PRINT Summer 1986


Vienna and Her Sisters. A parable, with strings.

FOR A LONG TIME, I have gone to bed late, and, not sleeping the sleep of reason, have produced no monsters. Where I awake each day, though, is another matter. I awake in a place that supposedly no longer exists. Robert Musil, in The Man Without Qualities (1930), calls this place Kakania, and it is a place where

the Superman was adored, and the Subman was adored; health and the sun were worshipped, and the delicacy of consumptive girls was worshipped; people were enthusiastic hero-worshippers and enthusiastic adherents of the social creed of the Man in the Street; one had faith and one was skeptical, one was naturalistic and precious, robust and morbid; one dreamed of ancient castles and shady avenues, autumnal gardens, glassy ponds, jewels, hashish, disease and demonism, but also of prairies, vast horizons, forges and rolling-mills, naked wrestlers, the uprisings of the slaves of toil, man and woman in the primeval Garden, and the destruction of society . . . If that epoch had been analysed, some such nonsense would have come out as a square circle supposed to be made of wooden iron; but in reality all this had blended into shimmering significance.

Musil’s Kakania was the late Hapsburg, or Austro-Hungarian, Empire. More specifically, it was fin de siècle Vienna, which began at around the time of the waltz craze of the 1860s, was diagnosed in Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde (published privately in 1900 as Reigen), and had vanished by the time La Ronde had its first performance—closed by the “authorities,” cast arrested—in 1921.

Even more to the point, Kakania was a new bourgeois world with fudged boundaries, in which the nationalist and the cosmopolite, the burgher and the intellectual, the middle-class professional and the pseudoaristocratic dilettante might share the same set of parents. Kakania was a complex social organism whose origins, more than those of its counterparts westward in Europe, were polyglot, though its upper stratum was steeped in German culture, regardless of actual roots. Kakania was the spirit of civic liberalism, of Vienna’s Ringstrasse, which had been developed at mid century, and which, like the Paris that Baron Haussmann built, expressed this new secular state and its commercial underpinnings. Kakania was the name for a new, hybrid beau monde wherein sophistication was admired and assimilation encouraged, but it was also the name for a backlash, ready to swoop—a politics of resentment, a populism of paranoia—whose adult name would be fascism. If the waltz was the national dance of Kakania, the sanatorium was its mythic refuge. In the first decade of the 20th century, as Josef Hoffmann built his convalescent home at Purkersdorf, outside Vienna, and with Koloman Moser founded the Wiener Werkstätte; as Gustav Klimt realized his Beethoven friezes for the new Secession building; as Richard Strauss’ Salomé and Electra were first performed, and as dreams were being interpreted, Eros exploded, death transfigured, and new money made, Karl Lueger, Hitler’s hero, was the mayor of Vienna.

Kakania is my prism throwing light on our days. Vienna is very much in fashion right now, in the air, as is more poetically said. The paper this morning hails Vienna: Lusthaus, a new work for the theater. Freud keeps appearing on my doormat, in glossy form—a cover boy twice just these past months. La Ronde is revived in Baltimore this season, and it seems I spent half the winter at Strauss concerts, seeing practically everyone I know. There was a huge Hapsburg goulash in Venice two summers ago, an even bigger one in Paris this spring, and old Vienna will be at New York’s new Modern all summer. Even at the movies there are shades of Kakania: Henry Jaglorn’s Always and Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters both have the bracketed tempo of La Ronde, both a theme of locating Eros by trafficking in culture—among the less discreet charms of the bourgeoisie. R. B. Kitaj’s latest paintings, too, have the aroma of Mittel Europe echt-cultural recitatifs. But Amerikakania is more than a matter of concerts and openings, of reminders of received memories of alt Wien. The morning paper brings news as well, these days, of vigilantes at Dartmouth College, of farm-belt Nazis, of a political coup on an Illinois ballot staged by Lyndon LaRouche, a figure whose “populist” rhetoric, incendiary epithets, and epic left-to-right swerve amount to nothing less than an exact simulacrum of the career of Lueger, one-time mayor of Vienna, and his more famous disciple.

The shimmering culture of fin de siècle Vienna was the invention of bourgeois liberalism, and the loss of that liberalism proved calamitous. Once again today the liberal is scapegoat. The traditional, much maligned, bourgeois liberal believes in internationalism, cosmopolitanism, open trade, state welfare, free education, freedom of speech, the sanctity of civil rights and of the minority position, reform, and the importance of historical memory. These are its beacons, responsible, as far as I can see, for every patch of cultural and political light of the last two centuries. For all the bricks so often hurled at the “soft head,” the “weak stomach,” and the “wet heart” of the traditional bourgeois liberal, those shaky parts are the only obstacles en route to madness.

The music of madness is the sound of dropping bombs, and we’ve been hearing it. The violin, with its Vienna-woman shape, and its keening sound, is, as Jack Benny knew, an old metaphor for an old-country sorrow. It used to be my least favorite instrument. It isn’t any more.

Lisa Liebmann, a writer and critic who lives in New York, writes frequently for Artforum.