Understanding the Viennese Paradox
Anticipating a visit to Vienna, I am trying to understand the place, its past, its present. Mention Vienna and pastries come to mind along with classical music. Austria as a nation is a bit more confusing, unenlightened as I am about how the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed in the last century. I’m a little concerned about the Hitler connection and the periodic bits of nastiness that surface about the country: the imbroglio over Kurt Waldheim’s involvement with Nazis during World War II, a past that did not prevent him from serving as United Nations Secretary General or as president of Austria; the bizarre revelation that a man kept one of his daughters locked in the basement for years, raped her repeatedly, impregnated her multiple times, and then brought their offspring upstairs to be raised by his wife, who claimed not to have known that one daughter was a sex slave in the basement. How could the land of Mozart and the birthplace of Marie-Antoinette have become like this? What is it like today?
I get a hint of Austrian dichotomies by reading literary critic Marjorie Perloff’s memoir, The Vienna Paradox. Perloff emigrated with her family to the United States as a child during the 1930s. It is from her work that I learn about high and low culture in Vienna and how a portion of the population recklessly valued cultural pursuits while disastrously ignoring political ones. Through Perloff’s writing, a reader learns how Jewish intellectuals miscalculated how the government was going to go.
We see how one of Perloff’s grandfathers, serving at a high level in the Austrian government before World War II, first loses his pension, and then his assets, and then his freedom; denied a request to emigrate to Rome, the man who once was the Austrian ambassador to the League of Nations in Geneva was described by the government as a traitor. He ended up making his way to Italy by foot over the Alps only to find himself in a bit of a bureaucratic hassle because he didn’t have permission to enter the country. Fortunately, he had connections to Italian government officials; Mussolini intervened, and Perloff’s grandfather was allowed in.
Perloff is an intriguing paradox herself. She tried to assimilate in many ways upon her arrival in New York, changing her name from Gabriele to Marjorie and attaining an impressive education despite her parents’ reduced circumstances. The high-brow and low- seem to confound her even as she incorporates both elements into her existence. Seemingly pleased to have finally been invited to a party in 8th grade while also being a diligent student, she maintains a bit of a mean-girl streak, oddly enough, sniping (and identifying by name) a girl in her school who had been left back a number of times and another who was popular despite a complexion and hair that needed makeovers. Perloff even criticizes a relative who died in Auschwitz for not wanting to abandon her jewelry and flee Austria. Some of these put-downs seem like long-held grudges of a sort not exactly benevolent. But then, perhaps Perloff is trying to make readers understand how entrenched this dangerous sense of superiority in a society can be.
This is a curious book, and it makes me even more curious about Vienna, and how it was, and how it is.
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