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“Trotzdem muss ich lachen” The Joke of Subjectivity in Bachmann's

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					ABSTRACT: “Trotzdem muss ich lachen”: The Joke of Subjectivity in
Bachmann’s Malina

Jill Scott       August, 2005 Gender, Laughter, Parody               Queen’s University
(for a longer version of this paper, please contact Jill Scott: scottj@post.queensu.ca)

        Laughter is not an obvious subject for critical investigation when it comes to
Ingeborg Bachmann‟s only finished novel in her Todesarten Projekt. Much has been
written on female subjectivity, on oppression, repression and violence, on narrative
innovation and intertextuality, but to my knowledge, there exist but two scholarly articles
on the power of humour to transform human geographies in Malina (1971).i And yet, a
careful examination of the text reveals a larger joke that erupts into laughter, seeping out
from the fissures in the walls, the very crack into which the first-person narrator
disappears.
        Malina is narrated by a nameless female Ichii caught in a vortex of tortured
relations with three men, without whom it seems she has no existence, but with whom her
death is inevitable. The claustrophobic narrative, confined to the intimate domesticity on
a certain Ungargasseiii in post-war Vienna, functions as an allegory for the violent will of
what Sarah Lennox calls “fascist personality types” and the silent screams of their
victims (23).iv In Malina, Bachmann thematizes the relationship between politics and
gendered subjectivity, stretching the limits of prose genres in her effort to expose the
extent of the social dysfunction. Oscillating between dreamworld, pseudo-reality and
interior monologue, the story of the anonymous female protagonist becomes absurd to the
point of being comical. Just as traditional generic forms can no longer contain the tension
of the narrative, so too, the madness of unraveling subjectivity in Malina breaks the
boundaries of the rational and explodes into the ludic.v In her acceptance speech for the
Büchner Prize, Bachmann writes about the protagonist Lenz, but also speaks to her own
characters, suggesting that “their craziness is nothing more than the physical, psychic
expression for something unbearable” (qtd. in Lennox 25; TP 1:175), and that the spirit
would rather go crazy than give in to oppressive social mores.
        This paper explores the ways in which laughter emerges as a subversive politics
of subjectivity, gender and genre in Bachmann‟s Malina. I will begin with a brief
discussion of Freud‟s Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, followed by an
analysis of how humour in Malina corresponds to the model set out by Freud. The paper
will end with an investigation of the figure of Pierrot as an allegorical character
paralleling Malina and Ich in their complicated and ultimately deadly comedy, where
subjectivity itself becomes a joke.

Freud and the Joke

        According to Freud, there are two elements to a joke which produce laughter 1)
the idea behind the joke and 2) the expression of it, and ultimately the clever combination
of both.vi Although Malina is hardly a joke book, several important questions regarding
the nature of the comic and laughter in the novel emerge from the model set out by
Freud: 1) What is the relationship between the idea and the expression or technique with
regard to the comic in Malina? 2) What kinds of judgements does the comic make? 3)
What is the hidden logic revealed by this laughter? 4) Who laughs and what does this say
about the nature of power and the comic?
        An examination of the text reveals a surprising gap between laughter and the
comic in Malina. That is to say that in the most comical passages there is little or no
mention of their comic effect, and yet laughter is present in the text where it seems least
comical. For the most part, the father is the one who laughs, but almost always in a
sadistic sense that posits Ich as the butt of the joke. The allocation of laughter shifts
toward the end of the novel. In the final scene between Ivan and Ich, when it seems
obvious that their relationship is no longer tenable, Ivan usurps the laughing role once
occupied by the father.

Kranewitzer: Posting the Joke

        Having considered the role of laughter and its effect on the laughing subject, let
us now turn to the comical episodes in the text and the treatment of Freud‟s concepts of
expression and idea. One of the most amusing scenes in the novel deals with Ich‟s self-
proclaimed “Schwäche für Postbeamte” at the outset of the third chapter. This
“Zuneigung für Briefträger” takes the form of “Überschwenglichkeit” not for the men
themselves, whose faces Ich can hardly recall, but for the express mail and telegrams they
deliver. The new, tongue-in-cheek narrative voice introduced here can scarcely contain
sarcasm and superlative: “Was wir also alle diesen Männern verdanken, bleibt noch zu
sagen” (251). A mixture of awe and pity accompanies the tale of the mailmen, who grace
Ich‟s door. We learn of the sordid tale of Kranewitzer, the letter carrier, who stockpiles
undelivered mail in his apartment. His story is a microcosm of the larger problem of
communication in the novel.
        If the letter and by proxy the novel are undelivered and undeliverable (in the
religious sense of the word – beyond salvation), then if follows that Ich, whose
subjectivity is limited to her authorship of the novel and the letter, cannot be saved. The
cracked wall represents the outer edge of the discursive field Ich sets up – when she
disappears into the fissure, she literally vanishes into the discourse that she herself
created. Malina carries on as the voice of the narrative, but the narrative he speaks is Ich.
She no longer speaks the narrative, she is spoken as narrative – her position shifts from
subject of the narrative to unmediated narrative object. Ich‟s final comedy is in the form
of a practical joke at Malina‟s expense. She describes her exit:

       Ich bin an die Wand gegangen, ich gehe in die Wand, ich halte den Atem an. Ich hätte noch auf
       einen Zettel schreiben müssen: Es war nicht Malina. Aber die Wand tut sich auf, ich bin in der
       Wand, und für Malina kann nur der Riß zu sehen sein, den wir schon lange gesehen haben. Er wird
       denken, daß ich aus dem Zimmer gegangen bin. (354, my emphasis)

       Ich is not just in the wall, she becomes the wall. If the wall is the novel‟s edge and
outer narrative limit, echoing Wittgenstein‟s sentence, “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache
bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt” (20), then Malina, as the new principal protagonist
and omniscient narrator of subsequent sections of the Todesarten-Projekt, speaks Ich.
Bachmann concedes in an interview following the publication of Malina: “Malina wird
uns erzählen können, was ihm der andere Teil seiner Person, das Ich, hinterlassen hat”
(GuI 96), but I would go one step further and say that not only will Malina narrate what
Ich has left behind, but will narrate Ich herself as part and parcel of the narrative
consciousness set up in this first novel of the Todesarten-Projekt.
i
   Karen Achberger laments the reputation of Bachmann‟s prose as being particularly „düster und trostlos,“
and claims that, quite the contrary, this humorlessness is a misreading of her works. Achberger claims not
only are Bachmann‟s works peppered with subtle but biting comedy, but that those who knew her
personally spoke of her infectious laughter, her “tollen Sinn für Humor” and her love of practical jokes
(227-228). We might even go so far as to say that the biggest joke is on those who miss the joke. See
Achberger‟s „‟Bösartig liebevoll‟ den Menschen zugetan. Humor in Ingeborg Bachmanns Todesarten-
Projekt,“ Christine Kanz‟s Angst und Geschlechterdifferenzen: Ingeborg Bachmanns Todesarten-Projekt in
Kontexten der Gegenwartsliteratur (183-188). See also Christa Gürtler‟s „Ironie und Komik in Ingeborg
Bachmanns Erzählband Simultan.“
ii
    For the remainder of this paper, I shall refer to this nameless female protagonist as Ich. It may seem odd
to use this first person pronoun in the third person, but I believe Bachmann invites us to question what it
means to “speak for the „I.‟” For a discussion of the politics of speaking for the “I,” see Ingeborg Majer
O‟Sickey‟s “Rereading Ingeborg Bachmann‟s Malina: Toward a transformative Feminist Reading Praxis.”
iii
    Laughter is present in subtle and not-so-subtle forms in Malina. The names of people and places are
never accidental for Bachmann and the all-important “Ungargasse” is no exception. Its play on words is
multiple; it refers potentially to “Ungarn,” the birthplace of Ivan, one of the three men in Ich‟s story, but
also an important part of the geographical and political puzzle that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire;
and its constituent parts “un,” “gar,” and “Gasse” when taken apart create new meanings. When used as a
suffix, “un” negates or reverses what follows, and “gar” can mean both “none whatsoever” and “for no
reason,” but can also function as a superlative qualifier to emphasize a statement equivalent to “really,
indeed and too.” Even “Gasse” can be interpreted as an irregular street, a narrow alleyway rather than a
wide and grand thoroughfare. Given the heightened emphasis upon “Zeit” and “Ort” of the novel‟s action,
specified at the outset as “Heute” and “Wien,” the unpredictability and negativity implicit in “Ungargasse”
can only be seen as one “Witz” among many. The comedy continues with subsequent references to
“Ungargassenland,” a made-up fiefdom, which the narrator puts on par with Washington, Moscow and
Berlin (25), and that has to be defended ad absurdum: “Mein Ungargassenland, daß ich halten muß, das ich
verteidige, um das ich zittere, um das ich kämpfe, zum Sterben bereit“ (115) and so on. This
„Ungargassenland“ bears similarities with „Kakania“ in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, of which Musil
writes: „Dort, in Kakanien, diesem seither untergegangenen, unverstandenen Staat, der in so vielem ohne
Anerkennung vorbildlich gewesen ist, gab es auch Tempo, aber nicht zuviel Tempo“ (32). Where Musil‟s
Kakania is a comical rendition of a forgotten empire, Bachmann‟s “Ungargassenland” is a tiny microcosm
in the “here” and “now” of Ichs Vienna, albeit just as absurd as Kakania.
iv
    Lennox quotes Bachmann‟s 1973 much-cited remarks on the human inception of totalitarian regimes:
“where does fascism start. It doesn‟t start with the first bombs that are thrown, it doesn‟t start with
terrorism, which you can write about, in every newspaper. It starts with relationships between people.
Fascism is the first thing in the relationship between a man and a woman” (Lennox 23; GuI 144).
v
    Ludic comes from the French ludique or the Latin ludus and denotes anything of or relating to play or
playfulness (Bartleby.com).
vi
    Freud elaborates on the chemistry between the idea and expression: “We receive fro joking remarks a
total impression in which we are unable to separate the share taken by the thought content from the share
taken by the joke-work” (94, my emphasis).

				
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