Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory

At the beginning the memoir he published a few years ago, the great neuroscientist Erik Kandel gives an account of his first sexual experience. His partner was “an attractive, sensual young woman,” named Mitzi, who worked as a servant in his parents house. Mitzi was twenty-five. Kandel was eight. His memory of the encounter is intense and bittersweet. On the one hand, he felt great pleasure and interest. On the other hand, Mitzi told him they would have to stop, because if they didn’t he could become pregnant.

Kandel remembers being dubious. He knew full well that only women could have babies. But at the same time he felt a certain anxiety. What would his mother think if he became pregnant?

That worry and Mitzi’s change of mood ended my first sexual encounter. But Mitzi continued thereafter to speak freely to me about her sexual yearnings and said that she might have realized them with me were I older.

Mitzi did not, as it turned out, remain celibate until I reached her age qualifications. Several weeks after our brief rendezvous in my bed, she took up with a gas repairman who came by to fix our stove. A month or two later, she ran off with him to Czechoslovakia. For many years thereafter, I thought that running off to Czechoslovakia was the equivalent of devoting one’s life to the happy pursuit of sensuality.

Kandel describes this lucky moment as one of his fondest early memories, and he also describes it as typically Viennese.

That erotic experience was right out of one of Arthur Schnitzler’s short stories, wherein a young, middle-class Viennese adolescent is introduced to sexuality by ein susses Madchen, a sweet young maiden, either a servant in the house or a working girl outside the house. Andrea Lee, writing in The New Yorker, has said that one of the criteria bourgeois families in Austria-Hungary used in selecting girls for housework was that they be suitable to relieve the family’s adolescent boys of their virginity, in part to entice them away from any possible attraction to homosexuality.

I just got around to reading Kandel’s memoir recently, and this anecdote caught my attention and refused to release it. Vienna is a city I know only from books. But this was a Vienna I did not know, even from books. The repression and ambivalence, the neurosis and hypocrisy detailed by Freud and his biographers (for instance, and with special relish, by Peter Gay), the self-conscious amorality of the rakes in Schnitzler’s stories, and the terrible fear of venereal disease that Stefan Zweig describes in The World of Yesterday, his own memoir of a Viennese childhood two generations earlier, is here replaced by an innocent and even rational sexuality, in which the libido – at least of a male child – is influenced by a sweet girl who, though she tells fairy tales, is paid to be gentle and accessible.

Of course Kandel was only 8 years old; he was not an adolescent. His family to fled Vienna in 1938. Soon this rich, contradictory Jewish Viennese culture would be erased so brutally that even slight a trace of its myths have special interest.

Still, one might ask: is it true? Since Kandel offers a reference to a New Yorker article by Andrea Lee, I decided to read it. The story is called La Ragazza, and it appeared in the issue for February 16, 2004. It is a beautiful story. It is not a piece of journalism or a biographical sketch, but a work of fiction, and it takes place not in Vienna but in Turin. Narrated in the third person, it sticks closely to the point of view of an unreliable rake from Padua named Orso who likes to irritate his girlfriends with the story of the “the first cunt he ever saw.” The cunt in question belonged to a housemaid named Ida. Orso was twelve at the time:

Ida, without underpants, perched precariously, legs askew, on the edge of the kitchen table, as Orso’s brother, Remo, a year older, declaimed in a pompous, pedagogic tone: “Questa, caro mio, è la fica”—“This, Orso, my boy, is the pussy.” Remo couldn’t actually have had a schoolmaster’s pointer, yet he was indicating with enough formality to suggest one: labia majora, labia minora, mons pubis, clitoris. Was he consulting a medical dictionary at the same time? It was possible. And leaning back on her elbows, giggling shameless encouragement in her singsong Friulano accent, was beautiful, brainless Ida, tall and blond and long-necked, with a head that looked as small as a goose’s.

Describing the scene to his lovers over the years, Orso has romanticized what he saw between Ida’s legs as a rose, pink-lipped and crimson in its depths, and has added a swirling frame of old-fashioned petticoats—when in fact the girl wore a coverall of postwar cut that squashed her thighs grotesquely when pulled up. What he really thought it looked like was a sea creature—edged with pale moss or cilia and exuding a mollusk’s imperturbable smugness. An impression that was hardly dispelled a few evenings later when, much to Remo’s chagrin, Orso was the one pulled down onto Ida’s small hard bed, after she had invited him to her room to deliver some old copies of Corriere dei Piccoli, the children’s weekly she used to read with her lips moving after washing the dinner dishes.

This scene, with its mixture of sex, science, sibling rivalry, and class condescension, is presented with somewhat more irony than in Kandel’s recollection. Orso’s attempt to irritate women by recounting it is invariably successful:

“Poor thing.” This was the comment of Anne, Orso’s American second wife, the mother of his children, who was quick to take up the cause of any woman against him.

“What do you mean, ‘poor thing’? It was all Ida’s idea to start with. She was eighteen or nineteen—and no virgin. A good housekeeper and a great cook, too. Nobody could make knoederli like hers. And she ended up fine. Married a carabiniere and came to my mother’s funeral in a mink coat.”

“Poor thing.” This was Bettina, Orso’s great love, who, throughout their six-year affair, stayed married to his business partner, Grellio. “I bet she didn’t really have petticoats like a cancan dancer. Sounds too much like Belle Epoque pornography to me. And why did your mother hire a slut like that?”

“She was a brilliant laundress. Could get through my mother’s entire trousseau of linen and hemp sheets and my father’s shirts in a single day. And I think they expected her to relieve Remo and me of our virginity. That’s what bourgeois families did in those days. So we wouldn’t end up homosexual.”

“Poor thing.” This was Sveva, the twenty-two-year-old assistant accountant in Orso’s office, with whom he occasionally sneaks off for a weekend. “So typical of men of your generation. You’ve all got a proto-Fascist nineteenth-century patriarchal mind-set. You’ve made the victim into an accomplice to quiet your sense of guilt.”

Now, indeed, we are back in the world of Schnitzler. Not the charming, anecdotal Schnitzler, but the Schnitzler of self-interested rationalization, and cruelty, all wrapped in thin blanket of cultural knowingness that does not conceal its crude outline. Some of the depth of Andrea Lee’s story comes from these echoes of Schnitzler, even to the point of “poor thing.” This is a phrase used in the most condescending way in Schnitzler’s famous play, The Affairs of Anatol. Anatol is here talking with is friend Max about the women he has had sex with:

ANATOL: I had a fine idea of myself in those days. I used to catch myself thinking . . . Poor child, poor child!

MAX. Poor . . . ?

ANATOL. When I was very young indeed I saw myself as one of the world’s great heroes of romance. These women, I thought . . . I pluck them, crush the sweetness from them . . . it’s the law of nature . . . then I throw them aside as I pass on.

Behind Schnitzler’s Anatol, behind Andrea Lee’s Orso, there is the great icon of sexual narcissism, unnamed but unmistakable, Casanova, who also had his first sex as a child. It was also in Padua, and also with an older girl. She was fourteen, Casanova was eleven. She had the duty of dressing his hair.

One morning she came to me as I was in bed and brought me a pair of white stockings of her own knitting. After dressing my hair, she asked my permission to try the stockings on herself, in order to correct any deficiency in the other pairs she intended to knit for me. The doctor had gone out to say his mass. As she was putting on the stocking, she remarked that my legs were not clean, and without any more ado she immediately began to wash them. I would have been ashamed to let her see my bashfulness; I let her do as she liked, not foreseeing what would happen. Bettina, seated on my bed, carried too far her love for cleanliness, and her curiosity caused me such intense voluptuousness that the feeling did not stop until it could be carried no further. Having recovered my calm, I bethought myself that I was guilty and begged her forgiveness. She did not expect this, and, after considering for a few moments, she told me kindly that the fault was entirely her own, but that she never would again be guilty of it. And she went out of the room, leaving me to my own thoughts.

But where Orso is a creep, and Anatol is ridiculous, Casanova in his memoirs is a realist, nearly a psychologist by temperament, who respects self-interest when he finds it expressed openly and deals with hypocrites poetically by deceiving them. Casanova displays a guiltless sexual curiosity that can only viewed by a Jewish Viennese doctor – which is what Schnitzler was, before he dropped medicine for fiction – with a kind of amazement. Schnitzler wrote a long story about Casanova in 1918, a tale in which the hero commits horrible acts with a bravado and savoir-faire available only to those incapable of remorse. After compelling a man to sell his mistress and then stabbing him to death in a duel, Casanova sleeps for days, bothered by little more than a vague feeling of bitterness and pronounced physical exhaustion.

How can this be possible? Shouldn’t inner contradictions – between Casanova’s sense of personal honor, say, and the memory that he has abused a woman who did nothing to him except wound his vanity – result in an uncontrollable anxiety? But Casanova is a master of oblivion. He does not erase the content of past incidents from his consciousness – his recollections are vivid – but instead he artfully preserves elements consistent with his self-esteem while softening what would cause him too much pain.

Willful forgetting, intentional non-knowing; these remain topics of controversy in philosophy and psychology. Usually, forgetting the past is understood as weakness, especially in old Vienna:

Dormant unconscious conflicts, revived by aroused appetites, make the course of sexual conquest, like that of true love, anything but smooth. Even the middle-class adolescent’s first fumbling experiments – his initiation by a complaisant servant at home or a venal waitress in town – is, in real life, a nest of ambivalences and rationalizations, of confused arousals and bouts of panic.”

–Peter Gay, Education of the Senses: The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud

Yet if there’s one thing Casanova is spared, it’s panic.

Erik Kandel, among his many interesting research topics, has studied panic. Panic is easy to induce in a mouse: you turn on a bright light, remove all routes of escape, and give it repeated shocks. Soon the creature will be frozen in a corner. A few years ago, Kandel and his colleagues decided to try and understand the mechanism by which learned panic occurs, using the mouse as a model animal. They succeeded. Learned panic occurs through circuits that link the thalamus and the amygdala. Kandel and his colleagues traced these circuits and described the biochemical processes at work there. They also discovered that the flip side of learned fear – learned safety – implicates a distinct region of the brain, called the striatum, that plays no role at all in learned fear. These discoveries, and parallel ones in other labs, hold out the hope for better drugs to replace the addictive and increasingly discredited benzodiazepines, like Valium. And there’s another benefit of this research. When learned fear is understood biologically, an entire mythical structure of morality becomes, if not untrue exactly, at least obsolete. The outsized neuroses of the sensitive Viennese youth, an echo chamber of past punishments and undeserved shocks, can be cured directly, without having to be brought laboriously into consciousness. We can all be Casanovas, then.

But wasn’t Casanova a monster? The snobbish rake of the Viennese tradition, the Orso or the Anatol, is at best an ass, and at worst a fiend. There are two possible responses. One is to say that the predatory evil in Casanova as intertwined with the social weakness of his prey;  their poverty, insecurity, naiveté, fear. A world of Casanovas – aided by advanced pharmacology, nano-surgery, or simply by rational education and effective governance – cannot be a world of victims. In its guiltless curiosity and implicit equality, this is a Utopia of science. The other response is to say that descriptions of Utopia are really meant as a kind of painful comedy. Utopia – that reasonable, morally defensible world – resembles our actual world so little that, after we laugh, we may be a less likely to defend commonplace injustice with our typical, fatuous confidence. Utopia, in this sense, is the enemy of myth, because it reminds us of the inadequacy of our moral awareness. Or, you might say: it helps us remember what’s wrong.

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