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.

Satire religious, secular, and political

It is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant
of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself …

Juvenal (c. 55-138 AD)
Satire I

The Trump years are proving felicitous for satire. We haven’t yet had a MacBird! (Barbara Garson’s play about LBJ), an Our Gang (Philip Roth’s book-length evisceration of Richard Nixon), or a Mastergate (Larry Gelbart’s play satirizing the Iran-Contra hearings), but The Onion, McSweeney’s, Andy Borowitz, John Oliver, and many others are filling the gap on a daily basis. It’s only a matter of time before somebody or another makes the leap to one of these longer-form lampoons. Not that the stakes aren’t high. “I don’t think [Donald Trump’s] funny at all,” Sen. Al Franken told an audience at Cooper Union’s Great Hall the other night. But as we shall see, even Sen. Franken can’t entirely hold back.

My bedside table these days is awash in books of and about satire. I’ve not entirely finished any of them yet, but they’re enjoyable enough that I want to wave a little flag for each of them.

In 2015, NYU Press published God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert, by Terry Lindvall, a Fulbright Scholar who holds the C.S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan College. His book is a broad survey of satire from a religious perspective, from the Hebrew bible all the way through, obviously, to contemporary late-night television. Characterizing true satire as moral outrage expressed in laughter, Lindvall doesn’t shy away from the scatalogical passages in Hosea and Elijah or the satiric ironies of Christ’s parables and sermons; later, he courses through the usual suspects (Rabelais, Swift, Pope, Monty Python) and a few unusual ones (Robert G. Ingersoll, Soren Kierkegaard). Prof. Lindvall wears his learning lightly, and his exegesis doesn’t get in the way of the jokes themselves. It’s a quick and inspiring read that sends you back to the sources.

Gilbert Highet’s 1962 The Anatomy of Satire, republished in 2015 by the Princeton University Press, tackles the history and techniques of satire from the secular perspective. Best known now for his Poets in a Landscape, profiles of ancient Roman writers, Highet usefully anatomizes the spirit of the genre in its monological, parodic, and narrative forms, covering many of the same writers as Lindvall. Like Lindvall, too, Highet seems to have written for a general audience; it only lacks, for obvious reasons, any coverage of the last 75 years or so of satire — and fecund years they were.

And sometimes moral outrage leads to more than satire: it can lead to politics itself. Former Saturday Night Live satirist Al Franken was elected to the US Senate in 2008, representing his home state of Minnesota; his new book Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken is a memoir that covers his career from elementary school troublemaker through his current status as junior senator. Franken admits that he’s had to tamp down his impulses towards comedy and satire, but apparently he’s secure enough now that they can come to the fore once again. And why not? Franken has proven one of the most effective members of that august body, working with colleagues across the aisle to win legislative victories for his constituents and advance a progressive political and cultural agenda: thankless work in many ways, but it puts paid to the idea that satirists do nothing but complain. And he’s one of the loudest, boldest anti-Trump voices in Congress.

Franken’s name has been floated as a possible 2020 Presidential candidate. It wouldn’t be the first time that a satirist has been elected to high office: in 1989 Václav Havel took the office of the presidency of Czechoslovakia for a ten-year run, and he didn’t do too badly, becoming a moral conscience for the world (though even he, like Franken, had to tread lightly on the irony pedal for most of his term). True, Franken might not be Václav Havel, not by a long shot, and he’s dismissed any ambition for a higher office than the Senate. But, as he might be the first to admit, he is a politician. So we’ll see what happens next year.

King Cowboy Rufus rides into London

Opening on August 14, Richard Foreman’s 2004 play King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe! rides into town for a brief run at the London Theatre Workshop. This marks the London premiere of the play, to be directed and designed by Patrick Kennedy.

Though Kennedy will reformulate the play as a comment on the Trump presidency, Foreman originally wrote the play as a response to the George W. Bush administration. Foreman wrote at the time:

I always feel that my overriding obligation is to make a complex compositional object that gives aesthetic pleasure. 
Yet sometimes, the pressure of the real world is such that I feel the need to respond to what’s happening politically or socially. But though I am anti-Bush and anti-war — I don’t find it artistically satisfactory to simply “preach to the converted” and create a theatrical diatribe that expresses my political views.

The question is — can what’s happening in the real world, and one’s response to it, be shaped in such a way that some kind of “mythic response” is created — so one speaks about the real political situation — yet is still creating an exhilarating theatrical object that allows one’s imagination to expand along with the twists and turns of its polyphonic structure. 
The solution I attempt in King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe is to put on stage, not George Bush himself, but a foppish English gentleman who, while seeming a figure from out of the past — yet dreams of becoming an imitation George Bush — acquiring that same power and manifesting similar limits of vision. I hope this allows many levels of theatrical irony and comic energy to co-exist with my anguished point of view concerning the direction in which current American policy is leading us.

New productions of Foreman’s plays are rare four years after the premiere of his final stage play, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes, at the Public Theater, though as the new London production of King Cowboy Rufus suggests, they can speak to our own traumatic times as well. It could be that the innovative techniques he brought as a director to these plays overshadowed their more literary qualities, even though text was always primary in his productions. But the gnostic qualities of his texts invite a variety of directorial responses.

Back in the day, when I wrote about theatre and drama, I wrote quite a bit about Foreman’s work; now that parenthood and waning interest leave me with little time for theatre and drama, I still turn to his texts at times (King Cowboy Rufus can be found in TCG’s Bad Boy Nietzsche! and Other Plays). I have it on very good authority, however, that young children who attended Foreman’s productions were fascinated by and very much enjoyed the chaotic goings-on up on the stage. In a way, children whatever their age are his ideal audience. Like a child, I had to open myself to a sense of wonder and experience in experiencing his plays, a sense that’s all too rare in adulthood. It was the play itself, of course, that rekindled that sense. And perhaps this is something that’s been missing from theatre since Foreman’s retirement from the form. At least, it’s been missing for me.

More information about the London production of King Cowboy Rufus can be found here. I last wrote about Foreman when I reviewed The Manifestos and Essays, a collection of his theoretical texts, in 2014. That review can be found below.

Novelist, filmmaker, and raconteur Richard Foreman is best known for his theatre work as playwright, designer, and director — but even here, one must be careful to distinguish Foreman’s more commercial projects (from his musicals with Stanley Silverman to his opera and “straight” theatre work) from the plays he’s been producing over nearly 50 years through his Ontological-Hysteric Theater, founded in 1968; the most recent OHT production, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes, ran at the Public Theater in 2013.

Foreman’s influence has often been cited as a central ingredient of contemporary drama and theatre, but this influence may be more through his example than his specific techniques and plays themselves. Since 1968, Foreman’s OHT plays have been uncompromising investigations into the nature of his own vision and consciousness; while the Incubator Arts Project, which now occupies the space at St. Mark’s Church once occupied by the OHT, was a project undertaken with Foreman’s blessing, most of the work produced there doesn’t resemble Foreman’s. Foreman’s spirit emerges in the courage that he engenders and recommends in these theatre artists to be uncompromising in investigating their own visions, not his. [NOTE: The Incubator Arts Project closed in July 2014.]

While Foreman’s theatrical productivity has tapered off somewhat in the past few years, and the OHT productions have become more rare, we are fortunate now to have The Manifestos and Essays, a new collection from Theatre Communications Group that gathers Foreman’s theoretical writings, many of which are hard to come by, into a convenient single volume. The contents span from the three “Ontological-Hysteric Manifestos” written in the 1970s, to more personal essays from the 1980s and 1990s, to two interviews conducted with Foreman in 2008 and 2009, and finally 40 pages of notes that relate to his film Once Every Day, which ran at the New York Film Festival in 2013.

Central to Foreman’s theatre and film through this entire period is the nature of consciousness itself: that new ways of seeing the world can lead to new ways of acting within it and contemplating it, that in our daily lives we remain immune to the underlying dynamics of our experience as a body and object and subject in a world against which other bodies and objects and subjects continue to press. Foreman, a Barnumesque showman, often finds these dynamics erotic and comic, though more often than not one is left with a note of melancholy as the difficulty and (for some of us) the impossibility of rearranging our consciousness becomes more and more evident. His spare early productions, sometimes three hours in length, gave way to a more baroque sensibility as his designs became more crowded (the more objects, after all, the more there is to investigate) and more frenetic (as our own perceptions have become more fragmented and hysterical, one following and seizing upon another in an unending spiral that leads to chaos).

“Diagram 2 explains, once and for all, all of my plays!” Richard Foreman in “The Manifestos and Essays,” p. 94-95.

That said, there is a progression in Foreman’s career from those early, near-minimal productions to a more carnivalesque phase, then more contemplative in plays like The Cure (1986) and The Mind King (1992), then more controlled with his plays of the early 21st century. Surprisingly for a body of work which foregrounds abstraction, they are all products of their time, as all plays and works of art are, on some level, products of their time. Symphony of Rats (1988) and King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe! (2004) both have explicitly political themes, but the questioning of the ideology of consciousness in 20th century America obviously has an implicit political dimension as well. To stop, to think, to contemplate, within a culture growing more and more transparent and anxious — these may be the most politically (and, obviously, aesthetically and culturally) radical actions in a society seemingly in love, and perhaps in lust, with its own rapid, fearful, frantic movements.

The manifestos and essays in the TCG volume detail the frustration and dissatisfaction Foreman experienced in the theatre of the 1960s (often expressed with surprising vehemence), even the theatre of other avant-garde theatremakers, and mark out the intellectual basis for the OHT. The plays themselves, of course, emerge more from Foreman’s instinct as a theatremaker and writer than from any body of philosophy he may or may not have come across. Like many other artists similarly well-read and seemingly over-intellectual, Foreman picks and chooses, denying that he “understands” some of the more abstruse structures of thought. Instead, he’s a packrat — he takes from those structures what he desires, what is useful to him in his own thinking about his work.

Foreman recommends a similar approach to his own theoretical writings, introducing the “Film Notes” to this volume:


And indeed, while the book is organized chronologically, that might not be the best way for newcomers to Foreman’s theory to “read it through” either. My own recommendation for the relative newcomer is to read the raconteur (the interviews) first, then the genial storyteller (the essays), then the theorist (the more demanding manifestos), and finally the writer and artist himself (the “Film Notes”).

Foreman’s plays themselves, available in several collections, are also continually worth reading; his theatrical design may be the most spectacular aspect of the shows, but the wordplay and language of his drama has remained neglected. Read in conjunction with these plays, The Manifestos and Essays signifies the lasting contributions of Richard Foreman to the art of drama and theatre in America. It is as essential as Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and Harold Clurman’s The Fervent Years – and as entertaining, provocative, and ever inspiring.  (For some of us, Foreman’s passionate enthusiasm and radicalism will easily trump both of these books anyway.) Here’s hoping for a few more contributions from the Grand Master himself.

Friday music

Below, Marilyn Nonken performs the second of Arnold Schönberg’s Three Pieces (Opus 11) at the Neue Galerie last Wednesday night for a members-only audience.

For those who were unable to be there, fear not: she and her fellow musicians violinist Rolf Schulte and cellist Coleman Itzkoff will perform a similar program for the public at NYU later this year. See you at Cafe Katja later today for a nice big glass of Grüner Veltliner.


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Friday roundup

Maurice Ravel.

I spent some time with Vienna this week, watching Joseph Koerner’s fine documentary about the city and noting Marilyn Nonken’s appearance at the Neue Galerie next week. I also reposted a little essay about duration and the sacred.

Closing out the week, I offer a Vienna Philharmonic performance of Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, conducted by André Previn. Carl Schorske begins his magisterial study Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture with a short study of this 13-minute work, seeing in it a metaphor for the condition of the city at the turn of the 20th century. He writes:

At the close of World War I, Maurice Ravel recorded in La Valse the violent death of the nineteenth-century world. The waltz, long the symbol of gay Vienna, became in the composer’s hands a frantic danse macabre. “I feel this work a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, linked in my mind with the impression of a fantastic whirl of destiny.” His grotesque memorial serves as a symbolic introduction to a problem of history: the relationship of politics and the psyche in fin-de-siecle Vienna.

Although Ravel celebrates the  destruction of the world of the waltz, he does not initially present that world as unified. The work opens rather with an adumbration of the individual parts, which will compose the whole: fragments of waltz themes, scattered over a brooding stillness. Gradually the parts find each other — the martial fanfare, the vigorous trot, the sweet obligato, the sweeping major melody. Each element is drawn, its own momentum magnetized, into the wider whole. Each unfolds its individuality as it joins its partners in the dance. The pace accelerates; almost imperceptibly the sweeping rhythm passes over into the compulsive, then into the frenzied. The concentric elements become eccentric, disengaged from the whole, thus transforming harmony into cacophony. The driving pace continues to build when suddenly caesuras appear in the rhythm, and the auditor virtually stops to stare in horror at the void created when a major element weakens the movement, and yet the whole is moving, relentlessly driving as only compulsive three-quarter time can. Through to the very end, when the waltz crashes in a cataclysm of sound, each theme continues to breathe its individuality, eccentric and distorted now, in the chaos of totality.

Ravel’s musical parable of a modern cultural crisis, whether or not he knew it, posed the problem in much the same way as it was felt and seen by the Austrian intelligentsia of the fin de siecle. How had their world fallen into chaos? …

Schorske spends the rest of the book trying to answer this question, but begins with Ravel. The performance can be heard below; have a good weekend.