At age 47, Elfriede Jelinek has been finally acknowledged as a leading, if controversial, figure. Over the years, her works—including some ten prose pieces, eight or so texts for the theater, countless radio plays, and several filmscripts—have gathered a respectable group of followers: intellectuals, mostly women and students. But until recently their eruptive potential has simmered just below the surface of serious recognition, thanks to a unique and historically tested Viennese strategy summed up in the term totschweigen—the act of killing someone through silence. This is a sophisticated act of self-preservation: rather than letting the ripples of outrage and contempt in Vienna's quasisophisticated circles escalate to the point where they ricochet exactly off their intended target, they are marvelously drowned in silently agreed-upon silence.

Each of Jelinek's works aims at demolishing social and sexual conduct, historic pride and shame, aesthetic and erotic tastes, as they are perpetuated or infected by the dominant male culture. She called a recent play Sickness or Modern Woman. Her fierce intelligence, her superb command of language, and the wicked humor of the outraged make her heir to a long line of Vienna-based literary malcontents such as Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti, and Thomas Bernhard. With Totenauberg, produced by the Vienna Burgtheater a season ago, she has finally staked out her territory, right between the two undisputed masters of contemporary German-language literature and theater: Bernhard and Peter Handke.

No mean achievement, particularly for a woman—as she is quick to point out. The wrath with which she smashes the icons and taboos of Austrian self-esteem is not the only thing that connects her to Bernhard. More important is the power of her language, exploding the linguistic cornerstones of her culture. With savage wit, Jelinek's play Burgtheater tore the Olympian masks off Austria's most revered actor-family (all members of the venerable Burgtheater, Austria's National Theater, instituted by the Kaiser himself). Out of the rubble of their domestic battles, in what would usually be considered the charming lilt and picaresque turns of Viennese dialect, emerge grotesque fragments of provincial Nazism. Her latest novel, Lust, appropriates the strategies of the pornographic novel in its monotonous repetition of graphic details, calmly demonstrating the husband's brutal, mechanical use of his wife as a sexual household appliance.

Wolken.Heim, a theater text, does not read like a play at all. There are no characters, not even distinct speakers. Variations on excerpts from Kleist, Hölderlin, Heidegger, Hegel, and Fichte, and letters from the Baader-Meinhof group, coalesce in a powerful dirge, a dramatized ode to the German language's self-destructive collision with history. Her theater pieces do not examine characters through their interactions. Rather, they illuminate how language itself generates actions and realities. A character must first be held accountable for his language—not just at the moment of actual speech, but as a cultural legacy that must be examined and challenged at all times.

In view of the obsession with language, it isn't surprising that Jelinek tackled Heidegger, one of the most controversial philosophers of language. In describing her dramaturgy, Jelinek speaks of “planes of language” as opposed to dialogue. Her stage characters turn almost literally into “figures of speech.” Their long speeches, devoid of psychological distinctions, spread like huge verbal canvases. It is up to the director to place them against each other and let the images emerge in the spaces between them. As the old man lectures, ruminates, stumbles, and pants across the landslides of his thoughts, specters of Auschwitz emerge from the cultural rubble among the severed limbs and bloody corpses of mountain climbers, skiers, and multicultural refugees. Totenauberg juxtaposes the philosopher guru of ecologically pure New Age proselytizers surprisingly quick to ignore his Nazi past, and his former student and lover Hannah Arendt, the Jewish emigrée intellectual. Jelinek's portrayal of the strenuously pontificating old man is mainly taken from his essay The Question Concerning Technology, written after World War II, in which he summons up all his linguistic tricks to come to terms with his Nazi utopia. His etymological obsessions permit endless transformations of words, especially compound words, so dear to the German language, and perversion of meaning. It is a fatal process, leading not only to the philosopher's personal tragedy but contributing to the moral collapse of an entire culture. With merciless humor and piercing intelligence, Jelinek demonstrates how the rhetoric of the most self-consciously politically, morally, religiously, and fashionably correct picks up on philosophical and linguistic “Heideggerisms,” which easily convert into the slogans of a newly emerging elite of nativism, evolutionary perfectionism, ethnic chauvinism. The insipid mutations of Heidegger's word games lead right into the present, a present that cheerfully exonerates itself from any guilt or moral responsibility by exploiting its bona fide status post: after the Holocaust, after Chernobyl, after the Wall.

[Honegger]: How did you get involved with Heidegger?

[Jelinek]: In quite an abstract way, originally. I always thought one should connect this “my land, my blood, my soil” kind of fascism to the thought processes in which it originated. Two years ago I wrote Wolken.Heim, which deals with the philosophy of German Idealism, with Hegel, Fichte—quite a few quotes—with Hölderlin, the poet who inspired them. I wanted to continue from those roots to Heidegger, who immersed himself in Hölderlin. I was interested in a nativist philosopher who wanted to guide the Führer—to lead the leader as it were—this thinker in his own misguidedness. One can't breathe spirit into unspirit, just as one can't breathe Christianity into the Antichrist. How could thinking be so deluded as to believe that it could influence a fascist state?

That's what he wanted?

Yes, that's a quote: he wanted to lead the leader, and the Führer, naturally devoid of spirit, wasn't interested at all in being led by a thinker; he had destroyed thinking together with German culture, an entire culture. That was Heidegger's immense delusion, and he never renounced it, not even after the war. Many actually tried to get him to do that, to find one word of regret about the crimes of the Third Reich and he always refused. Paul Celan hoped he would, Ingeborg Bachmann hoped he would. He wanted her and Celan to contribute to some kind of commemorative publication, I don't know for which of his birthdays, and both declined, because he wasn't ready to renounce, so to speak. Which, I think, shows character. On the other hand, there is this awful passage in a letter to Jaspers, I believe, in which he attributes the destruction of the European Jews to a kind of natural process, comparable to the pollution of the environment or the phosphorization of the ocean.

I was interested in confronting that kind of wrongheadedness with a woman who was led to political thinking, to political philosophizing, by her forced life in emigration. Those two figures. Not arguing with each other—that would have been another possibility, an argument between the two, the obvious solution. But I wanted to transform philosophical talk into poetic speech, to juxtapose those planes of speech.

Of course I am dealing with what is happening in Austria and Germany today, the repression. The new, socially acceptable right—I call it white fascism—this renewed respectability of thinking along the rightist margin, that's what I tried to show, otherwise it would have made no sense to write a history play. I tried to denounce what's happening along the margin of the Green movement, this obsession with health, this claim to health for oneself and one's children, this claim to physical intactness, while in the Third World everyone's dying. Well, I simply try to show where these new rightist thinkers are located.

This continuation of the right reveals itself through language?

I am trying to show it only through language. I don't try to set contents against each other, but rather husks of speech: the nativist thinking of Heidegger against the ironic, precise thinking of Hannah Arendt; however, she knows, right from the beginning, that she is fighting a losing battle and that she will always be fighting a losing battle. The European left, for example, is finished, finished as a moral authority, because of what's happened in the Eastern bloc, the actual political practices of the real socialist countries. The left is also finished as an intellectual force. I let all this converge in the figure of Hannah Arendt—this loss of belief in one's political effectiveness. And God knows, Hannah Arendt was no leftist.

Heidegger was quite active as a linguist. It's no coincidence that he devoted himself mainly to poets. He had these tendencies to appropriate Hölderlin's biography for himself to the point of grotesque correspondences, which are also in the play: the stable, where his grandfather was born among the sheep, it's the same with Hölderlin. Heidegger himself wrote little texts which are unbelievably kitschy, they're really bad literature—just like Hegel, by the way, who also wrote awful poems. Well, when philosophers write poetry, it's a disaster, most of the time.

Furthermore, there is the exclusion of women from philosophy, which made me approach the subject from another plane of thinking, in a poetic, literary way.

It's pretty amazing, how outstanding women are preoccupied with Heidegger; there is Arendt …

Of course, Arendt was his lover, she was the great love of his life, and she was very young when she met him. She visited him after the war and—what I sensed when I wrote the play but didn't know then—she was also deeply moved by the widespread disappointment over his unwillingness to admit his political mistakes. She was deeply moved for him, as well. Shortly after the war, in 1946-47, she wrote an essay in which she deals with his existential philosophy, and she says explicitly that one mustn't take him that seriously: it's all right to laugh about him, this pathos of the self rooted in the soil has its comic aspects as well. I also tried to show that in the play.

In most plays one wonders what happens next. But in Totenauberg one is always in suspense about what will happen to a given word—the way you start with one word and play around with the root until something quite different comes out at the end of an unbelievable play of verbal transformations.

Yes, I don't work with alliterations, but with the word itself, all the way to the cheapest pun.

Your critique manifests itself in Heidegger's language itself.

Yes, yes. Oskar Maria Graf also wrote a text ridiculing Heidegger; that's very easy, one can expose Heidegger's most serious philosophical texts as ridiculous. That would have been too cheap for me. It wouldn't have been appropriate in view of the enormity of the subject—how German thinkers, that is to say a large part of German thinkers, let themselves be corrupted by the Nazis, by—as I said before—unspirit personified. One has only to look at the history of German philosophy: all philosophy departments were brought into line. The Jews were thrown out and the institutions changed over seamlessly to nativist, nationalist stuff. It wasn't just Heidegger. He happened to be the most famous, there were many more.

When one asks, how was it possible, there is the temptation to look for a psychological explanation.

That's something everyone has to do for himself. Psychology doesn't exist in my work. I mean, those texts are written in a way that everyone can draw his own conclusions as to where the danger is. I see it coming—and I show it in the play—I see the danger coming from someone like Peter Singer, from this health mania. Suddenly the notion appears again that there is life which has no value; seriously damaged infants can be killed, children can be aborted only because they would be born handicapped. In many of his passages Heidegger appears a forerunner of the ecology movement. There is one passage which I quote, “you don't have to be afraid of nuclear power, we'll be killed by cars,” he said. One has to become very aware of what's so horrendous, creepy about this home/land way of thinking, but one must not just throw out his thinking altogether, one has to acknowledge him, that is to say acknowledge him as dangerous, because something that's put aside or repressed or hidden becomes all the more dangerous.

How did Heidegger arrive at his perception of the foreign?

It's rural. I think the Catholic farming tradition brings about disaster—it excludes what it doesn't understand. I think this is also one of the tragedies of the Yugoslavian catastrophe. A very rural society—Karadzic is a farmer's son who came to Sarajevo to study—has always had this hatred against urban socialization. That's how it was during the Nazis, the hatred of Jews as the carriers of an urban, intellectual cultured bourgeoisie, completely at ease with the cultural accomplishments of the Germans—Goethe, the museums, the philharmonic concerts on Sundays. There are many concentration camp documents about this love for German culture—Jews had it more than the Germans. Anger is directed against that urbanness—women in makeup, elegant people, as opposed to the unmade-up ideal of the German girl. There is a hatred of the urban, educated class that has interests beyond itself, while the farmer is interested only in himself, his animals, his closer surroundings. Whenever Catholicism and the farming tradition, or orthodoxy and rural life, come together I notice an inferiority complex towards any interests that could further human development outside their own immediate sphere. That's dangerous.

You talked about Arendt coming back and saying one has to look at Heidegger ironically also. Could this be the influence of an Anglo-Saxon perspective?

In the case of Hannah Arendt, certainly. There is a soberness—which she always had, to be sure—in some very early interviews, she comes across as a quite resolute person, a very resolute philosopher of “common sense” one would call it; but as I said, it's a development she didn't choose voluntarily. If she had stayed in Germany, she might have spent her whole life devoted to the most abstract ways of thinking. But this wasn't possible and that is precisely what interests me: her thinking didn't evolve that way voluntarily; through emigration she was forced to politicize herself.

Language also affects the direction of thinking, doesn't it?

Yes, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof …” That's early Wittgenstein, of course, who was a strong influence on the entire postwar literature in Austria—beginning with the Vienna Group, it is a literature whose preoccupation with the word is much stronger here than in Germany, zeroing in on the word and ironicizing it.

Wittgenstein also helps us get a clearer picture of Heidegger.

Wittgenstein always searches for the utmost precision, while Heidegger is cloudy—it is this haze which always rejects the foreign. There is us rooted in our soil, and what's foreign is always a threat. It's something very real again today in Austria and Germany, where foreigners are set on fire, houses are set on fire. By defining what's native in a genetic manner, the foreign has to remain outside, and this is certainly a German tragedy which doesn't exist in North American society; they may not have always been able to assimilate the foreign, but they always accepted it—for example, Americans probably wouldn't understand that people, Turks for example, who have worked and lived in Germany for 20 years, are still called Turks. I guess I have quite an idealistic image of the United States, and I am sure there's a terrible Nazism against the blacks, but still an unbelievably integrative force is at work. You have those famous rightist extremists such as the Ku Klux Klan and their hate crimes, but there also is this fetishization of the First Amendment, that one can say everything but just say it and not carry it over into actions. Society is not as unhealthy and repressive as in Germany.

How does one survive here as an artist?

By fighting against repression, by talking about it incessantly—that is what I consider my task as a writer—by always pointing to it. Writers like me do not develop their literary strengths through formulating a positive utopia or describing subtle nuances, but through polemics, through exposing things. That's when the writing works.

From an American perspective your position seems quite enviable; at least people are listening.

It's all right to generate some friction here. Still, there is a Toni Morrison in the U.S., there are great black women writers and filmmakers, who assert themselves as such powerful artists precisely because they write from the position of the oppressed, because the language of the oppressed is always more on target than the language of the oppressors, that metalanguage which is always inexact and deceitful.

As women, are we still speaking the language of the oppressed? You are the rare woman who has been acknowledged as a serious writer—there are scholarly texts about you, the whole works.

But I am not acknowledged the way I would be if I were a man. I am absolutely certain about that and every writing woman will agree with me. Even if one has been recognized more or less and that is what I have finally accomplished—I am not that young, after all—a female work is not treated with the same respect as a man's—Handke, Bernhard, or Jandl for example. I think every woman writing in America will confirm this. Female works, female products are met with a benign form of contempt.

We are about the same generation, the first who have made it as a larger group.

There are quite a few in the preceding generation—Ingeborg Bachmann, Ilse Aichinger. Perhaps Bachmann was the most successful, but she also knew that in her private life she was the image of the very feminine, very vulnerable little darling, while in fact she was very intelligent and not at all like that. Many women who knew her say that she was quite able, quite strong in matters of practical living. But her biography shows that she was crushed between the claim to femininity in her private life and the male, phallic presumption to write art, and that this simply is not possible. That's what Bachmann's novel Malina is about, which I adapted as a screenplay: that it is not possible for a woman to be a female sexual being and a male-writing Ego, a phallic entity, to develop a phallus that says “I,” that speaks. Many women have been crushed by that. It doesn't happen to me, because I voluntarily pulled back from life, I forsook life, life as the darling little female, and made it my subject matter instead.

Is that possible?

Well, of course we do have it easier. Of course, we do have a broad feminist movement today—reading Malina now, one can only be totally amazed that this was written without a feminist context. In the '60s and early '70s, that's when feminism had just started, really, and Bachmann wasn't part of the student generation, she was an older woman, a middle-aged woman. And reading the reviews at that time, it's obvious that the male critics couldn't stomach it at all.

That happens to you, too, doesn't it—at least it used to?

It still does, but I find myself protected within an international women's movement. When men hit me too strongly, there are always women placing themselves in front of me or joining me to fight back. Even though feminism didn't achieve much, at least one feels in a better place connected to other women. Bachmann certainly didn't have that, she had no female network, especially since she increasingly sought the closeness of men much more than of women.

That way she also was able to maintain the position of the only woman—that's no longer possible either.

I am afraid one loses perspective if men become too important in one's life. In certain ways one has to become like a nun in order to preserve one's integrity, one's broader view.

How does one reconcile this with one's sexuality?

One has to split oneself in two. According to Freudian cultural theory women are not able to produce cultural creations, aside from braiding and weaving, for the simple reason that their superegos are not strong enough to fight those oedipal conflicts. A man doesn't have to do what a woman has to do. She first has to accomplish the intellectual task of creating a superego for herself, out of which she produces her works, be they scientific or artistic—and then there is this femininity in her sexuality. A man doesn't have to do this—he doesn't have to split himself in two, he can always remain whole, he can fuck his mother all his life, he will always find mothers who can take care of him, and he never has to change his primary object, while a woman has to change her primary object.

Then thinking, intellectuality are male by definition?

It looks like it in practice. As long as society doesn't change and as long as a new consciousness of different values isn't developed, womanness and women will still get lost for the most part. Once social norms begin to change, then female speech will also come through.

Handke talks about finding a language that heals.

Handke has this desperate wish for the positive. But it's not that different from me, basically. He sees it as quite different, but it's not that different from my wish to tear open the negative over and over again, to make it visible. These are always the two sides of one coin, I think.

A Native American writer once said, “before healing can take place, the poison must first be exposed.”

Yes, that certainly goes for me. While Handke's wish to create a harmony is also legitimate. Only, as a man, he might have less personal suffering. For women, because of the contempt for their work, the pressure of their pain and what to do about it is different than for a man—I also see this wish for harmony as tragic for Handke. But at least during the last years he has been very articulate politically—for example during the Waldheim campaign he expressed himself very decidedly, or now during the Yugoslavian crisis when he came out with very clear political statements. That's something he didn't do before.

In your work there is this incredible wrath—

Yes, yes.

One could call it a Biblical wrath—and that's what creates the controversy, also the rejection of your work. Yet following your career from the outside, I would have thought that your work represents “literature” and that you would no longer be categorized and rejected as a “woman writer.”

It hasn't changed. For example, a collection of critical texts about my work is coming out in the U.S., including only one man, writing about Lust, and that essay has already been published in the German Text und Kritik. I regret that, because I'm interested in how men receive my work. Can a man accept a “battle between sexes” no longer fought with brutality and force, but as an intellectual competition between men and women? If well-fought it could be very interesting, just like a well-played game of chess, which also has certain aggressive features. Men don't find it necessary to deal with a work by a woman.

Well, I'd say that Lust would be a bit difficult for them to accept.

Lust isn't even unrealistic. I mean, many people say relationships like that don't exist. That's nonsense. Of course they exist. The use of women for daily, monotonous consumption, especially in rural areas where women do not yet have escape routes, that's everywhere. Duras wrote about it too.

You write within a typically Austrian tradition—out of this anger, this wrath, which seems absolutely necessary to survive here. This connects you to Thomas Bernhard, wouldn't you say?

Oh yes. Only Bernhard's tirades are rhythmical—with Bernhard it's not so important what he had to say, it's his stylistic mastery, those repetitions which pull you in almost hypnotically. My theory is that this is a prosodic phenomenon—a phenomenon of his prose rhythm, which gets you to breathe along with his tirades, which means you have to alter your own breath, which gets you into an almost hypnotic, trance-like state. One develops a kind of addiction, an addictive behavior, as if—quite literally—inhaling the other person's breath, the breath of the spoken word. As if he had dictated his texts. Maybe he did.

He himself was an obsessive talker. I know a very good friend of his, a woman; she said that after ten hours talking she was dead, and then he said, well, let's round it up to 12 hours and he went on talking for two more hours.

He was a manic talker; that really was his greatness, wasn't it? This bachelor-machine that keeps on going.

I didn't have that kind of anger. I wasn't strong enough. I had to run away from here.

I have to confess, I'd love to go to England, to live in a little house in the country—that is, in a country with an older democratic tradition. That's a big temptation.

All those lords of the provinces here, those Jörg Haiders [the youthful leader of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party who has gained considerable support for his populist, nativist-nationalist platform]—I'd move far away to get away from that scene. On the other hand, my writing, its polemics depend on the collision with these figures. As long as that's productive—what's the name of the classic hero who received new strength every time he touched the soil?—as long as I receive strength for my work from touching this soil I'll stay here. But it doesn't have to be forever. I have the feeling if I got to New York I'd never leave.

What was most important for me in New York, what really shaped me as the “American” I have become, was the culture of the Jewish emigrants, the Hitler refugees.

Of course. And that is precisely the culture I come from—the Eastern-Jewish world, the tradition of language critique, Karl Kraus. Think of Handke, in comparison, coming from such a poor, rural background—the only picture on the wall was a calendar from the local grocer. He had to acquire language, speech out of speechlessness. It happened in the Catholic boarding school he attended. Consequently, language to him is a unique treasure; therefore also the exquisiteness of his language. I, by contrast, coming from an urban cultured middle class, have the desire to smash language, to strip it to the bone, to tear the last bits of truths out of it, to rip open its chest. It's a destructive process, whereas for Handke, whose speech originated in speechlessness—this rural speechlessness, out of which his mother ultimately killed herself—language is what saved him. Canetti speaks of the “rescued tongue”; that also goes for Handke. I think, in his way he wants to preserve the “rescued tongue.”

Canetti, Bulgarian born, also had to acquire the German language.

Yes. In this country, which destroyed the Jews, in the Burgtheater—his parents regularly took him to performances there and they gave him the gift of the German language as mother tongue. He never came back to Vienna after the war to live, he only visited.

You talk of smashing language—is this why you often write for the theater? Does the destruction become more visible?

Yes. I was fascinated by theater because of the artificiality of language that's possible there, quite unlike in the movies, for example, where one has to write more realistic dialogues, unless one is Fassbinder. In the theater, language is put on a pedestal and exhibited, language gets bigger, and one can write big language—that's what interested me. But, I should add, until now the productions of my plays were not successful. Perhaps I haven't yet found the right director, one who wanted to follow me to the utmost stylization.

In your work you examine—quite critically and angrily—the notion Heimat, home, the place one comes from. What does Austria mean to you, is it Heimat?

Yes, it is, but only in its great ethnic and cultural diversity. Especially eastern Austria. I'd say Vienna is home, this Eastern Slavic-Jewish culture I come from, my family comes from. With authors who come from the western states, it's a different tradition. That scepticism towards language, also that burlesque playing with language practiced in Jewish cabaret, those are brilliant language games; a Karl Farkas, for example, produced word games that went on for hours, he was a genius of language; or Fritz Grünbaum, the great comic who was murdered in a concentration camp. That's a language tradition I feel very close to—it goes all the way to the Marx Brothers, the way Groucho shoots off obscenities in his maniacal machine-gun-like rounds.

The other day I mentioned to a colleague that the Groucho Mask comes pretty close to Heidegger's face.

Yes, that little mustache.

Thomas Bernhard, who comes from small rural circumstances, also has this longing for the cultured urban bourgeoisie.

Yes, and he studied it like someone else would study medicine—I think Zuckmayr was his most important socializer—where to get his shirts custom-tailored, where to get his shoes custom-made, all those rites of the cultured upper middle class. In his case it also is a reaction against the pressure of provincial, rural fascism.

In this small country there are Bernhard and you and Handke, and all its contrasts and contradictions are reflected within the triangle of your works.

Handke doesn't live here anymore, you know; he has jumped ship. He got arrested in Salzburg—I mean, it's unbelievable, the greatest poet in the country, arrested by some village cops. All he did was shout at the guys because they were carrying on unbelievably—rednecks, of course, hurling these horrific insults at him; they must have known who he was. This is exactly what I've been saying—the hatred against someone, because they sense his impact goes far beyond their world; others listen to him, he is acknowledged even in other countries. There is a saying, what the farmer doesn't know …

… he doesn't eat …

That's also a great truth, isn't it? Everything outside his own sphere of experience is rejected. These farmers are also terribly brutal to their animals and their farmhands. I have been involved in this issue, I made a TV film about it—the way they treat their servants, it's absolute, naked, cruel bondage. I'm familiar with the farming environment, we had a farmhouse in the country where I spent all my summer vacations. I studied the rural proletariat very, very carefully; that's how I got to understand fascism.

I feel that the writing of all three of you is about how to find language again, after the Holocaust.

This German language—I know of French people, former concentration camp inmates who recited Hölderlin's poems in Auschwitz … it's not just that this German language …

Exactly at this point the tape stopped: a technical coincidence proving Wittgenstein's point, “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

Susan L. Cocalis (review date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Cocalis, Susan L. Review of Die Kinder der Toten, by Elfriede Jelinek. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 946-47.

[In the following review of Die Kinder der Toten, Cocalis argues that Jelinek's prose style and subject material are enjoyable in “small doses,” but are too excessive and overwhelming in novel form.]

While reading Elfriede Jelinek's latest novel Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead), one cannot help thinking that Ingeborg Bachmann is not the only postwar Austrian woman writer who was obsessed with death and ways of dying (Todesarten). In the tradition of Bachmann's prose works, Jelinek relates her meditations on death to the legacy of Austro-fascism, but she goes far beyond Bachmann in her merciless scrutiny of Austrian pop culture, consumerism, and middle-class values. She also outdoes her literary predecessor in her graphic descriptions of the brutality of male-female relations. But for Jelinek, the women are the predators as often as the men. Since the female characters are already dead in Jelinek's text, they are free to die multiple “deaths” at the hands of exploitative men but also to engage in orgiastic cannibalistic and vampiristic escapades à la Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen. Although Jelinek's heterosexual relationships may be abominable, the interactions between the women are even worse, especially her renditions of the mother-daughter bond (age). Welcome to Jelinek's Austria, the realm of the living dead.

Against the backdrop of an Alpine village located at the “outskirts of Austrian tourism,” the author plays with “death” as a trope for the way her country (wo)men have repressed the fascist past (itself both dead and alive) and embraced sports, sex, pop culture, and consumerism as a way of staying young and denying death. Jelinek accomplishes this end by tracing the “lives” of three main characters, all of whom have died and now exist, like so many Austrians, as the “living dead”: Gudrun Bichler, a student of the humanities, who slit her wrists; Edgar Gstranz, a downhill skier destined for the Austrian national team, who was killed in a car accident; and Karin Frenzel, a middle-aged widow (with a demanding mother!), who plunged to her death in an Alpine gorge. Although they are already dead, they are resurrected into the same or different identities, only to die all over again. It is not clear, however, if these deaths are sequential, since there is no linear progression of a narrative charted through time. The narrator tells stories but also deconstructs them and reconstitutes them arbitrarily, so that the reader must abandon any pretense of chronological time, logical causality, or individual character development.

If one accepts the three main figures as “themes,” then Jelinek's compositional technique might be described as themes with variations. The reader learns in graphic detail about their various identities, clothes, diets, possessions, families, deaths, sexual encounters (before and especially after death), cannibalism, vampirism, and what is left of their bodies (with a focus on their penises, vaginas, and labia). Over and over again. Over hundreds of pages. This is not to say that there is no progression in the narrative, for if you last that long, Jelinek does build up to an allegorical climax, a phantasmagoric image of the hair of millions of dead people invading the idyllic Alpine landscape. There is also an attendant message, a vision of how the ashes of the dead enter the flesh of the living so that the dead can “be themselves” again.

Die Kinder der Toten is not for the faint of heart or stomach, or for those who like their books with a plot or a clear narrative line. While reading the novel, I savored Jelinek's style, which can be delightfully rich in its playful linguistic sophistication, satiric detail, and black humor; but her style is rich like a fine chocolate truffle, which for me is best enjoyed in small doses. Many of the individual segments of the novel had this effect on me, and I found them delectably malicious. However, taking it as a whole—i.e., as a novel of 667 pages—I soon felt surfeited. By the end of this forced feeding, I had binged to excess and was myself more dead than alive.

Brigid Haines (essay date July 1997)

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SOURCE: Haines, Brigid. “Beyond Patriarchy: Marxism, Feminism, and Elfriede Jelinek's Die Liebhaberinnen.Modern Language Review 92, no. 3 (July 1997): 643-55.

[In the following essay, Haines utilizes the theories of feminist theorist Luce Irigaray to delineate the relationship between Marxist and feminist thought in Die Liebhaberinnen.]

Despite their common roots in enlightenment discourses of liberation, Marxism and feminism have always regarded each other with a degree of friendly exasperation. The central problem of Marxism from a feminist point of view is its failure to theorize adequately either subjectivity or gender. In addition, though Marxism explains the workings of capitalism with great conviction and, when pushed, can comment on women's place within capitalism (this is broadly what Marxist-feminists have attempted to do)1 it has not thrown significant light on the origins of the oppression of women endemic to most known societies.2 Indeed, it has often been convenient for Marxists to overlook the oppression of women since that oppression serves the interests of men (Hartmann, p. 5). From a Marxist point of view on the other hand, feminism has often been perceived to incline towards ahistoricism and essentialism in its claims to speak for and about women as a group. Feminism has arguably never theorized patriarchy as convincingly as Marx theorized capitalism3 and, as a consequence, has lacked a coherent political programme.

Marxism and feminism seemed to find common ground in the seminal statement by Simone de Beauvoir that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’, which laid the basis for the sex/gender distinction, and provided a meeting-point for Marxism, feminism, and psychoanalysis on the all-important question of subjectivity.4 Generations of students on gender studies courses felt the penny drop when they heard it argued that while biology is immutable (we are born male or female), the acquisition of gender identity depends on a complex mix of psycho-sexual, historical, political, and cultural factors mediated through the family and through Althusser's other Ideological State Apparatuses.5 Thus the materialism of Marxism was harnessed for feminism in a model that also included insights drawn from psychoanalysis, and a theory of (gendered) subjectivity could be added to a Marxist analysis of society (though as Terry Lovell and others were quick to point out, Althusser's theory left little room for resistance and agency).6

Since those days of lively debate in the 1970s and early 1980s Marxist-feminism has, as a movement, to some extent run out of steam, with theorists such as Hartmann and Barrett arguing for an alliance between the projects rather than a merger,7 but that Marxism and feminism still need each other, many take to be self-evident: a revolutionary theory that does not seek to end the oppression of women is clearly deficient, while feminism continues to find Marxist theories of historical change, value, and ideology, to name some of the more obvious ones, of enormous relevance to its own concerns, not least in the field of literary studies.

Recently, of course, both Marxism and feminism have been challenged as master discourses by post-structuralism, post-colonialism, and post-Marxism. Western feminists, for example, have been made conscious of the imperialism inherent in the gesture of attempting to speak for women,8 and a question mark has been placed against some Marxist categories such as the social totality.9 Even the seemingly obvious sex/gender distinction so dear to feminists has been deconstructed by Judith Butler and others and shown to be an historically produced binary division that serves as a regulatory fiction to perpetuate heterosexuality.10 It has been argued that clinging to the sex/gender distinction has prevented feminists from historicizing sex.11 However, some important work has come out of precisely the encounter between post-structuralism and Marxist-feminist debates, such as in the work of Gayatri Spivak, Seyla Benhabib, Drucilla Cornell, Rosemary Hennessey and in Michéle Barrett's recent post-Marxist account of ideology, The Politics of Truth, which moves beyond Althusser's ‘scientific’ and epistemological definition of ideology to a more Foucauldian view of ideology as discourse.12

The theorist on whose work I draw might seem at first sight to owe more to radical feminism than to either Marxism or post-structuralism, though I believe this not to be the case.13 The liberatory project developed by the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray picks up some of the threads of de Beauvoir's argument, though with a difference of emphasis. While de Beauvoir demanded equality for women and conceded sexual difference reluctantly, Irigaray proclaims sexual difference as the first stage in changing the symbolic order in order to effect real change for both men and women. As a philosopher she sees her own role in this to lie in speaking as a woman in order to show up the masculine bias in all Western systems of thought. Since we cannot speak from outside the phallogocentrism of culture, however, Irigaray adopts the tactic of strategic mimicry:

To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to locate the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself […] to ‘ideas’, in particular to ideas about herself that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic, but so as to make ‘visible’ by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: recovering a possible operation of the feminine in language.

(Irigaray, quoted in Whitford, p. 71)

Irigaray's project inaugurates, claims Jean-Joseph Goux, a new moment in the history of feminism.14

Irigaray's strategic mimicry is one aspect of her work that I consider in relation to Jelinek's text Die Liebhaberinnen (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1975). The other is the theory, developed in her article ‘Women on the Market’, of the exchange of women in patriarchal economies.15 While her starting-point here is Marx's theory of the law of value, she works with a deliberate conceptual imprecision which, while it might irritate purists, allows for many fruitful interdisciplinary associations to be made (Whitford, p. 37). Other modern theorists have also developed Marx's law of value away from a strictly Marxist context. For example, Spivak, whose work crosses the boundaries of Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, and post-colonialism, has described it as Marx's most enduring legacy but pleaded that it should be liberated from its narrow use:

‘Value’ is the name of that ‘contentless and simple [inhaltslos und einfach]’ thing by way of which Marx rewrote not mediation, but the possibility of the mediation that makes possible in its turn all exchange, all communication, sociality itself. Marx's especial concern is the appropriation of the human capacity to produce, not objects, nor anything tangible, but that simple contentless thing which is not pure form; the possibility of mediation (through coding) so that exchange and sociality can exist. Marx's point of entry is the economic coding of value, but the notion itself has a much more supple range.16

Irigaray's use of Marx's theory of value and the exchange of commodities is indebted to Gayle Rubin's feminist theory of patriarchy, which also derives insights from anthropology. In her influential 1975 essay, ‘The Traffic in Women’ (see note 3), Rubin develops Lévi-Strauss's theory that the essence of kinship systems lies in the exchange of women between men. These systems are-based on the gift, which creates a social link between the partners of an exchange, and the incest taboo, which is ‘less a rule prohibiting marriage with the mother, sister, or daughter, than a rule obliging the mother, sister, or daughter to be given to others. It is the supreme rule of the gift’ (Lévi-Strauss, quoted in Rubin, p. 173). The sex/gender system, which Rubin defines as ‘the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied’ (p. 159), leads to the division of labour by sex, a device ‘to insure the union of men and women by making the smallest viable economic unit contain at least one man and one woman’ (p. 178). The importance of Rubin's theory is that it places the oppression of women within social systems rather than in biology (p. 175) and shows how gender, obligatory heterosexuality, and the constraint of female sexuality underwrite social organization under patriarchy (p. 179).

Irigaray's analysis of the exchange of women, to which I shall return in my reading of Die Liebhaberinnen, places this exchange in a still wider context: not just within capitalism or societies based on kinship but also within the symbolic order and indeed the whole of western metaphysics. In brief she argues that under patriarchy, which she defines as a hom(m)o-sexual economy (that is, an economy of relations between men), women, like commodities, are valued according to an exterior system of value. This places them in competition with each other, subjects them to a schism between private use and public, social use, and renders them liable to fetishization as a manifestation of the power of the phallus.

Elfriede Jelinek is a Marxist-feminist writer and this fact is consistently reflected in her work.17 Jelinek's project, as Allyson Fiddler has shown in the first full length study of her œuvre, is to ‘rewrite reality’ in a Brechtian sense, to ‘expose the way in which patterns of oppression—particularly those of a class or sexual nature—are masked by the ruling ideology of patriarchal capitalism and represented as immutable facts about the “natural” world’.18 Jelinek seeks to ‘demystify’: ‘Ich wollte ja immer die Wahrheit hinter einem Schein oder die politische Geschichte hinter einem unschuldigen Bild hervorholen. Das ist das, was als roter Faden durch meine Texte hindurchgeht’,19 and to suggest that ‘the “reality” of life is more accurately portrayed by her own very negative and exaggerated picture of brutality, ignorance and perversion’ (Fiddler, Framed by Language, p. xii). Jelinek's works thus aim to enlighten and mobilize the reader through presenting a negative picture. As one interviewer remarked, her texts do, however, contain, in their continued faith in language, a utopian element,20 but I would add that the heavy negativity marks her off from the Brecht of the ‘Lehrstücke’, who provides an explicitly upbeat political message to the audience, and also, I believe, in some respects from the later Brecht. The question I want to raise at this stage is whether the negativity in Jelinek might spring from a feminist awareness that the causes of women's oppression lie much deeper than merely in capitalism, and that something far more radical than the overthrow of capitalism is therefore required to liberate them. While Die Liebhaberinnen may demonstrate (in a Brechtian way) the partnership of capitalism and patriarchy, it also reveals (in a confirmation of Irigaray) that patriarchy is based on the exchange of women, and in its aesthetic it illustrates (in an Irigarayan way) the need to subvert and change the symbolic order.

Jelinek's characteristic ‘aesthetics of exaggeration’ (Rewriting Reality, p. 126) and her Marxist-feminist principles are used to great effect in this 1975 work. Telling the story of two young women who set out to do what patriarchal capitalist ideology tells them to do (namely, to secure themselves husbands and thus legitimacy as women through motherhood) but who nevertheless fail to achieve happiness, this story provides in microcosm a picture of the deadly, exploitative power structures of capitalism, which work hand in hand with those of patriarchy, and also shows how these power structures reproduce themselves so that capitalism continuously creates the submissive and compliant subjects it requires.

The type of employer—worker relations depicted are those prevailing in the rural Austria of the 1970s, where many features have changed little since the nineteenth century. Work is scarce and competition for it fierce; the contract between worker and employer is not freely entered into. Working conditions for all workers are harsh and have a brutalizing effect;21 nevertheless fear of unemployment is a major motivating factor.22 All profit disappears into the hands of invisible capitalists. For some families the husband's earning power is sufficient to allow the wife not to work, but for most the depth of poverty is such that women are obliged to work too: the concept of the family wage has barely penetrated to this isolated corner of rural Austria. Nevertheless the work that women do is less well paid and of lower status than that of the men, which ensures that men's control over women is maintained.23

The major locus for the exploitation of women is, however, not the workplace but the family. According to Donna Haraway, the three major stages of capitalism (commercial/early industrial, monopoly, and multinational) are related dialectically to specific forms of family, and this is borne out by Die Liebhaberinnen, where, corresponding to the capital depicted (which is primarily a mix of Haraway's first stage and to a lesser extent her second), we see the patriarchal nuclear family, structured by the dichotomy between public and private, and, but only to a very limited extent, ‘the modern family mediated (or enforced) by the welfare state and institutions like the family wage’.24 In such a society opportunities for women are extremely limited; they are absolutely subject to the institutions of marriage and the family. Marriage is equated with death for both men and women: ‘schrecklich, dieses langsame sterben. und die männer und die frauen sterben gemeinsam dahin’ (p. 17). Family life is brutal in the extreme, the stress resulting from exploitation at work leading to domestic violence, shown in particular detail through the depiction of Erich's violent family.25 Paid work thus oppresses and also makes the (male) worker complicit in an hierarchical social system in which men have power over women. This, in addition to the deadly effect of women's (unpaid) work in the home which, in a Marxist-feminist analysis, contributes to the economy by servicing male workers and producing new workers (see Barrett, pp. 208-26), means that life is one stage worse for the women than it is for the men.26

If men have a better deal than women, this raises the question of why women allow it to be so. The book contains, as does much of Jelinek's work, a searing indictment of the role of the media and the culture industry generally in serving the interests of patriarchal capitalism, which bears witness to Jelinek's reading of Frankfurt School theory. Like Friedrich Engels before her, Jelinek believes in the importance of paid employment, however menial or low paid it might be, as a first stage in a women's emancipation.27 Nevertheless her female protagonists are blind to the liberatory potential of work, and seek marriage as a way to escape from its constraints. It does not occur to them to see work as a way of achieving independence from men, as it might have been, particularly for Paula, who starts an apprenticeship as a seamstress, thus breaking out of the pattern of choice for local women between sales assistant or housewife. Brigitte seeks marriage as a way to escape her work in the underwear factory and share in Heinz's earning power as businessman. Susi feels superior to Brigitte in that she finds a husband who can support her, whereas in her eyes Brigitte merely swaps a menial job for a better one: after marriage she still has to work in Heinz's business (their married life consists of ‘arbeit arbeit arbeit’ (p. 143)). After the failure of her marriage Paula ends up where Brigitte began, on the assembly line in the underwear factory, condemned to work away her life.

The reason for the women's blindness is the fact that, to use Althusser's term, they have been successfully interpellated by the ideology of love and marriage perpetuated by the media. This suggests that Jelinek holds an epistemological view of ideology as false consciousness that places the author/narrator and the reader outside it, though, as I shall show later, this is only partly the case. Paula, the only ‘character’28 towards whom the narrative voice displays sympathy, is depicted as a victim of the romantic ideology of love and marriage that blinds her to the (slim) liberatory potential of work and the truth about Erich.29 In the first sexual encounter between Paula, ‘die dumme kuh’ (p. 71), and Erich, we are not told of the love between them because, as the narrator tells us in an uncharacteristically serious moment, there was no love, ‘es war wie ein loch, in das man hineinstolpert, und nach dem man wieder weiterhumpelt. gebrochen ist nichts, auβer einem menschenkinde in der blüte seiner jahre’ (p. 91). Nevertheless Paula believes that her dreams can come true (p. 51), and even after she has been beaten up by her mother she can think of nothing other than the romantic wish-fulfilment that has claimed her and she has made her own:

in paula klingt ein lied, aber sehr schwach.
statt der wunden ein bodenlanges weiβes spitzenkleid samt schleier.
keine seifenlauge, sondern eine schöne blumenhaube.
keine aborte, sondern eine gute hochzeitstorte.
kein toter embryo kein, sondern ein guter braten vom schwein.

(p. 97)

The pathos aroused by Paula's silent song is very different from that aroused by the moment in Der kaukasische Kreidekreis when, though they have remained true to each other, Gruscha and Simon are separated by circumstances.30 Unlike Gruscha and Simon, Paula has no inner core to which she can remain true, her core is the ideology of love out of which she has been constructed.

True to the ‘modellhaft’ construction of the story, ‘immer abwechselnd mit dem guten beispiel brigittes schleppt sich das schlechte beispiel paulas dahin’ (p. 26), the ruthless Brigitte prospers while Paula is brought down. And though Paula is not a ‘real character’ but a demonstration piece, the reader is left with a sense of waste as strong as that conveyed at the end of Effi Briest (whose heroine's downfall is also caused by her ‘Schritt vom Wege’), made explicit by the narrator's final, condemnatory comment:

aus dem hoffnungsvollen lehrmädchen der schneiderei im ersten lehrjahr ist eine zerbrochene frau mit ungenügenden schneidereikenntnissen geworden.

das ist zu wenig.

(p. 154)

Thus far, then, we see an exaggerated Marxist-feminist account of life under capitalism, in which men and women are exploited and alienated by capitalism, women are further oppressed by men as a result of capitalism, and all go along with the system because they have been socialized into so doing through economic competition for jobs and through Ideological State Apparatuses, in particular the media and the family. But this is not the whole picture. I suggested above that women function under patriarchy (not just capitalism) as objects of exchange between men, and I want to show now how this is depicted in Jelinek's text following Irigaray's formulation of this phenomenon in her essay ‘Women on the Market’.

First, and fundamentally, in Irigaray's account women, like commodities, are valued according to an exterior system of value. The system is set by men, for patriarchy is a hom(m)o-sexual economy, an economy of relations between men:

The law that orders our society is the exclusive valorization of men's needs/desires, of exchanges among men. What the anthropologist calls the passage from nature to culture thus amounts to the institution of the reign of hom(m)o-sexuality. Not in an ‘immediate’ practice, but in its ‘social’ mediation. From this point on, patriarchal societies might be interpreted as societies functioning in the mode of ‘semblance.’ The value of symbolic and imaginary productions is superimposed upon, and even substituted for, the value of relations of material, natural, and corporal (re)production.

In this new matrix of History, in which man begets man as his own likeness, wives, daughters, and sisters have value only in that they serve as the possibility of, and potential benefit in, relations among men. The use of and traffic in women subtend and uphold the reign of masculine hom(m)o-sexuality, even while they maintain that hom(m)o-sexuality in speculations, mirror games, identifications, and more or less rivalrous appropriations, which defer its real practice. Reigning everywhere, although prohibited in practice, hom(m)o-sexuality is played out through the bodies of women, matter, or sign, and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man's relations with himself, of relations among men. Whose ‘sociocultural endogamy’ excludes the participation of that other, so foreign to the social order: woman.

(pp. 171-72)

In Irigaray's analysis value does not inhere in the object (a woman), but appears only in exchange. Three fetishized roles are imposed on women in relation to value: that of mother, who has (been) withdrawn from exchange, of virgin, who represents pure exchange value, and of prostitutes, explicitly condemned by the social order but implicitly tolerated because the break between usage and exchange is less clear-cut (p. 186).

Jelinek makes explicit the commodity function of women in both main protagonists' quest for marriage, making repeated use of the vocabulary of capital and the market: Brigitte, for example, is described as ‘austauschbar und unnötig’ (p. 12), all that she has to offer being a body, which is, however, only one of many on the market: ‘brigitte hat brüste, schenkel, beine, hüften und eine möse. das haben andre auch, manchmal sogar von besserer qualität’ (p. 13). Her market value is declining with her age, ‘brigitte wird immer älter und immer weniger frau, die konkurrenz wird immer jünger und immer mehr frau’ (p. 13). In a nice piece of Jelinekian irony, Heinz's choice between the two commodities, Susi, Brigitte's rival, and Brigitte, though disavowed, is laid out for the reader:

susi ist etwas feines, brigitte nicht.
man kann die beiden nicht gegenüberstellen. das ist unmöglich.
man kann das eine mögen oder das andre, entscheiden muβ heinz.
hat er das lieber oder das.

(p. 63)

The commodification of women could not be clearer. And after marriage and motherhood Brigitte's transformation from object of exchange to one withdrawn from exchange is made complete when she loses her name and is now referred to as ‘mama’ (p. 149).

The course of Paula's life is also related in terms of her relative value. At first she is aware that she must not allow her ‘marktwert’ (p. 30), measured in terms of her virginity, to diminish by sleeping around, a fate that does in fact befall her when she becomes pregnant by Erich:

paulas mickriger bauch, der bald schon dick aufgeschwollen sein wird, sodaβ man für das gleiche geld plötzlich viel mehr kilogramm paula bekommen könnte, steht zur versteigerung. aber keiner will ihn haben. bei einem schwein wäre das ein enormer wertzuwachs. bei paula ist es ein zeichen, daβ sie leicht zu haben war, zu leicht, und jetzt umso schwerer anzubringen ist.

(p. 100)

Paula's status as commodity is underlined again when she confronts Erich in the bar, and the narrator makes an extended play on the word ‘Wert’:

alle meinen, daβ erich, wenn er schon nachgeben muβ, erst nachgeben soll, wenn das kind schon anwesend, und so die wertreduzierung paulas zu einer entwertung geworden ist.

wenn einer so abgewertet ist, dann sind sie alle dadurch ein wenig aufgewertet. die demütigung paulas entschädigt sie für ihre eigenen, manchmal viel schrecklicheren demütigungen.

plötzlich sind sie alle wieder personen gegenüber einer unperson geworden.

(p. 120)

Indeed, as the narrator points out in an unusually unambiguous didactic moment, ‘dieser roman handelt vom gegenstand paula’ (p. 130), and the object Paula finds herself in an hierarchical structure of domination: ‘über den gegenstand paula bestimmt erich, über dessen körperkräfte wieder andre bestimmen, bis sich seine eingeweide einem frühen tod entgegenzersetzen, bei dem der alkohol das seine leistet’ (p. 130).

Interestingly, when Paula, working as a prostitute, is spotted by one of Erich's friends, even though she claims that her motives were to support her family, her actions are seen as a betrayal not only of her husband but also of the local hom(m)osexual economy, for she is caught with a stranger:

paula hat ihren mann verraten. paula hat ihren mann mit einem oder mehreren andren männern betrogen.

es war noch dazu ein ortsfremder. keiner von den hiesigen burschen. ein ortsfremder hat ihnen ins nest geschissen.

(p. 153)

Paula's descent into prostitution means of course total devaluation and consequent exclusion from the social group.

Brigitte and Paula are defined in terms of what they represent to men for ‘they are the manifestation and the circulation of a power of the Phallus, establishing relationships of men with each other’ (Irigaray, p. 183).31 Brigitte becomes a mother, Paula a prostitute, and even Susi, who tries to live femininity positively, will have to submit to the violence of patriarchy, as Heinz observes to himself with a characteristically obscene turn of phrase, ‘susi wird den schwanz fest in die möse und das familienleben fest in den kopf gepflanzt bekommen’ (p. 83).

Secondly, in Irigaray's account, the exchange of women means certain things for them: that they are in competition with each other; that, as a result of this, far from rebelling, they speak to and are anxious to confirm their value; that they are subject to a schism between private use and public, social use; that they have no right to their own pleasure; that, unlike men, they have no access to the symbolic. This last point is crucial, for in both Irigaray's analysis and Jelinek's text the symbolic provides positive symbolization only of the power of the phallus and of relationships between men, not of those between the sexes, the maternal/feminine, or of relationships between women. The competition between Brigitte and Susi for Heinz thus represents a systemic competition between women, based on the defence of what they see as their property: ‘es ist ein allgemeines hassen im ort, das immer mehr um sich greift, das alles ansteckt, das vor keinem halt macht, die frauen entdecken keine gemeinsamkeiten zwischen sich, nur gegensätze’ (p. 29); women who are ‘herrenlos’ are seen by other women to be a threat (p. 92). Nowhere is this lack of solidarity more striking than in the relations between mothers and daughters, where mothers wish the worst for their daughters, for ‘warum soll die tochter nicht verbraucht werden, wenn die mutter auch verbraucht worden ist?’ (p. 16). Paula, indeed, receives no support from her mother when she becomes pregnant, but rather violence.

Far from showing solidarity with each other, the women assert their legitimacy through their men, their only access to the power of the phallus: Brigitte's main concern is to obtain Heinz's name for herself; Heinz's and Erich's mothers want to protect them from the predatory girls; when talking of their men, the women of the village use one word only, ‘MEINER’: ‘sonst nichts, nicht mein mann, nur meiner […] paula beobachtet das siegerlächeln, wenn die mutta oder die schwestern sagen: meiner. die einzige gelegenheit, wo die besiegten ein siegerlächeln im mundwinkel haben’ (p. 31). The women all aspire to motherhood (in Irigarayan terms this represents speaking to their value) though Susi resists it for a while and Brigitte hates babies. Motherhood brings justification, jubilation (‘sie hats geschafft’ (p. 37)) and security (though not for Paula, since Erich does not earn enough to support a family). Motherhood is, however, condemned by the narrator as monotonous drudgery, a series of useless tasks that weigh on the individual like a ‘zentnergewicht, das einen letzten endes zu brei schlägt’ (p. 88). Paula's status as commodity on a market means that she is subject to a schism she visualizes in terms of two bodies:

frühzeitig lernt paula, ihren körper und das, was mit ihm geschieht, als etwas zu betrachten, das einem andren passiert als ihr selbst. einem nebenkörper gewissermaβen, einer nebenpaula.

alles material aus paulas träumen, alle zärtlichkeit geschieht mit paulas hauptkörper, die prügel, die vom vatter kommen, geschehen dem nebenkörper.

(p. 31)

That women have no right to their own pleasure is shown graphically through the description of Brigitte's sexual encounters with Heinz, which fill her with disgust (pp. 55-56), and of Paula's with Erich, which bear no relation to the amorous exchanges she has read about in magazines (p. 91). Men's sexuality is symbolized positively (though mocked by the narrator) in imagery of panthers (p. 41), sunsets, and natural catastrophes (p. 56), and male promiscuity and lust are implicitly condoned:

als holzarbeiter hat er einen schweren und gefährlichen beruf, von dem schon oft einer nie mehr zurückgekommen ist. daher genieβen sie ihr leben unheimlich, solange sie jung sind, ab 13 ist kein mädchen mehr sicher vor ihnen, das allgemeine wettrennen beginnt, und die hörner werden abgestoβen, von welchem vorgang das ganze dorf widerhallt. der vorgang hallt durchs tal.

(p. 15)

Women's desire, by contrast, is simply left unfigured and a woman's attractiveness defined solely in terms of her ‘sauberkeit’ (p. 53) and ‘häuslichkeit’ (p. 65). Similarly, the only supportive and positively symbolized relationships are those between males: between Erich and his companions in the pub, for example (p. 20), or between Heinz's father and his son: ‘der opa kann dir auch beibringen, was ein mann wissen muβ, wie man auf bäume klettert […] weil der opa auch ein mann ist, weiβt du’ (p. 142), whereas supportive relations between women are impossible.

Jelinek thus shows that women's exploitation, their alienation from each other, from desire, and from the symbolic order are not explicable by the mechanics of capitalism alone but can also be explained in terms of their status as commodities within a patriarchal economy. That these often overlap (the regulation of women's sexuality is a key part of Marxist-feminist analysis) shows that capitalism has taken over and reinforced pre-existing practices. This takes us beyond a Marxist analysis and back into the realm of the symbolic and makes Jelinek's picture more bleak, for the practical advice suggested to her female readers (that women's liberation might start with the financial independence afforded by employment) is undermined by the other factors stacked against them.

If Jelinek, like Althusser, in dwelling on their constructedness as subjects, seems to deny her characters the possibility of resistance, and if, like Irigaray, she backs this up by showing how patriarchy exerts its powerful hold through the symbolic, in her aesthetic she is less ‘scientific’ and less negative. Unlike Irigaray she does not explicitly seek to speak as a woman, but she does have in common with her a desire to attack and subvert language in order to expose its role in oppressive power structures and thus hint at the possibility of change. For Irigaray this is in direct contradiction to the tactics of Marxism.32 Jelinek, as I have shown, does present for her readers a Marxist view of the deadly functioning of capitalism and exposes the harmful effects of patriarchal capitalist ideology, particularly for women. Capitalism, it is clear, must be changed. But her attacks on language show that this is not in itself enough. As she said in a recent interview: ‘Ich zwinge sofort den Ideologiecharakter der Worte hervor. Ich lasse die Sprache sich nicht ausruhen. Ich reiβe sie immer wieder aus ihrem Bett heraus. […] man muβ die Sprache foltern, damit sie die Wahrheit sagt’ (Meier, p. 73).

Jelinek's narrator in Die Liebhaberinnen does violence to the discourses that do violence to people through ruthless mimicry, whether it be of the discourse of the idyllic Austrian ‘Heimat’ (pp. 5-7), or of the human face of capitalism (p. 9), the clichéd discourse of ‘common sense’ or of course the powerful discourse of romance that leads Paula astray. Thus when the reader reads that Brigitte's hair shines like chestnuts (p. 21), or hears of ‘die heilsamen schmerzen des kinderkriegens’ (p. 28), or meets Heinz's mother, ‘die heinzmutter, von natur aus gutmütig’ (p. 33) and finds her to be anything but goodnatured, or hears that ‘alles ist in ordnung’ (p. 147) when what is actually being described is Paula's miserable circumstances, what comes through is the mismatch between language and truth and yet also the very real power invested in ideologically loaded language.

It is at this point that the narrator's standpoint becomes crucial. Margret Brügmann has analysed the difference between Brecht's inbuilt comments on the action of his ‘Lehrstücke’ and the comments of Jelinek's narrator in Die Liebhaberinnen, which is that while Brecht's comments show the false consciousness depicted to be correctable, Jelinek's narrator speaks from a position much closer to her protagonists and deliberately refrains from stating the essence of what is being depicted, thus making the reader work harder and denying him/her the catharsis resulting from a clear analysis.33 I would add that the narrative voice shifts, sometimes appearing complicit in patriarchal ideology, thus turning the reader into a voyeur (‘susi ist kein kleines mädel mehr, sondern schon eine richtige frau, was man beim räkeln genau merkt’ (p. 65)), sometimes directly mimicking it in order to open it up to scrutiny (‘heinz und brigitte erschrecken vor der gröβe dieses gefühls. brigitte erschrickt mehr als heinz, weil gefühle mehr weiblich sind’ (p. 23)), sometimes achieving the same effect by use of a rhetorical question (‘seit brigitte heinz kennt, drängt es sie dazu, ein kind zu gebären. wenn das kein gefühl ist, was ist dann ein gefühl?’ (p. 106)), and occasionally drawing an unambiguous moral, as in the key passages above concerning Paula. That close attention should be paid to the shifting positions of her narrative voice was confirmed by Jelinek in a recent interview: ‘Bei mir gibt es oft diese objektivierenden Kommentare. Wenn ich über mich eine Doktorarbeit schriebe, würde ich wahrscheinlich die Bedeutung des Wir, des auktorialen Kommentars in der Erzählung, analysieren, der ja ständig seine Perspektive ändert’ (Meier, p. 28). The constant shifting of narrative position in relation to the language used and the repeated drawing attention to the ideological character of language suggest a different relationship on the part of the Brecht of the ‘Lehrstücke’ and Jelinek to ideology and to truth, with both viewing ideology as false consciousness but Jelinek less ready to identify her own position outside it. Jelinek's position here is post-Foucauldian, and implicitly post-Marxist: she is aware that truth, like ideology, is also discursively constructed.

Jelinek does not propose a way out of the impasse of women's role in symbolic exchange because an alternative is literally unimaginable. Paula and Brigitte are nothing outside this economy, they have no being. Jelinek showed in this 1975 work that women are excluded from the symbolic order, not just from economic power. Nevertheless, she saw hope for change: her technique in Die Liebhaberinnen, while indebted to the (masculine, Marxist) Brechtian tradition of uncovering and demonstrating false consciousness from outside, also has affinities with Irigaray's feminist and post-structuralist strategic mimicry, which speaks from a position within ideology and allows for resistance by ‘make[ing] “visible” by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: recovering a possible operation of the feminine in language’.34


  1. The best introduction to this topic remains Michèle Barrett's influential Women's Oppression Today: The Marxist/Feminist Encounter, revised edn (London: Verso, 1988).

  2. Friedrich Engels's early contribution to this debate is seen as flawed, though interesting: see The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986). Heidi Hartmann has shown how patriarchy underlies capitalism in her essay ‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union’, in The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: A Debate of Class and Patriarchy, ed. by Lydia Sargent (London: Pluto, 1981), pp. 1-41.

  3. Gayle Rubin, ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’, in Towards an Anthropology of Women, ed. by Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), pp. 157-210 (p. 160).

  4. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).

  5. Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards and Investigation)’, in ‘Lenin and Philosophy’ and Other Essays (London: New Left Books, 1971), pp. 127-186.

  6. Terry Lovell, Pictures of Reality: Aesthetics, Politics, Pleasure (London: BFI, 1980), p. 40.

  7. Indeed, Michèle Barrett no longer felt able to use the term ‘Marxist Feminist’, which she had used only eight years earlier, in her 1988 revised edition of Women's Oppression Today: ‘The confident combination of “Marxist Feminist”, a common phrase in the late 1970s when the book was written, uncomfortably reminds us of an attempt to bring together two world-views that have continued to go their separate ways in spite of our efforts at marriage guidance’ (p. v).

  8. See, for example, Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980)’, in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985 (London: Virago, 1987), pp. 23-75; Chandra Talpade Mohanty, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, boundary 2, 12:3, 13:1 (1984), 333-58; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘French Feminism in an International Frame’, in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural. Politics (New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 134-53.

  9. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985).

  10. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, 1990), and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (London: Routledge, 1993).

  11. Donna Haraway, ‘“Gender” for a Marxist Dictionary: The Sexual Politics of a Word’, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991), pp. 127-48 (p. 136).

  12. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (London: Routledge, 1987); Outside in the Teaching Machine (London: Routledge, 1993); The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (London: Routledge, 1990); Feminism as Critique: Essays on the Politics of Gender in Late-Capitalist Societies, ed. by Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987); Rosemary Hennessey, Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse (New York: Routledge, 1993); Michèle Barrett, The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).

  13. My account of Irigaray's ideas is heavily indebted to Margaret Whittord's book, Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (London: Routledge, 1991).

  14. Jean-Joseph Goux, ‘Luce Irigaray Versus the Utopia of the Neutral Sex’, in Engaging with Irigaray, ed. by Carolyn Burke, Naomi Schor, and Margaret Whitford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 175-89 (p. 184).

  15. In This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 170-92.

  16. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Poststructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality and Value’, in Literary Theory Today, ed. by Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), pp. 219-44 (p. 226).

  17. For example, Allyson Fiddler argues that it is Jelinek's attachment to the master narratives of Marxism and feminism which, despite her leanings towards post-modernism, makes her work differ from it (‘There Goes That Word Again, or Elfriede Jelinek and Postmodernism’, in Elfriede Jelinek: Framed by Language, ed. by Jorun B. Johns and Katherine Arens (Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1994), 129-49). See also, in the same volume, Linda C. DeMerritt, who argues that, even in her most autobiographical and psychoanalytically informed work, Die Klavierspielerin, Jelinek's main theme ‘is the submission of everyone, regardless of sex, to the accumulation of capital and their resultant alienation’ (‘A “Healthier Marriage”: Elfriede Jelinek's Marxist Feminism in Die Klavierspielerin and Lust’, pp. 107-28 (p. 115)).

  18. Allyson Fiddler, Rewriting Reality: An Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek (Oxford: Berg, 1994), pp. xi-xii.

  19. Riki winter, ‘Gespräch mit Elfriede Jelinek’, in Elfriede Jelinek, ed. by Kurt Bartsch and Günther A. Höfler (Graz: Droschl, 1991), pp. 9-19 (p. 11).

  20. Sigrid Berka, ‘Ein Gespräch mit Elfriede Jelinek’, Modern Austrian Literature, 26 (1993), 127-53 (p. 138).

  21. This is stressed on every occasion: Paula's mother's overreaction to the news of her daughter's pregnancy (she beats her up) is occasioned by the stress of work: ‘zu dieser wahnsinnigen arbeit jeden tag auch noch schande und spott’ (p. 95). An appeal to the reader's sympathy, or at least understanding, is made even on behalf of the violent, stupid, and drunken Erich, the woodman, when Paula, not interested in him as a person but merely as father to her child, tries to trap him into marriage, catching him on his way home from work, when he is exhausted to dropping point (p. 103). Work for him is ‘das schlimmste […], was einem passieren kann’ but nevertheless a stark fact of life: ‘sie muβ aber gemacht werden’ (p. 113). Both men and women are alienated and physically and mentally worn out by their work, whether they work on the land, like Erich, a woodman, as ‘Beamte’, like Heinz's father, or in the factory producing women's underwear, like Brigitte.

  22. Both Heinz's father and Erich's stepfather are ill as a result of work (pp. 25, 41), which fact is measured in the heightened economic insecurity of the families and the fact that they both fear losing their working sons to potential wives who are perceived as a threat (pp. 36, 79). To stress the debilitating effects of work, both fathers are referred to metonymically by the narrator in terms indicating their ill health: Heinz's father is called ‘bandscheiben’, since his discs have suffered as a result of his work as a long-distance lorry driver, a job he in fact loses during the course of the novel (p. 99), while Erich's stepfather is called ‘asthma’, his condition a result of his work on the railways (p. 41).

  23. Hartmann makes the point that along with the development of the family wage in the twentieth century, the allocation of low-status and low-paid work to women allows patriarchal relations to remain intact (p. 25).

  24. Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, pp. 149-81 (p. 167).

  25. His stepfather derives his authority and his ability to give orders from the fact that he was a ‘beamter’ (p. 101). The violence in the family, which may have caused Erich to suffer brain damage as a child (pp. 38, 42, 115), becomes a cycle as he extends the pleasure he gets from secret petty cruelties towards animals or children (p. 89) to the officially sanctioned cruelty against Paula: ‘erich erfaβt, daβ auf einmal seine entschlüsse und handlungen für einen andren wichtig geworden sind. daβ jemand von ihm ABHÄNGIG ist. daβ jemand ihm in gewisser weise AUSGELIEFERT ist. das gibt ein schönes neues gefühl’ (p. 104). When his stepfather ‘Asthma’ dies, the effect of his authoritarian character on that of his wife is revealed. She experiences ‘eine unglaubliche leere’ in the absence of his barked out orders (p. 127) and finds herself confused by being asked to make a decision about whether her son may marry, so unused is she to being agent of her own actions. As the narrator caustically phrases it, ‘einer ist schon weggestorben, wer bleibt denn übrig? gar niemand’ (p. 129).

  26. Heinz's mother, even though her husband's job meant that she did not have to go out to work (p. 12), is called a ‘leiche’ (p. 100); Erich's mother spent most of her life in service, had four children by different men before finding one who would marry her, and is chronically sick (pp. 39, 78); Paula's mother, described ironically as ‘wunschlos glücklich’ because it is too late for her to desire anything, has cancer, which may be a result of self-induced abortions (p. 75); Paula has her first child ‘in mühevoller kleinarbeit’ (p. 122), and her prostitution, engaged in so that she can support her family, is also described as ‘arbeit’ (p. 153). To be without a man is, however, worse, as Brigitte's unmarried mother is aware (p. 24). This is also the case for Erich's old, silent grandmother, who is ‘nur mehr geduldet’, and whose existence ‘hängt an einem seidenen faden’ because, being human, she has to be fed, and is thus a drain on the family's resources (p. 79).

  27. ‘Arbeit ist eine Möglichkeit der Frau, zum Subjekt zu werden, indem sie ökonomische Unabhängigkeit vom Mann erwirbt’ (‘Elfriede Jelinek im Gespräch mit Adolf-Ernst Meyer’, in Elfriede Jelinek, Jutta Heinrich; and Adolf-Ernst Meyer, Sturm und Zwang: Schreiben als Geschlechterkampf (Hamburg: Klein, 1995), pp. 7-74 (p. 57)).

  28. Jelinek's characters are not meant to be ‘realistic’ bourgeois subjects: ‘[das bürgerliche Subjekt] existiert nicht nur in meinem Werk nicht mehr, es existiert überhaupt nicht mehr. Aber es ist natürlich die Illusion eines gigantischen Marktes, den Menschen zu suggerieren, sie wären einmalig und unverwechselbar und imstande, individualistisch zu handeln’ (Winter, p. 14).

  29. ‘zu ihrer schneiderei sagt paula nie: meine arbeit. zu ihrer arbeit sagt paula nie: meine. auch innerlich nicht. die arbeit, das ist etwas, das von einem losgelöst ist, die arbeit das ist doch mehr eine pflicht und geschieht daher dem nebenkörper. die liebe, das ist eine freude, eine erholung, und geschieht daher dem hauptkörper’ (p. 32).

  30. ‘Der Eid ist gebrochen. Warum, wird nicht mitgeteilt.
    Hört, was sie dachte, nicht sagte:
    Als du kämpftest in der Schlacht, Soldat
    Der blutigen Schlacht, der bitteren Schlacht
    Traf ein Kind ich, das hilflos war
    Hätt' es abzutun nicht das Herz.’

    (Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1955), p. 75)

  31. The question of defining ‘woman’ causes particular difficulty to the mentally challenged Erich in a passage that reveals that definitions of femininity are man-made. Relating Erich's ponderings on the difference between the two kinds of women he knows (the summer guests whom he services sexually, and motherly types who service his physical needs, both of whom disqualify themselves as women), the narrator laconically observes that ‘erich denkt also an frauen, die für ihn keine frauen sind, weil sie ihm wie die geschlechtlose mutta dauernd fressen und trinken hineinschieben, und an frauen, die für ihn keine frauen sind, weil sie für ihn keine frauen sein dürfen, weil sie es mit jedem machen, ohne mit ihm verliebt, verlobt oder verheiratet zu sein und überhaupt unmöglich ein ganzes haus sauberhalten könnten’ (p. 58).

  32. ‘Contrary to the implications of Marxism […] in order to change the economic structure, it is necessary to change the structure of language’ (Irigaray, quoted in Whitford, pp. 20-21).

  33. Amazonen der Literatur: Studien zur deutschsprachigen Frauenliteratur der 70er Fahre (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1986), pp. 156-57.

  34. In the meantime, however, it seems that Jelinek has become more pessimistic, as her comments on one of her most recent plays, Totenauberg, make explicit. She describes Totenauberg as ‘mein resignativster Text […] ein bitterer Text, da nicht nur alle Hoffnungen auf Veränderung zunichte gemacht wurden, sondern für mich auch klar wurde, daβ die Frau nicht ins Denken Eingang finden kann’. Even Hannah Arendt, a figure in the play, cannot achieve ‘die Souveränität des reinen Ontologisierens […] Gleichzeitig sollte dieser Text auch mein letzter Versuch sein, als Frau in die männlichste aller Bastionen, das Denken, einzudringen, allerdings mit dem Wissen, daβ dies nicht möglich ist’ (Winter, p. 17).

Christine Kiebuzinska (essay date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Kiebuzinska, Christine. “Elfriede Jelinek's Nora Project: Or What Happens When Nora Meets the Capitalists.” Modern Drama 41, no. 1 (spring 1998): 134-45.

[In the following essay, Kiebuzinska discusses how Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte oder Stützen der Gesellschaften functions as both a deconstruction and re-appropriation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.]

The distinguishing feature of the creative output of the contemporary Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek is the unmasking of the illusion perpetuated by misreadings of canonical texts. In her play Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte oder Stützen der Gesellschaften, written in 1979 as a reflection upon the centennial of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Jelinek superimposes a strong materialist feminist reading on a range of contemporary issues: the demythification of canonical texts that adhere to the fictions of everyday life, the continuity of patriarchal structures in capitalist market economies, and the limitations of utopian individualism in feminist myths.1 Jelinek recognizes that a critique of the appropriation of Ibsen's classic simultaneously necessitates a demystification of the modes of representation most successful in the dissemination of ideologies. In her deconstruction of Ibsen's A Doll's House, Jelinek transposes the action of the play to reveal “what happened after Nora left her husband and met the pillars of societies.”2

Ibsen's A Doll's House is continually present in Nora, particularly in Jelinek's deconstruction of its idealistic implications, the heroic strength of the heroine and the utopian hopes for the equality in the partnership of the married couple; however, in Jelinek's version the psychological depth of the characters has disappeared and utopian dreams of gender equality are undermined by her use of the clichés that continue to surround the reception of Ibsen's play. Throughout Ibsen's play, we see Torvald carefully creating the terms and appropriate postures of his fictive world out of the moral maxims on debt, responsibility, the telling of lies, the aesthetic differences between knitting and embroidery, and even on eating macaroons. Nora in turn has become an accomplished actress in sustaining her fiction of youthfulness and irresponsibility by acting out the prettifying, self-deluding fiction of innocence for the eight years of their marriage. When the “wonderful” does not happen, Nora's and Torvald's fictions collapse and they are left, as in theatre, only with the appearance of a marriage.3 Nora discards her dancing-girl costume and assumes the adult costume essential to her new recreation of self as an uncompromising and strong-minded heroine capable of taking on all society. It is in this somewhat frayed adult “costume” from the last scene of A Doll's House that Nora wanders into Jelinek's script looking for a self-fulfilling job in a factory in order to test her quest for self-realization.

In Jelinek's play, Nora's “redefinition” occurs in the time space of the Germany of the 1920s, as it is undergoing economic collapse following the economic crash and hyperinflation leading to the rise of Hitler's National Socialism. Simultaneously, Jelinek also projects the action into the time space of the late 1970s, a time space that represents the accelerated economic development in West Germany as well as the emergence of Germany's feminist movement. Jelinek sets the play within these time spaces in order to demonstrate the ideological continuities between National Socialism and the contemporary German Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, brought about through market deregulations and highly sophisticated take-over maneuvers, behind which the unseen power of the multinational corporations conspires to overcome political and legal constraints. In her play Jelinek reveals the mechanism of “the linguistic cover-up of what a capitalist knows and thinks, but doesn't express publicly,”4 and this was the reason that Jelinek wrote her Nora “as a kind of Wirtschaftskrimi (business crime novel).”5

Since the very title of Jelinek's play refers to both Ibsen's A Doll's House and The Pillars of Society, it might be fruitful to examine how Ibsen's texts function as pretexts to Nora.A Doll's House provides the entire ensemble of characters with the exception of Dr. Rank; from The Pillars of Society Jelinek borrows the motive of land speculation, for the source of Konsul Weygang's characterization in Nora as a speculator, capitalist and profiteer is not difficult to recognize in the figure of Konsul Bernick from Ibsen's play. At the same time, Jelinek playfully changes the “pillars of society” to “pillars of societies,”6 the plural suggesting a dispersal of power structures in the form of multinational banks and corporations. Jelinek also replaces the railroad project, so symbolic of nineteenth-century capitalist expansion, with the much more deadly enterprise of an atomic power plant on the site of a profit-losing cotton mill. Ultimately, Jelinek's reliance on the ethical dilemma rather than the actual characters or situations of Ibsen's Pillars of Society invests contemporary issues with archetypal attributes that bring the continuities of the cultural past into play.

Jelinek's declaration that “plays by women should not deal with emotions”7 provides a means of interpreting her Nora, for the play serves as an example of her critique of the subjective fictions perpetuated by the many interpretations of Ibsen's drama of Nora's quest for self-realization. In Jelinek's play, however, Nora's search for meaning takes place within a context wherein the mechanism of patriarchal capitalism subverts Nora's striving for selfhood to its own purposes. Jelinek eliminates the subtextual depth of Ibsen's characterizations by flattening out characters to mere surfaces in order to show how Nora's aspirations for selfhood must be tested in the reality of the cutthroat jungle marketplace of corporate takeovers, diversions of funds and the corruption of all traces of moral order.

According to Jelinek, in a society dominated by crude materialism and the predatory pursuit of success, personal self-realization is the ultimate fiction. In re-imagining Nora as an innocent who wanders into the text of The Pillars of Society, Jelinek reveals that Nora's conditioning as consumer of her own myth is perfected to the point where individual identity is indistinguishable from societal role. Thus any attempt on Nora's part to change her life by slamming shut the door to the “doll's house” is sabotaged from the outset because it is conceptualized from within the power framework Nora tries to escape, refracted in Jelinek's version in the many “societies” she encounters as she proceeds from millworker to a capitalist's mistress and back to the entrapment of the “doll's house.”

Jelinek's method depends on the deconstruction of signification systems by means of a montage or collage that juxtaposes quotations from the canonical texts to linguistic “readymades” from popular scandal sheets, advertisements, television talk shows, soap operas and popular film. She accomplishes this by means of selecting, transposing and dispersing fragments of metaphors from canonical texts and mixing them up with contemporary clichés about individualism and self-realization drawn from these sources. Ultimately Nora reflects Jelinek's experimentation with an intertextual collage of “readymades” from Ibsen, Hitler, Mussolini, Wedekind, women's magazines, pulp fiction and market analysis, as well as quotations from her own interviews and critical articles in which she comments on the limitations of liberal feminism. Though these elements coexist in a single textual space, the relation of these discourses with each other is often in conflict. At the same time, Jelinek's subversive use of both temporal and ideological doubleness challenges the spectator into reflecting on the usual representation of the feminine. Thus Jelinek's play self-consciously “rewrites” already scripted texts in order to display how ideological myths are perpetuated from Ibsen's time frame into the contemporary, with the two world views coexisting in the “repetition” of archetypes.

The intention of Jelinek's distorted mimicry of Ibsen's pre-texts is to foreground and estrange aspects of the original's style and message, while ensuring that the origins of the new imitation are still recognizable. Allyson Fiddler mentions that the success of Jelinek's eclecticism and mixing up of codes depends on the intertext being recognized. “[P]arody is not just an internal relation between the work and its model, but is necessarily pragmatic, in that it assumes the audience will “get” the reference, and appreciate the double coding.”8

In foregrounding her explicit references to Ibsen's two classics, Jelinek depends on the audience's knowledge of both A Doll's House and The Pillars of Society, as well as a familiarity with the ideological debates surrounding contemporary feminism, capitalist market economies, and residues of fascist myths in contemporary politics. However, the fragments from Ibsen and contemporary media are frequently decontextualized, and characters seem to quote from Ibsen's text as second-rate performers rather than characters. Ultimately, the assembly-line language that the characters have appropriated from Ibsen saps them of their strength to think through and to articulate their situation. As a result, Jelinek's characters occupy a distinctly postmodern space, what Rosalind Krauss calls a “paraliterary space … of debate, quotation, partisanship, betrayal, reconciliation; but … not the space of unity, coherence, or resolution that we think of as constituting the work of art.”9

Quotations from both of Ibsen's texts are marked as if from a chambre d'échos, for even before the spectator views the play, the title alone signals that this is a sequel or “what happens next.” Similarly the first line sets up the identifying relationship to Ibsen's text: “I'm Nora, the same as in the play by Ibsen” (8). The intertextual relationship is thus based on the use of self-reflexive references, as later we are reminded of the relationship to the original when Weygang identifies Nora as “the central character with the same name as in Ibsen” (20). Jelinek calls attention to the fact that her play is a parody of Ibsen, when for example Torvald condescendingly acknowledges to Krogstad that Frau Linde is now his housekeeper: “We all know from the theatre, that you had once loved this woman, the one now in the kitchen” (47). The self-reflexive quotations function to alert the spectator to watch for the follies in the original.

Jelinek transforms Nora by focusing entirely on the surfaces of Ibsen's character, for her Nora becomes a performing squirrel whose qualifications for the marketplace include the dancing of the tarantella as well as performing gymnastic exercises such as splits, back bends and leaps to show her “flexibility.” Various references to the flying and jumping animal world such as “my little lark” or “my squirrel” are exaggerated. At the same time, allusions to Nora's willful little-girl impudence and obstinacy become parodies of Ibsen's Nora as she threatens to stamp her “little foot” and thump her “little fist” if she doesn't get her way (Was geschah 30). In this manner, actions are not so much “performed” as “announced” to reveal Nora's unconscious appropriation of her familiar role of performing squirrel and chirping lark. Similarly, the other characters from A Doll's House are presented as one-track speech machines. For example, Anne Marie quotes automatically her cloyingly sentimental platitudes on motherhood, Frau Linde enacts her one-track spiel on care and devotion, and Torvald flatly pronounces his robotic clichés on fiscal and moral responsibility. Ultimately, these quotations reveal that the characters are merely acting out on an already previously-scripted life text, for it is important to remember that for Jelinek her characters “exist only in language, and as long as they speak, they are present, when they don't speak, they disappear.”10 In Jelinek's version,

Nora epitomises the exploitation of woman as a sexual object, changing hands several times during the course of the action. But it must be noted that Nora collaborates in this process, for she uses her sexuality both subtly, by making herself attractive to Weygang, and overtly, to wheedle information from Helmer. In order to shatter the conventional connotations of love and marriage, Jelinek confuses these with the connotations of money and economics by having the former talked about in a style or jargon which would normally be used for the latter, and vice versa: “When one speaks of love, it should be presented completely in an objective manner, and when the conversation turns to economics the tone should be quite sentimental and sensual.”11

Jelinek explains that anyone who at this time believes that it is still possible to present characters who act as individuals is strongly mistaken. “Instead, one can only present characters as zombies, or as holders of constructed ideology or significance, but not as fully developed individuals with joy or sorrow and all that garbage; that is gone, once and for all times.”12

Nora also presents the contradictions between bourgeois and working-class women's emancipation, and for this purpose Jelinek introduces Eva and the other women workers in the mill factory as the only truly new characters. In particular, Eva serves as Jelinek's skeptical mouthpiece, who in her radicalism, as Ute Nyssen comments, has strong affinities to Ulrike Meinhof.13 Through Eva, Jelinek condemns Nora's romantic notions of individualism, particularly when the price for Nora's self-realization comes at the cost of the other working women's continuous exploitation, for Eva is the only one to understand that the sudden prettification of their working place with curtains, flower boxes, a library and even a children's crèche does not represent improvement but is instead a “cheap” cover-up for the unemployment that threatens once the factory changes hands.

Jelinek parodies the language of the contemporary women's movement from the play's first lines as Nora explains that she's left the comforts of her middle-class home so that she can develop herself from “object to subject” in the workingplace (7). Thus, Nora's “search for self” (9) clashes with the personnel manager's cynical observation that it is the task of employers to “promote and protect” the “full development” of the personality of their employees (7). While Nora's middle-class assumption is that emancipation comes through self-realization in work, for the mill-factory working women their “productive labor” in the factory is a necessary evil. The scenes in the factory illustrate not only Nora's naïveté but also her insensitivity to the plight of the other women workers, and Jelinek foregrounds this in the slight changes of vocabulary that separate the working women and Nora's vocabulary of 1970s women's liberation. As she tries to explain her abandonment of a husband, children and the comforts of her middle-class home to Eva and the other working women, it becomes evident that Nora's language, as the only medium of defining herself, is also what distances her from the other women, who cannot understand her pursuit of her self-determination as “Lebensaufgabe” (life's work), since for them the dehumanizing dailiness of clock-punching, piecework and quality control has more to do with “Leben aufgeben” (to surrender life). While Nora promotes her complexity in referring to her Verteilung (inner split) of personal desires, Eva and the others fear Zerteilung (dismemberment) by the machines. And while Nora attempts to convince them that marriage and children represent the “falsehood” that prevents women from exploring their innate destiny, Eva counters that for her and the other factory workers “the machine is the false part” (10).

Through these linguistic juxtapositions Jelinek illustrates that Nora's clichés drawn from the vocabulary of liberal feminism are nothing more than middle-class self-indulgences in the face of the working women's painful struggle with “self-alienation” and “self-estrangement” from love in marriage, the rearing of children and the comforts of home. The hypocrisy of Nora's middle-class values in the factory surfaces when within moments she recognizes that she has met the best that can be attained in Weygang and adopts the exaggerated discourse of sentimental love from pulp fiction. Ultimately, Jelinek's characterization of Nora represents her settling of accounts with liberal and radical feminism of the 1970s, and she focuses on the images that the Nora figure has assumed that exhibit the contradictions between her quest for self-realization and such helpless, dependent, feminine expressions as, “I frighten more easily than you do, since feelings are more feminine” (20). Nora's feminism, insofar as Nora understands it, is perverted into a deteriorated myth of the essential difference between the nature of a man and that of a woman.

Thus the whole repertoire of Nora's observations about the “essential feminine” (24) is drawn from social Darwinism (23) or biological determinism (23), and the theories from the turn of the century as well as the feminist theories of the 1970s ultimately appear as unhistoricized and unpoliticized reified myths, subsumed equally to the purposes of the radical left as well as the reactionary right, to terrorists or fascists. Therefore it is with extreme awareness of irony that Jelinek has Nora announce that she refuses to be “a sexual parasite” (52). Familiar quotations from Freud, Hitler and Mussolini on the woman's role are juxtaposed to equally recognizable phrases such as “the history of women until recently was the history of their murder” (51) from the radical feminist movement. In defending her use of these ready-mades, Jelinek explains that as an author she can present her meaning in her own words. However, she writes that “most things have been said so frequently that it's unnecessary to create something that has already been said elsewhere much better.” Her main focus is not on the characters, who are, as Jelinek explains, mere self-conscious fictions, but on the nature of discourse as she probes language and its ability to reformulate, reiterate and translate the already spoken.14

Nora easily confuses such women's-movement-generated phrases as “pornography murders women” (18) with those from the pulp fiction clichés on love. As a result, when later in the play she is turned into an S&M Dominatrix figure from pornography, she does not recognize her situation. Similarly, she is reduced to a stereotype of a femme fatale (32), femme fragile (33), Wedekind's Lulu (40) or a flapper (57). Nor can she recognize misogynistic stereotypes when her new lover Weygang and his friends quote Freud or imitate Wittgenstein: “A woman is that which does not speak and about which one cannot speak … Precisely. This Freud says that first one has to experience what it means to be castrated before one can begin to speak” (24). Indeed, Nora unfortunately illustrates this point of view when she speaks: “My husband wanted me to be at home and closed up, since the wife should not look to the sides, but primarily into herself or her husband” (7). What Jelinek shows is that Nora fails to develop a critical distance on her marriage with Torvald and instead appropriates the language of the 1970s feminists on the woman's role in marriage. In other words, one stereotype supplants another.

Thus feminist discourse does not liberate Nora but instead makes her a collaborator in the perpetuation of misogynistic stereotypes concerning the feminine. She uses Freud on “penis envy” to explain the inferior creative output of women (12) as readily as her references to “women's solidarity” which she interprets by the fact that “women … by nature have a stronger bond to each other” (13). Solidarity is thus made into another myth, which collapses in her confrontation with the manager's secretary, a scene that illustrates that class and status are in opposition to notions of solidarity:

Are you not also a woman … ?
Of course, isn't that obvious?
Why don't you look like a woman then, I mean cheerful? Why do you look so joyless?
When one's a private secretary to the manager one doesn't need to keep a grin on one's face all the time, particularly since one's personal life circumstances aren't necessarily pretty.
Don't you feel some solidarity with me?
At most we have in common similar pain in childbirth. Although I suspect that I'll feel these pains more strongly than you.


The painful juxtapositions of Nora's rhetoric to the working women's reality are balanced with highly comical effects, as Nora tries out her rhetoric of liberal feminism and as she moves into the milieu of the “pillars of societies.” Nora's movement into that world has to do with her “artistic” talents, which are soon put to good use by the personnel manager of the factory in which she now works to provide “classy” entertainment in the form of two choral arrangements for mixed voices and a short but “cultured” tarantella dance interlude for distinguished visiting dignitaries, among whom is Konsul Weygang. Indeed it is obvious that Jelinek's Nora has absorbed exceedingly well Torvald's guidance of the “talent” to please him as the spectator in their private theatre in A Doll's House. She reminds herself, in Jelinek's version, “to repeat the movements once more, as my husband taught me, sensually, but not too sensually” (18). Despite this she throws in acrobatic tricks and makes a backbend, thereby “deforming” her body. The manager of the factory takes up Torvald's former paternalistic position and scolds Nora for dancing so “tempestuously,” for she might “hurt herself,” and hence not be able to fulfill her piece-work quota. Weygang, however, is attracted by her grand leaps, twists and back bends. For the manager Nora's movements appear “uneconomical” (18), but for Weygang, Nora's body interprets the capitalistic rhetoric of “risk taking” capitalism, and her painful acrobatic exhibition serves as an ideal model of “flexibility” as she explains that “my husband wanted me sensual but not too sensual” (18).

To set off Nora's desirability on the market, Weygang foregrounds his total devotion and overwhelming desire for “my Nora my sunshine and my precious possession.” However, though he is quite taken with his new possession, he shows that he is also interested in her exchange value before it turns into a loss: “What is significant about women is that they present easily damaged goods, quality before quantity” (26). The progress of the not-so-subtle buying and selling of Nora occurs when he tempts the Minister, who too would like to possess her, for “she could also be my sunshine as easily”:

She not only has a face and body, but also a considerable general education.
You're a good businessman, Fritz, one has to give you credit for that, you know how to sell.
Yes, I love her and am totally committed to her.
I too could love her.


The Minister is excited by the description of Nora's market qualities of incomparable skin, body and charm, and Weygang entices him further by mentioning that her most significant asset is her childlike innocence which borders on perversion, almost exactly like Wedekind's Lulu, for like Lulu, Nora has no discernible moral standards. Since for Weygang Nora's sexuality is an abstract commodity, it can be traded in a similar manner as contracts for “futures” in the financial markets. Though Weygang puts the finishing touches to his deal with the Minister by proclaiming that he will live faithfully with Nora into old age “like Philemon and Baucis,” he soon qualifies this sentimental allusion by letting the Minister know that once his passion wanes, Nora will become available for the minister's pleasure:

In general, that's been my experience, the greatest passion lasts only a short while. If you wait until my passion has played itself out, you can take her.
Losing Nora will be like a knife in the heart.
You shouldn't give her away for nothing. The administrations of three countries are tearing themselves to pieces over the deal, and I have the key to it.
It's a deal. Let's say in three weeks.


Jelinek provides several perspectives from which to view Nora's body, for Weygang sees it as both a source for the regeneration of new energy and, simultaneously, an expensive investment. Nora too views her body as objectified goods or capital: “I've always taken care of my body” (19). In fact Nora's body provides an access to further riches, and both Weygang and Nora acknowledge that a business transaction has taken place as Weygang watches her perform the tarantella: “Don't I have the right to see my newest most expensive property,” and Nora replies, “but I hope you also own many more expensive properties” (19). By showing the similarity of the language of market economies and love, Jelinek thus subjects the semantic romantic language of “you are precious to me” to examination. Thus love becomes a cover-up for the fact that the financially potent Weygang is going to help Nora in her climb up the social ladder. When Nora leaves the factory on Weygang's arm, Eva observes that behind their manifested love lies the “shadow of speculation” (22). In this manner Nora becomes property for the second time.

To enhance her own investment in her body, Nora's acrobatic exercises become a means of making her market value as a woman. However, with increasing age and decreasing attractiveness, her exercises become less pliable, less graceful and show her off to a disadvantage, and Weygang cold-bloodedly evaluates his investment and its diminishing returns: her aging body with its drooping ass, flabby arms and orange-like cellulose skin (55-6). When Nora's body is no longer of any use for Weygang, he accepts it as a market loss. In reflecting on the difference between capital and Nora's body, Weygang comes to the conclusion that unlike the spreading of a woman's body, “capital never decreases in attractiveness when there's more of it” (26), for “it's greatest attraction is that quite simply there's more” (28).

Many of the quotations from A Doll's House are distributed to Nora and Weygang, particularly Torvald's discourse on frugality and financial solidity. The quotation from Ibsen, “what's the name of the bird that eats up money,” when it is placed into the context of a major speculation by Weygang, no longer represents Torvald's lecture on the bourgeois family ideal of fiscal responsibility. Instead, in the new context, the quotation functions as an expression of “exchange,” for Nora can't just “eat up money” without paying for her keep. Weygang, the capitalist, can make out of money more money without producing anything. But Nora must literally give of herself; “otherwise buying and selling, trade and exchange come to a standstill” (30).

In Weygang's interests and the interests of capitalism Nora is completely dispossessed of her voice to make decisions about her body. Assuming her voice, Weygang speaks out both his and her part (32), and Nora remains standing benumbed (33). Wegang shows how well he knows Ibsen's A Doll's House by appealing to her to become his “partner” instead of his “little lark.” And Nora has nothing with which to resist him but her whole repertoire of arabesques, backbends and splits. “Often,” Weygang explains, “cruelty is a sign of love,” as he convinces her in her own voice to seduce Torvald, for the entire enterprise depends on her: “Your big bear would jump around and do all kinds of funny pranks,” he promises, disguised by her voice. He patiently explains that the situation at the factory resembles precisely that of Ibsen's Pillars of Society since in order for the “railroad” to be built for “the good of mankind,” one must have information that will make it possible, for the construction of the “railroad” would make it possible to build “new, bright, and friendly apartments for the workers” which he will name the “Nora-Weygang Blocks.” “Oh beloved of course,” he concludes in her voice, “for now I belong to you entirely and truly” (29-33).

Despite Nora's illusions about the power of her love over Weygang, Weygang is the embodiment of absolute power that determines her sinking value in the sinking of her ass and hanging breasts. When initially Weygang invests in Nora, he offers his financial acceptability, and Nora in exchange offers her body. When later Nora attempts to create an even exchange once more by expressing her interest in his financial deals and so agreeing to play the S&M Dominatrix to get information out of Torvald, she doesn't understand that the exchange is uneven, and that Weygang looks upon her body as a subject perceiving an object, or the owner upon his property. It is a relationship in which Weygang has complete control over his goods. He can throw them away, sell them, conduct transactions and exchange, or whatever he chooses: “That's what one does with property, my little lark” (33).

Even as a Dominatrix, Nora's role is only one in appearance, for as Jelinek explains, fashion subjugates women particularly insidiously by means of that role. The costume of a Dominatrix is sadomasochistic, for the black leather and metal on naked flesh are imposed by the desire of men who must subjugate women even as they receive pleasure from the exchange. The reason, according to Jelinek, that the current fascination with the costume of the Dominatrix has become so strong is that men must break the resistance of women with renewed brutality. The Dominatrix in her thigh-high leather boots must ultimately be brought to her knees. And men who seek out a Dominatrix are overwhelmingly those in power positions, for they seek chastisement in torture chambers as a means of arousing their renewed feelings of innocence in the marketplace. However, business is transacted as usual, and Nora is not among the competitors, as usual (48). It is Weygang's power that “whips” Torvald into obedience; Nora is simply his whip. And even the words she uses to assault Torvald are not hers, for she is merely “reproducing” the already established relationship in A Doll's House.

The sentences that Jelinek sticks into Nora's mouth to accompany the lashes of the whip appear in Ibsen's text as affectionate endearments such as “Is that my little squirrel that's chattering … Is that my finch that is chirping?” (41-6). Thus, Nora holds Torvald to the same level of significance as he did her in Ibsen. She pokes fun at the ideal of his prudence and frugality. He can sell the factory grounds to Weygang “so that he won't have to borrow in the future” (46). Jelinek takes these passages, distorts them and pits them one against the other in order to show that these familiar discourses are the producers of myths of power relationships easily reproducible even by the powerless.

Despite her transitory participation on the side of power in the games that Weygang had initiated, all Nora has to defend herself against patriarchal power is the whole rage of clichés about “true love,” the kind that is revealed in expressions such as “Your look pierces me like lightening” (19). Jelinek's dialogue debases each sentimentalized emotional moment, moving by turns from playfulness to mockery, and on to total undermining of all myths of love. Jelinek parodies the pattern of the romance novels in which falling in love is made part of the process of social ascent that ultimately culminates in marriage. But instead of “happiness” Jelinek makes visible the calculations that are part of the process, the addition and subtraction of market value. Since Nora's market value has fallen, Weygang pensions her off by giving her a choice of typical spheres of female entrepreneurship: a stationery store or a fabric store.

Using her skills as a composer of texts Jelinek brings the spectators back to the doll house “idyll” and Nora's new/old marriage with Torvald. Another reversal has occurred, for it is now Nora who works all day at the fabric store, while Torvald, having lost his job at the bank, does the accounts. As he pores over the daily receipts, he lectures Nora that the first stage of capitalist enterprise necessitates above all “the accumulation of capital” (60). All vestiges of middle-class manners and decorum disappear from the once genteel Helmer household as Torvald commands Nora “to shut your mouth,” and Nora, in turn, screams at the returning children, “Shut your traps, you wretched brats. Can't you hear that your father wants to listen to the business news?” (61). The only trace of Nora's quest for self-realization is her complaint that Torvald “left her sexually unsatisfied last night” (60).

The evening news on the blaring radio reveals that the cotton mill and the adjoining housing projects have mysteriously gone up in flames during the previous night. It is further reported that the fate of the mill is presently unknown, though Consul Weygang, as chairman of the corporation with controlling interest in the mill, has given assurances that a speedy reconstruction is being considered in order “not to endanger the situation of the workers” (62). As Torvald speculates that most likely it was “the Jews that had ignited the fire,” the news broadcast fades into a spirited march evoking the memory of early German fascism. Torvald's expression of delight, “I love to hear this music,” ends the play (62). With the audible lingering strains of the “quoted” march, Jelinek illustrates how the mechanism of the historical process has been set into motion in re-enactment of the past.


  1. See Elfriede Jelinek, Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte oder Stützen der Gesellschaften, in Theaterstücke (Köln, 1984), 7-78, Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  2. Quotations from German texts are given in translation. This and all subsequent translations from the German are mine.

  3. Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House, in Six Plays by Henrik Ibsen, trans. Eva Le Gallienne (New York, 1951), 79.

  4. Elfriede Jelinek, “Ich schlage sozusagen mit der Axt drein,” Theaterzeitschrift, 7 (1984), 14.

  5. Elfriede Jelinek, “Gespräch mit Elfriede Jelinek,” interview by Riki Winter, Dossier über Elfriede Jelinek, ed. Kurt Bartsch and Günther A. Höfler (Graz, 1992), 15.

  6. Henrik Ibsen, Pillars of Society, in Henrik Ibsen: Four Plays, trans. Michael Meyer (London, 1990).

  7. Elfriede Jelinek, quoted in Brigitte Landes, “Kunst aus Kakanien: Über Elfriede Jelinek,” Theatre heute, 27:1 (1968), 7.

  8. Michael Newman, “Revising Modernism, Representing Postmodernism,” in Postmodernism, ed. Lisa Appignanesi (London, 1986), 48, quoted in Allyson Fiddler, “There Goes That Word Again, or Elfriede Jelinek and Postmodernism,” in Elfriede Jelinek: Framed by Language, ed. Jorun B. Johns and Katherine Arens (Riverside, CA, 1994), 135.

  9. Rosalind Krauss, “Poststructuralism and the ‘Paraliterary,’” October, 13 (1980), 37.

  10. Elfriede Jelinek, “Wir leben auf einem Berg von Leichen und Schmerz,” interview by Peter von Becker, Theatre heute, 33:9 (1992), 4.

  11. Allyson Fiddler, Reviewing Reality: An Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek (Oxford, 1994), 80, quoting Elfriede Jelinek as quoted in Stefan Makk, “Ein politisches Stück, ein Stück übers Kapital,” Kleine Zeitung, 6 October 1979.

  12. Yvonne Spielmann, “Ein unerhörtes Sprachlabor: Feministische Aspekte im Werk von Elfriede Jelinek,” in Dossier über Elfriede Jelinek, 36, quoting Elfriede Jelinek in Barbara Alms, ed., Blauer Streusand (Frankfurt am Main, 1987), 41.

  13. Ute Nyssen, afterword to Jelinek, Theaterstücke, 155. See note 1.

  14. Jelinek, “Ich schlage sozusagen,” 15. See note 4.

Gregory H. Wolf (review date autumn 1998)

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SOURCE: Wolf, Gregory H. Review of Ein Sportstück, by Elfriede Jelinek. World Literature Today 72, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 823-24.

[In the following review, Wolf praises the lack of plot-driven action in Ein Sportstück, contending that the long passages of dialogue and monologue “allow Jelinek to diagnose and criticize directly society's ills.”]

Ein Sportstück, the latest drama from the controversial Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, is a brutally graphic condemnation of contemporary society's obsession with sports, the athletes who compete, the narcissistic attitude bred by athletics, and the language used to describe competition and victory. Stretching the bounds of dramatic form, Jelinek creates a work with very little action; she even admitted in a recent interview that there is none (Der Spiegel, 6 February 1998). Instead, she relies on long dialogic passages, and employs her command of language to portray a society in which the desire for competition, the indiscriminate use of violence, and the ultimate victory have created a new set of ethical and moral norms. The “athlete,” a metaphor for the individual who, because of fame, power, and money, does what he pleases regardless of the feelings and welfare of others, pursues an agenda of immediate gratification, and, in doing so, debases humanity.

Jelinek organizes the drama around a group of core figures, including Electra, Achilles, and Hector from Greek mythology, who discuss the role of sports and humanity while kicking and torturing a sack which holds an unidentified individual. The faceless victim serves as a leitmotif throughout the drama. The athlete, lauded for his ability to crush and maim opponents, is analogous to the soldier who is trained to kill and wreak destruction upon his enemies. With a command of contemporary cultural symbols and pop culture, Jelinek compares these two modern gladiators and suggests that sports have led to the militarization of society and are directly responsible for the all-pervasive machismo attitude and increased violence. She employs expressionistic, indeed grotesque elements to underscore the propensity to commit acts of violence against faceless victims.

The long passages in Ein Sportstück allow Jelinek to diagnose and criticize directly society's ills. She uncovers male atrocities toward women, gross abuse of power, and a lack of communication between the sexes. Parts of the drama read, in fact, as essays condemning everything from television and the mass media to sports in general. With a postmodern approach, Jelinek creates an image which simultaneously alienates the reader while capturing his or her attention. The appearance of the author onstage underscores her desire to speak directly to the reader and to deconstruct the notion of literature as solely entertainment. By addressing current events such as the war in Yugoslavia and the bullish stock market, Jelinek forces the reader to reflect on his or her behavior within the larger framework of society.

Sports, like the military, rob the mother of her son and teach the son how to die without purpose. Whereas birth and life are associated with the realm of the mother, death and destruction are the man's. Due to these domains, the sexes have an inherent inability to communicate meaningfully with one another. Because of her willingness to create and preserve life, the woman is reduced to a weak being, not just incapable of competing but also possessing the status of an unworthy victim. Sports enable the male to act without reason and responsibility (“Sport ist die Organisation menschlicher Unmündigkeit”), and the necessity for competition leads to more victims.

With Ein Sportstück Jelinek suggests that the language of destruction, specifically the language of the military and war, has determined and framed the language of sports and, as such, has glorified violence, power, and individual bravado and degraded humanity. The “sportification” of society—e.g., the statistics of the dead in Yugoslavia and the nightly recap of murders in Rwanda—has numbed our senses to the victims and their suffering. Jelinek, who appears at the end of the drama, leaves the reader with a subtle reminder of life and death: “Wenn einer tot ist, dann kommt er nicht wieder.”

Rebecca S. Thomas (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Thomas, Rebecca S. “Subjectivity in Elfriede Jelinek's Clara S.: Resisting the Vanishing Point.” Modern Austrian Literature 32, no. 1 (1999): 141-58.

[In the following essay, Thomas explores the theme of female subjectivity in Clara S., contending that “Clara's usurpation of power and will separates this drama from Jelinek's other works.”]

“Nur die Frau gibt es nicht und darf es nicht geben.”1 This dictum reflects Elfriede Jelinek's view that women are impossible as subjects in what she frames as a fascist, patriarchal, postwar, capitalist society. Work, love, marriage, motherhood, and art, all western institutions in which self-fulfillment has traditionally been sought and glorified, are systematically unmasked by Jelinek as delusion-filled prisons in which women are erased as subjects in dehumanizing power relationships. Jelinek's oeuvre functions as a prism, with each work acting as a facet through which one of these institutions is refracted, broken down into the constituent parts which individually undermine female potential.

In the early work, Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte (1977), Jelinek picks up the tale of Ibsen's Nora. The open ending of Ibsen's drama has long been viewed as an invitation to see positive potential for Nora's self-development after she leaves her oppressive and infantalizing marriage. While Ibsen's Nora has become a symbol of female awakening and liberation, Jelinek's Nora must confront the exigencies of her reality as a woman trying to survive in the world of male-dominated capital and machines. She enters the work-world full of hope that income and career will be the path to “persönliche Verwirklichung:”2 “Ich wollte mich am Arbeitsplatz vom Object zum Subjekt entwickeln.”3 However, instead of economic liberation, Nora discovers “daβ Arbeit einen Menschen töten kann.”4 Women cannot actualize themselves “im Schatten des Kapitals.”5 Nora ultimately returns to Helmer, undoing the liberating gesture of her initial departure. The consequences for Nora's development as a subject are clear: “Noras selbst bleibt ein blinder Fleck … nichts sonst.”6

The stultifying effects of capitalism and patriarchy on women's “Selbstverwirklichung” are similarly exposed in the novel Die Liebhaberinnen (1975), in which the deformation of women through labor and culture is symbolized in their work in a brazier factory and concretized in the misogynist relationships that fill their leisure time. These women are shaped physically and emotionally by outside forces. They are interchangeable parts reproducing culturally dictated norms. The “Trivialliteratur” that Jelinek parodies on the formal level of the work also creates “das falsche Bewuβtsein”7 that forms these women's consciousness and prevents any potential for authentic will or desire.

The female protagonist Erika Kohut in Die Klavierspielerin (1983) is likewise derailed in her attempts at self-becoming, this time by the duo of an abusive mother and classical music, both of which serve to stunt any growth or relation to self. Whereas Nora looks for the building blocks of a self in work only to discover the imprisoning qualities of capitalized labor, Erika seeks her substance and authenticity in culture, that is, in developing the inner life through music. However, as Jelinek deconstructs the hero-worship of such German holies as Goethe, Bach, Schubert and Brahms and systematically undermines the idea of “das befreite bürgerliche Subject”8 that they represent, it becomes clear that art does not liberate, but rather it destroys Erika's life. She is left the numb and passive victim of abuse by men, mother and self.

Jelinek continues to dismantle the ideas of individualism and personal development in Die Ausgesperrten (1980) as she parodies the tradition of “Bildungsroman.” The “Mythos der ‘Einzelpersönlichkeit’”9 and the cult of genius that is its extreme form, are revealed as faschistoid and particularly lethal to women. Although Jelinek's male characters are also victims of this culture, they nonetheless maintain a power relationship over women who remain in a worse situation. As Marlies Janz notes, this is “eine Formulierung, in der Frauen als “Einzelpersonen” gleich zweifach ausgelöscht sind.”10

In an interesting twist to the theme of female subjectivity, Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen (1987) presents female figures who are transformed into vampires. The vampire embodies the un-dead life of female existence that is echoed in the portrayal of women artists in Clara S. Within existing socio-political parameters, women are both there and not there. On closer inspection this means that women are present always as objects of abuse but never as subjects in creating themselves or their world. They are imprisoned by patriarchy, capitalism, and the culture industry, all of which unite to deprive them of agency in their own existence.

“Nur die Frau gibt es nicht und darf es nicht geben.” This recurring refrain of Jelinek's work overall is the stated subtext of Clara S., a drama that reveals the mechanism of this oft-posed negation but juxtaposes it against Clara's refusal to signify nothing. In fact, Clara's liberating moment comes in her refusal to signify anything other than her self, the one who is supposedly not there. Clara's usurpation of power and will separates this drama from Jelinek's other works by allowing her a moment of self-actualization that is denied Nora, Erika, and Jelinek's other female protagonists.

Clara S. (1981) explodes time continuity to bring together Clara Schumann (1819-1896) and Gabrielle D'Annunzio (1863-1938) in a scathing denunciation of individualism in its most extreme expression. The cult of genius, born in German Romanticism, culminating in Hitler and perpetuated in an underconstructed postwar society has manifestations in both art and politics.11 Jelinek joins her critique of artistic and political traditions in the character of Gabriel D'Annunzio, the author and paramilitary leader who seeks fame and immortality in both arenas, and who embodies the abusive power relationships that are manifest in military conquest and covert but present in bourgeois art, according to Jelinek. By conflating the historic time frame within the drama, Jelinek emphasizes what she views as the link between nineteenth-century idealist traditions and their culmination in twentieth-century fascism.

The drama is set in 1929 at Il Vittoriale, D'Annunzio's palatial villa. Here, he has surrounded himself with women who depend on him for basic financial support: the Venetian pianist Luisa Baccara, the dancer Carlotta Barra, the painter Tamara de Lempicka, the housekeeper Aelis Mazoyer, a prostitute from the area, and finally “die Fürstin,” D'Annunzio's wife whom he married to gain a title. Except for his wife, whom he generally disregards, D'Annunzio uses these women as sexual objects while holding out the promise of financial support and career advancement which is never quite forthcoming. Their conversations form a background of dependence and abuse that provide the context for the main action of the drama.

Clara Schumann has brought her husband Robert to Il Vittoriale to plead for D'Annunzio's aid and support. Robert is already mentally ill by this point, and the fact that he is attended by an “Irrenwärter” contributes to the subliminal impression that the action is set in an asylum, a trite but accurate metaphor for Jelinek's view of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century world. In Jelinek's revaluation of Clara Schumann, she paints an alternative portrait to the standard view of Clara as the model of wifely devotion and renunciation. Jelinek's Clara rises up to empower herself, a process she initiates by taking revenge on the husband who has thwarted her dreams and artistic aspirations.

Jelinek sets her negation of the feminine in the context of post-modernism, which augments her political critique of individualism with the view that any character constructed as an individual is untenable. In the modernist drama, dialog was reduced to existentialist monologue signaling the failure of inter-subjectivity in the modern era.12 In the postmodern drama, dialog has been transformed again into a collage of cultural and linguistic clichés that is supposed to reflect the disappearance of the subject as origin and of subjectivity per se. In this paradigm, the self is reduced to “a shallow artifact of cultural production.”13

While Jelinek's formal approach and the ideological statements she places in the mouths of her characters proclaim the end of subjectivity in general and of female subjectivity in particular, the drama contains tensions that undermine both of these claims. In order to discover where her radical critique of subjectivity breaks down it is first necessary to note the techniques Jelinek employs to lay bare the alleged destruction of the subject.

Jelinek illustrates the demise of the individual along the coordinates of postmodern decentering and Marxist culture critique, which together govern both form and content of Clara S. Jelinek reproduces the decentered ego of postmodernism through an extensive use of quotation, which supplants authentic dialogue. By displacing herself as the originator of her characters' dialog, Jelinek formally illustrates her denunciation of originality as elevated in the cult of genius. In a broader sense, this technique is meant to undermine the notion of origins per se. If the technique is successful, the dramatis personae do not appear as individuals asserting a Cartesian will and ego. They are not the origin of their own words and actions, rather they are the locus of intersecting discourses and desires. They are constructs of language, culture and the unconscious.

Frank Farrell describes this view of the world, in which everything but discourse disappears, in theological terms: “It is as difficult to find a space for human activity over against the formative power of the cultural economy as it was to find a space of genuine human agency over against the absolute freedom and predestining power of the divine will.”14 Farrell notes a huge “gap” between the observations made by postmodernists about cultural phenomena and the “radical philosophical conclusions that are thought to follow from them.”15 Although it is surely necessary and desirable to reconsider subjectivity within the context of cultural forces, we must not necessarily conclude that the self recedes totally in their sway. Indeed, “very much of what was important to the modern notion of autonomous, self-willing selves survives the disenchantment of subjectivity.”16 In other words, the issue of selfhood is not an absolute proposition: either totally autonomous Cartesian will or a totally deterministic culture monopoly. It is within this context that I will speak of subjectivity and selfhood in Clara S.

Jelinek's use of quotation to decenter dialog has been widely noted and analyzed, particularly as it reveals the impact of this formal gesture on our reading of the figure of Clara.17 It has been noted that a ventriloquist's voice often seems to be speaking through Clara's character, emitting strains of the alien discourses that combine in and through her.18 The ventriloquist, I might add, is Jelinek, the origin of these juxtapositions, and a kind of auctorial voice who has, herself, somewhat transcended the power of discourse to become a controlling agent in its production. This paradox in the meta-text is mirrored within the drama as Clara also resists and ultimately transcends the political and linguistic constraints on subjectivity that Jelinek posits as universal.

Although critics have focused primarily on the effects of discourse on Clara and the other female characters, we must be clear that in the world of this particular drama, if there is a “prison-house of language” it is a gender-neutral confinement. The question of quotation and its effect on our reading of the male characters is, however, scarcely discussed. That Jelinek quotes Robert Schumann's letters and Gabrielle D'Annunzio's correspondence and novels in constructing their characters carries a heavy implication for a predominantly feminist critique: both men and women are displaced as subjects, both are located within linguistic-cultural structures that guide their behavior and speech. In this sense, Jelinek illustrates Barthes' dictum “Die Sprache spricht” and gives shape to her own claim that “der Individualismus nicht mehr möglich ist,”19 a claim that sweeps across the borders of gender and class.

The universal revocation of selfhood that is suggested on the formal level stands in contrast to the exclusive nullification of the female subject that is sustained on the thematic plane. In her critique of the material power structure which is informed by her stance as a communist20 Jelinek focuses heavily on the relationships of gender and patriarchy. Although she rejects the feminist label,21 she is aggressive in disclosing the impact of material conditions on women's lives. Her critique of male behavior and its consequences for individual women is scathing and unabating. This theme dominates such early works as Die Liebhaberinnen (1975) and Wir sind lockvögel baby! (1970) as well as the more recent novel Lust (1989), and it is a driving moment in Clara S.

Thus, the unilateral revocation of the feminine (“Nur die Frau gibt es nicht …” my emphasis) is primarily a function of the political landscape Jelinek paints, and it is juxtaposed against the wholesale negation of the individual through discourse. The discursive power that D'Annunzio holds is primarily a function of this political reflex. D'Annunzio, the Italian fascist writer and soldier, enunciates the negation that the women artists residing at the Vittoriale depict and experience: “Wahrscheinlich ist die Frau doch eher das Nichts” (84). His dual role as warrior and writer form the link of power and language that Jelinek posits. He controls the female characters' physical and material conditions and thus limits their access to self-determination and actualization. He has the power to deny female existence through his rhetoric thus mirroring on the discursive level the material destruction of women's lives within the patriarchal order that forms the backdrop of the drama. D'Annunzio's abuse and oppression of the female residents represents the social context and conditions that allow Robert to ruin Clara's life by denying her the opportunity for self-realization: “Komponieren durfte ich nie selber. Obwohl ich es so sehr wollte” (80).

As might be expected, the questions of sexuality and domestic responsibility play key roles in Jelinek's critique of patriarchy and its role in manipulating female experience. Jelinek circumscribes the conditions that govern the male-female dynamic in stark terms. D'Annunzio's power, which he derives from financial wealth, is played out in his sexual and emotional abuse of the female residents who are financially dependent on him, and who therefore have no recourse or defense against his advances. Corina Caduff describes Jelinek's characterization of these conditions clearly when she notes that within the drama she has made the “Vittoriale zum Bordell, D'Annunzio zum Zuhälter, die Künstlerinnen zu Prostituierten …”22 Clara alone refuses to relinquish control of her sexuality to the Commandante: “Mein Künstlerinnenkörper, der früher sogar selbsttätig komponiert hat, als er noch Zeit dafür hatte, wird von Ihnen nicht geschändet werden” (68). She withholds the sexual act as a decree of independence, as a protection of the boundaries of her self.

Predictably, D'Annunzio meets her failure to acquiesce with a violent emotional response. Not only does he harm Clara vicariously by molesting her daughter, he also fantasizes that Clara herself wants to be raped: “Wie in einem Blitz sehe ich Sie hingestreckt. Jetzt sind Sie müde und dürsten voll Begierde, genommen und durchrüttelt zu werden. Kommen Sie, das machen wir jetzt gleich! Anschlieβend werde ich Ihnen beschreiben, was den kühnen Eroberer von einem ebenfalls kühnen Künstler unterscheidet. Nichts im Prinzip” (69). The rape motif that lingers ready to erupt at the border of bodily “Hingabe” is the violent conquest of anyone who will not willingly surrender her “self.” By equating the conqueror and the artist, D'Annunzio's remark underscores again the power inherent in the world of signs/language. Although Clara's refusal to give herself to D'Annunzio signals the germination of her rebellion, she nonetheless remains trapped in her domestic obligation to Robert until the final act of the drama. Her alienation and resistance to norms is an undercurrent throughout.

In a further political commentary Clara describes how, in the exclusively domestic role, her self, and particularly her creative self, has been consumed. She has become a living sacrifice to Robert's productivity, both in his idealization of her as muse and in her domestic labor which freed his time for the creative act: “Ich bin im sakralen Raum deiner Genialität geopfert worden, Robert” (93). Male-artist and female-muse are inextricably intertwined: “Meist aber ist die Frau dann schon eine verdorrte Wurzel, während der männliche Künstler noch voll im Saft steht” (75). The sacrifice of female subjectivity is symbolized in the withering of the body: “Dieser Wahn der Selbstverwirklichung. Die Frau bezahlt es. Es zahlt die Künstlerfrau. Ist sie ebenfalls Künstlerin, verfaulen ihr die Gliedereinzeln bei lebendigem Leib unter der Kunst-produktion des Mannes” (75). Jelinek links her portrayal of material and domestic power with illustrations of male control over the language and discourse that creates and maintains norms of female experience. This formative power of the image maker is augmented by the Olympian power to grant and revoke existence through language.

In the confluence of material and discursive power in the persons of Robert and D'Annunzio, the notion that none of the characters controls language begins to break down. The Commandante clearly uses it to define and limit female experience and expression. It is not simply the case that the feminine doesn't exist and that the Commandante describes this pre-existing condition. It is rather the case that the feminine has been denied through male speech and political will, that is, through the speech acts and behavior of particular men who presumably could have chosen otherwise but elected to abuse their power. This is the root of Jelinek's critique of patriarchy. We encounter here a pointed political comment, not an existentialist cry against an immutable linguistic fate.

Jelinek illustrates male control over discursive power within the realm of art, the unabashed province of signs, in which men create, and women are created as ideals, muses or the work of art itself. With the exception of Clara, the women of the drama are objects that become interchangeable with and indistinguishable from art. Their function is to be viewed and admired. This sublimation of individual women into aesthetics guarantees their disappearance into “nichts,” as their subjectivity is displaced by their function as works of art. The extreme idealization of women in art can only be fulfilled through total abstraction from the social or real, that is, by draining the woman from her image. The reduction of women to a purely instrumental role in aesthetics amplifies and augments D'Annunzio's and Robert's use of women as the objects of conquest and inspiration. It is precisely the question of who controls discourse that is at stake in this power play.

In the political and aesthetic realms, which clearly co-define each other, the end of female subjectivity is signaled in women's reduction to roles, abstractions and ciphers that change their significance according to male needs. Jelinek expresses the insubstantial quality of her female characters through repeated images of incorporeity. The loss of body has the varying functions of expressing loss of self and general invisibility within the culture. Each of these is the expression of a void or “nichts” where there should be a woman.

Jelinek's choice of female artists for her collage underscores this conflation of women and art. Except for Clara, the women artists who populate Il Vittoriale only perform art; they do not write, compose, choreograph, or paint. Their artistic production is in fact reproduction, and thus immediately related to their bodies: “Luisa: Sängerin müβte man sein. Die Leute staunen bei einer Frau noch viel mehr, wenn sie die jeweiligen Töne ausschlieβlich mit dem Körper ohne Aushilfenahme von Geräten hervorbringt” (79).

The singer's voice (body) is her art in which she becomes symbolic and disappears. Carlotta, the dancer, also uses her body as medium: “Ich drücke Kunst ausschlieβlich mit Hilfe des Körpers aus, wobei ich imstande bin, jeden Millimeter von mir auf das Unwahrscheinlichste zu verbiegen, beziehungsweise zu verdrehen” (83).

Her body is her language, with which she defines what she cannot express verbally. Her specific identity is absorbed into the abstraction of her art, and she ceases to be: “Ich bin sozusagen die Kunst in Person” (83). In her role as art, her subjectivity is engulfed and disappears. As art, she becomes a signifier, pointing beyond herself, a self that is both there and not there. She does not have access to language because she is language, raw symbol. These women artists document the social transformation of women into “things of beauty,” aesthetic artifacts.

The woman's body is dislocated from her other attributes as the first step in aesthetic commodification. The women artists of the drama are not “Künstlerinnen,” they are “Künstlerinnenkörper” and “Tänzerinnenkörper” (68). As such, they lose all individuation and become interchangeable within the dehumanizing mass-culture represented by the Commandante: “Wir haben hier noch mehr Künstlerinnenkörper auβer Ihrem im Haus. Hier kommt zum Beispiel gleich ein Tänzerinnenkörper angewirbelt” (68).

Paradoxically, when the woman is reduced to all-body, she becomes no-body. The body itself is subsumed in the abstraction and becomes incorporeal: “Carlotta: Wir Tänzerinnen sind mehr als alle anderen Menschen Flaumfedern. Unsere Körper sind durchsichtig von Licht und Luft. Am Boden hält uns nichts. Manchmal sind wir weniger Licht und Luft als ekstatische Priesterinnen unserer Kunst. Wie jetzt soeben. Man sucht uns auf wie ein Pilger ein fernes Altarbild!” (69). The dancer is no longer a woman but an idealized projection. Art has become a pseudo-religion leading to transcendence. The women, however, do not experience transcendence, rather they are priestesses who point the way for others. By cultivating themselves as the objects of worship and dedication, the women artists participate in their own destruction. Their role is to be viewed and admired, “im Auge eines Mannes schön zu sein” (71). This objectification neutralizes them as subjects.

The religious icon refers to a transcendental being. Moreover, like the secular work of art, its function is by definition metonymous. Now as a symbol for both the holy and the aesthetic, woman stands in for an already symbolic artifact referring beyond and away from herself. As either an art work or religious icon, she attracts attention to herself in order to deflect that attention immediately away to a deferred meaning other than herself. In this depletion of self, she becomes “ecstatic,” in the sense of being separated from her body, which becomes “Licht” and “Luft” as she loses it. This loss occurs at the altar, where devotion also requires a sacrifice.

Jelinek allows Clara to resist these images of incorporeity and absence when she remarks on the Commandante's response to the ethereal conception of women he himself has invoked: “Das mit der Körperlosigkeit zieht bei ihm nicht so recht. Soll ich lieber sagen, die Frau ist ein schweigsames, aber faulendes Loch?” (85). Clara attempts to bring substance back to the idea of woman by invoking an image to replace or fill the “Körperlosigkeit.” Ironically, she chooses the image of a “Loch,” a void that cannot be filled without destroying itself, and the substance of which is by definition that which is not there. The “Loch” is, however, like the woman, not nothing. Its meaning lies precisely in the circumscription of the presence of an absence. Insistence on this presence, however tenuous, characterizes Clara throughout. This insistent presence is paradigmatic for Jelinek's portrayal of women in culture, and she consistently seeks ambiguous figures to represent the dual nature of this existence that is not one. Sigrid Berka's analysis of Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen in which she speaks of the female vampires in terms of “present absence” and “undead life” echoes this point.23 The “Loch” and the vampire are both there and not there, real and unreal.

In Clara S., this present absence is located in the socio-cultural arena where women are denied potential as subjects. Jelinek's critique of the cultural fetishization of the female body parallels her parody of the overemphasis on the male intellect, specifically as the alleged origin of subjectivity, genius, and artistic production. Disproportionate attention to the female body in the drama is set in relief against the exaggerated significance ascribed to the male head. The artificial polarization of male-mind versus female-body necessarily results in the polarization and alienation of mind and body within each individual. In Clara's opening line she laments: “Mein Inneres kämpft so stark gegen mein Äuβeres an. Das Äuβere hält die vergeistigte Frau für unwichtig” (64). Because she has crossed the border of gender-appropriate behavior, she has become alienated from her body, and the other women remark on her “Körperfeindlichkeit.” Because women are socially constructed through their relationship to body-nature, this estrangement from the physical is in fact alienation from the self.

Drawing out the parallels, Jelinek contrasts women losing their bodies to males losing their heads; in each case the threat is against the defining attribute: “Clara: Robert, die Bestie, fantasiert die ganze Zeit, daβ er seinen Kopf verliert … Diese ungeheuerliche Angst vor dem Verlust des Kopfes! Da er doch weiβ, daβ darin seine Genialität haust wie der Wurm im Apfel” (65). Jelinek is unsubtle in her use of the castration metaphor: “Natürlich ist das eine Verlagerung von unten nach oben” (72). Robert Schumann's mental infirmity lends itself to ample word play on this topic, as his “losing his head” can be alternately interpreted as going insane and losing male potency. In this word play, the idea of specifically male intellect is enhanced by the phallic reference. The antithesis of this deduction also obtains: in Jelinek's theatrical asylum, women, who have been culturally defined and limited as all-body have no capacity for intellect or creativity because they lack the crucial “head.”

Jelinek attacks the institution of genius and creativity as a self-deception (Robert is unaware that the themes running through his head have all been composed years before). Robert and D'Annunzio's grandiose claims to greatness appear ludicrous in light of the banality of their accomplishments as drawn by Jelinek. It is nevertheless clear that Jelinek finds the exclusion of women from the maligned realm of creativity reprehensible. The critique of patriarchy's attempted monopoly on genius is clear throughout the drama. The latent valuing of this realm, even in its imperfect or deluded state, sets the ethical tone of the drama: women's exclusion from cultural activity, which Clara continually bemoans, is clearly viewed as unjust. The desire for participation and the sense of injustice that lingers in the accusations against Robert and D'Annunzio undermine Jelinek's devaluation of the artistic tradition and in fact elevates the longing for inclusion to a moral principle.

Although this is evident in the portrayal of the secondary tier of female artists who have been reduced to objects of male will, it is even more evident in Clara's resistance to this exclusion. Clara alone among her female peers transcends the social parameters that would deny her access to intellect and creation. In her art she goes beyond acting as a medium, beyond performing works created by her male counterparts: she moves from re-production to production. Her desire to compose for herself is an attempt to break out of the nothingness, to countermand the ban on female selfhood and become a subject through action. Even her extraordinary performing talent is driven by the desire to be “selbstschöpferisch” (96). She refuses to be constructed solely by the gaze of the spectator, or to perpetuate the silence of the object. Her composition is an act of individuation. She acts as a subject when she has been constructed as object; she exercises her mind when she has been constructed as body. Her defiance of the “nichts” comes in her refusal to signify nothing.

Clara's ability to break the bonds of negation is predicated on two conditions: first, on her ability to escape Robert's controlling grasp, and second on her ability to appropriate the supposedly male-symbolic universe for herself, that is, to find a way to control and manipulate language. She can only reclaim her self for her self in the context of Robert's demise because she must create a space for her existence. She cannot simply leave the villa and seek a more congenial atmosphere because she, like the other women, depends on the Commandante for financial support: “Ich brauche das Geld!” (85). In addition, she must rid herself of Robert's specter. His personality and the sense of duty she feels as his wife are dominating forces in her mind. As long as he is alive, she will exist only in relationship to him, and in this relationship, she will always be a shadow.

The murder scene symbolically delivers the death-blow to the established hierarchy. As in many traditional works (Hebbel's Judith for example), the decay of male efficacy is accompanied by the cessation of female submission. In each case, women gain stature and control proportional to the weakness of their male counterparts. Robert, the representative of decrepit male culture, has passed on his infirmity to his children, indicating the progressive nature of the decline, particularly in the male line of succession: “Clara: Söhne! Söhne! Wenn ich Ihnen doch sage, Gabriele, meine Söhne waren in der Qualität noch miserabler als die Mädchen, mit Ausnahme Maries … Ansammlungen von schwersten Krankheiten, meine Söhne” (81). As the masculine figures degenerate, female characters become proportionally more vigorous and powerful. Clara's development from acquiescence to action is predicated not only on her own inner drive but also on the power-vacuum created by the decline of masculine potency.

Jelinek's fantasy of subversion is melodramatically acted out when Clara strangles Robert (with hands ironically made strong by piano playing) and then climbs the phallic mountain, thus claiming the symbolic universe for herself: “Ich habe jetzt keine Angst vor weiblicher Radikalität mehr und erklimme soeben ein phallisches Symbol. Und du kannst gar nichts dagegen machen” (99 my emphasis).

This is a revolutionary moment that requires the agency of a subject. In fact, this act of liberation and appropriation has been Clara's goal and the impetus behind her creative endeavors all along. Until this time she has been thwarted by repeated pregnancies and Robert's meddling in her composition. Now, after Robert's death, as she climbs the mountain, she claims language without becoming it. In claiming language she transcends her female counterparts whose identity with the mode of signification precluded their control over it. In this context, one might usefully recollect the oft pilloried claims of Freudian and Lacanian psychology that define women as “lack” (lacking the phallic signifier, hence true access to signification). The inevitable outcome of this definition is Lacan's negation of woman per se24 that echoes Clara's lament “Nur die Frau gibt es nicht und darf es nicht geben” (103). By climbing the mountain, appropriating the means of signification, Clara countermands this edict. Although she cannot escape the system of language, she can, like Jelinek, momentarily attain an Olympian stance (symbolized in her ascent) that allows her to manipulate the structure, molding it to her will.

Clara uses the symbolic tools she gains to compose her life plot to create the text for her own life that will be completely self-referential and absolutely hers: “Ein vollkommen neues Gefühl kommt über mich, das ich selbsttätig hervorrief. Was der Künstler erlebt, setzt er gleich in ein Werk um” (98 my emphasis). When Clara goes to the piano, she authors her own death through music. This “Werk,” which she emphatically declares is the product of her independent will, refers not away from her but always back to her: she is creator and created. Clara's death highlights a valid critique of the western canon which is littered with the corpses of women sacrificed for men and ideals. This moment of cultural critique does not, however, nullify her moment of being.

Clara's final transformation in music recalls the drama's distinctly Nietzschean subtitle: “musikalische Tragödie.” Despite Jelinek's attempt to break fully with the western tradition which she criticizes, certain elements that do not allow themselves to be fully deconstructed into culture critique persist in Clara S. Although one can only suppose an ironic intent behind labeling a work “Tragödie” when it is built around characters who are presupposed to be without subjective qualities hence incapable of experiencing or portraying the heroic or the tragic, Clara's “development” within the drama does in fact lead to the formation of a tragic knot: the vehicle for her self-becoming is also the mechanism of her self-destruction.

In the Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, Nietzsche develops the Apollonian-Dionysian polarity. This tension is central to the question of subjectivity in Clara S. Nietzsche defines the Appolinian as the principium individuationis and the Dionysian as the dissolution of individuation in the communal rite. In the Nietzschean world view, tragedy lives in the dialectic of these two forces.25

On the formal level of Clara S., Clara is portrayed as fundamentally non-individuated. The myriad voices speaking through her for much of the drama might be viewed as a type of post-modern chorus, multi-vocal, representative of the community, often in the role of commentator. However when Clara ascends the mountain, emphasizing the first-person pronoun over against Robert's distinct “du,” she achieves a moment of Appolinian individuation which, in Nietzsche's lexicon, is also linked to the heroic a status which Clara achieves after the demise of male heroes. In the context of Jelinek's postmodern cynicism, the idea of the hero seems to strike a dissonant, even ridiculous chord. Yet the hero in the Nietzschean sense, an individual with the strength to rise above the “Massenmenschen” and stand alone, is specifically what is required on the political-revolutionary axis of Jelinek's critique and what is delivered in the person of Clara. The reference to the heroic here is thus made in full recognition that “Ironie auch der Rezeption dieser [Jelineks] Texte eingeschrieben.”26 In this case, however, reading against the grain leads back to undeconstructed traditional paradigms.

Clara's new subjectivity is not absolute or permanent. It is the momentary harmonization of the fragmented self in the moment of action. This self is subject to change and reconfiguration, but there is clearly a moment of consistency in the tension between the two poles from which issues the agency of will and self-determination. Clara's will and arising awareness of self derive specifically from her emerging cognizance that she has been dislocated from her self in the past. Consequently, the experience of this Dionysian non-individuation as depicted in her creation out of quotes and in her function as a “generic” woman is the precondition for her momentary becoming. Her autonomy is an achievement (hence the appeal to the heroic), not a “metaphysical given.”27 While it is true that even notions of the desirability of a self who values freedom arise within the context of cultural discourse, there is nonetheless a moment of “discovery … as we come to understand better … the worth of a self that can relate to itself as something to be worked upon and chosen …”28 This moment of discovery is made apparent in Clara's action.

Viewed through the prism of the Birth of Tragedy, it becomes a matter of some consequence that Jelinek has chosen a musical “heroine” who dies in a “Rausch” of music. The Appolinian principle of individuation gives way to dissolution. But in authoring her own death, Clara transcends the subject-object dualism of politics, art, and discourse: she creates a musical text of herself in death. Consequently, Clara's death includes and maintains both the moment of individuation and its transcendence, the tension that Nietzsche prescribes as constitutive of tragedy. The text thus reveals a certain unity in fragmentation, a dialectic of self which, in moments of mediation between the Appolinian and Dionysian, has the capacity to overcome dissolution and become a navigating force in the maelstrom of opposing discourses.

Most analyses of Clara S. accept the view that when it comes to Clara's character “nichts Erkennbares, keine weibliche Substanz … verbirgt sich unter den Zitaten,”29 that there is, in effect, no authentic woman behind the curtain. Annette Doll, for example, claims that Jelinek builds her figures out of “vorgefertigte … Weiblichkeitsbilder” that leave “keine Vision einer weiblichen Künstlerin.”30 Walter Klier sees “nichts Eigenes … das dem zitathaft eingesetzten trivialen Material übergeordnet wäre.”31 Günther A. Höfler asserts “der reine Objektstatus der Figuren und ihre absolute Dezentrierung in gesellschaftliche Determinanten.”32 In this view, feminine absence is viewed as a prefiguration of post-modernism and becomes theoretically avant-garde.33 Indeed, according to this model, women's failed access to bourgeois subjectivity and authenticity has prevented them from indulging in the search for self that Jelinek laments and lampoons as naive.34 By forfeiting their claim to authenticity, women have pre-figured the post-modern age, and “In diesem Sinne wäre die weibliche Künstlerin von jeher eine postmoderne Autorin.”35 Presumably this would apply to both Clara and Jelinek.

Despite both textual and critical assertions to the contrary, there is indeed not a nothing but rather a woman behind the curtain, even as that curtain is drawn by Jelinek. While Jelinek attacks as fascistic and destructive what she characterizes as the specifically nineteenth-century male drive for subjectivity, it is precisely the prohibition against women's participation in this quest that creates the bitterness with which she portrays her male characters. Within the plot of the text, denial of access to these arenas engenders the longing and ultimately the outrage that motivate Clara out of her prescribed negation into action. Although the originality inherent in the genius ideal is viewed as a destructive force, the text reveals as deplorable the exclusion of women from the arenas in which the potential for creativity and authenticity is located. The desirability of striving for selfhood and individuality lingers in the implicit critique of patriarchy's suppression of women's voices and bodies. The longing to recover the aura of self is not only sanctioned but championed by the implications of Clara S. in which feminine subjectivity refuses to be nullified as Clara refuses to portray a silent absence.36

Finally, let me return to the questions raised in the rift between Jelinek's theoretical approaches. While the postmodern sensibility postulates the diffusion of subjectivity and the fragmentation of intentionality, the politically engaged theory that informs Jelinek's feminist stance demands personal responsibility and social change through individual action. Throughout the drama, Robert and D'Annunzio are not portrayed as mere victims of oppressive discourses which they unwittingly though lamentably carry out and reproduce. Instead they are depicted as co-producers of the system that destroys all women in its wake. They are portrayed as personally liable and reprehensible.

The implicit critique of patriarchal behavior Clara S. demands change, requires acknowledgment. However, by undermining the concept of the individual with even limited or contingent autonomy, Jelinek destroys the very target of her critique, namely, a responsible party, an entity with the capacity to do otherwise. This conflict within the theoretical matrix diminishes Jelinek's pointed critique to a blind rage, a senseless anger directed at people who are not responsible for their actions but are, instead, pawns in a reified system of culture without human intention.

In investigating the fissures pulling at the drama's form and content, it becomes clear that despite Jelinek's self-definition as a postmodern writer, the text does not unequivocally embrace the postmodern moment of anti-subjectivity that it illustrates. While the peripheral characters in Clara S. do unmask the mechanism of enforced feminine absence and Jelinek's formal techniques are designed to dislocate all subjects, Clara acts to clear a space in which she can create herself, a space in which she can say “I.”


  1. Elfriede Jelinek, Clara S.: Musikalische Tragödie: Theaterstücke (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1992), p. 81. All further references to the text will be cited by page number in the text.

  2. Elfriede Jelinek, Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte: Theaterstücke (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1992), p. 7.

  3. Ibid., p. 8.

  4. Ibid., p. 55.

  5. Ibid., p. 60.

  6. Ulrike Haβ, “Grausige Bilder. Groβe Musik: Zu den Theaterstücken Elfriede Jelineks.” Text und Kritik 117 (1993), p. 23.

  7. Marlies Janz, “Mythendestruktion und ‘Wissen’: Aspekte der Intertextualität in Elfriede Jelineks Roman Die Ausgesperrten,Text und Kritik 117 (1983), p. 38.

  8. Elizabeth Wright, “Eine Ästhetik des Ekels: Elfriede Jelineks Roman Die Klavierspielerin,Text und Kritik 117 (1993), p. 52.

  9. Janz, p. 41.

  10. Ibid., p. 40.

  11. Marlies Janz, Elfriede Jelinek (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1995), p. 53.

  12. Peter Szondi, Theorie des modernen Dramas (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,1959), p. 62.

  13. Frank B. Farrell, Subjectivity, Realism, and Postmodernism—The Recovery of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), p. 245.

  14. Ibid., p. 250.

  15. Ibid., p. 247.

  16. Ibid., p. 243.

  17. Birgit R. Erdle, “‘Die Kunst ist ein schwarzes glitschiges Sekret.’ Zur feministischen Kunst-Kritik in neueren Texten Elfriede Jelineks.” Amsterdamer Beiträge zur neueren Germanistik 29 (1989)p. 327-333.

  18. Ibid., p. 327.

  19. Donna Hoffmeister, “Access Routes to Postmodernism: Interviews with Innerhofer, Jelinek, Rosei, and Wolfgruber,” Modern Austrian Literature Vol. 20, No. 2 (1987), p. 115.

  20. Dagmar Lorenz, “Elfriede Jelinek's Political Feminism: Die Ausgesperrten.Modern Austrian Literatur Vol. 23, Nos. 3/4 (1990), p. 111.

  21. Ibid., p. 111.

  22. Corina Caduff, Ich gedeihe inmitten von Seuchen: Elfriede Jelinek—Theatertexten. (Bern: Peter Lang, 1991), p. 106.

  23. Sigrid Berka, “‘Das bissigste Stück der Saison’: The textual and sexual politics of Vampirism in Elfriede Jelinek's Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen,The German Quarterly Vol. 68, No. 4 (1995), p. 373.

  24. Jacques Lacan, Encore: Das Seminar Buch XX Trans. Norbert Haas et. al. (Weinheim: Quadriga, 1986).

  25. Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie. Werke. Ed. Karl Schlechta (Frankfurt/M: Ullstein, 1980), p. 21.

  26. Ingeborg Hoesterey, “Postmoderner Blick auf österreichische Literatur: Bernhard, Glaser, Handke, Jelinek, Roth,” Modern Austrian Literature 23:3-4 (1990), p. 72.

  27. Farrell, p. 243.

  28. Ibid., p. 275.

  29. Erdle, p. 329.

  30. Annette Doll, Mythos, Natur und Geschichte bei Elfriede Jelinek: Eine Untersuchung ihrer literarischen Intentionen (Stuttgart: M & P Verlag für Wiss. und Forschung, 1994), p. 64.

  31. Walter Klier, “In der Liebe schon ist die Frau nicht voll auf ihre Kosten gekommen, jetzt will sie nicht auch noch ermordet werden.” Merkur 41 (1987), p. 424.

  32. Günther A. Höfler, “Sexualität und Macht in Elfriede Jelineks Prosa.” Modern Austrian Literature Vol. 23, Nos. 3/4. (1990), p. 103.

  33. Erdle, p. 333.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid.

  36. Moreover, from the extrinsic view, one must be skeptical of the apparent coincidence that subjectivity is decried as a hoax and a fraud at just the historical moment in which women and other marginalized groups are becoming equipped to make their claims on self-definition and self-expression. Women cannot look back on the days of the eminence of the self-evident subject with nostalgia, and hence cannot cast aside the potential for their own self-becoming as a relic of a bygone age.

Erika Swales (essay date April 2000)

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SOURCE: Swales, Erika. “Pathography as Metaphor: Elfriede Jelinek's Die Klavierspielerin.Modern Language Review 95, no. 2 (April 2000): 437-49.

[In the following essay, Swales delineates the effects of Jelinek's “fierce pathography” through a close reading of Die Klavierspielerin, contending that her stridency generates “a sense of tensions that invite the reader to be not reductive but reflective.”]

Whatever kind of reputation Elfriede Jelinek may have, it is not that of a subtle, thoughtful author. Indeed, for many readers and critics, the stridency of her writing is the most defining characteristic, a stridency that has been variously applauded or condemned. Yet even stridency can generate its own dialectically complex echo. I begin this article by indicating some of the tensions that mark Jelinek's relation to the literary market-place. Then, I consider one of her most strident texts, Die Klavierspielerin (1983).1 Nothing can diminish the fierce pathography of this work, but I shall endeavour to show that far from being monolithic, the novel generates, by virtue of its aesthetic configuration, a sense of tensions that invite the reader to be not reductive but reflective.

The case of Jelinek epitomizes one of the ironies of late capitalist culture: here is an end-game Marxist writer, whose work denounces the all-pervasive power of the free market system that disfigures our material and cultural reality. Yet this very market has consistently absorbed her voice of outrage. The early novel Wir sind lockvögel baby! (1968), with its rebellious pop-art energy, was successfully processed by the public relations department of Rowohlt. In Oh Wildnis, oh Schutz vor ihr (1985), Jelinek mocks the mechanisms of the literary market (‘Herrliche Prosa! Wertvolle Preise!’), only to be awarded the ‘Heinrich Böll-Preis der Stadt Köln’ in 1986 and the ‘Literaturpreis des Landes Steiermark’ in 1987. Similarly, the corrosive anger of Lust (1989) is honoured by the ‘Preis der Stadt Wien für Literatur’. Nowadays, her writing in the critical margin enjoys editions and reprints into the thousands.

The contradictions inherent in Jelinek's relation to the dominant system show up most tangibly in the fact that she has published her major works with Rowohlt, whose rororo series epitomizes the interlinking of artistic creativity and the world of finance: in a full-page advertisement, the voice of the stock exchange is allowed to disrupt the literary text. Thus, for example, Jelinek speaks of the ‘streng genommen marxistischer Ansatz’2 of Die Ausgesperrten (1980), yet this very analysis is crossed through by the customary injunction to the reader to invest in ‘Pfandbrief und Kommunalobligationen’. Equally tension-ridden is Jelinek's homepage on the Internet Here: a curtsying teddybear on strings invites us to enter the hidden chamber. The allusions to the iconography of the porn industry are perfectly clear, yet inside are extracts from her literary work and some highly demanding articles. This latest development again demonstrates that for Jelinek the literary text is not sacrosanct. It interlinks with all other texts of capitalist culture and only by openly acknowledging that dependency can it hope to negotiate a relative degree of autonomy.

Within the aesthetic economy of Jelinek's œuvre, such negotiations can prove knife-edged, precisely in texts that appear most uncompromising. As critics commonly acknowledge, the hallmark of her writing is one of all-pervasive aggression, ‘von geballter Wut’.3 In structural terms, it manifests itself in a fiercely sustained narratorial control which, in the name of a Marxist-cum-feminist analysis, makes no apology for a hard-line viewpoint and reduces events and characters to functional particles.4 Stylistically, the ‘geballte Wut’ finds its most typical expression in sharply cutting formulations. But precisely this compositional mode (one thinks, for example, of Die Liebhaberinnen)5 proves tantalizingly ambiguous: its aim is of course that of critical exposure, but in its sheer aggressiveness it comes close to replicating the grip of the control system it sets out to criticize. In particular, the hard-hitting rhetoric can be said to overlap all too closely with the slogans and soundbytes of capitalist culture. In this sense, Jelinek's work exemplifies the familiar complexities of critically inflected mimicry.6 Furthermore, her ironically fractured intertexting, which since Die Ausgesperrten has become such a prominent feature, entails another set of contradictions. For this technique is grounded in, and expects from the reader, a considerable degree of ‘Bildung’. Lust, for example, and above all Wolken.Heim are in fact dependent on that high-bourgeois culture whose institutions and mechanisms Jelinek regularly debunks.7

I would, then, argue that such texts, for all their impressive moments, are ultimately entrapped in internal and external contradictions. By contrast, Die Klavierspielerin is in my view composed in such a way that the ferocity of the foregrounded statement constantly modulates into a richness of parallel intimations. Pathography is not allowed the last word.

In the first instance, of course, Die Klavierspielerin also comes across as a fiercely closed textual system. In terms of representation, the narrative stands as a merciless psychological case study, an autobiographically rooted account of a self deformed and destroyed by the all-powerful mother figure. The precisely observed (and explicated) power struggles between mother and daughter, between Erika and Walter Klemmer, and the narratorial close-ups that brutally magnify Erika's psycho-sexual pathology, her acts of self-mutilation, speak for themselves. Furthermore, the text repeatedly, albeit on occasion ironically, points to its own interpretative frame, a Marxist perspective coupled with the psycho-analytical theories of Freud and Lacan,8 and thus would seem to kill off any interpretative reflectivity. As Janz warns, a psycho-analytical interpretation ‘verdoppelt nur den Text, ohne ihm noch einen latenten Sinn abgewinnen zu können’ (p. 72).

Nevertheless, we owe valuable insights to studies that have focused on the mother—daughter relationship. One thinks of Sigrid Weigel, who discusses the link between the tyranny of the mother and Erika's alienation from her own body, her voyeurism and sado-masochistic fantasies.9 Allyson Fiddler, in her key study, follows similar lines of enquiry: invoking Juliet Mitchell's concept of psychosis, she argues convincingly that Erika, unable to break free from the mother, fails to attain subjectivity, sexual identity.10 Janz shares this reading, but in addition suggests that whilst the text, like the protagonist, remains trapped in classical psycho-analytical models of femininity, as formulated by Freud and Lacan, it also unmasks them in part as ‘Spiegelung der Geschlechterhierarchie und des Gewaltverhältnisses unter den Geschlechtern’ (p. 81).

Such readings clearly help us to reflect on the place of Die Klavierspielerin within the genre of women's autobiography which since the 1970s has made a striking impact in the German-speaking countries. Yet they tend to isolate the text from the rest of Jelinek's work.11 In consequence, the novel would seem to lack the socio-critical edge that is the hallmark of her writing, and to move alarmingly close to the genre of confessional autobiography whose general lack of ‘gesellschaftliche Analyse’ Jelinek herself finds deeply unsatisfactory.12 In particular, psycho-analytical readings are rather restrictive as regards the evaluation of the novel's aesthetic organization. Thus Annegret Mahler-Bungers, who does discuss this issue, subsumes the aesthetic under a strictly psycho-analytical agenda: on her reading, the (self)destructive compulsion of the protagonist, the process of ‘Abtötung’, also informs the narrative, which systematically excises all emotion and warmth (p. 194). This undialectical alignment of theme and form on the part of the critic harbours considerable dangers: the force of the aesthetic is marginalized by being identified with the foregrounded thematic statement, and the question whether it might deviate from, and differentiate that statement, is simply not allowed to arise.13 Thereby we are deprived not only of a decisive criterion by which to arrive at a balanced critical assessment (and that is urgently needed, given the polarized reception of Jelinek) but also of the possibility of defining the novel's place in the overall œuvre.

Recently, Ricarda Schmidt has addressed the aesthetic modality and rhetorical strategies of Die Klavierspielerin.14 Whilst there are a number of points where my account coincides with hers, we come to rather different conclusions. Schmidt argues that the novel is a firmly closed textual system within which a number of almost predictable, ideologically underpinned devices can be traced. Overall, Schmidt is critical of the all-pervasive ‘übergeordnete Erzählinstanz’ (p. 355), a ‘richtende Erzählerin’ (p. 356). As I hope to show in the following, I share this reading only in part; viewed in its entirety, the textuality of Die Klavierspielerin strikes me as far more complex than Schmidt allows.

True, the foreground is dominated by the psycho-sexual drama, which, as I have suggested, is so self-explanatory that critical reflectivity can add very little. However, there are other sections to do with life in the city, and these raise the critical question of the extent to which the personal drama relates to the representation of that public life. It is here that the aesthetic, the compositional mode of the novel, comes into play. It is in fact far more complex than the foregrounded psycho-sexual drama first suggests: the text shifts between irony and pathos, the stylistic registers range from the crudely immediate to the intensely poetic, and, overall, Jelinek works here with a multiplicity of representational means. Paradoxically, the aggressive overtness of the textual foreground generates narrative strategies of subtle, yet powerful indirection. In particular, as I shall show, the novel is driven by constant shifts between the literal and figurative. Precisely this disposition lends the text a conceptual and cognitive force that extends well beyond the personal drama of mother and daughter, Klemmer and Erika. In consequence, the autobiographically rooted case study acquires a socio-critical and, ultimately, existential dimension that enriches the text's import at every turn. It is in its profusion of significances, and in its sense of the interplay between them, that the power of Die Klavierspielerin resides.15

On the overt level, then, Jelinek's Marxist-cum-feminist voice unleashes its anger in unashamedly overt fashion. Here, totally crude patternings, be they of images or of codes, dominate and drive home their polemic point. Take her use of the economic code: its all-pervasive presence flaunts the authorial perception of society as one gigantic market place and stock exchange. Accordingly, Erika's artistic ambition is expressed in the code of finance: ‘So wartet SIE ungeduldig, daβ ihr Wert als künftige Spitzenkraft der Musik an der Börse des Lebens steigen möge’ (p. 87). For her pupils, the pursuit of music signals the ‘Aufstieg aus den Tiefen der Arbeiterschaft in die Höhen künstlerischer Sauberkeit’ (p. 30). Economizing is of course the overriding imperative in the petty-bourgeois Kohut household, and Jelinek mercilessly brings this pattern to bear upon Erika's relation to her own body, comprehending it as ‘Kleingeld’ and ‘Sparschwein’ (p. 241). Similarly, there are countless allusions to the world of mechanization, which reduce human relations to automated processes and capture the dehumanizing grip of the surrounding system. Again, the patterning here is predictable, but it does generate moments of grim humour. Hence, in the peep-show, male masturbation is represented thus: ‘Zehn kleine Pumpwerke sind unter Volldampf in Betrieb’ (p. 55). As the code of labour invades the representation of porn films, the male is likened to a ‘gelernte Mechaniker’ hammering away at the ‘kaputte Auto, das Werkstück Frau’. Wryly, the narrator concludes: ‘In den Pornofilmen wird allgemein mehr gearbeitet als im Film über die Welt der Arbeit’ (p. 108). To take a final example from the specifically feminist sphere: biting satire pervades the representation of the power struggle between Erika and Klemmer. Sexual pursuit is constantly couched in terms of the hunt, ‘Jagd’, ‘Jäger’, ‘Jagdbeute’ are key motifs in this familiar design of the battle of the sexes.

As these few examples suggest, on this level of the narrative, Jelinek's ideological control would seem to be total; the text is not allowed to generate an aesthetic force of its own, but figures in fixed correlation to the author's ideational system. This aspect is well analysed by Ricarda Schmidt, but she confines the import of Die Klavierspielerin to such instances of totalizing aesthetic and ideological control. It is, however, precisely at such points that Die Klavierspielerin as a textual system fractures under its own monolithic pressure and generates spaces of much freer signification. This emerges most vividly if the constant allusions to the world of economics, labour, and power relations are contrasted with the countless images of animals that pervade the text. True, some may be predictable: Erika's disgust at her body is captured in the ‘wanzige Ratte […] die sich ihr Geschlecht nennt’ (p. 86), and in her pathetic fantasies, the power of male sexuality parade as ‘Wolf’ (p. 46), ‘Jungstier’ (p. 80), ‘Gemsbock’ (p. 87), ‘Panther’ (p. 106). But for the most part, beasts of all shapes and sizes freely roam the textual landscape: ‘Hirschkäfer’ (p. 35), ‘Kreuzspinnen’ (p. 38), ‘Walfisch’, ‘Seehund’ (p. 42), ‘Taube’ (p. 46), ‘Nachtschmetterlinge’ (p. 52), ‘Lämmer’, ‘Kuh’, ‘Affen’ (p. 70), ‘Schwan’ (p. 71), ‘Igel’ (p. 100), ‘Ochsenfrosch’ (p. 111), ‘Kaffernbüffel’ (p. 145), and many more. This carnivalesque assembly of beasts is quite beyond the underlying ideological control system.16 As a textual breakaway, it is reminiscent of the narrator's comment in Die Liebhaberinnen: ‘Jedes noch so rigide system hat irgendwo eine lücke, durch die man schlüpfen kann’ (p. 87). Whilst the protagonists' attempts to escape are doomed, in Die Klavierspielerin the aesthetic force is able to exploit the gaps within the text's ideological frame. This is in sharpest contrast to, say, the utterly monolithic writing of Jelinek's compatriot Werner Schwab, whose ‘Fäkaliendramen’ are driven by a similar loathing for the petty-bourgeois world.

The double aspect of a claustrophobic textual system that yet exploits its own ‘Lücke’ is crucial for an understanding of the structural principles that are at the centre of the narrative: circularity and repetition. They inform the overall story line, every step within it, and they reverberate, as I shall show, in precise textual details. At one level, they assert that all attempts by Erika to break out from the mother/daughter dyad are futile, and she ends up where she started.17 Ideationally, these fundamental configurations mirror Jelinek's conception of the social world as a closed system. Circularity and endless repetition crystallize, in other words, her conviction that ‘alles ist ausdeterminiert. Die Gesellschaft, wir in ihr, Trieb-, Räder-, Walzwerk. Automatisierte Fabrik’.18 To this degree, the compositional principle prefigures the reductivism of Schwab's Der reizende Reigen (1995), which extends the Viennese focus of Arthur Schnitzler's play into a social criticism of bourgeois society. At another level, however, Jelinek's use of circularity and repetition acquires a poetic energy of its own whereby the narrative turns into a web of interconnected literal and metaphorical intimations. It is here that the private story of Erika is constantly made to link with a much more public and differentiated narrative. On a purely psychological reading, the combination of circularity and repetition amounts to sheer pathography; coercion and violence, the patterns of Erika's childhood, spent in the straitjacket of piano practice under ruthless maternal supervision, replicate themselves in the scenes at the music school where Erika now presides over her pupils. Likewise, the power struggle between mother and the adult daughter doubles in Erika's relationship with Walter Klemmer. But, within the overall context of the novel, this private psychological drama acquires a metaphorical force; its compulsively repetitive patterns link throughout with the pathology of the social world. Thus, the coercion that marks Erika's life turns into a generalized social pattern; one thinks, for example, of the young victims at the music school: ‘Ihre Eltern zwingen zur Kunstausübung. Und daher kann das Fräulein Professor Kohut ebenfalls die Zwinge anwenden’ (p. 13). Erika's compulsions, above all her imperative need for ‘Gehorsam’ (p. 104) and ‘Besser sein als andere!’ (p. 16), magnify general, socio-cultural ‘Wiederholungszwänge’. The deadly monotony of the Kohut life links with the utterly fixed order of the surrounding world. Here the text covers, in varying degrees, the span of Viennese society. At the top end, there is the cultural system of ‘Wien, Stadt der Musik’ with her ‘fetten Bauch der Kultur’ (p. 14), and as one of its subsets is the aristocratic Polish family with their merciless routine of Kammermusik (p. 62). Here, the narrative is informed by a hilarious sense of irony. But whenever the text tracks lower down the social scale, the tone becomes fierce. The Prater scene captures the dreary routine of family outings, their patterns of mental and physical violence within the hierarchical structure. The tensions are thrown into ironic relief by the ‘Hochschaubahn’ whose circular motion temporarily inverts the order of ‘Unten und Oben’ (p. 130). Or take the vision of Vienna by night, its popular culture. Here a poetically heightened register articulates a deadly monotony: ‘Es brausen Ströme von Neonlicht in Eiseskälte durch Eissalons, durch Tanzhallen. Es hängen Trauben von summendem Licht an Peitschenmasten über Minigolfanlagen. Ein flimmernder Kältestrom’ (p. 58). The perpetuum mobile of alienated life informs most powerfully the scenes set in the dismal suburbs ‘die man nicht aufsucht, wenn man nicht muβ’ (p. 47). In their monotony, they connect strikingly back to the Kohut routine of dinner followed by favourite television programmes: ‘Die Fassaden werden zu flächigen Bühnenkulissen, hinter denen nichts zu vermuten ist; alles ist gleich und gesellt sich zu gleichem’ (p. 49). It is in this dreariness, underneath the arches of the transport system, that the peep-show is located, and its clients are the marginalized, the Turkish workers. The key motifs of this scene link explicitly back to the macro-structure of the narrative, to circularity and repetition: the women on show rotate ‘auf einer Art Töpferscheibe’ a ‘Drehscheibe’ (pp. 55-56). Later on in the novel, a simile reduces the Turkish workers, too, to mere ‘Pappfiguren’ mounted on the circular belt of the shooting galleries in the Prater (p. 123).19

As these examples show, the narrative constantly shifts between the metonymic and the symbolic, and it is precisely by virtue of this overall connectivity that quite specific details of the personal drama link with the conditions of public life and set up a complex reflectivity in the reader. Thus the motif of ‘Kette’ and its variants range from the ‘Mutterbänder’ (p. 75) of maternal coercion via Erika's collection of bondage items and Klemmer's ambition to ‘jede Frau an sich ketten’ (p. 65) to the ‘Kette’ (p. 113) of the conservatory and beyond to the tramway system: ‘Das sind Ketten, die nie abreiβen’ (p. 17). Jelinek's representation of the conservatory is particularly telling, for it figures as an unending conveyor-belt within the machine of Vienna's culture industry:

Nach dem letzten der Schüler läuft die Kette nachtsüber rückwärts, um sich ab neun Uhr̀ früh erneut, mit frischen Kandidaten besteckt, voran auf den Weg zu machen. Die Zahnräder klicken, die Kolben boxen, die Finger werden an-und wieder abgestellt. Etwas erklingt.

(p. 113)

Viewed within this network of literal and figurative significations, Erika's psycho-sexual pathology, her bodily alienation, acquires a strong metaphorical function: ‘Es war ihr eigener Körper, doch er ist ihr fürchterlich fremd’ (p. 89) captures Erika's condition as much as the sense of alienation that pervades the scenes of public life, in particular family relations. Violence, so central to the personal drama, extends to generalized patterns of brutality. Motifs such as ‘treiben’, ‘Zwang’, ‘Gewalt’, ‘Wut’, and ‘Angst’ dominate. The ‘Sprache der Gewalt’ (p. 48) finds concrete shape in the motif of ‘schlagen’. At its most specific, it is the hallmark of maternal tyranny: she regularly threatens to ‘erschlagen’ (p. 83) the child Erika, just as she assaults her husband (p. 156) so that, once infirm, he ‘fleht, nicht geschlagen zu werden’ (p. 97). But in the course of the novel the motif is generalized. There are regular instances of children being beaten by their mothers, most mercilessly so in the suburban scene of deprivation:

Der Kopf einer etwa vierjährigen wird von einer mütterlichen Orkanwatsche in das Genick zurückgeworfen und rotiert einen Augenblick hilflos wie ein Stehaufmännchen […]. Endlich steht der Kinderkopf wieder senkrecht, wo er hingehört und gibt schauerliche Laute von sich, worauf er von der ungeduldigen Frau sogleich wieder aus der Lotrechten befördert wird.

(p. 48)

All such references finally culminate in the closing pages of the novel when, over some ten pages, Klemmer batters Erika.20

These passages are admittedly marked by a clarity of patterning, but one that is complexly mediated, reflective, rather than simply denunciatory. There are other major areas where the text creates much more subtle yet equally compelling links. I am thinking here of the aspect of space: On a purely feminist reading, Die Klavierspielerin takes back the gist of Virginia Woolf's text A Room of One's Own, 1929, a cornerstone of the literary feminist movement. Erika has a ‘kleine[s] Zimmer’ (p. 7), but as there is no lock and the mother constantly invades, her private space is minimal. This factor is of course central to the psychological drama engulfing mother and daughter and symbolizes Erika's disempowerment: ‘Erika hat keine Geschichte und macht keine Geschichten’ (p. 15). This echoes literally Die Liebhaberinnen, where Brigitte and Heinz, too, ‘haben keine geschichte’ (p. 10). But in Die Klavierspielerin the insignificance of Erika's fate connects with all those groups that lack space of their own and have no history, men and women who live in the dreary suburbs or the ‘Ausländer’ who make a living in the Prater by flogging cheap goods ‘direkt aus der Fabrik’ (p. 136). Once again, the peep-show scene, where the disempowered Turkish workers meet, is crucial. The narrator makes a direct and explicit link between their living conditions and the booths of the peep-show:

Die Kleinheit der Kästchen ist direkt proportional zur Kleinheit ihrer privaten Behausung, in denen sie manchmal nur ein Eck bewohnen können. Sie sind die Enge also gewohnt und können sich hier sogar mittels einer Trennwand von anderen separieren. Es darf in jede Boxe nur einer zur selben Zeit hinein. Dort ist er mit sich selbst allein.

(pp. 52-53)

It is a measure of Jelinek's compositional skill that this scene not only links back to Erika's cramped space but also prefigures the most devastating instance of spatial deprivation: the nursing-home where father Kohut is stashed away. Here, Jelinek reworks the code of the fairy tale Schneewittchen: the cosy form of diminutives indicts the living conditions of the infirm, the real dwarfs of society: ‘Das Zimmer ist in Einzelbetten säuberlich unterteilt, jedem gehört ein eigenes Bettchen, und diese Bettchen sind klein, desto mehr gehen davon in den Raum hinein’ (p. 96). The motif of cramped space runs through the novel and acquires increasingly critical importance. To recall the issue of feminist aesthetics: Jelinek acidly reinterprets central feminist configurations (for example, caverns as metaphorical sites of femininity) and charges them with socio-critical energy, turning them into ciphers of material deprivation. In the ‘achte Bezirk’, where Erika and mother live, dingy flats house the forgotten lives of the old and the poor: ‘Manchmal kommt in diesem Bezirk eine Mordserie vor und ein paar alte Weiberln sterben in ihren mit Altpapier völlig zugewachsenen Fuchsbauten’ (p. 32). Or take the discreet but sustained modulation of the sexual motif of ‘Loch’ whereby it comes to denote housing conditions in the impoverished suburbs, life in ‘den Löchern […] die man hier Wohnungen nennt’ (p. 49), and finally figures as the ‘schwarze Loch’ (p. 118) of the deadly Kohut routine.

This transvaluation, whereby sexual motifs modulate along a sliding scale of signification into socio-economic and cultural patterns and then back again, applies above all to the figuration of Erika's voyeurism. Generally, critics comment on it in purely psychological terms. Whilst such accounts are of diagnostic interest, it seems to me that the literary resonance of this theme deserves more attention. It is, for example, worth noting that Erika's compulsive yet emptied ‘Schauen’ radically reinterprets a key theme in German twentieth-century writing. Repeated intertextual allusions point above all to Rilke and his theme of alienated, unhoused selfhood, the division into spectating and spectated subject. Fractured references to his poem Herbsttag pervade the scene at the peep-show, and indeed, Jelinek's representation here, with its insistent motif of ‘schauen’, ‘zuschauen’, ‘Vorhang’ (p. 55), points painfully back to the fourth Duineser Elegie, its sense of facing the void:

Ich will nicht diese halbgefüllten Masken,
lieber die Puppe. Die ist voll. Ich will
den Balg aushalten und den Draht und ihr
Gesicht aus Aussehn. Hier. Ich bin davor.
Ich bleibe dennoch. Es giebt immer Zuschaun.(21)

Seen within the more recent context of women's writing, Erika's voyeurism figures as a disillusioned version of the highly charged ‘Sehen’ motif, which in the work of Christa Wolf or Ingeborg Bachmann encapsulates visionary aspirations.22 Clearly, Die Klavierspielerin invokes this tradition, but, crucially, divests the theme of all transcendent force and links it to a social argument. Erika's personal compulsion of ‘will nur schauen’ and ‘Sie muβ und muβ schauen’ (pp. 55-56.) connects with the fate of the marginalized who, deprived of all agency, are reduced to mere spectating: ‘Der Tölpel glotzt nur und tut nichts’ (p. 55).23 Beyond the peep-show, this aspect reverberates in the recurrent motif of shop-windows and the television screen that clearly function as the up-market version of desire: ‘Auslagen’ (p. 32), ‘Auslagenscheiben’ (pp. 79, 129), ‘Schaufenster’ (p. 107), ‘gläsernen Bilderkasten’ (p. 101).

I hope the above examples suffice to illustrate the complex connective disposition of Die Klavierspielerin. Overall, the text traces, within both the personal and public frame, central aspects of human agency, the interplay of constraint and compulsion, of lack and desire. At its most succinct, it does so through sharply angled configurations of such modal verbs as ‘müssen’, ‘können’, ‘wollen’. An early prefiguration is to be found in Die Liebhaberinnen, where the chapter anfang typically ends: ‘Diese kleine episode soll nichts weiter zeigen, als daβ brigitte arbeiten kann, wenn es sein muβ. und es muβ sein’ (p. 14). But in Die Klavierspielerin the patterns are particularly prominent. The juxtaposition of ‘wollen’ and ‘müssen’ recurs in numerous variations. Take, for example, the representation of Klemmer's sexual failure, typically sited in the stifling ‘Kabinett’ of the conservatory's cleaners. His malfunction, we are told, is due to constraint: ‘Klemmer will eigentlich gar nicht, aber er muβ’ (p. 243), and ‘Er MUSS jetzt and KANN daher nicht […]. Klemmer kann nicht, weil er muβ’ (p. 244). Again, the sexual nucleus generates a wider meaning, the novel's central concern with social entrapment, the vicious circle of ‘müssen’ and ‘nicht können’. It is in this context that Erika's letter acquires a crucial function.

Clearly, the letter is the culmination of Erika's pathology: it is an extended and detailed exercise in masochistic fantasy and as such is an utterly scandalous document. Its shock-effect is reinforced by Jelinek's concern to generate suspense in time-honoured manner: from page 181 onwards, there are insistent references to the letter, but the contents of the ‘geheimnisvollen Brief’ (p. 192) are kept secret. Tension grows irresistibly so that when revelation finally comes, it exerts an overwhelming force. Jelinek undoubtedly runs a considerable risk here: the horrendous details of Erika's sado-masochistic fantasies (and the subsequent nemesis of reality when Klemmer literally hits back) displace at first sight the context of complex metaphorical intimation in which the letter is embedded.24

It is therefore not surprising that critics have homed in on this section (see Fiddler, pp. 146-53). In a psycho-analytical reading, Elizabeth Wright argues along the lines of Lacan's and Kristeva's concept of abjection and concludes that Erika's pleasure in disgust is ultimately also the condition of the text overall: ‘Poetic language is thereby deprived of its “normal” aesthetic, and instead assumes the form of a hysteric-aesthetic language where pleasure is taken in disgust.’25 This strikes me as a profound misreading because it overlooks the fundamental distinction throughout the text between the narrative voice and the protagonist. Erika is irretrievably trapped in the psycho-sexual pathology that culminates in her letter.26 By contrast, the narrator figures that pathology and invites reflectivity from the reader: through cognitively shifting configuration of the literal and metaphorical, she not only traces Erika's history of violence and humiliation but, as I have shown, widens it into a fierce, Swiftian onslaught on the repressions of social life in Vienna and of human existence in general.

The letter, then, belongs structurally and discursively within the totality of statement that is Die Klavierspielerin, a narrative that consistently brings into congruence discourses of sexuality and discourses of culture and society. Crucially, the key motifs of the letter are powerfully prefigured: all the preceding references to ‘Ketten’, ‘Fesseln’, to woman as a ‘Paket’ (pp. 176, 202) culminate here. The dwelling on moments of confinement, subjection, and dominance reverberate both within the pathology of Erika's consciousness and within the broader diagnostic purpose of the text.27 In this sense, the letter functions as an extended coda that brings together precisely the codes of the psycho-sexual and the socio-cultural. In other words, Die Klavierspielerin is a text about abjection, not of abjection. It refers recurrently to Erika's ‘Verwesung’, ‘Zerfall’ (p. 116), ‘Verrotten’ (p. 39), to mindscapes of ‘Steinlawine’ (p. 44), ‘Schutthalden’ (p. 200): in short, to waste lands beyond the confines of civilization. But, crucially, it does not give in to the allure of the abject that informs the Kristeva project and harks back to Rilke's problematic validation, both aesthetic and metaphysical, of the ‘Fortgeworfenen’.

As in the work of Thomas Bernhard, human desolation figures without solace; it is overarched only by brute temporality. Recurrently, Die Klavierspielerin points back to Die Liebhaberinnen, where the narrative voice ruminates ‘schrecklich, dieses langsame sterben, und die männer und die frauen sterben gemeinsam dahin’ (p. 17). The theme of transience is stated at the very start of the novel. Here, the decline of the father immediately after Erika's birth is formulated thus: ‘Sofort gab der Vater den Stab an seine Tochter weiter und trat ab’ (p. 5). Psychological accounts conclude that Erika ‘wird von der Mutter phallisch besetzt’ (Janz, p. 71; see also Fiddler, pp. 129-40). Whilst this reading is undoubtedly pertinent, it does foreclose the metaphorical resonance of the phrase, which is spelt out later on in the novel when Erika ‘gibt diesen Willen […] jetzt wie einen Stab beim Stafettenlauf an Walter Klemmer weiter’ (p. 208). Clearly, metaphorical signification here combines the sexual with an ontological dimension whereby human life, in a modern variation on a Baroque theme, figures as a frantic, but ultimately futile race. As the narrator comments in the opening section of the novel: ‘Die Zeit vergeht, und wir vergehen in ihr’ (p. 15). And so, again in a kind of radically secularized Baroque vision, both personal and public life figure as that vanity fair symbolized in the Prater scene. Admittedly, such passages may be precariously poised on the parodistic brink, alluding to the central theme of transience in Austrian thought and writing. Yet there is a piercing quality to the writing whenever Erika is seen not in the grip of her pathology but in the grip of time itself. Propped up by the ‘gipsernen orthopädischen Kragenresten der Zeit um ihren dünnen Hals’ (p. 9), she ages mercilessly into the void: ‘Erika zieht dahin. […] Nichts hat sie erreicht. Nichts, was vorher nicht da war, ist jetzt da, und nichts, was vorher nicht da war, ist inzwischen angekommen’ (p. 57). This wry pathos of transience is also created by recurrent patterns of repetition, as in: ‘Und es rinnt immer weiter. Es rinnt und rinnt und rinnt und rinnt’ (p. 45) and ‘Sie geht und geht und geht’ (p. 140).

Jelinek frequently conjoins such variations on the theme of transience with the modality of farce. Repeatedly, Die Klavierspielerin generates at one and the same time a sense of total paralysis, futility, and a Bergsonian sense of convulsively mechanical comedy. As she comments: ‘Die Welt läuft auf der Stelle. Und der Text schreibt, treibt ihr nach’ (quoted in Meyer, p. 45). Manic motion informs Jelinek's staging of the battle for supremacy between the mother, Erika, and Klemmer, and throughout these sections she employs stock-in-trade devices of farce: eavesdropping, doors, opening and shutting, the chase, and phallic slap-stick comedy.

To register the element of farce in Die Klavierspielerin is to come full circle, back to the issue of ‘Gewalt’. Farce as a genre is a form of violent authorial control, and as such raises the question of the extent to which Die Klavierspielerin as a text ultimately replicates the system it sets out to expose, the ‘geballte Wut’ (p. 82) that marks the life of both Erika and the city. As we know, in general Jelinek stands by the aggressive mode of her writing. She argues both in feminist terms that writing by women is per se a violent act, given the exclusion of woman from the symbolic order, and in Brechtian terms that the system is so closed that it can be answered only by violence.28 As regards Die Klavierspielerin, she speaks of ‘musische Ironie zum Sarkasmus vorangetrieben’ (Bartsch, p. 10).

This certainly applies to the overt level of the text, where the ideational and the aesthetic figure in strict correlation. However, as I have attempted to demonstrate, on the latent level, the narrative unfolds in associative metaphorical patterns that widen and enrich the foreground statement. This structural tension is crystallized in the fact that the text consistently interrogates its own modality of sarcastic control. The comparison with the earlier novels is illuminating here: the narrative voice of Die Liebhaberinnen keeps the characters on an extremely tight rein. They are not individualized figures but paradigmatic ciphers: they merely serve to illustrate the determining power of the socio-economic system. But above all, they are totally at the mercy of authorial control: ‘Da wir das schicksal brigittes in der hand halten, können wir es auch an jeder beliebigen stelle wieder abreiβen’ (p. 105) and:

dieser roman handelt vom gegenstand paula.

über den gegenstand paula bestimmt erich, über dessen körperkräfte wieder andre bestimmen, bis sich seine eingeweide einem frühen tod entgegensetzen.

(p. 130)

Throughout, the fiercely determined and determining narrative replicates the control system of the surrounding world, but it does not reflect on the difficulties of this duplication: it simply radicalizes Kafka's comment that language ‘nur vom Besitz und seinen Beziehungen handelt’.29 This largely applies also to Jelinek's second novel, Die Ausgesperrten. But through the figure of Rainer, addict of existentialist philosophy and literature, the text begins to generate a growing degree of self-reflectivity in so far as it thematizes the bad faith of reading and writing, the destructive clutches of art.

Such critical self-interrogation is much more developed in Die Klavierspielerin. It is no coincidence that Part I of the novel ends on critical ruminations about the issue of control. Nor is it by pure chance that the motif of ‘Papier’ increasingly comes to dominate: the motif of a city-scape, strewn with crumpled paper, epitomizes a throw-away culture and thus inscribes transitoriness into the very fabric of the text.30 As Erika reflects: ‘Jeden Tag stirbt ein Musikstück, eine Novelle oder ein Gedicht, weil es keine Berechtigung in heutiger Zeit mehr hat’ (p. 92). But above all there is the complex relationship between the narrator and her protagonist. On the one hand, narratorial representation overlaps with the perspective of Erika, who coldly observes and judges the world around her. Thus the comment ‘mit einem kleinen Hammer klopft sie die Wirklichkeit ab, eine eifrige Zahnärztin der Sprache’ (p. 59) applies self-reflectively also to Jelinek's sharp narratorial stance.31 On the other hand, however, the narrator distances herself regularly from her protagonist whose identity is fractured in such varying terms as ‘sie’, ‘Erika K’, ‘Frau Professor’, ‘die K.’, ‘die Frau’. On this level, the negativity of Erika's viewpoint is defined as ‘beinahe zwanghaft’ as she ‘sieht nur selten, daβ etwas wächst und gedeiht’ (p. 92). Whilst this comment in part may ironize bourgeois reader expectations of positivity, it does in fact echo Jelinek's admission in interview that her perspective is limited: ‘Ich kann nichts Positives schildern. Das ist ein Unvermögen, weil ich wirklich die Verhältnisse eigentlich sehr schwarz sehe—ich hoffe natürlich auf eine Veränderung.’32 To this degree, the narrative is, then, precariously balanced. In so far as it both overlaps with yet interrogates the perception of a pathologically impaired protagonist, it reflects dialectically back on its own modality, the presumption of a superior viewpoint.33

Jeder Phrase vermag sie den vorherbestimmten Ort zuzuordnen. Nur sie allein kann jegliches Gehörte an die richtige Stelle schieben, wohin es gehört. Sie packt die Unwissenheit dieser blökenden Lämmer in ihre Verachtung und straft die Lämmer damit. Ihr Körper ist ein einziger groβer Kühlschrank, in dem sich die Kunst gut hält.

(p. 23)

It is at such points that the self-reflectivity of Die Klavierspielerin moves beyond the bulk of Jelinek's œuvre: the novel both posits and relativizes itself as merciless pathography, it both validates and disparages itself as art. The upshot is a work that challenges us to reflect on how, within a field of signification that extends from pornographic pathology on the one hand to virtuoso metaphorical sophistication on the other, the text is to be read.


  1. Elfriede Jelinek, Die Klavierspielerin (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1983, 1986). All page references are to the later, paperback edition.

  2. Marlies Janz, Elfriede Jelinek (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1995), p. 52.

  3. Yvonne Spielmann, ‘Ein unerhörtes Sprachlabor. Feministische Aspekte im Werk von Elfriede Jelinek’, in Dossier 2: Elfriede Jelinek, ed. by Kurt Bartsch and Günther A. Höfler (Graz and Vienna: Droschl, 1991), p. 24.

  4. In this sense, Jelinek argues: ‘Ich habe ja immer, wenn man will, realistische Literatur geschrieben, nur ist das eine Art Hyperrealismus oder Überrealismus’ (interview with Riki Winter, in Bartsch, p. 12).

  5. Elfriede Jelinek, Die Liebhaberinnen (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1975). All page references are to this edition.

  6. See, for example, Inge Stephan and Sigrid Weigel, Die verborgene Frau, 6 Beilräge zu einer feministischen Literaturwissenschaft (Berlin: Argument, 1983); Judith P. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990); Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. by Judith P. Butler and Joan W. Scott (New York and London: Routledge, 1992); Judith P. Butler, Bodies that Matter (New York and London: Routledge 1993).

  7. See Margarete Kohlenbach, ‘Montage und Mimikry. Zu Elfriede Jelineks Wolken.Heim, in Bartsch, pp. 12-53. For Janz, the relentless intertexting of Lust constitutes a ‘Tortur’ of the reader (Janz, p. 113), and Die Kinder der Toten (1995), is no less demanding.

  8. On this aspect, see Annegret Mahler-Bungers, Der Trauer auf der Spur. Zu Elfriede Jelineks ‘Die Klavierspielerin’, in Freiburger literaturpsychologische Gespräche, VII Masochismus in der Literatur, ed. by Johannes Cremerius and others (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1988), pp. 80-95; Hedwig Appelt, Die leibhaftige Literatur. Das Phantasma und die Präsenz der Frau in der Schrift (Weinheim and Berlin: Quadriga, 1989); Maria-Regina Kecht, ‘“In the Name of Obedience, Reason, Fear”: Mother—Daughter Relations in W. A. Mitgutsch and E. Jelinek’, German Quarterly, 62 (1989), 357-72.

  9. Die Stimme der Medusa (Dülmen-Hiddingsel: tende, 1987), pp. 193-95.

  10. Rewriting Reality: An Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek (Oxford and Providence, RI: Berg, 1994), pp. 129-40.

  11. See Janz: ‘Einzigartig in Jelineks Oeuvre steht Die Klavierspielerin auch insofern da, als der Roman durchaus psychologische Charaktere kennt’ (p. 71).

  12. See Fiddler, pp. 139-40, also Frank W. Young, ‘“Am Haken des Fleischhauers”. Zum politökonomischen Gehalt der Klavierspielerin’, in Gegen den schönen Schein, ed. by Christa Gürtler (Frankfurt a.M., 1990), pp. 75-80.

  13. See also Janz, whose study views stylistic features throughout in terms of ‘das mythendestruierend-ideologiekritische Verfahren’ (for example, p. 113).

  14. ‘Die böse Mutter. Zur Ästhetik sadomasochistischer Mutter-Tochter-Beziehungen in literarischen Texten aus dem Kontext der Frauenbewegung’, in Mutter und Mütterlichkeit. Wandel und Wirksamkeit einer Phantasie in der deutschen Literatur. Festschrift für Verena Ehrlich-Haefeli, ed. by Irmgard Roebling and Wolfram Mauser (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1996), pp. 347-58).

  15. On Jelinek's playing with language in general, see Yasmin Hoffman, ‘“Hier lacht sich die Sprache selbst aus”. Sprachsatire—Sprachspiele bei Elfriede Jelinek’, in Bartsch, pp. 41-55.

  16. For Schmidt, who also discusses the animal imagery, there is no such freedom (Schmidt, pp. 350-51).

  17. This pattern of circularity, so reminiscent of Kafka, yet critically charged, is the hallmark of Jelinek's work overall. Time and again, her texts turn on figures who strive in vain to escape from the vicious circle of precise cultural settings. See, for example, Die Liebhaberinnen,Die Ausgesperrten,Oh Wildnis, oh Schutz vor ihr, and Lust.

  18. Anja Meyer, Elfriede Jelinek in der Geschlechterpresse (Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann, 1994), p. 45.

  19. See also the motif of ‘Drehscheibe’ and ‘Kreislauf’ in Die Liebhaberinnen, p. 15.

  20. In many ways, the motif of ‘schlagen’, which is so central to the work of Christa Wolf and Ingeborg Bachmann, finds here its most brutal concretization. See also the portrayal of battered children in Die Liebhaberinnen, p. 88.

  21. See also Janz on Sonette an Orpheus as one of the intertexts in Lust (Janz, p. 116).

  22. On various versions of the (male and female) gaze, see Sabine Wilke, ‘“Ich bin eine Frau mit einer männlichen Anmaβung”: Eine Analyse des “bösen Blicks” in Elfriede Jelineks Die Klavierspielerin’, Modern Austrian Literature, 26 (1993), 115-44.

  23. Typically, the ‘Schmalfilme und Video-Kasetten” that are also on sale are out of their economic reach: ‘Der Kunde hat das dazugehörige Gerät nicht bei sich zu Hause stehen’ (p. 51).

  24. The problem is acute in Lust, where the pornographic sections tend to take centre-stage in the reader's mind, yet they constitute only a quarter of the text (see Meyer, p. 119). More generally, the issue also arises in respect of Jelinek's plays, where stage business tends to muffle the import of the spoken text.

  25. Elizabeth Wright, ‘An Aesthetic of Disgust: Elfriede Jelinek's Die Klaverspielerin’, Paragraph, 14 (1991), 184-93.

  26. See Margarete Mitscherlich, Die friedfertige Frau (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1987). She notes that sado-masochistic fantasies are more prevalent in women than in men, and she argues that such fantasies can have an enabling function in so far as they change ‘passiv erlittene Unterdrückung in kontrollierbare Situationen’. Yet they inevitably harbour the danger of turning the subject into a ‘Sklave seiner Phantasien’ (pp. 141-42).

  27. Note, for example, the dialectical link between the imposed claustrophobia of the tram scene (pp. 16-25) and the desire for confined spaces in the Prater scene (pp. 130, 139).

  28. ‘Schon der phallische Anspruch, Kunst machen zu wollen und mich in dieser Weise zum Subjekt zu machen, wird mir verübelt’ (Gürtler, p. 120).

  29. Franz Kafka, Tagebücher 1910-1923 (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer), p. 248.

  30. The motif culminates of course in the ‘Papierfabrik’ of Lust.

  31. Such comments remind us that Jelinek sites her criticism of ideology and language very much in the tradition of Nietzsche and, within the Austrian context, of Karl Kraus.

  32. Quoted in Fiddler, p. 29. Even if interview statements must be treated with caution, it seems to me that time and again one senses that Die Klavierspielerin longs for another story that cannot be written. The notion of ‘Erlösung’ (p. 214) can appear only in fractured form, in Erika's deluded flights beyond facticity into the realm of music and love, into visions of some ultimate significance.

  33. In this sense the text differentiates the common feminist claim that precisely by virtue of her exclusion from the symbolic order, woman perceives and articulates the truth, a view Jelinek at times shares: ‘Die Frau ist das Andere, der Mann ist die Norm. Er hat seinen Ort, und er funktioniert, Ideologien produzierend. Die Frau hat keinen Ort […]. Auf diese Weise ist sie aber dazu verurteilt, die Wahrheit zu sprechen und nicht den schönen Schein. “Die Wahrheit ist dem Menschen zumutbar”, sagt Ingeborg Bachmann’ (quoted in Gürtler, p. 8).

Gregory H. Wolf (review date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Wolf, Gregory H. Review of Das Lebewohl: 3 kl. Dramen, by Elfriede Jelinek. World Literature Today 75, no. 2 (spring 2001): 369.

[In the following review of Das Lebewohl: 3 kl. Dramen, Wolf compliments the social commentary in Jelinek's three dramas, but notes that without a firm understanding of Austrian politics, “one will not catch their poignant political critique.”]

Elfriede Jelinek's latest work, Das Lebewohl, a collection of three short dramas, problematizes the serious political developments and situation in Austria since Jörg Haíder's ascension to a position of prominence in national, indeed European politics. The phenomenon of Haider, the young, charismatic, wealthy governor of the province of Carinthia (Kärnten), has been well documented over the last two years. As the head of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, or FPÖ), he transformed the party from political obscurity to national significance within a matter of fifteen years. In the national election of autumn 1999, the FPÖ garnered 28 percent of the public vote, and in the spring 2000 entered into a coalition government with the liberal Austrian People's Party (Österreichische Volks Partei, or ÖVP).

Haider and his party are characterized by their anti-European, anti-immigrant, xenophobic platform, and ran campaign advertisements such as “Stop der Uberfremdung, “Stop dem Asylmiβbrauch,” and “Gerade jetzt FPÖ” After the European Union passed sanctions against Austria, Haider resigned as chairman of the FPÖ, but he still retains his position as governor of Carinthia. It is within this context of increased political extremism that Elfriede Jelinek, one of Austria's most politically active writers and intellectuals, has published her latest work. At one point, Jelinek threatened to prohibit any of her dramas from being performed while the FPÖ was in national power.

The three short dramas in this volume could be characterized as Ideendramen that are to be read and not performed, but without an understanding of the political developments in Austria, one will not catch their poignant political critique. The first drama, Das Lebewohl, is a long monologue spoken by an unnamed individual. In fact, Haider is not mentioned in the works, and considering his legal successes with libel suits against his critics, Jelinek acted wisely. The monologue is alienating, with aggressive language, often choppy and skewed syntax, and filled with hyperbole and cliché. The speaker exalts himself as a type of a savior, a father-figure, whose concern is the welfare of Austria and Austrians. Like Haider, whose parents were early members of the Nazi Party and who has publicly defended Nazi atrocities, the speaker refers to history with a certain blank deafness: “wir warens nicht, und unsre Väter warens auch nicht.” The drama suggests that the Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the coming to terms with one's past, specifically during the period of the Third Reich, a topic that has dominated public and political discourse in the Federal Republic of Germany during the last two decades, has not yet been addressed in Austria. The speaker acknowledges that he is the reason that other countries suddenly take notice of the small alpine republic which has been ignored hither-to, but does not realize his extremism is the cause of the newfound attention. Finally, the speaker claims victory when he departs from the national stage so that he can control his party from behind the scenes.

In the next short drama, Das Schweigen, Jelinek offers an esthetic counter to the cliché-laden first monologue. An unnamed speaker suggests that (s)he expected more of a public outcry against the developments, and wonders what (s)he can do, if anything. Are words enough, or are more (unarticulated) measures necessary?

The third drama is a modern version of Sleeping Beauty titled Der Tod und das Mädchen Il. The princess, symbolizing the slumbering country of Austria, is suddenly awakened by her magical prince, symbolizing Haider. The princess asks, “Sind Sie überhaupt der, auf den ich warten soll, bis er mich küsst?” The drama affords Jelinek more artistic freedom than do the first two, and she takes full advantage of it to craft witty, forceful, and artful situations. While the princess attempts to gain an answer and to discover the true identity of her prince, he identifies himself as the incarnation of power: “Ich bin die Macht. Wer sich gegen mich stellt, verliert sich selbst.” In the grotesque ending, the prince puts on an animal costume with an exaggerated penis, the princess dresses herself in one with an exaggerated vagina, and they begin to have aggressive sex. The ending suggests the situation that exists in Austrians but one for which some Austrians are themselves responsible and indeed wanted. The slogan “BESUCHEN SIE OSTERREICH, ERST JEIZT RECHT” recalls the slogans during Haider's political campaign and, as wordplay (recht/right), signals the country's political leanings.

Eva Ludwiga Szalay (essay date summer 2001)

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SOURCE: Szalay, Eva Ludwiga. “Of Gender and the Gaze: Constructing the Disease(d) in Elfriede Jelinek's Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen.German Quarterly 74, no. 3 (summer 2001): 237-58.

[In the following essay, Szalay investigates the influence of the theories of French philosopher Michel Foucault on Jelinek's Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen.]

Weiβt du, einer sagt, die Geschichte beruhe in letzter Instanz auf dem Körper des Menschen.1

In staging what might be called the symbolically or metaphorically diseased condition of modern women, Elfriede Jelinek's Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen sets out to radically deconstruct the integral body, identity, and language. In the above quote, one of the play's main figures alludes to Foucault's compelling notion that history ultimately rests on the human body. That Jelinek's play would allude to Foucault is hardly surprising, since his analytics of power and processes of subjection offer feminist poststructuralists a useful framework for conceptualizing the body as site of political struggle. In “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Clinic, and The History of Sexuality (volume 1), Foucault posits the body as a locus upon which the rules, hierarchies, and metaphysical commitments of society are inscribed and reinforced.2 Although Foucault's influence has been duly noted in a few readings of this play, these references are brief and invariably tangential to a different interpretative focus.3 The Austrian playwright does acknowledge several other sources in her credits, yet Foucault is never mentioned by name.4 Nevertheless, it is impossible to avoid hearing unmistakable echoes of his account of power relations and subjection in Jelinek's dramatic enactment of sickness/disease-or-modern women. Indeed, both Jelinek's and Foucault's focus on the power of perception, its force in subjection, and their attention to the creation of matter in (medical) discourses, specifically, to the constitution of bodies as illness at the microlevel, merit exploration. How Jelinek and Foucault—in striking convergences—represent the body and how it functions as metaphor for cultural and social crises presents one of the significant sites in contemporary critical work where the interactions of representation and power are made visible. Yet, surprisingly, despite the Foucauldian resonance throughout the play, scholarship on Krankheit has not established substantial connections between this play and Foucault's influence, nor has this commentary drawn on Foucauldian thinking in any extensive and meaningful way to examine power relations. Only a few studies deal explicitly with sexuality and power (Höfler), language and power (Luscher), and politics and power (Wigmore) in Krankheit.

The body's centrality for the analyses of subjection both in Jelinek's Krankheit and in Foucault is a function of its role in constituting a central tool through which post-structuralists launch their strike on classical thought and its linchpin, the rational subject or cogito. Through the body post-structuralism deconstructs the Cartesian body/mind opposition, undermining Western civilization's prioritization of rational thought, spirit, and objectivity over emotions, passions, needs, and subjectivity. For an author like Jelinek whose œuvre disrupts common sense beliefs and practices and rigorously detaches itself from the assumption that there are essences to uncover, Foucault is useful for assessing whether it is strategically sound to speak of feminine subjectivity as “ill” or “diseased,” and for considering the consequences and implications such a proposition might hold for an examination of gender relations. Though The Birth of the Clinic concentrates on particular historical conjunctures, Foucault's formations nonetheless provide analytic paradigms of wider applicability to other eras and contexts: The Birth of the Clinic is about seeing and naming human disease in the eighteenth century—and, if modern woman is, metaphorically speaking or symbolically, ill or disease(d), then reading Foucault and Krankheit in conjunction with one another promises insight into the reasons for which the self-evident—whether this applies to sexed bodies or to sick bodies—appears as “the given.”5 By making sense of the “Ich bin krank, daher bin ich”-utterance by Carmilla (K [Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen] 44) from perspectives articulated in The Birth of the Clinic, The History of Sexuality (vol. 1), and from inquiries into discursive formations, the image construction of “sickness or modern women” assumes a new meaning in a way that problematizes the more essentializing dimensions of this work and its interpretation. In the analysis of key scenes, I contend that we have much to gain by allowing a certain paradox in Jelinek's parodic method to obtain, namely, that Krankheit not only deconstructs, but also partially reconstructs the original Foucauldian thought through its self-reflexive intertextuality. I suggest, specifically, that the parody Jelinek employs in referencing Foucault draws on the Greek paròdia, meaning “counter-song,” whereby the critical distance to the original (Foucault) engages far more in a respectful echo and considerably less in belittling mockery (as it has been read to date) to create a substantially deeper level of social critique.

The more reflexive, inquiry-oriented perspective I offer attends a general turn in more recent feminist scholarship and follows from a period of critical attention focused on feminine subjectivity that has made rather generalizing assumptions about Jelinek's position on power as Marxist.6 A consequence of this assumption is that gender relations in this author's œuvre, with power repressing, blocking, concealing, and with male subjects dominating and oppressing female subjects. Though this approach has had considerable influence in Jelinek's reception, it strikes me as inadequate and dangerously one-sided. One of the reasons we have as yet failed to adequately consider the essentialistic propositions of power/gender relations in Krankheit is that the scholarship has neglected to account for the play's more differentiating take on power and the tensions by which this representation is informed, tensions which point to the constraining, repressive force of power, as well as to its productive, creative aspect. Therefore, in addition to pointing to the affinities of Krankheit with Foucauldian positions, my analysis seeks to move beyond the strictures that have influenced various readings of this drama to date and interpretations that have contained or recuperated elements of the narrative's radical critique and ignored the unrelenting pessimism that imbues this work as well as the play's refusal to resolve the disturbing contradictions. The play's pessimism shares much with Foucault's deep, abiding skepticism in the way it endorses a view of the contemporary era that suggests an ever-increasing refinement in processes of domination, a continuity of power plays leading, to speak with Adorno, from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.7 But where the Frankfurt School critics would hold out hope for the emergence of a few autonomous individuals within the totally administered society, the drama's positioning much more closely approximates Foucault's profound pessimism in the refutation of modern belief in the free, agential subject.

Foucault's critique of essentialist conceptions of sexuality assists in examining the paradoxical notion upon which Jelinek's drama rests: whereas the play's approach to the body is materialist and insists on confrontation with the real oppression of women and the domination of women's biological bodies, its treatment of embodiment is also anti-essentialist in that it seeks to disabuse its audience of the notion that women and men constitute natural anatomical categories. A differentiating conceptualization of power that accounts for its exercise at the microlevel—that is, at local, individual points—without enabling some bodies to stand external to power by virtue of a raw anatomical core, can be useful in making more explicit the irreducible residue of essentialism informing Jelinek's drama. It can, further, serve as a means for exploring this dramatic representation of the contemporary institutions and practices that appear as given and natural, but are, in fact, contingent constructs of power and domination.

That Jelinek's drama strives to resist prevailing dramatic-performative conventions is beyond contention.8 However, the degree to which her work also participates, uncritically at times, in all-too-familiar image constructions even while it aspires to radically subvert the representational tradition, is an issue that has been raised by some commentators. Dagmar Lorenz's reading of works prior to Krankheit, for example, finds Jelinek's humorous attacks affirmative of the hierarchical structures of Western society and not a fundamental revision of ideology.9 Beatrice Hanssen, who focuses on Jelinek's engagement with violence and (anti-)pornography, asserts that Jelinek's “writings appear to be informed by seemingly conflicting intentions” and concludes that the author's “appropriation of representational violence may seem too assured of its critical, even redemptive, power.”10 Luscher, in a similar vein, has pointed out the difficulty in separating the satirical enunciation of preexisting myth from the creation of counter-myth in Krankheit.11 The point they make, implicitly or explicitly, is that Krankheit appears too self-assured for its critique to be understood by its audience: Krankheit depends upon a highly sophisticated appreciation of the diverse intertexts that open up the more complex, at times antithetical readings available to this parodic-satiric text. Like those critics, I shall call our attention to a related issue here, but rather than focus primarily on an analysis of the drama's critical potential or exclusively on the text's reappropriation of specific patriarchal discourses and images (e.g., porn, fascism, sado-masochism), I shall address more generally the play's treatment of power in relation to subjectification and the medico-scientific discourses.

A useful starting point for the analysis of power's inscription on the body is the scene in Krankheit in which the four main figures—Carmilla, Emily, Dr. Benno Hundekoffer and Dr. Heidkliff—converge in Dr. Heidkliff's medical practice, depicted in the set description:

Die Bühne ist zweigeteilt, und zwar so, daβ ein Teil in den anderen übergeht. Links: Eine Art Arztpraxis mit einem Stuhl, der eine Mischung aus Zahnarztund Gynäkologenstuhl darstellt. Dazu ein Tisch, auf dem ein Sortiment Blutkonserven steht. Die Praxis geht rechts in eine wilde Heidelandschaft mit Felsblöcken über. In der Ferne Hügel, Wasser etc. Auf kleinen Bühnen kann die Landschaft durch ein Kinderplanschbecken dargestellt werden.

(K 6)

This dramatic staging, which frames a significant part of the play's action, merits close attention since the scenes set in the Arztpraxis provide much of the explicit material for the exploration of power's operation in gender relations. The avant-garde staging of the scenes has thus far been accorded attention primarily for the manner in which the play draws on a variety of dramatic traditions, including the popular horror genre of the Grand Guignol spectacle, the allegorical mode of the Surrealist-derived Theater of the Absurd, and the Artaudian “Theater of Cruelty.”12 What has been overlooked to date is how the staging also sets up a focus on the naming, visualization, and spatialization of disease in relation to the (gendered) subject. The conscious use in the set and set description of the combination dentist's-gynecological chair and the Arztpraxis setting implies a principle of selection that indicates a specific designated significance, a meaning that becomes clearer as the figures assume their positions and perform their functions. In limiting character description to the roles that define these figures on the basis of their social position and sexual identity (nurse, lesbian, housewife, writer, doctor, tax consultant), the play foregrounds to some extent the economic determinism inhering in these power relations, and, far more subtly, the knowledge/power differential. Dr. Heidkliff, gynecologist and dentist, is introduced as nurse/writer Emily's fiancé; Dr. Benno Hundekoffer, a tax consultant, is Carmilla's husband. The bonds of engagement and marriage are commodified, determined by financial exigencies, and the partnership of man and wife is—as are all familial relations—seemingly prostituted to the demands of contemporary Austrian consumer society. From a less transparent Foucauldian perspective, these modern figures are also the subjects of normalization, whereby specific technologies, or knowledges, are directed at producing a thoroughly normed subject: healthy, well-functioning, docile. By representing male characters not only of superior socio-economic status, but also in a differential relation to knowledge/power (Dr. Heidkliff—nurse Emily; tax consultant Dr. Hundekoffer—housewife Carmilla), an imbalance more complex than that of the (male) dominator over the dominated (female) becomes manifest.

Much as these figures are devoid of traditional, coherent psychological character development and lack any real history or substantive motivational force, so too does their language evince little, if any, development and progression. In my view, this is suggestive of a Foucauldian take—in its fragmentary, disruptive nature—on power's instantiation of subjects. Utterances jump about in seemingly random association in rambling dialogues, forming a textual construct of sentences and parodic imitations of patriarchal language, making it difficult to establish a narrative continuum.13 This appears underscored in what one critic views as the consistent disjunction between words (verbal signs) and action throughout the play,14 a disjunction I find not nearly as complete or manifest, particularly since the play's parodic-satiric effect often also requires the meaningful association of speech and action to make its point. Although these figures derive their inspiration from the Theater of the Absurd, the male figures are often interpreted differently from their female counterparts, figures that are generally treated both more sympathetically and unequivocally as expressing the drama's social critique. This is not to say that the female and male figures have been viewed only in positive and negative, black and white terms, but to emphasize that their relative complexity, within the frame of their construction as “Sprachflächen” and “Sprachschablonen,”15 has been overlooked by much of the scholarship on Krankheit. Indeed, the pronouncements of the male figures articulate a kind of one-foot-in-the asylum style of speech, but their parroting back an utterance is not the work of mindless fools. According to critics, Heidkliff derives his name from Emily Brontë's Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff's monomania (clinically, a form of mental illness) imbues him with pariah status and has undoubtedly occasioned critics to dismiss Heidkliff's utterances as mindless babble.16 A noteworthy aspect of this condition, often forgotten or ignored, is that monomaniacs can reason logically and coherently and, in some instances, display the highest intellectual powers (Tytler). Careful consideration of Jelinek's ingenious use of such intertexts would render more nuanced and balanced interpretations of Heidkliff (and Hundekoffer). I will show how this form of language has been implicated in the general tendency among critics to disregard Heidkliff and Hundekoffer's utterances, to dismiss their talk as babble, pure rubbish. Indeed, the humorous, asylum-like aspect of the satire produced by these two figures appears to belie the drama's scathing critique of contemporary Austrian gender and social relations.17 Ultimately, the schematic quality of the main figures makes them representative of dimensions of the human condition, whereby their stereotypical qualities serve to generalize this particular configuration for the broader postwar Austrian society. This satire of the darkest sort—even in its unevenness—succeeds precisely because it points its audience to issues beyond the narrative that include the subjection of individuals in the production of “truths” and the emergence of disease and the sick patient in discursive regimes.

The scene unfolding in the Arztpraxis—with Dr. Heidkliff initially absent—shows Carmilla first being “invited” by her husband to assume a comfortable position in the upholstered chair (“Vorerst darfst du dich sicher ohne seine Erlaubnis in diesen netten gepolsterten Stuhl setzen” [K 13]), and then getting shackled with increasing force into the gynecological chair (“Benno fesselt sie immer fester an den Stuhl” [K 14]). In preceding Act I's fifth scene in which Emily positions herself, also as patient, in the dentist's-gynecological chair, this spectacle from scene two has vital implications for how we are to make sense of power's operation in gender relations. To Emily I shall return later. First, I want to point out that several critics have used this scene with Carmilla and Benno to draw attention to the violence perpetrated against woman,18 and to assert that “women are present always as objects of abuse but never as subjects creating themselves or their world,”19 i.e., as victims.20 In my view, this focus on the depiction of the oppression of women is influenced by misreading the quote from Derridean critic Eva Meyer, which frames the play:

In chinesischen Legenden steht geschrieben, daβ groβe Meister in ihre Bilder hineingingen und verschwunden sind. Die Frau ist kein groβer Meister. Deshalb wird ihr Verschwinden nie vollkommen sein. Sie taucht wieder auf, beschäftigt wie sie ist, mit dem Verschwinden.

(K 5)

Often taken as the programmatic beginning of the drama, literal readings of Meyer's epigraph impede consideration of what I perceive to be a more differentiated dramatic representation, and frustrate appreciation of the play's more radical critique with respect to the subjectification of female and male subjects.21 The passage's prominent placement has been used to validate a type of essentializing analysis (“Die Frau ist kein groβer Meister”) that refuses an examination of power to consider how concepts like femininity, masculinity, and sexuality, for example, are understood in particular cultural contexts. Furthermore, this treatment invokes what one critic of essentialist feminism terms the “great animating myth,” namely that a poor man (class) always and everywhere has it better than a rich woman.22 This approach deflects attention from the point that meanings ascribed to femininity (masculinity, sexuality) vary significantly along the lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and sexual orientation, among other axes (Fuss). Moreover, Jelinek's references to Meyer's epigraph when discussing this drama and her œuvre in interviews have enabled, and have likely encouraged, a reading of the text that “personalizes” the message for women as it supports their viewing themselves as victims, made ill by a male system.23 We will see this most clearly at those points where Krankheit—despite its generally rigorous assault on “truths” awaiting revelation—implies that knowledge of the female condition (as diseased/sick/ill) was actually “discovered.” The play also suggests in places that women always and everywhere have been constituted as ill/sick/diseased by man-made constructions of the female/feminine, ignoring momentarily that this notion is as much a product of distinct sociohistorical factors as the search itself that lays such evidence bare. Although a few readings acknowledge that Jelinek's drama exposes unequal gender relations, that men and women are subjected to the full force of Jelinek's attack,24 that both sexes are “victims of ideology in the play,”25 the overwhelming focus, nevertheless, has remained on the female figures, with the consequence that consideration of masculine subjectivity is rendered parenthetical, as a questionable “inclusion” in which the masculine functions as an expendable afterthought. Lanyon's reading presents a typical example: “[t]he play Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen engages with social and cultural constructions of female (and male) subjectivity […].”26

By emphasizing authorial intent commentators elevate Jelinek to the vaunted position of the drama's authoritative interpreter and meaning maker. As Ingeborg Hoesterey points out, due in part to the dialogicity of our media culture, the autobiographical presence of the interviewed author has permitted structuring of her works' reception, a dynamic that arises after the publication of Lust in 1989.27 I think a similar case can be made for Krankheit's reception, particularly since the drama was “exiled” on the grounds of its radicality to German stages in Bonn, Hamburg, and Koblenz prior to its performance in Austria in 1990. The influence of the author on her works' reception has been well documented: Konstanz Fliedl, for example, notes that Jelinek's approval of critic Michael Scharang's commentary on Lust legitimizes this particular mode of reading.28

The many implications of this approach need not be revisited in detail, suffice it to say that the reliance on the “design” or “intention” of the author is problematic. For one, studies impelled by feminist and Left-intellectuals' hopes that at some point Jelinek will receive the recognition she deserves, and those who ally the oppressed figures in Krankheit with the author's personal message to women, are not inclined to consider the play as a site of ideological struggle in which the female figures play highly ambivalent roles. The elevation of Jelinek to the status of one of the premier avantgarde postmodern authors, internationally celebrated in the main by feminists and left-wing intellectuals as Austria's literary exponent of the ethical; anti-fascist line, has not likely enhanced critical propensity to make sense of Krankheit in the manner I advocate here. Secondly, this author-intent driven interpretive mode detracts much from the play's more radical, culturally-critical message and its most pessimistic implications. The trouble, specifically, with such interpretations is their tendency to deflect from the examination of processes of subjectification from which there is no liberation or escape, a critique implied and explicit in this drama.29 These readings overlook a vital dimension of Jelinek's social analysis that I make more explicit by drawing on Foucault's studies of modern medicine and sexuality in the analysis of individual scenes and performative events.

That the Arztpraxis scene in particular is perceived to represent the violence of men and medicine against women derives its force in part from Benno's behavior vis-à-vis Carmilla, and in part from Heidkliff's “doctoring.” Upon entering the Arztpraxis, Benno is seen as the active perpetrator, as he “zwingt seine Frau in den Gynä-Stuhl, zwingt ihr die Beine fröhlich auseinander, befestigt sie in den Steigbügeln […]. Benno fesselt sie immer fester an den Stuhl, Carmilla kämpft gegen die Fesseln” (K 14). In decontextualizing this particular action by focusing exclusively on Benno's use of force and on Carmilla's inability to resist Benno's efforts, these actions can readily be reduced to a parodic act of violent male aggression. Although Luscher, like other critics in this vein, acknowledges the aesthetic-distancing influences of the Artaudian “Theater of Cruelty” in framing her interpretation of this scene, she lapses into a literal reading of the performance's mimetic intent, exemplified by her assertions that “the message communicated by the scene relies on […] the meaning of Carmilla's posture which, in its obvious reference to bondage and submission, is part of the discourse of pornography.”30 Luscher makes valuable points, but her approach neglects the text's multivalence and indeterminacy in representing power relations.

Readings that ignore the productive quality of power overlook, furthermore, that Carmilla has been conveyed to Dr. Heidkliff's gynecological practice by her husband (“Der Steuerberater Dr. Benno Hundekoffer kommt herein. Er führt liebevoll seine Frau Carmilla mit sich” [K 12]), and disregard, too, Carmilla's investment in the capacities of mother, caregiver, and consuming citizen, roles for which Carmilla manifests explicit ambition. Carmilla has, in fact, come to the practice in the first place in her role as productive Austrian citizen, in order to deliver her sixth child. Her first utterances, once she occupies the gynecological chair, relate her concerns about her having perhaps forgotten to turn off the gas at home and the high energy costs involved in using light, a scene offering—on one level—a parodic look at the sadistic stranglehold consumerism exerts. As a consumer of material goods and products, and as producer of “products” (children), Carmilla is clearly complicit in upholding the status quo. That Carmilla “voluntarily”31 goes to the Arztpraxis by no overt coercion also suggests that she has internalized messages about the “good mother,” compelled by a variety of coherent discourses the drama plays on to become an active participant in scientific practices, notably the medicalization of motherhood.32 The subject position and identity of contemporary mothering depends on a series of coherences implied by the human chain links of children that here bind Dr. Benno Hundekoffer and his wife Carmilla (“An dem Paar hängt eine Menschenkette dran […].” [K 12]), including: the female anatomy; the desire, propensity, and ability to bear and raise children; the preference for reproduction in a secure heterosexual setting; a nurturant orientation; and the predilection for domestic issues.33 This scene continually invokes the puissant force of the structural and ideological pressures exerted in producing the “good mother” and is expressed in the thinking and speech of the main figures.34 That Carmilla's willingness to go the practice in the first place, and that her influence on the health of her future child is determined by her socio-economic circumstances (social class, place of residence, level of education) are much more implied here does not detract in the least from what is clearly a staging of a power network in which subtle constraints and coercions figure prominently in these characters' subjectification. Furthermore, the play unambiguously underscores Carmilla's implication in the exploitation of her husband's economic productivity, as Benno Hundekoffer declares in one of the play's decidedly less ironic passages: “Ihr ehrgeizigen Frauen! Woher kommt dieser Druck, den ihr auf eure Männer auszuüben versteht? Warum wollt ihr uns immer in die gesellschaftliche Höhe hinaufgestellt wissen? […]. Ich bin Steuerberater. Dorthin hast du mich gestellt, damit du dich neben mich stellen konntest. Geld muss arbeiten. Der Mensch auch” (K 16). Here and in other passages, the play exposes Carmilla's investment in motherhood and the Hausfrau existence that typifies a postwar Austrian society in its material pursuits and conformity with dominant images of status and success. Just as Carmilla produces children, not out of a sense of personal fulfillment or love, but to solidify and enhance her social status, so too does she compel her husband to perform and produce. These aspects here, as well as the parodically violent acts Carmilla and Emily perpetrate later throughout the play (for example, as lesbian vampires, biting the throats of the Hundekoffer children; Carmilla's Medea-like murder and devouring of her children), point more to an active negotiation of Foucault's “fine meshes of the web of power” (Power/Knowledge 116) than to woman's putative inability to exist and create meaning beyond the male constructed images of femininity.

There is, undoubtedly, something to the notion that Jelinek's drama implies the force of violence and oppression in the play's construction in places, at least, of passive, victimized female subjects. Like works of art (famous paintings), these female figures are fashioned into image-objects (Emily: “Ich spreche in der Kunst. Ich bin international. Ich bin abstrakt,” [K 21]), who have all but completely disappeared into the patriarchal myths constructed to contain them (Emily: “Reine Natur bin ich, erinnere daher oft an Kunst” [K 8]). Even within the explicitly parodic framing, relations between the sexes appear at points as aggressive and violent in nature, suggesting an emphasis on these behaviors' roots in sexuality. Sexuality at its core appears so thoroughly saturated with aggression, that the male (body) seems fashioned into a weapon or recalls an instinctive creature (dog), a depiction leaving little room for the consideration of social influences. Similarly, the female body is characterized tendentiously at points as a physiological given: woman's behaviors are shown to relate to this given in that the female's natural submissiveness in the sexual act is both the effect of her biology and an artifact culturally co-opted by society as “natural.” This constitutes a move that does little in Krankheit to neutralize, much less to counter, female passivity and woman's submissive masochism as pathological.35 In these instances, Jelinek's play produces Carmilla as a passive cipher of power, unable to escape the ineluctable flow of discipline and normalization, and consequently incapable of subversive activity. Yet, given the broader context of the drama's performances of power, which includes male subjectification and the popular feminist fiction of the lesbian vampire, it seems disingenuous to assert, as have several critics,36 that only the female protagonists are so caught up in the myths propagated by society that they are able to envision themselves only within the narrowly circumscribed parameters of the man-made and art-like construction of woman in iconography.

Foucault's analysis of processes of “subjection” (assujettissement) in Discipline and Punish illustrates how power relations permeate interpersonal relations and target all subjects, as power circulates in the social body and emanates from every point in the social field.37 Together with The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault's later “interpretive analytics”38 suggest how the social practices and institutions critiqued in Krankheit instantiate the bodies of subjects by means of the medicine of pathology and its discourses. Even assessments that acknowledge the drama's critical engagement with male and female subjectivities fail to delineate how men and women are complicit in securing and upholding dominant power relations.39 Clearly, some measure of responsibility needs to be shared by those critics who have failed to maintain the requisite critical distance from their subject, and have more consistently cast the relationship of the genders in regressive and superficial terms: in the language of male perpetrators and female victims.40 As a consequence of this at times implicit valorization of the oppressed, victimized female subject, Carmilla and Emily attain paradigmatic status as the oppressed: Carmilla as mother-figure and as Emily's marginalized lesbian-vampire lover; and Emily as writer-vampire, whose “in-between” status has been read as a “positive” force,41 and whose feminist consciousness appears developed sufficiently enough for her to enlist Carmilla in joining forces “against women's entrapment in a male system.”42 Such readings tend to highlight the “subversive potential” of the defiant female vampire, often employing a feminist perspective that focusses—sometimes to the point of denying the pessimism in Jelinek's work—on empowerment, efficacy, and agency. While a great deal more critical commentary by comparison has addressed how these female figures are subjugated and compelled to signify motherhood and the oppressed through the discourses of “nature,” “woman,” and “femininity,” we would do well to consider how the male figures are constituted in the discursive practices that structure the examination of the sick patient: the “medical look” (le regard médical) or “gaze” (le regard).43

Before I explore in further detail the play's performance of subjectification by means of the clinical-medical discourses, it will be necessary to examine how Jelinek's drama constructs the gaze, not merely, as some would have it, as instrument and proof positive of male oppression of females, but as instrument of production in processes of subjectification. Interpretations of the Arztpraxis-scenes of Act I often see in Heidkliff's patriarchal “male gaze” the gaze that projects its fantasies and myths onto the female figure. In this reading, women are both looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they connote that certain to be looked-at-ness.44 This reading perceives in the male's dominating perspective the play's critique of women's oppression. Consequently, the emphasis is consistently on Heidkliff's acting upon, on the imposition of his will as a central moment in the staging of woman's oppression.

As doctor, gynecologist and dentist, Heidkliff is, in fact, more so invested with the signifying processes that make him as “doctor” the point of articulation of medicine's scientific institutional discourses, an aspect to which the play alludes and explicitly refers on several occasions: Heidkliff: “Jetzt bin ich Beruf. Ganz in weiβ […]. Er setzt sich entschlossen auf einen Hocker zwischen Carmillas Beinen. Der Ehemann kommt sofort neugierig herbei, schaut in den Unterleib” (K 25). On an almost imperceptible level the varied elements of the doctor's practice underscore the making of Heidkliff-the-doctor and the production of modern medicine: the Blutkonserven; the properly elevated examination chair itself, a hybrid dentist's-gynecological chair (Gynä-Stuhl); and the chair's gynecological stirrups. The Arztpraxis subtly foregrounds the accumulated knowledge of the past: the blood containers and the chair itself—in its design to maximize a probing, atomizing, and detailing vision—enhance the efficiency and productivity of the medical gaze.45 To interpret Heidkliff reductively, only as male oppressor, and not more expressly as bearer of the medical-scientific gaze, is to overlook that the gaze of this doctor-figure is productive of a certain subject, a subject produced by a certain “labour in thought” that has been historically required.46 Indeed, to read Dr. Heidkliff as primarily or exclusively the object of the play's attack on patriarchy, males, and the male medical establishment, is to ignore that the boundlessly self-absorbed, “pretentious,” and “utterly trivial” discourse of the doctor is not godlike merely in its parodic function, which is to deride the omniscience and omnipotence of science.47 Rather, this inflated medico-scientific discourse is significant for the drama's critique of processes of subjectification through this very discursive regime. Heidkliff's medical-discourse is part of what differentiates doctors from mere mortals, for whom all the old rules hold; it is unquestionably neither a discourse Heidkliff has created, one of which he is Master, nor is it one turning on the fact that some give commands and others obey. As the drama ingeniously insinuates, the medical discourse—and the manner in which Heidkliff (in places, together with Hundekoffer) articulates it—enables the religious and moral dogma about sexuality “to be” in the first place, as through this discourse, in godlike fashion, doctors are empowered to bridge moral and technological obstacles, that is, to “see” what mere mortals cannot. In a more profound sense, then, Heidkliff is made, produced and shaped by this discourse more than he can possibly “voluntarily” deploy it to elevate himself.

To understand this gaze, then, not simply as a patriarchal or male gaze, but as a clinical gaze, is vital to an appreciation of Jelinek's staging of the diseased state that afflicts modern women, for it is through Foucault that we can understand the technology of control in the form of medicine and the medical exam in fabricating modern individuality as one of its products. It is to this gaze's role in the constitution of subjectivity that I now direct our attention. To deepen appreciation for the nuances in the critical force of Heidkliff's performance of the medical gaze and the manner in which the drama exploits Foucauldian insights, I will briefly contextualize the gaze's significance for the drama's staging. This clinical gaze is the look Foucault perceives to emerge in the writings of French pathologist Marie Francois Xavier Bichat (1771-1802), the gaze that would become definitive for modern medicine (The Clinic, esp. 124-48). The era Foucault refers to as “the age of Bichat” witnessed the emergence of a new mechanism of power and subjection, possessed of highly specific procedural techniques and radically different apparatuses. Bichat's exhortation to “open a few corpses” ushers in a new era, for prior to Bichat's. “Treatise on Membranes” (in Anatomie Générale, 1801-1802) and other histories by French physicians (including Laennec, Corvisart, Cabanis, Pinel, and Broussais), diseases were not conceptualized in terms of anatomical origin. The previous focus had centered on visible surfaces and symptoms, but with the opening of bodies and the auscultation of the hidden noises of disease in cadavers, specifically, with the beginnings of the eighteenth-century post-mortem exam, the clinic arises as an examining apparatus, a site of production of a certain kind of knowledge, with its own mode of perception and discourse. Thus, the older form of medicine gives way to a more penetrating gaze into the internal organic landscape, effecting in new ways the continued search for an “invisible visibility” (The Clinic 165).48

As is characteristic of Foucault's complexity, his study of modern medicine, in answering certain questions, raises contradictions that lend even deeper irony to Jelinek's staging of the diseased state of female subjectivity. In The Birth of the Clinic's exploration of the forces that dictate what a doctor sees and does not see in his examination when he looks at a patient, a dichotomization of patient and disease begins to take shape:

Paradoxically, in relation to that which he is suffering from, the patient is only an external fact; the medical reading must take him into account only to place him in parentheses. Of course, the doctor must know the “internal structure of our bodies” (Clifton 213); but only in order to subtract it, and to free to the doctor's gaze “the nature and combination of symptoms, crises, and other circumstances that accompany diseases” (213). It is not the pathological that functions, in relation to life, as a counter-nature, but the patient in relation to the disease itself […]. Hence the strange character of the medical gaze; it is caught up in an endless reciprocity.


In order to render disease visible, the medical gaze must factor out the subject with illness: seeing the patient as an embodied subject emerges not only as inconsequential but as counterproductive. If Heidkliff can be said to bear the special gaze, le regard médical, then this backgrounded material suggests the extent to which the experts (doctors) are unequivocally subjectified in the discourses of medicine and caught up in the gaze's “endless reciprocity,” a reciprocity that has the disease and the gaze at its center, and its subjects (doctor and patient) the objectives of this control. It is a degree of irony that lends considerable depth to Jelinek's production of “sickness or modern women,” but that finds little exploitation of its most radical implications. One significant implication of these Foucauldian insights for the staging of Krankheit is the suggestion here that the gaze and its discourses, and not the male doctor himself, objectify. It is an aspect that remains exploited, but generally in a more essentializing manner. Presumably, a female “made” doctor in these regimes of medical knowledge/power/discourses would also assume le regard médical and proceed to objectify her patients. The problem posed in this dramatic enactment is that there are only female patients and male doctors.

In several other ways, nevertheless, Jelinek's drama exploits this deployment and placement of female and male bodies characteristic of the modern era, possible only after Bichat “opens up a few corpses.” As I noted, according to The Birth of the Clinic, the gaze produces individuality, uniqueness, and particularity. Further, if, as a specialized mode of perception, the gaze only “sees” what is obvious, then, for what is only obvious to become visible or significant in the first place, a certain “labour in thought”—the labor-intensive fabrication of clinical medicine itself—has been historically required. This very process of fabrication and of subjectification in clinical medicine is brought into play in Act II when Benno asks: “Wo, meinst du, Heidkliff, war das Geschlecht, bevor man darüber gesprochen hat?” Heidkliff responds, “Die Klinik ist geboren. Und das Geschlecht ist dann auch irgendwann einmal geboren” (K 53). As is characteristic of the play's pastiche and (de)montage, phrases drawing on intertexts like The Birth of the Clinic and The History of Sexuality (vol. 1) are placed into a new context, altered to offer new meanings, and through ironic juxtaposition produce that knowing amusement in the audience. Although the dialogue between Hundekoffer and Heidkliff appears through this shift and apparently offhanded treatment as little more than a parodic gesture—as it has often been read—designed to belittle and mock, the subject of ridicule here is neither Foucault nor his analyses of the phenomenon of power.49 Though parody's target may usually be the creator of the original work or its style, Heidkliff and Hundekoffer's echoic mention of Foucauldian notions requires this approximation to the original source so that its ironic twist functions. The doctors, in their casual, imprecise thinking (“Und das Geschlecht ist dann auch irgendwann einmal geboren”) seem unaware of the implications of these significant thoughts, whereby Heidkliff's metonymy “das Geschlecht” can be subsumed into the canon of standard metonymy, a metonymy of content: as crown for monarch, so “das Geschlecht” for woman/(modern) women. The drama's satirical presentation of the male figure as split, sometimes the wise, godlike master and other times the ignotus, enhances the critical force of this scene, which is to foreground the constructed nature of sex/sexuality and, by extension, of woman's construction as sex. The ironic-parodic positioning of Heidkliff and Hundekoffer involves a role-play of pretense, in which these figures appear as ignorant and injudicious as complete fools, but the audience sees through this ploy, and assumes a self-reflexive position to fully appreciate the multivalent utterances.

By means of Heidkliff's reference to “the clinic” in this exchange, the play alludes most apparently to The Birth of the Clinic. According to this analysis, the medical look (or gaze) and the words or pictures used to name or represent what is seen (discourse) were altered by 18th century morbid anatomists who made statements about death in their considerations of disease. In that century medicine took a detour through death in the form of pathological anatomy (The Clinic 124-48), in the sense that the code of knowledge changed what could be seen and determined the path of medicine for centuries to come. But what was historically a detour through death via pathological anatomy is recast in Krankheit as a highly charged logic of inversion that derives in part from Nietzsche's technique of reversal.50 This inversion builds upon a chain of replacements whereby vision (produces) illness/disease (which stands in for) modern women. The drama's central meanings pivot upon precisely this chain. In this sequence, the medical gaze (le regard médical) produces illness, and here “illness,” “sickness” and/or “disease” can be metonymically, metaphorically substituted with, or symbolic for, modern women. As Heidkliff and Benno's exchange relates, the clinic's birth and the birth (or production) of sex are intimately intertwined, particularly insofar as the clinic's gaze creates “disease,” which, according to Krankheit,is sickness or modern women. This investment of medical discourse in making the body diseased appears in the scene where the doctors rummage through Carmilla's “dead” body. It also surfaces in the doctors' seemingly nonsensical pronouncements, for example, when Heidkliff proclaims: “Sie bieten einen köstlichen Anblick dem, der in ihnen zu lesen versteht. Ich. Sie duldén Raketen! Sie sind Geschlecht” (K 22). In the play's enactment the patient Carmilla represents women, who, categorically, as defined by their very sex, are “disease(d)”—countering to some degree the constructed quality of disease and the patient, but also suggesting how the medico-scientific discourse lends concepts and ideas an essence of timelessness, universality, and a self-evident foundation. That Heidkliff and Hundekoffer rummage through Carmilla's “dead” body after her “death” in childbirth (she is soon thereafter reanimated by Emily's vampire bite) serves as compelling insinuation of Foucault's analysis of pathology and of pathology's contributions to modern medicine. The play parodies this analytic insight by having the doctors extract visual props and performance elements from Carmilla's body, including inflatable toys and objects, suggesting that the establishment of pathology or a pathological condition involved little or no science, inasmuch as women were de facto always already disease itself (an essentializing proposition indeed!). Thus, as the play mockingly insinuates, medicine could dispense with the scientific establishment of that “fact.”

The somewhat more oblique reference in this exchange between the doctors (“Die Klinik ist geboren”) is to the theoretical orientation underpinning The Birth of the Clinic, namely, the archaeological method of identifying the conditions for the possibility of knowledge. The clinic's “being born” alludes to power's operation in constituting the materiality of the subject, and its operation in the principle which simultaneously forms and regulates the subject of subjectification. In The Birth of the Clinic Foucault refers not only to the materiality of the clinic patient's body, but also to the materiality of the clinic itself. This materiality is established in the clinic's creation as a vector and instrument of power (Discipline 30). It is in the product of his genealogical method, the first volume of The History of Sexuality and not The Birth of the Clinic, that Foucault explores the social mechanisms that create “sex.” In a fundamental inversion, a counterintuitive reversal much like those we find characterizing Jelinek's techniques of “Umkehrung” and “Ver-kehrung,” Foucault claims that instead of assuming that human sexuality derives from a pre-given biological “sex,” sexuality (in the sense of a network of power and regulatory regimes) should be construed as operating primarily on bodies by investing bodies with the category of sex. In other words, sexuality makes bodies into the bearers of a principle of identity: sex.51 That these insights are a function of distinctive historical processes that involved the creation (or birth) of disease by means of le regard (the gaze) adds substantial force to the drama's de-construction, to the un-making of self-evident contents and to the destruction of pre-given meanings.

I have sought to show thus far that the processes of subject constitution and, specifically, the roles assumed by the male figures should not be underestimated if we are to appreciate the broader implications of the play's critique and its particular deployment of power in gender relations. Next, I direct our attention to a different dimension in the exercise of power in processes of subject constitution, brought into play when Heidkliff articulates the vital link between voir (seeing), savoir (knowledge), and pouvoir (power).52

In this scene, part of Act II's change in setting, the Arztpraxis has disappeared and in its place is a bedroom decorated in a Camp gesture at pop art in 1950s Kitsch. The replacement of the gynecological-dentist's chair with a bed(room) fashioned into a coffin serves to extend the Arztpraxis in the continued dramatic exploration of the gaze's power. Both settings, medical exam room and bedroom, illustrate the gaze's role in the construction of pathology, sexual practices, and “the truth” in the constitution of identity. Heidkliff and Hundekoffer, having returned from “sportieren” and outfitted in hunter's garb with guns and dogs, are now outside the bedroom, and are aggressively “communicating with” united lovers Emily and Carmilla, who are shut off from them by a closed door. Heidkliff bellows, “Nur mehr der Blick gilt jetzt. Ich sehe dich ganz objektiv. Ich verschaffe mir Zutritt rein als Zuschauer. Ich bin gewiss von meiner Macht verführt” (K 53). Once more, the godlike bridging of technological objects enabling the doctor to see what the average human, un-informed and shaped by the medical gaze, cannot, is satirically reintroduced in Heidkliff's inflated style. Ironic is Heidkliff's assertion that he is “gewiss” seduced by his own power, particularly when this content is juxtaposed with “Nur mehr der Blick gilt jetzt.” Heidkliff's reference to “only” the gaze's “counting any more” (signifying) echoes Foucault's assessment of sight in constituting medical knowledge and of mankind's limitless faith in visual evidence. Heidkliff's apparently hyperbolic statements (for example, “Ich verschaffe mir Zutritt rein als Zuschauer”) speak to the objectifying and subjectifying power of le regard médical as delineated extensively in The Birth of the Clinic and, to a lesser extent and with different emphases, in Foucault's later œuvre. This power is underscored in the doctors' declaration of visual power's ability to penetrate the door, through which Heidkliff and Hundekoffer continue to broadcast loudly.53

The men's attack on the door, coupled with Heidkliff's surveying, penetrating gaze, is suggestive of how control over sexuality itself is inscribed in architecture itself: the bedroom door and walls speak the struggle against homosexuality (cf. “The Eye of Power” 148), as Emily and Carmilla cower in fright in their coffin-beds just on the other side the door. Heidkliff and Hundekoffer's seemingly senseless behavior might, of course, be interpreted away as mad rantings, typifying the godlike posturing of the male medical establishment. But this interpretation would reduce this scene's dark ironic effect by relying exclusively on the levity of farcical ridicule and by not more fully exploiting the context. It is as if Jelinek assumes Foucault's art of eluding all commentators' predictions of what the author was to be: “[…] no, no, I'm not where you are lying in wait for me, but over here, laughing at you” (Archaeology/Knowledge 17). Indeed, the drama's staging here appears the work of nothing less than a literary black humorist for whom the condition of universal absurdity no longer needs to be demonstrated. To accept this interpretation is to acknowledge this brand of humor's satirical form of social instruction. This scene actually constitutes an imaginative transformation of medical discourses, a transformation intended to make the audience grasp the imitative gesturing at Foucauldian insight, serving as a homage to Foucault, as well as a derisive thumbed nose at a male-dominated medical science, as the play seeks through parodic incorporation to come to terms with the complex backgrounded material provided in Foucault's account of vision as the dominant cognitive sense.54 Here, the language of doctors is parodied in a satire of medicine's power as a subjectifying discourse. In this sense, the real subject matter of this parody-satire is medical knowledge's ocularcentrism.55 Foucault had already emphasized the sinister implications of ocular primacy in an analysis of the history of madness in his earlier work of 1961, Madness and Civilization. There he details that the sciences of man, intended to assist in the macrological normalizing of individuals, drew on a mixture of the gaze and discourse Foucault then identifies with psychoanalysis in 1963's The Birth of the Clinic. Although Foucault later in his investigations of sexuality also stressed the power of discourse, such as that of confession in creating the very notion of sexuality, he insisted on the importance of spatial and visual controls in policing sexuality and disease (homosexuality, masturbation). Jelinek's staging derides this notion of the primacy of vision as the dominant means of ascertaining reliable knowledge about the external world, but acknowledges its impact in the noxious internalizing mechanisms and social conditions afflicting gender relations.

Similar references to vision and the power of the gaze occur throughout the second act, including at the drama's conclusion, as Heidkliff and Hundekoffer hunt down Emily and Carmilla. In the last scenes, the two female figures emerge from hiding in a restroom, reconstituted as a Doppelgeschöpf, sewn together into one giant Siamese twin doll. In the midst of the men's diatribe against the merged monster-figure, Heidkliff interjects a seemingly nonsensical “Die Sprach und die Anschau gehören zusammen” (K 74). Hardly the ridiculing deflation of Foucauldian insight, the allusion to the gaze here and in other exchanges references the visual power-discourse connection in processes of subjection, assigning a central role to speech and language in naming bodies, even in abjection, in the very act of expelling and excluding that which is nevertheless constitutive of the self (cf. Kristeva).56 This highlights a vital aspect in the play's representation of power relations: a central point on which Foucault's account of power and Jelinek's drama converge is in the gaze's force, not as merely reductive, repressive, but as a productive mode of perception. The gaze is, as Jelinek's play continually performs it, productive of individuality and the discursive constitution of sexuality. The gaze's force in the production of the modern individual is noted in Hundekoffer's explicit linkage of desire, body, and conscience, whereby the speech of confession produces the subject of desire/subjectification: “Wohnt nicht auch die Lust im Körper, fällt mir jetzt ein? Und wird der Körper nicht schon vom Blick durchbohrt? Jetzt beiβt mein Gewissen irgendwo” (K 51). This statement extends the notion that the body is transformed over time by technologies (e.g. sexual mores, penal systems) to include other dimensions of pastoral power such as confession, self-examination, and the guidance of the conscience. The Christian preoccupation with the sinful nature of the flesh and its desires hardly, as intended, eradicated that desire through the bite or sting of guilt, but produced it, a function of a specific gaze directed at the body.

That not only Heidkliff articulates the subject's seduction in this circulation of power (“Ich bin von meiner Macht verführt” [K 53]), but that Emily, too, declares: “Die Macht ist ein Kreislauf wechselseitiger Verführung” (K 54), serves to underscore the infinite impossibilities for the modern subject: the impossibility of escape, of taking control over the signification of bodies, of refusing one's construction as sexuality. This point returns us to Emily's positioning in the medical gaze in Act I, scene five, to which I briefly alluded during my discussion of Carmilla and of Benno's use of force. Emily's assertion, in its parodic gesture of speaking as lesbian vampire, is to suggest that feminine subjects are part of power's circulation. To understand the complex psychological investment subjects make in gender conventions,57 I suggest we make sense of Emily's parodic attempt to “assume the mantle of the Phallus”58 by means of an approach that acknowledges power's permeation of all aspects of social relations. This perspective resists facile conceptualizations that ignore that even the seemingly “independent” standpoints are implicated in the disciplinary establishments of modern society. Emily's wish—as she expresses it to Heidkliff—in having retractable teeth installed, is ostensibly to be able to demonstrate, to produce, to show [“vorzeigen”] Phallic desire [“Lust”] (K 34-35). Through this violent insertion Emily seeks to insert herself into the Phallic law/order/discourse. Her desire, construed as “need,” in mimicking the expandable penis, is to become (like) the subject of Phallic power/desire. Emily's actions—her request and her undergoing the operation by having Heidkliff violently insert the retractable teeth—parodically mimic the collapse of the representational symbol (the phallus) and the anatomical organ (the penis). This performance, moreover, can be read as a parody of Lacan's assertion that somehow the phallus as non-object, non-fantasy, non-diminishable symbol can never be reduced to the penis itself, and, therefore, is always prior to the penis. Emily's demand to acquire retractable teeth suggests that although the phallus is not the penis in any straightforward sense, the metaphor as signifying chain is never at far remove from the very object it symbolizes. By demanding from Dr. Heidkliff the insertion of retractable teeth, Emily inscribes the phallus upon the vampire's body itself, and creates a representation that must appear ambiguous to the audience with respect to the play's position in undermining the dominant order.59

How are we to interpret Emily's actions in the contexts of gender/power relations—as Emily's attempt to identify with the phallogocentrism of the prevailing order, that is, with the law of the father? Or, are we to see Emily's actions as subverting the (symbolic) order by satirizing, mocking, and parodying the complicity of subjects with the forces of domination? Although the black humor in this case lies in a critical disjunction (a lesbian vampire cannot assume a Phallic position), this scene offers us several readings, none of which entirely excludes or invalidates the others. It can, for example, be seen as a satire on the phallocentric order, or, perhaps, as a pure parody of Lacanian concepts and terms. Irrespective of what one concludes, I contend that the overarching effect is to dramatize through performance power's permeation of all relations. Even though Emily's attempts to gain entry into the Phallic order bodily deploy the masculinist-patriarchal show of desire and can be considered, through mimicry, parodic of the dominant system, her desire to invest herself with the ultimate authority of the Master (phallic) signifier does not undermine the hegemony of the discourse she seeks to imitate. For a subject to represent herself as literally speaking the Master's words and assuming his desire/subject position is to expose the split subjectivity that, in rational discourse, is covered up by metaphor. Emily's insistence that the Master/Phallus speak through her as she assumes its position (bodily) literalizes the key metaphorical assumption on which the Cartesian cogito is based. That is, when she, as fiancée/writer/lesbian vampire declares, “Ich wünsche mir diese beiden Zähne ausfahrbar gemacht! Sie sollen hervorlugen und wieder verschwinden können. Wie ich ja auch. Ich brauche einen ähnlichen Apparat wie ihr Männer ihn habt! Ich möchte imponieren können. Ich möchte Lust vorzeigen können!” (K 33), Emily usurps the position of the masculine cogito. This can hardly be said, however, as Krankheit implies through the forces of subjection, to constitute “liberation.” In a Foucauldian sense, Emily's very need to assume the position of Phallus/Master (“Ich brauche einen ähnlichen Apparat wie ihr Männer ihn habt!”) can only reproduce dominant power relations, because this “need” or “demand” is itself constructed, a “political instrument meticulously prepared, calculated, and used” (Discipline 26). Emily's desire/need, then, can be viewed as a function of hegemonic power's influence: it may be impossible to unequivocally deny that her oppositional, “in-between” position has internalized the hegemonic position here, and been absorbed and incorporated.60 Emily's actions suggest more the opposite of power as an exclusively repressive force, as working solely to censor, block, exclude, and repress: her voluntary move to the gynecological/dentist's chair—just as Carmilla's movement into the Gyna-Stuhl in the second scene—suggests that she accepts the meanings and adopts the practices that reflect the exercise of a hegemonic medico-scientific power.

The inability of feminine subjects to resist or escape is further underscored in the play in Carmilla's expression of her self-investment in illness, once more underscoring power's ineluctable circulation: “Die Krankheit ist schön. Sie ist mir unentbehrlich. Ich bin krank, daher bin ich […]. Ich bin krank, und es geht mir gut. Ich leide, und ich fühle mich sehr sehr schlecht. Gesundheit ist nicht alles, und mein Körper hält sie nun gar nicht aus […]. Ich bin schön krank! Krank! Krank! Krank!” (K 44-45). Her seemingly nonsensical rejoinder to Emily's declaration “Weiβt du, einer sagt, die Geschichte beruhe in letzter Instanz auf dem Körper des Menschen” (K 44) expresses not only Carmilla's investment in illness, but also her finding self-expression by means of this condition, made explicit in other places: “Ich genieβe meine Krankheit ja auch!” (K 47). This utterance relativizes Carmilla's “Ich bin krank, daher bin ich”-pronouncement by revealing that woman-as-sickness is not exclusively a function of a man-made, diseased state of gender relations, but created through female subjects' negotiation of their condition. Repeatedly and insistently, these figures make sense of their state in ways that undermine what would be their static representation as the victims of a male-defined medical discourse which extends to Freud and Charcot: “Die Krankheit ist schön. Sie ist mir unentbehrlich. Ich bin krank, daher bin ich […]. Ohne Krankheit wäre ich nichts” (K 44). These figures are not simplistically “trapped” in a static state of illness and disease, in a universal conditio feminina ostensibly created by males expressly for oppressing females—even though the drama comes close to suggesting this in places. As I mentioned at the outset, through its framing with Eva Meyer's quote about woman not being like the great masters who command the ability to disappear in their great works, and its title Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen, Jelinek's narrative does presume to an extent upon the unity of its gendered subject of presentation and performance (i.e., modern women), just as it does presume upon a unity for male subjects, even when the drama is at pains to demonstrate, and deconstruct, the differences within these admittedly generalizing and imprecise categories. What I have sought, further, to pose as significant questions and central contradictions in this reading of Krankheit is that certain interpretations of the play have not merely involved a question of seeing things differently, but also of suppressing, overlooking, and/or misreading vital and radical aspects of the drama's social critique. Significant to the critical force of this analytic-dramatic enactment is the female figures' appropriation of the vocabulary of the “experts” Drs. Heidkliff and Benno Hundekoffer, for it is through this vocabulary, its terms, concepts, and its distortions [women (as sex) = illness], that these figures interpret their experiences and construct themselves. By viewing the subjectification of the genders from a more differentiating perspective on power (as productive, a network), and recognizing this perspective's enactment in all its pessimism in Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen, we can more precisely apprehend the diseased state that characterizes contemporary gender relations.


  1. Elfriede Jelinek, Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen, ed. Regine Friedrich (Köln: Prometh, 1987): 44; hereafter referred to as K and followed by page number(s).

  2. References to Foucault will be cited here parenthetically by (abbreviated) title and page number(s).

  3. E.g., Lanyon 87; Janz 91-92. Hanssen's analysis of the language of violence engages critically with poststructuralist and postmodern feminist strategies in reading Krankheit, drawing more on feminist appropriations of the French school of theories, particularly Lacan, Derrida, and, to a lesser extent, Foucault.

  4. Among the personalities and media Jelinek salutes, several in mock deference, on the cast of characters page in Krankheit are Baudrillard, Robert Walser, Barthes, Bram Stoker, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Goebbels, Der Spiegel, “Der Hörfunk,” and “Das Fernsehen” (K 5).

  5. A note on the translation: the play's German title is not unambiguously translatable. Meyer, for example, renders Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen as Sickness or Modern Women (116), and Poole as Illness or Modern Women (252). For the purposes of my analysis “Krankheit” can be variously translated as “sickness,” “illness,” and/or “disease.” In instances where I employ the slash (“/”), I seek to emphasize that the two (or three) terms are not to be considered separately. In these (“/”) cases, there seems little point in belaboring the relationship between sickness, illness, and disease, since these are not so readily distinguishable to the untrained eye. To a disciplined clinical eye, however, they are, and significantly so.

  6. E.g., the contributions by Janz, Fiddler, Wigmore.

  7. Adorno 312.

  8. As Heiner Müller noted in a panel discussion before the premiere of Krankheit: “Was mich interessiert an den Texten von Elfriede Jelinek, ist der Widerstand, den sie leisten gegen das Theater, so wie er ist” (Friedrich 98).

  9. Lorenz 35.

  10. Hanssen 80, 112; see also Fiddler, “Problems with Porn: Situating Elfriede Jelinek's Lust.

  11. Luscher 174.

  12. See Janz 82; Hoffmann 198; Hoesterey; Hoffmann 198; Luscher 173.

  13. Cf. Hiebel.

  14. Hoesterey 156.

  15. Jelinek, “Ich möchte seicht sein” 157.

  16. See for example Janz 91-92.

  17. Cf. Lorenz esp. 31-33, 35.

  18. Hoesterey 153-57; Luscher esp. 167-79; Spielmann esp. 27.

  19. Thomas 142.

  20. Hoffmann 195.

  21. Scholars and critics who draw more substantively on Meyer's framing quote in their analysis include Berka (“‘Das bissigste Stück’”), Haβ (esp. 25-26), Hoesterey (esp. 152-58), Hoffmann, and Janz.

  22. Lentricchia 188.

  23. See, for example, Berka's “Ein Gespräch mit Elfriede Jelinek” and Jelinek, Heinrich, Meyer. Support for assuming a “personalizing” approach to Krankheit stems from passages in Jelinek interviews, such as, for example: “Für alle Frauen versuche ich den Kampf gegen die normenbildende Kaste aufzunehmen, denn die schreckliche Ungerechtigkeit ist ja nicht die wirtschaftliche Unterdrückung der Frau, die auch entsetzlich ist und längst behoben werden müβte, sondern das Schlimme ist dieses männliche Wert- und Normensystem, dem die Frau unterliegt, und zwar so unterliegt, daβ sie eben immer anders sein muβ und die ihr zugeschriebenen Eigenschaften wie Sanftmütigkeit, Gefühlsseligkeit und Freundlichkeit ja nur das andere zu dem der Männer sind, daβ man gar nicht weiβ, was die Frau ist” (Presber 114).

  24. Schmid-Bortenschlager 119; Lanyon 80.

  25. Lanyon 88.

  26. Lanyon 88.

  27. Hoesterey 151.

  28. Fliedl 65. See also Meyer (esp. 122-25) and Barthofer in this regard.

  29. Cf. Meyer 117.

  30. Luscher 173-74.

  31. With “voluntarily” I wish to emphasize that there is much in human self-understanding that is not exactly voluntary, though to call it involuntary, to my mind, is by far the greater misrepresentation, for it misses the extent to which subjects form their identities by conforming themselves over time to tacitly understood norms and generally accepted practices.

  32. Cf. Nettleton; Simons.

  33. Cf. Simons 199.

  34. Benno: “Was soll ich dem Arzt sagen, wenn er kommt? Woran genau leidest du? […] Gleich kommt der Arzt. […] Wie gern säβe ich an deiner Stelle! Ich Kümmere mich einstweilen in meiner sanften Art um unsere Kleinen [K 13]. […] Ich schaue ein wenig auf unsere Kinderschar, und schon kann ich dir nicht mehr böse sein. Diese Kinder werden Nachfolger der groβen Klassiker werden” (K 16); Carmilla: “Ich hoffe, der Arzt kommt bald zu mir und macht dein Werk fertig. […] Ich werde an dich denken, wenn das Kind herauskommt. Ich danke dir, daβ du mich erneut vollgefüllt hast” (K 17); Heidkliff “wühlt in Carmilla, wirft Gummitiere: Ich bin nichts so sehr gewöhnt wie den Anblick von Frauen. Bei mir ist die Frau Patientin und sonst nichts [K 29]. […] Kinder fernhalten! Wegbringen! Staub saugen! Meine nächsten Patientinnen warten schon” (K 30).

  35. Cf. Ockenfuss 75.

  36. See for example Claes 82-126; Hoesterey 153, 157; Lanyon 75-76; Luscher 171-72; Janz.

  37. “Two Lectures” 96.

  38. Dreyfus and Rabinow 115.

  39. E.g., Hoffmann esp. 199; Roeder 16-18.

  40. E.g., Lanyon, Claes.

  41. Fiddler, “Reading Elfriede Jelinek” 303.

  42. Hoesterey 153. See in this regard Lanyon (esp. 83-84, 89); Claes 82-126; Haβ, who reads Emily as breaking with the central construction in that “[s]he decides for herself” (27); and Berka, who claims that Jelinek “engage[s] in an affirmation of vampirism among women” (“‘Das bissigste Stück der Saison’” 373). Berka views Krankheit's representation of female vampires—a medium of ideological critique—as addressing “violence against women, their resistance to being exploited or vampirized, to the one-way pornographic aspects and consequences of one dominating sexuality, and their affirmation of gender inversion and a revaluated status for women in society” (373).

  43. Although Foucault deals extensively with the discourses of clinical medicine in The Birth of the Clinic, he treats this theme only briefly in the preface to The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences and in The Archaeology of Knowledge (50-55). The Birth of the Clinic has been called an “extended postscript” to Madness and Civilization, a particularly fitting description, as Martin Jay notes, if one acknowledges its concentration on the complicity of visual domination with the rise of modern medicine (“Empire of the Gaze” 181).

  44. Cf. Mulvey 436.

  45. This could apply to the audience too, as, like the viewers behind a surgeon in a clinic, we witness a performance, transfixed by the surgeon's gaze. After Carmilla's “death” in the gynecological chair where Benno Hundekoffer had “assisted” her in childbirth, Dr. Heidkliff declares: “Es macht mir nichts aus, Rezitator und horchendes Publikum zu sein” (K 31). His statement relates to the role of the clinician as researcher-gaze and teacher vis-à-vis his students, a role that has been prepared in Hundekoffer's description of Dr. Heidkliff's role. Earlier, Benno in speaking had “prepared” his wife in the gynecological chair: “Dieser Arzt ist nach allen mir zugänglichen Quellen jedoch auch Zahnarzt und kann deine [Carmilla's] Wurzel jederzeit extrahieren. Er kann wo er will etwas aus dir herausnehmen. Er wird dann rezitieren und Publikum sein” (K 16). The implicit image with which Krankheit confronts the audience is that of the “speaking eye,” specifically the discursive constellation of the gaze that makes it possible for the act of instruction to take place at the operating table-examination chair.

  46. Althusser 45; Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic. While there is clearly a derisive element in Jelinek's parodic treatment of males as doctors and of medicine, as, for example, when Heidkliff enthusiastically exclaims: “Ja! Ja! Ja! Ja! Das Knirschen des Pfahls beim Eindringen in den Knochen, der sich windende Leib, der blutige Schaum vor dem Mund, das Erbrochene. Wir dürfen uns daran erinnern: Es muss sein. Es dient der Menschheit. Wie ich als Arzt.” (K 48—emphasis mine), the juxtaposition of medicine's service in the betterment of the human condition with vampire hunting belies a serious content. This points to the compelling constraint of the subjectification of subjects in discourses of science and medicine: “Es muss sein. Es dient der Menschheit. Wie ich als Arzt.” The performance here requires that the audience maintain multiple representations that specify, for one, what the character Heidkliff doesn't really know, and, second, the satire that results from the audience's considering the broader social issues of culture and socialization, specifically, Foucault's insight into the fabrication of subjects compelled to serve discursive regimes.

  47. For the play's attack on patriarchy Luscher 167; Lanyon 84; Hoesterey 156; for critique of “self-absorption” Luscher 173; for pretentiousness and triviality, Hoesterey 156.

  48. Cf. Jay, “In the Empire of the Gaze” 182.

  49. E.g., Hoesterey 156; Janz 91-92. Janz's otherwise incisive analysis is in several respects representative of readings that tend to reduce the male figures to producers of nonsense, such as when, for example, Heidkliff drivels (“faselt”) the statement “Ich bin gewiβ von meiner Macht verführt” (91) and Hundekoffer poses imbecilic questions (“So fragt Benno Hundekoffer blöde […]” [K 92]). Janz in effect reads the male figures as idiots, who—at best only accidentally—experience an occasional flash of insight, whereby she misreads the more complex allusions to Foucault: “Was hier wie eine unfreiwillige Foucault-Parodie erschient, zeugt doch zugleich auch von Einsicht, allerdings in Gestalt der Idiotensprache. Zumindest dämmert hier die Einsicht, daβ es im Grunde gar nicht geht um das tatsächliche Geschlecht der Frau, sondern um den Diskurs über die Frau als Geschlechtswesen, der ihre Ausgrenzung legitimiert und als angebliche weibliche ‘Natur’ festgeschrieben hat” (92). There are instances where Krankheit subverts an author's position (e.g., the misogyny of Otto Weininger; see Luscher 168-69; Hoesterey 157-58), but Foucault's insights are generally used to deepen the drama's social critique. As profound as his analyses are, Foucault is also said to have playfully suggested that there has been “sex” only since the 19th century and that we would have been better off not wanting to “have sex.” See Hoy, “Power, Repression, Progress” (133).

  50. Cf. Eigler; Hanssen 97.

  51. Cf. Butler, “Sexual Inversions” esp. 66-67; Foucault, History of Sexuality 155-56.

  52. Cf. Jay, “In the Empire of the Gaze” 178.

  53. […] brüllt unartikuliert durch die verschlossene Tür, hinter der die Frauen in ihren Sargbetten entsetzt aneinandergeklammert sitzen (K 52). […] Schlägt wütend gegen die Tür” (K 53).

  54. Cf. Hutcheon 211.

  55. Jay, “In the Empire of the Gaze” 180-93. My discussion on ocularcentrism is indebted to Martin Jay's compelling analysis of Foucault's fit and continuity with 20th century philosophy, specifically with the interrogation of sight carried out by a disparate number of French intellectuals beginning roughly with Henri Louis Bergson. See also Jay's Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas.

  56. In another Act II scene with the bedroom setting and two male figures, Benno declares: “Selbst ist der Mann! Er führt sein Geschlecht lauthals vor. Wie ein Dokument. Er hat es ja bekommen! Alles soll produziert werden. Alles soll lesbar sein. Alles soll man sehen können” (K 50). At a later point in this exchange, Heidkliff responds: “Es ist auch gefährlich hier drinnen. Es ist gefährlich im Sichtbaren wie im Unsichtbaren, wo die groβe Verführung stattfindet” (K 50).

  57. Cf. Lanyon 89.

  58. Lanyon 81.

  59. Cf. Lorenz; Kohlenbach.

  60. Cf. Berka, “Das bissigste Stück” 373.

Research for this article was made possible by a faculty research award from Weber State University's Dean for the Arts and Humanities: I am indebted to June K. Phillips for granting me the support to research and write this essay in the summer of 2000. I am, further, grateful to Michael Wutz for calling this opportunity to my attention in the first place. For their insights on Jelinek and thoughtful comments, I thank Dagmar Lorenz, Lilian Friedberg, and the German Quarterly reviewers.

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Stephan Atzert (review date winter 2002)

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SOURCE: Atzert, Stephan. Review of Gier: Ein Unterhaltungroman Elfriede Jelinek, by Elfriede Jelinek. World Literature Today 76, no. 1 (winter 2002): 184.

[In the following positive review of Gier, Atzert calls Jelinek “one of the few established and interesting authors in the German-writing world.”]

In nine numbered but untitled sections [in Gier], Elfriede Jelinek tells a story of violence, set in rural Austria. The police officer Kurt Janisch is interested in women and houses. His wife watches TV serials in their home, while the elderly original owner slowly disintegrates psychologically, uncared for in her upstairs flat. By means of the power he yields as a police officer, Janisch identifies, courts, and soon abuses Gerti, a middle-aged homeowner, with a view toward obtaining her villa. While Gerti is caught up in her hopeless dependency on him, Janisch maintains sexual relations with Gabi, an underage teenager. At the end of the book Gabi and Gerti are dead and Janisch inherits Gerti's house. According to the grossly misleading cover text provided by the publisher, Gier (Avarice) is a combination of detective story, pornography, and penny novel.

Arguably, the plot as outlined above takes second place to Jelinek's literary style. The narrator's relentless monologue incorporates voices from multiple sources. It does not limit itself to being self-reflective and to presenting different aspects of the characters. In effect, the characters and their statements become blurred against the domination of the narrator, who interrupts her own narrative to question and even mock herself, her narrative strategies, and her characters. Another feature of Jelinek's style is the provocative use of clichés. The narrator's monologue makes use of commonplace views on every imaginable topic. Such views are contextualized so as to expose them as clichés. Ordinarily, such views are invoked to provide coherence to the fabric of existence, but under the narrator's treatment they become highly disturbing. Apart from obvious commonplaces, the narrator's sources include the advertising world as well as less obvious intertextual references.

All these elements are held together by the plot, and the apparent digressions follow a logic of their own before they return, either in a labored way or effortlessly, or not at all, to the main story line. While challenging to the reader, these carefully organized diversions form the interesting and engaging centerpiece of the text. Elfriede Jelinek is well known for her literary protests, and the unique textual sphere she creates in Gier is no exception. Her writing here shows yet again that she is one of the few established and interesting authors in the German-writing world.


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