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  • Vienna’s Dreams of Europe: Culture and Identity beyond the Nation-State by Katherine Arens
  • William M. Johnston
Vienna’s Dreams of Europe: Culture and Identity beyond the Nation-State. By Katherine Arens. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. ix + 328 pages. $34.95.

As a scholar of modern Austrian intellectual history at the University of Texas, Austin, Katherine Arens has distinguished herself through tightly argued articles on luminaries like Mauthner, Schnitzler, Grillparzer, and Doderer. More explicitly than many others, she has written with sympathy about the trans-national convictions of what I have called the Austrian Human Type (der österreichische Mensch), albeit without using that label. In 2004, she asserted in anticipation of her present book, “This failed political entity [the Empire] facilitated the entrance of new groups into a historical space, by allowing them membership in the Empire’s institutions, above all in its civil service and army […] [T]he families involved lost their roots in their ethnic communities and joined something that they thought was larger, and more just” (Arens, “Joseph Roth,” in Cornis-Pope and Neubauer, eds., History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe, Amsterdam 2004, 1: 227). In specifying how Joseph Roth’s novels mirror the “polyphonic” character of Habsburg culture, she remarked that he “tells a tale of a Habsburg Empire which squandered its human capital” (ibid.), even as rival ethnicities felt attracted to a common fate that lifted them out of their provinciality. Arens’s life-work confirms a similar view that underpins Michael André Bernstein’s remarkable novel about 1913 Galicia, Conspirators (New York 2004), just as it anticipates Pieter Judson’s emphasis on the resilience and ingenuity of imperial institutions in his magisterial The Habsburg Empire (Cambridge, MA 2016).

Arens’s long-awaited new book proposes a series of “alternative framings” (19) for conceptualizing an “identifiable cultural sphere” (7) within the Habsburg Crown Lands. In place of an older terminology based on ethnicities, nation-states, and empire, [End Page 666] Arens speaks of a “network of cultural sites” (4) that embody the “lengthier cultural provenance” (9) of the “chain of Austrias” (4). Across several centuries, local writers generated a “constellation of cultural referents” in support of multiple “framing narratives” (3) and “coherent discourses” that proved “intelligible to many parties” (17). Having acknowledged how hard it will be to trace such an intricate theme through eight highly diverse chapters, the introduction announces that “[e]ach case study highlights how a writer can use public space to host discussion about local identities while referring to both a nation-state and a larger [imagined] map of Europe” (20). In a word, the Austrian texts “present a very different evaluation of Europe and its cultural networks” (18) than flourished in the centralized nation-state of France or the “national fiction” (3) of the German Reich after 1871.

Arens’s first four chapters deploy revisionist readings first of the role of Sonnenfels (Ch. 1), then of Grillparzer’s Weh dem, der lügt (1838) viewed as a counter-Weimar and counter-Romantic drama (Ch. 2), next of Bäuerle’s and Nestroy’s comic plays (Ch. 3), and finally of Biedermeier genre painting (Ch. 4). All these creators are shown to have deepened the Empire’s emerging master narrative. Arens insists that, far from being an epigone of the Weimar giants, Grillparzer incited his audiences to rethink their own historical situation in light of inherited values (65). Here Arens propounds “framing narratives” similar to those that the Romanian-American comparatist Virgil Nemoianu has formulated under the guise of the “Central-European Bildungsethos.” After the Napoleonic upheaval, a chastened Europe witnessed “a tremendous proliferation of moderating discourses and dialectics of consensus” (Nemoianu, The Triumph of Imperfection, Columbia SC 2006, x–xii). Arens appraises how theater and painting alternately reinforced and challenged such moderating discourses.

Chapters Five and Six allow Arens to rethink core questions of Austria’s selfimage glimpsed through two of its prime formulators: Hofmannsthal and Schnitzler. Joltingly contemporary, by way of contrast, are the final two chapters: on Konrad Bayer conceived as a precursor of Handke and Jelinek, as well as Peter Handke treated as a refashioner of Kasperl (1968), not to...


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