Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar….

An hour ago, I finished reading the devastating novel The Sorrow of War, and in search of something less horrific to clear my mental palate, I was scanning headlines on an on-line Austrian/English newspaper. And there it was:  “Bread consummation falls by nearly 50 percent.”  The images of lovelorn loaves never getting to that moment did the deed, moving me from the gross absurdity of war to the inadvertent absurdity of translation. 

Lately many things seem a bit absurd, in particular human sexuality and people’s obsession with it.  This current preoccupation of mine might have its roots in a long, dark winter of illness after illness.  Or, it might have something to do with recent excursions to the Naked Men art exhibit and to the Sigmund Freud museum.
Mister Big

Months ago these life-sized posters sporting full-frontal male nudity showed up tacked onto kiosks all over Vienna. Three happy young men, soccer players, clad only in knee socks and shoes, stood smiling and relaxed, and one’s perspective depended to some degree on one’s height -- I’m 5’3" and the posters were slightly higher than ground level.  I walk a lot; I found these posters thrilling.  After a while some of the posters were plastered with red tape (Socialist Vienna) covering the “offending” parts, but the ads closest to our neighborhood remained, well, naked. Many of you have probably seen the news about these posters and this exhibit; in fact, the New York Times had another piece on it a few days ago.
It's all in the perspective 

Despite the European ease with nudity, something we became very aware of after welcoming a French daughter-in-law into the family, apparently a substantial number of Wieners (no, not a Freudian slip but the Austrian name for the Viennese) were upset, hence, the censorship.

Vienna has amazing spas and indoor swimming pools, many with coed changing rooms, and at some, nudity is the norm.  The public coed saunas forbid clothing but towels are available for the shy.  This nude policy is a reason we have been reluctant to visit – as Americans of a certain age, we grew up in the sexually obsessed/puritanically repressed insanity about bodies and sex that sadly still permeates the U.S.  And for me, younger than most hippies and married to my high school sweetheart at age 20 (not Jim), my summers of love meant something quite different than they might have to Jim, who was a hippie and, worse yet, in a rock band. We were perplexed by the view here, in Vienna of all places, that only edited nudity was acceptable in the majority but not all of the posters.

Soccer Balls 
Incidentally, the naked men poster was not just a come on but an image of one of the works in the exhibit: The image is French, naturally. And funny. Amazing what confetti and crepe paper can do to manifest joie de vivre.

Fortunately, the exhibit was extended (damn, Freudian slip), and since Jim and I are finally healthy, we headed out.  I suggested to Jim as we entered that we not talk about the exhibit but instead each write about it, male/female perspective.   That plan was immediately dashed by the male – read juvenile—response: “Oh, a ballsy approach, but it would be so hard and take so long; what a hairy proposition that might be,” etc. etc.
Wrath of Achilles
Benouville, 1847

The exhibit follows a roughly chronological order.  In the first room are classical statues as well as two of the exhibit’s most memorable paintings. One is of male artists in maybe a 17th century art academy studying the male model – of course, women painters are excluded; the men could paint female nude after nude, but turnabout was not yet fair play. That picture – and its sexism and tragic loss of potential – irritated me. But then I turned to a spectacular Rubens, in which the male nude, actually a satyr, was drunkenly reclining beside a panoply of brass objects, creating a stunning contrast between the light reflecting off the mortal flesh and off the immortal objects.
Rubens, 1610

The exhibit had humor – classical nude statues ala Michelangelo, clad only in a sleeveless tee or white briefs; pain – tortured nude self-portraits of Expressionist painters – Jim and I differed in our responses; and finally contemporary works, including only one by Maplethorpe.  Arousal was pretty much absent from the exhibit – with one notable exception:  a photograph of an erect man on a hillside, who seemed to be the reincarnation of Vlad the Impaler.
Kolig, 1919

Unlike in depictions of the female nude, no soft lights or satiny draping, no single strand of pearls, no delicate dangling earring, no romance, no rape, no concubines.

To upper-middle-aged heterosexuals, anyway, the exhibit was decidedly not erotic, just unusual and fascinating. The question of the day: Is the male body beautiful?  As a woman who has always thought male forearms and hands are the sexiest parts of the male form--napes of the neck, too--the answer still eludes me.

Klimt Secession, 1897
The other day, the museum offered a rare, extraordinary experience, which we didn’t know about at the time.  The museum was open only to people (excepting museum workers and media types) willing to check not only their coats but also every stitch of clothing, except shoes and socks. Scores of male and female nude visitors gazing at depictions of naked men. I love imagining this even as I break out in a slight sweat.

Egon Schiele
I am reminded of my son’s beach wedding in Miami, in which the French bride wore this gorgeous dress, the graceful and unsecured top of which revealingly fluttered in the soft breeze. I later made this tongue-slightly-in-cheek comment to my young son, 12 at the time, who had had a particularly close view: “When you’ve seen two, you’ve seen them all,” I said. To which my 20-something nephew retorted: “No, when you’ve seen two, you want to see them all.”  I’m not sure if most women would respond to men’s attributes with the same attitude.  Maybe.

One of my realizations as an ex-pat is that I’m a coward.  Being in a foreign country, especially now that it’s just the two of us, means that nobody knows our former selves.  We could, as do many immigrants to the U.S., reinvent ourselves.  I could dye my hair jet black or shave my head, get various piercings and tattoos, wear stilettos, develop a hookah habit, have hashish for breakfast (as a former classmate was reputed to do decades ago), go to clubs of various sorts, experiment, walk on the wild side.  Go, for instance, to a nudes-only museum night. Why not? Why not spend a challenging hour or two for the sake of the experience and maybe, just maybe, revelation?

I know Americans who have been to nudist retreats who say group nudity
is an amazing, natural and freeing experience.  Of course, they were young at the time.

So, if there is a next time, why won’t I go?


I don’t want to.

Which brings me to Freud.

Freud and the museum
Jim and I were talking about how frequently brilliant, iconic people become clichés – people who are broadly but not necessarily deeply or accurately known, whose mere mention conjures shorthand references– Einstein (hair), Che (cool beret), Gandhi (swaddled and bespectacled) - and perhaps this is truer of Sigmund Freud than anyone.   Mention a couch – Freud, misspeak – Freud, penis envy jokes – Freud, hysterical women—Freud, death wish – Freud, Oedipal tendencies—Freud, sex dreams – Freud, beard and round glasses – Freud, Viennese accent – definitely Freud.
Freud's Place 

Although Freud was born in what is now the Czech Republic, he moved here when he was four and lived in Vienna until his family was routed by the Nazis in 1938, a year before he died at age 83. After paying a third of his fortune to the Nazis – the “I-don’t-want-to-be-slaughtered” tax -- he and his family fled, couch and all, to England.

Freud's Park
I’ve known about the Freud Museum, established in the living quarters and work space Freud inhabited for almost five decades, since shortly after arriving in Vienna, but in part because of tepid reviews in guidebooks, I never bothered to go. Last week I spent a transformative two hours at the museum with my 28-year-old Viennese friend, Brigitte, who hadn’t visited the museum since her school days.

From the first room with photos of a lesbian whom Freud “treated” who clearly wasn’t hampered by her sexuality from having a rich life (pet monkeys in Thailand, trips to exotic realms, horses) – so I wonder what they talked about -- to the last, the displays illuminated an extraordinary man of rare curiosity and insight.

Movies at Freud's Place

Among the most intriguing tidbits:

-- Watching silent short films from 1900 to 1906, sponsored by Thomas Edison, depicting dream states using ingenious special effects, including bed-twitching to rival the spinning house in The Wizard of Oz and that horror of horrors, paintings coming to life.

-- Watching home movies of Freud, family and friends (always engaged in what looked to be delightful conversation) narrated by also–famous daughter Anna Freud.  The films, full of flowers and beloved dogs, radiated happiness and affection, joy even, not a word I generally free-associate with Freud.

-- A 1932 book, once banned in Germany, of an exchange between Einstein and Freud entitled Warum Krieg? (Why War?). Since for some years Freud shared the Vienna streets with frustrated artist Adolph Hitler, one can’t help but imagine how history might have been different if a young, sociopathic Hitler had spent time on Freud’s couch, perhaps discovering one of Freud’s requirements for world peace – critical intelligence overriding instinct.

-- A photo of a French female singer Freud liked to listen to – significant because he didn’t ordinarily care for music.  According to the recorded museum guide (indispensable when touring the museum), his favorite song was about a drunken old woman staggering down the street followed by a dog.  Hmmmm.

Some of Freud’s original furniture is in his old waiting room and just being in that small, enclosed, Victorian space felt somehow pregnant with possibilities.  What really enthralled me throughout his office were in some cases the actual and in other cases merely photographs of some of the 2,000-plus antiquities he had collected – reliefs, paintings, small sculptures, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, Roman– that he had not necessarily found during his travels (he was slightly phobic apparently about travel) but by scouring the Viennese antique shops.
Freud's Office

His patients walked into his office to lie on a couch enveloped by an elaborate Oriental rug and teeming with pillows surrounded by LIFE.  Images of the male and female form, gods, goddesses, mythological scenes, totems, falcons, fetishes.  A veritable garden for the subconscious to wander in.

His famous couch remains in England, and the museum has not replaced it with a replica.  The frequent “where is the couch?” asked by museum visitors ensures no one forgets why the couch is absent. Although Anna Freud was remarkably generous to the museum when she was finally invited back to Vienna more than 30 years after being expelled, she left the couch in London.

Freud, Interpreted
So, I got to the bookstore celebrating this brilliant man, my mind reeling with images and thoughts and new ideas, and what did I buy? A book of New Yorker cartoons entitled Auf der Couch.

Later that day, I was watching the few birds we have in the yard (beautiful but predatory cats keep the numbers down) trying to identify the birds that look like American chickadees except for the vertical stripe on their breasts.  Finally, I found them on the web – not under chickadees but the other branch of the family - tits.
Great Tit 

I mentioned the tits to Jim and, naturally, he did his own search until he came across penduline tits, which, of course, became pendulous tits, so according to Jim, we enjoy watching the pendulous tits flying around our yard.

Then I opened the New Yorker book of cartoons, with its captions in both German and English, but with a German-only introduction, only to discover that the page numbers are in this order: 7, 8, 6, 11, 12, 9, 10, 15, 13, 14, 17 (I never did find 1 - 5) and I stopped, wondering what psychological test I was expected to pass.

But then, I realized.  Sometimes a printing error is just a printing error, a tit is just a tit, and a cigar, according to something Freud is supposed to have said but apparently didn’t, really is just a cigar.