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Modernity and Crises of Identity:
Culture and Society in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna

by jacques le rider
translated by rosemary morris
continuum, 380 pages, $34.95

To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet compared the Vienna of Freud’s time with Periclean Athens; but if it ever happens, I will understand why, especially after reading this remarkable book. Merely to cite the roster of artists, thinkers, and creators who at one time or another resided in Vienna around the turn of the century is to invite astonishment at so productive and effulgent a time: Franz Brentano; Ludwig Wittgenstein and the positivists of the (tellingly named) “Vienna Circle” in philosophy; Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig in literature; Gustav Klimt in the visual arts; Adolf Loos (and once again Wittgenstein!) in architecture; Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schonberg in music; Theodor Herzl in politics; and of course Sigmund Freud in psychology.

But in a way, the comparison would be most misleading, as Jacques Le Rider, Professor of German Studies at the University of Paris, also makes clear in his brilliant portrait of this deeply neurotic age (he devotes a rather tweaky section to the “nerves” of the Viennese). The parallel between Athens and Vienna ultimately breaks down not simply for the obvious reason that no European city could ever hope to monopolize the culture the way Athens did when Aeschylus and the young Socrates strolled amid the statuary of the Acropolis. Much more centrally, Athens was a city, at least in Pericles’ day, bursting with confidence and youth—even to the point of falling prey to a blind arrogance, or hubris, that would nearly destroy her within two generations.

Vienna, Le Rider makes clear, was a much different case. For one thing, it is a bit disconcerting to discover how many of the aforementioned worthies positively hated their home city. One native even coined the term Wiener Selbsthass (Viennese self-hatred) to label the syndrome. To these venturesome thinkers and artists, being stuck in the twilight of Hapsburg Vienna mostly meant trying to be an innovator in a culture notorious for its conservatism (the Emperor Franz Josef—ever the eccentric—disdained everything modern, including telephones, cars, elevators, and electric lights). Freud’s biographer Ernst Jones relates that when he first met Freud, he innocently remarked how exciting it must be to live in a city so full of new ideas, at which Freud sprang up from his chair and burst out in anger: “I have lived here for fifty years and have never come across a new idea here!”

But in true Viennese fashion, self-hatred is not the whole story. For the pioneers of Vienna were much more ambivalent about their innovations than most intellectual historians nowadays admit:

Viennese modernism was by no means triumphal or sure of itself. It kept a strong awareness of loss, of a decadence which must be fought, of a world in a state of collapse and a still undefined future. The Viennese modernists trod their chosen path with the consciousness of a necessity which seemed to them almost like fate . . . . Nietzsche’s scorn for “modern ideas” made a profound impression on his admirers: “This book [Beyond Good and Evil],” he said, “is a criticism of modernity, embracing the modern sciences, arts, even politics, together with certain indications as to a type that would be the reverse of modern man, for as little like him as possible: a noble, yea-saying man.”

Amidst this swirl of ambiguity, in what must seem like the very capital of ambivalence, it should come as no surprise that Vienna was also home to a man who must surely rank as the Ur-Beispiel of the self- hating Jew, Karl Kraus. As Le Rider well recognizes, self-hatred is a notoriously slippery term and is too easily bandied about, often applied to any Jew who strays too far from communal norms (one thinks in the American context of Philip Roth). But if there be such a type at all, then surely Kraus fills the bill:

Concerned as he was to assert his distinctiveness within Viennese intellectual circles by every possible means, he yet retained a lifelong lingering desire to lose himself in German culture, and above all, in the German language. Anything which threw doubt on this identification drew from Kraus an impassioned and (it must be said) frequently unconvincing response: he joined the anti-Dreyfus faction, and when commenting on the proceedings of ritual murder which were exposing a Jew to the worst of anti-Semitic prejudice, he was chiefly concerned to dissociate himself from any kind of “Jewish solidarity.” In his literary journal he welcomed Houston Stewart Chamberlain and sang his praises, while he never lost a chance of displaying his contempt for Heinrich Heine.

Perhaps Le Rider’s most fascinating chapter is on the proto-feminism of nineteenth-century Vienna (well antedating the suffragette movement in Great Britain). Here too we find the same kinds of inner torment that were at work in Jewish self-definition: where exactly to locate liberation? And here too we feel the same sense of suffocation that is the hallmark of all Viennese innovation in that fevered time. As feminist scholars are not slow to point out, there is a very definite social context in Freud’s time that led so many women to collapse into hysterics in his office. These women were in effect the Newtonian apple that led to Freud’s later hypotheses; for when he realized that his neurological examinations were getting nowhere, that, physiologically speaking, his patients were no different from non- hysterics, he was forced to posit a special set of life experiences that the healthy brains of those hysterical women had registered, but suppressed. As is now universally known, he hypothesized early childhood traumas to account for later adult breakdowns, but then retracted this hypothesis in favor of invented childhood trauma.

But surely, feminist scholars say (and I think rightly), bourgeois Vienna with its official Hapsburg ideology of duty and hierarchy and its rigid assignment of masculine and feminine roles must be the real culprit, and not some jerry-built theory cobbled together from Freud’s schoolboy Sophocles and Comte’s dreary one-dimensional positivism (Wittgenstein called Freud the “great mythographer of the twentieth century”). So while, when he focuses on the social context of suffocating patriarchy, Le Rider is no innovator, he is far more alert than many feminist interpreters in seeing how the cure—liberation from hierarchy and patriarchally assigned roles—could easily double back on itself, leaving, as it were, seven devils in the cleanly swept house where previously there had been but one.

The redistribution of the cultural roles of masculinity and femininity triggered individual crises of disturbed—and subsequently redefined—sexual identity, while literature and Kulturkritik contrasted the antifeminist terrors [of the traditionalists] with utopias of feminism, homosexuality, and androgyny [from the innovators]. The challenge presented by anti-Semitism to the assimilation of Jews into German culture shattered Jewish identity into an astonishing variety of individual self- identifications, with [myriads of] myths and role models, both personal and collective. These two series of phenomena give a particularly spectacular illustration of the theme of identity crisis which is the distinctive mark of Viennese modernism—and which also explains the ambivalence of that period, when Vienna was at one and the same time the home of modernism and the “testing ground of the apocalypse,” to quote Kraus.

And then there is Otto Weininger, whose Sex and Character anticipates many of the oddities of the so-called “men’s movement” today. With the possible exception of Tolstoy’s tract on the Gospels, Weininger’s essay was the book that exercised the greatest influence on Wittgenstein. It is also, and this time with the definite exception of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, the most peculiar and eccentric book ever to have come out of the overheated terrarium of high Viennese culture. (Freud described Weininger as both ”highly gifted and sexually deranged,” and he was, at least in this one diagnosis, right.) So Weininger too gets his own chapter. His thesis, fiercely argued, and indeed with an extreme of rhetoric faintly reminiscent of Nietzsche, was that the culture of his day, both bourgeois and modernist, was in fact so thoroughly feminized as to make the redemption of masculinity impossible outside of an apocalyptic scenario; and that this, and not some alleged patriarchal bias, was the root of all modern decadence (and violence).

To pile on the ironies, Le Rider carefully demonstrates through a minute examination of the relevant evidence that the real Vienna was in fact nothing like the city that her artists and theorizers felt they were living in. In spite of the Emperor’s nutty Luddism, as well as the fact that it was excessively dependent on foreign capital, Vienna was moving forward into modern times at an extraordinary rate: “The great public works which were inaugurated by the building of the Ringstrasse went alongside an equally spectacular renewal of the infrastructure. The Danube and Wien rivers were analyzed, the water supply renewed, an urban railway network built, gas and electricity laid on.” Only in politics was there a vacuum.

Even in this regard, however, one cannot help but wonder about the longevity of the Viennese irony. Nothing might now seem to some to be more absurd than the House of Hapsburg on the eve of World War I (which bore perhaps even more responsibility for the outbreak of that war than did the German Kaiser). If the Hapsburg regime is thought of at all these days, it no doubt conjures up scenes more reminiscent of The Student Prince or The Mouse That Roared than the Court of Charlemagne. At the same time, whatever its massive faults, it did represent the vision of a multinational state. And now we look at the shards of that same Austrio-Hungarian Empire and see . . . ”Greater” Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia. Is this to be regarded as an improvement?

All of these ironies, and more, are presented in a text of great subtlety and learning, almost overrich in citations and nuance—perhaps the truest tribute to this remarkable city. Today we are the heirs and legatees of fin-de-siecle Vienna in ways we often never suspect, and perhaps never more so than when we indulge in that common cultural tic that automatically looks on “bourgeois” as a suspect term, a more elaborate way of saying inauthentic, phony, lifeless. The most unsettling part of this book is Le Rider’s gentle hint throughout that when the Viennese modernists hurled themselves against the norms and values of their society, they were chafing against mere gossamer chains and bridles of cotton.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Program at New York Universty.