David Langwallner: The Austrian Mind


From top: Statue of Salzburg-born Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, located in the Burggarten in Vienna. In the background the Austrian flag flies above the Austrian National Library; David Langwallner

To My Daughter Lara.

“In those days before the Great War when the events narrated in this book took place, it had not yet become a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When one of the livings had been extinguished another did not at once take his place to obliterate him: there was a gap where he had been, and both close and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they became aware of his gap. When fire had eaten away a house from the row of others in a street, the burnt-out space remained long empty. Masons worked slowly and cautiously. Close neighbours and casual passers-by alike, when they saw the empty space, remembered the aspect and walls of the vanished house. That was how things were then. Everything that grew took its time in growing and everything that was destroyed took a long time to be forgotten. And everything that had once existed left its traces so that in those days people lived on memories, just as now they live by the capacity to forget quickly and completely.”

― Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

“There still exists – even today – a yearning, a nostalgia for European solidarity, a solidarity of European culture. Regrettably, solidarity itself no longer exists, except in hearts, in consciences, in the minds of a few great men at the heart of each nation. European consciousness – or what one might call a ‘cultural European awareness’ – had been on the wane for years ever since the awakening of national identity. You could say that patriotism has killed Europe.”

– Also, Joseph Roth, On the End of the World

I am, of course, half-Austrian and love going to Austria at Christmas, if I can or could and, since now everyone is restricted in movement, the only visit can be a mental one and a feat of remembrance and imagination as the Roth quote from one of the great Austrian novels indicates and presages our awful times of casual forgetfulness and recrudescent chauvinism.

We are all now traveling in our minds and memories, not unlike Mr Proust. Remembering things past.

And I am coming to grips with that aspect of me that has always made me an outsider in Ireland and elsewhere, my Austrian mind; my left foot, in Irish terms.

So, this is obviously, at one level, a personal exploration. Like Lampedusa the Leopard (1959), the established work of Italian literature on times past, the passing of time and that which was lost in a new age. But now a feudal order is asserted quite different to that book which was, at one level, about the transition of Italy to democracy but also the abandonment of tradition.

Well, tradition and civility are now, yet again, being abandoned in a new dark age.

My childhood in Ireland, not unlike that of Hugo Hamilton in his narrative The Speckled People, something I have written hitherto about for Village magazine, involved casual racism and bullying.

My family, that I am close to, are from Salzburg, home of The Fespiele, and Mozart was, of course, born in Salzburg and a little museum in Salzburg glorifies his brief tenure on Earth. Bach aside, Mozart’s music combing lyricism, frivolity, dexterity, and profundity in equal parts is a useful starting point. But what does it say about the human condition is not just chocolate-box fripperies or the texture of lightness that is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik but an understanding of darkness. Darkness threads through the Austrian mind juxtaposed with light.

Thus, of the great operas Cosi Fan Tutti and The Marriage of Figaro are the intrigues and mishaps of sexual dalliances and the rites of spring. A ray of light and an understanding of human frailty. But there are darker themes in a mind of native ambivalence to quote Harold Bloom on Shakespeare and indeed FR Leavis.

Thus, Don Giovanni is about the destructive powers of rakish satanism, also evident in Zweig’s best book beautifully filmed by Max Ophuls’ Letters from an Unknown Women, where a seduced woman writes a letter to a man who has casually forgotten her. So, there is a level of moralism and condemnation in Austrian letters. A good thing and a sense of honour.

In Mozart is the incomparable Magic Flute splendidly rendered in a film by Bergman which, in effect, is about, at one level, the dubious justification of freemasonry which Mozart was but also, at a deeper level and a context of the time, a crier de coeur and assertion of a form of enlightened and tolerant monarchism against the vectors of state and, in particular, church authoritarianisms. Now needed again. The assertion of moderation against extremism. Including though against Freemasons. Indeed, our world is run that way. Corporate freemasons.

The Austrians, in fact, have not universally acclaimed the Catholic Church and a visit to an Austrian church for Sunday service is to experience splendid isolation and admire the architecture. The only good reasons for visiting a church, it might be said. But not necessarily by me.

The great enfant terrible of Austrian letters and its greatest post-war writer Thomas Bernhard was gloriously insulting about religion, though in words I partially endorse.

The Catholic Church is the world poisoner, the world destroyer, the world annihilator, which is the truth.And the Austrians believe in the truth and take it seriously, unlike the gradual decline in that in Ireland. The national psyche of Ireland is a society committed to post-truth, lies and propaganda and willing to accept anything that suits their agenda and to comply.

It must be said that Bernhard had such an ‘against everything’ quality that even the tolerant Austrian homeland banned, censored, or neglected, as well as lauded, him. His masterpiece Woodcutters is about a man in a chair at a party sipping Champagne, letting fly at bourgeoise hypocrisy and is one of the great Austrian books

A flavour of the Bernhard-like attack is the following:

“Everything about you, everything you are, has always been pretence, never genuine, never real.”

In his will, he ordered none of his works be performed in Austria. This has been deliberately avoided. All cultures have their tropes.

In terms of Salzburgian culture, The Merry Widow an exemplar of light operetta, like a jaded ritual, is still performed in The Lehrer Theatre in Bad Ischl and elsewhere. The last nostalgic remnants of modernist European civilisation. But always kitsch and certainly ritualised. And the Austrians do have an ambivalent relationship with kitsch. The Blue Danube is not unlike a classic Britpop song.

Even the great Herman Broch was fascinated by kitsch in a negative way, linking it to a decline in values.

“The maker of kitsch does not create inferior art, he is not an incompetent or a bungler, he cannot be evaluated by aesthetic standards; rather, he is ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil. And since it is radical evil that is manifest here, evil per se, forming the absolute negative pole of every value-system, kitsch will always be evil, not just kitsch in art, but kitsch in every value-system that is not an imitation system.”

In fact, in some respects the values vacuum, and the triumph of kitsch paves the way for Nazism as Broch and indeed Robert Musil both identified. Radical evil and kitsch is our age, so they were mystical to see it coming. Camp Fascism as Susan Sontag also identified. Varadkar to Gallagher and back again.

Welcome to Coronavirus Panopticon, you can checkout, but never leave; in fact the over-celebrated Klimt, a disturbed, dependent human being, is kitsch. A kind of postcard and coffee table art for a fundamentally illiterate generation, then and now, so let us not extol Austrian culture universally.

Beethoven was a German but, of course, lived and died in Vienna, raging at a storm it is said so I claim him falsely as an Austrian or at least a Viennese, though the two concepts must be kept separate. His darkness is a counterpart to Mozart. His deafness influences the isolated pessimism of the later atonal dark sonatas and are close to the finality of expression in musical terms that Beckett created in language.

His final string quartet is integral to Dr Faustus by Thomas Mann, where the satanic composer modelled on Heidegger sells his Faustian soul to the devil.

I have found that it must not be. The good and the noble, what they call the human, even though it is good and noble, what men have fought for, have stormed citadels for, and in their moment of fulfilment, have jubilant proclaimed it is not to be. It is not to be, it will be taken back. I will take it back.

Mann, the great German conservative, had the moral integrity to decamp to Switzerland when such ideas took hold, then and now. So, a crucial point to appreciate conservatism is not all bad if it conserves the good and the ethical. Mann is juxtaposed in this respect with Heidegger, also a potential, if not actual, inspiration for Dr Faustus.

The rise of Nazism is anticipated brilliantly in Broch’s The Sleepwalkers one of the great novels of Austrian heritage.

In the character of Hugenau, a man solely motivated by profit and homo economicus, to use the terms of the law and economics movement, we have a real sense in 1918 of a generation so brutal that the seeds of fascism were already there. The book culminates with murder of a journalist and the rape of his wife.

In fact, precisely the same point is made by the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke in The White Ribbon, and both works culminate around 1918. The damage had been done and a brutal generation created. All that was needed was to tap into the hysteria. Ireland is ripe now in that respect. And, in fact, it has been done in increments. Low-hanging fruit for the picking.

Thus, we have a shattered portrayal of decaying values where people are commodities and the only obligation is survival. The dark pessimism of Broch evident in this quote:

“It is always he, unfortunate wretch, who assumes the role of executioner in the process of value-disintegration, and on the day when the trumpets of judgment sound it is the man released from all values who becomes the executioner of a world that has pronounced its own sentence.”

The most famous period in Vienna was the belle epoque that Roth, Musil and Broch all reference: that narrow spectrum of time when Vienna represented European civilisation at its finest.

It ends peremptorily with the dismembering of the Austrian empire, post the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo which caused a spark and then a sleepwalking inferno, the state of somnambulism that Broch identified also evident in Musil.

His description of Hapsburgian democracy equally applicable to this day and age:

“By its constitution it was liberal, but the system of government was clerical. The system of government was clerical, but the general attitude to life was liberal. Before the law, all citizens were equal, but not everyone, of course, was a citizen. There was a parliament, but it used freedom in such an excessive way that it was kept almost always closed.”

(Musil: The Man without Qualities, Vol. 1: A Sort of Introduction, Chapter 8 – Kaakinen).

Now the word Kaakinen is his playful word for Vienna and, in effect, from various sources means shit. There was a sense that the fin de siècle cosmopolis was decadent and that values were gone. And decaying values threads its way through that book as it does the sleepwalkers.

Later in The Man Without Qualities

Stupidity is active in every direction and can dress up in all the clothes of truth. Truth, on the other hand, has for every occasion only one dress and one path, and is always at a disadvantage.

Nonetheless, Viennese cosmopolitanism or decadence continued unabated through the 1920s, though many of a glittering generation were lost including, in my view, the greatest painter of the 20th century even though his output was so small, Schiele, who died in the 19i8-flu epidemic, though a growing and gnawing sense of dread was evident during that era.

Though it is amazing how, collectively, they did not see it coming until it was too late.

In Zweig’s retroactive memoir The World of Yesterday there is a name check from Freud to Herzl (one of the founders of Zionism) of all the titanic intellectual figures in Vienna, curiously name-dropping like celebs of our time, but a curious state of derealisation until it is too late about how history is closing in.

Much of the intellectual community lived dangerously in their own silo bubbles, to use a modern phrase, as is splendidly documented in the German Peter Weiss the Aesthetics of Resistance. He, at least, had the good sense to decamp to Sweden.

Novels aside, there is the intellectual tradition. Karl Marx, an Austrian extirpated from Vienna via several European countries to end up authoring the book that changed the world in the British museum dies in 1885 and Austria has always been divided between socialists and conservatives, or rather between social democrats and conservatives, blending into the Freedom Party and, in fact, fascism. Let us not paper over the cracks of Austrian culture.

Heider is now dead, but the still immensely powerful Freedom Party’s stronghold is Kärnten, and it borders with Croatia and Slovenia. It is a most unsettling and authoritarian place and very unlike salzkammergut, but one should be candid.

Vienna, with its libertarianism and its strong socialist traditions is not Austria. Apart from Salzburg also, it is not a cosmopolitan country. Picture postcard aside.

Now in terms of his impact, Marx changed the world and the description of the rampages of capitalism of ideology, false consciousness, exploitation is always central to my mindset, and to this day and age. He is still the supreme analyst of our age, buried in Highgate cemetery, and Freud also died as an emigree from fascism, in Golders Green nearby.

Whether the concept of hysteria is sexual or not, a doubt this is a hysterical age where all sorts of fantasises are being sublimated into nefarious activities and agendas and indeed where persecution delusions are omnipresent of all those we blame for our individual and collective misfortunes. Including demonisation of others. Freud also, a feature of The Austrian Mind, hated religion or regarded it as a superstitious folkway. Then, and now, a dangerous thought process.

Of course, all fine de siècle books on Vienna deal with the Wittgenstein’s as rich as Croesus and Jewish but very dysfunctional and Ludwig the odd one out.

Wittgenstein is central to our age of the distortion and manipulation of language. The fundamental achievement of the Tractatus is to understand the limitations of language. That language can only show and represent, he argues, and, within limitations, clarify. Thus, language is context-specific, self-limiting and denuded of ethical and moral context.

So, for example the proposition represents such and such situation. It is the negation of ethics and metaphysical discourse in a less cited but crucial passage that is so troublesome. Scepticism is not irrefutable but obviously nonsensical when it tries to raise doubts where no questions are asked for a doubt can exist only where a question exists question only where an answer exists and an answer only where something can be said.

Well, reading Wittgenstein, like reading Hemingway and Camus and Beckett, clarifies how language should be used and is most useful for a courtroom. But to take politics and ethics out of philosophy, or indeed morality, is extremely dangerous although his claim is just about the domain of philosophy. A limited claim or a domain claim. But that domain is his genre, linguistic positivism, although helpful with precision, is unhelpful with larger questions.

The final line of the Tractatus has acquired a mythical or mystical status worth quoting.

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

Silence is important, currently. Meditation also. But what we can, we should we speak off. Well, that which Wittgenstein forecloses politics and morality desperately needed.

The recent Austrian Nobelist passing over the award to Jelinek in silence is Handke and he is a great writer. His flirtations with the Serbian cause, however well-intentioned and misconstrued best of intentions leave a degree of doubt, given the Austrian mindset, but there is a rich warm humanism in his work.

Stories and silence.

“If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood.”

― Peter Handke

You cannot be silent and create silence in being silent. So, you must create silence or, rather, the effect of silence, through words.

A sorrow beyond words his recent recollections of his mother’s suicide well jaw-dropping and one of the terrific books of the last ten years.

So, let us not traduce Austria with Hitler and Heider but elevate it with Wittgenstein and Broch, Musil, Mozart and Thomas Bernhard and understand Austrian culture’s commitment to truth, culture in a non-kitsch sense, opposition to satanism, whether religious or not, occasional irreverence, sense of history and a sense, albeit fragile, for the need for a pan-European, universal, or non-tribalistic identity.

But let us not be uncritical of Austrian culture either. Something very dark produced Hitler, Heider and their emanations in intellectual life. And that darkness is evident today and not exclusively in Austria. For Heider read Varadkar, Gallagher, Organ or Farage.

Too soft targets though. What about the judges and apparatchiks in the state who also go along with this, and not just in Ireland. The dancing gnome of parachutes and the most nauseating human being Ireland has produced in recent vintage causing the bemused and dismissive but far too civilised sneer of Jeremy Paxman is Mr Michael O Leary, on the steering group of the Bilderberg group. with Varadkar, Gallagher and Coventry humble supplicants.

Austria has a lot to contribute, as does the Austrian mind, but a lot to understand about fascist non-restraint.

David Langwallner is a barrister specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish Innocence project and was Irish lawyer of the year at the 2015 Irish law awards. His column appears here every Tuesday and Friday. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner


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2 thoughts on “David Langwallner: The Austrian Mind

  1. bisted

    …ah David…you were going so well up to Klimt…kitch you reckon…and to bestow the honour of greatest painter of 20thC to a mere pupil of his – Schiele…step away from the schnapps…

  2. Fearganainm

    ‘Organ or Farage’. That should be Orban, presumably.

    Unless it’s an “Ooooh, aaah, up the fla” swipe at Farage.

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