Books: Cultural Amnesia — Overture: Vienna |
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Cultural Amnesia : Overture: Vienna

IN THE LATE nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus. More broad, and in many ways more fun. In Vienna there were no exams to pass, learning was a voluntary passion, and wit was a form of currency. Reading about old Vienna now, you are taken back to a time that should come again: a time when education was a lifelong process. You didn’t complete your education and then start your career. Your education was your career, and it was never completed. For generations of writers, artists, musicians, journalists and mind-workers of every type, the Vienna café was a way of life. There were many cafés, although in each generation there tended to be only a precious few that were regarded as centres of the action for the creative elite. The habitués might have had homes to go to when they wanted to sleep, but otherwise where they lived was in the café. For some of them, the café was an actual address. Most, though not all, of the café population was Jewish, which explains why the great age of the café as an informal campus abruptly terminated in March 1938, when the Anschlu? wrote the finish—finis Austriae, as Freud put it—to an era. It also partly explains why the great age had come to fruition in the first place.

Even in Germany, where the Jews had full civil rights until Hitler repealed them, there was a de facto quota system in academic life which made it hard for people of Jewish background to be appointed to the faculty, no matter how well qualified they were. (The prejudice affected priorities even within the faculty: nuclear physics, for example, featured so many Jewish personnel mainly because it was considered a secondary field.) In Austria the quota system was built into every area of society as a set of laws, limits and exclusions. As an inevitable result, in Austria even more than in Germany there was a tendency for scholarship and humanism to be pursued more outside the university than inside it. A case could be made—among the Austrian privileged class you can still hear it being made—that the Jews thus benefited from having doors closed against them. It would be a bad case. The humiliations were real and the resentments lasting. But there was one undoubted benefit to us all. Whole generations of Jewish literati were denied the opportunity of wasting their energies on compiling abstruse doctoral theses. They were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation and the necessity to entertain. The necessity to entertain could sometimes be the enemy of learning, but not as often as the deadly freedom to write as if nobody would ever read the results except a faculty supervisor who owed his post to the same exemption.

In 1938, the flight from the Anschlu?—and if only all of them had fled in time—was not the first case of a Jewish intellectual community scattering to the world. It had happened before, in the German cities in 1933, and it happened before that, in Poland under Russian persecution, and in Russia both before and after the Revolution. In each case, the suppression of liberalism worked like a shell-burst, with the Jews as the fragments of the shell’s casing, the fragments that travelled furthest. These local disasters added up to a benefit for the world, so we need to change the metaphor, and think of an exploding seed-pod. In the reception of first-rate minds driven into exile, Britain and America were the most prominent beneficiaries, but we should not forget smaller countries like my own, Australia. The intellectual and artistic life of Australia was transformed by the arrival of those Jews who managed to make the distance. In New Zealand, the exiled professor Karl Popper was able to develop the principles contained in The Open Society and Its Enemies because he was at last living in an open society, and remembered the enemies. In those democracies that were sensible enough to let at least some of the Jews in, the growth of a humanist culture was immeasurably accelerated. It hardly needs adding that the enforced new diaspora was an immense factor in turning Israel from an idea to a burgeoning fact. The idea had earlier been developed in Vienna, by Theodor Herzl. Just as Lenin’s idea for a Communist nation left from Vienna for its long journey to Russia, Herzl’s idea for a Jewish nation left from Vienna for its long journey to Palestine. Had history worked out otherwise, Herzl’s idea might have retained the same status as Freud’s ideas about the subconscious—a mere theory, though a seductive one. The same could even be said of Adolf Hitler, whose early years in Vienna confirmed him in his own idea: the idea of a world without Jews.

The Jews in the first half of the twentieth century were not the only persecuted minority on Earth, and indeed the time would come, after the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, when they would begin to be regarded—sometimes correctly—as persecutors in their turn. As liberal Jews have had increasing cause to observe, one of the penalties for becoming another state was to become a state like any other. But the fate of the Jews, and its accompanying achievements, will be a recurring theme in this book for a good reason. There could be no clearer proof that the mind is hard to kill. Nor could there be a more frightening demonstration of the virulent power of the forces which can combine to kill it. There is some room for hope, then, but none for sentimentality. A book about culture in the twentieth century which did not deal constantly with just how close culture came to being eradicated altogether would not be worth reading, although there is an ineradicable demand for uplift which would always make it worth writing. There could be a feel-good storybook about Vienna called, say, It Takes a Village. But it took a lot more than that. As a place to begin studying what happened to twentieth-century culture, Vienna is ideal, but only on the understanding that the ideal was real, with all the complications of reality, and none of the consolations of a therapeutic dream.

Apart from the numerous picture books—which should never be despised as introductory tools, and in the case of Vienna are especially enchanting—probably the best first book to read in order to get the atmosphere would be Stefan Zweig’s Die Welt von Gestern, which has been translated into English as The World of Yesterday. But there is lot of atmosphere to get, and with Zweig’s memoirs you have to take it for granted that the great names did great things. A shorter and less allusive account, George Clare’s Last Waltz in Vienna, is an admirably direct introduction to the triumph of Vienna and the tragedy that was waiting to ruin it. The triumph was a sense of civilization; a civilization that the Jews had a right to feel they had been instrumental in creating; and the tragedy was that their feelings of safe assimilation were falsely based. The triumph might have continued; the Nazis might never have arrived; but they did arrive, and everything went to hell. Clare’s book is unbeatable at showing that one of the consequences of cultural success can be political naivety. The lesson still applies today, when so many members of the international intelligentsia—which, broadly interpreted, means us—continue to believe that culture can automatically hold civilization together. But there is nothing automatic about it, because nothing can be held together without the rule of law.

On what might seem a more exalted level, Carl E. Schorske’s book Fin-de-Siècle Vienna brings on the first wave of great names: Freud, Herzl, Hofmannsthal, Klimt, Kokoschka, Karl Kraus, Adolf Loos, Mahler, Musil, Schnitzler, Schoenberg, Otto Wagner and others. It is an impressive work, deserving of its prestige, but tends to encourage the misleading assumption that greatness is everything. In the long run it might seem so, but in the shorter run, which is the run of everyday life, a civilization is irrigated and sustained by its common interchange of ordinary intelligence. After the turn of the century, in Vienna’s case, this more ordinary intelligence began to make itself extraordinary through the essays and remembered wit that came out of the cafés. Of its nature, such a multifarious achievement is less susceptible to being summed up in a single treatise. Friedrich Torberg’s memoir Die Tante Jolesch (Aunt Jolesch), published after World War II, looks back fondly and funnily on a vanished world. A peal of laughter ringing in the ruins, Torberg’s book can be recommended with a whole heart. (It can also be recommended as a way for a student to make a beginning with German, because all the anecdotes that sound so attractive in English sound even more so in the original. Keep the original and the translation open beside each other and you’ve got the perfect parallel text.) But many of the names that shone brightest are destined to go on doing so from the far side of the language barrier. Half genius and half flimflam man, the polymath Egon Friedell—already mentioned in my preface, but being introduced twice fits his act—was a towering figure among the coffee-house wits. Somehow, in between cabaret engagements, Friedell found time to write Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit, a mesmerizing claim to the totality of knowledge. It was translated, in three whopping volumes from Alfred A. Knopf, as The Cultural History of the Modern Age in 1931, but it never took on outside the German-speaking countries. (In those, it came back into print after the fall of the Nazis and has been in print ever since.) His omniscient tone of voice was at least partly a put-up job, but the universality of his gusto remains an enduring ideal. The finest wit of all, the essayist and theatre critic Alfred Polgar, has never been substantially translated, and probably never will be, because his prose has the compression and precision of the finest poetry. But both men can still be appreciated for what they represent, and their names will crop up often in this book. What they had in common was a brilliant sensitivity to all the achievements of culture at whatever level of respectability—although not even Friedell was receptive enough to realize that jazz might be music—and what all the coffee-house intellectuals had in common was that they knew Peter Altenberg, who by their standards hardly achieved anything at all. Altenberg was a bum, and I place him near the beginning of this book—preceded only by Anna Akhmatova, whom he probably would have hit for a small loan—not just because the initial of his name is at the beginning of the alphabet, but because he was living proof, in all his flakiness and unreliability, that the life of the mind doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere. In his case it didn’t even get him a job. Though he occasionally made some money from publishing his collections of bits and pieces, the money was soon spent, and he had to borrow more. But his very existence was a reminder to more prosperous practitioners that what they did was done from love.

Vienna feels empty now. You can have a good night at the opera, and in spring you can drink Heurige Wein in the gardens, and the Klimt and Schiele rooms in the Belvedere are still among the great rooms of the museum that covers the world, and on the walls of the Café Hawelka are still to be seen the drawings with which Picabia once paid his bills. But after World War II the eternally fresh impulse of humanism came back to Vienna only in the form of the zither playing on the soundtrack of the The Third Man. The creative spirit of the city had been poisoned by the corrupted penicillin of Harry Lime—the juice of irreversible psychic damage. Nor did Paris ever fully recover from the Occupation, although that contention can still buy you a verbal fight with resident intellectuals who are certain that it did. Humanism had a better chance of recovery in cities where its roots had never been deep enough to be thought part of the foundations. Post-war Berlin, whose civilization before the rise of the Nazis had been shallow and frantic, grew more fruitful than Vienna after the last Nazis of either city prudently shed their uniforms. In Tokyo, the pre-war coffee-house culture—so eerily mimetic of Vienna, even down to its brass-framed bow windows echoing the spare forms of Adolf Loos—melted in the firestorm of March 1945. But that culture had been the merest touch of the West, and before General MacArthur had barely begun his reign as visiting emperor, the influence of Western liberal creativity was back like a new kind of storm, a storm that put up buildings instead of knocking them flat, and turned on lights instead of switching them off, and accelerated, and this time in a less disastrous direction, the transformative process that had begun with the Meiji restoration in 1870, the process of a culture becoming conscious of itself—a process that will turn any culture towards humanism, even when its right wing, as Japan’s does, gives up its convictions only at the rate of a tea ceremony in slow motion.

Today, in the second decade after the Berlin Wall came down, the still miraculously lovely Petersburg is only beginning to have again what it had before the Revolution: the magic of a poetic imagination on a civic scale. Moscow, which always had less of that, seems to have come further faster. If Rome was the only one-time seat of totalitarian power that recovered instantly a glory that it had before, it was because the Italian brand of totalitarianism was less total: its bullhorn rhetoric and slovely inefficiency left too much of the humanist tradition intact. But the great burgeoning, on a world scale, of the post-Nazi liberal humanist impulse, a burgeoning which continues in the new post-Soviet era, took place and is still taking place in London and New York. The subsidiary English-speaking cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, Dublin, Sydney, Melbourne and many more—follow those two, and of those two, even London must follow New York. The reasons are so simple they often escape notice. Outstripping even Britain in its magnetic attraction for those who fled, America had the greater number of creative refugees, especially in their role as teachers: in New York, to stay alive, they taught music, painting, acting, everything. And America had the GI Bill of Rights. The ideal teachers met the ideal pupils, and the resulting story made Eleanor Roosevelt, whose idea the GI Bill was, into the most effective woman in the history of world culture up until that time, and continues to make her name a radiant touchstone for those who believe, as I do, that the potential liberation of the feminine principle is currently the decisive factor lending an element of constructive hope to the seething tumult within the world’s vast Muslim hegemony, and within the Arab world in particular. The secret of American cultural imperialism—the only version of American imperialism that really is irresistible, because it works by consent—is its concentration of all the world’s artistic and intellectual qualities in their most accessible form. The danger of American cultural imperialism is that it gives Americans a plausible reason for thinking that they can do without the world. But the world helped to make them what they now are—even Hollywood, the nation’s single most pervasive cultural influence, would be unimaginable without its immigrant personnel. One of the intentions of this book is to help establish a possible line of resistance against the cultural amnesia by which it suits us to forget that the convulsive mental life of the twentieth century, which gave the United States so much of the cultural power that it now enjoys, was a complex, global event that can be simplified only at the cost of making it unreal. If we can’t remember it all, we should at least have some idea of what we have forgotten. We could, if we wished, do without remembering, and gain all the advantages of travelling light; but a deep instinct, not very different from love, reminds us that the efficiency would be bought at the cost of emptiness. Finally the reason we go on thinking is because of a feeling. We have to keep that feeling pure if we can, and, if we ever lose it, try to get it back.