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Writing for the Sake of It: The Book of Clever Bastards


A personal view by Ralph STEADman

It has often been said to me, by very perceptive and intelligent people, "Ooh! You're lucky! You stroll across to the studio every morning, carrying no more than a cup of coffee. You open up, look around, put your coffee down, sit down, pick up a pen and scribble a few lines on a piece of paper- and bingo! Your day is done. It just comes naturally to you, you lucky bastard!"

Not true. Firstly, I don't drink coffee, and secondly I am not a bastard, as far as I know. And anyway, I don't go straight to the studio. There's next door's filthy white pigeons to deal with first, who persistently try to establish another dovecote on the kitchen alcove over our heads, bringing sticks, cooing smugly, dropping shitloads of guano and laying eggs. So I have devised a new use for rubber wine corks. I cut them in half and with the help of a high velocity slingshot catapult I attack these broody, flying rats with great intensity. The corks don't kill them, but they do deliver a hefty, feather ruffling thwack to their evil whiteness, which sends them flapping frantically back from whence they came.

Then I walk over to the studio and open up, but I still don't sit down. I stand and look around nervously. I notice the damp stain getting bigger in the corner of the white ceiling. My eyes scan the rest of the room and I know that it is time I vacuumed the cobwebs out of corners. Half-finished, or impossible projects that are not working out lie about in a sad and hazardous array. I scuttle through to the small room I use for an office and switch on the computer. Then I remember I had promised to sign someone's book. I start that and think of something else I should have done last week. I make other excuses to avoid sitting down at my drawing table and confronting a piece of paper, particularly if it is white and blank. There is no dialogue yet between me and it and I must make some kind of mark on the virgin surface in the hope that it speaks to me. That is generally how days begin.

When I was researching the life of Sigmund Freud back in the 80's, I paid a visit to his old house at Bergasse 19 in the 9th district of Vienna, the house where he set up his first consulting room in the basement. I was introduced to the curator, Hans Lobner, an extremely helpful and enthusiastic man who allowed me to spend time in the great man's hallowed space, now sadly a depressing, tomb-like area with an old sink and a milk bottle. Hans pointed to where the famous couch stood and then he said, "Spend some time here if you like. Absorb the ambience," which is exactly what I wanted to do.

I stood there in the quiet noticing that the wallpaper must have been there since his time. I remember trying to draw a section of it so that I could incorporate it into a drawing. Then I did something I couldn't resist. I lay down on the dusty floor right where the couch had been and looked up to the far corner of the room, let my eyes roam around from that viewpoint, then looked backwards and directly behind my head.

"I've got a problem, Professor Freud," I said to the imaginary figure looming like an omnipotent Sphinx, smoking a huge cigar. "Why do you think I am now seeing all the angles in this room as the tips of giant Pyramids?"

"Zis ees a very interesting qveustion, Herr Steadman," I replied to myself, trying to imitate his voice. "Vot I theenk you are experiencing ees a subspecies of allusion vich I call indirect representation. Zat ees representation by somezink seemilar, or een association wiz. Zat vill be enough for today, Herr Steadman. Get up please. Zat vill be vente schillings!"

I scrambled up and dusted myself down as Herr Lobner re-entered the room. "Ah! I see you have been indulging in what everybody who comes here wants to do."

"What's that?" I ask.

"Fantasize about actually being psychoanalyzed by Professor Freud."

"Spot on! I have been rumbled. I guess I am trying to imagine his life in a very personal way. I just couldn't resist. Dumb, eh?"

He looked at me curiously, then said, "There is one thing that not many people know, but it concerns his personal habits and if you are looking for that kind of thing, I can tell you a very strange habit of his.

"In Vienna, we experience very cold winters. The house had no central heating back then. Every morning when he woke up, all cozy under the bedclothes, next to the warm body of his wife Martha, he would stick his right foot out of the sheets and keep it there exposed until it got really unbearably cold. He would then draw it back under the sheets and into the seductive warmth of the bed again- then stick in onto his wife's backside.

"He said it was a compulsion that proved his theory of the 'pleasure principle.' And more importantly, a primeval desire to return to the womb. To experience the unpleasure initially and then respond more intensely to the pleasure principle. He believed that everything we do is motivated by unconscious desires, triggered by this early memory of succour, warmth and protection. After the violence of birth what we all really want to do is climb back inside, and Freud was no different from anybody else."

That story made me wonder about other great men and how they began their days, or what peculiar ways manifested themselves into compulsive habits…..

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