Besoffen, aber gescheit - about the book






Über das Buch - Deutsch



Joseph Roth in the Net












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

In as far as philologists of all stripes have concerned themselves with men of letters and their works, they have always done so from the point of view of the arts, the humanities, not at all on the basis of the natural sciences.

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.

Our concern is to consider the result and to ask whether it can contribute to our understanding of the way in which addictions, and in particular alcoholism, affected the artistic creativity of an author whom many consider one of the greats of German letters, perhaps worthy of mention in the same breath as Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil and so on.

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 itself.

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 advances.

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 all.

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.
Elsewhere we read: "We will not take it upon ourselves to approach this aspect of Roth's life with the techniques of depth psychology or even psychoanalysis." We ask, of course: why not? After all, (sexual) relationships are a more rewarding field for depth psychology than any other.

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.
Since, however, anything at all can be posited in the context of an "empathic understanding" employing psychoanalytic ideas, without the possibility of it being verified or disproved, one very good thing about the authors' argumentation is that it gives rise to the hope that in future nobody else will attempt to explain Roth in terms of depth psychology.

After all, we can see what curious results such approaches to literature or writers can lead to in works like Robert Bly's "Eisenhans"[1], 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"[2], which the doyen of biologically orientated scientific journalists Hoimar v. Ditfurth described as "utter nonsense"[3].

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.
Nor will they mind the fact that statements sometimes crop up repeatedly where they don't really belong, apparently because they reflect key insights of the authors, of whom logical narrative is not a strong point. Anyway, consulted works are listed as an appendix.


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.

[1] Robert Bly, Eisenhans, Ein Buch Über Männer, Munich 1991

[2] Karl R. Eissler, Goethe: Eine psychoanalytische Studie, Munich 1987

[3] Hoimar v. Ditfurth, Innenansichten eines Artgenossen, Düsseldorf 1998


Eleonore Fronk, Werner Andreas

“Besoffen, aber gescheit”
Joseph Roths Alkoholismus in Leben und Werk

2002 Athena Verlag Oberhausen 1. Aufl.
190 Seiten, € 21.50