Books: Cultural Amnesia — Arthur Schnitzler |
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Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931) was the giant of literary Vienna in its most fruitful era. A practising physician before he turned professional writer, he brought a view steeped in the harsh realism of the consulting room and the surgery to his stories, novels and plays. The most conspicuous, and most enduringly controversial, element in this clinical realism was his exploration of the erotic. As a physician he knew a lot about it at second hand. At first hand, he was an energetic young man physically attractive to women of all classes. The addition of fame to his natural advantages made him hard to resist, and one of the commendable things about his private life is that he somehow managed to forge a moral sense out of limitless opportunity. It was the plays that made him famous: as a man of the theatre he ruled the city. Though he is still respected internationally as a dramatist, the plays remain notoriously difficult to capture in English, even though playwrights as accomplished as Tom Stoppard have tried. (Some of the plots from his plays turn up constantly in the movies.) Schnitzler is probably most easily approached through his stories, but one of his full-length novels, Der Weg ins Freie (often translated as The Road to Freedom, although The Path into the Clear is less likely to get him mixed up with Sartre), should not be ignored by anyone studying the relationship of culture and politics at a key place in a crucial time: none of his writing, in any genre, was more penetrating about the Jewish identity crisis in Austria. A Jew himself, Schnitzler was not blinded by his own huge success to the pervasive nature of anti-Semitism in Viennese polite society: his play Professor Bernhardi dealt with that very subject. But the glittering theatregoers sat still to watch the play. Schnitzler was quick to notice, however, that he had another bunch of overdressed spectators who were less disposed to sit still while their prejudices were examined. The Nazis, vocally active against Jewish cultural Bolshevism long before they took power in Germany, found it easy to calumniate Schnitzler as a cosmopolitan pornographer. Schnitzler was much quicker than Freud to spot that the Nazis would bring everything in Viennese civilization to an end. There is a lingering misapprehension about Schnitzler: because his memoirs of youth are so unflinchingly realistic, he is thought to have been irredeemably coarse. But his realism, even about previously unmentionable matters, was made possible by sensitivity, not by obtuseness. He had a lyrical awareness that penetrated everywhere, even into the truly sick minds of those who called his honesty an illness, and wanted to kill him for it.

* * *

There are all kinds of flight from responsibility. There is a flight into death, a flight into sickness, and finally a flight into stupidity. The last is the least dangerous and most comfortable, since even for clever people the journey is not as long as they might fondly imagine.


WHEN RAYMOND ARON, in Le Spectateur engagé, said it was a mistake to underestimate the role of obtuseness in human affairs, he was merely making a useful statement. These lines from Schnitzler amount to a true aphorism, and all his warnings against the aphorism as a literary form duly apply. (Shake an aphorism, he said, and in most cases a lie falls out, leaving only a banality.) But Schnitzler’s own aphorisms are guarded and enriched by his lifelong distrust of the merely paradoxical. If they were not, they would be more popular, like Wilde’s. Schnitzler was really out to get at the truth, and this bold linking of cleverness and stupidity is typical of how bravely truthful he could be.

Is stupidity a mere absence of mind, or has it a mind of its own? If the second thing is true, then stupidity is a force in itself. But it would be a hard force to study, because it always seems to be mixed up with something else: cleverness, for example. In the field of geopolitics, Hitler provided at least one glaring case of what seems, at first glance, to be stupidity in its pure state. After the launching, in June 1941, of Operation Barbarossa, he terrorized millions of people in the Soviet Union who had already been terrorized for years by their own government, and who would willingly have smoothed the path for his armies and administration if he had behaved with even the bare minimum of benevolence. A light hand would have been in his interests as a conqueror; but the heavy, murderous hand was the only one he would contemplate. It was one of the many points at which he guaranteed the loss of his own war. But there’s the hint: the many points can all be traced back to the beginning, and their root found in his irrational obsession with racial hygiene. For him, by his nature, mass extermination was an end, to which the creation of a Greater Germany was only a means. His opening anti-Semitic campaigns after the Machtergreifung in January 1933 subtracted the Jewish effort from the German physical sciences—a self-inflicted handicap which would have ensured that he could never have been victorious in the long run. Even that basic point, however, although hard to argue with in retrospect, needs qualification. Though Germany’s pure science was crippled, applied science and technology still got an awfully long way under the Nazis, and it is an act of retroactive trust to suppose that Heisenberg and the other Aryan physicists would never have been able to build an atomic bomb if they had been given time, although they would not have been able to deliver it before the Allies did, because Germany’s long-distance bombing capacity had not kept pace. Hitler’s Germany had all the potential for world domination. Leaving aside the question of whether world domination is a sane aim—we usually don’t call Alexander crazy—Hitler need not necessarily have pursued it in an insane manner. It is just our dubious luck that he did. It was his principles that dished him. If he could have sacrificed them to expediency, he might have won.

Within the parameters of his apoplectic Weltanschauung, Hitler could be ingenious and even brilliant. His ideology depended on extermination, but some kind of ideology it undoubtedly was, and although, as Raymond Aron said many times, no ideology can be realistic, that does not necessarily mean that an ideologist need be stupid in all areas. Hitler’s abiding fault, indeed, lay in his cleverness. Demonstrably clever in the machinations of mass politics, he was encouraged by his own success to embrace the delusion that he was omniscient in any field of which he possessed knowledge. Far from being ignorant of what a Russian campaign had done to Napoleon, Hitler had made a study of the subject, and had seen merit in the general agreement among historians that Napoleon should not have occupied Moscow. Hitler also knew enough about Germany’s requirements for raw materials to decide that the oil fields in the Caucasus were a more important target. His reasoning was clever on the level of grand strategy. But on the level of military strategy it ignored a fact which had had no relevance in Napoleon’s time, but was now crucial: Moscow was the Soviet Union’s communications centre. If Hitler had concentrated his forces and gone all out for Moscow in the autumn of 1941, he could have had all the oil and minerals he wanted not long after. But he was too smart: or, if you like, too stupid, except that it strains the meaning of the word.

Schnitzler’s point about one of the flights from responsibility being a flight into stupidity looks clearer cut when we move from Hitler to Stalin. Admirers of Stalin always liked to think that he was never stupid. There was some evidence to back up their faith. Long before the final accounts came in, it should have been obvious that Stalin’s rule was self-defeating for socialism. But if we can grant that he had nothing like socialism in mind, and thought only of an exercise in pure power, the regime he perfected looks like a work of genius. So acute an observer as Isaiah Berlin gave him credit for a master plan behind his succession of purges. Aleksandr Zinoviev, in his The Reality of Communism, overstated the later Soviet regime’s coherence—a coherence inherited from Stalin—only in suggesting that it could incorporate, while still remaining stable, all recalcitrant phenomena up to and including dissidence. (If Zinoviev had really believed that, of course, he would not have written his dissident books; but he felt it, and wrote them from deep pessimism.) While Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, however, his one and only creation, the Party apparat, showed few faults as a mechanism for preserving a single aim: that he should rule. He even seemed to have heeded Seneca’s warning that you can kill as many people as you like but your successor will be among those who survive. Stalin acted as if he intended nobody to survive.

Mao Zedong acted the same way. It can be called stupidity only if you think such behavour threatens the state. But it didn’t threaten his state. On that measure, Ho Chi Minh showed Pol Pot the way, and Pol Pot was the stupid one because he failed to pay heed. Ho’s delayed and selective ruthlessness against his bourgeoisie—actual, potential, or notional—weakened his economy but preserved him in power. Pol Pot’s instantaneous wholesale massacre of anyone who could read and write destroyed the state he had created before he had a chance to rule it. Attacking with a chainsaw the branch he sat on, he was a figure from a diabolical cartoon. But few of the longer-lasting Communist despots were so dense. Ceausşescu was a maniac, but so is an ordinary serial killer; an ordinary serial killer doesn’t run a state. It could be said that Castro is the cleverest person in Cuba because anyone cleverer swam to Miami, but it’s a joke. Castro is not stupid and it is most unlikely that the material decay of his country has surprised him. He simply preferred personal rule to national prosperity, and stifled the second in order to reinforce the first. As Lenin proved, you can’t have a socialist economy without the occasional NEP (a New Economic Policy that allows a measure of free enterprise); you can’t continue as a socialist dictator without the dexterity to dismantle the NEP as soon as it becomes productive; and to balance the resultant hope against the inevitable deprivation is the secret of success. Maintaining yourself in power is the only thing you succeed at, but the time soon comes when the balancing act becomes your raison d’être. Castro had the knack, and remained in power while his beard grew grey.

If the United States had been able to find a way of burdening Castro’s early socialist aspirations with help, the Communist regime in Cuba might never have formed in the first place. But America had committed itself to a foreign policy which viewed any hint of socialism as an invitation to communism. The policy was stupid, but here again it was not necessarily the product of stupid men: the East Coast foreign policy elite constituted the cleverest collection of political brains in America. Otherwise known as the Wise Men, after World War II they gave an unwise policy its initial impetus because there was no other way of getting a genuinely beneficial measure—the Marshall Plan—through Congress. They needed a Red scare as an appeal to the masses: always an uncomfortable position for any intellectual elite to be in. Appeals to the masses are better managed by big business.

Schnitzler’s flight into stupidity might look like the only explanation for the sort of newspapers, magazines, television programmes and movies that make us ashamed to be living in the West. At first blush, the mass media seem to offer the ideal chance of examining stupidity in isolation. But once again the trick is not easily worked. There is a possibility, amounting to a probability when the really big money is involved, that the stupidity is being manufactured by clever people whose commercial motives put their taste, scope and integrity into abeyance. This non-anomaly becomes most obvious in the case of Hollywood’s blockbuster movies, where the long haul of creative intelligence takes a spiral route towards the big haul at the box office. Every onlooker who fancies his powers of discrimination has a wonderful time when a blockbuster flops on the opening weekend. But the blockbuster that we actually have a wonderful time watching is a more equivocal case. Where Eagles Dare has always been my favourite example: since the day I first saw it, I have taken a sour delight in rebutting pundits who so blithely assume that the obtuseness on screen merely reflects the stunted mentalities behind the camera, and I go on seeing its every rerun on television in order to reinforce my stock of telling detail—and, all right, in order to have a wonderful time. There is something precious about the intellectual squalor of Where Eagles Dare: it is a swamp with a surface of green pulp squeezed from emeralds. You can’t get the same charge from Delta Force movies, or from the adventures of Jean-Claude Van Damme in the brainless universe where men with guns are helpless against a man fighting with his feet. Where Eagles Dare is the apex of a form: it shows that there is somewhere to go beyond The Guns of Navarone, a numbskull stratosphere in which not even The Wild Geese could fly. Where eagles dare, the sense of the ridiculous winks out to a dot, and the vision is filled with the vaulting pretensions of latterday schoolmen who believe, if only ad hoc and pro tem, that cinematic sense can exist in vacuo: detached, that is, from any other sense; a voluntary brain-death. The whole complex phenomenon is epitomized by Richard Burton’s hairstyle.

Schnitzler, let us remember, said that the flight into stupidity is a flight away from responsibility. But soaring beyond any human absurdity that even Schnitzler could imagine, Richard Burton’s hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare is a flight into stupidity and away from the barber. Burton plays a British agent who is possibly also a German agent, although we can be fairly sure that he will turn out to be a British agent in the end, because Richard Burton’s agent would never agree to a deal by which his client was shot at dawn. Burton the almost certainly British agent is sent, with Clint Eastwood and other agents—some of whom actually do turn out to be German agents—on a mission to a castle deep behind German lines, there to rescue, or possibly confirm the credibility of, or perhaps betray the real identity of, an actor pretending to be an American general in possession of the Plans for a Second Front. The actor playing the actor need not detain us, and considering how he acts it is a wonder that the Germans have detained him. (There is a lot more to wonder at about the behaviour of the Germans, but we’ll get to that later.) The actors who matter are Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Clint, already a top box office draw at the time, has been cast as the simple, straight-talking American assassin who helps the fiendishly ingenious British spy: it’s the same relationship as Felix Leiter to James Bond, but beefed up to equal status to meet the requirements of the American marquee. Apart from saying “hello” so as to make Germans turn around before he shoots them with his silenced pistol—if he had merely mouthed “hello” before shooting them in the back, it would have been a different kind of movie, i.e., a realistic one—Clint’s character has nothing anachronistic about him except his cataleptic taciturnity, which we are glad to recognize as a minimally equipped actor’s career-long habit of overdoing the understatement. Burton’s own style of acting is equally dissonant with the time, but in the opposite direction: he always overdid the overstatement, and from the beginning to the end of his career on screen he looked exactly like a stage actor projecting to the upper circle, except when a director with animal-training skills (Martin Ritt in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, to take one of the few examples) either whipped him into submission or else slipped a sedative into his morning triple. Burton always moved his lips so much when he enunciated that they would stick out past the end of his nose, and there are episodes in Where Eagles Dare in which they practically leave the frame, as if yet another triple were waiting out there, begging to be imbibed.

It isn’t the stuff he does with his face, however, that makes Burton look out of place in this castellated anteroom of World War II. It’s the stuff on top of his head. It’s his hairstyle. It was probably still all his own hair at that stage, but it’s a hairstyle: an item, that is, which not even women found it easy to obtain during World War II, and which for men was unknown. (In the movie, Mary Ure has obviously taken a hairstylist into action with her, but we never see him: although if he had wandered into shot holding a crimping iron he would have looked no more futuristic than her miraculously smooth coiffure, shining with a blonde lustre that Eva Braun, even with her connections, could only dream of.) The high command of the Romanian army did indeed issue an order that no officer below the rank of major should wear makeup, but the British army and the German army both made a policy of short back and sides for all ranks, and the German army was particularly close-cropped. Yet Burton, intending to be accepted as a German officer in order to penetrate the enemy redoubt, has gone into action sporting a pageboy hairstyle so fulsome that it spills abundant curls and waves below the back of his collar. Burton had a big head anyway. I interviewed him once, and found out why he always looked so stocky on screen: it was because his upper works were so broad you had to lean sideways to see past him. Even if close-shorn he would have had to wear a cap rare for its size in the whole of the Wehrmacht. But with his hairstyle added to his massive cranium, his cap has to be big enough for a buffalo, and it still does nothing to disguise—does a lot, indeed, to emphasize—the anomalous abundance of hair protruding at the back. On several occasions in the movie he has to pass a German checkpoint, and you can only deduce that the garrison has been recruited from an institute for the blind. Later in the war, when the regular German forces were in a state of collapse, Volkssturm units were organized from the old, the adolescent, the lame and the sick, but I can’t remember that very many sightless people were issued with a Panzerfaust and asked to shoot in the direction of the noise kicked up by Allied tanks. Here at the castle there is no discrimination against the optically handicapped.

Whether as a single, double or triple agent (“Triple, please,” you can imagine him saying) the Burton character would have been barely free of his parachute harness before being placed under arrest. He would have been locked up on the basis of his appearance alone. Every other anachronism is explicable, within the screenplay’s purely cinematic parameters. In the Geman pub below the castle, Burton, Eastwood and the other agents—the others are notable chiefly for their expendability—talk very loudly in English. Yes, English is their chosen language when they discuss their plans about fooling the Germans, and they do not lower their voices when members of the garrison pass by closely behind them. It could be said, however, that a convention is being observed here, and that our agents are really speaking German. (It could also be said that if they were speaking German, the closely attendant Germans would be even more likely to notice that plans to fool them were being loudly discussed, but let that pass.) There is also the consideration that English seems to be the adopted language of every German in the area. Similarly it could be put down to an equally hallowed cinematic convention when the German commandant arrives in the castle courtyard by helicopter. There were no operational helicopters in World War II, but there were no operational cannon in ancient Rome either, and Shakespeare still put a few in. Shakespeare pioneered Hollywood’s flexible attitude to temporal authenticity, as any Hollywood mogul with a tertiary education will be glad to tell you. For every howler in the movie there is a good justification, the principal one being that the people who made the movie must have known it was a howler, but correctly judged that nobody they cared about would notice. In the majority of big-budget war films since World War II, and in all the small budget ones, the enemy has always fired a special kind of bullet that goes around, instead of through, the actors on our side, occasionally penetrating only at the shoulder or in a sexually neutral section of the upper thigh. In Sands of Iwo Jima John Wayne finally got killed by a Japanese bullet while he was sitting down, but only after the Japanese machine-gunners had vainly fired thousands of bullets at him when he was running very slowly. In Where Eagles Dare, whole German machine-gun nests equipped with multiple examples of the lethal MG42 (rate of fire: 1200 rounds per minute) are unable to graze Richard Burton’s hairstyle. Big enough for a slowly moving cow to graze it, for cinematic reasons it is impervious to speeding lead. But there are precedents for that. There is no precedent for the hairstyle per se.

This is where the pundit clinches his seemingly open-and-shut case for Schnitzler’s flight into stupidity as the principal motivation of the film’s creators, or perpetrators. He might concede that some of the perps are technically clever, but in that case he will insist that there is still a collective perp: the system itself. And he will be right, but not as right as he thinks. He has overlooked the factor of star power, which is what made him see the movie in the first place. Letting Burton keep his everyday hairstyle was the studio’s only chance of getting him into this sector of World War II. (He kept a bit less of his thatch for his cameo appearance in The Longest Day, but it still wasn’t buoyant enough to get him arrested by his own side, let alone by the enemy.) And Burton wasn’t being stupid either. He had realized that the point was not to look like a British agent plausibly pretending to be a German officer: the point was to look like Richard Burton. The reality of star power depends on exactly that. Malleability is for actors. For screen stars, recognizability is what matters. Much later, and in a better movie, Robert Redford proved it all over again by declining at the last moment to adopt an English accent when he played Denys Finch Hatton in Out of Africa. He was right. Out of Africa was a serious venture, but it was still a blockbuster, and it needed Redford as a draw on the marquee, not as a paragon of authenticity on the screen. Redford was content to leave all that to Meryl Streep and Klaus Maria Brandauer. He wasn’t just content, he insisted. And it was by making such demands that he became Robert Redford. If we doubt the value of that, we should remember that he would never have been in a position to set up the Sundance Festival, and thus alter the whole course of independent and intelligent film-making in America, if he hadn’t been Robert Redford in the first instance. He is a very clever man, and so, between drinks, was Burton, who could recite English poetry by the mile. Burton was clever enough to intuit a deeply awkward truth, and incorporate it in the hairstyle he carried into action in one of the most lucrative movies he ever made. To one side of the world’s great events, there is the interpretation of them. To one side of the interpretation, there is entertainment. And to one side of entertainment, there is absurdity. But if the absurdity is correctly judged, it will be found entertaining, even by those who are well aware of the real importance of the events being travestied. There can be a willing, mass participation in the flight into stupidity, because there can always be an agreed moment when the flight away from responsibility becomes irresistible. To pick that moment takes a kind of talent. It might be a spoiled talent, but mediocrity will never make it.

In all those big, bad movies that ought to have been better (I don’t mean the big, bad movies that couldn’t be worse, like The Avengers or Pearl Harbor) the stupidity is institutionalized, and you can take it for granted that if they make a big score on the opening weekend, almost everyone concerned is very clever indeed, and often dauntingly cultivated. But these masterminds are smart and suave enough to know that their target audience for the opening weekend is neither of those things. The masterminds are after the young, who know nothing. It is usually a mistake to overestimate their degree of dumbness—the movie has to make some kind of sense—but to overestimate their ignorance is impossible. The disparity of intellect between the manufacturers and the consumers would be frightening if the manufacturers were not at the consumers’ mercy, instead of vice versa. Hence the tendency of Californian film moguls to revel in their own superiority: they have nowhere else to hide from the consequences of a mistake. Their flight is not into stupidity, but into sophistication. In the British cinema you can meet plenty of people who know something about Frank Lloyd Wright, but only in Los Angeles can you meet a movie executive who lives in a house that Frank Lloyd Wright built, and who devotes time, taste and knowledge to restoring it. His name is Joel Silver, and he is the same man who, in Die Hard, sent Bruce Willis hurtling barefooted through a plate-glass window to settle the hash of two dozen combat-trained terrorists instead of slicing himself to hamburger. Luckily the guns of the terrorists were loaded with the standard magic bullets rigged to swerve around any actor on our side with star billing, and nobody virtuous got killed except a Japanese executive, possibly as a payback for Iwo Jima.

These functional anomalies of the mass media teach us to look out for whether the rules of the game induce clever people, in other fields as well, to behave in stupid ways. In the year when Senator John Kerry challenged President George W. Bush, the question of why Bush pretended to be able to speak English was never as interesting as the question of why Kerry pretended not to be able to speak French. In the United States, the free democracy whose electoral system most nearly approximates a free market, an historical consensus of extremely clever operatives has decreed that a candidate should not only keep things simple, but seem simple himself. Cultural memory is difficult: too much detail. Cultural amnesia is easier. Eventually there will be nobody alive who knows for certain that there was never such a thing in World War II as Richard Burton’s hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare, so why don’t we forget it straight away? President Bush’s speechwriters encourage him to forget that World War II even existed before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Not even he could not know that: but it is deemed expedient that he should seem not to. How these decisions about utilitarian ignorance are taken is a study in itself. But it is the very study that intellectuals as a class are least equipped to make. For past catastrophes, dull intellectuals try to blame a dumb individual: hence the notion that all the soldiers in the trenches of World War I were murdered by Field Marshal Douglas Haig. Slightly smarter intellectuals try to blame a dumb collectivity: hence the notion that the escalation in Vietnam was the work of the CIA. (In fact, the CIA warned JFK not to commit troops on the ground: he ignored the warning.) Clever intellectuals can analyse a complex event, but tend to attribute a simple motive: hence the notion that the Cold War and the arms race were American inventions designed to stifle the socialist aspirations of liberated Europe. It takes a very smart intellectual, however, to accept that those vast, costly and even criminal stupidities were brought about by people no less bright than he. Clever contemporary thinkers who proceed on the assumption that their predecessors were stupid are apt to write the superior nonsense that works mischief. It is a consideration that Schnitzler left out of his aphorism: there is indeed a flight from responsibility into stupidity, but the flight from responsibility into cleverness can be equally destructive.

“But what if,” said Leo, “the execution fires should be lit again?”
“In that case,” said Heinrich, “I solemnly promise I will come straight to you.”
“Oh,” George objected, “those times will never return.”

On some unspecified day around the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, the three Jewish boys have been lolling on a well-appointed hillside. They have been conducting a long, lazy argument about whether to dream of Palestine is really an appropriate response to the petty, everyday anti-Semitic snobbery of Vienna. After all, none of them is religious. But the argument gets quite heated, and they break the tension with this joking exchange. Looking back across eight decades, we can see it as one of the most prophetic moments in modern literature. But it should also remind us of the dangers of historicism: hindsight is not a view of the world, it is an indulgence of the self. It puts us in control of history, whereas the first thing we should realize about history is that we are not in control of it: not by looking backward, and still less by looking forward. Only one of the three young characters believes that assimilation is a dangerous illusion, and even if all three of them did, they would still be characters: they would not be Schnitzler. If Schnitzler himself had really thought that the future was cut and dried, he would never have written another line. But the idea of a possible disaster is undoubtedly being floated, and it comes from the author’s heart. Schnitzler understood Theodor Herzl’s views about the ignis fatuus of Jewish assimilation. He himself was about as assimilated as someone of Jewish background could well be. Even after World War I, with the old empire broken up, Schnitzler’s prestige in Vienna’s cultural life was on the scale that Mahler’s had been when Franz Joseph still ruled. At the Burgtheater Schnitzler, the unchallenged master playwright, was accustomed to multiple curtain calls for every successful first night: sometimes he seemed to be on stage almost as long as the actors.

But he also knew what it meant to feel insecure even in his eminence. Some of his best plays have that for a subject. Professor Bernhardi is a play about a man of Schnitzler’s prestige finding out how little his prestige avails him against the perennial hatreds. Schnitzler never betrayed the same sort of nervousness as, say, Jakob Wassermann, a novelist who despaired of a social acceptance to match his big sales. Schnitzler took his popularity as a sign of approval. But he knew that the contempt was always there, a tincture in the culture. For two reasons, he was particularly stung by the essayist Alfred Polgar’s critical notices. One reason was that Polgar wrote so well: limiting judgements hurt most when they come from a writer of talent. The other reason was the one that barely shows up even in Schnitizler’s private correspondence, but it is detectable between the lines. Polgar was a Jew, and should, Schnitzler felt, have found less hostile language for his belittling judgements. Franz Werfel had a right to feel the same way about Karl Kraus. In the first year of the twenty-first century, the eminent art historian E. H. Gombrich, nearing the end of long life, protested against the misguided consensus of commentary which seemed to assume that there had ever been such a self-conscious body as The Jews before Hitler so portentously invented it. Solidarity had to be imposed, and was never really felt even then. Among the prosperous, fully assimilated Jews of the professional classes who found themselves bewilderingly subject to Nazi proscription, there were plenty who went to their doom still convinced that the whole thing would never have happened if not for the resentment aroused by the influx of all those strangely dressed and unsociable Ostjuden refugees from the accursed east. But you can still see why a prominent Jewish artist who was cut down to size by a Jewish critic should feel betrayed: things were tough enough without being done down by your own people. Things were even tougher if, as an assimilated Jew, you had rejected the idea of there being such a thing as your own people. Like so many stars who have been told too often and too glibly that they embody the hopes of a race, Schnitzler wanted to be an individual, not a representative. The anguish aroused by your own principles is hard to take.

If Schnitzler, who was lucky enough to die of natural causes when Hitler was not yet in power, had lived long enough to see Nazism begin to make actual the atavistic threat that his characters laughed off, what would he have thought? Luckily, such speculations are useless, because they make an inadmissible presumption about the continuity of personal psychology. Schnitzler was an unusually perceptive man, but his perceptive powers might have withered with further age, or even rejected the evidence of his senses. Karl Kraus lived long enough to say that he had nothing to say about Hitler. The implication was that Hitler’s unspeakable awfulness had been beyond the scope of even Kraus’s satirical view. The truth was that Kraus, largely because he thought the institutionalized Viennese anti-Semitism of the late 1890s was as nasty as things could get, hadn’t seen Hitler coming, and his blindness was at least partly wilful. Later on, the gifted satirist Kurt Tucholsky, desperate in exile, doubted if his persistent mockery of the Weimar Republic had ever been wise. Kraus had come too far to have the same doubts about his own activities in post–World War I Austria. He was too tired to adapt his forces to the new challenge. The same thing might have happened to Schnitzler. By the time of his death in 1931, Schnitzler had heard Nazi voices in full cry: they found the Jew plutocrat and erotomaniac Schnitzler a tempting stimulus for their own literary efforts. Some of the stuff written about him is too horrible to quote.

But he didn’t make a subject of it. That these voices in the alley would ever take power was hard to imagine even for him. He had been through all that back at the turn of the century. (My copy of Der Weg ins Freie is dated 1922, but he was working on the manuscript in 1903.) He had poured into a great novel all his reflections on Jewish identity, on assimilation, on its impossibility in less than a thousand years, on how everyone affected would have to find his own path into the clear. Since then, he had found his: through achievement, success, fame, the rich emotional rewards of his private life. If he encountered anti-Semitism in grand drawing-rooms, there were few grand drawing-rooms he could not enter. It was hard to imagine that all those subtle, stylishly insidious old parlour prejudices would gain an entirely different order of force when restated by maniacs. In Freud’s last diary we can see that even the great student of the primitive subconscious was slow to acknowledge the scope of the Nazi challenge to civilization. Freud, Kraus, Schnitzler—they were all at the apex of Viennese cultural intelligence. But for all three of them, there was no Jewish Question in the Hitlerite sense. The question they had dealt with had been about anti-Semitism as a stain on a living culture. The new anti-Semitism à la Hitler was a culture all by itself: a culture of death. Theodor Herzl had prophesied its advent, but on the evidence of what had always happened in the east. To accept that the same order of destruction might be possible in the civilized west, a prophet was what you had to be, with the prophet’s vulnerability to suggestions by reasonable people that he might be mad. Prophecy and creative intuition might have something in common: they both depend on a consideration of possibilities that does not censor itself in advance. Schnitzler’s richness as a writer depended on his capacity not to censor the reports from his own instincts: in writing about desire, he established a tradition that comes all the way down to Philip Roth, who owes more to Schnitzler than he does to Kafka, because it was Schnitzler who opened up the subject of how desire can saturate the imagination. (One of Roth’s most memorable book titles, The Professor of Desire, fits Schnitzler exactly.)

Similarly, Schnitzler did not censor his insecurity. In all aspects of his adult life he made himself the complete figure of bourgeous solidity: he was practically part of the Ringstrasse, the great circuit of buildings in central Vienna that really amounted to a theatre whose sets, as it were, were set in stone. But he maintained access to his unease. He had grown up and flourished in the tolerance of the old k.u.k society. But it was the tolerance that bothered him. Tolerance could be withdrawn. If one of the boys on the hillside—it is Leo who sees deepest—points out to the others that the age-old hostility runs deeper than they think, he is certainly expressing the author’s unsleeping doubt, if not his overmastering conviction. The whole allure of Schnitzler’s extensive range of work depends, like human beauty, on the ineluctable reality of evanescence. Read in the original, his plays rank him with Ibsen and Chekhov, but most particularly with Chekhov, and not just because Schnitzler, too, was a doctor by his first calling. The dynamic in Ibsen is of chickens coming home to roost. In Chekhov it is of the falling leaves. Schnitzler’s short stories, sketches and novellas rank him with Chekhov again, although Leutnant Gustl makes you think also of Joyce, because it exhausted the possibilities of the interior monologue before Joyce had even begun to explore them. Schnitzler’s paragraph-sized aphorisms are philosophical essays in themselves. And if he had written nothing else, Der Weg ins Freie would make him one of the novelists of modern Europe. In my shelves, the thin-paper volumes of Schnitzler’s complete works form one of those points in space where gravity increases to draw light in so that it can’t get out: get near and you will go in with it.

But the illumination in there is phosphorescent. Schnitzler knew that he was writing about a social order in decay. He never gave up on the world—he thought that civilization, no matter how it transformed itself, would continue—but he did say a clear goodbye to the social order into which he had been born. He described it in such loving detail that we are tempted to think of his emotional imperative as nostalgic. But it wasn’t. He was a realist. The wonderfully named American critic Joseph Wood Krutch said about Cervantes that only a romantic can be realistic enough, and there is something in what he said. Schnitzler’s romanticism, however, was not a self-serving overlay but part of his perception of the world, which for him, because he was an attractive man lucky in love, was always full of sexual adventure even into his old age. From that aspect, he was a small boy in a sweet shop. But he had no illusions about the sweet shop’s proprietors. He didn’t let the strength of his personal satisfactions blind him to the general fragility of the world in which he enjoyed them. There lies the main difference between Schnitzler’s Belle époque and Joseph Roth’s. Schnitzler was there, and told the truth. The compulsive liar Roth looked back on it, nostalgic for its lost coherence. Roth’s Radetzkymarsch is a great novel. You don’t have to know much about the Austro-Hungarian Empire to see that. The more you do know, however, the more you see that Radetzkymarsch is a beautiful dream. Schnitzler is the man to show you the reality—the one and only path into the clear.

No spectre assails us in more varied disguises than loneliness, and one of its most impenetrable masks is called love.

In 1927, in Vienna, the Phaidon Press, as one of its first publications, brought out a little linen-bound collection by Arthur Schnitzler whose title can be translated as Book of Sayings and Thoughts. I found my copy, in a house full of books sold by the children of refugees, on Staten Island in 1983 and have been reading it ever since. No taller than the length of my hand or wider than the palm, it can be carried easily in a jacket pocket. I think it is one of the great books of the modern world. In not many more than two hundred small pages of Bodoni bold print, it contains the summation of a lifetime’s introspection by a man who travelled into his own psychology with the same bravery that men later showed when they travelled into space. The difference is that everything he found was alive. You could call the book’s paragraphs aphorisms—he sometimes used the same term himself—but I prefer to call them essays, bearing in mind that Montaigne called it an essai when he tried to draw conclusions from the endless titration of his experience and his reading. Schnitzler had lived everything he wrote down: the longer ago he had lived it, the more he had thought about it, so the book often gives the impression of light at great depth, with colours leaping to surprised life, as if they were not used to being on show. (When Jacques Cousteau first took powerful sources of light down to shelves of coral that had never been illuminated before, he asked: what is all this colour doing down here?) Some of the most disturbing essays are about love, which for Schnitzler always started with physical love, even when he was getting on in years and had become a bit less capable. When he was young he must have been capable indeed; and even, by his own account, indiscriminately predatory. But in the long run, multiplicity of experience didn’t coarsen his perceptions. It refined them, often against his will. There is no element of consolation in this single-sentence essay about love and loneliness. But there is no despair either. Quite apart from the surrounding anti-Semitism that aroused his constant fury, there was a lot about Viennese life that drove Schnitzler to recrimination—he took a bad review no better than any other playwright—but he never quarrelled with love just because it left him lonely. He counted himself lucky to find it at all: surely the sane attitude.

Was he right about the impenetrable mask? Wrong at the start, and right in the end: because love, unlike loneliness, is more of a process than a permanent condition. In the German, the “most impenetrable masks” are undurchschaubarsten Masken—the masks you can’t see through. (We might note at this point that “loneliness” is feminine: arbitrary genders really are arbitrary, but in this case it’s a nice coincidence.) When love comes, there is no mask: or shouldn’t be. There is nothing to see through, because you are not lonely. There really is another person sharing your life. But later on a different truth—one you are familiar with, but hoped to have seen the last of—comes shining through. Unlike light in space, it needs a medium to do so, and the medium is the mask itself, seen in retrospect. You are lonely again. You were really lonely all along. You have deceived yourself.

It would have been a desolating view if Schnitzler had been quite sure of it. But if he had been quite sure of it he would not have gone on worrying at it. On the same great page—great books have great pages, and in this book page 117 is one of the greatest—he tries again. “That we feel bound by a steady longing for freedom, and that we also seek to bind someone else, without being convinced that such a thing is within our rights—that is what makes any loving relationship so problematic.” The question here is about possessiveness, and the first thing to see is that there would be no possessiveness if there were nothing real to possess. So this is not loneliness concealed by an impenetrable mask. This is the other person, whom you love enough to be worried about her rights. You are worried, that is, about someone who is not yourself. You want to be free, and assume that she does too: but you want her to be yours. You could want that with a whole heart if your heart were less sympathetic. There have been men in all times, and there are still men all over the world, who have no trouble in believing that their women belong to them. But those men are not educated. If Schnitzler’s writings on the subject can be said to have a tendency, it is to say that love provides an education. What is problematic about the relationship is essentially what tells you it is one. It might not be an indissoluble bond, but as an insoluble problem it gives you the privilege of learning that freedom for yourself means nothing without freedom for others. When you love, the problem begins, and so does your real life.

Still on the same page, but at the top—I have taken the paragraphs in a different order here, to restore a sequence that he might have deliberately scrambled—he develops the theme of love and loneliness in a blood-chilling direction. “Each loving relationship has three stages,” he says, uncharacteristically sounding rather like Hannah Arendt or W. H. Auden setting out a philosophical fruit-stall, “which succeed one another imperceptibly: the first in which you are happy with each other even when silent; the second in which you are silently bored with each other; and the third in which silence becomes a form that stands between the lovers like an evil enemy.” This would be a less terrible thing for him to have said if it had no truth in it that we recognized. But most of us will acknowledge the familiar declension of a passion gone sour. Some passions, of course, ought to go sour, to make room for a fresh one that might even stay fresh. It should be said in a hurry that Schnitzler himself was nothing like Proust in this respect. Proust says, over and over in À la recherche du temps perdu, that love always intensifies into jealousy: that it doesn’t just convey within itself, but actually consists of, the seeds of its own destruction. For Proust things seem to have been like that in real life.

Schnitzler’s real life was different. As far as one can deduce from Renate Wagner’s exemplary biography Arthur Schnitzler, he was never promiscuous in the usual sense of not caring who the woman was. Until a good way into his mature years, he seems to have been moved to end an affair early mainly out of fear that the woman might get the same idea first. Once he got used to the probability that he would not be betrayed, he formed enduring relationships. The memory of Olga Waissnix stayed dear to him after her untimely death. He might never have let go of his wife (the other Olga, born Olga Gussmann) if she had not insisted on her freedom so as to pursue her career as a singer unimpeded. She was a bit of a Zelda, as things turned out: she started her career too late, failed at it, and they had been too miserable together for him to want her back in the house. But they stayed close. His love for the young actress Vilma Lichtenstern was as enduring as it was intense: her death in a car crash left him devastated. Clara Pollaczek consoled him in his old age, although she might have been less loyal if she had known that the old man had yet another young lady tucked away in the wings. Though he did not enjoy telling lies, he was a master of tactical silence. But it would be a big mistake to suspect him of stunted feelings. His feelings were large, and very generous: if you compare him to a truly selfish Pantaloon like Bertrand Russell, the difference is decisive. Schnitzler was a verifiable believer in female liberty and fulfilment. He wanted his women to become themselves for their benefit, and not just for his.

Nevertheless he was an exponent of what the therapists of today would call a compartmentalized emotional life. The subversive element, however, was in how he drew creative energy from the compartments. He thought that men’s minds worked that way and he did an impressive job of dramatizing his view, to the extent that Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud both thought him a master psychologist. But very few psychologists of today would agree, expecially if they were working as counsellors; and by the American measure, which demands a married couple, volubly happy for their whole lives, his idea of the silent enemy sounds like the Fiend incarnate. The American measure of the eternally happy couple requires two people with half a personality each. Schnitzler worked by the European measure, in which two complete individuals might or might not get on. Which of these measures we take for a paradigm could be a matter of choice. But Schnitzler, although he did not go so far as to insist that all men were like him, believed that there was no choice. For him, the civil convention and the impulse in the soul were at odds, and out of the conflict he made his drama. Artistically, it was a decision beyond reproach: but the result was a body of art incomprehensible in America, which is the real reason he has never become world-famous. Ibsen, yes, and even Strindberg. In America, Strindberg can be Edward Albee’s acknowledged ancestor: the two lovers in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can tear each other apart right there on Broadway. They are, after all, a married couple, together forever, like a pair of turtle doves with brass knuckles. But only the novels of Philip Roth acknowledge a mental world in which Schnitzler might be a master, and Roth’s heroes must concede the misery and confusion at being in the expensive, shameful grip of lust in action, as if they were Henry Miller’s crapulent bohemians in better suits. Schnitzler conceded no such thing. He thought that the battle between imagination and fidelity was a fact of life. Even today, more than seventy years after his death, those who think he had a point must still reach up for his works as if to the top of the rack, where dangerous publications are shrink-wrapped in cellophane. The civilization whose pent desires he did so much to explore is still not ready for him.