When Marjorie Perloff announced that she was engaged in a memoir dealing with her Austrian past, it seemed to represent a departure from her usual writing, which consists largely of theoretical and revisionist interpretations of modern poetry ranging from the works of William Butler Yeats to Frank O’Hara. Perhaps Perloff's crowning achievement as a literary critic and historian is Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (1996), in which she makes a strong case for a connection between the questions Ludwig Wittgenstein posed concerning language and the poetic experiments of the avant-garde, beginning with Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and continuing through postmodernism.
Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) argues a “picture” theory of meaning combined with the idea that logical truths are tautologies. The history of modern poetry from Pound's imagism to the impact of deconstructionist indeterminacy; from obscurantism to the literature of the absurd—all of these trends support Perloff's contention that Ludwig Wittgenstein and literary modernism have a great deal to say to each other. Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an Austrian, and like Perloff, an Austrian of Jewish background. Although baptized a Catholic, Wittgenstein, the son of a fabulously wealthy industrialist, was representative of a large number of Austrian Jewish intellectuals who did not identify with their Jewishness but who nevertheless were perceived as a group apart. In reviewing her own Austrian past, Perloff is connecting not only with a cluster of ideas that support her critical and intellectual history but is also opening a Pandora's box of cultural and religious identities that haunt her own life.
Despite her gift for penetrating and close analysis of poetic language, Perloff has always contextualized her discoveries in biography or history. In a 1999 review of Wittgenstein's Ladderappearing in Modern Philology, Robert Gilbert applauds Perloff for suggesting in commentary on Samuel Beckett's Watt (1953) that the “existential quandaries of Beckett's character may, in fact, reflect the specific dilemma of Resistance workers (Beckett served in the French Resistance during World War II) charged with conveying a coded message they themselves do not understand.” In her memoir, The Vienna Paradox, Perloff is involved, again and again, in trying to convey a “coded message” about her own cultural and religious identity which she may not, finally, completely understand.
Perloff's name at birth was Gabriele Mintz. She begins her memoir with a chapter appropriately titled “Seductive Vienna” in which she discusses the intense devotion of Vienna's Jews to the city's cultural ideals of “Bildung, Wissenschaft, taste and connoisseurship in the arts.” Her namesake was Gabriele von Bulow, the daughter of the philosopher William Humboldt and the niece of the naturalist Alexander Humboldt. The Humboldt legacy epitomizes all four of the above cultural ideals that both Prussia and Vienna brought to classical definition.
Gabriele Mintz eventually swapped her name for Marjorie in 1944, when she became a U.S. citizen. She wanted to be like all the other eighth graders in Riverdale, New York, where she and her parents found asylum after the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in March, 1938, brought an abrupt end to the happy marriage between Austrian Jews and German culture. Though the union was no longer a happy one, it still lingered in a kind of intermittent separation; there was never a formal divorce. Perloff describes at some length the continuing hold of the Viennese past on the descendants of the Viennese refugees in the United States today. The Neue Galerie in New York, not far from the Guggenheim Museum, is a lavishly restored beaux arts mansion that displays Viennese arts and crafts from the early twentieth century and a gathering place for lovers of Viennese pastries in its Cafe Sabarasky. Perloff dismisses this scene as nostalgia fodder, but part of her cannot let go of the “energy of modernist Vienna” which she feels was “richly textured” by “the Jewish presence” that was downplayed by both Gentiles and Jews at the time. Perloff finds this ironic, but it is closer to the truth to call it tragic. In many ways, what one now calls German and Austrian Bildung, that is “cultivation and learning,” would probably never have flowered as it did without the innately Jewish hunger and veneration for learning. Bildung also involves assimilation, as Perloff describes it, and that assimilation went in both directions. Jews introduced a hunger for perfection that went beyond German and Austrian self-demand.
Although Perloff conveys with compassion and insight the struggles of her family to overcome the dislocation and trauma of their forced exodus from Europe, she often seems to be at the edge, rather than the center, of the very persecution she records. Much of this can be explained by the distance that she and her family kept from their own Jewish heritage. When her mother announced that they had to flee in 1938, she put it in these words: “Now we are no longer Austrians. Hitler has taken Austria.” Writes Perloff, “There is no mention of our having to leave as Jews, no doubt because despite our nominal Jewishness, we had been brought up as Austrians.”
At the end of the memoir Perloff reflects on the fact that even those “only nominally Jewish” are once again targets for assassins in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. A “nominal” identity is less than skin deep; it is not felt as a defining force. Indeed it may simply be part of the “noise” of the world—something similar to what characterizes the postmodern world of media and contemporary poetry that Perloff has made her métier as a critic and scholar. She does not deny her Jewishness but does little to affirm it. Since her immediate family was not “openly Jewish,” she could not imagine living in New Orleans, the “provincial” hometown of her husband, Joe Perloff, where his “loving but overpowering Jewish family” held court. That phrase—“overpowering Jewish family”—could have come from the mouths of her parents, her uncles and...
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