Tuesday, October 4, 2011

800 Words: An Ambition for Culture - Parts 1-3


(Mahler Symphony no 7. For me the masterpiece of Mahler’s Viennese years)

If I ever get to Part 2 of A Boring Fantasy, it shall take place in the true city of my dreams: not Paris, or London, or New York. iIt’s Vienna, pre-World War I fin-de-siecle Vienna. At least in my mind, pre-World War I Wien is the world’s grand summit of culture; a place where tradition was never forgotten, but never suffocated new development. It is a place where radicalism was tolerated, liberal thought was the establishment and the conservatism the anti-establishment. It was a place where the most important ideological fights were on the battlegrounds of music, art and literature, and each of them debated as the matters of life and death which they are.

Yes, culture is a matter of life and death. So are health, poverty, war, education, the economy, the environment et al. But all of these potential problems are mere stale words in comparison to the multi-hued vibrancy which culture implies, because culture is one of only two words which can unify all of these issues. The state of the world can be explained with only two words: culture - which is what the world is, and politics - which is what the world can be.

(on Rilke’s The Swan)

Whereas politics still seems as important to our lives as ever, culture is a trivial term; a much abused word of jargon used to mean thousands of completely unrelated definitions. We have popular culture, counterculture, sub-culture, corporate culture,ethnic culture, regional culture, feminist culture, queer culture, Christian culture, youth culture, high culture, low culture, mass culture, bus culture, plane culture, bar culture, restaraunt culture, culture of poverty, culture clash, clash of cultures, creative culture, cross-cultural communication, inter-cultural competence, cultural bias, cultural imperialism, cultrual dissonance, cultural theory, cultural studies, comparative cultural studies, cultural institutions studies, culture wars, interculturality, socio-cultural evolution, urban culture, transculturation, acculturation, cultural models, cultural invention, cultural artifacts, culture industry, multiculturalism, monoculturalism, structuralist culture, Marxist culture, archeological culture, cultural anthropology, cultural materialism, cultural ecology, cultural evolution, cultural science, cultural boundaries, cultural system, cultural organization, cross-cultural samples, cultural patterns, living culture, cultural relativism, cultural diversity, cultural context, cultural kinship, and no doubt untold thousands of other definitions I can’t find on wikipedia. Culture has come to mean so many distinct things that one has to wonder if it currently means anything at all. My own favorite among the definitions is ‘cultural rape’, which is a favorite term of demagogues the world over to scare people. I suppose its inevitable that this term would be turned on its head, and now we hear feminists speaking of ‘rape culture.’ There could not be a more unfortunate use of the term, there is no more blatant a misuse of ‘culture’ than in the context of describing people who clearly have none.

(Kokoschka: A Face for Our Time)

Submerged beneath this tangled web of meaningless meanings is the humanist definition of culture which gave rise to the civilization upon which we have the privilege of wagging our fingers. There was a time (just barely) in living memory when culture meant only two things:

1. The growth the useful bacteria which creates wine, cheese and yogurt.
2. A well-developed mind.

The twentieth century killed hundreds of millions as as a testimony to the importance of culture. I am grandson to two of its most tested survivors, and even I believe in that quaint nineteenth-century notion that a well-developed mind can make us better people. To many people, that sentiment is not merely quaint. It’s downright offensive.

The old paradox about how German soldiers could massacre thousands during the day and weep at the beauty of Schubert at night should give anybody pause. The three worst massacres of the 20th century were perpetrated by Germany, Russia and China, three of the most well-developed, learned civilizations the world has yet seen. For only a great civilization could construct the means to murder people so efficiently.

(Gustav Klimt)

When viewed through that light, it’s all too tempting to throw up your hands and declare with all certainty that culture cannot improve anything. How can we claim that it does when the land of Beethoven and Einstein produced the Death Camps, when the land of Tolstoy and Mendeleev produced the Gulags, when the land of Confucius and Li Po produced the Red Guards? How could any great civilization go off the rails so utterly? Could we go off again? Have we already?

And that’s the problem with civilization. It’s utterly value neutral. Civilization gives us the tools for a great society, but no instructions for how to use them. We produce the technology for infinite reserves of energy, and its used for a bomb that can kill a hundred thousand people in an instant. We produce the technology to transport ourselves from city to city in a fourth the time it used to take, and its used to transport a hundred thousand soldiers to a battlefield to be slaughtered in a single day. We produce the technology to accumulate infinite knowledge, and it’s used to accumulate....well, we’ll see.


(Stefan Zweig’s final years in Brazil)

There are only two fiction writers whose work has ever hit me harder in the solar plexus than Stefan Zweig (Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chekhov, in case anybody cares). But the fiction is just the beginning of Zweig’s greatness. He was a produced playwright and a lauded memoirist, he might have even had another career as an opera librettist if the Nazis had not stopped his collaboration with Richard Strauss. But the great backbone of his achievement is his biographical essays: he wrote full-length essays on Goethe, Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche, Rilke, Herzl, Freud, Schnitzler, Mahler, Bruno Walter, Joseph Roth, Dante, Montaigne, Chateaubriand, Sainte-Beuve, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Renan, Rodin, Busoni, Toscanini, Rimbaud, James Joyce, Freud, Franz Mesmer, Mary Baker Eddy, Cassanova, Stendahl, and Tolstoy. He wrote full-length biographies of Marie-Antoinette, Mary Stuart, Magellan, Erasmus, Castellio, Calvin, Amerigo Vespucci, Balzac, Emile Verhaeran, and Romain Rolland.

As a writer, Zweig was clearly a jack of all trades. More specialist writers of his era like Thomas Mann and Robert Musil dismissed him a writer of second rate pot boilers and pseudo-scholarship. But whether or not they considered him a mediocrity, the Nazi’s certainly didn’t. One of the first things to be destroyed in post-Anschluss Vienna was Zweig’s encyclopedic library, which held the largest non-museum collection of manuscripts and first-editions in Europe. In desperation, Zweig fled to England just before the invasion, forced to leave behind his home, his library, even detailed outlines of future books. The Nazis burned them all.

(Egon Schiele)

But the most important thing he left behind was the memory of his Viennese paradise. The Vienna that stretched from his birth in 1882 until the year he left. The Wien of Mahler and Rilke, Hugo Wolf and Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Klimt and Kokoschka, Kraus and Altenberg, Alfred Polgar and Alfred Roller, Egon Schiele and Egon Friedell, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, Anton von Webern and Alexander von Zemlinsky, Musil and Broch, Brahms and Bruckner, Wittgenstein and Godel, Bruno Walter and Fritz Kreisler, Richard Tauber and Franz Lehar, Emanuel List and Friedrich Schorr, Theodore Herzl and Sigmund Freud, not to mention women like Anna von Mildenburg and Alma Schindler/Mahler/Gropius/Werfel, or . The Wien of Stefan Zweig: a city in which an ordinary person could sit in a coffeehouse and bump into any one of these extraordinary minds, most of them more than obliging to talk to any passer by their table about whatever struck their fancy.

Fin-de-siecle Wien was a place built to live life to its fullest extent, and if it could not be lived that way then it was not worth living at all. The millenium-old Holy Roman Empire was a mere nub of its former self. The Empire, now merely the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had long since been stripped of its political and financial glory. It was a part of the world intimately acquainted with defeat. All that remained for Austrians to boast of was the splendor of a capital city that once towered over the world. In lieu of anything better, the city of Vienna became a playground for great music, great theater, great books, great food and great art.

(Alban Berg: The Altenberg Lieder)

A place like the Vienna of that age instructed people how to live, but it provided no instruction for how to survive. It was one of those intellectual bubbles of human history too extravagant to ever last: a culture so absorbed by its surfeit of instant delights that it was powerless against the horrors of the future. Vienna was as close as the world has come to an intellectual democracy: a place where a provincial Jew like Mahler could run an opera house and a clinically insane man like Kokoschka could be celebrated as a great artist. Yes, Mahler converted to Catholicism, and yes, Kokoschka lived a very difficult life, but in what other European city would their stories even be possible?

The Vienna of Stefan Zweig was the freest exchange of ideas the world had ever seen. So free that a mediocre painter named Adolf Hitler looked at its developments with horror, a horror shared by all-too-many in the conservative anti-establishment.. Most German cities of that period were stale and monoglot, unable to receive ideas of other places. But Vienna was alive with the influences of other worlds. It was a city in which you were nearly as likely to hear Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Ukranian, Romanian, Croatian, Bosnian, Slovak, Serbian, Slovene, Russian, Italian, and Yiddish as you were to hear German spoken in the streets. Each language did its part to contribute to the uniqueness of the city. And there should be no doubt that each did its part to provide material that made its way into the work of artistic masters.

(The Mermaid by Alexander von Zemlinsky: a man who was quarter Austrian, quarter Hungarian, quarter Sarajevo Sephardic Jew, quarter Bosnian Muslim)

What killed Vienna was that it was simply too much. There was so much focus on culture at the expense of politics that few bothered to organize when the Christian Social Party managed to elect Karl Lueger, a Christian socialist who blamed the exploitation of workers by bourgeois Jews for Austria’s economic depressions. The upper-middle class, of which a good many were Jews, were painted by Lueger as over-educated, weak-willed, corrupt, decadent, spoiled by luxury and spoilers of a once great culture. This all should sound familiar. Not only because Lueger provided half the schematic for Nazism’s platform, but also for reasons that have to do with us.

As always seems to happen when culture grows too dominant, politics became Vienna’s weak spot. And what a weak spot.


(How to annoy a Viennese musician: remind them that their only native-born great composer is Arnold Schoenberg)

But surely you’ve noticed this before I did. There is something more than a bit precious about the Viennese concept of culture. Where are the sports? Where are the lower forms of entertainment? Why is there so little comedy in all this? Is it too much to ask that our entertainment be fun?

There is nothing more offensive to most Americans than the idea that being boorish or vulgar is a bad thing. We take pride in being the most superficial civilization in history. We spent the twentieth century in battle against the world’s most self-consciously profound civilizations, and look where it got them! So if we want to spend our lifetimes watching football or Dane Cook, or listening to Insane Clown Posse, who are you to stop us? This is Ammurika damnit!

Who indeed. Profundity without frivolity clearly didn’t work. Perhaps frivolity without profundity will. Why worry about what happened to old Vienna when we’re having so much fun ourselves. The old notions of ‘art’ and ‘culture’ are on the one hand seen as boring, stuffy pursuits by self-important people concerned with status and appearances; on the other seen as indicative of moral laxity and decadence. Who knows? Maybe both are true.

But who’s to say that the old Viennese didn’t have as much (more?) fun than we do? They clearly ate as well, had as much sex, went to as many shows as we do. Just like ours their entertainment could be as based in the home as well as the theaters. We have the DVD and DVR, they had the salon.

No, the problem with the Viennese was not that they were too stuffy or pompous. Their problem is that they were too refined. There’s an enormous difference. You’re as likely to find arrogant, narrow-minded people in a NASCAR arena as you are in a concert hall. The problem was that the idea of going to see a NASCAR race or a Busta Rhymes concert would have been as much a horror to to the old-school Viennese as going to a Secessionist exhibit or a Society for Private Musical Performances concert would be to the former.

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