Book Review: Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the Austrian Idea

To the Victors, The Cultural Spoils

TVR Books | Robert Dassanowsky | April 2013

Poet and essayist Hugo von Hofmannsthal is best known for the play Jedermann (Photo: ÖNB)

Culture is so often the child of politics and is, like history, co-opted by those who won the last war. In the Anglo-American mind, Paris has long eclipsed Vienna as the home of modernism.

Existentialism is said to have started with Sartre and Camus rather than with Schnitzler and Rilke. Ravel’s La Valse, a tone-poem tribute to the tradition of Johann Strauss II and Gustav Mahler and originally titled "Vienna", has become associated solely with the demonisation of Austria-Hungary.

Even as great a playwright as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, unquestionably among the luminaries of fin-de-siècle Vienna, is little known in the English-speaking world, and his defining role in early 20th century Western cultural philosophy essentially forgotten. Sadly, even in the 21st century, Hofmannsthal’s oeuvre beyond the libretto for Rosenkavalier or the ritual of Jedermann seems a well-kept secret even among postcolonial cultural scholars.

Lost literature of modernism

Thus David. S. Luft’s evocative translations in Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the Austrian Idea: Selected Essays and Addresses 1906-1927 are a welcome addition to the lost literature of Central European modernism.

And while one volume cannot single-handedly resolve a century of neglect, it offers a fresh and compelling resource on this remarkable thinker to non-German speakers and a necessary re-evaluation of a place and time beyond the clichés of cultural despair.

At the center is Hofmannsthal’s idea of the Kulturstaat, his European essentialism that sought to reconnect a fragmented  Mitteleuropa to values swept away by a mania of revolutionary unrest, which produced some of the most perceptive writing to come out of the collapse of the Old Order. In the wake of a catastrophic war, a powerful rethinking was needed, a way to reimagine Austrian-German culture and through a kind of counter-experience lay the foundation for a healthy European future.

One of his proposed tools was cinema. This new medium provided Hofmannsthal with the possibility of re-animating the lost imaginary, providing a platform for Vienna’s multicultural impulses, and transcending a crisis of language that ballet and opera had only partially remedied.

Film imagery could (re)create a sense of continuity with the cultural idea of Mitteleuropa and even the possibility of a greater pan-European idealism on the subconscious level, where rhetoric had failed. Despite his love of the "schöne Sprache", he believed language had been in part responsible for the confusion of social and political identity in the prewar era.

Hofmannsthal’s 1921 essay A Substitute for Dreams addresses the question of cinematic reality and contains what is ostensibly the earliest psychological understanding of visual desire.

In a contemporary EU criticised by restless populations for handing over its identity to the deceptions of nationalist-tinged bureaucracies, why is the wartime Idea of Europe (1916) not pressed into the hands of every new Euro-parliamentarian?

And for all Austria’s postwar trauma in defining, redefining, abandoning and quietly readapting concepts from the multicultural state that made it, in some fundamental sense, what it remains today, no political theoretician has examined the many essays on Austria and its relationship with Germany as a key to negotiating these identities.

While Hofmannsthal’s dramas reconstruct a sensitive, fragile beauty the early 20th century no longer recognised or desired, the incisive prose of his Euro-philosophy had been lost to the xenophobia he so despised.  His 1914 essay Boycott of Foreign Languages, for example, might be of immediate interest to American academics and policy makers, while his incisive reflections in The Written Word as the Spiritual Space of the Nation (1927) reads well today as a tonic for postmodern, virtualised and fragmented globalism.

Luft’s translations are accomplished and refined, his lucid commentary assuaging the fears of academics and cultural critics in the face of modern German or French writers. "Indeed, Hofmannsthal is an elegant stylist," he writes, "comparable to essayists like Oscar Wilde and Matthew Arnold. What is difficult in Hofmannsthal is the range of metaphors and subtlety of ideas, as well as his immersion in the German intellectual heritage since the Enlightenment with his sensitivity to the peculiar situation and possibilities of Austria."

For a world fascinated with lingua franca English, Hofmannsthal’s crisis of language was a profound caesura in early modernism (at the birth of the motion picture) leading to the exploration of foreignness in the mind of the writer and translator. How useful this might be to contemporary critics in a virtual world – one that helps dissolve sociocultural identity while encouraging the "foreign" on an inauthentic level – remains untested.

Writing as Hofmannsthal might have

As translations, however, these pieces stand on their own.

"As much as I want to communicate the distinctiveness, the foreignness, of these texts, my instinct has been to translate," Luft writes, "to write as Hofmannsthal might have, had he lived in the United States in the early twenty-first century." In doing so he has painstakingly maintained the rhythm and wit of the originals, the encoding of the Hofmannsthal-ian word. His post-crisis language and examinations shimmer with a nearly metaphysical sensibility, which however never undercuts the logic and clarity of the argument.

This landmark translation of essays, which in its very process demonstrates the qualities and theories of the author, should, as Luft suggests, "open up issues for both Austrian and German historians and for Europeanists." The loss of regional culture through geopolitics and, more specifically, the limited examinations of postimperial Central Europe were Hofmannsthal’s great concern. In these areas of discourse – past and present, his ideas are no less useful today.


Robert Dassanowsky is Professor of German and Film, and Director of Film Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, U.S.A. He serves as the current   president of the Austrian Studies Association.


Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the Austrian Idea: Selected Essays & Addresses,


David S. Luft, Trans and Ed., 

Purdue University Press, 2011

pp. 201


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