Weaving the Threads of a Frayed People: Historically Confronting Isolation as Political Product and Cultural Force of Societal Paradigm Shifts


The early Cold War era presented Carl Schorske with a calamity.  In his view, history had become bereft of a connection with the past, wherein modernity had come to supersede the lessons of the past in importance, “not out of the past, indeed scarcely against the past, but in independence of the past.”[1]  The faith and assurance of the early twentieth century had deteriorated, until the history itself was becoming disregarded as a discipline.  Alarmed at this development, Schorske believed that to “shake off the shackles of the past” in such a manner would paradoxically “perpetuate new forms and new constructs.”[2]     He asks: what is to become of a society that merely borrows a sense of culture and a history whole-cloth from its neighbors; can it sustain with a firm past of its own, or will it crumble with so makeshift a foundation?   It is with this eye on his contemporary world that Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna delved into the cultural and political upheaval of 19th-century Viennese society, a people who came to embrace Western liberalism with no prior structures or rooted experiences.  Schorske then focuses on the evolution of the artistic and intellectual minds and their output as barometer of the beauty and terror of this experimental epoch.

                     Carl Schorske

Schorske’s own dissonant time, he believed, was linked to the past through “a cord of consciousness,” however weakened through scholastic efforts.[3]    As an historian, Schorske would retie the threads of the Austrian revolt, but without preconceived notions or conjectures.  Michael Roth notes Schorske’s selective construction of Vienna’s culture battle would be a multi-pronged attack, rejecting a “naïve faith in the powers of theory to make a case for the politics one prefers.”[4]

Part of the massivily planned, Western-influened Ringstasse, Vienna Austria

Throughout seven articles Vienna is conceptualized through the twisted modifications of its cultural engineers: the paintings of Gustav Klimt, the architecture of Otto Wagner and Camillo Sitte, and the “new key” politics spurred on by Georg von Schonerer, Karl Lueger, and Theodor Herzl, as well as the innovative methods of Sigmund Freud.  What Schorske discovers through a careful analysis of each figure’s formative lives is a commonality of isolation, each person personifying the fragmentation amongst them, these innovations reproducing the fragmentation of their age.  Viewed in this manner, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna is a study of the notion of seclusion itself as an energy, from which future Viennese culture and politics would spring.  As such, Schorske aligns with Arthur Lovejoy’s premise of high culture as an effective window to be effusively studied, and the unit idea of isolation that result from an inspection of Vienna.

Theodore Herzel, Georg Ritter von Schonerer, and Karl Lueger

From the outset of his introduction, Schorske presents his apparent biases against contemporary historical methods, suggesting a reasoned approach to the Vienna he would encounter.  Only then can a clear horizon be formed from which Vienna can be properly viewed.  This, in itself, seems a position of extreme balance yet necessary, as part of Schorske’s main task is to discern the psychological responses culture would create as a refuge from deterioration. In order to bridge the gap between Schorske’s present and Vienna’s past via Gadamer’s assertion of a realignment “to determine anew the meaning of what is examined” Schorske himself does not remain objective.[5]

 Oskar Kokoschka- Die träumenden Knaben (The Dreaming Boys

Instead, he comments openly on the works he encounters, such as the “pure aggression” of Oskar Kokoschka’s The Dreaming Boys, full of stark, primitive love combat between the sexes.”[6]  Only in this way, of enveloping himself subjectively can Schorske begin to understand the “feeling of alienation” Kokoschka sought with the Secessionists in the meaning of a new truth.[7]  Schorske is thus sharing in the experience of the artists themselves, each placing himself within alien horizons.  Further, Schorske clearly underlines the fluid changing conception of forms that Gadamer argues.  Examination of the Nuda veritas personifies this: from sexless waif to a symbol of sensuality, Gustav Klimt’s adjustment and treatment of the female form highlights the evolution of Vienna’s gender and wider societal perceptions.[8] This echoes Gadamer’s theory of tension, who noted that a “process of fusion is continually going on, for there old and new continually grow together to make something of living value.”[9]  Schorske’s horizon construction is primarily concerned with cultural, artistic expression seen through the eyes of individuals, yet each singularity is a clear product of environmental nurturing.  Gadamer’s horizon allows Schorske a proper perspective before diving into an analysis of Viennese culture along the lines of Geertz’s “thick description.”

Robert Khan perceived Schorske’s study of Vienna as “probing in depth rather than spreading in width.”[10]  This is key.  Accordingly, major aspects of the city are left untouched, for a complete tour of Vienna is not Schorske’s goal.  Each essay drives in depth into an exact study of a particular art, to emphasize the profound shift in Austrian ideology.  What emerges is a unambiguous crisis of confidence, from the liberal ascension to the succumbing to unreason that followed.    Ironically, Schroske’s study of individuals allows him access to the moving tide of the masses, from which it must be questioned if power rests at any level of society at all.  Arthur Lovejoy’s faith in high culture as the vehicle of ideas is shared by Schorske, although Schorske believes all art, from architecture to art Nuevo painting, holds clues to a societies’ inner psychology.  Lovejoy himself seeks specific unit ideas from the outset, while Fin-de-Siècle’s investigation exhumes the unit idea of isolation as a result of connecting a robust horizon with the past.  The “depth” of mission Khan relates, confirms Schorske’s focus on discovering the cause of Vienna’s cracks themselves, with the aid of a few cultural examples.  The aim is to find the epicenter of disorder that resulted during the revolt from liberalism and reason which culminated in the terror felt for modernity.  Lovejoy noted just this concept of history as:

“a story at first latent, eventually overt, between these ideas and a
series of antagonistic conceptions, some of the antagonisms being
their own offspring.  We must, then, observe them throughout in the
light of their own antithesis.”[11]

Schorske himself will come to a similar conclusion about the result of liberal actions. Noting the fundamental use of conflict involved during the creation of new forms, he quotes Freud: “A dream is a disguised fulfillment of a suppressed wish.”  Seen as such, the isolation endured by the Viennese was channeled into a creative and destructive force. Simply put, separation encourages experimentation.  Khan raises the question of conflict as a necessary, natural element, as the liberal measures themselves brought the discontent of the masses instead against liberalism.[12]  Schorske raises a similar question regarding ‘antithesis’ regarding the Zionist moment; did it not actually spur on adversarial groups toward further Jewish exclusionary tactics?  Khan suggests this, stating “in Vienna, Zionism was welcomed at the time by the enemies of the Jews.”[13]  Isolation then breeds reactionary defensiveness.  To get at the seed of conflict is paramount to understanding, Schorske points out that itself isolation may be viewed as the germ of historical action.

*     *     *     *     *

The story of nineteenth century Vienna is the persecution of one “ism” by another, further splitting each member of society away from the whole.   To understand the ideological meaning beneath “any one of these beliefs” in the words of Arthur Lovejoy, “you may discover something, or several things, more elemental.”[14]  The element running throughout the figureheads of the era is the anxiety of isolation, cast from the anchor of tradition and disconnected from their alien present.  Such conceptions, whether it be Christianity or Liberalism or Pan-Germanism is too complex and “trouble-breeding;” there is no “one doctrine, but…several distinct and often conflicting doctrines.”[15]  The weakness and faults of such systems in Vienna detail this.  Close, thick study of Schorske’s Trio demonstrates this shared sensation of remoteness.  The root of isolation discovered by Schorske via a detailed study of their relationship between the generational and parental strata is a result of the upbringing and experiences that molded them.  The resulting morass of unreason is quite like Lovejoy’s outlining of the Great Chain of Being.  From the primal work of Kokoschka to the search of Freud’s infantile, primordial core, Vienna was struggling with “imperfection- an ethics of prudent mediocrity.”[16]  The work of Leo Tolstoy and related by Isaiah Berlin is a corresponding quest for the core, universal idea, but Schorske holds back form such a venture, perhaps cognizant, like Freud and Tolstoy, that the seed itself is unobtainable, and, “like Moses, must halt at the borders of the Promised Land.”[17]   Kokoschka and Klimt, in their own way, sought a truth in their art for their own version of unit ideas, cutting “into the hand-and-fast individual systems and, for its own purposes, breaks them into their component elements.”[18]

Otto Wagner, Wien Karlsplatz Stadtbahn station, 1900

From an early stage Schonerer was in rebellion against liberal culture and to the social sensibilities of the strata he organized.”[19]  He is depicted as more reacting than acting of free will; once a liberal who became a radical proponent of anti-Semitism, yet Schorske ably points to the pressures and forces enacted on him that exemplified his generation’s confusion.  Bafflement can be the cause of assumptions, which Schorske goes on to investigate.  The attitudes of Schonerer, or Wagner, or Klimt would be proven to be merely beliefs, “tactically presupposed than formally expressed or argued for.”[20]   The cultural symbols properly decoded, Schorske is able to view the engulfed Schonerer: “The social base for Georg’s anti-liberal leadership and the psychology conditions for asserting it converged.”[21]  Nationality would become his answer to his own bewilderment, yet his “liberated dissonance became a new harmony, physiological chaos, a meta-sensuous order.”[22]

        “Danae,” Gustv Klimt

Isolation would be not confined to a single class or ethic group, but would be active in every recess of society, often with surprising results.  Karl Lueger, born in a Jewish upper class segment of Vienna, came to resent his low economic station and the indignities he would accordingly suffer; his political work would also put him at odds with liberalism.  Luger’s ability to take advantage of the Catholic Church’s own sense of detachment which “could only look back wistfully to the vanished days” accentuates how deeply society had splinted.  The actions of men like Schonerer and Luger, and also Theodr Herzl, brilliantly illustrate the depths to which the masses will submit in order to have a sense of security, even if it takes further instability to provide it:

               “Each in his own way utilized aristocratic style, gesture, or pretension
to mobilize a mass of followers still hungry for leadership that based
its authority on something older and deeper than the power of rational
argument and empirical evidence.”[23]

The work of Merle Curti arises at this junction, as the Trio sought to focus the energy of the masses with populist speeches.  The classic liberalism, as with Curti’s example of John Locke, became a target. Liberal structures were railed against; in the age of the new economy of factories and the evolution of universities to institutions promoting nationalism, Schorske engages the forces of crisis that bring about change.[24]  In the hands of men like Schonerer, Lueger, and Hirzl the liberal ideas for reason became ironically as poisonous as Locke’s call for revolution after the revolutionaries are victorious:

               “The influence of a thinker does not pass from one major writer to another
without frequently being transformed, or dissipated, or compressed in the
hands of a whole series of people who responded to the thinker and
his ideas.” [25]

Paradigm shifts conducted in such manner crystallizes and heightens a society’s mystification, which lead Schorske to two responses: 1) “in that age no one knew quite how to distinguish between what was above and what below, between what was moving forward and backward”[26] 2) the weakness of liberal authority created the atmosphere for such corruption that “undermined the rule of law and unleashed the irrational power of the masses.”[27]

   Beethoven Frieze, Gustav Klimt

Schorske’s study of the liberal, rational Sigmund Freud, beyond showing another strata of society being effected, shows the extraordinarily far-ranging effects “isms” have on the populace.  Freud, a fascinating individual to find living in this area, held a connection to classical liberalism yet similarly branched out into new directions when he sensed an untenable center.  Freud typifies the quest for freedom by extraordinary means, casting off old systems, yet was restricted and then inspired by his paternal relationship and repressed position in politics:

             “His present situation of political impotence and resentment dominated
this waking fantasy.  In the dream he had discharged, by the defiance of
his count, the commitment of his youth to anti-authoritarian political
activism, which was also his unpaid debt.” [28]

Again and again Schorske employs an analysis of cultural symbols and the stratas of a figure’s formative years which have profound effects on his professional life.  This is actually not dissimilar to Freud’s own layered conception of how individuals are programmed.  It is with Freud that Schorske can link nineteenth and twentieth century psychology, returning to the problem of Nietzsche:  “as for other modern philosophers, so for Freud, the Oedipus quest was a moral and intellectual one: to escape fate and acquire knowledge.”[29]  Could such a new paradigm have been formulated by not being subjected to the isolation Freud endured in Vienna?  Schorske says no, calling Freud’s methodology “the brilliant, painful discovery of psychology.”[30]  Khan notices this horizon being constructed, from which it can be seen that “in a young contemporary generation of intellectuals a notable shift from Marx to Freud” had occurred.  The crisis of Vienna had forced an internal search; humanity as an emotional product was apart from the Marxist idea of humanity as an external product.

Lawrence Kramer’s consensus on Schorske’s work shows the shift toward a sustained terror which eventually becomes standardized: “Fragmentation gradually becomes the norm.”[31]  The artists following the Secessionists began to see crisis as normal, and art had become a mechanism to further “shake us out of our complacency and comfort.”[32]  Kokoschka and Klimt in their own way sought a truth in their art for their own version of unit ideas, cutting “into the hard and fast individual systems and, for its own purposes, breaks them into their component elements.”[33]  Klimt’s detachment led to a re-conception of art as a political tool, which would become the norm during the twentieth century.

“Isolation compels every man, all alone like a savage, to invent his idea of society.  And the knowledge that every doctrine of society must remain a utopia will also drive him into solitude.  This solitude swallows us up into emptiness…” Schoenberg, in the text of his cantata Jacob’s Ladder, echoed Kokoschka’s sentiment in the single cry: “Erlose uns von Einzelheit! (Redeem us from our isolation!).”

                                            “The Red Stare,” Arnold Schonberg

Schorske states at the close of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, “when political issues became cultural, cultural issues became political.  The faith in liberalism of mid-century Vienna allowed for order, from which beauty may be another name.  The fright of The Red Stare or Murderer, Hope for Woman vibrantly depicts a world fraught with despair and chaos.  The transformation understood in the context of the age is Schorske’s goal, yet makes no final judgment, but rather leaves the room open for further study.  Kahn sees in the work a journey taken by each figure, until “the history of evolution had gone full-circle.”[34]  This is less than a completely dire prediction, for if like the Ringstrasse we will return to our position in the future, it stands to reason the fluctuations of culture and history is much more natural than we understand them to be, even if the shifts seem jerking in each instant.  Schorske thus finds in Hugo von Hofmannsthal recognition of the artistic footprint historians may use to accurately chart eras: “It is [the poet] who binds in himself the elements of the times.”[35]

In search of understanding his own times, Schorske investigated Vienna for clues as to what might be the consequences of a people- including academics- rejecting history.  Understanding the bias inherent in himself, he hoped to construct a bridge with the past by understanding the personal and professional conditions of important Austrian figures.  The result of Schorske’s work was a sustained inquiry into the sensation of societal isolation, which becomes a found unit idea.  Fin-de-Siècle Vienna makes the case that historical grounding is essential for a well-functioning society; without such a sense of cultural security, disarray will follow.  Yet if this occurs, as it often does, art will mutually reveal and influence society’s bearing toward a new Garden.

                        “Avenue in the Park of Schloss Kammer,” Gustav Klimt



[1] Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), xvii.

[2] Ibid, xviii

[3] Ibid, xx.

[4] Michael Roth, “Performing History: Modernist Contextualism in Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna” (American Historical Association, 1994), 742.

[5] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: The Seabury Press) 265.

[6] Schorske, 335.

[7] Schorske, 339-340.

[8] Ibid, 222.

[9] Gadamer, 272.

[10] Robert Khan, Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (Cambridge Press, 1981), 169.

[11] Arthur Lovejoy, “The Study of the History of Ideas” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933) 5.

[12] Khan, 172.

[13] Ibid, 173.

[14] Lovejoy, 5.

[15] Ibid, 6.

[16] Ibid, 200.

[17] Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc, 1953), 76.

[19] Schorske, 121.

[20] Lovejoy, 7.

[21] Schorske, 128.

[22] Ibid, 362.

[23] Schorske, 145.

[24] Ibid, 128-130.

[25] Merle Curti, “The Great Mr. Locke, America’s Philosopher, 1783-1861.” (Gloucester, 1962), 71.

[26] Schorske, 132.

[27] Ibid, 156.

[28] Schorske, 196.

[29] Ibid, 199.

[30] Ibid, 203.

[31] Lawrence Kramer, Schorske’s Ring Cycle, Schoenberg’s Liebestold. (University of California Press, 1981), 76.

[32] Schorske, 358.

[34] Kahn, 179.

[35] Schorske, 317.

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