Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Austrian Culture Committed Suicide in Brazil: A Largely Extra-Cinematic Reflection

Stefan Zweig, the great Austrian writer.
There’s a rather disturbing episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses in which Stephen Dedalus’s employer says to him, “Do you know why Ireland is the only country in Europe never to have persecuted the Jews?” “Why?” asks Dedalus. “Because we never let them in!” He says with a smile. Now, this notion of an Ireland without Jews doesn’t correspond to reality, as the character of Leopold Bloom can attest, but there is something deeply sinister, and darkly prophetic, about this fellow’s fantasy of a culture without Jews.

Changing scenes from Ireland to Austria, here is a country whose culture was deprived of Jews, which was especially calamitous when we consider that Austrian literary culture of the pre-Anschluss period was largely the achievement of Austrian Jews.  There was Karl Kraus, the great polemicist and magazinist (who had the good fortune to die in 1936); Egon Friedel, who committed suicide during the Anschluss by jumping to his death (his last words were a warning to anyone passing by below to look out; Stefan Zweig, who successfully fled to Brazil, but who couldn’t stand the loss of the cultural milieu in which he’d lived for sixty years, and who thusly killed himself along in 1942.  Those are the prominent deaths, but then there are the writers who fled (Elias Canetti and an elderly Sigmund Freud) and those who never returned (Ludwig Wittgenstein).  There are also those whose careers had not yet started but who deliberately chose to remain outside of Austria and who abandoned the German language (Jean Amery and Jakov Lind, whose first works were in German but who later shifted to English).

What has Austrian culture been like since WWII? Certainly nothing like its former self.  It is defined more than anything else by a characteristic popularly known as “bleak chic.” Austria is a country whose writers know themselves to be wounded.  Hence the rant-as-literature-style of Thomas Bernhard, the misandry of Elfriede Jelenik, and the contrarian pro-Serb nationalism of Peter Handke.  As for film, they’ve contributed little of it to the international scene, and what they have given us is some of the most relentlessly depressing cinema out there: Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidel, the latter of whom recently released a trilogy with these premises: a woman who goes to Kenya for the purpose of sex tourism; a teenage girl at a weight-loss camp; and a woman who becomes a religious fanatic and flagellates herself in front of a crucifix.

Austria’s depressed post-war artistic culture presents perhaps the clearest picture of any European culture of the terrible cultural impact of the Holocaust (which is to say nothing of its obvious human impact, which I do not at all wish to trivialize).  I say all of this by way of observation.  I certainly don’t have any suggestions for Austria to rectify the situation.

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