Review: Morton, Frederic. A Nervous Splendor. Vienna 1888 / 1889. New York : Penguin Books, 1979.

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When I was a teenager I loved to read and reread those books of Advice to the Litlorn, a small corner of a massive industry servicing those who don't really want to write, they want to "be a writer." I was deeply affected, permanently scarred no doubt, by the advice in the section on How to be a Playright: that a well-made play should never start with the sentence As you well know, my dear Gaston, the year is 1789 and our country, la belle France, is torn by strife and dissension. Only recently, long past the time of artistic pranks, did I understand what that advice meant; not, as I imagined and as many imagine still, that it would be interesting and original and all-around daring to start a play that way, or a painting or a doctoral dissertation. Rather, that every play, doctoral dissertation, fiction or non-fiction produced in the service of the Culture Industry must be built around an easily graspable evidence, an evidence so patent that its open revelation would strike the reader or viewer as an insult to their intelligence of the true nature of things: like Al Pope said, "Men must be taught as if you taught them not / And things unknown propos'd as things forgot." [Ain't that the truth.] To start with the inversion of this requirement is a good tactic; it's not a strategy. Think, for instance, what Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe would be without the radical spatial reconfigurations at the top of the painting, and you'll see in it no more than what the bourgeois saw: a blague de rapin, an art student's joke.

"A text, says Derrida, is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game;" but that would depend on the reader's expectations, wouldn't it? At first glance A Nervous Splendor perfectly fulfills these expectations: History as pop porn.

Vienna between July, 1888 and April 1889: Here's Crown Prince Rudolf, "handsome and dashing" according to the liner notes, who blows out whatever passes for brains among the Habsburgs, not to mention the brains of his upscale girlfriend, in a suicide pact; here's his venerable papa, Franz Josef, the Tightassed Emperor; here's Sigmund Freud nervously pacing the Ringstrasse; Klimt, raging at the Philistines; here's Brahms and Mahler and Brückner, though not in the same room. It's like eating potato chips: thin, filling, and if you understand the rules you know the treats are going to follow one another without any particular logic or justification.

And there are some gems here, like the one about Brückner dropping his glasses into Beethoven's coffin; or Sarah Bernhardt using an interview with the Viennese press to catwhip the local antisemites; except the author's used too many secondary sources, and his use of primary sources is too focused on unreliable sources to begin with. Even I, a lover of Vienna Chips, found my mind wandering by the last few chapters.

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And the author has Big Ideas: he wants to tell us what it all means; he wants to be a historian. In the process he shows his hand and the historian's hand as no professional historian would. That's why this book is worth a read: the laws of the text are so poorly hidden that they'll serve as a reliable guide to the far more shifty texts of the real historians of Modernism.

This is particularly impressive, because A Nervous Splendor was published a year before Carl Schorske's Fin-de-Si├Ęcle Vienna, the book that established once and for all the rules of the Modernity Game in Austria— what a preeminent Austrian historian calls "Brand Schorske." Schorske has become the Franz Josef of Austrian History: a tired old man dispensing rigid, incoherent rules and procedures that no academic bureaucrat would dare to contravene. In A Nervous Splendor the Rules are brought out into the open, where they don't make sense for all to see.

Rule #1: Paleo-liberalism and neo-liberalism are one and the same; as champions of the former, the younger Habsburgs (Crown Prince Rudolf or Archduke Franz Ferdinand) would have opened up Austria to all the joys of the latter had they not gotten themselves smoked at Mayerling and Sarajevo.

Rule #2: Freud did not uncover the roots of human behavior in sexual and other biological drives; Klimt was not an artist attempting certain specific ways of understanding human nature. Both were merely
"expressing" resistance or acquiescence to the inevitable forces of Modernity.

Rule #3: Since free-market liberalism is a force of Nature, not a belief (unlike Art or psychoanalysis), Freud, Klimt, the Crown Prince, the Archduke and all the others had no hope of modifying it, only to resist or submit. It's their failure to submit that defines Vienna, then and especially now. The face of free-market liberalism is Modernity; failure to submit (through suicide, murder, wild partying, etc.) inevitably leads to Decadence: suicide, murder, wild partying, psychoanalysis, Jugendstil, World War One, Nationalism, Adolf Hitler, and a terrible case of teenage acne. You've been warned.

7/7/2014; revised 7/14/2014.

 

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