Carl Schorske and Creating a Future Without a Past

written July 28, 2009


Carl Schorske cites Karl Marx in his study of Vienna: “when men are about to make revolution, they fortify themselves in the past.”1 Yet what if no past is available? The dream of rational liberalism, birthed in Austria following the 1848 revolution, could not be sustained in the cultural sphere as the century progressed for very much this reason; a reactionary New Right counterpoint to liberalism grew out of economic and ethnic dissatisfaction, dooming the movement of reason and knowledge in favor of a return to tradition. It is this volatile atmosphere that Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna investigates Austrian artistic and intellectual works to gain an understanding of late-nineteenth century Vienna society.
The liberal revolution dominated by reason, Schorske states, caused unforeseen consequences that were unique in scale to that of other European upheavals of the era. Austria was unique, at once “backwards,” that did not have a cultural history like that of France or England.2 The rise of liberalism created a dilemma: modernity and innovation created had created a void, which in turn caused an anxiety in the populace. Camillo Sitte saw the new modern world as “suddenly fragmented,” lacking “a coherent set of values by which to live.”3
The focus on prominent Austrian individuals allows Schorske the opportunity to analyze the varying strata each are raised in, and the nurturing conditional pressures each were subjected it. Relating each figure as fully integrated and a subjective member of society, Schorske makes clear the environmental influences of social-stratas.
Schorske demonstrates this impasse concretely with the borrowing of historical-cultural legends by architect Theophil Hansen during the building of the Reichsrat: “the statuary gracing the ramp betrayed the degree to which Austrian parliamentarian sensed its lack of anchorage in the past. Having no past, it had no political heroes of its own to memorialize.”4 Greek myth was substituted for decorating a building that proclaimed “Wissen macht frei (Knowledge makes us free).5 Schorske’s seven essays highlight the deep contradictions that abounded between the rational liberalism and the lack of traditional identity; this crisis which would usher in the “new key” of New Right.
The detachment of tradition amid the new liberalism would have profound affects; Vienna at the close of the nineteenth century would feel no more secure, as Gustav Klimt was still “groping for orientation in a world without secure coordinations.”6 Fin-de-Siecle Vienna is a unit-idea study in the vein of Arthur Lovejoy on the matter of “isolation.” Nearly every artist Schorske introduces feels cut off from the rest of society, which created a wildly disjointed and desperate landscape. Post-revolutionary architecture of the Ringstrasse typified this cultural scrounging, the spatial placing creating a “sense of isolation and unrelatedness.”7 The mood of Sigmund Freud was one of deep seclusion from his peers and his father. Ultimately it was Hofmannsthal who would attempt to negate this concept of isolation so prevalent in art by art, employing its societal “reconciling power.”8
Generational conflicts between two dissimilar stratas also appeared frequently, as the youth of Freud’s generation rebelled against what were perceived as the failures of their fathers; reasoned liberalism. This included favoring harsh new tactics, including the “new key.” Lacking a perceived authority, groups such as the Social Democrats, Pan-Germans, and the Social Christians attempted to create a new basis of clout by appealing to tradition. Yet this effort to erase the revolution would just as impossible and illusionary as the Reichsrat’s Greek statues- “bloodless ghosts” used for a present need- that Curti and Quintin Skinner warns against.9

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