Peter Singer
Peter Singer; drawing by David Levine

1.

On November 11, 1909, Sigmund Freud wrote to Carl Jung about a young Viennese classics teacher whose work on folklore—particularly folk tales featuring prophetic dreams—had piqued Freud’s interest:

Chance recently led me to a clever high school teacher who is working on mythology with similar ideas, but fully equipped…decidedly intelligent, only so far he gives me the impression that he isn’t really adept at taking on something that has up to now been foreign to him. At our first meeting I found out from him that Oedipus may have been originally a phallic demon, like the Idean Dactyls (!), the name means simply erection….

The young man in question, whose name was David Oppenheim, wasn’t a scholar of note. He was, in fact, no more than a high school teacher of Greek and Latin at the prestigious Akademisches Gymnasium in Vienna, whose alumni included Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Tomás Masaryk. What papers he published appeared not in the great German-language philological journals but rather in a minor psychoanalytical publication that he himself helped to edit.

What historical interest Oppenheim has had has derived, until recently, from his brief association with Freud. The father of psychoanalysis was interested at this time in exploring the psychoanalytical meaning of classical myths, and Oppenheim’s great expertise in this subject provided an opportunity to Freud for a rare collaboration. By 1910 the two were working together on a paper about folk tales that featured dreams—tales, as Oppenheim argued, that demonstrated that ordinary people are aware of the sexual symbolism of dreams. Freud’s enthusiasm for Oppenheim was marked by an appreciative footnote to the latter’s work in a 1911 edition of The Interpretation of Dreams. And yet because Oppenheim would side with Alfred Adler in the latter’s 1911 break with Freud, the collaboration fizzled out. “Dreams in Folklore, by Sigm. Freud and Prof. Ernst Oppenheim” was never published. In post-1911 editions of The Interpretation of Dreams, the footnote about David was dropped.

Oppenheim would have been lost to history had it not been for a connection to yet another controversial figure, one who, like Freud, explores in his professional life the gray areas that lie between philosophy, science, and the darker areas of human thought and emotion. As with Freud, the revulsion he inspires in his critics is balanced both by high academic honors (he is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University) and a level of popular fame not generally achieved by academicians. I am referring to the Australian-born bioethicist Peter Singer, whose views in favor of euthanasia for catastrophically disabled human infants, coupled with his fierce defense of animal rights, have made him one of the most controversial figures in the academy today. He has, for instance, been likened to a Nazi for his views—not least, by Germans: Der Spiegel published an attack on Singer accompanied by pictures of the transportation of euthanasia victims under the Third Reich.1 In an article entitled “On Being Silenced in Germany,” which appeared in these pages in 1991, Singer, whose characteristic rhetorical stance is of an almost adolescently fierce purity, has described how invitations to lecture were withdrawn by German universities in the face of a public climate that may be measured by the Spiegel article, and how audiences at a lecture in Zürich greeted him with calls of “Singer raus!” To such criticism Singer retorted that his views

had nothing whatsoever to do with what the Nazis did. In contrast to the Nazi ideology that the state should decide who was worthy of life, my view was designed to reduce the power of the state and allow parents to make crucial life and death decisions, both for themselves and, in consultation with their doctors, for their newborn infants.2

The terrible irony here is that Singer is David Oppenheim’s grandson, and Oppenheim, a Jew, perished in 1942 at the hands of the Nazis. To his credit—and again reflecting a kind of intellectual and ethical rigor—Singer refuses to invoke this fact except under the most galling attacks, such as one he experienced during a lecture at the University of Saarbrücken, when an audience member suggested that Singer could hold his controversial views only because he “lacked experience with Nazism.” The critic, Singer recounts, was “taken aback when I told them that I was a child of Austrian-Jewish refugees, and that three of my grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps.”

So the connections that tie the famous Peter Singer to his obscure grandparent are, in fact, more complicated and vexed than may first meet the eye: in his personal life, there is the connection of family, and in his professional life, there is the awful, macabre charge that his ideas are somehow linked to the Nazis. It is ostensibly because of the first tie, of family, that Singer has undertaken to write what amounts to a biography of his lost relative—an attempt, as he sees it, to recuperate the life of his grandfather, and thereby to “undo” in some small way the wrong that was done to a man who, as Singer’s book makes clear, was a person of remarkable human qualities. The grandson never knew his grandfather—Singer was born in 1946—and the inspiration to write about him came only fairly recently, stimulated by the discovery of a cache of letters from David Oppenheim first to his wife, Amalie, dating back to their courtship in 1905, and later to his children (Singer’s mother, Kora Oppenheim Singer, and her sister, Doris, in whose possession the letters ended up). It is a straightforward and rather earnest narrative of a life that was, in its way, typical of a certain stratum of mitteleuropäisch life in the first half of the last century, from the twilight of the Hapsburgs to the high noon of Hitler: educated, Jewish, middle-class, enlightened, assimilated, doomed.

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Singer goes to some trouble, early on in his narrative, to articulate precisely why it is that he has been moved to write about David:

Why am I planning to put much larger issues aside to study the life and work of a minor, forgotten scholar who died half a century ago? Because he was my grandfather? Why should I be so concerned about my ancestors? What difference does the fact that this man was my grandfather really make?

Singer’s answer to this is, for the most part, rather more abstract than you might expect. He is interested, for instance, in the fact that David’s life embraced (as he sees it) both the heights and depths of European culture—the pinnacles of classical culture, the nadir of mass fascism. This is an interesting conceit (although very much a conceit). Beyond that, Singer wants to find intellectual parallels between his grandfather and himself:

There is a terrible, tragic irony in the fact that my grandfather spent his whole life trying to understand his fellow human beings, yet seems to have failed to take sufficiently seriously the threat that overwhelmed Vienna’s Jewish community and ultimately led to the loss of his own life. Did my grandfather perhaps have too much confidence in human reason and the humanist values to which he had dedicated his life?

This, in turn, leads Singer to an awareness of a connection that, to his mind, validates his project, a connection that comes to him as “a disquieting thought”:

Since my own life, no less than that of my grandfather, is premised on the possibility of reason and universal ethical values playing a significant role in the world, could I be sharing my grandfather’s delusion?

This is all well and good, although you can’t help thinking that while the ties that bind Singer to his subject may be those of blood, the blood isn’t very warm. There’s a point early on in Pushing Time Away at which Singer rejoices to hear that, in an essay about the Roman philosopher Seneca, David had drawn a distinction between the “genuine philosopher,” who integrates his teachings and his lived life, and the “theoretical professor,” who is interested only in professional standing and reputation. No one will doubt that Singer, however uncomfortable for many of us his views may be, belongs to the first camp; and yet the distinctions established by his grandfather may have resonances different from those that Singer is aware of. For Singer himself—schooled, no doubt, in a kind of emotional rigor and detachment that permits him to dissect excruciatingly difficult questions of human life—is too often rather “theoretical” in this book, too cool, too detached, too much a stranger to the culture of “Jewish Vienna” that Pushing Time Away purports to illuminate. His book, despite the remarkable and moving tale it tells, ultimately suffers for it.

2.

This is a pity, because the life that Singer narrates in his new book is anything but cool: it is a strikingly rich one, full of intense activity and often neurotic emotions. David Oppenheim was born on April 20—Hitler’s birthday, as Singer notes—in 1881, in the city of Brünn in the Austro-Hungarian province of Moravia (today it is Brno in the Czech Republic). Like his future wife, the Viennese Amalie Pollack, his was a family that boasted famous rabbis; but David himself was, particularly after he settled in Vienna with his wife, assimilated in a way that was typical of a large portion of Austro-Hungarian Jews. Intellectually, he rejected study of Torah and Talmud in favor of the Greek and Roman classics, and at home he rejected all religion as mere superstition. With all of the relish of a bright young man whose relations with his parents were always strained, he delighted in neglecting the observances of Jewish tradition, and after his marriage he gleefully ate non-kosher foods even as the more pious Amalie kept kosher.

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Singer includes a charming anecdote about the couple in the early years of their marriage: apparently Amalie prayed fervently that her pregnancies would not result in sons, since David disapproved of circumcision as “mutilation,” and she couldn’t bear the thought of having uncircumcised sons. (Her wish, in any event, was granted: Amalie bore David two daughters.) David’s repudiation of his Jewish heritage would not, of course, matter to the men who caused his death, years later—an irony that crops up in many accounts of the fate of assimilated Jews.

And indeed, Singer’s book makes it clear that David was, in his youth, wholly of his fin-de-siècle moment in a number of ways. You could say that his classical inclinations went beyond a taste for the literature he would spend his adult life teaching to generations of schoolboys. A remarkable section of Singer’s book comes in the early pages, where the author discovers, through reading his grandparents’ letters, that what first connected David and Amalie in their early twenties was, in fact, a shared romantic inclination toward members of their own sex. The first letter of which we hear, in Pushing Time Away, from 1904, indicates that David had turned to Amalie, whom he’d met when both were students at the University of Vienna, for advice concerning “a boy” about whom David was then “mad.” Amalie, a talented physicist, was one of the university’s first female graduates, and further letters revealed that she’d had homosexual yearnings of her own.

So David is a high-strung, deeply neurotic young man of the sort we are accustomed to meeting in the works of German-language writers of this era—Hofmannsthal, say, or Schnitzler. (Mann, of course, also comes to mind.) His capacity for experiencing extravagant feeling—and for expressing it extravagantly—is plain in his early letters to Amalie, such as this one in which he realizes that, through confiding in Amalie about his homoerotic attachments, he has fallen in love with her:

Now, with a beloved being, I can be raised on the wings of love into the eternal realm of thought. The longing that the divine Plato poured into my heart will be fulfilled, but differently from the way he described it, and I expected it. Not the love of boys, which yet has left such ineradicable traces in my life, but the love of women, which you, beloved, first taught me to know, has taken Plato’s sacred love out of the world of beautiful dreams, and transformed it into flesh-and-blood reality….

Later, he charmingly refers to Amalie, who was three years older than he, as a “late-plucked, sweet little apple, forgotten or rather not reached by the apple-pickers”—a sweet allusion to a famous verse of Sappho with which he would of course have been familiar. Even allowing for youth, it’s clear already, from such excerpts, why David placed the greatest value throughout his life on the expression of “humanity” and on exploring its sources and meanings in his later life as a teacher. (The best things in Singer’s book are the long excerpts from his grandfather’s letters; you wonder at times whether a better tribute to David would have been a carefully annotated edition of the letters, which are beautifully written, deeply feeling, and stylish in a way that Singer’s prose is not.)

As for those “ineradicable traces,” they surely played a role—whether unconsciously or not it is impossible to know from Singer’s book—in David’s decision to teach the classics in an all-boys school. That he did become a successful teacher, rigorous yet somehow indulgent, teased for his disheveled appearance yet deeply loved—is eloquently borne out by the fact that a number of David’s non-Jewish students and former students insisted on visiting him, at some risk to their reputations and safety, after he had been segregated in an all-Jewish neighborhood after the Anschluss. Despite Singer’s lack of flair as a storyteller, moments such as these can’t help but be very moving.

The combination of David Oppenheim’s emotional character—his sense of being different, of wanting to investigate the wellsprings of that difference in a rational manner—and of his intellectual passion for the Greek and Latin classics would shape his life.

It certainly molded his teaching, which was characterized by an unusual sympathy for his youthful students. One of the more interesting passages in Singer’s book is an account of a debate that took place among the members of Freud’s “Wednesday Group,” to which the young David had been invited after impressing Freud with a paper about cult magic in Roman poetry—the paper that led to their collaboration.

The debate was about suicide among high school students, a hot topic in Vienna at the time and a subject that, David said that night, “concerns my own life so painfully.” As you read about this conversation, it occurs to you that Freud’s young colleague may have interested the father of psychoanalysis in more ways than one. After the coffee break, Freud led off the discussion with a remark about homosexuality in schoolteachers: “The best teachers are the real homosexuals, who actually have that attitude of benevolent superiority toward their pupils.” “Benevolent superiority” is precisely the pose that David, as he grew older, cultivated with such success. Former students would later recall the imperious presence in the classroom of a man whom pupils affectionately likened to “a homeless tramp,” with his “exaggeratedly theatrical” air and his streaked, “wild” hair—a Socratic figure indeed.

David’s emotional alienation and his intellectual interests are, naturally, also what drew him to psychoanalysis

—first as an admirer of Freud, and then as a follower of the apostate Adler, whose insistence that neurosis resulted not from repressed sexual urges but from feelings of inferiority created a schism that was never mended. That David, always prey to his emotions (he “loved” the plump and rumpled Adler), would sacrifice his collaboration with Freud for the sake of his allegiance to Adler suggests not only a praiseworthy independence of mind, but also, perhaps, a hint of the subconscious self-destructiveness that would characterize some of his later decisions as well.

After leaving Freud’s circle, David settled happily into his schoolteacher life, occasionally publishing articles that read classical and other literary texts in an Adlerian light (“Seneca on Educating Oneself and Being Educated by Others”). Eventually he would write a book that, while failing to garner scholarly kudos, reveals his admirable, lifelong obsession with the very Hellenic insistence on self-knowledge; it was called Fiction and Knowledge of Humanity: Psychological Rambles Through Old and New Literature. Rather endearingly, Singer strenuously defends his grandfather’s book from the feeble reviews it received (not least in the International Journal of Individual Psychology, the house instrument of the Adlerians). This is the closest we get to a betrayal of vivid filial sentiment in the book.

David’s own individual psychology—a deep emotionality, a passion for classical literature—may be seen as being responsible, at least in part, for his fate. Singer’s book consists of an earnest chronology for the chapters of his grandfather’s life, reflected in the titles of his own sections: “David and Amalie,” “In Freud’s Circle,” “The Soldier” (David was decorated for his service in World War I, an honor to which, like so many others, he poignantly attached too great hopes after the Nazi takeover), “The Scholar and Teacher.” It is in the final section, “One of the Multitude,” that a fate as inexorable as any from Greek tragedy knots itself around David and so many other Viennese Jews who, like him, trusted too much to their assimilation, their positions, their Imperial war decorations, until it was too late.

Inevitably, Singer’s book becomes gripping when he describes David’s indecisiveness about how and when to leave after the Anschluss, when it was becoming apparent that the worst would happen. Even after his daughter, the author’s mother, had emigrated, David continued to wobble, seizing on any number of reasons to delay what should have been the inevitable, if traumatic, departure: bureaucratic mix-ups, his own ill health (prostate surgery, adult-onset diabetes), an unwillingness to leave without his in-laws, the senior Singers, who were barred from departing because their son had tried to bring a camera out of the country, and a concern, constantly reiterated in his letters, about the fate of his vast library. It is a measure equally of Peter Singer’s protectiveness of his relative, and of a certain self-protective purity of vision, that the author insists on seeing as the primary motive for David’s unwillingness to leave his loyalty to his in-laws. While this allows Singer, with his interest in ethics, to view his grandfather as a tragically moral hero, it seems to me to ignore the deep streaks of passivity, and the inferiority complex that asserted itself in a buried self-destructiveness, that also played a part in David’s indecisiveness.

Instead, that other inevitable caught up with him, as it must: with Amalie, he was deported to Theresienstadt on August 20, 1942, and he died there on February 18, 1943, of what Amalie referred to as “his old disease [diabetes] and…the severe Theresienstadt illness”—the chronic diarrhea known among inmates as “Terezinka.” And then there was the fact that he was “tired of life and almost without hope.” Amalie, liberated by the Russian army in May 1945, arrived in Australia in 1946 and died nine years later.

Yet even in the abjection of the ghetto, immediately prior to his deportation, losing hope, David could advocate a belief in humaneness that is, under the circumstances, impressive. In a letter to his daughter Doris, who had written him about how she could at least feel “superior” to someone again, as a white person living in Australia, David replied that “anyone who, having themselves been reduced to a pariah, finds consolation in regarding someone else as still lower, basically sanctions what is done to him.” These are “humanistic values” at their highest, and Singer does well to write about the man who held them so closely.

3.

Why, then, isn’t Pushing Time Away a more valuable document—one that actually lets you feel the “tragedy” of the people whose story it narrates (let alone the story of “Jewish Vienna”)? In telling the tale of his grandfather’s death, Singer seeks to console himself with the thought that David might have comforted himself, at the end, by means of a Senecan stoicism, and with the very Greek tragic notion that “the wheel that was making an end of him would not be the last one, and would eventually crush those who were crushing him.” This rather cerebral conceit, although moving in its way, points to the limitations of this book. As you make your way through Pushing Time Away, it is hard not to feel that you’re getting David’s story, the story of an unusually sensitive man living richly at a fraught moment in European history, almost in spite of the story that Singer wants to impose on it—the story of the “parallels (if any) there are with my own views, despite our rather different fields, and intellectual backgrounds,” the parallels that would justify, to Singer’s rigorous mind, his telling of his grandfather’s story in the first place. And the point of that story is one cherished by Singer for obvious reasons: that nobly rational men who exalt “the possibility of reason” and who adhere to “human reason and humanist values” are bound to be victims.

I don’t at all think that Singer is crassly interested in using his grandfather to defend his own positions and reputation; but the fact that it’s possible to read Pushing Time Away in this way—or rather, the fact that Singer, a brilliant and serious man, seems oblivious to the fact that his book can be read in this way, with its climactic attempt to draw parallels between himself and the murdered David Oppenheim—reflects the fundamental flaw in his book, which is a tendency to emotional detachment, a tendency to miss emotional clues and rich details of lived life that, in another’s hands, would have made this biography searing rather than merely affecting. You sense this at the very outset, in the author’s tortured attempts to justify writing a book about the grandfather he never knew. You wish that he’d just acknowledge the obvious, which is that we do care about our ancestors, and that when we ourselves have been touched, through our relatives, by historical calamities, we generally feel greater interest in them. If that’s a sentimental notion, as it no doubt is, then it deserves to be scrutinized as, indeed, few people besides Peter Singer can scrutinize such issues. But it doesn’t deserve to be disdained out of hand as unworthy of consideration.

That lack of emotional engagement, or rather the unwillingness to acknowledge the validity of motivations other than intellectual ones, affects other aspects of Singer’s book. A certain professorial hauteur makes its way—unintentionally, to be sure—into the prose now and then, in a way that is likely to put off the ordinary reader. Here is Singer on his parents: “Neither one of them was a serious scholar, and they did not spend time thinking about the big questions—about understanding human nature, or how we ought to live.” There is, too, something weirdly clueless about his engagement with the emotional lives of his grandparents, particularly at the beginning of the book during the revelation of their youthful brush with homosexuality. (“What could that mean?” a perturbed Singer asks when coming across the references to “the boy” who drove David mad. It’s actually not hard to figure out.) Of particular note is a kind of naiveté about sexuality:

I had been assuming that since the letters showed both David and Amalie to be homosexual, they were unlikely to be sexually interested in each other. I found a clue to my mistake in David Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality…. Halperin uses the love life of ancient Greece to argue that the concepts I was applying to my grandparents’ sexuality are part of a cultural construct that sprang into existence only in the late nineteenth century….

It is puzzling that an ethicist of Singer’s renown seems to have such little natural grasp of the complexities of human experience that are, after all, not so far-fetched. And the author’s superficial consultation of one single book about Eros in the classical world, in order to clear up his confusion about the sex lives of his fin-de-siècle Viennese grandparents, has more than a little of the undergraduate about it.

The effect is just as sketchy when Singer introduces his own private life into the narrative, as he does when wondering if his own marriage is as good as his grandparents’ was (by all accounts). “Can I say the same of my own marriage? Not exemplary, perhaps, but wonderful in its own way.” This comes off as coy. If you’re a serious writer writing seriously about your personal engagement with the past, you need to be willing to reveal your personal life, to come clean—in this case, at least as clean as David came in his gushing, self-revealing, self-analyzing letters, those windows into his lifelong search for Menschenkenntnis, the understanding of what it means to be a Mensch, a human being.

The offhand consultation of a work of classical scholarship in order to explain a not at all abstruse phenomenon of human nature is symptomatic of a certain brand of academic anxiety, as if Singer can’t bring himself to believe in anything that hasn’t been published. This affects still other aspects of Singer’s representation of “the tragedy of Jewish Vienna.” There is little sense in Singer’s book that the author has a real feel for the period or place that he is writing about. Too often he resorts to travel-guide phrases that tell you very little of real substance (“Brno retains the air of an Austro-Hungarian provincial capital”), and the descriptions of historical events and cultural milieus feel culled from textbooks rather than being authoritative pronouncements on the world they seek to recuperate. (Jews were “the yeast in a cultural mix that made Vienna one of the most exciting cities in the world.”) Such writing does not suggest the work of someone who has steeped himself in, for instance, the works of Hofmannsthal and Schnitzler, those illustrious alumni of David’s high school.

Singer’s uncertainty reflects itself in his prose: among other things, there is a nervous reliance on rhetorical questions, which sprout up throughout the book like mushrooms after a downpour. “What would David have explained, if he had had the chance?” “But if Martina was no barrier to the relationship between David and Amalie, why should Lise have been?” “What sort of a relationship could there be between a man and a woman who were each attracted to their own sex…. On what basis did they marry?” This is nervous writing, and betrays the author’s discomfort with a subject for which he has some emotional affinity (to which he yet can’t fully admit), but little stylistic or temperamental affinity.

Affinity, the connections that bind us to history and its victims and heroes: these are the issues with which anyone of my and Singer’s generation—the generation of the grandchildren of those who perished, the generation of those old enough to have been directly affected by the Holocaust but too young to have actually experienced it firsthand—must struggle with before writing about the great calamity. As time passes, the Holocaust narrative increasingly becomes the province of those who never lived through the Holocaust: first the children, and now the grandchildren. This inevitability raises crucial questions about memory, narrative, history. But these and other questions are never dealt with in Singer’s book, because he uses the past, to a large degree, merely as an instrument for justifying his present concerns.

In light of this vitiating flaw, the title of Singer’s earnest but ultimately weak book takes on a new and unintended resonance. It is a quote from one of David’s letters responding to his parents’ objections to Amalie as a prospective bride (she’s older); defiant, David writes his beloved that “what binds us pushes time away.” No doubt the author of the book in which we find this affecting phrase had hoped, by means of his recapture of his grandfather’s life, to push time away, too—to dissolve another cluster of years, the years that separate him from his subject. But his lack of feeling for their world, and indeed an aversion to grappling with certain kinds of feelings in general, have the opposite effect. By the end of this limited book, you feel that its remarkable subjects are, for all the vividness of their lives, very distant.

This Issue

November 20, 2003

  1. 1

    For Singer’s views on animal rights, see first of all his article “Animal Liberation” in The New York Review, April 5, 1973, which later became the best-selling book Animal Liberation (1975; published with a new preface by Ecco, 2001); see also Ian Hacking, “Our Fellow Animals,” The New York Review, June 29, 2000, and Peter Singer, “Animal Liberation at 30,” The New York Review, May 15, 2003. The best introduction to Singer’s advocacy of euthanasia for severely disabled infants is chapter 7 of his book Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1979). 

  2. 2

    On Being Silenced in Germany,” The New York Review, August 15, 1991.