Sunday, May 20, 2007

Suicide in Vienna

from Wittgenstein's Vienna by Janik and Toulmin, an account of a few Viennese celebrities who committed suicide during the early years of twentienth century:

"If the Habsburg Empire's national, racial, social, diplomatic and sexual problems were as grave as we have suggested, the Empire's suicide rate should have been correspondingly high. The list of prominent Austrians who were to die by their own hands is, in fact, both long and distinguished. It includes Ludwig Boltzmann, the father of statistical thermodynamics; Otto Mahler, the brother of the composer, who was not lacking in musical talent himself; Georg Trakl, a lyric poet whose talents have been rarely surpassed in the German language; Otto Weininger, whose book Sex and Character had made him a cause celebre, only a few months before his suicide in the house where Beethoven died; Eduard van der Null, who was unable to bear the criticism that was leveled upon the Imperial Opera House he designed; Alfred Redl, whose story has already been told; and no less than three of the Ludwig Wittgenstein's own elder brothers. Perhaps the most bizarre case is that of General Baron Franz von Uchatius, the designer of the 8-cm. and 9-cm. cannon. His crowning achievement was to have been the gigantic 28-cm. field piece; but, when the weapon was tested, the barrel split, and a few days later Uchatius was found dead in his arsenal, having cut his own throat. Even the Imperial-and-Royal house was not spared. In 1889, at his lodge in Mayerling, Crown Prince Rudolf took his life and that of the woman he loved, Baroness Maria Vetsera, in circumstances that were more lurid than romantic. These were few of the men for whom Vienna, the City of Dreams, had become a city of nightmares past further bearing."

Arthur Schnitzler, the Viennese writer, brilliantly captures the suicidal mindsets of the common people in his stories like Fraulein Else and Lieutenant Gustl (both small masterpieces.) (In fact, one of his daughters committed suicide too in situations similar to what he wrote years earlier in the novella Fraulein Else.)

Apparently things haven't improved at all even after so many years. At least that's what one gathers from reading recent Austrian literature. Most famous of them is of course Thomas Bernhard. Almost all of his characters invariably make a visit to the famous Steinof Asylum and who perhaps don't commit suicide only because they have found someone who will listen to their rants and report it to the readers! I am also reminded of Michael Haneke's truly frightening and unnerving (and very unfunny unlike Thomas Bernhard) debut The Seventh Continent. The way Haneke charts a Viennese family's slow path to self-destruction makes it one of the most difficult-to-watch films ever.

A self-critical tendency in writers is very common. In fact in a way, that is the primary job of the writer -- to remain dissatisfied with himself and the society he or she is part of. But even by that standard Austrian writers are in an entirely different league. The viciousness and fierceness of loathing and contempt for their country and countrymen that these writers muster make them somewhat unique among all national literatures. They even have a special term for it -- they call it "anti-heimat literature." Thomas Bernhard (or at least his characters) doesn't just hate his countrymen, he even hates the Austrian landscapes. For him even the Austrian air is poisonous! The Austrian tourism department must be happy that these writers are not so famous. If one has nothing but the accounts by Musil, Kraus, Bernhard, Bachmann, Jelinek and others one will be totally convinced that if there is a hell on earth it is Austria!


Aquilifer said...

Having at least seen Austria, I can say I disagree with such anti-Heimat Bullendroek.

Space Bar said...

hey switch back to the old template! this is terrible!

Alok said...

aquilifier: yes, it is only a deliberate negation, not an accurate portrait...

space bar: will do. was just a little bored with the same template.