FIN-DE-SIECLE VIENNA: what vistas the title conjures up: a culture lavishly endowed with great talents, overflowing with gifted composers, witty journalists, precocious poets, pioneering psychologists, imaginative architects -- articulate and combative all, centered in a single city and intent on creating, more rapidly, more radically than anywhere else, the culture of Modernism. What lends this vista its tragic dimension, its dark backdrop, against which stunning achievements stand out etched in gold, is our sense that the society which nourished all this activity -- liberal, middle-class Vienna -- was doomed; the mortally wounded bourgeois swan (a rare bird indeed) singing memorably before it is murdered by socialists, natioalists and racists.
It is a poignant and fascinating picture that rises before us, and though it has often been reported in surveys or explored in monographs, its drama and pathos, its historic stature, have never been adequately appraised. Those who have sought to capture the iridescent butterfly of high Viennese culture did not have a net large enough, or fine enough, for this purpose. Carl Schorske has long made the Vienese fin-de-siecle his own. In eloquent and popular lectures to academic audiences, and in some choice essays, he has valiantly striven to succeed where his predecessors have failed. It is no denigration of his collection to say that Vienna has defeated him.
Some of Schorske's essays work brilliantly, notably the opening "Politics and the Psyche: Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal," in which he carries the disturbing metaphor of Ravel's La valse through as a "grotesque memorial" to a liberal, once immensely productive Vienna. These essays, I believe, would have worked even better if Schorske had brought them fully up to date: four out of the seven chapters in this book first appeared as articles and have been taken over virtually unrevised save for trifling verbal corrections, and with not a glance at the most recent scholarship.
At the same time, the chapter just mentioned, and "Politics in a New Key: An Austrian Trio," which deals with two anti-Semitic politicians, Georg von Schoenerer and Karl Lueger and, in dramatic juxtaposition, with the Zionist Theodor Herzl, are triumphs of exposition, notably in their assessments of individual careers. Others, though, among the seven, raise doubts. The experienced magician dazzles his audience with each of his numbers, and it takes a practiced eye to detect the wires attached to his silk handkerchiefs, and the mirrors that let him saw Clio in half. Carl Schorske is always the stylist, and he charms even where he fails to convince; this book contains some of the most engaging historical writing we have seen in years. Yet there are times, as in the chapter yoking Kokoschka and Schoenberg by means of a single metaphor, when he yields to the pressure of style at the expense of substance.
But Schorske aims to write history, to persuade as much as to please. There is one general proposition that Schorske lays down in his all-too-brief Introduction which I have developed elsewhere, and think is absolutely right: he notes the fragmentation of modern high culture with "each field proclaiming independence of the whole." Thus Vienese culture was, in Schorske's felicitous metalphor, a "ruthless centrifuge of change." This means that the historian seeking to understand activities as diverse as composing a modern symphony or designing a modern house, must master the presuppositions and practices of these crafts, lest he reduce them to "mere illustrative reflections of political or social developments," or "relativize them to ideology." He puts the matter plainly: "What the historian must now abjure, and nowhere more so than in confronting the problem of modernity, is the positing in advance of an abstract categorical common denominator." These essays document how deeply, and how widely, Schorske has instructed himself.
At the same time he insists on the "synchronic" thread connecting varied cultural activities to one another. Schorske sees a particular central ideal to which each essay is an exemplification. And this central idea is, to my mind, untenable. Stated baldly the idea is this: politics is destiny. It is the fundament on which high culture rests as an elaborate, sometimes strenuously individualistic, but ultimately dependent superstructure. As the liberal coalition that had, however tenuously, dominated Austrian politics for over three decades, found itself embattled and then swamped in the mid-1890s by the contending forces of andi-Semitism, fragmented nationalism and socialism, the poets and playwrights and psychologists found themselves propelled in directions they had not anticipated. They were victims of political stresses and political power, even as they were also, paradoxically, prophets and beneficiaries of unfortunate political events.
Schorske pursues this argument across his book, most emphatically in the essay on Freud which is central to this collection and representative of it. Yet his demonstration does not carry conviction. "Politics and Patricide in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams" has become something of a classic among psychoanalysts, delighted to discover a serious historian sensitive and sympathetic to their ways of thinking. It is elegant, like his other essays, and it has much of value to offer, especially Schorske's perceptive reading of the "deep-structure" of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams as a "personal history." And his rethinking of Freud's dreams is fascinating and often subtle. But his central contention does not work. Schorske argues that psychoanalysis is a "counterpolitical discovery," that Freud "gave his fellow-liberals an a-historical theory of man and society that could make bearable a political world spun out of orbit and beyond control." That Freud had some vague youthful political aspirations has long been known to his biographers; that his interest in politics lived on in his unconscious and broke out in dreams and occasional turns of phrase, is also known, and Schorske documents it fully. He is right to take slight clues seriously -- in the metnal universe that Freud discovered (and that he, of course, inhabited like everybody else) there are no accidents; casual remarks are far from trivial, and jokes are not merely funny. But Freud's dreams chiefly drew on matters other than politics: both his manifest dreams and his latent dream thoughts circled around his medical career and his family situation; in many of the dreams he recorded and partially analyzed in the Interpretation of Dreams, his rivalry with fellow-students and his awe before admired teachers loom far larger than his "political" dreams. Moreover, Freud controlled a vast repertory of metaphors, analogies, aphorisms and allegories, which he brilliantly deployed as strategies of persuasion. Freud came to psychoanalysis by many roads, but psychoanalysis as counterpolitics is (as psychoanalysts would put it) a construction, and an unconvincing one.
In the end, Schorske's two controlling principles of interpretation -- to respect the autonomy of each cultural pursuit, and to discover a guiding central theme around which such pursuits organize themselves -- come into conflict with one another and, compelled to choose, Schorske has opted for the second at the expense of the first. It is an understandable, beautifully sustained but, I am convinced, mistaken choice. High culture, especially in the decades of Modernism, was far less an organism than a world of separate, if often overlapping and intersecting activities. Many Modernist poets or conductors, in fin-de-siecle Vienna as elsewhere, listened mainly to other poets or conductors and were often quite unaware of the work done in other areas. The spearation was, of course, not absolute: Schoenberg was a painter as well as a composer; Mahler consulted Freud while Kraus reviled him. But the coexistence of Schnitzler and Klimt and Kokoschka and Lueger and the others did not forge a single recognizable entity. For all they had to do with one another, many of these men might as well have lived in other cities. I have said elsewhere that "Vienna" did not really exist, not even around 1900, but was invented by cultural historians dazzled by so much talent and desperate to reduce creative chaos to historical order. Schorske has told us much about the culture he calls Vienna. Had he seen this culture to be many cities rather than one, he could have told us even more.