glossen: interview
“She Kept On Fighting” – a discussion with Elisabeth Reichart about her text Sakkorausch, April 25, 2002

After Austrian writer Elisabeth Reichart’s April 18, 2002 reading from her dramatic monologue Sakkorausch [English: Foreign, translated by Linda DeMerritt] Ms. Reichart met with several women faculty members at Dickinson College to discuss the background of this work and the reasons for her fascination with Helene von Druskowitz, the heroine of this piece. The following faculty members participated in the discussion: Mara Donaldson (Religious Studies), Susan Feldman (Philosophy), Stephanie Larson (Political Science), Irina Mikhaleva (Russian), Gisela Roethke (German) and Beverley Eddy (German).

MD: Since some of us have not been able to read the full text, could you give us a little background?

ER: Certainly. Helene von Druskowitz was the first Austrian female philosopher, born in Hietzing in 1856. She was a very intelligent child, but this was a time when women were not allowed to join men at high school. She had to go to school externally and make her Matura (graduation test) externally. She did study piano at the conservatory, and got a degree there, but she couldn't do academic study in Vienna. Her mother – she must have been a remarkable woman – took her to Zurich, where women were allowed to study, and she got a Ph.D. in philosophy. She was the second woman at the university to get this.

IM: The first Russian woman to get a doctorate, Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891), lived at about the same time. She had similar difficulties, especially since her father tried to prevent her from studying. She had to be married before she was even allowed to go abroad and study. But even with a doctorate in mathematics she was unable to get a position for many years.

ER: Yes, it was a very difficult time for women. Druskowitz wanted to make her own career and live like her male colleagues. She wrote a play about stupid professors who don't work, and about women who talk constantly about emancipation and don't study, as a critique of both sexes in the academic world. She also wrote a book about the philosopher Eugen Dühring and one about the English poets Joanna Baillie, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. Elisabeth Barrett Browning was her favorite. She translated her works; she also wrote plays, philosophy and prose works.

MD: How did she support herself?

ER: She went through Europe giving speeches. Everyone said she was crazy to do this, she should settle down and give piano lessons like a good woman.

SF: Did she know Lou Andrea-Salomé, by any chance?

ER: I don't know. She knew Nietzsche. She criticized the fourth book of his work Also sprach Zarathustra, and was condemned for this. From then on Nietzsche called her a Literaturgans – a “literary goose” and all the scholars followed him, until now.

SF: Of course Nietzsche did not become famous until he went mad and his sister created a cult of him.

ER: That's right. Druskowitz was lucky to have the support of her mother, but then her mother died, and she was very isolated and lonely. They had been very close.

MD: Did she have any siblings to support her?

ER: She had one brother in South America. She broke with him, because she was convinced her mother had died because he refused to come home to her.

MD: Who was her father?

ER: That's an interesting question. Druskowitz said he was a Russian nobleman, then that he was a Bulgarian prince. She finally said she was simply born of the sea.

SL: How did you get drawn to her?

ER: From one of her books that was republished in the 1980’s, a book entitled Man as Logical and Moral Impossibility and as the Curse of the World: Pessimistic Axioms. She wrote this book in 1905 after she had been in the insane asylum for fourteen years. She was committed to the insane asylum when she was in Germany. Some people say she had an affair with a woman opera singer, and that she went wild when they broke up. She got drunk, and was very loud in the room she had rented. Her roommate called the police and she was brought to an insane asylum. She was brought back to Austria, moved from asylum to asylum, and yet she never gave up; she kept on fighting. She was 35 or 36 when she was brought to the asylum, and she spent 27 years there, the rest of her life.

SF: Did she have any access to other authors during this time?

ER: Yes, the Austrian novelist Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach sent her books and money. Druskowitz sent back the money.

SL: How many works did she write in the asylum?

ER: It is very hard to say, because she used so many different pseudonyms: Sakkorausch, Foreign, Sacrosanct, and so on.

BE: Is there any consistency in her use of these names? That she used one for poetry, for example, and another for philosophy?

ER: No. She used a different name for her plays, but sometimes also for her essays.

SL: Given the scarcity of information, how did you come to write about her?

ER: When I read her 1905 work I thought, this woman is radical, even for our day. Then the Vienna Festwochen asked for a play about patriarchy, and I decided to write about her. I found about six of her published works, I found whatever correspondence was available, and I went to the asylum in Mauer-Oehling and tried to read her Krankengeschichte – the story of her illness.

MD: And was she insane?

ER: At first she had hallucinations, which the doctors treated with sleeping pills, but these hallucinations disappeared without any special treatment. But the doctors also questioned her belief in the sixth sense. To me this belief shows her sanity. She was an optimistic woman when she was free, she was sure people evolve and reach perfection – Vollendung, which is not quite the same – through development of the sixth sense. But the doctors could not separate this idea from her illness.

SL: I assume this belief was not rooted in religion.

ER: No, that's just the point. People were losing religion at that time. Druskowitz was sure that people needed a substitute, and she believed that, as a philosopher, it was her duty to provide one. And she founded this idea of self-realization.

SF: What exactly was this sixth sense – what it just intellect, was it another sense perception?

MD: The English poet and novelist Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) wrote about mysticism in the early part of the nineteenth century; she said that the sixth sense is something to be nurtured and trained.

SF: Druskowitz was living in the age of parapsychology. There was lots of interest in this at this time.

ER: And Druskowitz believed that people were lost without religion. She saw the sixth sense as the highest sense, one that influences all others. It was more than just “vision.”

SF: And what kind of knowledge did she achieve through this sense?

ER: She didn't write much about knowledge, she believed vision is much bigger when free of such constraints.

MD: Did she see herself as free?

ER: She saw herself as abnormal.

MD: Did she try to escape her asylum?

ER: Yes, but she remained there until she died.

GR: Of course these asylums were not the prisons we imagine. In many respects they were more like sanatoriums.

MD: Did anyone try to get her released?

ER: She had no relatives. The doctors could have done this, of course, but they didn't.

MD: Did she keep her optimism in the asylum?

ER: She changed. She became an absolute pessimist, after years of confinement. To me this is just normal; it shows that she was not crazy.

MD: Yes. And it also makes her story more tragic.

ER: But she was so strong, you know? She kept writing. And she was allowed to carry on her correspondence.

SF: How could she publish? Did she have outside contacts?

ER: She already had eleven books at the time of her confinement, and she was known in European intellectual circles. She was in contact with the Swiss writer Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and with Nietzsche. But there is much we don't know. Incidentally, there is a woman in Innsbruck who is now writing her dissertation on Druskowitz.

SF: When did Druskowitz die?

ER: In 1918, in May. Of natural causes.

MD: Just before the war ended. You said that she changed in the asylum. What was her new, pessimistic view?

ER: Now she believed that men were hopeless, destroying everything, and that women were being destroyed by them. Of course she saw the control of the doctors over her life, and the tragic outbreak of the First World War. She believed that the only solution was to separate the sexes, housing them in separate cities, and to have no children – because there were already too many people in the world. She reminds me of the feminists of the 1970’s, but she was, as you see, much more radical than they were.

SF: Did the asylum have mixed sexes or was it single sex?

ER: There was one house for women, and one for men. The doctors were all men, of course.

SF: So she was thinking people would be better off if they were not there….

ER: Yes. But she did have some freedoms. She was able to play the piano.

MD: Could you give us the setting for your dramatic monologue? When does this take place?

ER: I set the play in 1914, at the beginning of World War I. The work has two parts, actually; the second part takes place during the first days of the war. This was the war, of course, when there was big excitement and ecstatic joy at the beginning.

SF: Yes, it was regarded as a war of purification – and of course it was summer time.

MD: You write: “They want to change my thoughts.” Is this paranoia on Druskowitz’ part?

ER: No, she really said this. But she changed her handwriting, so the doctors couldn't read her letters.

MD: Who is Elizabeth?

ER: Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I made Druskowitz my co-author, and when I wrote this script, I put in Elizabeth because Druskowitz wrote about her – and translated her poems. I wanted to give Druskowitz company, someone she could relate to. This was my idea.

BE: Elizabeth’s poem is about doves, but you have her feeding starlings. Why is that?

ER: Because they are birds who can speak.

GR: Is the work a collage of Druskowitz texts? Sometimes there are quotation marks, sometimes not.

ER: I didn’t mark her texts. I called her my co-author, and I thought its easy to decide what is hers and what is mine, because her language is a little old-fashioned.

BE: What about the lines of German verse? Are they yours or Druskowitz’?

ER: They are mine.

MD: Why do you have her want to go to Africa?

ER: She actually wanted to go there, but she only got as far as Sicily.

MD: Why Africa?

GR: Could it be that you were influenced by Ingeborg Bachmann here?

ER: No, Druskowitz really did want to go there.

SL: What about her obsession with her bag?

ER: This was my idea. I visited the insane asylum where she stayed, and I saw that all the women there have bags; these are their only personal possessions.

MD: And the bag is from her mother.

ER: It means even more to her. It was not only a present from her mother; it contains all her knowledge. It is a metaphor, but also very real. When a woman has a job she needs a bag. As soon as you work you need a big bag.

MD: Was Elizabeth her muse? I see you write “Elizabeth wont speak to me” – “Its good that Elizabeth wont speak to me.”

ER: This changes throughout the text. This is the only relationship Druskowitz has. She needed to be able to speak to Elizabeth, otherwise it is all simply too sad.

MD: There is great consciousness here of the struggle to write.

ER: Of course, because otherwise you'd just give up.

BE: Do we know of other writings from the last period of her life?

ER: None that are known, to me at least. Of course I had only half a year to create this monologue.

SF: Did Druskowitz try hypnosis or the talking cure?

ER: No. From the medical records we learn that she got only sedatives and sleeping pills.

SF: And is the asylum still there?

ER: Yes, its still functioning. It looks like a big park with buildings, but inside – I just visited the women – it is terrible. I saw women imprisoned in beds with side bars.

SL: You speak of “speechless Elizabeth” and write, “I could just as well spend my life as does she, feeding the birds instead of speaking with the deaf.”

ER: Yes, she felt greater than this world.

SF: How many of Druskowitz’ letters did you find?

ER: Only three. One to Ebner Eschenbach, one to an unknown man, one to a legal guardian (who she said was too stupid, she needed someone more intelligent).

SL: She speaks about the male sex as a “humorous adventure on the surface.” Is this based on some experience she had somewhere?

ER: At the university, at the beginning, yes. She was impressed by Byron, Shelley, and so on. But that all came earlier. She had no man, but there were rumors she was involved with a woman.

MD: Did she ever give up the idea that she was a philosopher?

ER: Not before 1905. There is nothing after that, just one letter where she says it would be good to have a candy shop or something like that.

BE: So you took her writings from 1905 and projected them onto 1914?

ER: Yes, because this point in history proved that she was right.

MD: And now she has no more philosophy?

ER: She can't speak now because of the loss of her bag, not because of the war. Incidentally, I was so surprised that a woman of the 1870’s could be so much more radical than we were in the 1970’s. The next generation will not understand what we said, just as we have trouble now understanding Druskowitz. In my work I let Druskowitz anticipate our reaction to her.

SF: There were some great women back then. I’m reminded of Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, who were radicals over here. They advocated free love, and Victoria ran for president in 1872 – before Susan B. Anthony was arrested for attempting to vote.

MD: There are the Shakers, as well, founded by “Mother” Ann Lee (1736-1784). They advocated separation of the sexes.

SF: Its the old idea of achieving human perfection by tamping down on ones sexuality. And when we achieve perfection, we die out.

SL: That is so egotistical!

ER: But Druskowitz didn’t think that.

SF: The Woodhull-Claflin sisters were also interested in the supernatural, in séances and communication with the dead.

ER: When Druskowitz was still free, she asked what philosophers can do when people lose religion. She considered this a responsibility. Of course this changed when she was in the insane asylum.

IM: In Russia there were similar women before the First World War – Elena Blavalskaya and Zinaida Gippius. Blavalskaya (1831-1891) was a theosophist, and has become really popular again. She lived in India after the Russian revolution.

GR: And the idea of separate societies goes back even to medieval times. To Christine de Pisan (1363-1431) and the city of women – La Ville des Femmes.

IM: Did you find anything about Druskowitz in the newspapers of the time?

ER: I had no time to go through all the newspapers. I did find one article about her, though, written when she was free. It was quite a positive critique about a book she had written -- under the pseudonym of a man.