On the periphery

I want to start the month off by recommending Marjorie Perloff‘s Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire, published last year by the University of Chicago Press (a paperback edition will be published in January 2018). The book defines what Perloff calls “Austro-Modernism,” a form of modernist thinking engendered in the years 1914 through 1933, when the Habsburg Empire collapsed and its territories became awash in a bewildering brew of nationalism, anti-Semitism, exile, and blood. Perloff differentiates Austro-Modernism from its German cousin, forged in the political cauldron of the Weimar Republic. As she writes:

Weimar was the workshop for radical ideas, from Marxist theory to Heidegger’s ontological exploration of being-in-the-world to the film theory of Krakauer, Rudolf Arnheim, and [Walter] Benjamin himself. But this is not to say that Austro-Modernism, from Freud to Wittgenstein and Kraus, to Musil and Roth, to Celan and Bachmann, is to be understood as a weaker version of the strong intellectual formation of the Weimar Republic. It was merely different. Given the particular situation of the Habsburg Empire and its dissolution, given the eastern (and largely Jewish) origin of its writers, it developed in another direction, its hallmark being a profound skepticism about the power of government — any government or, for that matter, economic system — to reform human life. In Austro-Modernist fiction and poetry, irony — an irony less linked to satire (which posits the possibility for reform) than to a sense of the absurd — is thus the dominant mode. The writer’s situation is perceived not as a mandate for change — change that is always, for the Austrians, under suspicion — but as an urgent opportunity for probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles. (13; final emphasis my own)

Perloff’s analysis stretches from the “probing analysis” and documentary social satire of Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind to the “probing analysis” and socio-erotic frisson of Celan’s later lyric poetry, with an excellent coda that muses upon Wittgenstein’s obsession with the Christian gospels towards the end of his life. Ironic satire is a dominant mode in the fiction of both Musil and Roth, but it’s a satire that, as Perloff notes, doesn’t lead to political action, but instead to contemplative action. “In the face of war, in the face of the twin evils of Fascism and Communism and of the corruption that seemed to threaten democracy at every turn, one could expose the follies and evils of one’s world, but meaningful change could only be personal,” Perloff writes. “The aim, as Wittgenstein put it — and Musil and Roth concurred — could only be ‘to become a different person.'” (15)

Although all of Perloff’s subjects were German-speakers, many didn’t start off that way. They were born not in the Empire’s capital Vienna — though Vienna remained a shining beacon of ambition for each of them — but rather on its periphery, and in many cases its easternmost periphery, speaking languages other than German. Karl Kraus was born and raised in the town of Jičín (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of the Czech Republic); Joseph Roth was born and raised in the town of Brody, a small town near Lemberg, now Lviv, in East Galicia (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of Ukraine); Elias Canetti was born in Ruse, Bulgaria (an independent nation then, but with close ties to the Empire);  Paul Celan in the Romanian town of Czernowitz (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now also a part of Ukraine). That they can be considered various facets of that common experience that led to Perloff’s “Austro-Modernism” points to the role that the Empire played in their upbringing.

The Habsburg Empire in 1914 was a mess. Franz Josef I was considered a weak and vacillating leader; its polyglot culture made it all but impossible to administer effectively (especially by a somewhat corrupt and inept central bureaucracy); what we now call its “multiculturalism” was just as bewildering. But it was a mess that somehow functioned, and for much the same reasons. The same Empire gave rise to a Central European form of Modernism that produced composers like Arnold Schoenberg, philosophers like Freud and Wittgenstein, writers like Arthur Schnitzler, painters like Klimt and Schiele. Austrian Jews enjoyed particularly broad freedoms following the 1782 Edict of Tolerance issued by Joseph II, and in 1867 Franz Josef I formally bestowed equal rights on the Jewish population of the Empire. Indeed, in recent years revisionist historians like Pieter M. Judson have emphasized its strengths (even if, ultimately, its weaknesses led to its dissolution in 1918), suggesting that its tolerance  could be something of a model for the polyglot multicultural societies of the 21st century.

The cataclysmic collapse of the Empire in 1918 left Austria a rump state. The Habsburgs were gone; in its place an unstable republic, an easy target for neighboring fascists, that would last for only 16 years (the monarchy ruled for nearly 400 years). This left Perloff’s writers, working in the years between the two world wars, with a sense of loss — that they’d been cut adrift from the land and culture of their youth. Kraus and the others weren’t sentimental about what was gone, but they recognized its strengths and opportunities as well, giving rise to what might be called an ironic conservatism in their outlook. Ultimately, the collapse was a collapse of cultural identity as well. Despite the almost unimaginable size of the empire’s territories, Musil, Celan, Roth, and the others shared a historical culture, which inevitably led to a common recognition — a recognition reflected in habits of thought, social conventions, mind, language — of their tragic situation. They harbored no optimism for the restoration of the monarchy in the years after 1918. Indeed, they harbored no optimism at all — except for the possibilities inherent in what a “probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles” might reveal about us as individuals and how we live. For this reason alone, Edge of Irony is worth a look. Adam Kirsch reviews the book at greater length in the June 22, 2017, issue of the New York Review of Books.


I happen to be a child (or, at least, a grandchild) of the periphery of the Austrian Empire myself. My paternal grandfather Maxsym Hunka arrived at Ellis Island in 1914 from Ukraine (probably from Berezhany, Ternopil, then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of western Ukraine); he too was an exile from a collapsing world, perhaps sharing (in the peculiar ways of his own situation) in the habits of thought, social conventions, mind, and language of the subjects of Edge of Irony. He was far from an intellectual, receiving only a fifth-grade-level education according to US Census reports from later years. But if there can be said to be a cultural DNA just as influential upon us as our biological DNA, passed down in the form of these habits through the generations, they might generate in us an affectionate affinity for characteristics of our ancestral cultures, its origins barely recognized in our individual histories unless we look for them. I’ve been looking for mine recently, and Edge of Irony encouraged me to look further. More about that soon.

Joseph Koerner’s Vienna

I hope to write a few words about Ilsa Barea’s excellent 1966 book Vienna: Legend and Reality in a few days, but in the meantime I repost here Joseph Koerner‘s Vienna: City of Dreams, a BBC documentary that was first televised in 2007. Koerner’s film is not so much a history of the city as a series of meditations on its place in modernity. It’s beautifully shot, however, and Koerner is a pensive, thoughtful guide. The Victor S. Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, he is the creative director of the Vienna Project at Harvard University, also worth a look.

My Vienna

Originally published here in 2004.

Earlier iterations of the journal featured Vienna’s Burgtheater in their banners; it disappeared for a while, now it reappears again. I can’t say that Vienna is the city in which I feel most at home; that Vienna is long gone. (Besides, my German language skills are, if not non-existent, laughable.) But I appreciate the reminders that it was, for a brief moment, a place in which I would have enjoyed spending some time.

Uneasy obsessions with sensuality, elegance, and manners; a growing sense of its own decay, mortality, and irrelevance; a recognition of the power of irrationality — all of these characterize fin de siècle Vienna. Vienna in 1900 was both symptom and landmark of modernity. The self-conscious and ironic grace of Viennese culture both obscured the role of the irrational and made it possible for that same irrationality to spring forth in the novels and plays of Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, the psychiatric work of Freud on dreams and neurosis, the paintings and drawings of Klimt and Schiele, the atonal music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. All of these figures were reviled to some greater or lesser extent by the traditionalists among the Viennese, but from nowhere else, and at no other time, could these figures have emerged. By 1918, the Habsburg monarchy and this same Vienna were dead, though its phosphorescent decay would glow in both Austria and in Germany until 1933.

Freud recognized Schnitzler (also a medical doctor) as a colleague and observer, and along with Schiele and Klimt perceived eroticism within this Old World elegance as inescapable but, unlike our own time, fully cognizant of the body’s own mortality. Klimt’s serpent-women rendered eroticism a part of sensualized nature; Schiele’s crabbed but vulnerable and provocative bodies stared out at the viewer, daring that viewer to look away rather than enter the perspective of the subject. That the suppression of this eroticism would give rise to hypocrisy was obvious; but there was a special appeal, erotic itself, to bearing in mind constantly and simultaneously the activities that went on in the ballroom and behind the closed doors of the bedroom. Social elegance suggested sexual and erotic elegance — but this was the culture of the shared secret, not the exploitation of the erotic and sexual for public titillation. Perhaps there was greater sensual freedom as a result. And, contrary to the arrogant assumptions of our contemporary cult of youth, the more an individual matured, the greater his or her ability to appreciate the possibilities of sensuality, which could be said to mature as well.

Design and style were central obsessions to the Viennese of the turn of the century; the care taken with simple household objects by the Wiener Werkstätte paralleled the care taken with the self-conscious design and style of the human bodies that inhabited those households: the body (both male and female) as aestheticized display object, adorned and unadorned. Few of Klimt’s and Schiele’s figures are wholly nude; they are draped in gold, or wear stockings, though the unadorned figures are easily imagined, even suggested by their apparel. No wonder either then that theatre was, of all the arts except music, of the greatest importance to the Viennese — it was there that styles were set, that self-presentation achieved its greatest mastery and mystery. The Ringstrasse, Vienna’s most theatrical architectual feature, is itself a masterpiece of duplicity — the Baroque to Classical to Gothic to Jugenstil buildings were all constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. Vienna was, simultaneously, dream and nightmare. Perhaps that is its dangerous attraction.

Fin de siècle Vienna, c’est moi? No, that’s foolish. It is of both greater and lesser comfort, though, to recognize something of oneself in a dead historical era. It explains affinities, intellectual and emotional, even if ultimately I can come to no final conclusions.

Richard Gerstl at the Neue Galerie

Richard Gerstl, Selbstbildnis (Akt in ganzer Figur), 12 September 1908. Oil on canvas, 140.5 x 119.5 cms. Leopold Museum.

Opening this Thursday, June 29, and running through September 25, the Neue Galerie‘s exhibition Richard Gerstl will throw a spotlight on the career of the Austrian painter with the display of approximately 55 paintings and works on paper. Gerstl (1883-1908) was not well known in his lifetime, but he is increasingly recognized as one of the central artists of Austrian Expressionism. This earlier neglect may be, perhaps, because of his scandalous private life and the circumstances of his death (he apparently managed to both hang and stab himself at the same time), which may have overshadowed the work itself, disturbing as that is as well. One gallery of the exhibition will be dedicated to his relationship with Arnold and Mathilde Schönberg, a relationship that was instrumental in leading him to his suicide.

The exhibition was organized by Jill Lloyd and will be accompanied by the publication of a new catalog published by Hirmer. I’ll be there for the unveiling tomorrow night (following a bracing dinner at Heidelberg with my lovely wife, who will be making her own contribution to the effort in July with a members-only concert); if you plan on going yourself once the exhibition opens to the public, Alex Ross’s essay “The Final, Shocking Self-Portrait of Richard Gerstl” — the one you’ll find above, which Facebook and Twitter both reject, for some unfathomable reason — in the June 22 New Yorker will get you up to speed.