Besoffen, aber gescheit - about the book
When the fool's bell rings
Reflections on the new book by Eleonore Fronk and Werner Andreas "drunk
but clever", Joseph Roth's alcoholism in his life and work
This demarcation is maintained
particularly strictly in Germany, despite the fact that it's false, since
in such a science-minded society as ours we realise that it's really a
mistake to divorce science and humanities.
For this reason we are glad to
come across a work which at least attempts a scientific appraisal of what
is, at first glance, a purely philological theme.
The work in question is a book by
the psychiatrists Eleonore Fronk and Werner Andreas, who consider the
development of the Austrian author Joseph Roth's alcoholism from a
medical-psychological point of view.
However this wasn't by any means
the original intention of authoress Eleonore Fronk, who had tried for
years, alone at first, to do justice to this theme from the point of view
of depth psychology. She had done this at the behest of her academic
supervisor, a now retired professor of psychiatry. If she had completed
the work it would have been a more art-critical consideration of the
matter, as the author of these lines, who has seen the original version of
this work, knows. In that case we would have had at our disposal a merely
hermeneutic explication of a man's soul, spirit and failure. This might
well have been very readable but it wouldn't have been truly illuminating.
Fortunately, however, the authoress realised the pointlessness of her
original enterprise after years of torment and fruitless discussions with
her academic supervisor and would probably have given up completely had it
not been for her incipient collaboration with her psychiatric colleague.
It isn't easy to do justice to
this book in just a few lines, since, however much trouble the authors
take to argue in medical and scientific terms, it remains the case that
even today there are strict limitations to such a method when applied to
the human mind. Moreover, the authors are not strictly speaking modern
scientists, but rather representatives of a classical medical career with
a by no means exclusively scientific education. They are equally at home
in the humanities.
The initial intent of the book
(and of the original dissertation) is to examine this question: whether
the author Joseph Roth's alcoholism can be explained in terms of depth
psychology, and whether his work can in any way be interpreted as a
strategy of coping. For this purpose the authors adopt a method that is
sometimes quite unusual and which never neglects the difficulties of
wholly elucidating such problems.
The first half of the book is
concerned with how the question of Joseph Roth's alcoholism has hitherto
been treated in the literature and with the comparison of the author's
alcoholic development with that of such writers as Jack London, Ernest
Hemingway and Gottfried Benn.
These observations are
supplemented by scientific and psychological concepts of alcoholism and a
summary of the general secondary literature on the Roth.
This is followed principally by a
consideration of the question of what connections there might be between
alcohol consumption and authorship, whereby some interesting concepts are
examined. A considerable part of the book is then taken up with Roth's
biography, which is investigated in exhaustive detail. Particular
attention is paid to the development of his alcoholism. The question is
also posed as to what degree alcoholism is a theme of his literary work
Finally there is a "literary
biography" of the author, examining whether his increasing alcohol
consumption is reflected in his work in the sense of a deterioration. This
is complemented by a look at Joseph Roth's correspondence.
The book offers a great deal of
information, indeed more than, in this form, was previously available on
Roth or other authors. It is particularly worth mentioning that, in
addition to all the psychological and analytical enquiry, we are also
offered an alternative scientific approach. This is consistent with modern
trends, now that so many apparently psychogenic factors at once are
becoming transparent against the background of recent biological-medical
Nevertheless, and this has to be
said, the book departs considerably from the original aim of the
dissertation. Anyone expecting a classical scientific analysis will
certainly be disappointed, as the work advances no clear hypothesis and
hence no logically derived structure or any strict line of reasoning at
So, to stress one example, the
authors speak of Roth having shown no defence mechanisms and also not
having been in the habit of rationalising. There is evidence supporting
this in his correspondence. Yet we do not find any explanation of this
beyond what is contained in the correspondence.
Let us emphasize, however, that
this is not really a failing of the book, which is intended as a narrative
and not as a pure work of research.
What is impressive is rather the
enormous compression of the collected material, which gives a sense of how
much effort was required to complete the work at all.
One of the authors' conclusions
is that Roth's alcohol consumption and his work cannot be grasped in terms
of depth psychology. Depth psychologists or analytically oriented people
may perhaps see that differently, since, as one must perhaps explain, this
discipline is rather an "empathic understanding" than a question
of classical scientific proofs or refutations.
After all, we can see what
curious results such approaches to literature or writers can lead to in
works like Robert Bly's "Eisenhans",
in which this fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm is taken apart in the most
peculiar manner, or even the treatise "Goethe: a psychoanalytic study", which the doyen of
biologically orientated scientific journalists Hoimar v. Ditfurth
described as "utter nonsense".
Let us return, however, to the
essentials. What stands out here is that the authors have seen something
which may not have always been clear to traditional psychiatrists in the
field of addiction treatment: Joseph Roth may be regarded as an example of
people who are able to mentally defy chronic (permanent) intoxication (poisoning)
by a neurotoxin like alcohol, without detriment to their intellectual
powers, even in a state of advanced physical decline. Such phenomena are
seldom mentioned even in specialist medical works.
Readers who enjoy a narrative
style which tends to the intuitive and rhapsodic will derive great
pleasure from this book. They won't mind the authors' occasionally being
unable to resist the temptation to let their own political and ideological
positions ride the wave, so to speak, of their actual theme.
Readers will, above all, be
impressed by the fact that work is still being done which combines factual
scientific (in this case medical) content with the sort of intuition more
readily found in the humanities, something which is seldom outside of
articles from the Anglo-Saxon world.
 Robert Bly, Eisenhans, Ein Buch Über Männer, Munich 1991
 Karl R. Eissler, Goethe: Eine psychoanalytische Studie, Munich 1987
 Hoimar v. Ditfurth, Innenansichten eines Artgenossen, Düsseldorf 1998
“Besoffen, aber gescheit”