Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

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Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture  
Author(s) Carl E. Schorske
Publisher Vintage
Publication date 1980
Pages 432
ISBN 0520253019

Revered Princeton historian Carl Schorske presents us with a thought-provoking set of seven essays (compiled into a book in 1981, but elsewhere published in the 1960s and 1970s) on the evolution and meaning of culture – and its relationship to the failure of liberalism - in turn-of-the-century Vienna, Austria. Using an interdisciplinary method, he examines Viennese literary figures (Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal), architects (Camillo Sitte and Otto Wagner), politicians, musicians, artists, and even Freud to probe how and why their ideas developed in response to the political turmoil present at the end of the century.

Throughout the essays, the central thesis is that these men understood that there had been an essential break with the rational Enlightenment thinking. A world that had been previously characterized by the “interdependent progress of reason and society” (xix) was now one that demonstrated that law and reason had never “mastered violence and cruelty, but only screened and legitimized it” (251). Their work – whether literary, artistic, musical, or otherwise, sought to make sense of this new “ahistorical theory” in order to make “bearable a political world spun out of control” (203). For example, he shows how the writers Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal created characters that were intensely and anxiously preoccupied not with external forces, but with their own internal lives. The essay on Gustav Klimt explains how he painted in the “Secession” style – asserting a radical break with the past. His paintings reflected classical symbolism used in an entirely new way – to expose the “instinctual…erotic” (223) life.

A larger theme at work within the essays also suggests that the failure of Austrian liberalism (which he blames on the inability of the bourgeoisie to either separate or assimilate themselves effectively from the aristocracy – they maintained a feeling of inferiority) created a sort of vacuum in which “the private nature of modern life” (363) reinforced an ultra-individualistic society. The ascendant middle class used art as a way to imitate the aristocracy and its power (10) – literally trying to “build their way into a pedigree” (8).

Thus, as the bourgeois withdrew increasingly into their art amid a generalized feeling of alienation and anxiety (“rational man giving way to psychological man”), it had profound political consequences for the liberal agenda.

Schorske’s essays provoke some contextual questions. First, to what extent can we situate him in the larger historiography of the Sonderweg? Does his assessment of the failure of the Vienniese bourgeoisie play into the same sort of arguments made by Hans Ulrich-Wehler, Fritz Stern, or Ralf Dahrendorf, who contend that a stunted bourgeoisie and illiberal German political tradition made Germany a failed state? Ultimately, as Wehler argues, the stunted bourgeois class produced a climate where special interest groups proliferated, political parties were “emasculated” by an authoritarian state, and deeply dangerous divisions existed amongst various citizen groups. It seems that Schorske is showing us the cultural and artistic side of this particular argument.

Schorske also thanks historian Arno J. Mayer in his Acknowledgements section. This provokes further inquiry on how we can read Fin-de-Siècle Vienna in conversation with Mayer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime. If World War I symbolized the Old Order trying to save itself (and not the birth of modernity), are we to read Schorske’s work as further evidence that these Viennese thinkers were caught in a vortex of old and new, as they tried to reimagine a world where the “liberalism-in-ascendancy system” was over? In other words, were these artists and thinkers were both simultaneously mourning the old regime, while searching for a way to express the new modernity? Certainly, Schorske’s rich details and deft storytelling give us plenty of fodder for discussion.