Musically Trained Torture: Violence and Pleasure in Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Klavierspielerin

Anwita Ghosh

Jadavpur University, India

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


This paper will examine Elfriede Jelinek’s (1946-) celebrated novel, Die Klavierspielerin(1983) , as a narrative that deploys the close link between music and violence as a precursor to pleasure and sadomasochistic fantasies in its protagonist. The overt connection between violence and music goes well beyond their affinity on a performative level and the functional role of music in the aestheticization of violence. This transmedial topos often becomes, for instance, a mean of perverse validation against meaning. Music in Die Klavierspielerin, far from being transcendental, is located as an experience within the body and allows Jelinek to systematically dismantle the male fantasy of the female masochist.


Keywords: Elfriede Jelinek, Music, Psychoanalysis, Perversion, Masochism.

In his essay on Michaelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, Freud claimed that although “works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me…I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure [from music]. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me” (Freud, 1955).  Freud’s resistance to music can be a formidable point of entry to the brilliant labyrinth of music that has continually evaded the comprehensive grasp of psychoanalysis. Strangely enough, despite his aversion to music, Freud analyzed Sarah Bernhardt’s voice, praised Yvette Guilbert’s songs, and reported on the performance of Carmen in Italy (a fact that makes it quite obvious that Freud knew the opera by heart). Indeed much has been written in recent years that have repeatedly probed into the psychoanalytic nature of music and enquired whether the fields of affect in both the realms are compatible to each other or not. This paper does not exclusively try to unravel the concealed meaning of music but hopes to concentrate on a particular aspect of music that claims close relations to violence, pleasure and masochism. Such a reading will not remain confined to mere philosophical and psychoanalytic source locators as I would try to read these observations vis-à-vis Elfriede Jelinek’s controversial novel Die Klavierspielerin (1986, The Piano Teacher). A pseudo-realistic narrative, Die Klavierspielerin, repeatedly exploits the close link between psychosexual identity formations and the organization of the socioeconomic interests. On the one hand, as Fiddler (1994) has suggested, it invites the reader to understand the sadomasochistic relationship as an exaggerated microcosm of “normal” sexual relations, while on the other it attacks the values of the Viennese bourgeoisie and specifically its sacrosanct musical culture, which the author presents as competitive and beset by social hierarchies. The novel juxtaposes the high culture of musical activities with lower pursuits, particularly the protagonist’s penchant for pornography and sadomasochism. Die Klavierspielerin, therefore, can be read as unique in the way it attempts to construe masochism as a phenomenon that can best be comprehended through the techniques of reading and interpretation (especially in the letter scene), techniques one readily associates with music.

The piano teacher of the title, Erika Kohut, makes a living by teaching at the Vienna Conservatory and spends her life striving hopelessly for the heights of musical excellence. She is driven and continually disciplined by her domineering mother who regards Erika, the “genius”, as her own – if failed – creation and exploits her as the provider of material goods generated by her unfortunate but necessary teaching job. This outrageous and deliberately shocking narrative, the tale of a spinsterish woman who lives with her elderly mother progressively unfolds into a story of sexual violence and masochistic fantasy with the arrival of the student named Walter Klemmer. Erika tries to take the initiative with Klemmer, writing him a letter with strict instructions and a gruesome list of her sadomasochistic fantasies. Klemmer is disgusted, but more importantly, his masculinity is threatened as Erika tries to dictate to him how he should behave. Klemmer fails to recognize that Erika is not serious about her demands, in fact “[I]nstead of torturing her, she wants him to practise love with her according to Austrian standards” (Jelinek, 1999). The novel moves towards its close with a series of scenes in which Erika is finally and utterly humiliated; first reduced to begging on her knees for Klemmer’s affection, subsequently violently beaten and raped by him, on his terms now, not hers, and lastly seeing him among a group of friends of his own age, apparently in a new liaison with a young female fellow student. The novel ends with Erika leaving the house armed with a knife, intent on exacting revenge, but ultimately turning the knife against herself in a failed attempt at suicide.

The key to Erika’s disturbed attitude to sex has, understandably enough, been sought by a number of commentators on the novel, especially in the presentation of her relationship to her over-ambitious mother. Although a hurried first glance at the fact that she is a pianist seems to be unrelated to her position as a perverse, this essay argues that Erika’s training as a pianist is central to the development of her perversity, which manifests itself in many ways, including voyeurism, fetishism, and masochism. I have used the term ‘perversion’ here as a clinical structure rather than a form of behaviour. In Lacan’s view, perversion is akin to desire per se. For him, as for Freud, human desire itself is perverse, insofar as it defies (as the Latin source of perversion has harped on a notion of a deflection from a right or true course) the laws of adaptation and survival of the living world.  Perversion, therefore (like other clinical structures, viz., hysteria and obsessional neurosis) has logic of its own.

From the very beginning, Erika Kohut’s musical propensities make it quite evident that she is anything but an artist. Andrea Bandhauer pithily sums up the argument when she observes:

“Erika functions merely as an artistic labourer, caught between the extremes of desperate pretension and self-adulation and a total lack of confidence and self awareness. Erika’s artistic existence does by no means reflect the cliché of the artist’s freedom and the bourgeois myth of the “artist as genius” generating by the industry propagating the city of music, Vienna.” (Bandhauer, 2005)…Full Text PDF

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