Austria’s German Literary Scholar of the Year died suddenly at the age of 66: A tribute
On September 7, 2008, my colleague Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, whom we used to refer to as WSD, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 66. He was a Professor of German literature at the German Department of the University of Vienna, a highly regarded literary critic and an outspoken intellectual. All the Austrian media reported on this sad event. WSD, who had been voted Austria’s scholar of the year just a short time before, was truly a public figure.
I learned of his passing while on a field trip to Western Canada with a group of students, and I am writing these lines on a rainy day in a hotel room in Vancouver.
Who was Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler? The facts can be found in all the obituaries. He was born in 1942, studied classical philology at the University of Vienna, (his doctoral thesis was on St. Augustine) and eventually joined the German Department there, where he became one of the most prolific researchers in the field.
He was a popular teacher, attracting huge crowds of students whom he imbued with his enthusiasm for literature. He was a candid critic and a highly regarded scholar who chaired the Austrian Literary Archives ("Österreichische Literaturarchiv"), a branch of the Austrian National Library. He was also deeply involved in university politics, as a member of the Academic Senate, as chairman of the German Department, and as a member of the faculty who would always raise his voice against developments he considered wrong.
When I think of WSD, a number of images and encounters come to my mind.
It is 9 o’clock in the morning, at the German Department, in the beautiful main university building on the Ringstrasse. The elevator door opens and WSD steps out, dragging a small suitcase behind him, somewhat apologetically explaining that he has just arrived from a lecture in Germany or that he will have to leave for a conference in Croatia in the afternoon. But a full day’s work is still ahead at the department. While he disappears into his office, I wonder: How does he do it? Does he have a Doppelgänger? He always seems to be at several places at the same time.
Around 10 o’clock I enter his room, together with another professor and a student. There is a "Diplompruefung" to be taken, an oral final exam before the student can graduate. The room is overflowing with books and we remove some of the piles from various chairs to find seats.
Before we start the serious business, one of us comments on the latest performance of WSD’s beloved soccer-club, Rapid Wien, and he eagerly responds. Then the session is opened. WSD is a pleasant examiner, making sure the candidate is at ease, letting her talk. Now and then she mentions some author’s name – a contemporary writer or somebody from a past century - and Schmidt-Dengler chimes in, telling anecdotes or offering a bit of information unknown to all of us, professors and student alike. Once more we ask ourselves: How does he do it? When does he find the time to read all the books he knows about? How come he never forgets these things?
At 1 o’clock I have a quick lunch with some colleagues, and we are joined by WSD. There is a relaxed and easy-going atmosphere. We talk a little business – university matters – but we also talk about our families, politics, literature, and we gossip. WSD, it seems, is acquainted with whatever comes up and peppers his opinions with witticisms.
At 3 o’clock we have a departmental conference. WSD, serving as chairman, opens the meeting. He strongly believes that matters concerning everybody ought to be decided by everybody. He insists on the democratic structure of the university, current trends notwithstanding, and he manages the conference adroitly. Everybody is given a chance to voice an opinion; but still the matter does not drag on longer then it should.
As so often, I ask myself again: How does he do it? Had I ever told him that he displayed what might be called leadership qualities, he would have angrily dismissed the idea – he did not want to be the "leader" and made many sarcastic remarks when departmental chairs were termed Fuehrungsorgane (organs of leadership) by the university bureaucracy.
In the evening, at home, I turn on the radio. On Oe1, suddenly Schmidt-Dengler’s voice fills the air. He is reviewing a new novel, or giving a short talk on some 19th century author, or he is talking about soccer. He is talking fast, as always, ready to share his knowledge, as always. And again I ask myself: How does he do all that? And sometimes I worry: Does this man work too much? Does he ever rest?
I am sitting in a hotel in Vancouver. On Sunday, Sept. 7, minutes before I left for my trip to Canada and the day WSD was to die, I grabbed the previous day’s issue of the Austrian daily Der Standard to take it with me. There was a short article by Schmidt-Dengler that I thought I might use at a lecture I was to give. Now the article is lying in front of me, and I cannot help but consider it his legacy:
"It is our task as literary scholars to practise and teach reading," he wrotes. "Reading not just a quick grab for easily digestible information, but an "exercitium" to deal with the facts of life. And any idea one of our students utters may change our opinion of a work of art we think we know." We are never finished with literary texts, there is always something new to be discovered.
WSD the scholar and WSD the teacher, who combined erudition and accessibility, whose enthusiasm for literature shaped generations of students, who profoundly influenced many of his colleagues.
It was a privilege to have known him, and we are grateful for the time he was among us. And we ask ourselves: Why couldn’t he have remained with us just a little bit longer?