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?

Schorske brushes aside Karl Kraus’s penetrating stab at Hofmannsthal: ‘That gem-collector flees life and loves the things which beautify it.’ It is, in fact, the artistic irrelevance of the concept of beauty which Schorske does not whole-mindedly face, accept. He is aware, of course, of ‘a generation that made of beauty a screen against truth’ (a very happy phrase, this), and of the vapidity of the philosopher Friedrich Jodl’s attack on the painter Gustav Klimt – ‘It is not against nude art, nor against free art that we struggle, but against ugly art’ – against which the art historian Franz Wickhoff reacted in his turn with a polemical lecture under the title ‘What Is Ugly?’ Schorske is alive, too, to the transcendent beauty of Schoenberg’s condemnation of beauty, which he quotes at length: ‘Beauty exists only from that moment when unproductive people begin to find it lacking... The artist has no need of it. For him, truthfulness is enough.’

Yet, in view of Hofmannsthal, all beauty seems to be forgiven. True, ‘for the orthodox of the religion of art, the interpretation of life as beauty brings a terrible dependency,’ but ‘the genius can always see beauty; to him every moment brings fulfilment’ – at which stage Professor Schorske is simply dreaming. Where are those geniuses who have shown the slightest interest in beauty, in creating it? The slope from beauty to kitsch is indeed slippery: overcome by Vienna’s Ringstrasse, he confuses his own values and, thus, the virginal reader’s, to the extent of not giving us the slightest inkling of, say, the utter trash that is the Votivkirche; he just tells us that it ‘was intended to serve simultaneously as church for the garrison of Vienna and as a Westminster Abbey for Austria’s greatest men’.

Love the Ringstrasse and the way to paradise is open to you, whoever you are even if you are a Hitler himself, who could stand for hours ‘in front of the Opera, for hours I could gaze at the Parliament [diagnosable as pastiche within seconds], the whole Ring Boulevard seemed to me like an enchantment out of “The Thousand-and-One Nights”.’ This piece of profound insight prompts the book’s most unpredictable footnote: ‘Hitler’s close, personal, and often perceptive criticism of the Ringstrasse makes clear its power and vitality as symbol of a way of life.’

Hitler’s two political predecessors, the antisemites Georg von Schönerer (1842–1921) and Vienna’s notorious mayor Karl Lueger (1844–1910), are the subject of Schorske’s most riveting study, wherein they are joined by the Austrian father of Israel, Theodor Herzl (1860–1905): the ‘Austrian trio’ is subjected to a historical analysis that is greatly helped by the author’s psychoanalytic knowledge and understanding, which enable him to spot, without emotional prejudice, both common and contrasting individual character traits, their causes and effects, within the selfsame historical situation. The essay ‘pursues the emergence of a politics of fantasy, in which the perduring power of the aristocratic cultural tradition is adapted by three erstwhile Austro-liberals to the modern pursuit of mass politics’.

A pity only that even in his political discourse, Schorske – perhaps for linguistic vitality’s sake – plays around with his values and ours: ‘Thus, even before Vienna’s intellectuals blazed trails to the 20th century’s higher culture, three of her sons pioneered in its post-rational politics.’ It might coolly be argued that the pioneers of the gas chambers and the pioneer of the Jewish national home deserve, in their respective descriptions, a clear differential diagnosis. Instead, the professor describes the three of them as ‘political artists’, and talks about ‘Schönerer’s central positive accomplishment, which was to metamorphose a tradition of the Old Left into an ideology of the New Right: he transformed democratic, grossdeutsch nationalism into racist pan-Germanism.’ The reader is left to ponder the meaning of both ‘positive’ and ‘accomplishment’.

A pity, too, that Lueger’s ‘famous phrase, “Wer Jude ist, bestimme ich” (Who is a Jew is something I determine)’ is here translated from the mayor’s all-pervasive Viennese dialect into proper German, and thence into stilted English. What Lueger actually said was, ‘Wer a Jud’, is, dös bestimmi” of which the closest translation would be: ‘It’s for me to decide who’s a Jew and who isn’t.’ No matter, when he gets down to characterising Lueger and his role, the author is able to compress a wealth of insight into a concise, sharp sociological comparison: ‘His was the sensibility of the well-trained servant, who knows breeding better than the classes do that lie between his master’s and his own. It proved to be an asset in his later political task of welding together a coalition of aristocracy and masses against the liberal middle class.’

Unfortunately, however, Schorske’s off-hand treatment of Lueger’s German is symptomatic: notwithstanding the (New York-born) author’s name, this distinguished scholar often seems heedless when it comes to the ever-painful question of translation. In one or two places, he even changes his mind about the best translation of a German concept, quite unaware of this public exposure of his personal problems. When he talks about Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre, for instance, he initially calls the book Doctrine of Harmony, but about ten pages later, it appears as Theory of Harmony. The irony is that both phrases are mistranslations, even though the latter has now become the title of the first complete English translation (whose publisher belatedly agrees with me): the eminently unproblematic translation of Schoenberg’s title is Harmony.

And so to Schoenberg himself. It is a minor tragedy that the intended climax of the book is its factual, intellectual, linguistic, stylistic and indeed historical nadir – the final essay. Throwing together Kokoschka and Schoenberg under one of those inexpensive historians’ hats, it concludes, amongst other illusions, that ‘in their pre-war work, both artists found the means to render their cris de coeur in forms which destroyed the conventions of order in a traditional art that had inhibited such expression.’

Schoenberg, at any rate, never did any such thing. Traumatic as was, and still is, the effect of the notorious atonal explosion, his was, nevertheless, the most conservative revolution in the history of music:

Remarkably, nobody has yet appreciated that my music... derived through and through from the traditions of German music...

  My teachers were primarily Bach and Mozart, and secondarily Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner.

And again:

One of the safest methods of acquiring attention is to do something which differs from the usual, and few artists have the stamina to escape this temptation... I used to say: ‘I always attempted to produce something quite conventional, but I failed, and it always, against my will, became something unusual.’

But not something that destroyed the past: from the first page of his Introduction, Schorske postulates the modern mind’s ‘independence of the past’ – a spotless fallacy so far as Schoenberg is concerned (not to speak of the other ‘modern’ classic, Stravinsky). At no stage did Schoenberg assert his independence of the past, as Schorske says he did: in fact, Schoenberg, as distinct from Schorske, was not interested in modernity or modernism.

Altogether, the concluding essay seems haunted. Thus it makes great play, complete with a clinching illustration, of a Viennese ‘al fresco performance’ of Oscar Wilde’s ‘play’, Birthday of an Infanta: ‘Wilde’s play, performed in Velasquez-like costumes, reflected the new commitment of the visual artists to life as refined gesture.’ The historian’s original sin is intermittent ignorance: it is impossible for him to know everything he knows about, thinks about, writes about and, worst, pronounces upon. Just as Schoenberg never destroyed traditional art’s conventions of order, Oscar Wilde never wrote that play: the piece is a long short story, perhaps his best, which was freely adapted and transformed into a ballet-pantomime (Tanzspiel) for the occasion Schorske is throwing into relief, unaware of its central interest – to wit, the music written for the purpose. It was by Franz Schreker, has survived its age, and, almost overnight, turned the composer into a leading Viennese (quoted admiringly in Schoenberg’s Harmony) – although he was born in Monaco. His total omission from Schorske’s volume is one of its most painful lapses.

Another is the near-total neglect of the painter Egon Schiele, who is fleetingly mentioned on page 7 and never again. As Kokoschka’s counterpart and counter-pole, Schiele should have been accorded a crucial place in Schorske’s final apotheosis of Vienna’s characteristic turn of the century. As it is, the essay does not even succeed in defining Kokoschka’s own position, and major blunders mark the attempt. Apropos of Kokoschka’s phrase, ‘Bewusstsein der Gesichte’, which is mistranslated as ‘consciousness of faces and visions’, Schorske emphasises that ‘the German word Gesicht denotes both “vision” or “image” and “visage” or “face”, thus embracing both the subjective and the objective side of visual perception. The double meaning is integral to Kokoschka’s conception of the artist’s consciousness, but compels us in English to stress now one side, now the other, of the complex.’ At this point, the author talks sheer nonsense. In the plural, the German language sharply differentiates between the two meanings. Gesichte is ‘visions’, Gesichter ‘faces’: there is no ‘double meaning’ to Kokoschka’s Gesichte.

As for Schorske’s historical account and interpretation of Schoenberg’s atonal revolution, without denying the author’s sensitive musicality, one has to stress that neither his musicianship nor his knowledge is up to the task he has here set himself. Infatuated with his own historical dream, according to which, ‘like Kokoschka, Schoenberg took his initial step into a new world of feeling within the framework of lyric poetry, but then quickly broke into the open with a radical turn to theatre,’ he ignores the all-important part which purely instrumental thought played in this critical phase of Schoenberg’s – and our century’s – creative development, as witness the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11 (1909), the historic Five Pieces for Orchestra. Op. 16 (1909), the Three Pieces for Chamber Orchestra, the last unfinished (1910), and the Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19 (1911).

In close aural view of Schoenberg’s instrumental output, the professor’s theory about lyric poetry’s and the theatre’s role in the Schoenbergian revolution inevitably evaporates into virtually oxygen-less air.

Meanwhile, this Final fiasco should not spoil our general impression of a searching attempt to illuminate the sources, pre-natal as well as paradigmatic, of much of the core of our time’s thought – even though no general conclusion emerges. Without losing himself in mythological relationships and resemblances, in imaginary as well as real responses to Vienna’s historical climate at the turn of the century, Carl E. Schorske could probably never have accumulated the energy for an investigation that is as wide as, in places, it is deep: he owes his successful observations to his failure, his intermittent finds to his fantasies, his realism to the myth he cannot do without. Helped by closely integrated illustrations – 63 half-tones and 16 pages of colour – and hindered by a slipshod index, he has produced so thoughtful a work that even a sterner critic than the present writer will never regret having read it. He’ll be stimulated into further thought, appreciative and corrective, by both shafts of insight and imaginative illusions: incidental to the thesis we expect and never get, they turn out to be the book’s essence. I only know about the author’s American status from my academic collegues over there, but I’m not surprised at his reputation as an inspired teacher and lecturer. Might one indeed suspect that, originally, this book was a series of lectures?

As articles, three of them (almost half of the book!) had originally appeared in the American Historical Review – as far apart as 1961, 1967 and 1973: no wonder there is no continuous argument. But if Schorske has no thesis, Frederic Morton (who lists Schorske’s Freud essay of 1973 in his own bibliography) does not even have a theme – outside the myth of Vienna, that is, which remains unmolested by reality: ‘Anti-semitism, operetta, psychoanalysis: three contributions from Austria’s fin de siècle. One impulse motivated them all, namely the quest for a way out of present-day bourgeois frustration into a magic and revelatory past.’ So why 1888–1889? ‘A limited span – but to write any history is to put limits on infinity. It seemed to me that by focusing on a brief time I might expose more of its depth, its details, its dailiness [and any other “d...” you care to think of]... I’ve tried to trace local tremors that began along a curve of the Danube, then echoed across the world to come thundering down into our century.’

From Freud through the Ringstrasse, Schnitzler, Schönerer, Lueger, Klimt and Schoenberg to Hitler, most of Morton’s heroes and anti-heroes are indeed Schorske’s, whence his book can be accommodated in the same review, even though it can hardly be mentioned in the same breath: when fact interrupts his fantasy, it’s wrong fact. But then Mr Morton (who should call himself Mandelbaum: I don’t call myself John Kingsley either) is simply washing his and his parents’ Viennese linen in public, burdened by his past rather than by knowledge or insight. In fact, while Schorske’s ignorance is selective, Morton’s is comprehensive, encompassing as it does psychology as well as music – both elements, that is, of the myth of Vienna.

Strictly speaking, he has chosen a mere ten months, from July 1888 to April 1889, ‘because they seemed representative of a watershed when the Western dream started to go wrong dramatically and the very failure was flooded with genius’. The turn of the century’s work of genius was Freud’s serial Interpretation of Dreams, which Morton’s arbitrary choice misses altogether – for the sake of Mayerling, needless to add.

The least obtrusive, but perhaps the funniest psychological howler occurs as late as the concluding Acknowledgments, where the author tenders his effusive thanks to ‘Dr’ Anna Freud, who will regret her helpfulness as soon as she catches sight of his book: its ultimate achievement is indeed this medicalisation of the world’s most distinguished lay analyst. At the same time, its psychological inanities are as nothing compared to its utter musical chaos: if Schorske knows too little about Schoenberg, Morton doesn’t, musically, know anything about anybody. So far as Schoenberg himself is concerned, ‘his audacity with chromatics and harmony would outdo Klimt’s with colour and line. ‘He would not just revolutionise music but reinvent it.’

These two main clauses, each wholly meaningless, give a fair picture of the author’s style, too. However, meaninglessness is one thing, misinformation another, and it is in view of Frederic Morton’s ‘facts’ that one has to ask oneself how it was possible for a highly reputable publisher to pass them on to us:

On the 26th of January [Mahler] got into his tailcoat, shuffled to the lectern, bowed, and lifted the baton for the world première of The Valkyries in Hungarian. The music surged, the Rhine Maidens soared – and the audience screamed in panic. One of the Maidens suddenly sagged in the ropes. She had fainted in mid-air because she had seen flames licking toward her. A fire had broken out on stage.

Assuming that the author means The Valkyrie when he writes The Valkyries, we still aren’t any nearer the possible truth, for there aren’t any Rhine Maidens in the work. Was it the Valkyries, then, who soared? It’s easier to soar up there than down in the Rhine: on the other hand, Mr Morton makes everything soar: a few pages later, ‘it was a historic whisper to which Mahler’s harmonies soared.’ But while flames lick more readily in The Valkyrie than in Rhinegold, it’s easier to sag in Rhinegold’s ropes: I’m afraid the true facts are beyond me. However, wrong facts are one thing, impertinent evaluation, inexpert devaluation is another:

...talent was the only thing that Brahms lacked... Johannes Brahms was the only serious resident artist whom Vienna admired whole heartedly in his own lifetime. Why just Brahms? Perhaps because he produced beauty without creating anything really new...

Never mind the wrong question – it is this brand of wrong answer which, in my submission, should make a book unpublishable. Morton’s pathetic bibliography contains two (!) items on Schoenberg, 12 on Brahms. A third and 13th will teach him a writer’s most important lesson – when to shut up. It is Schoenberg’s – the ‘reinventor’s’ – historic essay on ‘Brahms the Progressive’, which notes in conclusion that ‘some progress has already been made in the direction toward an unrestricted musical language which was inaugurated by Brahms...’ Meanwhile, come back, Schorske, all is forgiven!