Vienna 2: What Lies Beneath...

I wrote my post-graduate dissertation on the dramatic and symbolic meaning of blood in Ancient Rome. I am profoundly blood phobic, and every time I picked up my central text, on blood-letting, I’d end up lying on my bed with a cold flannel over my face. My father had adopted the same attitude to his fear of heights: he chose to do his national service as an airborne gunner. It wasn’t the airborne bit which made him sick every time, or the guns, but the bit in between: jumping out of the plane at 10,000 ft.

These perversities of choice (and their failure) delighted my mother, a Freudian psycho-therapist.

Nevertheless, walking down the apparently endless Währingerstrasse on a grey winter’s day, past the neo-Gothic Votivkirche, a massive Coca-Cola advertisement not so much not so much emblazoned on the porch as offering some sort of annunciation- past the dusty academic bookshops selling surgical texts and plastic skeletons, to (eventually) the Josephinum, was something of an act of courage.

Votivkirche
The Vota-Cola Cocakirche Votivkirche, Vienna

The Josephinum is a fine neo-classical building, erected as a medical institute by the great enlightenment emperor, Joseph II. It still feels old: stone staircases, panelled corridors, high ceilings, echoes and emptiness, although there are posters for international lectures and signs to departments for incomprehensible medical specialities.

The Josephinum, Vienna

But its museum reflects the degree to which Austro-Hungarian doctors advanced medicine in the nineteenth century. Not all their explorations were profound in concept but all made an impact: in Vienna poor Semmelweiss, later to die in an asylum, ironically of infection, introduced the simple idea of hand-washing in obstetric wards and cut death rates at a stroke.

Wandering around the exhibits from the beautiful to the bizarre to the frankly terrifying, two things struck me. The use of most instruments was immediately obvious. This was no great surprise; the occasional archaeological excavation of medical kits of ancient doctors are also recognisable. But how like instruments of torture they also seem: with that combination of refinement and brutality that is the stuff of horror. Silk lined leather cases holding huge pliers, saws, pincers, forceps, clysters and metal conduits for every orifice in the human body. With brass and polished steel the body, opened and invaded, might finally surrender its secrets.

But I also thought how surprised those bearded, formally dressed, doctors would have been to see the dominance of women in medicine only a century or so later. Here prints showing the march of progress in death-defying procedures usually had some frightened or unconscious young woman at the centre of heroic, frock-coated male attention.

Seligman and Billroth operating


The medical museum was a test of the parameters of phobia.

I was riveted by a picture of the first ever gastrectomy, with a full audience: surgery as theatre, accompanied by the entire, immaculately stitched stomach, retrieved by the surgeon and preserved in formalin when his patient died three months later. Fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the late Victorian love of therapeutic electricity. Had to stand by an open window when I forgot to look away from a porcelain blood letting bowl, a display of leeches or tobacco-brown rubber tourniquets.

But the rare jewels of this collection lie in a second room. Created over two hundred years ago, here are the life size écorchés - wax models - flayed or neatly eviscerated to reveal what were then the unfamiliar wonders of the human body to the public as well as medical students. Fine rosewood cabinets and Venetian glass contain figures either hanging or lying on deep silk cushions.

Most of the figures are male, most stripped of their skin, muscles flexed, eyeballs glittering. But one female. her long, wavy hair decorated with a gold fillet across her forehead, pearls around her throat, lies head thrown back, eyes wide and mouth a little open. She is perfect, and perfect too the dissection which lays open the glistening contents of her chest and abdomen. It’s infinitely compelling - disturbing to modern eyes: a glass-coffined Snow White who will never be awoken by a kiss. Was it meant to present the viewer with the uncomfortable sense of the residually sexual woman, to show respect for youth cut down, or an extraordinarily beautiful enlightenment marriage of science and art?


Josephinum waxwomen

As I left the museum, a school party of teenagers entered. After a few moments there was a thud. One of the schoolgirls had found her own limits and passed out cold at the first cabinet.

A short walk away, a residential street swoops into a valley. Here, more women gave up their secrets. But it was the exploration not of their bodies but of their minds: their desires, fears, fantasies that started here. A few decades after the surgeons were mining the flesh, Dr Freud lived and had his consulting rooms in Berggasse

I had, appropriately, a degree of ambivalence about this. My mother’s Freudian beliefs were, frankly, evangelical. She was a woman who, when I was a teenager, could not be trusted not to say something casually appalling about sex in front of my friends. She had always talked about a pilgrimage she would make to see Freud’s house, yet, when she died at 63, it had never happened. Interesting in itself, though sadly it was too late to argue about it.

Yet, to my surprise, I was moved by the rooms. Here was the neat brass plate, and, here the waiting room, still with its dark, reddish furnishings, its ancient artefacts and its courtyard view.

Freud's waiting-room

This is where my imagination wanted to linger-not in the monologues of the patients as they lay on Freud’s couch, but of what they thought when they waited. The ones who were early, the ones who were immobilised by neurosis, or embarrassed by weakness, the eager, the fearful and the aroused. The corseted women, their thick hair pined up under heavy hats, the upright members of Vienna’s haut-bourgeoisie, sweating in these over-heated rooms. Those who sat on the edge of the seats, over alert to every noise that might be him crossing the floor to invite them inside. Those who looked at the ceiling or the bare trees outside or considered leaving swiftly before they were trapped.

Whether you are infuriated or convinced by Freud, his theories altered the way we think about ourselves. We cannot read or write, or view or speak free of his influence. He made us self-conscious.

Just as the surgeons magnified, stretched and pierced the human body so that we might live infinitely safer lives today, so Freud, at his simplest, entered the human mind and left us with the idea that the motive for our thoughts and actions might be more complicated than we had believed and not always under our conscious control. Perhaps he left a more tolerant, more understanding view of human agency, but certainly a more interesting one.




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