On Friday 28 February, we held a meeting at the Edinburgh College of Art about psychoanalysis. I spoke mostly about cake. Not any cake, but one in particular: the Sacher-Torte, the famous Viennese chocolate sponge. It was invented in 1832 by the then sixteen year old Franz Sacher for Prince Wenzel Von Metternich, and then popularised by Franz’s son, Eduard who founded the Sacher Hotel in 1876. A rich, dark sponge, it is covered in a distinctively thick layer of dark chocolate icing. Its richness has two vital counterpoints: a layer of astringent apricot jam between the chocolate and the sponge, and (when served) unsweetened whipped cream as an accompaniment.
The Sacher-Torte is an essential part of a tourist itinerary in Vienna. It’s an unhappy cake, though. Just look at the thing (see above) and its sheer formality is overwhelming. The chocolate exterior melts easily, so to achieve that clean presentation requires a lot of care. The way the thing looks demands a kind of respect. Then there’s its very density and sweetness. There’s no way you can enjoy it quickly. Wolf it and you’ll throw up. It’s a cake that has to be taken in small measured bites, mixed with the cream. It needs discipline to eat; it’s a thoroughly grown-up cake, not at all something for children. And it isn’t cheap. A piece in the Sacher Hotel with the appropriate melange (milky coffee) will set you back €20 or so.
The Sacher-Torte is certainly a refined pleasure – if indeed pleasure is the right word, for when things are as refined as this, the potential for embarrassment is huge. I remember yearning for a slice as a child on a family holiday in Austria, and finally, after much persuasion getting one. But on achieving the goal, it was made clear that this was a one-off, a treat that was to be prolonged as far as possible in order to extract the maximum value. Any pleasure was calculatedly forestalled.
The individual misery of the cake which I experienced (and which I suspect is far from unusual) has a strange parallel in the social history the cake. In 1934, the Sacher Hotel went bust, and a version of the cake was produced by the rival Demel bakery. Back in business in 1938, the hotel reintroduced its product, and tried to stifle the upstart by all manner of tactics, resorting to legal action in 1954, a case that was not resolved until 1963 with an out of court settlement. Demel’s version had (indeed has) plenty of adherents who appreciate its more robust sponge, and the extra layer of apricot jam. But it was a nasty business. Each side had its advocates, and it pitted families and friends each other in what was an already one of Europe’s most traumatised cities
I did not know about the controversy until long after I had eaten my first piece. But I knew from my first bite that Sacher-Torte was much more than a cake. Not only was it surrounded by a whole set of rituals and expectations for which as a child I was wholly unprepared, its material richness was like a physical assault. It sat like a rock my stomach and made me feel sad and guilty for hours. Sad, because what I thought should have been a simple pleasure, wasn’t. And guilty because I had been treated to something that I couldn’t, in the event, fully enjoy.
So what does any of this have to do with psychoanalysis? Well, the location to start with: this is the emblematic cake of the home of the discipline. How much cake Freud consumed is unclear, but he was an enthusiastic participant in the city’s bourgeois rituals and there’s nothing to suggest he avoided this one.
But more importantly, it shows how complex our psychological lives are. We might conventionally understand cake eating as just a simple pleasure of civilised life. But I’d wager (admittedly without a shred of evidence) that the consumption of Sacher-Torte is routinely accompanied by dark and complex feelings, with their attendant pathologies. Take that as you will, but it is a small reminder that what the way we consume things is often far more complex than we like to believe, and that pleasure rarely occurs when and where we believe it should.