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Cobbling Modernity
by Hugh Graham

"Plus ca change..." The present and future are cobbled out of the past. Innovators ransack the old. Iconoclasts look back with reverence. `The radical', to paraphrase Ambrose Bierce, `is tomorrow's reactionary'. Nothing is truly new, nor is anything newly true. The modern is, perhaps, not so modern at all.

All of this comes to mind with the cultural and architectural brawl of the 1860's that ended in the creation of modern Vienna-the strange tale at the centre of Carl Schorske's Thinking With History. In the 1850's, the citadel of the old city is commanded by a monarchy on the point of making common cause with the liberal bourgeoisie. But there is a barrier: between the new Ringstrasse (the circular boulevard built on the old city walls) and the outer urban sprawl is a sort of vast `green belt'. This belt was once the glacis below the fortress and is now greedily preserved by the army, if not as a parade ground then as a point of tradition. Everyone else wants a say about the greenspace, not least the expanding and jostling institutions of parliament, national culture, university, and the crown itself. The crown finally has its way; the glacis is up for grabs; and concepts and contracts are opened to a dozen competing interests.

Schorske's point is that the architectural ideologies which would fling Vienna into the future are all rooted in the past. When the dust settles the crown has lost its scheme to focus all the new institutions around the Hofburg to the vision of an ever more expansive bourgeoisie. In the end, the archaic monumentality represented by a Renaissance university, a Classical parliament, a Gothic `Rathaus', a museum, and a Baroque National Theatre faces outward onto the vast anonymous façades of the commercial Ringstrasse. Absolute monarchy has surrendered not only to the bourgeoisie, but unwittingly to modernity itself. Here we have nothing less than the passage from the classical world to the modern.

It is to the same end, perhaps oddly, that Schorske closes his book with Freud's use of archaeology. However, this too ends in modernity: Freud held that the Jews had derived their rational, moral monotheism from Egypt and in so doing were the guardians and purveyors of gentile civilisation and its glorious past in the face of the barbaric modernity of Hitler.

If the thematic link between old Vienna and the sands of Egypt seems a bit strained, it is only a little less so among the other essays. History's passage to modernity likewise gets us arguments for and against the modern city by the sybaritic Voltaire and the pessimistic Spengler. We are treated to Coleridge's late medieval dualities of order and change and landed and mobile money and their conciliation in a plan for a new society to cure the ills of industrial modernity. The Swiss historian, Burckhart, tries to set the course for his revered city of Basel through the rough seas of the future in the safe vessel of a Renaissance revival. We get William Morris's idealised medieval aesthetics, Disraeli's own reconciliation of individual enterprise and bucolic idealism; Wagner's use of Nordic mythology in his youthful rebellion against mid-century bourgeois liberalism. Each draws from the past the medicine for the future. It is all part of that movement, fascinating in its ambivalence, of conservative radicalism, the `Tory' protest against industrial society.

If an `Austrian' part of the book floats somewhat apart from the rest, Schorske at least ties that part together with a nice dialectic of what he calls "grace and the word". This is the tension between the high Baroque emanation of physical beauty from divine grace, and the tough, critical rationalism of `the word': the productive conflict leads to modernity.

The idea is conveyed in a sort of cultural genealogy of late nineteenth-century Austria. The liberal bourgeois rationalist fathers who built the Ringstrasse are overthrown by sons who worship the irrational, the nation, and the folk community. They subordinate the "social to the psychological" and draw inspiration from the archaic Greece of Nietzsche and Wagner. The movement is, of course, anti-Semitic and will lose its Jewish intellectuals and more intelligent members to a dim, inchoate paleo-Fascism. This is followed in turn by the `Secession' or art-for-art's-sake aestheticism of the fin de siècle, a loose rabble that included Gustav Klimt and chose to break abruptly with the past and to address modernity shatteringly and directly on its own terms.

Along the way we are treated to two opera composers: Schönberg, who, in the transcendent nihilism of Moses and Aron, rejects all solutions to modernity; and Gustav Mahler, who absorbs them all. Mahler, in Schorske's account, seems to have spanned every stage in the move from high Baroque Grace to the rationalist Word, and has been left exhausted. The century concludes in a sort of victory for `the word', that is, `honest, rational truth' over aesthetic superfluity. Here, resoundingly, is the birth of the form-follows-function architecture of Otto Wagner and the sacrifice of the public façade to the individualism of the austere private space of "atomised modernity" in the architecture of Adolf Loos. At best it's all a strange spectacle of artists and architects confronting the autonomous, relatively formless juggernaut of an industrial future-either with a cold clean break or with barricades of history, but in either case, helplessly absorbed into modernity itself.

The problem is that maintaining this theme through widely ranging essays (written for a variety of publications over many years) becomes tenuous to the point of requiring considerable elasticity. The collection is also hindered by its oddly partial focus on late nineteenth-century Austria. Viennese cultural history by no means speaks for all of fin-de-siècle Europe and though it is Schorske's specialty, nowhere does he justify the attention it gets. It seems, once again, an accident of the collection.

But Germany and Austria together did have a relation to the larger world. It was on the Teutonic axis between the Adriatic and the Baltic that modernity produced its darkest reactions. As early as the 1870's there were ominous traces of a cultural nihilism among the young and disaffected that, within sixty years, would blossom into Nazism. But for Schorske this seems only to be Austrian history and it must end abruptly and academically in 1914, the limit of his field of inquiry. And so the core of his study is left to look like a personal predilection for the cultural entanglements of Mitteleuropa rather than the commentary on modernity's dark ripening which it starts to imply.

Perhaps it is to disentangle them that Schorske resorts to a rather mechanical literary style. He loves parallelisms and contrasts, tidy groupings, symmetries and comparisons that march across the pages in twos with sentences beginning "If..." and continuing "then...". He substitutes dense summaries and condensations, concepts, movements, and synoptic academic phrases for eloquence and persuasion.

In short he might intrigue you or confuse you but he will never move you. In this he recalls the middle-of-the-road style of the `liberal survey' in Arthur Herman's study of European cultural history, The Idea of Decline in Western History. Perhaps it has something to do with East Coast liberal academia. It also might be Schorske's own deracinated transatlantic Germanness (divulged in a biographical introduction); but his liberal detachment and modesty seem to produce a Europe seen through the wrong end of the telescope and written about in the airless chambers of the academic paper.

For all his erudition, the only thing resembling an actual position is Schorske's case for `processual' history in the final essay. Here he defends history in its own right, as opposed to its more recent appropriation by other disciplines where it supplies archaeological `cross-sections' in support of science, anthropology or cultural studies. This is why Schorske makes a noble plea on behalf of Herodotus who made change and process in culture and politics central to understanding the present. Here Schorske is, of course, supporting his own studies of cultural change in the passage to modernity; and I suppose that at least is something of a mission in an age which seems more ahistorical with every passing year. 

Hugh Graham is a Toronto writer. He is currently writing a book on the history of political right and left to be published by Stoddart.


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