Rediscovering Vienna: Observations on the Obscure
An essay by Michael Anders
I’ve felt like an adventurer lately – not hunting down your traditional treasure but seeking the source of an elusive and exciting source of reading material. I’m not trekking across South America or Africa on this search. My city of gold is Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. I have uncovered – and continue to uncover – a mass of literature that is as innovative, subversive, and thrilling as the modernism of the 1920’s but remains largely obscured by its language barrier. As part of my adventure through the history of this new and relatively untouched land, I’ve written a sort of captain’s log, providing a history of Viennese modernism, its values, and the ideas behind it. Fair warning: the journey has led me through German articles, grad students’ papers, and my fair share of translations. This area of the literary world lies off the beaten path, but trust me – you don’t want to overlook it.
What first led me to dig deeper into this point in history is the distinctiveness of each modernist piece. Viennese modernism is not a single literary style; rather, it is defined by their use of language for artistic self-expression, or, Kunstempfinden (literally: art-finding) and its eschewal of past literary norms. Carl Schorske described the Viennese modernist movement as “a … collective oedipal revolt” in that the writers and cultural contributors of the time were killing the artistic conventions of their fathers. The primary force in this attack on formal conventions was an art group calling themselves Jung-Wien (Young Vienna). Young Vienna represents the vast majority of Vienna’s modernist literature at the time. This is because Young Vienna understood the shift in literary paradigms – from realist dictation to modernist self-expression – and interpreted it in real time. The group’s founder and spokesman Hermann Bahr, in his seminal essay, “Die Überwindung des Naturalismus” (The Overcoming of Naturalism), denounced naturalism, the dominant style of the time: “Imprisonment on the outside and bondage with reality made [naturalism] a great pain” (132). The naturalist movement was antithetical to the ideas of Young Vienna. By limiting authors to realistic expression, these movements locked writers in a style that limited their potential and was therefore opposed to Young Vienna’s modernist tenets. This criticism was scathing, dismissing decades of such work as a mere “entr’acte” (131) between Victorian and modernist literature. But even this idea that modernism was another act in the progression of literary history seems counteractive; for modernism, at its conception, was viewed neither as a deliberate movement nor as a historical moment. Rather, it was a total secession from traditional modes of self-expression and as the end of literary history. Young Vienna predicted a lack of conformity in self-expression and a natural dispersal of style by their fellow literati. What they aimed for was not a unified vision, but rather a network of self-defined methods of artistic expression. The very being of the modernists was in itself a rejection of past literary schools of thought. This theory of self-cultivation for self-expression is called Bildung.
This seemingly paradoxical idea of Bildung – conforming only in one’s nonconformity, relating to one’s peers only in personal self-definition – is in itself a microcosm of the Viennese modernist circle. Though it became influential in time, Young Vienna started as a community of black sheep relegated to the edges of Vienna; the group bordered on unpopularity. This potential for failure inspired action to spread the group’s message of artistic Bildung. Felix Salten, a Young Vienna member, noted the efforts of author Hugo von Hofmannsthal to gain popularity for the group, saying he “talked as systematically as a military strategist about the necessity of conquering the major papers and forcing the old men … out of the foremost positions in leading publications”. The group’s campaign included various recitals, demonstrations at Vienna’s Ringstrasse, and extensive placements across Viennese journals like Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring) and Bahr’s own Die Zeit (The Time). These fears of obscurity would eventually prove unfounded, as the movement came to affect such figures as Karl Kraus and Sigmund Freud, but analysis of the group’s work during this uncertain period uncovers both the group’s anxieties and their critiques of existing social and literary norms and structures. Most notable to me in this regard are Traumnovelle (Dream Story) and Später Ruhm (Late Fame), two novellas by Arthur Schnitzler, one of the group’s most prominent members. The former, a dreamlike inquiry into the hidden immorality of the Viennese bourgeois, provides deep criticism of existing social structures. The latter, a retrospective on the fledgling modernist movement’s progress and potential, attacks the narcissism of art in general and addresses Schnitzler’s own fears about modernism’s potential collapse.
Dream Story, a nightmarish exploration of bourgeois culture, strikes one with its dreamlike style. It follows Fridolin, a doctor in a struggling marriage. The fleeting consequences of Fridolin’s actions, the looming reminder of moral decay, and the bizarreness of Fridolin’s situations are reminiscent of contemporary author Kazuo Ishiguro’s search for “the grammar of dreams”. The entire novella is set in just one long night of debauchery; when Fridolin meets the morning, he remains ambivalent to his immorality. When he discovers the body of the so-called “Baroness Dubieski” who sacrificed her life for his escape from the masquerade, Fridolin notes that “Even if the woman he had sought, desired, and perhaps loved for an hour were still alive, he knew that the body…could only be to him the pale corpse of the preceding night, doomed to irrevocable decay.” (Dream Story, 162) Baroness Dubieski’s sacrifice is a scapegoat for Fridolin’s sins and purifies him with her sacrifice. Her death and Fridolin’s subsequent abdication of responsibility represent the untouchable nature of the Viennese bourgeois and monarchy. Despite moral wrongdoing, the bourgeoise’s socioeconomic standing keeps it out of consequence.
More relevant to the investigation of modernism’s power as a cultural force is Dream Story’s oddly optimistic final note. Fridolin returns home and confesses his actions. His wife Albertina forgives him, and the two of them watch the sun rise on a new day. But Fridolin is confused. Whether or not the previous night’s events have actually occurred is left ambiguous – both to the reader and Fridolin himself. Fridolin seems doubtful about the reality or unreality of that night: another stab at “the grammar of dreams” by Schnitzler. Reading this conclusion, one feels as if they have been awakened from a vivid dream but fail to recall it. Snatches of events, hints of ideas, singular images stay in the forefront of one’s memory, but the dream itself is gone. This dreaminess captures the fleeting nature of the modernist movement. Since its foundations are in personal self-discovery and Bildung, modernism is necessarily intangible and undefinable. This feeling is punctuated by the final exchange of the novella:
“He asked, in a voice of both doubt and hope: ‘What shall we do now, Albertina?’
“She smiled, and after a minute replied: ‘I think we ought to be grateful that we have come unharmed out of all our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream.’
“‘Are you quite sure of that?” he asked.
“‘Just as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, is not the whole truth.’
“‘And no dream,’ he said with a slight sigh, ‘is entirely a dream’
“She took his head and pillowed it on her breast. ‘Now I suppose we are awake,’ she said, – “for a long time to come.’
“He was on the point of saying, ‘Forever,” but before he could speak, she laid her finger on his lips and whispered, as if to herself: ‘Never inquire into the future.’” (166)
If Fridolin’s ephemerality represents modernism and its progression, then Schnitzler makes some interesting predictions. When Schnitzler writes that “No dream is entirely a dream”, he argues that modernism is not “the whole truth” and that the thought of future generations will impact culture. No one predicted modernism until its eventual rise; no one can predict future ideas or movements. Schnitzler argues that modernism has become a powerful force and that society is “awake” to the ideas it espouses and its critique of literary norms and societal forces, but that one can “never inquire into the future” and take current norms as future givens. Society changes as a function of time in Schnitzler’s eyes; modernist thinkers are only unique in that they acknowledge and embrace that change. But this change follows only an endless critique of past movements to strive for the best work possible.
Modernism is a changeling movement; it criticized all that came before it and adapted in reaction to those critiques. After modernism had established itself, modernists began to criticize its past work. Schnitzler, ever the modernist, embodied this phase too; in his final novella, Late Fame, he discusses Young Vienna members’ self-importance in what approaches a roman à clef. By insisting on personal self-expression and Bildung, modernist writers often fell into a trap of narcissism and self-importance. Late Fame aims to acknowledge this trap and to dispel the idea that it is central to modernism. In Late Fame, an aging civil servant named Saxberger learns that a young group called Enthusiasm has discovered his long-forgotten book of poetry, the Wanderings. He is made the group’s poet laureate, and quickly resents his past life as a “careerist”. He helps steer the group’s plans for public readings; but after a scathing review, he learns only one member of the group has read the Wanderings at all. In light of this, he laughs and returns to his old life all the wiser. To characterize the young modernists as such charlatans is surprising considering Schnitzler’s previous work, but Late Fame was Schnitzler’s last chance to air his grievances. Schnitzler was on his deathbed and failed to have Late Fame published before his death in 1931. In fact, it would not be published until decades later in 2014 after it was unearthed from an archive that had been protected from Nazi destruction. Late Fame is a dying man’s exploration of his life and his regrets, so it’s frankly unsurprising that Schnitzler would criticize his past self.
Schnitzler writes Saxberger to be a humble man who turns narcissistic when given an opportunity for pride. Saxberger grows to see himself as a “true artist” and resents reminders that he failed in that discipline. For example, when his friend sings a joking poem at a tavern, he dismisses it as “stale” and “forced” (65). He thinks to himself, “would they dare present this ‘poem’ if they knew who I am?” (64) Saxberger’s wish to be seen as a true artist makes him dismissive of anything he sees as subverting that goal. Schnitzler sees many young modernists as having this self-important streak; they misinterpret the common tenet of “art for art’s sake” as “art for one’s own sake”. This self-importance is very apparent when Saxberger has his poem read by Fraulein Gasteiner:
“Saxberger listened with relish. To hear these verses read was a sweet, never yet tasted delight. He hardly noticed that it was Fraulein Gasteiner who was reading – he also hardly knew whether he liked the verses or not, but when Fraulein Gasteiner had finished it was suddenly quiet in the room and they were sitting very close to each other, he … was especially irritated by a very tender smile that had appeared on the Fraulein’s lips and bore no relation to the poem she had just read.” (91-92)
Saxberger is Schnitzler’s interpretation of the misguided artist; he appreciates having his poem read more than he appreciates the artistic value in the poem itself. Further, he dismisses a fellow artist who has genuine interest in his work and thinks himself above her, despite his own obscurity and failure to find new inspiration. This self-importance speaks, once again, to Schnitzler’s distaste for the narcissism present in modernist writers.
Schnitzler was not the first to break from his modernist roots; Nobel Prize nominee Karl Kraus dismissed Young Vienna in his newspaper Die Fackel (The Torch) despite having previously been a member. Kraus split from the group and indeed seemed to criticize all of Vienna in his polemic essays and articles; and yet, in doing so, embodied the ever-critical spirit of modernism that he condemned.
I hope that my observations and histories of this movement have inspired you in some way to seek out some of its work. As one final note of recommendation, let me draw some comparisons between this movement and others that are more present in the general consciousness. Most obviously is its attachment to modernism; specifically, the post-World War One “lost generation”. The Viennese modernist movement pioneered many of the motifs that define writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. One of the earliest stream-of-consciousness novels, for example, is Schnitzler’s Lieutenant Gustl (also printed as None but the Brave). Beyond just technique, I was struck by the similarity between the works of Young Vienna and the aesthetic movement of Western Europe. The aesthetic movement’s motto was “Art for art’s sake”, not unlike the Kumstempfinden of the Viennese modernists. Specifically, Viennese modernism is deeply reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, whose work is constantly in vogue. Young Vienna toys with the same themes and ideas as well-known authors of the English world like Joyce and Wilde, and the work it produced is undoubtedly just as moving. It’s sacrilege, then, that these authors are relegated to obscure translations and infrequent publishing. I encourage anyone who loves books to follow this guide and join me in rediscovering the wealth of this unknown era in literary history.
Michael Anders is a high school senior hailing from Buffalo, New York. He enjoys reading anything and everything, and takes pleasure in discovering authors that no one has heard of. When he’s not reading books, he talks about them in his podcast, the Brief Book Review. He can probably be found browsing the stacks at a used bookstore or reading in the corner of a coffee shop.