Experience Austria through Literature - Part III:
Symbolism, Impressionism & Expressionism

As I said above, naturalism was more pronounced in other countries than it was in Austria. However, in the period between 1880 and 1920, Vienna's "fin de siecle" intellectual life gave birth to whole series of internationally significant anti-naturalist writers and thinkers. They shaped a tradition with a legacy can still be found in Austrian culture: Some writers considered language to be insufficient to describe reality (think of the romanticised view that van Saar has on the labourer's life in certain parts of "Die Steinklopfer").

Not a writer in the strict sense of the word, but very influential on Austrian literature: Sigmund Freud

Others go one step further and link all conscious understanding to learning through sensory experience and thereby doubt the possibility of objective descriptions (think about subjectivism and criticism of language by Ludwig Wittgenstein). Very important for this development is the work of Sigmund Freud and other early psychologists/psychiatrists. They could demonstrate that much of our thinking and acting is driven by subconscious processes. That we are often unaware of experiences that shape our behaviour. That personality and impetus are plastic and open for subtle influences.

Naturally, literature picked up a strong interest in these developments. Symbolism originated from France and was propagated to the German-speaking world through people like Stefan George or Rainer Maria Rilke. Symbolists use metaphors excessively, deal with inner experiences that naturalists ignore and are often concerned with Gnostic thinking, the idea that an individual can find illumination, an ideal state or at least higher degrees of consciousness. In Austria, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal wrote symbolist poetry. Symbolists were very interested in the analysis of dreams as it was practised in the early psychoanalysis.

By this time, Cafes have become the soil of Vienna's intellectual life and a mingling ground for journalists, writers, composers and philosophers. One person that "lives" here is Peter Altenberg (1859 to 1919), the archetypal Viennese Café-Bohemian. He spends days going from one Café to another, collecting images, pieces of conversations, odours, colours and shapes. The collages that Altenberg produces are fine examples of early impressionism in Vienna's literature, even though the term is taken from fine arts.

"Wiener Moderne" & Arthur Schnitzler

Two people I appreciate particularly much are both aristocratic intellectuals with a strong interest in the developing psychology of Freud and Adler, expressed in writings dealing with social interactions and fascinating records of human behaviour. Arthur Schnitzler (1862 to 1931) was like his friend Freud a doctor of Jewish descent.

Arthur Schnitzler was a fine observer of the dirties going on in Vienna around 1900

His novellas and stories are fascinating testimonies of the dying Habsburg empire, its culture and society - and at the same time very modern records of human behaviour, especially in aristocratic man-woman interactions. Try to read "Der Reigen" ("Hands Around"), named after a Medieval dance in which couples split and one partner moves to another until the cycle is closed.

In a similar manner, Schnitzler's characters from different social backgrounds have affairs, until the cycle, unnoticed, is closed in the end with the prostitute that it started with. The first time the play was performed, anti-Semitic and conservative protesters made Schnitzler withdraw the play. He banned its performance until his heir's death.

Another classic is the "Traumnovelle" ("The Rhapsody"), which was adapted by Stanley Kubrick for "Eyes Wide Shut" - he more or less took the original story (after the copyright had run out) and arranged the decadence of 1900 Viennese aristocracy with the decadence of 2000 New York upper-class. It is the story of a doctor that restlessly drifts around an urban, dream-like collage of sex, desire and dominance whilst his wife has dreams of similar motives.

"Fin de Siecle" & Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig (1881 to 1942) is of a similar background: Born to a wealthy family with no strong religious affiliation (he called himself a "Jew by chance"), he grew up in the vibrant intellectual environment of the "fin de siecle" Vienna. Zweig travelled a lot, was very educated and today, he is best known for his novellas. Similar to Schnitzler, Zweig is a great observer of human interactions and behaviours, but more diverse than Schnitzler (who was "specialised" on man-woman relationships).

Stefan Zweig ranks among my favourite writers

His stories and novellas are still widely read all over the German-speaking World. In the 1920ies and 1930ies, Zweig lived in Salzburg and became known as a pacifist and warning voice regarding the growing influence of totalitarian regimes. His most famous work, "Die Schachnovelle" ("The Royal Game") is often interpreted as the failure of the intellectual aristocracy to withstand the blunt power of the masses.

In 1938, Zweig emigrated via Bath in England to Brasil, where he committed suicide with his wife in 1942. Most of his novellas are set in the World of early 20th century intellectual aristocracy. They are often rather short, so you could try to get hold of a collection of several.

Expressionism in Poetry & Drama

Expressionism is, similar to impressionism, a term originally used in fine arts. It responded to impressionist movements and to me, expressionism is the final step in "completing" a logical artistic development - at least in fine arts and music. In literature, expressionist ideas are used for drama (Frank Wedekind) and more so poetry (Georg Trakl, Else Lasker-Schüller, Gottfried Benn, Georg Heym), but not really for prose. Expressionism is the artistic reflection on platonic ideals of emotion, being, survival, of life itself.

Expressionist art is intense and direct, beyond conventions, it actively abandons formality in the traditional sense. Where impressionists emphasised sensory stimuli, expressionists turn their inside out. It peaked between 1900 and 1930, with Vienna being an international hot spot. Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and a new generation of the Secession Artists revolutionised conventional approaches to fine arts, following early expressionists in Norway (Munch), France and Germany. Arnold Schoenberg and his "Second Vienna School" lifts music to a new level.

Looks psycho on this photo, and was it: Georg Trakl, a tragic genius

In literature, Georg Trakl (1887 to 1914) writes shockingly modern poems in which he often mixes images of his hometown Salzburg with colourful metaphors and psychedelic visions. He became a pharmacist, probably to have easy access to drugs (he, his sister and his mother were addicted to alcohol, cocaine, opium and other moderately legal substances), he read symbolist poetry, received financial support from Ludwig Wittgenstein, wrote, suffered from depressions, wrote, had a close, somewhat incestuous relationship with his sister, wrote.

In 1914, he became a soldier in World War I, collapsed with mental problems when he was in charge with the care for 90 wounded soldiers. He died on an overdose of cocaine, taken presumably to commit suicide. If you plan to go to Salzburg, don't you dare to go without reading Trakl! Even poetry of the 1960ies had nothing to add to his work.

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Further Reading

A detailed History of Austria in 10 parts

Reading Austria: Which books to choose

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