Solomon Liptzin (essay date 1936)
SOURCE: "The Viennese Aesthete," in Richard Beer-Hofmann, Bloch Publishing, 1936, pp. 1-21.
[In the following excerpt, Liptzin discusses the psychological insight that characterizes Beer-Hofmann's work, particularly his first published volume, Novellen.]
German literature at the close of the nineteenth century seemed to center in the three metropolises: Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. Each of these cities had a physiognomy of its own which found expression in its literary life. The Prussian capital, that had been most violently affected by the triumph of science and industrialism, reacted by taking over in its literary products the technique of science and the subject-matter of industrialism. It sought to substitute keen observation for native inspiration, to speak of heredity and environment instead of God and fate, to vie with sociology in the interpretation of social phenomena and with psychology in the exact description and careful analysis of instincts and reflexes. Thus was born the militant naturalism of Holz and Schlaf and Young Hauptmann. The Bavarian capital, though acceding to Berlin political supremacy in the new empire, sought to retain for itself the literary ascendancy that Wagner and Geibel and Heyse had for a generation bestowed upon it. The attack upon the older Munich school, especially upon Heyse, in the columns of Michael Georg Conrad's organ Die Gesellschaft, was at the same time the rallying cry for a new literary group with Munich as its center. Yet, though perhaps more vociferous in its negative creed and though perhaps more amenable to French than to Slavic or Scandinavian influences, this group did not in its essential accomplishments differ from its Berlin allies.
Far from the din and turmoil of the struggle between German mid-Victorianism and German modernism, Viennese men-of-letters continued to write their tired and melancholy poems, tales, and dramas, even as their unwieldy empire continued to drag out a slow and unheroic existence waiting for its inevitable end and dissolution. Though statesmen, lured by a false sense of security, might fail to discern this end, poets sensed it and the typical Viennese writer at the turn of the century was without faith in the future of his country. He neither accepted nor did he violently oppose the unsavory political and social regime, but with a gentle, critical smile he turned from it to a dream-world which he called the pure world of art as distinct from the impure world of every-day life. Since Vienna was the capital of a vast empire to which wealth flowed from every province, its typical writers were members of well-to-do patrician families who were spared the bitter struggle for bread. They had the leisure and the means to travel and to assimilate influences from the leading European literary centers. They felt themselves drawn especially to Baudelaire and Verlaine, Maeterlinck and Jens Peter Jacobsen, Oscar Wilde and d'Annunzio, Symbolists and Decadents, but nevertheless they avoided associating their poetic efforts too closely with those of any school. They did not shout, as did the Munich and Berlin writers, that they were revolutionizing either the technique or the subject-matter of literature, nor did they feel the need of setting up elaborate theories to justify weak results. They had no organ about which to group themselves as had the Munich circle in Die Gesellschaft or the Berlin circle in Die Freie Bühne, later renamed Neue Rundschau. We can speak of them as a unit only because, born in the same metropolis of the same social class within a few years of each other and facing in their youth and manhood similar problems, similar stimuli, and similar frustrations, they gave expression in their literary products to parallel themes, like characters, closely allied philosophies, and all this in analogous language.
At times Vienna cafés were common meeting grounds for discussions of art, atheism, and politics. Café Grienstadl was especially famed as the literary café and there in the nineties one could encounter Hermann Bahr, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Peter Altenberg, Felix Salten, Richard Beer-Hofmann, Karl Kraus, Felix Dörmann, and many lesser lights. Hermann Bahr writes in his diary on January 1, 1921: "It is now thirty years since I came to Vienna after straggling through Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Tangier, again Paris, again Berlin, and finally St. Petersburg. I was at that time invited by a young man of Briinn, E. M. Kafka, the editor of Moderne Dichtung, to found the group Young Vienna. The available material consisted of a young physician, Dr. Arthur Schnitzler; a person famed about town because of the splendor of his neckties, Dr. Richard Beer-Hofmann; and a high school youth who wrote under the name Loris, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. I looked them over and took the risk of founding the school."
Of the three young writers who were soon known in the nineties as the Viennese aesthetes, two have become internationally famous: Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal. The third is not too well known even in his own country and almost unknown abroad. Yet he alone outgrew his early beginnings and though he wrote but very little, that little is unique and will undoubtedly take its place among the permanent treasures of German literature.
The world of these aesthetes was in the main the world of pleasures that palled, of comedies that ended tragically, of dreams superimposed on reality, that burst at the slightest pin-prick of fate. Death had but to knock at the gate of the villa inhabited by Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Claudio, the hero of Der Tor und der Tod, and this aesthete immediately realized that his existence had been that of a fool. Old age had but to approach Schnitzler's dandy Anatol and his ironic smile became bitter, and as Julian Fichtner or Marquis von Sala or Casanova, he had difficulty in masking his utter loneliness and misery. Beer-Hofmann's characters, though allied to those of Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, nevertheless manage as a result of an inner catastrophe to recover their balance and to stride forth into a new life filled with a more substantial meaning.
It was in 1893 at the age of twenty-seven that the young lawyer Richard Beer-Hofmann first attracted public notice with a slender volume entitled Novellen. This volume consisted of two short tales: "Das Kind" and "Camelias." Michael Georg Conrad, who as editor of Die Gesellschaft for a time occupied a dominant position in the field of criticism, immediately hailed Beer-Hofmann as a master of fine psychological portraiture, as an original artist who had struck out on a new path, and congratulated German literature upon the rise of another poetic star. Although the Viennese writer in later decades withdrew this volume from publication and spoke of it merely as a youthful product little worthy of note, nevertheless a careful analysis of its contents reveals in embryonic form many of the themes and problems with which Beer-Hofmann wrestled in his later and maturer works.
There is, on the one hand, the stressing of man's insignificance in the universal order and, on the other hand, the assertion of the guilt of the creator towards even the most insignificant of his created objects. Then there are questions raised as to the necessity of pain in this world, the responsibility of the individual towards fate, the relations of parents to children and of children to parents—questions that reappear in manifold variations throughout the poet's creative career.
These early tales betray the influence of Maupassant in subject-matter and of Flaubert in style. "Camelias," the shorter and less significant of the two stories, was written in December 1891. Its central figure is a Viennese dandy, the handsome Freddy. What strikes one as most peculiar about this beau is that, unlike the dandies of Schnitzler and of Hofmannsthal, he is not a frivolous philanderer. Though this well-to-do bachelor of thirty-eight has nothing of the puritan or ascetic about him, he nevertheless does not roam from object to object in the realm of irresponsible amours. On the contrary, Beer-Hofmann confers upon this earliest and most ridiculous of his characters, as well as upon the latter's hired mistress, the same sense of responsibility and the same tender conscience which he is afterwards to bestow upon his later more serious heroes and heroines. Freddy has had an affair with Franzi. For thirteen years he has been faithful to her and she to him, although their illicit relationship has been the result not of ecstatic intoxication but rather of a convenient arrangement measured in terms of dollars and cents.
One Saturday night in early spring, as Freddy returns home from a ball, he recalls the beautiful girl he has danced with throughout the evening, a girl he has known since her third year and whom he now suddenly discovers to have grown up. The flattering thought that the seventeen year old Thea found him still attractive, even though he was more than twenty years her senior, leads him to contemplate the possibility of marrying her and of putting an end to his unworthy affair with Franzi. He determines to break immediately his long habit of sending a bouquet of camellias to Franzi every Sunday. He will instead order large Parma-violets to be delivered to Thea's address.
This decision is hardly reached when doubts begin to assail Freddy. What a complete transformation in his accustomed manner of living this step would involve! What havoc it would wreak with his well regulated habits, with his present daily routine! Thea was young. Theatres, balls, concerts, marriage, love were new experiences to her. She would surely want to enjoy them to their fullest extent at a time when he was already tiring of these experiences.
Yet, assuming that he, the man of thirty-eight, were willing and able to devote himself entirely to satisfying the extravagant demands of a girl of seventeen who was first entering upon life, could he possibly look forward with equanimity to later years when, for example, he would be an aging individual of fifty-one, fond of restful quiet, and she a woman of thirty, a woman in her most dangerous period, full of intense craving for the joy of life? With his knowledge of women, he was sure that he could never trust his wife. Even if she remained true to him, the thought would constantly torture him that she was merely more skillful than others of her sex in betraying her old husband...
(The entire section is 4326 words.)