If, on your next trip to Vienna, you set out to understand the personality of this lovely world-capital-that-is-not-a-city, there are three must-sees during your time here that will give you the proper sense of a Durrellian spirit of place. First, go and pay respects to the circumcised foreskin of Jesus von Nazareth at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, one among several fascinating reliquaries of that cathedral (shared, in part, with the Duomo in Milan—one is just not sure how much of a part). The heilige Vorhaut is said to rest somewhere inside a beautiful block of black marble gracing the High Altar, thus not available for viewing by the earthly quick but there only for their contemplation—of such things, for example, as the fact that the sanctum praeputium was presented by Charlemagne to Pope Leo III as a gift on the occasion of that emperor’s coronation at Rome in 800, or that a seventeenth century curator of the Vatican Library, one Leo Allatius, argued in a widely-read book of 1661, De Praepatio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba, that the holy prepuce ascended to Heaven with Christ at Resurrection and then made its way solo across the Milky Way to Saturn, whereupon it stretched itself out and around to become the rings of the very planet of Time itself.
After St. Stephen’s, you may wish to take a look at the guillotine on display at the National Criminal Court in Vienna’s 8th District, open to the public the first Tuesday of every month from 1 to 3pm, five euros are kindly requested. The guillotine, measuring about five feet; its blade an ugly brown-orange sheath no longer gleaming or griding, was used during the German-Austrian Anschluss of March 1938 to execute around eighteen-hundred anti-Hitler Austrian rebels; today it sits solemnly in the cold corner of a dull office that fulfills the Central European promise of “Kafkaesque” in all matters bureaucratic. One is informed during this brief tour that the Communists were the last to give up this particular form of justice—specifically the East Germans, who ordered the last European head to be rolled in 1966. Lastly, make a day trip to the insane asylum at Steinhof, about an half-hour’s ride from Vienna, where you may see racy interior murals done by Gustav Klimt and the saucy stained-glass window designs of Egon Schiele. Depending on your taste in art, these elaborate works will either convince you that patients are in an environment of beautiful, soothing mental relief or—so many crazed-looking, thick-bottomed, nineteenth century housewife-nudes later—that the poor souls are surrounded by enough gloomy Freudian schlock to drive them into deeper lunacy.
All of this sets the stage for the perfect interplay of morbidity, mythology and beauty that best expresses the essence of Vienna’s character. If, however, you are lucky enough during your visit to meet a member of Vienna’s high aristocracy—local birds-of-paradise who squawk and preen inside rusted, gilded cages policed by Socialist phantom forces—you will find all these elements personified in a predictably off-beat, refreshingly unpretentious character all too aware of his marginalization by History for having been much too long the very center of it. He is loopy—by innate design and not contrived display—and it is he who will direct the newcomer to Vienna away from the city’s frothy-baroque kitsch-quaint clichés and to such poignant metropolitan highlights as outlined above. The morose, the mythical and the romantic are the vestigial inheritance of his Catholic cast of mind; a mind trained in the rigors of the traditional, generational and practical view of life known, in short, as the langfristige, or the “long-view.” Such training has also left his mind open to certain absurdities of existence, enlivening his usually wooden comportment with a charm and cheekiness that make him a delight to know. To identify the Viennese aristo, this unusual breed of Europe’s last European (as Americans once liked them), one must be on the look-out for the following traits:
He wears green. He wears dark green, forest green, army green, olive-green; the sea-green of slate, the stone-green of groves; the king’s vert; a variation on viridian; verde Veronese; the green of Austrian glades—loden green, hunter’s green; little heath green; the green of pristine meadows and healthy mulch. Outdoors, he favors a nylon Barbour jacket, sometimes blue. His shoes are hand-made, which is a way of saying his tastes are English though he despises the English, whom he admires (see below). He is tall; his face possesses the good planes and good angles associated with “good genes,” “good breeding,” “good background” and other kinds of distinction he calls “racial,” much to the winced knee-jerking of his American guests. The most discernible feature on that face is, however, the look of alarmed disgust. This disgust is a composite of impressions accrued over the course of daily contact with the Other Half; from taking in the proud fraternity of the Great Unwashed overtaking him and swallowing Western civilization whole. The Untertanen, he will point out to you, are themselves responsible for having lumpened together their own proletariat, given their insistence upon dressing as ugly and acting as crudely in public as possible. His main lament is that the high bourgeoisie (Hochburgertum) of Europe has been destroyed. They were the safe, sturdy intermediary between Vienna’s classic high-life and low-life divisions and the emergence of shoulder-to-shoulder urban democracy absent of their brittle vanguard has been an unspeakable loss for him. However, he takes satisfying pride in the fact that his beleaguered capital is still as unabashedly class-consciousness as ever.
This alarmed disgust is the statement of his basic political beliefs, which may be summed up as: “Everyone should live as they want, free as they want—just keep them away from me.” He refers to this as his “Liberalism” and it is crowned with a Crown—only, this latter detail he will not say because he cannot, really. One exception to his reserve was the sudden burst of applause by members of his blood-clique during the funeral procession of Otto von Habsburg through downtown Vienna in July 2011, as the modest coffin of Austria-Hungary’s last crown prince and would be emperor-king rolled by on its horse-drawn, plain, wood platform, covered in the imperial flag (yellow, black; coats-of-arms of Austria and Hungary; coat-of-arms of the Habsburgs). Fifteen hundred representatives of former imperial lands trailed the coffin amid 100,000 spectators, the journey of which ended with two twenty-one gun salutes upon arrival at its final resting place, the Imperial Crypt on the Neuer Markt in central Vienna. Our aristo was happy on that day because the country’s Greens and Pinks were at home hiding under tables, reminding him of the fact that although his nation’s capital is, psychically, still the Red Vienna of the immediate post-war era, there is a feisty minority percentage of the country’s population that is closet monarchist. To our nobleman, Progress (capital P) is a highly suspect notion which usually means the gradual erosion of the great Viennese tailors—much greater than English tailors, whose work he admires and therefore resents. He is a humanitarian in the sense that we are all God’s children, but professional humanitarians are godless, therefore cannot be His offspring, therefore are to be discouraged. He has a perplexed fondness for die Engländer who, after all, were once upon a time “aethel” to his Germanic adel; who are fellow Saxons in soul and spirit; who are Bavarians by blood by way of the fate of the Jacobites—the Scots counting as Engländer to him—all of which means an undeniable psycho-ethno kinship and a mystic union of Gemütlichkeit on the one side and Cosiness on the other. Indeed, he would never object to any political alliance founded on a mutual fondness for hunting dogs, duffle coats, fireplaces, made-to-measure, hatred of the French and of the public. And yet, these same Engländer have been the prime movers down the centuries of nefarious foreign policy schemes against the Germanic-Catholic world, plots that he discusses with regular reference to Freemasons, Henry Lloyd George and the latter’s co-conspirators, George Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson; Winston Churchill, meanwhile, is an obscure object of curiosity. He turns to the writings of his ur-Cousin, Count Ferdinand Czernin von und zu Chudenitz, self-exiled to America and early warning bell against Hitler, whose classic 1939 work, Europe—Going, Going, Gone! A sketchy book trying to give a rough explanation of Europe, its politics, and its state of mind, for the benefit mainly of Anglo-Saxons, politicians, and other folk with uncomplicated minds, confirms his most beloved prejudices and with good pen-and-ink illustrations, to boot. Our aristocrat likes Americans; he likes big-hearted American presidents the same way he likes big-hearted American Cadillacs, but he likes it all mixed with a bit of daft American iniquity, the kind that gives these derring-do imperialist pups their signature brand of naive evil. He especially likes to recount to Americans who are not so much in the know as he the plot by the OSS to assassinate General George Patton after the latter blew the whistle on stolen wartime gold. His fondness for the US is a permanent picture of the war, and in the moving, if hard to believe, words of one Viennese noble quoting his father: “We were thankful for every Allied bomb dropped on us.”
He is well-schooled. His actual education, on the other hand, ranges from the iffy to the brilliant—from a sportsman’s utter boredom with catalogued factoids, to a scholar’s erudition in multiple languages; from a country squire’s suspicion of “intellectuals,” to a gentleman’s stockpile of cultivated arcana. A Viennese aristocrat possesses an ecclesiastical vocabulary, an architectural vocabulary, and the vocabulary of nature, birds, flowers, and of the sacred triptych of Purdey, Beretta and Holland & Holland. He knows Latin, something still required in the secondary schools of this imperial ghost town, where leaders of the Church hierarchy once communicated with Eastern Europe dissidents via that noble language. He likes his French in pretentious, irritating dollops (“agacement,” “malgre soi,” “mauvaise foi,” etc.) but his resistance to learn French is a matter of “The French.” History is the History of His Family, told in distilled truths, half-truths, semi-quaver truths and insider-ish anecdotes, with a nod or two to the existence of the History of Other People, mainly spread across Florence, New York and London (vile playboy cousins, doddering dowager aunts, once-loaded Astors or Vanderbilts who married in, balanced books, grabbed a Title, etc.) Proudly, he has no musical vocabulary nor necessarily a literary one. Novels are written by neurotics for neurotics; poetry is but the bouncy hexameter of Horace pounded into rote recitation at the various Jesuit terror camps of his adolescence. “Philosophy” is for the readers of novels inclined toward deeper neurotic tendencies. Music is an intensely private affair and one’s rapture in a Liebestod, in the death of Siegfried, in the sorrows of Werther, or in Shostakovian ironies tip-toeing around Stalinist bombast, bombs and baton-twirling, are matters better kept to oneself. He knows and loves art. It is less important to know the big guns of art history than it is to know the big-minor or minor-big ones, who are better anyway. He can identify Hondecoeter’s strangled birds at twenty paces; Hamilton’s satiny stallions at ten and Schelfhout’s melancholy harbors instantly amidst an auction house wall full of generic Dutch moody-blues harbor scenes. He prefers Franz Hals’ jaunty burghers to Rembrandt’s muddy ones. He is more interested in correctly guessing each painting’s estimated market price than in their Hellenic-Biblical allegories as explained to him by the now fragile, now peeved, auction-house expert summoned to his side. He loves Turner. He has a quiet passion for Impressionism. Yes, he likes Picasso. He admires the outrageous frauds of modern art “like Klee” for no other reason than that they are able to get away with being outrageous frauds. He despises most portraiture because it reminds him of all those nouveau types who buy paintings of garishly-framed grandees to whom they are not related but who put them on display throughout breathtaking apartments so that people may file by, ask nothing, and be awed.
He is a devout Catholic who secretly wishes to be a lapsed Catholic. He is baffled and bewildered by the phenomenon of the American Jesus-freak. The religious aspect of American politics, God in the role of Assistant Secretary of Defense; the presidential candidate who is a homecoming hero in a crown of thorns, the tele-evangelist, the evangelical tele-mom and her gooing tele-quindrupleplets; the born-again, the neo-born-again, and the political Zionist-Baptist who is a social anti-Semite, make up a curious landscape to him, one that gives America a bit of its endearing kookiness. He himself lives life on a one-to-one basis with various Heilege (saints) whom he calls upon in the most unholy of circumstances to assist him. These play the role of alternate soul-in-residence, psychotherapist, personal assistant, business guru, love coach, life coach, customer satisfaction advisor, fair weather friend and scapegoat. If he loses a small fortune in a bad real estate market, St. Antonius is summoned to get the dough back. When he wants to make it across the border and back to one of two neighboring private-banking purgatories to pick up money that is money he’s never heard of and has nothing to do with, he asks St. Benedict to understand that the State (“der Staat”) is evil incarnate and that to undertake such risky action trembles and shimmers on the teary cusp of martyrdom. When he is feeling lonely-hearted, heartbroken or lovesick, he goes straight to the Mutter Gottes—She, a bigger deal in German Catholicism than He—and asks for clarification of the feminine mind, only not too much. He tries to communicate to Her his desires—shyly, unassuredly, hopefully—awaiting the day the sad gaze of Her icon will transform itself into a wink.
The theme of religion naturally proceeds to the theme of sex. In 2010, he celebrated the publication of a big, glossy book incontrovertibly proving that the Catholic Church used to have a permissive attitude towards sex and that it was only as of the enforced oath of celibacy in the twelfth century that the Jesuit (all Catholics are Jesuits) mind was twisted into helpless Widerspruch—contradiction—against its own longings and desires. The book contained pictures of the facades of cathedrals built or partially built before that fateful papal decree of 1139, depicting, it appears, sly symbols of private parts, and neat, stone-carved scenes of unabashed copulation taking place right under a gargoyle’s (jealous/delighted) watch. A picture of some carvings over the main portal of one grand cathedral shows what looks to be a man and woman in flagrante next to a healthy clump of grapes–the enthusiastically non-native English translation accompanying the German text informs us that this fruitful little bundle represents, in fact, a woman’s “pubes.” Over there, by the south tower, two long columns end with domed missile heads, thereby beating Freud at his own game—gotcha!—by some seven hundred years. The book means more to him than as just a treatment of scurrilous symbolism carved in stone and bestowed with religious Truth; it is, rather, no less than a confirmation of the source of a deep psychological split within him. For, his love-hate attitude towards the Catholic Church is based on its own love-hate relationship with the human body, human desire and human love and this, in turn, created our aristocrat’s life-long embittered confusion about matters of the heart. He arrives at middle age with both a polite tolerance of and bristling contempt for the horsey socialites he was paired with in his youth for select breeding. And yet, and yet…among his set, far removed from the complexities and contradictions of the Church, one can still find the kind of aristocratic love affair-turned-marriage one secretly hopes still exists in the world…
Time versus Memory:
For our aristo, Time is a meaningless concept and Memory is the closest thing to a philosophy he will hold. What happens, however, in an age when Memory is no longer possible? The ugly twin sisters of Fascism and Communism have been displaced by a spoiled new offspring, Indifference—a threat that creeps along the peripheries of his world, looming like laughing gas and as toxic as ignorance, afflicting the next generations with an empty Weltbild—world-view—totally absent the tone and tint of appreciation for historical legacy so cherished by our aristo and his forefathers. One gingerbread Christmas a few years ago here in gingerbread Vienna, I was walking with a friend to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in the city center. As we crossed the street to reach Maria-Theresien-Platz, the lovely square between that magnificent imperial treasure chest and the natural history museum across from it, he pointed out his grandfather, Abensperg-Traun, immortalized as one of four bronze horsemen surrounding a statue of Empress Maria Theresa. Looking at the statue wistfully, he said: “That is what’s gone: the aristocratic view of life.” What comes to mind in recalling the gentleman’s succinct lament is St. Augustine’s “question“ in Book XI of his Confessions, in which the great saint strives to understand where, exactly, the future and the past are to be “found,” and concludes that both reside and can only have any real meaning within a continual present. (“For if times past and to come be, I would know where they be. Which yet if I cannot, yet I know, wherever they be, they are not there as future, or past, but present. For if there also they be future, they are not yet there; if there also they be past, they are no longer there. Wheresoever then is whatsoever is, it is only as present.“). That is, one’s present is lived ever re-analyzing and re-ordering the past and, at the same time, it is lived anticipating future things to come—“fore-conceptions foreshadowed, foretold“—as Augustine writes. To the truest and bluest-bloodiest Viennese aristocrat, this awareness is almost a genetic predisposition. His peculiar personality may be the well-honed product of his hometown’s ghastly historical mix of beauty and terror; of world-history and world-destruction, but it is this sense of the present as dialogue and translation between Past and Future that defines him as well as convinces him that any life absent an understanding of this silent, sublime communication between the two is a life lived ignobly, indeed.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.