A Yuletide Modernist

Enthusiasts of the poet and critic T.S. Eliot will find their Christmas stockings over-stuffed this year. Recently both Lyndall Gordon and Robert Crawford have added a few volumes to the biography shelf, and just days before Christmas W.W. Norton will issue another biography of sorts — of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” by Matthew Hollis. In part, this is no doubt to leap upon the very recent release of over a thousand of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, Eliot’s longtime friend and, in many ways, poetic muse.

In The New York Times, Katie Roiphe has already had at Gordon’s The Hyacinth Girl, in a fair-enough review. Fair enough, I suppose, in that she doesn’t outright call Eliot an unrepentant misogynist; Gordon’s biography focuses on Eliot’s relationships with the women in his life, including Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Mary Trevelyan, and Hale, and it’s been no secret that Eliot’s attitude towards women was highly-fraught at best. “It’s hard, at times, not to be repelled by the poet,” Roiphe muses, and she also gets a dig in at Eliot’s antisemitic leanings (common-enough knowledge by now not to generate headlines like the publication of letters to a lover might).

I’m of two minds about The Hyacinth Girl myself, because, having been indocrinated into the New Criticism during my college years, my initial response is to steer away from relying too heavily on biography as an approach to art. (In the early 1980s, undergraduate literature study was still grounded in New Critical principles; graduate literature study was an entirely different story, which I found to my chagrin and, ultimately, amusement.) Besides which, I still think reading somebody else’s mail, even that of the long dead, is unforgivably rude.

I say this as somebody who admires Gordon’s T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. Never has a book been so aptly subtitled — so aptly, I suspect, that any biography could bear it. It’s especially apt in that Eliot, flying high for nearly half a century as perhaps the 20th century’s pre-eminent Modernist poet and critic, has had his wings severely clipped since the 1970s, both for his obscurity and for those imperfections (not particularly obscure) that became public knowledge in the years after his death. For a while, Pound’s reputation overshadowed Eliot’s until the fascist label rendered Pound persona non grata in the seminar room too; Joyce quickly became TL;DR as our attention spans shortened through the 1980s and cable television and the internet began their dominance over every hour of our days and nights. Nowadays, so far as I can tell, readers who like their Modernism neat tend to take up Virginia Woolf, safely a woman, safely proto-feminist, safely rather dull.

Whether or not these new books spark a resurgence of interest in Eliot’s work is of course an open question. Hope springs eternal, but for me so does skepticism. I myself revisited Eliot’s poetry a few years ago not because of a biography but because of William Gaddis, whose five novels taken together constitute a kind of encyclopaedic post-war “Waste Land” of their own. Gaddis was so indebted to Eliot that he “at one point in the composition [of The Recognitions] intended to weave each line of Four Quartets into the text of his novel, such was his affiliation with Eliot’s vision and ethos,” Gaddis’s biographer Joseph Tabbi writes. This sent me right on to the Four Quartets and to “The Waste Land” again — both of which affected me more profoundly in my fifties than they did in my twenties.

That is a theme for another post. In the meantime, I also looked back to Eliot criticism, finding the best of it still in his earlier explicators, especially F.O. Matthiessen and Helen Gardner. Unlike Gordon and Crawford, Matthiessen and Gardner knew Eliot personally, so had access to the man before he was planted in the ground, sprouting biographies. Nonetheless, they shunned the approach. While Matthiessen was speaking of critics and not biographers, I think he hit on something in the preface to his 1935 study of Eliot’s poetry:

The most widespread error in contemporary criticism is to neglect form and to concern itself entirely with content. The romantic critic is generally not interested in the poet’s work, but in finding the man behind it. The humanistic critic and the sociological critic have in common that both tend to ignore the evaluation of specific poems in their preoccupation with the ideological background from which the poets spring. All these concerns can have value in expert hands, but only if it is realized that they are not criticism of poetry. … The most fatal approach to a poem is to focus merely on what it seems to state, to try to isolate its ideas from their context in order to approve or disapprove of them before having really grasped their implications in the poem itself.

F.O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T.S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry, 1958 edition, Oxford University Press, vii.

It may or may not be pertinent to note here that Matthiessen was himself a socialist, even by some lights a political radical, in contrast to Eliot’s monarchistic, conservative Anglo-Catholicism; he was also homosexual and Episcopalian. He committed suicide in 1950, leaving behind a note that read in part, “I am depressed over world conditions. I am a Christian and a Socialist. I am against any order which interferes with that objective.”

Matthiessen’s concern was with the relationship of form and content, but I think there’s something here about the contemporary trend to read poems, to listen to music, to look at art not only according to its ideological background but from a specific ideological perspective as well. So long as this continues, Eliot will remain a bird with clipped wings, I’m afraid, no matter how many biographies are published about him. And God help the rest of us too.

Thirty years ago

In 2021 (we plan ahead), Marilyn and I plan to bundle our family into a transatlantic airliner for a journey to the Czech Republic. Our daughters are old enough now to appreciate the architecture and a little history, but for me, it will be a return to a part of the world for which I’ve always had a deep and abiding affection. In part, this is because my own family originated there; my roots lie in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Lithuania. But more, for people of my generation, Central and Eastern Europe has a particular historical meaning not entirely irrelevant to my daughters’ own period here in the United States.

Thirty years ago, in 1989, at the age of 27, I along with everyone else in the world watched as the Iron Curtain crumbled and the Cold War evaporated in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and many points east. And it happened quickly, within the space of a year. It was perhaps the most deeply meaningful geopolitical event of my youth. It’s hard to explain to generations younger than my own exactly how momentous an event this was. Since my birth in 1962, I and the rest of my generation had been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation; the Soviet Union and its satellites were a region of frightening mystery. The world seemed divided between a capitalist West of liberalism and cosmopolitanism and a communist East of totalitarianism and penury. The Berlin Wall had by 1989 become a symbol of this division. It seemed permanent, bombs and guns from each side pointing menacingly at the other. Then, in November — almost thirty years ago today — the Wall fell, dismantled by citizens from both West and East Berlin, as the Communist Party looked on in paralyzed disbelief.

I didn’t much believe it either, but forbidden things have their own charm, and I first visited the region in 1990: from Vienna to Prague, Budapest, and Belgrade. As cliche as it may seem, the excitement and optimism in the air of these cities was palpable; as an American I was greeted everywhere I went (well, maybe not Belgrade) with a sense of celebration. And Americans were everywhere too; in those pre-EU days, the dollar went far. The ideal of individual liberty was finding a new embodiment in these newly free individuals. The following year I returned to a small village in Moravia where I taught English in a local high school.

It couldn’t last. When I once again visited the region four or five years later, the bloom was off the rose as idealism clashed with the practical compromises necessary to maintain a functioning democratic government. Nonetheless, for that moment, it seemed that most of the ideals of Western liberalism were triumphant.

Triumphs, however, are usually temporary, as history teaches us all too well. The absorption of many of these countries into the European Union was accompanied by various difficulties, not the least of which were economic inequality and migration — difficulties that have led to a resurgence of nationalistic autocracy in many of them. So Václav Havel gave way to Václav Klaus. Upon returning to the United States, however, I maintained my enthusiasm for Central and Eastern European culture, literature, philosophy, and cuisine, and hope to share these with my daughters in two years.

Not all of Central Europe’s revolutions in the years following 1989 were quite so velvety or peaceful. I remembered my experience in Central Europe most recently with the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014 — further east than the Central European capitals I visited earlier, Maidan was bloodier and its conclusion more ambivalent than those of 1989. And Ukraine’s long experience with Soviet totalitarianism, kleptocratic and oligarchic corruption, and a more violent past, as well as the ambivalent and protean nature of Ukrainian identity, has placed it in a particularly sensitive and dangerous position on the borderland of west and east. And — as the past year has proven — has left it open to extortion and corruption by the west and east themselves. Of western Ukrainian heritage myself, I feel this most deeply.

Among the public intellectuals most scandalized by the Trump presidency are many of my generation, primarily historians, who had similar responses to and experiences in Eastern and Central Europe in the post-1989 era, many of them travelling in that region for the first time around the years that I did. Anne Applebaum (born 1964), Ed Luce (1968), Timothy Snyder (1969), and Marci Shore (1972) have all written far more eloquently than me about their experience of and deeply personal responses to Central and Eastern Europe’s recent past, responses which led them to study the history of the region and propose lessons we might learn from 1989 and its aftermath. Following in the footsteps of journalist/essayists like Timothy Garton Ash of the generation before their own, they see Western liberalism and the rule of law as characteristics that are hard won — ideals for which blood was shed in the not so distant past, and ideals under attack by the Trump administration and other autocratic and neo-totalitarian leaders, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

The thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall takes place this Saturday, November 9. Ironically, Donald Trump is intent on building a new, similar wall of his own. New authoritarianisms and tyrannies will not much resemble those that fell in 1989; they are on the rise in different forms which seem more palatable to many voters in the United States and elsewhere. Here in the United States, the GOP and its supporters, in demonizing the Democratic Party, appear to be perfectly happy to consider a one-party system. In introducing my daughters to those Hapsburg-era capitals that made such an impression on me thirty years ago, I hope to imbue them with some of the dreams, some of the magic, some of the intelligence and compassion, and some of the strength that they’ll need to resist a future which is fast becoming darker.

A toast to Mineshaft

In many ways, I’m still an analog boy in a digital world, and when it comes to leisure material for reading, watching, and listening, I prefer the hand-made sort of entertainment, whether it’s mid-budget comedy movies from the 1930s or what’s generally become known as roots music. Books and magazines that suit my temperament are harder to come by these days, though.

Fortunately there’s still Mineshaft magazine, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Inspired by underground magazines and comics of the past, Mineshaft is a modest and resolutely hand-crafted periodical that’s issued about three times a year, published by Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri in Durham, NC, far from the media meccas of New York and Los Angeles. Produced through the increasingly quaint offset printing method, the magazine’s prose, poems, and comics are resolutely free of cant and pretension. The Spring 2019 issue (No. 37) features recent work from veteran cartoonists and illustrators Drew Friedman (front cover), R. Crumb (back cover), Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, and Mary Fleener; poems and paintings by Billy Childish; and work by a number of artists who are unknown to me, such as Nicolas C. Grey, David Collier, and Noah Van Sciver. What they all share is a rootedness in the physical, not the digital, world; like the magazine, the work has a distinctively handmade quality, and the comics especially share a meditative and contemplative marriage of laconic prose and atmospheric inkwork pioneered by, among others, Harvey Pekar in the 1970s. There’s a melancholy that hangs over the whole, a feeling that the analog world it depicts is being lost, if it hasn’t been lost already. That the work has a particularly satiric quality, then, doesn’t come as much of a surprise, especially when it refers to the digital realm, and it’s not much of a shock to find, tipped in with this contemporary work, a reproduction of a detail from a painting by William Hogarth.

Both single issues of No. 37 and back issues are still available from the Mineshaft web site, and you can pony up for a subscription there as well. Obviously the magazine, itself a beautifully, lovingly produced object, will be an acquired taste for those who have drunk deep from the well of the internet culture; it’s not for everybody. But it is, in many ways, for me.

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.

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 affinity for characteristics of our ancestral cultures, its origins barely recognized in our individual histories unless we look for them.

My Vienna

Originally published here in 2014.

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.