My Own Private Austria
Slavoj Zizek

Author’s Bio

How are we to locate Josef Fritzl, the Austrian monster who had her daughter imprisoned for a quarter of century and, after thousands of rapes, had many children with her?

Hegel was fully aware of how the weight of an event provided by its symbolic inscription “sublates” its immediate reality – in his Philosophy of History, he provided a wonderful characterization of Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian war: “In the Peloponnesian War, the struggle was essentially between Athens and Sparta. Thucydides has left us the history of the greater part of it, and his immortal work is the absolute gain which humanity has derived from that contest.” One should read this judgment in all its naivety: in a way, from the standpoint of the world history, the Peloponnesian war took place so that Thucydides could write a book on it. The term “absolute” should be given here all its weight: from the relative point of our finite human interests, the numerous real tragedies of the Peloponnesian war (suffering, devastation) are, of course, infinitely more important than a book, but from the standpoint of the Absolute, it is the book that matters.

Blasphemous as it may sound, one is tempted to say that the same holds for the Austrian subterranean reality into which we got a glimpse in the case of Josef Fritzl: the work of Elfriede Jelinek is “the absolute gain which humanity has derived from” such terrifying crimes. For decades, Jelinek was uncompromisingly describing the violence of men against women in all its modalities, including women’s own libidinal complicity in their victimization. Without mercy, she was bringing to light obscene fantasies that underlie the Middle European respectability, fantasies which crawled into public space in the Fritzl affair which effectively has the unreality of a ‘bad’ fairy tale. No wonder Jelinek is for decades a thorn in the eyes of Austrian conservatives who dismiss her as a degenerate woman publicizing her depraved private fantasies: during an election campaign, Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party used posters with a simple question Jelinek oder Kultur? – do you want true culture or Jelinek’s writings? The answer is clear: the true formula is Jelinek oder das Unbehagen in der Kultur – Jelinek stages the obscene discontent that dwells in the very core of our culture, her work is in this respect similar to that of Rammstein in rock music.

There is, of course, an obvious difference between Thucydides and Jelinek: Thucydides came afterwards, writing a history of the war, while Jelinek is even more than as contemporary, he is almost writing a history of the future, detecting in the present the potentials for the forthcoming horrors. This temporal reversal – the symbolic depiction precedes the fact it depicts, history as story precedes history as a process in reality – is an indicator of our late modernity in which the real of history is assuming the character of a trauma. When we think we really know a close friend or relative, it often happens that, all of a sudden, this close person does something – utters an unexpected vulgar or cruel remark, makes an obscene gesture, casts a cold indifferent glance where compassion is expected – which makes us aware that we do not really know him/her: we become suddenly aware that there is a total stranger in front of us. At this point, the fellow man changes into a Neighbor. This is what happened in a devastating way with Josef Fritzl: from a kind and polite fellow-man, he suddenly changed in a monstrous Neighbor – to the great surprise of the people who met him daily and simply could not believe that this is the same person.

Freud’s idea of the “primordial father (Urvater)” which he developed in his Totem and Taboo, is usually met with ridicule – and justly so, if we take it as a realist anthropological hypothesis arguing that, at the very dawn of humanity, the “ape-men” lived in groups dominated by the all-powerful father who kept all women for his own exclusive sexual (ab)use, and that, after the sons gathered and rebelled, killing the father, the dead father returned to haunt them as a totemic figure of symbolic authority, giving rise to guilt-feeling and imposing the prohibition of incest. What if, however, we read the duality of the “normal” father and the primordial father of the unlimited access to incestuous enjoyment not as a fact of the earliest history of humanity, but as a libidinal fact, a fact of “psychic reality,” which accompanies as an obscene shadow the “normal” paternal authority, prospering in the dark underground of unconscious fantasies? This obscene underground is discernible through its effects – in myths, dreams, slips of tongue, symptoms… and, sometimes, it enforces its direct perverse realization (Freud noted that perverts realize what hysterics only fantasize about). Does the very architectural arrangement of the Fritzl house – the “normal” ground and upper floors supported (literally and libidinally) by the underground windowless enclosed space of total domination and unlimited jouissance – not materialize the “normal” family space redoubled by the secret domain of the obscene “primordial father”? Fritzl created in his cellar his own utopia, a private paradise in which, as he told his lawyer, he spent hours on end watching TV and playing with the youngsters while Elisabeth prepared dinner. In this self-enclosed space, even the language the inhabitants shared was not the common one, but a kind of private language: it is reported that the two sons Stefan and Felix communicate in a bizarre dialect, with some of their sounds “animal-like.” The case of Fritzl thus validates Lacan’s pun on perversion as père-version, version of the father – it is crucial to note how the underground secret apartment complex materializes a very precise idelogico-libidinal fantasy, the extreme version of father-domination-pleasure? One of the mottos of the May ’68 was “all power to fantasy” – and, in this sense, Fritzl is also a child of ’68, ruthlessly realizing his fantasy.

This is why it is misleading, even outright wrong, to designate Fritzl as “inhuman” – if anything, he was, to use Nietzsche’s title, “human, all too human.” No wonder Fritzl complained that his own life had been “ruined” by the discovery of his secret family. What makes his reign so chilling aspect of his reign is precisely the way his brutal is that his exercise of power and his usufruct of the daughter were not just a cold act of exploitation, but were accompanied by an ideologico-familial justification (he did what a father should do, protecting his children from drugs and other dangers of the outside world), as well as by occasional displays of compassion and human considerations (he did take the ill daughter to the hospital, etc.). These acts were not breaches of warm humanity in his armor of coldness and cruelty, but parts of the same protective attitude that made him imprison and violate his children.

Fritzl claimed that he noted Elisabeth wanted to escape her home – she was returning home late, looking for a job, having a boyfriend, was maybe taking drugs, and he wanted to protect her from all that.

The contours of the obsessional strategy are clearly recognizable here: I’ll protect her from the dangers of the outside world even if it means destroying her… According to the media, Fritzl defended himself: “If it weren’t for me, Kerstin wouldn’t be alive today. I’m no monster. I could have killed them all. Then there would have been no trace. No-one would have found me out.” The underlying premise of these defense is: as a father, he had the right to exercise total power over his children, including sexual usufruct and killing; it was his goodness that he showed some consideration and didn’t fully use his power – after all, didn’t he bring the ill (grand) daughter Kerstin to the hospital, didn’t he abstain from killing them all… And, as every psychoanalyst can confirm, we often find traces of such an attitude even in the most “normal” and caring fathers: all of a sudden, the kind father explodes into a father-Thing, convinced that his children owe him everything, their very existence, that they are absolutely indebted to him, that his power over them is limitless, that he has the right to do whatever he wants to take care of them.

Fritzl’s own “psychological” explanation (that Elisabeth reminded him of his mother, a tyrannical matriarch) is, of course, a ridiculous example of a common sense imitating Freudian jargon. One should avoid here the trap of putting the blame on patriarchal authority as such, seeing in Fritzl’s monstrosity the ultimate consequence of the paternal Law, as well as the opposite trap of putting the blame on the disintegration of the paternal Law. Such an attitude is neither a component of “normal” paternal authority (the measure of its success is precisely the ability to set the child free, to let him/her go into the outer world) nor a sign of its failure (in the sense that the void of the “normal” paternal authority is supplemented, filled in, by the ferocious figure of the all-powerful “primordial father”), but, one can say, both simultaneously: a dimension which, under “normal” circumstances, remains virtual, was actualized in the Fritzl case.

The attempts to blame Austrian particularity commit the same ideological error as those who dream of an “alternate modernity” to the predominant liberal-capitalist one: by way of shifting the blame upon contingent particular Austrian circumstances, they want to keep clear and innocent paternity as such, i.e., they refuse to see the potential for such acts in the very notion of paternal authority. And, incidentally, it is rather comic to see critical analysts blaming for the Fritzl affair the Austrian sense of orderliness and maintaining appearances, of turning a blind eye and refusing to take a closer look even when we obviously can see that something must be wrong, and, simultaneously, hinting at the Austrian dark Nazi past – does one not usually associate with Nazism rather the opposite stance, that of “totalitarian” spying on neighbors in order to detect any subversive activity and denounce it to police? (Turning the blind eye on what one doesn’t want to see was, of course, part of the Nazi universe, but at a different level: pretending not to know about horrible crimes committed by the state, like the killing of the Jews. What is needed here is a more precise analysis of different types of turning a blind eye: one should not put under the same category the attitude of pretending not to notice the holocaust activities, and the fundamental politeness of pretending not to note when our neighbor looks really bad or inadvertently commits some embarrassing act.)

This, of course, does not mean that any debate about the “Austrian” character of the Fritzl crime should be rejected: one should just be aware that the excessive violence of the “primordial father” assumes in every particular culture specific fantasmatic features. With regard to Austria, instead of the miserable attempts to blame for Josef’s terrible crime the Austrian Nazi past or the Austrian excessive sense of orderliness and respectability, one should rather link the figure of Fritzl to a much more respectful Austrian myth, that of the von Trapp family immortalized in The Sound of Music: another family living in their secluded castle, under the father’s benevolent military authority which protects them from the evil Nazi outside, with generations strangely mixed (the Sister Maria, like Elisabeth, a generation between father and children…) The aspect of kitsch is relevant here: The Sound of Music is the ultimate kitsch phenomenon, and what Fritzl created in his basement also displays features of a kitsch family life realized: the happy family getting ready for diner, with the father watching TV with children while mother is preparing the food… However, one should not forget that the kitsch imagery we are dealing with here are not Austrian but belong to Hollywood and, more generally, Western popular culture: Austria in The Sound of Music is not the Austrian’s Austria, but the mythic Hollywood image of Austria – the paradox is here that it is as if, in the last decades, Austrians themselves started to “play Austrians,” i.e., identified with the Hollywood image of their own country.

This parallel can be extended to include the Fritzl-version of some of the most famous scenes from The Sound of Music. One can imagine the frightened children gathered around mother Elisabeth, in fear of the storm of the forthcoming father’s arrival, and mother calming them down by a song about some of “some of their favorite things” they should focus their minds on, from the toys brought by father to their most popular TV show… Or what about an upstairs reception in the Fritzl villa to which the underground children were exceptionally invited, and then, when the time for bed comes, the children performing for the assembled guests the obscene song “Aufwiedersehen, Goodbye” and departing one after the other… Really, in the Fritzl house, the basement, if not the hills, was alive with the sound of music.

Ridiculous as The Sound of Music is as one of the worst cases of Hollywood kitsch, one should take very seriously the sacred intensity of the universe of the film, without which its extraordinary success cannot be accounted for: the power of the film resides in its obscenely-direct staging of embarrassing intimate fantasies. The film’s narrative turns around resolving the problem stated by the nuns’ chorus in the introductory scene: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” The proposed solution is the one mentioned by Freud in an anecdote: Penis normalis, zwei mal taeglich… Recall what is arguably the most powerful scene of The Sound of Music: after Maria escapes from the von Trapp family back to the monastery, unable to deal with her sexual attraction towards Baron von Trapp, she cannot find peace there, since she is still longing for the Baron; in a memorable scene, the Mother Superior summons her and advises her to return to the von Trapp family and try to sort out her relationship with the Baron. She delivers this message in a weird song “Climb every mountain!” whose surprising motif is: Do it! Take the risk and try everything your heart wants! Do not allow petty considerations to stand in your way! The uncanny power of this scene resides in its unexpected display of the spectacle of desire, an eros energumens which renders the scene literally embarrassing: the very person whom one would expect to preach abstinence and renunciation turns out to be the agent of the fidelity to one’s desire. In other words, Mother Superior effectively is a superego figure, but in Lacan’s sense, for whom the true superego injunction is “Enjoy!” One can well imagine, along these lines, Josef Fritzl visiting his priest, confessing to him his passionate desire to imprison his daughter and rape her, to what the priest answers: “Climb every mountain…” (Or, as a matter of fact – literally, much closer to facts -, a young priest confessing to his superior his pedophiliac lust, to which he gets as the reply the same “Climb every mountain”…)

The key fantasmatic scene of the film is the one after the children and Maria return from their trip to Salzburg, dirty and wet; the angry baron first plays the strict disciplinarian father, coldly dismissing them and reprimanding Maria; when, however, he thereafter returns to the house and hears them singing in chorus “The hills are live…”, he immediately breaks down and shows his true gentle nature: he starts to hum silently the song and then joins them singing – after the song, they all embrace, father and children are reunited. Father’s ridiculously theatrical disciplinarian rituals and orders thus appear what they are: a mask of its very opposite, a soft and gentle heart… So what has this to do with Fritzl? Wasn’t Fritzl a fanatical-terrorizing disciplinarian with no soft spot in the heart? This, exactly, is not true: Fritzl’s power was used to enforce his heart’s dream, he was not a cold disciplinarian, but, precisely, the one who was too much “alive with music” and wanted to directly realize his dream in a private space of his own.

In the last years of the Communist regime in Romania, Nicolae Ceaucescu was asked by a foreign journalist how does he justify the constraints on foreign travel imposed to Romanian citizens – is this not a violation of their human rights? Ceaucescu answered that these constraints are here to protect an even higher and more important human right, the right to have a safe home, which would have been threatened by too much free travel… was he not reasoning here like Fritzl, who also protected his children’s “more fundamental” rights to a safe home, where they will be protected from the dangers of the outside world? Or, to use Peter Sloterdijk’s terms, Fritzl protected his children’s rights to live in a safe self-enclosed sphere – while, of course, reserving to himself the right to transgress the barrier all the time, up to visiting the Thai sex tourist places, the very embodiment of the danger he wanted his children protected from. Remember that Ceaucescu also perceived himself as a caring paternal authority, the father protecting his nation from the foreign decadence – as in all authoritarian regimes, the basic relationship between the ruler and his subject was also the one of unconditional love.

In his care for his own house, the city of Bucharest, Ceausescu made a proposal which strangely recalls the architecture of Fritzl’s house: in order to solve the problem of the polluted river which runs through Bucharest, he wanted to dig beneath the existing river bed another wide channel beneath the earth in which all the dirt will be directed, so that there would have been two rivers, the deep one with all the pollution, and the surface one for the happy citizens to enjoy it…