Austrian Literature’s Very Jewish Golden Age

In Edge of Irony, Marjorie Perloff explores six great writers who lived in the Habsburg empire or, after its collapse, in Austria during the early part of the 20th century. Of these six—the poet Paul Celan, the memoirist Elias Canetti, the novelists Joseph Roth and Robert Musil, the satirist Karl Kraus, and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—only Musil was a non-Jew. Perloff, herself a Vienna-born Jew, sees irony as the overarching mode of these writers’ work. Adam Kirsch writes in his review:

[N]one of the [Austro-Hungarian] empire’s many ethnic groups—Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slavs—did more to create [its distinctive multinational] culture, or held it in greater reverence, than its Jews. The emigration of Jews from rural villages in Galicia and other parts of Eastern Europe to the capital in Vienna had created, before World War I, an intelligentsia of amazing accomplishment, including figures like Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud.

As Perloff writes, Vienna’s Jews were passionate about German culture even though, or perhaps because, they were for the most part rejected as members of the German nation. . . . In her [2004] memoir, Perloff is alternately nostalgic for this religion of culture and suspicious of it. Plainly, the Viennese Jews’ enthusiasm for art and intellect did not earn them a secure place in Austrian society. On the contrary, fin-de-siècle Vienna was one of the birthplaces of political anti-Semitism, the place where the young Hitler first expressed his hatred of Jews. For all the accomplishments of the German Jews, Kultur could be seen as a kind of lullaby they sang to themselves as the walls closed in.

Perhaps, writes Kirsch, the plight of the Jews was best expressed by Robert Musil, Perloff’s token Gentile, in his great unfinished novel The Man without Qualities:

The Austrian idea [as represented by Ulrich, the novel’s main character] is empty, but at least it is not menacing. The same can’t be said of another character, Hans Sepp, whom Perloff sees as a representative of the fascism that would triumph after [World War I]. Sepp, Musil writes, was part of a “Christian-German circle” that opposed “‘the Jewish mind,’ by which they meant capitalism and socialism, science, reason, parental authority and parental arrogance, calculation, psychology, and skepticism.” Musil, writing his novel in the 1920s—the first two parts were published in 1930 and 1933—could already see that this kind of all-too-definite ideology had triumphed. . . . Musil himself, like [Perloff’s own] family, had to flee Austria after the Anschluss—among other things, he was vulnerable because he had a Jewish wife—and he died in penury and obscurity in Switzerland in 1942.

Read more at New York Review of Books

More about: Anti-Semitism, Arts & Culture, Austria-Hungary, Austrian Jewry, Joseph Roth, Literature, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vienna

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus