Ghosts in Vienna


Gryffindor: View of one of the main stairs in the University of Vienna (CC)

by Mandakini Pachauri

I first arrived here from India
three long decades ago late
one September night we drove
silently through the unbroken dark
country the headlights drilled
a white tunnel ended in a ghost town
here I found myself straining
looking for faces I could read

As daylight dwindled and the nights lengthened, a nameless despair came over me. I was young, healthy and free. All my daily needs were satisfied. The cold and dark seeped in deeper each day, conversations opaque and inconclusive. People’s gestures were sharp and forceful, faces frozen with no expression, covered in several layers. I trained my attention on deconstructing sound to understand. The German dictionary did not transliterate the Austrian dialect. I tried to make sense of what I heard. The dictionary’s name was Langenscheidt, which I deciphered as “long” and gescheit or “clever”. I later found out that “it is merely a name”.

Most Indian names have some etymological significance, so I asked everyone I was introduced to about the meaning of theirs. This was mostly met with shrugs and some polite non sequiturs. Deutsche Sprache schwere Sprache, people sing-songed to me. I repeated it and we laughed, ostensibly because “German is a difficult language” – but the sentence was linguistically incorrect. I excused myself for speaking insufficient German in faulty German. The stereotype fulfilled, I was understood and accepted.

In autumn, shadows pool in Vienna while tourists and songbirds soon disappear. Icy winds scourge through street canyons towards All Souls Day in November. Fresh Sturm, or “storm”, a semi-fermented wine cider, is a potent rush that unsettles the head and stomach. Temperatures fall, stoking appetites and the culture machine fires up, serving up a rich feast. Literary festivals and readings break out over the city like courses at a banquet of summer harvest.

Several floors below street level, at the Alte Schmiede, the European Beat Studies Network holds readings open to the public for the “Beats and Politics 2018” conference. Well-known poets read their texts to a full house. The evening’s theme is “Burroughs in Vienna”. Thomas Antonic, writer and researcher, tells us that William S. Burroughs, one of the founders of the Beat movement, studied medicine at the University of Vienna from 1936 to 1937, after graduating from Harvard.

He spent most of this time carousing in public baths with nubile boys, exiles and runaways, brooding secretly over the gonorrhoea he contracted earlier in the States. Just one of these baths is left and now serves as a plumber’s showroom. On the projection screen, we see garishly lit toilets and awkward shower fittings, disembodied and framed in graceful Roman columns and traditional plaster moulding. The Viennese administration did not consider this locale worthy of restoration, though most historic buildings have been rebuilt and painstakingly restored to pre-WWII grandeur.

One of Burroughs’s professors at the University of Vienna, Eduard Pernkopf was working on a four volume “Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy” at the time, Antonic explains. Two decades in the making, it went on to become the international reference in the field for another half-century. The eerily aesthetic drawings were almost certainly of dissected Jewish and other cadavers that the Nazi regime made use of with characteristic monstrous efficiency. Most illustrations have been proudly signed and incorporate Nazi symbols such as the Swastika.

A ubiquitous pendant to the Om, the Swastika is visible all across India at residential and temple entrances. Known as the Hakenkreuz in German or “hooked cross”, the sight of it remains wholly unpleasant to almost all Austrian and German citizens today. Rightist provocateurs use it to stir up the public sphere, where it stands for reactivating prohibited Nazi ideology, and bait the legal system. Its appearance is taken for a desecration of secular European values and is considered just as reprehensible as eating pork for some Muslims or killing cows for some Hindus.

At one time, I puzzled long over the etymology and meaning of the Austrian German phrase jemand ein Hackl ins Kreuz hauen, “to hurl an axe into someone’s back”, connecting it with the Swastika or similar sounding Hakenkreuz. These impressions are indelibly and erroneously melded together in my mind to evoke a back-stabbing Nazi behind the square and stolid symbol from my childhood.

Students riot at the University of Vienna after Nazi attempt to prevent Jews from entering the university, c. 1938 (Public Domain)

A neon-lit red hammer marks the entrance to Alte Schmiede with its formidable assortment of long, pointed tools hung around a blackened space. An erstwhile blacksmith’s forge preserved since 1880, it is Vienna’s vibrant literary heart located in the old city centre. Alte Schmiede is an evocative setting to speak of Burroughs, who pioneered the cut-up technique of decontextualising text fragments to create new text. The method is still used today by the likes of Bob Dylan and Thom Yorke to write song lyrics. Detailed illustrations of dissected viscera are now projected on screen. At the edge of some drawings, a precisely drawn and coloured circumcised penis or shaved head of an emaciated war victim is visible. In cutaway, the insides represent the prototypical human.

In 2012, Pieter Carstens, a professor of public law and medical ethics wrote of Pernkopf’s Atlas, “How can something so beautiful at the same time be so utterly despicable? Herein lies the paradox … irreconcilable opposites were forcibly reconciled.” Meanwhile, computer imaging technology has made this Faustian magnum opus unnecessary and obsolete as a medical reference today.

In the aftermath of WWII, the poet H.C. Artmann revitalised the Austrian dialect as separate from High German, while Ernst Jandl wrote and recited sound poetry as part of the Vienna Group. Most Viennese poets today trace their antecedents back to the Beat Generation and beyond, to the Dada movement against prevailing formalism. New prose is de rigeur and Iowa-born Ann Cotten, characterised by one Viennese authority as the queen-in-waiting of Austrian poetry, reads several texts spinning off Burroughs quotes and his obsession with ghosts.

“It remains a question how to appear. There is no alternative to costume. There is no legitimate costume. Each one is stolen. As long as you keep moving like a bum in London, no one can call you out for anything because you slip out the other side. When you have been irresponsible and unsensible you feel natural electroshock punishments. That is a kind of shame. Your worldview comes back every morning and makes you feel completely impossible while pressing you into action. Your only hope for life is that electricity might limit itself so after years of recurrent shocks, the batteries of difference that happened to be placed between, will finally be dead. At the same time it might mean your own death”, she reads.

“Death must be a Viennese … for only he has the right touch” goes a song by Georg Kreisler, a Jewish composer and satirist who fled Vienna in 1938. He soon enrolled in the US army and was stationed in Europe in 1943 writing songs to entertain US and allied troops stationed there. Today, it is still sung in bars and on small stages, some Viennese nodding their heads in agreement with Kreisler who later returned to Austria and lived to a ripe old age.

Burroughs burrows tiefer Graben
heroin heroine saviour of dying men. Amen
M for morphine M for many Williams
Shakespeare Blake Yeats Carlos Williams Merwin
Wordsworth worthy words wordy
W inverted M double Us
doubled over in pain wanting anesthesia
Anastasia/Prince danced in high-heeled agony
Fentanyl brought him down in the elevator
the Jehovah’s Witness creed did not allow
an operation leave no descendants when you go
go deep    deeper    for a vein    enough for a grave

Several untrustworthy doctors populate Burroughs’s oeuvre, Antonic explains. Some of these are Burroughs’s alter egos such as Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch and others are inspired by Pernkopf or other authoritarian academics he perhaps encountered in Vienna, such as Dr. Rindfest or Dr. Kurt Unruh von Steinplatz. Some of these doctors have German accents or even speak in German. Dr. Benway says in Naked Lunch: “Of course, I made a few Dummheiten [foolish errors], who doesn’t after arriving in Freeland from Annexia.” Austria was annexed by Germany shortly after Burroughs left. In 1939, he amputated the last joint of his left little finger to impress a man with whom he was infatuated and went on to write about it in a short story titled “The Finger”.

I came to Austria to build a life because I could not see a future for myself in India. I wished to live and move around as I willed – an Indian taboo, a single woman at large. I remember writing then: “The future is freedom, freedom from now.” Back then, in the only English novel I found, I remember reading “I now proclaim an evil that is pale and a hell that is cold. I want a dark, dark girl, abundant not virginal.” I cannot recall the book’s cover, plot, name or author and Google search yields no relevant results. Did it ever exist?

Burroughs met Ilse Klapper, a Jew in Vienna and helped her escape the Nazi regime by marrying her. They divorced after she migrated to America. Much later, he took the poet Joan Vollmer as his common-law wife and moved to Mexico to escape possible narcotic related detention. In a substance-abuse (or withdrawal) fuelled incident, Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer while she held a glass over her head, in a game of William Tell. None of her writings survived. Burroughs remained an opiate addict and gun aficionado till the end of his life.

“She’s not a girl who misses much”, sang the Beatles in “Happiness is a Warm Gun” on the iconic “White Album” released in 1968. John Lennon, who wrote this song, described its three sections as “the dirty old man…the junkie…and the gunman.” Together with his wife Yoko Ono, he gave a press conference at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna in 1969 to announce Bagism or “total communication”. For the duration of the press conference they were both enclosed in a bag – only heard and not seen, so that appearances would not interfere with their message of peace. Journalists baited and bantered, one of them asked, “Are you the ghost of John Lennon?” to which he replied, “Could be.” He was shot at close range and died in 1980. His killer, still behind bars, recently stated, “I am sorry for being such an idiot and choosing the wrong way for glory.”

Naked Lunch in Bombay

a dark rented room on a humid afternoon
eating pale smoked fish off waxed paper
sliced cheese gleaming wet and light
moon landscape mayonnaise potato salad
white bread looks naked in the tropics
white food does not satisfy
you eat again and yet again

Judith Nika Pfeifer, poet and novelist, rigs up her presentation onscreen and narrates a piece of family history using black and white photographs. Her French Huguenot grandmother, Franzi, who was part of the French Resistance, coincidentally met Burroughs at Cafe Hafa in Tangier, Morocco – also frequented by Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, and even the Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

Burroughs and Franzi came to speak of Vienna and he told her that he had lived there. They spoke of the fact that Hitler, Trotsky, Tito and Stalin all resided there in 1913, frequenting the Kaffeehäuser. He mentioned the Faculty of Medicine at Vienna University and told Franzi that “an Austrian is someone who cannot tell a lie without believing it himself”. This convinced her grandmother to travel to Vienna and reconnect with the Austrian man she met earlier in the Resistance, Nika’s grandfather. They in turn had a son named Sepp, Nika’s father who very recently passed away. Nika stops, stirred to tears. The audience of Beat writers, literary critics and enthusiasts holds its breath – a moment of verisimilitude in an evening dense with verbal and mental imagery. Death holds us in thrall and then releases us again. Nika continues in her idiosyncratic ethereal way, the surface is broken and we find ourselves easily following her as she conjures up ghosts – of an elusive Burroughs, her intrepid grandmother Franzi and her beloved father Sepp.

Towards the end, she does not read her poem aloud, but it appears on screen as if typed by a ghost. Whose ghost, we don’t know. The cursor goes back to change a word or two while we read in silence. In some serendipitous way, it seems as if Burroughs summoned Nika into existence.

Afterwards, I join Nika and a small group of family and friends at Cafe Engländer. She tells me that she leaves soon for Bangalore for an artist’s residency. When the soup arrives, Nika begins to joke about Burroughs’s belief that words actually manifest and we all join in the game of naming dishes after problematic politicians. We agree that thoroughly cooking and eating our foes is the appropriate use of them.

Nika fishes out two identical black and white paper masks of a young Burroughs from her bag which she forgot to use during her reading. We put them on and pose for selfies in turn. Wearing a junkie’s cold inanimate face, we laugh, wildly uninhibited behind our masks. Oddly enough, she has pasted printouts on masks of Prince William’s face to make these. We peel one of them off and there is an English royal at Cafe Engländer, fooling around with us.

Later we part ways, tired and
joking in the underground Metro.
Alone in the sudden silence, I diminish
to my appearance. It is past midnight,
my skin seems to darken and I shrink
to a tight opium-like ball. I ponder
over the evening, a stranger smiles briefly
I feel my face smiling, I’m almost home.


About the Author:

Mandakini Pachauri writes poetry and non-fiction from the edge of the Viennese Forest. She has had publications in World Literature Today and Words and Worlds, PEN Austria.

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