“I HAVE KILLED” — Part 2 of 2

(Continued from The Brown Wedge)

Currently, a slew of my fellow citizens are fighting a whole bunch of folks in a far away city that, by all accounts, is little more than a bloody mess now. I can’t even think how many noncombatants must also be dead. That’s bugging the fuck out of me in ways I can’t begin to describe, but I can do little but track from a distance and hope that things don’t get any worse than they already are.

Perhaps now was the time to get myself in a book about something far away and nothing to do with the current situation, and thus Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor, studying Vienna in 1888 and 1889 and having as its core figure Crown Prince Rudolf. That said, death was also key to the story, unavoidably. On January 30, 1889, friends and servants, worried about the lack of response from his room in a hunting lodge in Mayerling, burst in to find Rudolf and his inamorata, Mary Vetsera, dead. Rumors and debates have swirled since, but Morton’s interpretation is a solid and reasonable one — the two, having decided to commit suicide some time previously, did so, with Rudolf slaying Mary first, then putting the gun to his own mouth. Then nothing but the dripping of blood from his mouth and an extended pause until the door was broken down some time later.

Morton’s portrayal is careful, calm…and very romantic. Not in a sense of approval, I’d say, more in a sense of acknowledgement. Morton’s avoidance at specifically identifying, or more accurately claiming to identify, what drove them to this pass is actually a strength. At its clearest, Rudolf is frustrated with a political situation in which he can do nothing, contribute nothing, is a mere functionary despite his desire to vent about the state of the empire he is destined to inherit. Suicide was a way out, and suicide with a young impressionable lover — who, if Morton’s argument is correct, agreed with Rudolf simply and perfectly for love — was even more of a ‘perfect’ way out.

It’s a state of mind I could never see myself in, and so to try and apprehend it at a distance of time, culture, society, political role, language, mode of thought — it’s a challenge. But it still fascinates, cruelly and weirdly. Morton’s ability to capture a moment is perhaps never so sharp as when he details Rudolf’s father, Franz Josef — the model of dull rectitude, eternally correct, utterly uninspired, emperor because he was emperor — letting loose with a collapsing-to-the-floor sob in almost total privacy, with only one witness, a moment that occurred when he learned that while Rudolf and Mary had both left a number of letters, Rudolf had left none for him — nothing, no explanation, no last word.

He did leave one for his mother, though — in which he said, among other things, “I have no right to go on living….I have killed.” Mary didn’t pull the trigger, she lay down on the bed, perfectly composed, and her lover then reached for the gun. Somewhere between her last breath and his, he wrote that letter, a winter’s night all around him outside. What must it have been like in his head, in that room, what kind of horrific sense of finality was achieved there?

Some things are beyond my ability to fully understand or empathize with. For that, I am glad.