Commentary Magazine


Prophets Without Honour, by Frederic V. Grunfeld; Fin-de-Siecle Vienna, by Carl E. Schorske

Modernity & Modernism

Prophets Without Honour: A Background to Freud, Kafka, Einstein, and Their World.
by Frederic V. Grunfeld.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 349 pp. $15.00.

Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture.
by Carl E. Schorske.
Knopf. 378 pp. $15.95.

There is a certain amount of topical overlap between these two fine volumes of historical portraiture, but each has a very different story to tell. Carl Schorske maintains a steady, sharp focus on Viennese culture in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, succinctly sketching in necessary background for the immediately preceding era, making no attempt to investigate what was to follow his chosen period. He is not particularly concerned with the role of Jews in Viennese life, but given the cultural sociology of his subject, several of the major figures he discusses in detail—Schnitzler, Freud, Herzl, Schoenberg—are Jews, and he treats their Jewishness sensibly.

Frederic Grunfeld, by contrast, extends his narrative through the entire German-speaking world over the first few decades of this century, with special attention to the 20’s and 30’s, when most of the intellectuals subsequently exiled or murdered by the Nazis were at the peak of their activity. He concentrates entirely on writers, thinkers, and composers who were at least nominally or originally Jews; and he approaches his biographical subjects in a frankly elegiac mood, while Schorske rigorously prevents the grimness of later events from overshadowing the historical moment he is illuminating. Grunfeld deals at length with a few figures from Schorske’s Vienna, devoting sections to Freud, Schoenberg, and Mahler, but, significantly, not to Herzl; for he is interested specifically in the contribution of Jews to German culture, not in what they may have culled from their German surroundings for a Jewish renewal. In any case, though he does not ignore Vienna and also includes Kafka’s Prague, Berlin is the main arena of his story.

Prophets Without Honour instructively demonstrates that it is possible to write a very good book without a controlling thesis, or, indeed, without anything very new to say about one’s subject. Grunfeld, a free-lance critic of the arts and an independent researcher, is not a professional historian, and by and large he ignores what professional historians have written on the topics he discusses (neither Schorske nor Peter Gay, for example, is so much as mentioned here). What he has done admirably is to master all the primary documents for his German Jewish life-studies—not only the many volumes of novels, stories, essays, poems, and plays, but also vast quantities of published memoirs, journals, correspondence, as well as the German periodical literature of the age. One comes to trust Grunfeld’s nuanced and detailed knowledge of his materials, and this, together with his cultivated taste, his common sense, his range of moral sympathy, and his apt writing, produces a compelling evocation of high culture in the German Jewish world.

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The limitations of Grunfeld’s study are most evident in the chapters on the more familiar figures. Any reader who knows very much about Freud, Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Hermann Broch, Else LaskerSchüler is not likely to find further insight here. Grunfeld’s virtue is in having retold the well-known stories so well, and in having joined them with arresting accounts of other figures in every sense untranslated from the German sphere, like the experimental novelist, Alfred Doeblin; the café poet, Erich Mühsam; the satiric playwright, Carl Sternheim; the essayist and philosopher, Theodor Lessing.

Grunfeld’s human panorama includes pacifists, anarchists, socialists, liberals, agnostics, converts to Catholicism, radical assimilationists, post-traditional Jewish mystics. The attempt he makes in his introductory chapter to see in them all a “family resemblance” defined by the restless energy they exhibited is not particularly convincing, or at any rate is hardly informative. The terms, however, in which Grunfeld evokes this driven quality reveal the real ground of unity of his study: “The breathlessness of the long-distance runner is a theme that runs as a sinister leitmotiv in German Jewish history—as though they knew from the first that they had so little time.” The historical hindsight of the last clause is precisely what gives Prophets Without Honour its special poignancy. All that ultimately unites the disparate figures discussed is that in the end they shared the same historical fate. Various, even incommensurable exponents of an extraordinary cultural flowering in the German language, they were all expunged from the German world, tortured, murdered, driven to madness or suicide, exiled to the far corners of the earth. Grunfeld’s book is essentially a series of vivid illustrations of a harsh truth compressed in an aphorism by Salomo Friedländer, which he duly quotes in his text: “Any damned fool can put a bullet through the most brilliant brain.”

Making no judgment on the so-called adventure of assimilation, Grunfeld recounts these exemplary lives—for he sees his subjects as secular saints in the integrity of their devotion to their cultural calling—with reverent affection. His book, then, though built out of solid historical matter, is finally more a monument to the dead than an act of historical inquiry.

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Carl Schorske, on the other hand, is a professional historian seeking to understand the multifarious connections between two essential phenomena in turn-of-the-century Vienna: the catastrophic breakdown of liberalism and the sudden explosion of modernism in literature and the arts. We have all become so accustomed to sweeping generalizations about both modernism and the German-speaking world that it is altogether bracing to be instructed by Schorske’s assured sense of what, after all, distinguished this particular place and moment.

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It has been argued (by Roland Barthes, among others) that, elsewhere in Europe, the aborted revolutions of 1848 irrevocably confirmed the artist’s sense of alienation from his society, drove him into a desperate cult of art, as in the paradigmatic instance of Flaubert. But in Austria, the growing political power of the middle classes after 1860, with the concomitant ascendancy of liberalism, led to a celebration of the arts as the supreme endorsement of a newly self-confident bourgeoisie:

Art was closely bound up with social status, especially in Austria, where the representational arts—music, theater, and architecture—were central to the tradition of a Catholic aristocracy. If entry into the aristocracy of the genealogical table was barred to most, the aristocracy of the spirit was open to the eager, the able, and the willing.

Though it is not a point Schorske himself stresses, one might add that the eager, the able, and the willing very often turned out to be Jews, “the supra-national people of the multinational state, the one folk which, in effect, stepped into the shoes of the earlier aristocracy,” and whose “fortunes rose and fell with those of the liberal, cosmopolitan state.”

By 1897, when the nationalist Christian Social party, under the leadership of the anti-Semite Karl Lueger, won the Viennese municipal elections, the fortunes of liberalism had plummeted beyond hope of recovery: an intolerant, irrationalist, nativist “politics in a new key” seized control of civic life, pointing ominously toward a future of brownshirts and jackboots.

Now, there are two peculiar features of this fateful collapse of Austrian liberalism; one is underscored by Schorske, the other is implicit in the enterprise of most of the writers, artists, and composers he studies. What he repeatedly stresses is that the impotence and isolation of the Austrian artist, in contrast to the predicament of his counterpart elsewhere, were conditions shared with the class from which the artist sprang, the bourgeoisie: “Neither dégagé nor engagé, the Austrian aesthetes [of the movement that emerged in the 1890’s] were alienated not from their class, but with it from a society that defeated its expectations and rejected its values.” This helps explain why the Viennese bourgeoisie, far from being a monolithic adversary to innovation in the arts as the general stereotype would have it, often provided the understanding patrons and the enthusiastic audiences for modernism.

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The other notable aspect of the crisis of liberalism that emerges from Schorske’s portrait of the arts in Vienna is the degree to which the high priests of modernism, even as they recoiled from the uncouth voice of the rabble that spoke through the “politics in a new key,” embodied in their own endeavor an irrationalism uncannily in tune with the forces impelling the new politics. Freud, of course, gave the irrational unprecedented weight as the subject for conscious inquiry, while inventing, as Schorske shrewdly argues, a comprehensive intellectual strategy for neutralizing politics, a realm that had bitterly failed him, by insisting on the primacy of infantile experience in determining all behavior. Klimt, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Mahler, Kokoschka, and Schoenberg discovered various means for shattering the frames in which bourgeois culture had neatly contained the art-work; for assaulting the comfortable sense of a realm of autonomous beauty without harsh, disruptive truth; for giving vent through art to the darker impulses of a hitherto repressed self. It was, as Schorske observes in a telling phrase, “a humanism unfamiliarly mixed with nihilism.”

At first glance, this may look like the old argument about a subterranean link between modernism and fascism (one thinks, for example, of Erich Heller’s critique of the Nietzschean strain in Yeats), but it seems to me that Schorske is suggesting something subtler and more complicated. The Viennese modernists did not embrace nihilism but rather humanism with an admixture of nihilism. Members of a disenfranchised class, they never absolutely renounced the liberal values that had sustained their class, but they contended inwardly with chaotic forces that were beyond the ken of liberal ideology and excluded from bourgeois social norms. In the streets of Vienna and in its municipal offices, much the same forces, cunningly channeled by the new populist leaders, were launching 20th-century politics under the menacing signs of reactionary nationalism. It is one thing, however, to tap the irrational as a motor force for mass movements, and quite another to confront it consciously or intuitively, to discover its weight and meaning by refashioning it as art. Schorske, avoiding Marxist simplifications and using psychoanalytic categories with discretion, succeeds in showing the intricacy of the relations between art and class, art and politics in the generative center of modernism.

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Prophets Without Honour, a book that celebrates the preciousness of a distinctive culture cut off in its prime, necessarily suggests an abyss that separates us from the vanished past. Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, concentrating on the specific texture of one segment of the past, on its pastness, has the paradoxical effect of leading us to ponder the connections between that historical moment and our own. Living as we do in an age when art remains in the thrall of modernism, struggling to outdo it, undo it, or parodistically redo it, and when the viability of liberalism is globally threatened, we might well try to understand, as Schorske’s book invites us to do, the ramified meanings of the Viennese experience.

There was a dramatic urgency, a desperate excitement, that distinguished the modernist breakthrough from earlier revolutions in the arts, including even the Romantic one, and that gave it what has continued to seem a unique claim to authenticity. But Schorske demonstrates how, at least in Vienna, a necessary condition for all that urgency was a sense of radical impotence engendered by the failure of rational politics. The brilliance of modernism, then, flares out ambiguously against a background of political breakdown with which it may have covert affinities. In the aftermath of modernism, which is our own cultural fate, it is the aspect of breakdown that seems more clearly revealed in a self-directed art often withdrawn from meaningful connection with the troubling realm of history.

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