Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time Analysis

Hermann Broch

Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

In his excellent introduction to Hermann Broch’s cultural history of Europe from 1860 to 1920, Michael Steinberg confidently forecasts that this first complete translation into English of any of Broch’s nonfiction works will give added impetus to the Broch renaissance already in progress in Germany and France. Broch was an Austrian Jew who lived most of his life in the Vienna of Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, Ernst Mach, Adolf Loos, Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Musil, and, not least, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the poet and dramatist whose life and artistic development serve Broch as a microcosm of the historical epoch he investigates. Jailed shortly by the Nazis in 1938, Broch was nevertheless able to escape to the United States through the intervention of his friends and spent his final years in Princeton, New Jersey, and New Haven, Connecticut. For most of his early life, Broch managed the textile mills of his family, but even then wrote insightful essays of cultural criticism which dealt with that interplay of aesthetics and ethics in modern times that was to become the focus of all of his writings. Best known among these writings in the English-speaking world are his novels, The Sleepwalkers (1931-1932) and The Death of Virgil (1945). Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time, Broch’s single historical work, was written late in his life and appears in its entirety and in the sequence intended by the author for the first time in any language. Steinberg’s translation is based on the edition of Broch’s works in Schriften zur Literatur I: Kritik (1975), in which Hofmannsthal und seine Zeit appears on pages 111-284 and 300-334 of that volume.

It is a work of such broad scope and dense texture that Broch judiciously chose not to impede its flow by encumbering it with footnotes. His translator has in principle respected this decision, adding a minimum of references mostly concerned with matters of translation and the identification of minor figures on the European cultural scene. The lack of footnotes underscores the fact that the work is an essay on cultural history relying on the credibility of the author’s thesis rather than historical documentation. Although it was written in the 1940’s, both its method and its thesis are strongly reminiscent of the nineteenth century’s greatest cultural critic, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Echoing an assessment which Nietzsche had already made in 1873, Broch begins his discourse on the “value vacuum” in nineteenth century Europe by noting the eclecticism in the styles of artistic expression. For Nietzsche, coherence and unity of artistic style were key elements in the measure of a nation’s culture, a measure in which he found Bismarckian Germany thoroughly deficient. Broch’s European context is wider and his focal point is Austria, but he shares with his predecessor the perception of a cultural disintegration, of the loss of a commonly held set of values by which the various elements of a culture are bound together as a whole. The architectural eclecticism of the epoch was for Broch the most visible sign of its “non-style,” its fragmented allegiances and its partial solutions to man’s aesthetic endeavor.

“Art and Its Non-style at the End of the Nineteenth Century,” the first of four long chapters, forms together with the last one, “The Tower of Babel,” the artistic, social, and political framework for the central sections on Hofmannsthal. Broch gradually narrows the focus in his introductory chapter from Europe to Germany and finally to Vienna, the “center of the European value vacuum,” where the populace faced the impending apocalypse with its unique sense of gaiety and hedonistic life-style. At each stage in the narrowing process, the same themes recur almost as leitmotifs to be elucidated in their new context, and these themes are consistently placed in opposition, the familiar appeal of the traditional countered by the lure of the innovative, the aesthetic impulse of art by its ethical potential. The decorative tendency of the arts, especially prominent in the representative art form of the era, the opera, was countered by a new, antidecorative art embodied in French poetry and painting. In Broch’s elegantly constructed scheme, Richard Wagner and Hans Makart, Charles Baudelaire and Paul Cézanne emerge as the artists who best typify the underlying tensions. A richness of texture reflecting the ambiguities and crosscurrents of the cultural epoch supports this design and prevents it from degenerating into mere schematism. The phenomenon of l’art pour l’art at the end of the century, for example, mirrors the turn away from the rationalizing ornamentation of bourgeois art. Its “great accomplishment” in Broch’s eyes was to lead art from the rational and decorative back to the regenerative irrational sphere, yet in its exclusive concern with aesthetics, it brought with it a social indifference that heralded and inevitably...

(The entire section is 2039 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Book World. XIV, September 2, 1984, p. 13.

The New Yorker. LX, January 28, 1985, p. 92.

The New York Times. March 17, 1984, p. 15.

Washington Post. September 2, 1984, p. 13.