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Monday, June 02, 2008

In the London Review of Books, Nicholas Spice has thoughts on the horrifying Elisabeth Fritzl story, still I think the most awful thing I've ever heard.

The story of Amstetten has the unreality of the ‘bad’ fairy tale. The numbers in it are fairy-tale numbers: seven children above ground, seven children below. The 24 years of Elisabeth’s captivity are as inexact as the hundred years that Sleeping Beauty slept – they stand for eternity. We might be able to imagine being locked away in a windowless cellar for 24 days, for 24 weeks even, but not 24 years. How did Elisabeth Fritzl survive this? In what sense did she survive it?

There’s a strange, haunting novel called Die Wand (The Wall) by Marlen Haushofer, an Austrian writer from the generation before Jelinek’s, in which a woman finds herself trapped in a mountain valley which has been sealed off by a mysterious and invisible wall. She is alone except for a dog, a cat and a cow. As the months pass, her fear grows that she will lose her humanity: not that she will become an animal – animals are not monstrous – but that she will overstep the animal altogether, since ‘a human being can never become just an animal; he plunges beyond, into the abyss.’ In an attempt to prevent this she keeps strictly to her daily routine – brushing her teeth, cleaning the house, keeping her clothes in good order, hanging up the washing, feeding the animals. Josef Fritzl doubtless imposed certain standards on his daughter’s housekeeping. She needed to be kept moderately human. So he built her a kitchen and a bathroom (did he let her choose the tiles? Jelinek asks). So that, like any good housewife, she could wash and cook. So that, like any good housewife, she would remain wholesome to fuck.

If we have trouble grasping how Elisabeth Fritzl could have stayed sane, the capacity of her father not to understand what he was doing to his daughter, not, above all, to understand what it meant to keep her there for a quarter of a century, is perplexing in a different way (in his first account of himself, Fritzl said he was ‘probably a monster’ – probably). Freud characterised the unconscious as without temporal extension. Fantasies expressive of unconscious desires do not exist in time. Above ground, Josef Fritzl obeyed the rules of ordinary time and causality, the rules that say actions have consequences and are subject to the constraints of conscience (das Gewissen); but when he went down into his cellar, he left all this behind to enter the timeless underworld (das Ungewisse) of his desires. As long as no one found out, it was as if what he did down there had never happened (if he’d killed his children and grandchildren, he said, no one would have made a fuss). Jelinek calls what Fritzl did to his daughter a ‘performance’, the addictive acting out of a pathological need. In building his cellar, Fritzl was building a compartment of his own mind, a theatre for the nightly performance of his fantasies. Elisabeth Fritzl’s grotesque misfortune was to be imprisoned in this compartment, to be trapped inside her father’s head.