Mahler: “A Genius and an Ape”

People seem to think that women and men of greatness are “great” in all aspects of their personality. We hear a piano sonata or late string quartet by Beethoven, and are lifted into such a sublime, wordless view of humanity’s pathos and its cosmic possibilities, and wish to believe that the mind which conceived of this transport is, himself, transported beyond the normal narrowness and pettiness of mind that bedevils us, the listeners, in our everyday lives. And yet not a single one of us could have lived a day in Beethoven’s house. The author of the ecstasy of the Ninth Symphony regularly screamed at people, cursed like a sailor, threw things, and he even famously would dump his urine bucket out the window at passersby in the street below who he felt were being too noisy or distracting. The great liberator Dr. Martin Luther King bedded women in cities across America, unbeknownst to his wife (and his Christian flock, where he was a justly revered pastor and prophet.) The John Lennon of “Imagine” and “Give peace a chance” ran off and spent five years in heroin addiction, taking up residence with another woman not Yoko. And yet how far grosser than this is the fact that the entire Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are sprouted from the roots of a clearly schizophrenic man who claimed he heard voices that told him to slay his own son. Which he very nearly did, until other voices stopped his hand just as he was about to draw the blade of the knife against his trembling son’s throat. The list goes on and on and on.

Gustav Mahler was as great a prophet as any of them, as surpassing a genius as any who has ever walked this Earth. And yet, he was also terribly constrained and limited in his psychological array. And he bled that all out in his music — raw self-contradiction buried right there in the tortured sinews of his always-collapsing, rebuilding music.

One day, torn by news of his wife’s infidelity, Mahler sought out the advice of the leading psychotherapist of the day — none other than Sigmund Freud. Mahler loved his wife Alma passionately, almost worshipfully. Yet his obsessive work-ethic, his volcanic temperament, even his messianic super-drive — his very demons that makes his music such a great testament and expression of the totality of the human spirit, from dark to light — had driven his wife to seek comfort and affirmation in the arms of another man.

Photograph of Sigmund Freud by Ferdinand Schmutzer, 1926.

The earliest, most substantial, and direct source of information about Gustav Mahler’s visit to Sigmund Freud is the diary kept by Freud’s disciple, Marie Bonaparte, during her analysis elaborated fourteen years later with Freud.

Here is Freud’s firsthand view of the encounter with Mahler, as quoted in Bonaparte’s diary:

“Then [Mahler] arrived in Leiden, and asked me to meet him at the hotel. I went there, and we walked around the whole town for four hours. He told me his whole life story. It was getting late, and I said: ‘I must catch the last train, otherwise I can't get back home ... And you, what will you do?’ I asked Mahler. ‘I’, he answered, ‘I am returning straight away to the Tyrol.’"
Freud: “Mahler gave me the curious impression that he was both a genius and an ape. He has been dead a long time, so I can speak freely to you. He came to me because of his marriage. He had married a woman who was younger than he was; and at that time, they were not getting on very well with each other. He was a normal, rigorous man, who loved his wife.”

A graphic example of Mahler’s “apish” character? It was not a casual brutishness or selfishness, but rather his searing, insatiable drive towards the Absolute, no matter the condition or situation — even during the birthing of his first child:

"When [his wife Alma's] labor pains increased, she woke Mahler and asked him to fetch the midwife. He tried to comfort her during her labor by reading Kant aloud, but the monotonous sound of his voice and the nature of the text, which she would in the best of circumstances have found uncongenial, so exasperated her that she begged him to stop." 

Gustav Mahler: Vienna: The Years of Challenge, Henry Louis de la Grange.

Herein on full display the maddening lack of a basic actualisation of the very humanity he expressed in his music, and yet it is not some contradiction or unresolvable tic. The forge of profoundest insight alchemizes metals both base and pure, both wretched and inspirational, both human and god-like. Did not Jesus also whip the peasant moneychangers of the temple, struggling there to earn a few measly shekels to feed their hungry babes at home? The son of a man, indeed.

Sources: #MahlerFoundation and Professor Arved Ashby

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