Austrian Literature’s Very Jewish Golden Age

June 12, 2017 | Adam Kirsch
About the author: Adam Kirsch, a poet and literary critic, is the author of, among other books, Benjamin Disraeli and The People and The Books: Eighteen Classics of Jewish Literature.

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.

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