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Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire by Marjorie Perloff

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Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire. Marjorie Perloff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. xv + 204. $30.00 (cloth).

Our understandings of aesthetic periods along national and generic lines are often highly contingent. Anglophones may know a good deal about seventeenth-century Dutch painting, but almost nothing about eighteenth-century Dutch poetry. Italian opera looms large in the received history of nineteenth-century art music, but the nineteenth-century Italian symphony is obscure compared to contemporary orchestral music from Germany. In Edge of Irony, Marjorie Perloff claims compellingly that Anglo-American scholars of modernism may be well familiar with works of visual art and music from pre-World War I Vienna—the paintings of Gustav Klimt, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler—but are almost wholly unfamiliar with a significant body of writing that was created by writers between the World Wars from across the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

These authors, Perloff asserts, were raised in the non-Viennese edges of empire, in multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, and largely Jewish countries and communities. They created a distinctively Austrian literary modernism that was wholly distinct from the Anglo-Irish or the French-Italian avant-garde traditions. Less interested in formal experimentation than the authors of these other times and places, Perloff’s “Austro-modernists” share a common disbelief in aesthetic or linguistic closure, a cynicism often aligned with humor, and a disbelief in the possibilities of cultural systems to reform human life. Their dominant mode, she argues, is an irony that emerges from many sources: geographical and cultural marginalization within the Empire; an ambivalent nostalgia for a past to which many of the authors, as Jews, never truly belonged; and dislocation and rupture borne of the sudden collapse of Austrian culture and history in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Her main examples include Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, a novel still not widely known in English despite its status as a set text in German schools; Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, only available in English in a highly truncated version until the publication of an authoritative two-volume version in 1995; and Karl Kraus’s massive play The Last Days of Mankind, which only became available in English in 2014. Her treatment of Elias Canetti focuses on The Tongue Set Free, the first volume of an autobiographical trilogy written late in life, rather than his better-known and earlier works Auto-da-Fé or Crowds and Power. Perloff’s treatment of her other two subject authors, Paul Celan and Ludwig Wittgenstein, deals with less-studied aspects of their work. She reads Celan mainly as a love poet, and Wittgenstein as a thinker absorbed by the possibility and complexities of personal renewal, not only through language but through religion.

Throughout, Perloff emphasizes the degree to which these authors derived their linguistic and cultural energies from distinct regional cultures, different family upbringings, and diverse linguistic practices. This very diversity led to their sharing an overarching aesthetic of skepticism, a disbelief that larger structures could contain the complexities of politics or of the self. They viewed the German language as a paradoxical medium, simultaneously the bedrock of their tradition and something porous and multiple—the perfect medium for representing a worldview conditioned by both nostalgia and rupture.

Perloff writes that no other modern European culture experienced the trauma of severe historical rupture as did the Austrian, whose territory shrank from 50 million inhabitants and 240,000 square miles to 6 million inhabitants and 32,000 square miles within a matter of years. Such a shocking diminution of power and populace led to a literary ethos quite distinct from the better-known forms of interwar German modernism centered around Weimar or Vienna. Because her subject authors were the product of profound disillusion, all displayed a love-hate relationship to Vienna proper, to the centralized Austrian history of “kaiserlich und königlich” government (which Musil satirized memorably as “Kakania”). Moreover, this modernism was largely created by Jews of provincial origin who were themselves at times guilty of anti-Semitism, of wanting to “pass” as cosmopolitan intellectuals—and who all chose exile of one form or another, from Vienna as intellectual capital and from Austro-Hungary writ large. These nationally and linguistically various origins were inseparable from their skepticism towards closed intellectual and political entities.

Thus the ferocious satire of Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind and Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, with its descriptions of “[t]he peculiarly Kakanian oscillation between utopianism and apathy,” directs its strongest satiric fire at the institutions that, in the waning days of Empire, promised continuity and reformation, but offered only inanition and cliché: politics, journalism, and society (99). Canetti’s autobiographical writings and Celan’s love poetry embody a similar ambivalence to conceptions of the self, from Canetti’s anti-Freudian aversion to introspection to Celan’s grammatical contortions in the face of erotic binding to a beloved object.

Cannily, Perloff traces this movement from social to personal forms through a multi-generic ordering of chapters that itself moves from the large to the small. Her authors share a tendency towards larger fictional and dramatic structures that resist closure, but also have a taste for the apothegm. (Franz Kafka, arguably the major figure within both of these traditions, falls intentionally outside of Perloff’s ambit simply because of his familiarity.) Her argument follows the same path, from Kraus through Wittgenstein, which is also the movement from the ironies of the larger external and political world to the complexities of the linguistic representation of the self and of love, and of thought itself as the subject of meta-linguistic contemplation. Throughout, Perloff keeps her eye on the linguistic implications of her authors’ social-political trauma. Her ultimate touchstone is Wittgenstein: his belief that language creates the conditions of the world, and that argumentation calls not for linear discourse but for a series of aphorisms. Even in their largest works, her writers are all creators of essays, trying to demonstrate how, as Wittgenstein claimed, “ethics and aesthetics are one,” even as they recognize that language is always inseparable from culture (quoted on 78). (Perloff argues pointedly, for instance, that the crabbed syntax of Celan’s poetry may owe less to conscious experimentation than to the idiosyncratic grammar of the Austrian German spoken in Celan’s native Czernowitz [133].)

Like her subject authors, Perloff excels at the apothegm, as when she calls The Radetzky March an anti-bildungsroman, a novel about what a character unlearns, or when she reveals her postmodern sympathies in noting that The Man Without Qualities is less a novel than “a conceptual work like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, in which each film clip is presented in real time and yet the sequencing is quite unpredictable” (45, 84). In terms of larger structure, however, she could be more explicit about the commonalities in the kinds of irony that she claims link her authors. At times her use of the term “irony” positions it close to satire; at others towards skepticism; at still others it seems commensurate with a sense of the absurd. She surely makes it clear how her authors share “a deep irony, an irony bordering on cynicism that accompanied extreme disillusion coupled with nostalgia for a loved and lost culture” (143). Yet does Canetti’s refusal to delve into psychology itself constitute irony without special pleading? At one point Perloff claims that the ostensible realism of Roth’s The Radetzky March is “itself a form of irony,” although other commentators have suggested that the novel lies on the edge of the canon precisely because of the conventionality of its overall style (44). In what sense is extreme and impassioned self-questioning in the face of potential meaninglessness—a tendency in Austrian writing whose culmination, Perloff notes, is the work of Thomas Bernhard— “ironic” per se? Perloff scrupulously lays out the geography of the various cultural, political, and linguistic “edges” that constitute her field of study—including providing a variety of useful maps and period photographs as plates and insets—but could have used finer distinctions in demarcating the territory covered by her central critical term.

Perhaps Perloff’s refusal to totalize is in keeping with her writers’ skepticism about systems and the degree to which supposed monoliths, such as empires, contain—and may even need to contain—irreconcilable multiplicity. In Edge of Irony, Perloff provocatively continues the project of her earlier The Futurist Moment (1986) by attempting to expand our sense of the forms of European modernism. The Austro-modernist ethos of the post-empire, Perloff claims, anticipates much of the darkness and cynicism “of our own disillusioned twenty-first century” (xiv). Edge of Irony is a cogent and articulate vade mecum to that darkness.

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