Jul 2001 Journal

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Prophets without honour in their own country

The curators of the Nine Cities exhibition at the Tate Modern identified the 1900s as the age of modernism in Vienna. How great a contribution to modernity some Viennese Jews made is only being fully realised almost a century after the event.

Resistance to acknowledging the value of their work stemmed from two sources: aesthetic conservatism – a hallmark of the Viennese art establishment – and antisemitism.

The cardiac sufferer Mahler’s death at fifty-one was undoubtedly hastened by the defamation and obstruction he encountered at the hands both of conservatives and Jew-baiters. In addition, the composer nursed a private hurt: his wife Alma’s infidelity with Walter Gropius (of subsequent Bauhaus fame). Mahler’s emotional distress caused him to make several appointments with Freud – incidentally, a fellow victim of conservatives in his own sphere, and of antisemites – but, being highly volatile, he kept cancelling them.

In the end he psyched himself up to meet Freud. Their four-hour long encounter, in 1909, took place on a park bench in the Dutch town of Leyden (which, curiously, means suffering in German). Freud calmed the 49-year old Mahler’s agitation by suggesting that 30-year old Alma probably looked upon him as a father figure rather than as a husband.

Despite dispensing such emollient therapy, in his native Vienna Freud concurrently attracted opprobrium as der Lustlümmel (lubricious lout) von der Berggasse on account of his preoccupation with human sexuality. Freud’s medically derived insights into the centrality of the sex drive were paralleled by those of Arthur Schnitzler who followed the profession of letters (though he, too, had trained as a doctor). Schnitzler was an intuitive Freudian rather in the way Brecht had evolved into a Marxist before ever having read a word of Das Kapital.

Except for the film La Ronde, derived from his play Der Reigen, Schnitzler had long made little impact on English-speaking audiences. Recently, however, we have had David Hare’s play The Blue Room (also adapted from Der Reigen) and the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut derived from Die Traumnovelle. Because of its explicitness some of Schnitzler’s work had to wait for decades before it could be performed. Der Reigen, written in 1897, only received its first staging in 1921. The première provoked a theatre riot and a proto-Nazi Viennese paper dubbed it a play “written to incite the prurience of Asiatic intruders” – whereupon the appalled Schnitzler withdrew it from performance for the rest of his life.

The rightwing press also pilloried another Jew, Felix Salten, who had violated a taboo by publishing the imaginary diary of a brothel madam under the title of Frau Mutzbacher. Some decades later, Salten diversified into a more innocuous literary genre by writing Bambi, the story of a baby deer, which became an early world-wide success for Walt Disney. Then there was Hugo Bettauer, a littérateur with (strictly limited) prophetic gifts. He is best remembered for Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews) which ends with the Viennese begging the expelled Jews to return. But Bettauer actually has more substantial claims to fame. He scripted the Garbo film The Joyless Street (about prostitution in the inflation era) and founded the feminist weekly Die Unzufriedene fully half a century before Britain, the birthplace of the Pankhursts, saw the launch of Spare Rib. Bettauer’s final sad claim to fame is that he fell victim to a rightwing assassin’s bullet in the mid-1920s – a time when Austria was outwardly still a democracy.         
Richard Grunberger

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