Vienna: Myth and Reality

Hans Keller

  • Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture by Carl Schorske
    Weidenfeld, 378 pp, £15.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 297 77772 6
  • A Nervous Splendour: Vienna 1888/1889 by Frederic Morton
    Weidenfeld, 340 pp, £8.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 297 77769 6

The well-nigh drug-like fascination which Vienna has exerted upon the Western world at all emotional and intellectual levels – Johann Strauss’s as well as Arnold Schoenberg’s, the Schnitzel’s as well as Arthur Schnitzler’s and Sigmund Freud’s – was bound to result in an attempt to explain it all, or most of it, or that part of it that has a hypnotic effect on the investigator himself. The question then naturally arises how far he has fallen victim to the myth whose reality he is trying to uncover – to the belief that what comes from Vienna is Viennese, has to be, couldn’t come from anywhere else. It is a question that will be answered in about 2,500 words’ time; hard fact will intervene.

A leading historian, Professor Schorske is concerned with fin-de-siècle Vienna as ‘one of the most fertile breeding grounds of our century’s a-historical culture’. But in music, at any rate, the myth of Vienna was well established long before the century dreamt of turning so much so that ‘Viennese’ had become an evaluative term rather than a geographical one: if, like Haydn. Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms or Bruckner, you were good enough, and had spent some time in Vienna, you were Viennese: the only actual Viennese in the so-miscalled First Viennese School was Schubert. You may say that there is a point in speaking, purely musically, of Viennese symphonism – in which case, however, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is one of its most outstanding products. And why not? Tchaikovsky’s spiritual teacher was Mozart – and that’s the way musical history works.

Not Schorske’s way, not through the interaction of politics and culture. But it would be unfair to his monumental effort immediately to assault it on what is, ineluctably, its weakest side: music is the one mode of thought which does not depend on conceptual and or pictorial thought, and whose independence of political history is proportionate. The more meaningful the music qua music, the less it is determined by extra-musical circumstances. Music, that is, can tell us a lot about other things, but other things cannot tell us anything about music – except bad music, mediocre music, music that dies with the age it expresses.

Schorske’s approach to the arts is historical, psychological and literary: in fact, at one point, he unwittingly identifies art with literature, talking about ‘the role of the artist’ in one sentence, and ‘this function of literature’ in the next. Literature, then, together with politics and Viennese psychoanalysis, comes off best, and his essay on ‘Politics and Patricide in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams’ would be a magnificent substantiation of his thesis if he had one. As it is, he is too conscientious a thinker to force historic intellectual events into a ‘complete map of the historical landscape’, and reminds us. instead, that each of his seven essays (which he never calls ‘chapters’) can be read independently: ‘Only the fundamental motif of interaction between politics and culture runs through them all. The hope is that, as in a song cycle, the central idea will act to establish a coherent field in which the several parts can cast their light upon each other to illuminate the larger whole.’

So what precisely is this central idea? Can it be specified beyond the ‘interaction between politics and culture’? Of course: it can be pinned down to Vienna, where ‘it was political frustration that spurred the discovery of ... all-pervasive psychological man. His emergence out of the political crisis of Viennese literal culture provides my theme.’ And ere you have reached the half-way mark, the several parts have cast such blinding light upon each other that you have ceased to understand how Franz Kafka (whose name, wisely, doesn’t appear in the book) could allow himself to be born and bred outside Vienna: quite seriously, if we accept all of Professor Schorske’s historical causations and correlations, the burden of explaining the Vienna-less Kafka, and indeed Kafka-less Vienna, heavily rests upon him.

Mind you, he has Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal to worry about, but while their respective positions within the bewildering network of political and sociological determinants is meticulously drawn, the reader becomes progressively uneasy about the author’s own aesthetic position: does he really regard Hofmannsthal as a major creative figure, worth half an essay? Is it not, on the contrary, just because Hofmannsthal fitted so well into his time that the Muse did not bestow her ultimate favour on him – timelessness?

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