Books: Cultural Amnesia — Peter Altenberg |
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In the café life that was such a feature of old Vienna from before the turn of the nineteenth century until the triumph of the Nazis, Peter Altenberg (1859–1919) was the key figure. His name now is not much mentioned outside the German-speaking lands, but for all the greater names on the scene who went on to acquire international reputations, Altenberg remained a touchstone, perhaps partly because he knew no worldly success at all. He had been born into a prosperous family but chose to be a panhandler. To his fellow Jews he was a Schnorrer: a borrower of money. He slept in flophouses and had no real address beyond his favourite café. But all the writers knew that he was carrying a treasure. He had an unrivalled capacity to pour a whole view of life, a few cupfuls at a time, into the briefest of paragraphs, and I am glad that his quotation appears so early on. It comes from an early World War I collection of his bits and pieces that I found in a warehouse on Staten Island in 1983, so when I sat down to read the book in a café on Columbus Avenue, this miniature masterpiece had been nearly seventy years on its journey before it hit me between the eyes like a micro-meteorite.

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There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three things, and there are a lot more.


ALTENBERG SPENT A lot of time scratching for a living, but when he wrote at all, he could write like that: a world view in two sentences. Sometimes he could do it in four words. One of Altenberg’s many young loves had tearfully protested that his interest in her was based only (nur) on sexual attraction. Altenberg asked, “Was ist so nur?” (What’s so only?) In Vienna before, during and after World War I, Altenberg was everybody’s favourite scrounger, saloon barfly and no-hoper. Far outstripping him in prestige as recognized writers, Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal both admired him. So did Robert Musil. The supreme stylist Alfred Polgar—later acknowledged by even Thomas Mann as the greatest master of German in modern times—often acknowledged a creative debt to Alternberg and edited his unpublished papers after his death. Kafka said that Altenberg could discover “the splendours of this world like cigarette butts in the ashtrays of coffee houses.” The great satirist Karl Kraus, himself a Jew but equivocal about it, suspended his usual intolerance of Jewish-born writers in Altenberg’s case, treating his mentally unstable protégé with patience, love and financial support. All these established writers had talents big enough to light a fire. Altenberg produced only sparks, but the sparks were dazzling.

Not many of Alternberg’s writings extended for more than a few paragraphs, scribbled at the café table in the intervals between cadging drinks. More diligent writers and intellectuals cherished him as their other, less trammelled self, devoid of ambition and the obligations of honesty. He was an ideal for men weighed down with ideals. Later on in New York, the semi-mythical Little Joe Gould was celebrated by E. E. Cummings and Joseph Mitchell for the same reason, with the difference that Little Joe Gould was always “working on” a magnum opus that would never see the light of day, whereas Altenberg was a real literary figure. In the late twentieth century, Jeffrey Bernard played the same part in London, but Bernard, by the end, was a man more written about than writing. Collections of Altenberg’s scraps and shavings were published regularly, even during World War I, and café-based philosophers would quote the best bits.

Even by real scholars—the majestic polymath Egon Friedell was only one example—Altenberg was much envied as a Falstaffian scholar gypsy, and envied not least for his hit status with beautiful young women. His deadbeat eyes, drooping moustache and chaotic personal arrangements had their inevitable success with trainee bluestockings inexperienced enough to want the mature male artist of their dreams to look the part. Though he had a questionable taste for prostitutes, and an even more questionable taste for underage working-class girls, he did not withhold his attention from the aspiring young female intellectuals. Thus many a well-favoured daughter of good family was inveigled back to his cheap hotel by Altenberg, where she would find to her disillusionment that the scrutinizing of her poems was only the second item on his agenda. Altenberg sugared the pill for his male audience by making his amatory conquests sound like disasters, but nobody was fooled. As a literary stratagem, however, self-deprecation had the advantage of releasing him into comedy. With due allowance for the intervening ocean, he was Ring Lardner’s equal in getting a lifetime of failure into a short written span. You would think that there could be no match for the compression of Lardner’s question-and-answer dialogue about the family in the car (“ ‘Daddy, are we lost?’ ‘Shut up,’ he explained”). But “What’s so only?” is even neater. Altenberg amply fulfilled Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s requirement that the best writers should make passing remarks lesser spirits might turn into a book. Altenberg made nothing except the passing remarks. They were rarely aphorisms—too much like hard work—but they had resonance. “What’s so only?” resonates. He says just that much, but he commands us to say more. The rest of the story is in our own heads. It might be continued as follows.

The saying goes that men play at love to get sex while women play at sex to get love. The second half of the antithesis is the more likely to be found interesting, because the first sounds closer to the truth. There are reasons, however, for questioning it further. Lenny Bruce said, “A man will fuck mud.” He also said that a man will have sex with a venetian blind. He would not have got the laugh if it had not been a laugh of recognition. A lot of men will do a lot to get laid. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they play at love. It seems far more likely that love plays with them. Theories of male genetic programming have long been under assault from feminists, who would like to believe that men’s behaviour is socially determined, including the claims they make to be impelled by instinct. The belief is understandable and even commendable: justice benefits when a man can’t blame biology after doing the wrong thing, even if it suffers when thinking the wrong thing becomes a crime too. But there can be no serious doubt, except from those who do not feel it, that the initial attraction of a man towards a woman is felt with the comprehensive force of a revelation. The sentimental view is not the romantic one, but the supposedly realistic one that love follows lust and grows through knowledge. It would be better for all concerned to admit that love hits with full force straight away.

Nor does the view that romantic love is a modern idea quite wash. Leaving aside Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas, there is not much transcendental romantic love in Latin poetry. In Lucretius, lovers tear strips off each other, but with no hint of the spiritual either before or after. Propertius complained of how he was made to suffer. “Cynthia to my great undoing first ensnared me with her eyes / Though no other woman had ever touched me.” Nobody was raised to a higher state unless you count Catullus, who, while he was clearly mad for women, never showed the same tenderness for any of them that he did for his dead brother. But there is at least one incandescent instance of it in Greek poetry, which came first. Troy burned because Paris was smitten by Helen’s beauty: it is practically the first thing that happens in literature. It was to happen again often. David saw Bathsheba bathing and was ready to kill for her. The event is refined by Dante and Petrarch but the initial impact is the same: Beatrice, seen from a distance, inspires The Divine Comedy, and Laura, never possessed, possesses the author throughout the cycle of the Canzoniere, Petrarch’s long series of incrementally varying viewpoints on the one event, written down as if he were walking very slowly around a diamond mounted for exhibition. And the two greatest Italian poets were not founding a tradition: they were giving a new impetus to one that already existed. The courtly love tradition, which has continued to our own day and at all levels—the most touching Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs are about not getting the girl—has for its chief concern the stricken poet’s visione amorosa of the woman who remains unknown. Love has not been increased through intimacy with her qualities and might well, had it happened, have been reduced by it. (Until Carmen made his life hell, Don Jose thought she was heaven on earth.) In Shakespeare, the reward for adoration is the interchange of enchanted speech, and for possession it is trouble and death.

Donne and Marvell get the beloved into bed, but lavish all their lyricism on reassuring her that she remains as attractive as she was when she played it coy. Pope’s poetry might seem to scorn courtly love, but the poet’s mockery of trivial young ladies is a clear attempt to offset the boggling effect of their beauty on a mind deprived of the bodily means to do anything else about it. His prattling sweethearts are so interchangeable that a part will do for the whole. The Rape of the Lock comes close to fetishism: a lock of hair has the same effect that a curved shape under the bed-covers had on Casanova if he thought it might be female. Pushkin felt the same way about a pretty woman’s feet. Yeats, the great self-examining poet of modern times, fell in love often and with ease, granting his wife the cold comfort that he was unworthy of her steadfastness. On the strength of their appearance he would attribute qualities to his young companions that they did not really have: a common response, which would hardly happen unless the emotion were so complete in itself that the imagination had to be called in to help supply its object. The tendency for the love object to grow younger as the genius grows older was exemplified with embarrassing clarity by Goethe, who was in his seventy-fourth year when he fancied his chances with the nineteen-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow. The embarrassment was enormous, but one of the results of the embarrassment was the great poem we call “The Marienbad Elegy.” The most intelligent man of his time was obviously in the grip of a soul-consuming passion that had not much to do with the intellect, which was an accomplice—he thought her mind as beautiful as her face—but scarcely the instigator. Instinct looks the more likely culprit: an instinct that can draw on the complete aesthetic apparatus of the brain. The greater the mind, the bigger the fool. Hazlitt’s Liber amoris is an anatomy of the subject: an operation on himself, without anaesthetic.

Men who fall in love easily and often should do the world the favour of not taking their own passions personally. Above all they should do that favour to womankind. Albert Camus, in the week before he was killed, wrote to five different women and addressed each of them as the great love of his life. He probably meant it every time, but had long ago learned the dire consequences for those he adored of making them pay the emotional price for his laughably transferable fixation. His women forgave him because his unforced charm was infinite and when it came to a scene he was ready to concede that he was frivolous. A realistic self-appraisal brought with it the blessing of a fair-minded benevolence: he might cast a pretty young actress in one of his plays because she had gained his favour, but he never threw one out because she had lost it. George Balanchine, pitiably, was less civilized. The great choreographer ruled the New York City Ballet as a feifdom, with the droit de seigneur among his privileges. The older he became, the more consuming his love affairs with his young ballerinas. Often, by their own testimony, it was to their benefit, but his behaviour towards the sublimely gifted Suzanne Farrell was despicable. When Farrell fell in love with and married a young dancer, Balanchine dismissed her from the company, thereby injuring her career for a crucial decade. By the time she came back, it had become clear that he had injured his own as well. Still vivid in the dance world, the memory of Diaghilev’s artistically ruinous paroxysm of jealousy about Nijinsky—previously Diaghilev’s obedient lover, Nijinsky went straight in order to marry a ballerina, whereupon Diaghilev dismissed him from the company, thereby irretrievably weakening its future—should have told Balanchine he was making an unforgivable mistake. It probably did, but he made the mistake anyway. Balanchine being an undoubted genius, the fact that he could let even one among his many idealized passions dislocate his creativity is a sure measure of the brain-curdling intensity with which an old man can be drawn to a young woman. His great ballet for Farrell, Don Quixote, in which he cast himself as the Don, was a clear attempt to lay the ghost. The pas de deux in which the raddled hidalgo declares his hopeless love is sad beyond expression, although insufficiently expiatory: he should have lashed himself for penitence.

In our own day, Philip Larkin had the least courtly, or anyway least courtly-love, of mentalities: enslaving himself by handing his heart and soul to a female was the last thing on his mind. The submissiveness that began with the troubadors ended with him. When it came to love (or “love again” as he called it in his last years), he saved himself in advance, by writing a poem. Writing the poem was not his way in, it was his ticket out. But the revelatory power of love at first sight was one of his constant themes. “Latest face” meant what it said: just one more in a succession of beautiful faces was enough to make the whole tumult start again. Throughout history, all the literary evidence suggests that men are fools for beauty and will attribute every virtue to comeliness until experience disabuses them of the illusion. Acumen is no protection, because the initial effect is not assembled from particular judgements: it happens all at once, with the holistic suddenness of a baby reacting to its mother’s voice. Female beauty has always been interpreted by men as the earthly incarnation of a divine benevolence. The occasional evil angel, from Salome to Kundry and from Lilith to Lulu, is a consciously perverse thematic variation, and would have no artistic value if the expectation were not the opposite. For men, the first and shamefully unthinking flood of worship is the opposite of casual. It is monumental, and Peter Altenberg got it in a phrase. What’s so only? He had self-knowledge. He could have added the lack of it to his long list of the two things that can ruin a man’s life.