The Austrian Intellectual Renaissance
he Austrian Empire was the world’s center of classical music in the late 18th and much of the 19th Centuries, with Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Gustav Mahler, as well as non-natives like Beethoven and Brahms, who spent much of their creative lives in Vienna. In literature, the record was not as distinguished. There are no world-class names familiar outside of Central Europe. Only specialists know much about worthy playwrights, like Grillparzer, Anzengruber, and Nestroy, fiction writers, like Stifter, or poets, like Lenau.
On the other hand, during the first decades of the 20th Century, several authors who wrote in German and were natives of the Austrian Empire have gained truly international fame. They include two poets born in Prague, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) and Franz Werfel (1890-1945), the latter chiefly known in the U.S. (where he died), for one of his novels, The Song of Bernadette. There was also Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whose name has suggested “kafkaesque,” an indispensable English adjective. Another generally known name is Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and no student of modern philosophy can ignore the Viennese-born Lud-wig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who spent the last two decades of his life in Cambridge, England.
Other distinguished Austrian writers during the same period included the playwright, novelist, and autobiographer Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1911), the essayist and dramatist Karl Kraus (1874-1936), and three authors of notable novels about the decline of Central Europe, who have won international critical acclaim though they have not been best-sellers abroad. They were Robert Musil (1880-1942), the author of a 1,600-page (unfinished) account of The Man Without Qualities, Hermann Broch (1886-1951) with his trilogy, The Sleepwalkers, and his subsequent work, The Guiltless, and Joseph Roth, who wrote The Radetzky March. Some would add Heimito von Doderer (1896-1966), The Demons and other books.
With the exception of Rilke, Musil, and von Doderer, the representatives of the Austrian Intellectual Renaissance of the first decades of the 20th Century, mentioned above, were of Jewish origin. No new writers of their stature have been identified with Austria since the Nazi takeover of the country in 1938, though Austrians have sometimes claimed Paul Celan (1920-1970). Considered by some the greatest German-language poet of the past century, Celan, however, was born in Bukovina (Ukraine) and became a French citizen. He lived for most of his life in Paris after surviving German concentration camps.
Hermann Broch escaped from Austria in 1938 and spent the remainder of his life in the U.S. He deserves special attention from English-speaking amateurs of fine writing because his key prose works have been unusually well translated. This was a difficult task, since Broch is an exceptionally skillful writer, fascinated by literary techniques and a perfectionist, who brings into play the full resources of the German language. Aspects of his work have reminded readers of the achievements of Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, the James Joyce of Ulysses (about whom he wrote an interesting essay), and the John dos Passos of the U.S.A. trilogy. It would be simplistic, however, to speak of mere imitation.
Edwin Muir and his wife, who did a brilliant job with much of Kafka, were responsible for the English versions of the Sleepwalker novels and other works. Ralph Mannheim translated The Guiltless, and Jean Starr Untermeyer, former wife of the well-known American poet and anthologist, Louis Untermeyer, spent four years on the English translation of The Death of Vergil, an impressive 170,00-word prose poem, probably the most challenging text of them all.
Broch had been groomed to succeed his father, a textile magnate.,as a manager of an industrial empire. He had been trained as an engineer and was fascinated by mathematics, philosophy, and the social sciences. While he had published some essays and short stories, he started writing full-time at the age of 41, after selling the family’s factories in 1927.
The novels of the Sleepwalker trilogy, published 1931-2, won the respect of many discerning critics throughout the Western world. Their theme is the decline of the intellectual values of modern civilization, chiefly illustrated by the careers of three Germans of dramatically different backgrounds. The suggestion is that such “sleepwalkers” unconscious of their primordial guilt, were somehow responsible for such catastrophes as World War I.
Like many other emancipated Austrian Jews of his generation, Broch was deeply impressed by conservative Catholic ideals and ideology. He had indeed converted to Catholicism in order to marry a daughter of Catholic converts (he divorced her a dozen years later). While he eventually rejected organized religion, he longed for ideological unity and moral certainties and believed in the divine virtues of sacrifice and redemption. He rejected many aspects of modern life, literature, and art as a wasteland of “kitsch,” and wrote a notable essay on that subject.
He was an avowed Platonist. His novels are no naturalistic or literal accounts, but rather parables or visions projected on the wall of the cave described in Plato’s Republic. Despite his obvious love for words, he did not think that ultimate reality could be understood by man or expressed in human language. On the other hand, unlike Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and the logical positivists, he vigorously opposed their scorn of metaphysics, for he felt that ultimate reality (however irrational it might appear to mere human minds) is all that matters. He even claimed that logical positivism was an “integral part of the kind of world view which gave birth to Hitler.” (While this certainly expresses his strong feelings about the subject, it seems rather dubious as a proposition).
The author of The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot, was in sympathy with Broch’s approach and published a philosophical “key” to The Sleepwalkers in his magazine, The Criterion (V. xi, # 45, July, 1932). Thomas Mann, who admired Broch, helped him immigrate to the U.S. He lived in Albert Einstein’s home in Princeton, NJ, for a couple of months and also was repeatedly a long-term guest of Henry Seidel Canby, the editor of the Saturday Review. Aldous Huxley, Thornton Wilder, and Hannah Arendt were among the many other intellectual leaders who thought highly of him. He also received Guggenheim and Bollingen fellowships, a subsidy from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and from the Rockefeller Foundation. He was poet in residence at Yale University, whose library now houses an extensive Hermann Broch Archive, He was considered repeatedly for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Many of the subsidies were received for a “work in progress,” The Death of Vergil, which was finallly published simultaneously in German and English in 1945. Jean Starr Untermeyer has described at some length her struggles with the complex text, which Broch himself, in a moment of discouragement, called a “salad of words.” His continuous revisions made her work particularly hard.
The Guiltless, the last major work published by Broch during his lifetime, is a kind of coda to The Sleepwalkers, suggesting the further decline of Central Europe up to the advent of the Nazi Regime. It is an unusual construct, composed of 11 linked short stories or sketches, some of which were originally written 20 or more years earlier, and several topical poems. It partly echoes the Don Juan motif (with characters called “Juna” (sic), the seducer, Elvire, and Zerline. It also suggests Kafka, with the main non-hero mostly called “A.” One of the sketches evokes a kafkaesque atmosphere of paranoia. Another sketch, set in the framework of a drinking bout reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses, contains a notable satire of the German beerhall customer, a pompous and asinine secondary school teacher ranting against Einstein’s relativity theory. It effectively portrays the kind of person who turned into an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazi regime.
The title, The Guiltless, (1949) is meant to be ironical. Broch emphatically thinks that modern man is guilty and responsible for all the horrors of the 20th Century. His analysis has some parallels with that of sociologist David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd, published one year later, and which caused quite a stir half a century ago. In addition, Broch is ruthlessly condemning his anemic anti-heroes, except for “A,” eventually redeemed, he feels, by committing suicide. He blames them for refusing to assume the responsibility to become part of a spiritual community which may eventually contribute to human salvation. The shape of this future salvation, however, remains somewhat nebulous.
The Death of Vergil evokes the last 18 hours of the life of the Roman poet and his desire to destroy his epic masterpiece, The Aeneid. There is a long dialogue with his patron, Emperor Augustus, who induces him to desist from doing so. The book ends with impressive verbal fireworks describing Vergil’s voyage into death and the stars, becoming one with the universe.
The book starts with paragraphs longer and more complex than those of Marcel Proust, It uses repetitions and the German language resources of elaborate compound nouns and adjectives like bludgeons. It thus evokes to considerable effect the nightmarish experience of the fever-racked Roman poet, carried from his sickbed on a galley up to Augustus’s palace in Brundisium through the terrifying alleys of this harbor town, guided by a young boy, (an attendant spirit seen by no one else). This opening section is paralleled by the dramatic ending.
Broch’s Vergil is in sympathy with Augustus, a (relatively) benevolent ruler. who reestablished peace and prosperity throughout the Empire after years of bloody civil wars and who did his best to support the arts and letters. However, he feels that his epic, which glorifies the Emperor who saved the empire, is still imperfect and, above all, does not promote sufficiently the deeper values he yearns for, those of human salvation.
Broch was thoroughly aware of the fact that Vergil had written an eclogue which was interpreted in the Middle Ages as a prophecy of the Christian Messiah. Indeed, this is why Dante made Vergil his guide through much of the Divine Comedy. Critics have pointed out that Broch’s prose poem is written in a similar spirit. It remains a remarkable achievement, which, admittedly, requires rather resolute and dedicated readers. However, they are likely to find it rewarding.
Bibliographical Note: A valuable “commented edition” of Hermann Broch’s works and correspondence in German was edited in the 1970s by Paul Michael Luetzeler, Professor of German, Washington University, St. Louis, and published in 13 volumes by Suhrkamp, Frankfurt. An earlier edition of Broch’s works (in 10 volumes), was published by Rheinverlag, Zurich, 1952 ff.
While the English versions of the three novels discussed above are readily available in inexpensive paperback editions, the Jean Starr Untermeyer translation of The Death of Vergil, published in 1945 by Pantheon Press, is actually the very first edition of the book. It was issued a few weeks before the German text, also published by Pantheon, and commands prices on the rare book market ranging from about $200 to over $2,000. Jean Starr Untermeyer’s discussion of her problems as a translator of the book is contained in an essay, “Midwife to a Masterpiece,” published in her book, Private Collection, New York, 1965. There is a lengthy essay on Broch’s prose poem in The Cambridge Companion to Vergil, describing it as the most notable modern piece of fiction about the Roman poet.
Author’s note: The above essay was written on the 50th anniversary of Hermann Broch’s death in New Haven, CT.
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