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The Viennese moment

Peter Singer knew only one of his mother’s parents. When his grandmother, Amalie, finally arrived in Australia in August 1946, he was six weeks old. The world in which she had been nurtured, educated and loved lay in ruins behind her. ‘For the nine years that she was still to live, she gave us all the pent-up love that had been frustrated during so many years of sadness.’ Amalie is one of millions who arrived in this country, and continue to arrive, with little in the way of material possessions but a wealth of experience, much of it painful. Her story resonates with many others; it is still unique.

Pushing time away is presented as principally the story of Amalie’s husband, David Oppenheim. He was born in Vienna in 1881; Amalie was three years older than he. Oppenheim was richly cultured. In the years before World War I, Sigmund Freud was attracted to his grasp of myth, folklore, scripture and literature and welcomed him to collaborate on some of his work. Oppenheim became part of Freud’s intimate group, which also included Alfred Adler.

Freud believed that the wellspring of human behaviour was to be found in unresolved issues of sexuality, especially those which seem to transgress social norms and kinship taboos. Adler proposed that a sense of inferiority is more formative of the human psyche. Depending on your point of view, he either invented or discovered what is commonly known as ‘the inferiority complex’. I have only ever heard this term used in a superior tone of voice, which has always suggested to me that there was some substance in what Adler had to say. Freud was livid that somebody dared to develop alternatives to his theories and had a nasty falling out with Adler. Ironically, Freud’s behaviour towards his former associate, and subsequent rival, also indicates that Adler’s insight had some foundation. Freud had a lot to say about love. He was a pretty good hater.

David Oppenheim decided to side with Adler. Among his reasons was the fact that ‘I admired Freud but I loved Adler.’ Perhaps the erotic subtext to this statement suggests that Freud was not entirely wrong either. Oppenheim’s sexuality was a subtle affair. Both his sexual attractions and his candour about them would be more familiar at the turn of the 21st century than the 20th. When he and Amalie began writing to each other, they were both sexually attracted to members of their own sex. Indeed, it was their willingness to deal openly with such issues which began to bring them together. There is really no evidence, however, that Oppenheim’s attraction to Adler was sexual.

Oppenheim was a highly principled man who, more than once, paid an exorbitant price for those principles. In this case, he lost the chance to exert an influence on the emergence of one of the century’s guiding theories.

One of the themes that runs through this book is the fine line between human order and human chaos. In a way, this is what both Freud and Adler were trying to explain. But no simple theory accounts for the twin horrors which soon came to affect both David and Amalie: World War I and Hitler’s Holocaust. Not long after he was part of Freud’s salon, Oppenheim was fighting in the Balkans as an officer of the army of Austria-Hungary. His physical and mental health would be permanently damaged by that pointless war. Nevertheless, even in the trenches, he continued to pursue his academic interests, especially in class­ical literature. There is in Oppenheim’s character a stubborn refusal to give up on human nature. It is evidenced not just by a willingness to study under fire, but also by his reluctance to escape from Europe when he had a chance in 1938. He didn’t want to go without his books. That reluctance reveals a belief that the hundreds of years of scholarship and culture to which he was an heir would endure longer than any tyranny or insanity. They could survive to speak more truthfully of the capacity of humans to create, painstakingly, something precious.

As he combs through their many letters and writings which have survived, it is obvious that Peter Singer is deeply affected by his grandparents. He retraces their steps and returns to Vienna, pondering the fact that his own marriage, to Renata, has endured for 30 years. He draws heart from the relationship of his grandparents. His simple and familiar insights into what makes a relationship last so long—that it has to be more than a physical magnetism—would hardly be out of place in a book of Catholic piety. Nor would his beliefs about the integrity required of a true teacher: that they need to embody what they say.

As I became more and more engrossed in this book, I warmed to the storyteller. Singer is often seen as the bête noire of Catholic morality, the philosopher who supports abortion and euthanasia while advocating ‘animal liberation’. Singer has become one of the most visible proponents of an alternative system of ethics to that proposed by Christian orthodoxy. He has been called a few nasty names for that. This book suggested to me, time and again, how much common ground there is between those alternative ways of seeing the world. They rest on a profound willingness to trust the ability of human beings to do something good, however much evidence there is that they are at least as likely to do something blind and destructive. They differ in understanding what that something good might be. But they share a kind of hopefulness.

Towards the end of this book, Singer asks himself why he has been writing it at all. Few writers, faced with such irresistible material, would move to that level of self-examination. Singer shares with David Oppenheim the fact that he is an atheist. He believes in no afterlife. So what difference will it make to David that his life is now being celebrated? Amalie was a believer. There are aspects of her life which I would like to have explored a little more, not least her faith. She was with her husband as he died in a ghetto 60 years ago. She found her way to Australia. Pushing time away invites as many questions as it answers. Elsewhere, Singer has suggested that the two characteristics which define a moral being are the capacity to feel pain and the ability to develop complex relationships. The central characters in this book score highly against both those criteria. But I believe there is more to them as well. 

Michael McGirr is the fiction editor of Meanjin.



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