The Archaeology of Postmodernity, Part I: Viennese Mutations

Karlskirche, Vienna

The long-term destiny of the Western world has been a movement from pre-modern ‘Providence’ via modern ‘Progress’ to postmodern ‘Nihilism’. Providentialism’s linear future-oriented focus — emphasizing the role of reason to the detriment of divine intervention — easily merged with the Enlightenment idea of Progress, paving the way for the rise of modern science. The Enlightenment project — designed to eliminate uncertainty and ambivalence — was gradually undermined by postmodern inversion, implosion, relativism and nihilism.

The resulting “postmodern condition” calls for an investigation into the archaeology of post-modernity. Excavations of this kind are likely to encounter layers of 19th and 20th-century answers to 21st-century questions. A privileged site to start looking for answers is Vienna — “the capital of the 20th century.”

Metropolises such as Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, Prague, St. Petersburg and New York – 19th and early 20th-century cityscapes with significant Jewish Diasporas and epicenters of a widely felt civilizational crisis — were scenes or “laboratories” for intense, sub-counter-cultural “experiments” and avant-garde strategies designing prototypes of a future hybridized, postmodern world.Viennese modernism represents, according to Jacques Le Rider, “the appearance of a post-modern moment in the history of European culture.”  The Jewish satirist Karl Kraus damned Vienna  as a “research laboratory for world destruction.”

The revolution of (proto-post-)modernism entailed an increasing separation of representation from “the real.” In this context, the pseudo-assimilated Jew has been seen as “the prototype of the post-modern self.”  Major themes of theKulturkritik of the 1970s and 1980s, Jacques Le Rider points out, were prefigured in the Viennese modernism of 1900.

Vienna Court Opera, 1902

Vienna: “The Capital of the 20th Century”

At the turn of the 20th century Vienna was one of Europe’s largest urban centers, with a population of more than two million by 1910. By then, Vienna had been a major centre of political power and cultural patronage for centuries. Vienna was a place of tensions and paradox: Its mayor, Karl Lueger, had  anti-Semitic inclinations. Vienna sheltered both Theodor Herzl — the founder of Zionism — as well as Adolf Hitler, the founder of National Socialism. The city’s numerous innovative cultural and intellectual movements and figures radically changed Western culture and thought, according to Steven Beller:

Leading a very long list are two intellectual giants: Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential philosophers of the modern era. … Hans Kelsen revolutionized the theory of law; the Austrian School of Economics had a large influence on liberal economic thought; the Vienna Circle of philosophers developed logical positivism, and Karl Popper acted as that movement’s leading critic; Alfred Adler developed individual psychology, the first of many rebels from Freudian orthodoxy who established their own movements; Austro-Marxism brought innovative reinterpretations of socialist theory. Vienna also became a powerhouse of literary innovation: Arthur SchnitzlerHugo von HofmannsthalKarl KrausHermann Broch, Robert Musil, Stefan Zweig and Franz Werfel, later Elias Canetti, were but the most prominent among a vast array of writers. It is the depth of intellectuality and talent that is perhaps the most impressive part of Vienna 1900.

Viennese ‘critical modernism’ had its roots in French decadence, the positivism of the physicist Ernst Mach and the “Dionysian” influence of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche had, in the words of Joan Peyser, “repudiated nineteenth-century ideology and demanded the reorganization of human society under the guidance of exceptional leaders. Richard Wagner answered the call,” and became “the German superhero, the embodiment of the Dionysian ideal for which Nietzsche yearned.”

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Vienna circa1900 was, as Steven Beller points out, “a vibrant centre of radical cultural and intellectual innovation, with consequences that reverberated through the twentieth century.”  Its culture was heavily influenced by the largest Jewish community in Western Europe:

In Vienna especially the Jewish role was predominant.  Some of the major figures of Viennese modern culture … such as Adolf Loos and Georg Trakl, Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann, were not Jewish, but the vast majority were. The Jewish presence among creative figures in the plastic arts was not that large, although Jews were prominent as patrons, art critics and propagandists, and eventually as art historians. In most other modern cultural fields … such as psychoanalysis, the Vienna Circle, Austro-Marxism and literary Young Vienna, the people involved were in a large majority Jewish or of Jewish descent.  The liberal professions — lawyers, physicians and journalists — also had a majority Jewish presence, and it has often been claimed that the public for Viennese modern culture was also heavily Jewish.  This Jewish predominance was based on solid socio-economic grounds, for the social reservoir of Viennese modern culture, the educated part of the liberal wing of the city’s bourgeoisie, was largely Jewish.

Jews comprised 10 per cent or so of Vienna’s population, and even less, about 3 per cent, of the population of the lands of the later Austrian Republic. Yet Jews had a large presence in Vienna’s liberal socio-economic sectors, being 30 per cent of Vienna’s commercial self-employed. According to Beller, the Jewish emphasis on education was also much greater than normal: “Approximately two-thirds of all boys with a liberal bourgeois background who graduated from Vienna’s central Gymnasien [the elite secondary schools] between 1870 and 1910 were Jewish. (The equivalent proportion among girls was higher still.)”

As Louis Breger notes,

The new religious freedom that followed the German revolution of 1848 was accompanied by the lifting of restrictions and special taxes that Jews had suffered for many years. Now, they enjoyed the rights of full citizens; the professions were open to them, they could employ Christian servants, own real estate, and live outside the ghettos. These new opportunities had stimulated a flood of Jewish immigrants from the provinces during the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1860, there were 6000 Jews in Vienna; by 1900, the number was 147.000, the largest Jewish community of any country in Western Europe. In the capital, they found expanding economic, educational, and cultural avenues; by the turn of the century, they were a powerful presence in banking and industry, in medicine, law, journalism, literature, and music.

Vienna: Ringstrasse “The whole Ringstrasse had a magic effect upon me, as if it were a scene from theThousand-and-one-Nights.” (Adolf Hitler)

Members of the Austrian nobility considered it beneath their station to engage in trade, finance, and the professions, leaving these fields open to enterprising and educated Jews who were able to achieve positions of wealth and prominence. By the latter half of the 19th century, they dominated a number of fields. As Louis Breger observes:

By the 1880s, 12 percent of the population of Vienna was Jewish, yet they made up one-third of the student body of the university, with even higher numbers in certain fields: 50 percent in medicine and almost 60 percent in law. All the liberal newspapers were owned by Jews and a large proportion of the journalists were Jewish. As the turn of the century approached, the majority of the liberal, educated, intellectual elite of Vienna was Jewish. The politiciansVictor Adler — brother-in-law of Freud’s school friend Heinrich Braun — and Otto Bauer — older brother of the woman who became his famous case, ‘Dora’; the journalist Karl Kraus; the writers Arthur SchnitzlerHugo von Hofmannsthal, and Stefan Zweig; the composers Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg — all came from Jewish families. Even that most Viennese of musicians, Johann Strauss, was, it is now believed, part Jewish.

Leon Botstein points out that the Jewish presence in Vienna “increased from less than half of 1 per cent in the Vienna of Schubert’s day, to around 5 per cent in 1862 when Brahms settled in the city, to over 10 per cent when Mahler left for Kassel in 1883. The Vienna in which Mahler died comprised over 175,000 Jews; the city he first encountered in 1875 comprised only about 55,000.”

Modernity attracted Jews from the periphery toward the center — as Philip V. Bohlman observes — “to the metropole, to the cosmopolitan culture of modernism, to the arts and sciences fostered by great universities, to the monumental synagogues, and to the concert halls and cabarets.” Jewish modernism took shape as a counter-history to the rise of European modernism, and Jewish music in the modern era inscribed its otherness “in such ways that it would circulate in a modern public sphere.” During the modern era, Bohlman points out, “the otherness of the [European] periphery increasingly shifted towards the center”:

Europe and the Enlightenment, and its Jewish form, the Haskala … are keys to understanding a revolutionary transition in Jewish music and Jewish music history. … Before the modernity articulated by Moses Mendelssohn and other  Jewish Enlightenment thinkers, “music” was largely vague as an aesthetically autonomous object in Jewish society.  In a strict sense everything in the synagogue was music — prayer, Torah and Haftorah, cantillation, ritual and liturgical interjection — therefore it was impossible to limit it to any single category.  … The cyclical nature of liturgical practices bounded music within ritual and prevented it from flowing over into the temporal world outside the synagogue.

As Jews from the eastern parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire “flooded the metropole” (i.e. Vienna), a new Jewish popular music took shape, trading in stories that “chronicled a new city culture in the liminal space between tradition and modernity.” The musical traditions these new immigrants brought with them gradually spread through the public sphere. As Bohlman points out,

One of the most important conditions for the complex new popular music was language. Each stream of immigration from a different part of the empire brought with it different dialects, which in turn were distinct from the other dialects found in Vienna. … Speech and language played a further role in the historical transformation of Jewish music, not least because of the partial supplanting of Hebrew with German in the synagogue. … The proliferation of Jewish dialects of German and different dialects of Yiddish in Vienna had a profound impact on the city’s popular culture. … TheWiener Mundart (Viennese dialect) that contributed to the formation of the genre known as Wienerlied (literally, Viennese song, but referring to an extensive repertory of popular song in Viennese dialect) bears direct witness to the specific influences of Jewish dialects.

Jewish composers in early 20th-century Europe formulated a vocabulary of melodic patterns and motivic meaning that allowed some of them — Ernest BlochArnold Schoenberg, among others — to create repertories that contained specifically Jewish symbolism. Max Brod (1884 – 1968) — the Jewish music critic, composer, philosopher, and future champion of Franz Kafka — established in an essay (“Jewish Folk Melodies”, 1916) the conditions for the Jewishness in Gustav Mahler’s music and by extension in modern Jewish music. As Bohlman observes,

Brod’s essay … turned the Jewish question many were posing inside out by claiming that what was presumably the most German trait of Mahler’s style, the march, was an expression of Jewishness. … The march style Brod ascribed to Mahler was religious and hassidic, even further removed from the firsthand experiences of Mahler’s lifetime. Mahler’s musical connection was possible, therefore, because of his “Jewish soul,” which was internal and thus contrasted with his merely “external consciousness” of German music.

Theodor Adorno also searched for Mahler’s “inner identities” by reflecting on his “musical physiognomy.” This search for Jewishness that preoccupied Brod and other 20th-century Jewish observers produced a constellation of themes orbiting Mahler’s music, claiming that it included — in Bohlman’s words — “specifically Jewish gestures, presumably absorbed from growing up in the Jewish soundscape of provincial Moravia.”

Mahler’s hometown Iglau contained one of the oldest Jewish communities in Moravia — a region well-known as the home to influential Talmudic scholars and famous rabbinical dynasties. Like many Moravian and Bohemian towns, Iglau was a German-speaking enclave within a larger Czech-speaking rural society. Czech was the language of farmers and peasants; German was the language of success and social advancement, the language of the educated, urban elites and the imperial bureaucracy.

Café Central, a key meeting place for intellectuals in late-19th-century Vienna

Mahler famously remarked that he was “thrice homeless: as a Czech among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world.” But Mahler was in “good company” as a prominent cultural figure of fin-de-siècle Vienna descended from the Crown Lands of Bohemia and Moravia: His fellow Bohemian Jews included Victor Adler, Otto Bauer, Richard Beer-Hofmann, Hermann Broch, Egon Friedell, Karl Kraus, Stefan Zweig, Sigmund Freud, Guido Adler, Otto Neurath, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Reinhardt, Arnold Schoenberg, and Otto Weininger.

It has been argued that Mahler’s music has links back to the Hasidic music of Eastern European ghettos of the eighteenth century in which dance music is deployed as a remedy to misery: “Mahler’s lifelong juxtaposition of funeral march and dance music, dating back to his earliest childhood composition (a polka with funeral march introduction), is thus related to a specifically Jewish tradition. The Trio of the third movement of the First Symphony, with its interpolation of street music into the funeral march, is heard by many as an example of klezmer music as Mahler would have heard as a child and would have been heard on the streets of Vienna during his time there.”  As Philip Bohlman points out,

Mahler’s music revealed the afflictions experienced by a victim of anti-Semitism, to which he responded in particularly personal ways. Mahler’s marginality as a Jew, so his late twentieth-century champions claimed, exposed him to cultural contexts distinguished by jarring juxtapositions and pieces that failed to cohere as wholes. Mahler therefore employed the musical language of bricolage, somehow characteristic of a Jewish preference for hybridity over unity.

Rudolf Louis, one of Mahler’s anti-Semitic critics, summarized it thus in 1909: “What I find so utterly repellent about Mahler’s music is the pronounced Jewishness of its underlying character. … It is abhorrent to me because it speaks Yiddish. In other words it speaks the language of German music but with an accent, with the intonation and above all with the gestures of the Easterner, the all-too-Eastern Jew.” Louis’s choice of words, according to Julian Johnson, “underlines something true about Mahler’s music: it speaks the language of the Austro-German tradition but with a different tone, accent, and voice. It remains contested whether this difference is explained by Mahler’s Jewish origins … or whether it results from a modernist attitude toward language (marked by irony, parody, exaggeration) that exceeds the specific category of Jewish identity.”

Despite his conversion, there was never any doubt in Vienna that Mahler was Jewish.  As Leon Botstein points out, “Jewish identity was no mere matter of an individual’s theological practices or convictions. In the eyes of Jews and anti-Semites alike, it was a matter of birth, race, and nation, as well as faith.”

It has been suggested, that Mahler’s music reflects the tragic Weltgefühl of his era. Julian Johnson points out that Mahler’s music is like “an acoustic prism placed at the end of one century and the beginning of another, refracting musical voices from both historical directions, from Viennese classicism and early romanticism to the stylistic eclecticism and polyvocality of the twentieth century.”

Part II: The Emancipation of Dissonance

E. R. E. Knutsson (email him) is a freelance writer.