- Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire by Marjorie Perloff
Our understandings of aesthetic periods along national and generic lines are often highly contingent. Anglophones may know a good deal about seventeenth-century Dutch painting, but almost nothing about eighteenth-century Dutch poetry. Italian opera looms large in the received history of nineteenth-century art music, but the nineteenth-century Italian symphony is obscure compared to contemporary orchestral music from Germany. In Edge of Irony, Marjorie Perloff claims compellingly that Anglo-American scholars of modernism may be well familiar with works of visual art and music from pre-World War I Vienna—the paintings of Gustav Klimt, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler—but are almost wholly unfamiliar with a significant body of writing that was created by writers between the World Wars from across the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.
These authors, Perloff asserts, were raised in the non-Viennese edges of empire, in multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, and largely Jewish countries and communities. They created a distinctively Austrian literary modernism that was wholly distinct from the Anglo-Irish or the French-Italian avant-garde traditions. Less interested in formal experimentation than the authors of these other times and places, Perloff’s “Austro-modernists” share a common disbelief in aesthetic or linguistic closure, a cynicism often aligned with humor, and a disbelief in the possibilities of cultural systems to reform human life. Their dominant mode, she argues, is an irony that emerges from many sources: geographical and cultural marginalization within the Empire; an ambivalent nostalgia for a past to which many of the authors, as Jews, never truly belonged; and dislocation and rupture borne of the sudden collapse of Austrian culture and history in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Her main examples include Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, a novel still not widely known in English despite its status as a set text in German schools; Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, only available in English in a highly truncated version until the publication of an authoritative two-volume version in 1995; and Karl Kraus’s massive play The Last Days of Mankind, which only became available in English in 2014. Her treatment of Elias Canetti focuses on The Tongue Set Free, the first volume of an autobiographical trilogy written late in life, rather than his better-known and earlier works Auto-da-Fé or Crowds and Power. Perloff’s treatment of her other two subject authors, Paul Celan and Ludwig Wittgenstein, deals with less-studied aspects of their work. She reads Celan mainly as a love poet, and Wittgenstein as a thinker absorbed by the possibility and complexities of personal renewal, not only through language but through religion.
Throughout, Perloff emphasizes the degree to which these authors derived their linguistic and cultural energies from distinct regional cultures, different family upbringings, and diverse linguistic practices. This very diversity led to their sharing an overarching aesthetic of skepticism, a disbelief that larger structures could contain the complexities of politics or of the self. They viewed the German language as a paradoxical medium, simultaneously the bedrock of [End Page 198] their tradition and something porous and multiple—the perfect medium for representing a worldview conditioned by both nostalgia and rupture.
Perloff writes that no other modern European culture experienced the trauma of severe historical rupture as did the Austrian, whose territory shrank from 50 million inhabitants and 240,000 square miles to 6 million inhabitants and 32,000 square miles within a matter of years. Such a shocking diminution of power and populace led to a literary ethos quite distinct from the better-known forms of interwar German modernism centered around Weimar or Vienna. Because her subject authors were the product of profound disillusion, all displayed a love-hate relationship to Vienna proper, to the centralized Austrian history of “kaiserlich und königlich” government (which Musil satirized memorably as “Kakania”). Moreover, this modernism was largely created by Jews of provincial origin who...