Newest Review: ... high-risk advantages in allowing the pursuit of liberal intellectualism with minimal censorship. This benevolent authoritarianism, com... more
A beautiful corpse
Member Name: harlequin21
Date: 14/12/12, updated on 31/05/13 (51 review reads)
Advantages: Many, which exist at the same time as ...
Disadvantages: ... its many flaws
To the casual observer, Vienna is a city abundant with beauty, elegance and culture. Typical of its collective humour - known as "Schmaeh" - the Viennese smirks mischievously with a twinkle in his eye as he indulges in the sensual pleasures of food, music and flirtation, conscious of the kitsch but indulgent in it for the sake of theatre. The summers are mellow and languorous; afternoons sodden with local white wine, and a tendency for people to sink comfortably into the moment, reflecting passively on the past and thinking not of the future and its associated uncertainties. The winters are cosy and homely despite the wind that blows in off the Hungarian plains, glancing off the hills to the west and wrapping itself around the city, beer, hearty food and good company acting as a blanket against the cold.
But beneath the joie-de-vivre and the tongue-in-cheek humour is a city that is silently schizophrenic. A deep set melancholy lurks beneath the Jugendstil buildings and the lush municipal parks. Elsewhere, Vienna has been described as spectre wearing a beautiful mask over a decaying skull. For this is a janusian city of simultaneous opposites: liberal yet conservative; vibrant yet deathly; laughing whilst crying - and its history is at once tragic and inspiring to this extent.
Founded as Vindabona by the Romans - a legacy which can be felt from viewpoints in the hills and in the echoes of subterranean ruins - Vienna has always straddled the divide between west and east. Despite the joke that "the Austrians are Swiss who wandered too far east", Vienna itself was shaped by the cross-border influences that passed through it from when it was a provincial outpost to when it was the capital of an empire spanning from the Gulf of Trieste to the furthest reaches of Galicia. And although the Viennese have vacillated historically over whether they are in fact German, the character of the city is fundamentally cosmopolitan. Prior to 1938 - the year in which they made a fatal decision regarding their identity - the plethora of talent that had been attracted to the city since 1848 pioneered radical new boundaries in art, music, philosophy, law, physics, sociology, economics, architecture, cinema, psychology and language. With the exception of psychoanalysis and music, the contemporary influence of Viennese thinkers may not be immediately obvious; but it is because these ideas have become so engrained in western thought, especially in America, that we forget their origins.
All of this was due to the cultural liberalism of the Habsburg (later the Austro-Hungarian) Empire. Having emerged from the evolving character of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg realm was an autocracy. Democracy did not exist in any meaningful way. The monarchy and imperial bureaucracy (the character of which is evoked in the angst-ridden atmosphere of Franz Kafka's writings) pursued expansionist policies of subsuming new territories into the empire's quasi-federal structure through political settlements and royal marriages. Procedure, inefficiency and corruption - "Schlamperei" - reigned, with its centre in the administrative buildings of Vienna. But for all of its disadvantages, the empire was culturally enlightened. Although German was the language of government, cultural, linguistic and religious freedoms were permitted. The ruling classes and, in Vienna, the indigenous Catholic population may have been conservative, but the monarchy acknowledged the high-risk advantages in allowing the pursuit of liberal intellectualism with minimal censorship.
This benevolent authoritarianism, combined with the indulgent lifestyle enjoyed by the bourgeoisie in the coffeehouses and taverns, ensured that the maxim coined by Karl Marx - that philosophers have sought to interpret the world when the point is to change it - bypassed the Viennese, whose revolutionary culture was resolutely centred on progressive ideas. In 1919, as the European empires collapsed and communist revolutions swept large parts of the continent, the Viennese effort flashed and died. Action was not part of their cultural vocabulary. The security that the empire consistently offered for a century made them comfortable and suspicious of change. That systemic complacency frustrated nearly every great thinker who lived in the city. Similarly, the conservative culture that begrudgingly tolerated the avant-garde dismissed and disdained every new breakthrough as indulgent trash. Indeed, the post-war playwright, Thomas Bernhard, wrote that Vienna was "the largest cemetery of fantasies and ideas" where "a thousand times more geniuses decayed, shrivelled up and were annihilated than ever emerged" - yet the Freuds, Wittgensteins and Klimts could never bring themselves to leave voluntarily.
Today, Vienna retains much of its superficial charm. But the sadness remains, albeit in a different way overall to how the great minds of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries experienced it. When the political and economic pressures of the interwar years culminated in the "rump state" of Austria semi-voluntarily submitting to union with the Third Reich in 1938, Vienna was sterilised culturally, giving the conservative establishment got what it always wanted. Principle and identity were, perhaps understandably in certain respects, traded for economic gain. Besides, the Austrians concluded, they were German really - and even though the Nazis were 'Piefke' (Prussian), it was easy for the party to reach out across the political spectrum and offer consolatory trinkets to socialists, conservatives and nationalists alike.
Many Viennese writers - especially exiled Jews - have written nostalgically of the city that was lost. When the Nazis annexed Austria, within months Vienna lost ten percent of its population, as Jews fled the country or embarked on a nightmare that led from the brutal pogroms that accompanied the annexation to the industrialised slaughter that found its apotheosis the gas chambers. Political dissidents and undesirables suffered the same fate. The forces that had shaped the Viennese identity over the century were eradicated. Ever since then, the journalist Thomas Weyr wrote, Vienna has been a setting pearl. In emerging from the war and grasping the scale of its destruction, the Viennese have reified the culture that themselves were complicit in the annihilation of. Although Nazism never sat comfortably with the Viennese after the initial giddiness that saw over 99% of the population vote "ja!" to annexation, they have never fully come to terms with their role in the holocaust that changed their city forever. It is a subject that, due to a combination of guilt and indignance, many still dare not broach. They are a product of "Waldheim's Vienna", the Vienna that snapped angrily over accusations in 1986 that its president, Kurt Waldheim, had known of mass killings whilst serving in Yugoslavia during the war; the Vienna that sweeps the unsavoury side of its past under the carpet, into its collective subconscious.
Following the war, the worry was that Vienna was becoming a provincial capital. The reification of the past, and the tourism that accompanies it, has seen Vienna become a city looking longingly backward rather than fearfully forwards. The first district, in particular, is a museum housing many museums. The restoration of the culture is warm and loving. Few cities surpass Vienna in terms of the sheer eclecticism of the culture available. But as the past is obsessively rendered, and Europe evolves, that underlying sense of decay is omnipresent. In 'The World According to Garp', John Irving - who lived in Vienna - explains through the medium of his alter-ego Garp, "A more real city might not have suited me so well. But Vienna was in its death phase; it lay still and let me look at it, and think about it, and look again. In a living city, I could never have noticed so much. Living cities don't hold still".
This is the tragic magic of Vienna, and what makes it such a compelling place to visit. To some extent, the pace of its decay has been mitigated by the disintegration of the USSR, and Austria's entry into the European Union, the structure of which retains an unmistakable continuity with the old empire. The opening up of the country's borders, and the dominance of its banking sector in the eastern bloc, has re-established Vienna as a gateway city, even if its political importance remains diminished. The inflow of immigrants from the old empire and beyond has proven controversial, and bred right-wing populism before it emerged in coherent forms elsewhere in Europe. Turkey remains a spectre which summons Ottoman demons from the deepest reaches of the Viennese psyche: "There have been two Turkish floods," a local told me, referring to the Ottoman sieges in 1529 and 1683; "Now we have the third flood," he muttered.
Perhaps an underlying conservatism is the inevitable result of being a city situated at a crossing point. Vienna has not changed in this sense. And the culture that one experiences on visiting is an idealised (and often commoditised) picture of the world that the Viennese are frightened of losing. It's undeniably seductive, and it's impossible not to miss it when away. Few things beat sitting in a coffeehouse with a newspaper whilst absorbing the surrounding buzz and exchanging barbs with the waiters in the local dialect. Gloomy jazz clubs evoke their own ethereal, fin-de-siecle atmosphere. Elsewhere, the taverns - 'Heurigen' - are the final destination (and ultimate incentive) of a lazy Sunday afternoon summer sojourn into the outer reaches of the city. The Saturday flea market - full of eccentrics - where rifling through vintage trinkets (likely belonging to the dead, knowing Vienna) with a mouth full of kebab is a staple guilty pleasure. Ambles through the innumerable variety of municipal parks; the imperial buildings converted into galleries; the unique socialist apartment complexes - it's a place where chewing the fat is a local pastime.
Despite its tangle of complexities, the city also has an undeniable purity and this consists in its immediate proximity to nature. Although it is a metropolis, one can stand in one of the industrial districts and glance the northern backdrop of the hills. The Danube, though hardly blue, is never far away, the old segment in particular now an oxbow lake in which one can take a dip in the summer. In his 1941 memoir 'The World of Yesterday', Stefan Zweig encapsulates the dynamic between nature and civilisation perfectly: "One hardly sensed where nature began and where the city: one melted into the other without opposition, without contradiction. Within, however, one felt that the city had grown like a tree that adds ring upon ring, and instead of the old fortification walls the Ringstrasse encircled the treasured core with its splendid houses". My cousin, remembering the seasonal floods which came within a few hundred yards of her childhood apartment, said that she dreamed that the river would consume the whole district, and it would be like living in (an industrial) Venice.
Perhaps it is the nostalgia that saturates Vienna which makes it a place of introspection more than anything else. This is partly because it's easy to feel like an outsider. Whether or not one is a native, there's a sense of friendly alienation. Although one enjoys Viennese comforts and ideas, there's an awareness of not quite belonging. The melancholy and "therapeutic nihilism" invoked are in themselves guilty pleasures; at once unpleasant and somehow gratifying. It's easy, whether with people or without, to drift into a reverie, reminiscing on the past and analysing it silently.
But for all of its contradictions and idiosyncrasies, and the undying interplay between illusion and reality, the fact is that Vienna is a very easy place to live. It may have taken its obsession with the past to fetishised levels, allowing cities such as Berlin to overtake it in terms of 'cutting edge' potential, but this is a city which allows one to relish its small luxuries at the same time as being completely aware of its failings. Loath as I am to finish on a personal note, Vienna is a place with which I have a complicated relationship. But it's the relationship one has with a place that really defines it on a personal level. As a tourist destination, Vienna is uniformly described as beautiful, elegant and laid back despite an aura of order. But the sheer depth of its character is taken for granted, even if the pearl has set and the former imperial capital's death knell has sounded for the umpteenth time.
Vienna, Austria and the Past -- recommended English-language reading (list by yours truly):
A Xenophobe's Guide to the Viennese: How to Masquerade (Badly) as a Native
- Disdain the provincialism of the rest of the country - but go there on holiday.
- Maintain that you speak High German: "i' spreccch a' Hoch Daaatsch!"
- Maintain a healthy scepticism of anything new or popular.
- Laugh with one eye; cry with the other.
- Give yourself a title and address everyone else by theirs, e.g. "Herr Doktor", "Herr Professor", "Herr Kellner".
- Put a negative (i.e. realistic) spin on everything: e.g. if someone comments on the wind that has cleared the humid summer air, point out that it's knocked the heads off the roses.
- Get a dog and let it crap liberally in public spaces - don't clean it up.
- Complain but take no action - you do it because it makes you feel better.
- Never venture east of the Danube - even though your ancestors were probably Czech.
- Don't praise anyone - unless they're dead.
- Erase any knowledge of 'The Sound of Music' - you don't know what it is but for some reason foreigners keep raising it.
- Learn to gossip.
- Never let your expectations get too high.
Summary: A beautiful corpse