To Understand Austria, Ask a Foreigner!

An attempt to answer a puzzling question: Why is all the best work on Austrian cultural history written abroad?

Top Stories | Allan Janik | July / August 2012

(l. to r.) Austrian icons painter Egon Schiele, author Robert Musil, composer Gustav Mahler; (l. to r.) Writer Peter Altenberg, journalist Karl Kraus, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Photos (clockwise from l.): Josef Trcka; Musilmuseum; Wiener Staatsoper; Ben Richards; Trude Fleischmann,

Why can’t Austrians explain Austria?

It is simply a fact that if you are seriously interested in Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, Peter Altenberg or Egon Schiele – just a few of the central figures in Austrian cultural history – you have to read standard works written abroad.

It was while reviewing the American architectural historian Christopher Long’s excellent study of Adolf Loos’ Haus am Michaelerplatz for these pages recently, that I was struck once more by the length of the list of the seminal works on the major figures in the cultural history of Austria that were not written here.

Consider the following: If you want to learn about satirical journalist Karl Kraus, the major biography is the two-volume study by the British scholar Edward Timms. If it’s writer and poet Peter Altenberg that you want to know about, then the Scottish Andrew Barker is your man. For novelist Robert Musil, it’s the German Karl Corino. In the case of modernist painter Egon Schiele, two young Spanish scholars, philosopher Carla Carmona Escalera and art historian Helena Pereña, set the standard. For philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein it’s Brian McGuinness or Ray Monk, both English philosophers.

For the unduly neglected philosopher and historian Egon Friedell it’s the Swiss dentist(!) Wolfgang Lorenz. For Loos himself, the American Christoper Long and the Danish art historian/aesthetician Anders Munch are unsurpassed. For composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, it is the 3,600 page biography by the Franco-American musicologist Henri-Louis de La Grange.

If you want to know about the Jews of Vienna, the American historian Marsha Rozenblitt is where you begin. For the Jewish contribution to fin de siècle culture, read the Anglo-American Steven Beller. For the Salzburg Festival it’s the American Michael Steinberg. And, of course, if you want to inform yourself about Vienna 1900 in general, the highly-esteemed American historian Carl Schorske is the place to begin.

Then there are the Chicago historian John Boyer’s superb studies of Vienna mayor Karl Lueger (emphasising his socialist politics as well as anti-Semitism), and Maureen Healy’s disturbingly informative study of the devastating impact of World War I on Viennese life. The list goes on, but the fact remains that this curious state of affairs has hardly been noticed in Austria.

A nation of documenters 

Surely Austrians write reams about these figures and phenomena. Indeed, most of the documentary source material (i.e. various editions and scholarly commentaries upon them) that forms the basis for the standard works written abroad is by Austrians. Still, these important interpretive essays that frame new questions, and in doing so, open up new perspectives on culture and history, are almost invariably by foreigners.

Why should that be? The answer to that important but neglected question is surely complex, bearing, as it does, on the ways academic disciplines divide up the world, the kinds of models they employ, and the sorts of writing strategies characteristic of Austrian Wissenschaft, in short, the underlying assumptions at the base of academic life.

To begin with, in contrast to England or the U.S.A., there is no established tradition of intellectual biography in Austria. To be sure biography is not without its pitfalls, but it nevertheless is the cornerstone of robust cultural history. We can see the negative effects of what is sometimes scornfully referred to as "biographism" by considering the literature, say, on the painter Egon Schiele. A distressingly large portion of what has been published is oriented to the scandals that made him infamous; whereas precious little, until recently, has been done to illuminate the kinds of artistic, aesthetic, moral and social problems that led him to paint what he did in precisely the way that he did.

Intellectual biography does not merely trace the contours of a life from without, with a beginning, middle and end as it were, but seeks to grasp how significant innovation emerges from new and exciting ways of posing questions, whose very radicality ensures that any real answers to those questions are equally new and exciting. Such an approach to the history of ideas has no deep roots in Austria.

Cultural history ignored by historians

A second important point is that cultural history in Austria is primarily in the hands of literary scholars rather than historians – at least as far as modern and contemporary history is concerned (ancient and medieval history in Austria, in contrast, is a completely different kettle of fish). Literary scholars are seldom equipped nowadays to deal with abstruse philosophical issues of the sort that metaphysicians or hard-nosed analytical philosophers deal with, let alone modern science. This puts them at a disadvantage when they approach cultural history.

In both the English- and the French-speaking world (excluding post-modernists – another form of mental illness masquerading as a cure), cultural history is principally written by historians and, indeed, by historians very much aware of the historical turn in the philosophy of science of American Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) and figures like Alexandre Koyré, Georges Canguilhem and Michel Foucault in France. Thus it is virtually unthinkable that a study such as the American Deborah Coen’s stimulating collective biography of the Exner family over three generations, Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism and Private Life, could be written in Austria. The scrupulous respect Austrian academics show for disciplinary boundaries would hardly permit it.

In Austria, inter-disciplinarity is typically conceived as a matter of convening symposia between groups of scholars from different fields around a common theme such as the importance of events in a given field in the year 1897, which ultimately result in an anthology on the subject. Now this is certainly worthwhile but such symposia really are only the beginning, not the end, of cultural history. The resultant anthologies are more often than not a potpourri of articles of (frequently vastly) varying quality with at best a weak effort at synthesis by way of introduction.

However, it is precisely the huge intellectual effort involved in synthesizing the various ways of posing problems across disciplinary perspectives that brings cultural history to life.

For example, Carl Schorske’s extraordinary ability to synthesise the pursuit of style for its own sake – typical of Jugendstil in the arts and in the new brand of politics that Georg von Schönerer and Karl Lueger introduced into Vienna at the end of the 19th century – was only possible because of Schorske’s brilliant ability to think across the conventional boundaries of music, painting and poetry, as they formed trenchant analogies with politics precisely in and around the crucial year 1897. It is not merely a matter of knowing more "facts" but of transgressing conventional disciplinary boundaries.

Ideas that live in social practice

Austrian historians today have hardly begun to assimilate the methods of social history long customary in France, as in Fernand Braudel’s work on the histories of the Mediterranean or the rise of capitalism, which refreshingly demonstrate, with thick descriptions, how it is that ideas and institutions have their lives in social practices and customs, instead of the other way around.

This sort of thinking is of paramount importance in a country where the ornamental, theatrical dimension of politics, be it in parliament, the church or in the arts, tends to overwhelm and swallow everyday life in a way that Wissenschaft cannot penetrate without becoming ideological.

In short, there is a lot to learn here, much to debate, interpret and understand. And it seems a shame not to have Austrian scholars involved in the conversations.

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