The Death of a Psychoanalyst

In memoriam Georg Garner (1950-2003)

Georg Garner, Sarthes, 2000
Georg Garner, Sarthes, 2000

Georg Garner died June 15, 2003, collapsing on the sidewalk of the rue d’Ulm in front of the École normale supérieure, a building he knew well.  A nicety of French law preserved him from autopsy, so we don’t know the cause of death.  He had stepped out for a breath of fresh air from a seminar arranged in honour of a deceased friend of his own, La mort du psychanalyste its title, the death of the psychoanalyst.  He is buried in Père-Lachaise, but a maple looms over his grave.

Georg was born in Vienna in 1950.  It was a harsh world to fall into.  Austria had cast itself as victim rather than ally of Germany, so was entitled to food relief, but the old metropolis, partitioned by the former allies, was destitute and corrupt.  On its infamous black market penicillin, or any substance passing for it, was more valued even than food.  The record nonetheless shows the Viennese eagerly set about rebuilding their bombed-out churches and monuments. The year of his birth the Prater re-opened, its giant Ferris wheel restored.  Georg must have ridden it as a boy.  The only childhood we truly know is the one we ourselves have lived.  So I am at best translating myself into Georg – or Georg into myself – when I imagine the giddy thrill of its ride and the expanded horizon it offered over Vienna and its woods.  What I cannot conceive, at least as a child would, is the disquiet then hanging over the Viennese, anxiety which left its stamp on Georg.  Until he was five, the adults around him, survivors from a calamity which eradicated almost all family ties, did not know on which side of a border they would ultimately reside.

Georg never spoke much to me about his childhood, though he dwelled constantly in its realm.  The Biblical injunction that physicians first heal themselves applies especially to those who seek to treat psychic wounds.  Like many in the generation to which we belonged, Georg felt that trauma or neurosis was not something contained in experience, rather some fold, twist or fracture experience itself assumes, making us fall open always to the same spot like a book whose binding has been strained.  Those pages are most easily cracked in the first years.  The problem, as Georg wrote just a few years ago, is after a certain age much of childhood is swallowed up, blotted out, hard to recover even with the help of what the Greeks called a theraps, an attendant or companion.

Though I have copies of Georg’s printed works, we rarely discussed our writing.  For years I thought this was because we disagreed.  After he left Montreal for Paris, I moved to Berkeley, in 1977, where every act, it seemed, was intended as a remedy or cure for something else, never simply itself.  The idea of therapy became anathema to me.  Georg’s high theory was not psycho-babble, that I knew.  But I would gently change the topic if his career as therapist came up, or, to be frank, humour him.

There is much I never knew about Georg, and never shall.  When he was twelve his mother remarried and moved to Canada, taking him along.  He told me which Ontario school he attended, and also the highlights of his Wanderjahr in Europe at the end of the sixties, but these details are vague.  Somehow he ended up doing a Ph.D. at the University of Montreal, bringing with him Marie-Mad, whose level of English was the perfect excuse for Georg and me to speak French.  Though I can’t pinpoint the occasion we met, it was without question over a meal lubricated with the moonshine-style jugs of cheap but potable SAQ red wine then on the market.  Neither of us had much money, but we put our pocketbooks where our hearts lay.  We had read our Roland Barthes, so knew food was not mere material stuff, instead a complex of circulating signs.  But food for us was more than symbolic, almost sacred, never grist for some theoretical mill.  There is a mystery, into which Christianity tapped, in the way meals are both individually themselves and simultaneously all one and the same.  Almost thirty years after that first repast, Georg and I were eating at the same Platonic table, every course referring us back to every other one we had shared.  It is thus easy for me to describe what we consumed that first time, at any rate the meal-type, one running from cold cuts or pâté, the more unctuous the better, on through some rare roast or filling stew, followed by stinky cheese.  Though Viennese in his blood, Georg took a perfunctory approach to dessert. When we had the means, there would be calvados or armagnac as digestive. I can’t remember our ever running out of wine.

I have never found a fair description in English of the Bohemian Montreal Georg and I shared, only rarely in québécois, maybe because we fell between those slats.  For the same reason, we soon felt cramped in our Montreal niche.  Georg turned increasingly to psychoanalytic theory, following the threads of his dissertation, conjuring up more and more an intellectual life in France he wanted to lead.  Around the same time, I mistakenly positioned myself as Anglo-Québécois writer whose matter would be our Montreal.  I forgot that neither English nor French alone could encompass our lives, and no one reads bilingual texts.  In Montreal, Georg and I were grappling with the same quandary: what language does, what it can’t do, what it leaves exposed, what it hides, how we hide ourselves in it.  In this he held the patent advantage, having one language more than I, though none without accent.  His native German remained thickly Viennese, no crime but a birthmark which set him apart.  Likewise, his English telegraphed, if not his exact origin, at least his difference.  As for his French, it was astonishingly articulate, as if he had taken the language apart and put it back together.  Yet the Viennese burl remained there too, to his advantage when he launched his practice in Paris.  Georg had vast intellectual ambitions but it turns out that his success was less in theory, more in practice.  Of the three obituary notices posted under his name in the June 20, 2003 issue of Le Monde, one was sponsored by his patients – though “clients” would be the right word in our present mealy-mouthed English, in which the role of cliens, dependent follower, lackey if you will, is widely preferred to that of patiens, he or she who suffers, feels.  I know enough about therapy to know that such public display on the part of patients is rare.

I must ask forbearance from the reader, since I am beginning to write as if I were talking with Georg.  He revelled in etymologies, persuaded that the genuine meaning of words was repressed, like memories of childhood.

Almost before we knew it, Montreal belonged to the past.  Our meals fell fewer and farther between, depending on the cost of transatlantic charters and the vagaries of income, though these privileged moments became easier to triangulate in time and place.  For example, Georg and I spent several days together in Edmonton in the summer of 1975, after he had already moved shop to Paris.  I presume he had flown back to Ontario for the obligatory annual family visit, then hopped a cheap flight to Alberta.  I have not repressed, simply forgotten in which smoky tavern we shared a terry-clothed table full of amber tumblers of beer, a local custom he approved.  The next year we were together in Budapest.  I have a black-and-white photo in which – it follows by a logic on which he would have loved to expatiate – Georg himself does not appear, though it is “his” photo, he snapped it. Our friend Lou and I are standing with Tim Reiss, Georg’s supervisor from Montreal, in front of the Danube, the old Parliament in Budapest visible in the late summer haze. Afterwards we had a feast in some shabby restaurant which had been spared the worst of communist standardization. In particular, I recall the schnapps and the game, which at that time you couldn’t get even in Alberta, unless you shot it yourself.

Thus began the second phase of our friendship, and adult lives.  I was married briefly.  Georg and Marie-Mad split.  By the time I ended up for a year in Bordeaux, 1979, he had met Corinne.  The next summer I was best man at their civil ceremony at the Hôtel-de-Ville in Paris.  Shortly thereafter followed another peripatetic encounter, this time at Lac des Settons, a backwater in eastern France west of Burgundy proper.  Georg, in his usual way, elucidating something he implied I should already know, informed me that Jean-Martin Charcot, Freud’s teacher of neuropathology, died there in 1893!  I deduce that by 1980 Georg was well launched into the Parisian psychotherapeutic scene, since he had organized, he confided, a small colloquium at the very hotel where he and Corinne were staying, where they were in fact warmly greeted by the staff, and where we lunched on wild mushrooms gathered from the forest around us.  Charcot and neuropathology aside, there was a reason Georg loved Lac des Settons.  There are not many places in France which look like Ontario. To an untrained eye, Lac des Settons might lie only a few miles from the Shield.  To be sure, the lake, by Ontario standards, is fake: it was dammed.  Peu importe, as Georg would say.  This ersatz piece of Canada was one of the places in France he felt most at home.  The other was the swampy plot of land and rundown farmhouse he and Corinne soon bought in the Sarthes, another lost acre in France, but one which had the advantage, Georg argued, of being close enough to Paris for easy weekend trips, and about as unfashionable as you can get.

For the next years whenever I was in Paris I stayed at the flat on rue Trousseau, whose name had amused the newly-weds.  One of those occasions Georg surprised me with a copied tape of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, which he had played on my previous visit, to my delight, since before I never knew it by name, and had despaired of finding it again.  His own taste and temper ran to more brooding pieces, in literature and much else.  If the measure of true friendship is difference reconciled, then Georg and I qualify as the best of friends.  I am all thumbs.  He was a skilled cabinetmaker and took pleasure assembling dressers, cupboards and wardrobes first for the apartment in rue Trousseau, and then for the flat he and Corinne bought in rue Charenton, behind the Bastille, another address he relished, since the name in French evokes the eighteenth-century insane asylum on the same thoroughfare, wherein the Marquis de Sade among many others was confined.  “I live on Bedlam Street,” he observed with a smile, and a perfect sense of translation.  No small amount of carpentry skill went into creating his cabinet – consulting room or doctor’s office.  Directly accessible from the public stairs, it had a back exit opening into the private flat, with double doors and soundproofing to muffle noise from both directions.  There was, inevitably, a classic therapist’s sofa, on which I was now and then invited to sleep, where I always suffered troubling dreams.  Throughout the flat there were solid, stained-wood bookshelves build not to groan under the substantial weight of his ever-expanding library.  Georg must personally have preserved several bookstores from bankruptcy.  Soon there were no walls left for shelves.  Books began to pile up in unsteady heaps first near the door of his cabinet, and then beyond, out past the grand piano and on into the kitchen.  Books bound Georg and me together, but we read them like French theorists read food.  It was a system or code of books we shared, not particular ones.  Often I initiated conversation with Georg by scanning his shelves, looking not for actual reading matter, but token titles to ante and start the play.  To this day I have a crazy idea of myself dancing around like a bee in the combs of the flat on rue Charenton sending signals to Georg about where the pollen lay.

Paris is for me a giant flipper, as the French call pinball machines, a maze of crisscrossing trajectories and ricochets from one location to another, with bumper-like cafés along the way to pause and rest.  For Georg the flat on rue Charenton was instead a womb, all of Paris the nurturing mesh of arteries which fed it.  It followed logically that Katia and then Yaëlle were born in the late eighties.  His paradigmatic nuclear family fell into place.

Just like Georg was not in the picture he had taken in Budapest, so does he not figure in one of my favourite images of that time, but one which is, in some sense, his.  After the Musée d’Orsay opened, Corinne, pregnant with Yaëlle, and I went, wheeling Katia in her pram – Corinne’s own English tends toward the British.  It is not true, as she claimed then, expressing her relief to be out for the day, that all Parisians are too busy to follow current events in Paris.  Yet unquestionably to live in Paris is to be very very busy.  So to the joys and trials of parenthood were joined the tribulations of maintaining two careers in that rat race.  We were already in a third phase of adulthood.  I too was preoccupied with career and domestic chores and crises in Edmonton.  Paris never left my mind, but I seldom got there, and when I did, had much on my plate.  There is, Georg once observed, a solid mathematical reason time flies as you age.  A year is half the life of a two-year old, a tenth of that of a ten-year old,  et cetera.  A year or any other measure of time corresponds to an ever-shrinking function in the span you have lived.  Hence the illusion time is speeding faster and faster by.   I lost track of Georg and Corinne in the nineties.  Each visit was a kind of shock. The girls were growing in leaps and bounds.  Georg and I were suddenly grey-beards, complaining of similar aches and pains, sometimes even declining that extra glass of wine.

During one of my rare visits that decade, Georg and I had a postprandial tête-à-tête which turned, in the natural course of things, to the topic of death, setting the parameters of a new ritual.  After the dishes were cleared, the girls put to bed, Corinne herself tended to retire, exhausted from juggling her own roles and career but I suspect intentionally leaving Georg and me to our admittedly macho, morbid dialogue, at the time even something of a joke for us.  Death was our digestive, we said, unpalatable without the preceding fare.  Nor was our topic restricted to mortality alone.  Death was often a metaphor, a handle with which to grope other unfathomable things.

I have been very lucky, so far.  I reconciled with my Father before he died.  Circumstances also allowed me to be in and out of Paris several times in the last three years of Georg’s life, to renew my friendship before it was too late.

In September, 2000, I was able to spend two weeks in France.  The last weekend Georg took me out to the farm in the Sarthes.  Neither Corinne nor the girls wanted to make the trip.  For one thing, there was already a sharp chill in the air, doubtless appealing to Georg’s Canadian soul.  So he and I drove out of Paris early enough on a Saturday afternoon to get to the local boulangerieboucherie, and épicerie in time to collect the needed provisions, including sufficient wine for us two.

The first thing I did was build a fire in the old stone hearth while Georg, Esq.  was out checking his modest estate.  Later he passed me a pair of rubber boots and led me on a tour from plant to plant, to the pond and the drainage system he engineered, finally to the ramshackle barn to see his tools and implements, his pride.

Then it was time for an apéritif, a couple glasses of aligoté.  I cannot recall what we ate that night, and there is no way to ask.  Certainly pâté from the village shop.  I quite likely grilled some meat, since there was a fire.  I’m sure we skipped salad, being two men alone.  There was definitely stinky cheese.

This was the first and only time Georg and I shared phrases in his native tongue.  Ever since I read Rilke as a graduate student in Alberta, I have turned to his Duino Elegies in moments of distress.  For reasons I can’t explain, that was a period of distress for me.  So I haltingly recited memorized passages from the First Elegy, on the death of heroes, best known for its line Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich – Every Angel is terrifying.  Georg unerringly picked up: Und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf dunkelen Schluchzens – And thus I hold back, choking down the seductive appeal of dark sobbing.  In short, it was the kind of pretentious hyperliterary conversation a good editor would excise from fiction, but which I sustain here since this story is true.

Soon literature was laid aside.  We poured a second or third armagnac, and Georg asked our old companion Death to join us at table.  The conversation went on until the fire died, well after midnight.  I spare you the details, which in any event I cannot retrieve.

Afterwards, to my surprise, the armagnac notwithstanding, I slept peacefully in a strange bed up in the attic.  By the time I woke, Georg was out sloshing about in his rubber boots preparing the farm for the winter to come.  I revived the the fire and distractedly read a book I found lying around until he came in.  We had an excellent lunch.  Later that afternoon, trapped in the traffic on the Boulevard périphérique, we had plenty of time for a post-mortem.  We realized that, with the exception of the hours we slept and those he spent outside, we had talked unbrokenly for almost twenty-four hours.  In some sense, Georg and I have been talking unbrokenly for almost thirty years.  You will understand from my choice of tense: I am still talking with him now.

Of course, put up against the real thing, our prattle about death was empty.  But having talked about death is better than never having talked about it at all.  And we both knew, of this I am sure, one day or another one or the other of us would have that memory to bear alone, in the absence of the other.

All along I’ve been wondering whether I am writing about friendship or about death.  I know I am not writing about the death of friendship.

French version: «La mort du psychanalyste». In Dessine-moi une métaphore: In memoriam Georg Garner. Paris: La petite capitale, 2008