Marjorie Perloff – An Alternative Language of Modernism

In Vienna, the new millennium was a time of new openness: The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990 and EU membership in 1995 had put the city back in the center of Europe, with closer ties to both East and West. Now more than six decades after World War II, most of the country’s leaders had been born in the postwar Second Republic, and had grown up under the social democracy they have since helped to build.

An atmosphere can be an elusive thing, hard to pin down, hard to be sure of. Until it gathers enough momentum, a kind of critical mass, and it becomes visible.

This happened in Vienna as Austria’s émigré intellectuals returned more often. And more comfortably: Hollywood producer Eric Pleskow had become president of the Viennale film festival, and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel lectured on brain science, and famed art historian Karl Schorske on fin-de-siècle modernism. Two of them, Carl Djerassi, co-inventor of the birth-control pill, and Jerusalem Post chief editor Ari Rath, had even decided to move back, saying, “Vienna is different now,” and they wanted to be part of it. Although it was never different enough for UC Irvine professor and Auschwitz survivor Ruth Kluger, who came for book presentations and left on the next plane.

Literary critic Marjorie Perloff, too, would love to move back. Born in Vienna, like Kluger, in 1931, Perloff had a far happier time. She left the Austrian capital with her family the day after the Anschluss, traveling by train to Switzerland, and a few months later by ship to New York, finally arriving in Riverdale, New York when she was turning seven years old. Sponsored by a cousin, their modest resources were enough to rebuild a life.

(C) Wittgenstein Initiative/Wolfgang Woehl

“My family’s upheaval was psychological and cultural, but not at all life-threatening,” she writes in The Vienna Paradox (2004), a tour de force memoire in which she weaves the story of her grossbürgerliche Familie of Viennese intellectuals into a portrait of the era, the reverence for high culture, the humor, the snobbery, and the love of life that has clearly sustained her through a distinguished career culminating as Professor of the Humanities Emerita at Stanford University.

Now approaching 90, “I’m one of the only ones left,” she told me. “And I’m old!” Well, on the calendar perhaps, but not in conversation, as we launched into a two-hour zoom interview covering a dizzying range of topics across her vast fields of interest. It was lively and absorbing; she would immediately pick up an idea and finish my sentence.

Fifteen years later, The Vienna Paradox remains popular with readers: “I keep hearing about it,” she said happily, a testimony to her success at capturing in such an engaging way the contradictions of émigré life – her family’s continued devotion to art and ideas, the richness of the Viennese life they had lost, along with their gratitude to the United States for taking them in.

“Although I say, that if I wrote it now, it would be a somewhat different book. I wouldn’t be as cheery about American democracy!” she admitted, with a shrug.

Nor as positive about the vitality of American academia.

“Everything is a matter of money, and it’s gotten even worse,” she said. “Getting a book accepted – now it means very little. The museums, too – all about money.” And politics, a comment that launched a series of frustrations about funding decisions, appointments, and programming that had become distorted beyond recognition “to serve whatever political things are going on.” But in the current climate, she indicated, no details for publication.

“Vienna is one of the few places now, even in Europe, where it’s still okay to just do art, and not politicize it all the time.”

So like Carl Djerassi, whom she had known well, Perloff today would happily move back. “If I were younger, I would love to live in Vienna,” she said. And in fact she has been invited to come in June to tell her emigration story, if the direct flights are back, if her health is up to it. Still, she sounded optimistic.

(C) Wittgenstein Initiative/Wolfgang Woehl

The Edge of Irony

The last decade has been a very productive one for Perloff, with the 2017 publication of The Edge of Irony, Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire, followed by an extended book tour, consulting with her friend (and fellow émigré) Tom Stoppard on his 2020 play Leopoldstadt, then a Foreword to an English translation of satirist Karl Kraus’ The Third Walpurgis Night and her own upcoming translation and annotation of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks, due out early in 2022.

The Edge of Irony is a seminal work, reassessing a group of Austro-Hungarian writers – the poet Paul Celan, memoirist Elias Canetti and novelist Joseph Roth – she sees as central to the modernist movement, but with a uniquely Austrian sensibility, in the tradition of the Vienna icons Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Robert Musil, who alone of the six was not Jewish.

Its themes: Rethinking modernism in the literature of the early 20th century to go beyond the dismantling of tradition – the radical ruptures usually associated with modernist thought – for an attitude of skepticism, particularly about the power of government or any economic system to bring about positive change. Given the pointless destruction of the Great War, the vengeful treaties and the dismantling of the Empire, this is perhaps easy to understand. Among the Austro-modernists, says Perloff, the dominant spirit was irony and a sense of the absurd.

The book tour in the fall of 2017 brought Perloff back to Europe, to the Grillparzerhaus in Vienna, hosted by the Wittgenstein Initiative, and then to the Austrian consulate in Warsaw, Poland. She loved these audiences, people who knew the writers and had the background to understand the importance of her theme – the distinctively different – i.e. non-Weimar – tradition among the German-language writers of far-flung Austro-Hungary. “The natives of these multiethnic cities inevitably spoke a number of languages, but the high-culture of the Habsburg Empire provided their intellectual horizon,” she told the gathering in Vienna.

It was a huge relief, she told me over zoom, after the almost willful ignorance in American academia, where they have no idea what, or even where, Austria is. “They think it’s kind of a footnote to Germany,” she fumed. “They’ll say Kafka was a German writer!”

Not so, of course, in Vienna or Warsaw. “I’ve never had so many good questions, such a wonderful cultural atmosphere,” she said of the Warsaw crowd, still glowing two years later. “They all speak German, for one thing, and they know Austrian literature. So they have the context.”

Perloff also has the sense that Austria’s complex imperial history of cultures and languages has helped it prosper in the current era of European integration. “In a strange way, it’s the reverse of what has happened in Germany, where East Germany has been very hard to integrate, and the far-right is so strong. Austria is rebuilding the old relationships. Because they had all been part of the Empire.”

Perloff accepted an honorary doctorate in philosophy from the University of Innsbruck in 2016. The university’s rector called it “high time for the university and Austria to honor her as a person, but also to document the loss for Austria’s scientific community.”/(C) Christian Wucherer

Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks

When we spoke, Perloff was in the midst of the final revisions for the upcoming publications of The Private Notebooks of Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is regarded by many as the most influential philosopher of the 20th century. Wittgenstein was the youngest of the eight children of wealthy industrialist Karl Wittgenstein and his wife Leopoldine, an accomplished pianist and friend of Johannes Brahms, and together great patrons of the arts.

Assimilated Jews who were baptized Catholic, Ludwig himself was a man of contradictions, Perloff tells us – a man who rejected the family milieu, giving his inheritance away to his siblings and choosing the life of an ascetic; a Viennese intellectual who spent most of his professional life in Cambridge, England; a man who contemplated suicide (carried out by three of his four brothers) yet proclaimed on his deathbed, “Tell them I have had a wonderful life.”

The translation project had been born of the pandemic, when in the spring of 2020, Perloff was home recovering from back surgery. “Doubly housebound, I turned to Wittgenstein’s writings for comfort and enlightenment,” she writes in the Introduction. Pulling out her copy of the Geheime Tagebücher, published in German in 1991, it dawned on her that she had never seen a version in English, even in a bi-lingual edition. It turned out there wasn’t one. “Surely, I thought, it was time to rectify the omission.”

Her publisher was delighted: “This is going to be a classic,” he told her, its publication in winter 2021-2022 coinciding with the 100th anniversary city-wide celebrations of the publication of Wittgenstein’s seminal work, the Tractatus logico-philosophicus.

(C) Dardis McNamee

“I think they will do a lot for that, because of the Wiener Kreis,” she said, referring to the Vienna Circle of philosophers and intellectuals who have been enormously influential in 20th century thought. “But even the university has been relatively slow to get interested in Wittgenstein,” she said. “Unfortunately, he falls between two stools, because he left and went to England, but also because of what happened with the family when the Nazis came,” when the family paid for the sisters to be reclassified as “Aryan” and allowed to stay.

But the Wittgensteins did not think of themselves as Jewish; they had been baptized Catholic for two generations, and in any case saw themselves first as Austrian. The day after war was declared in 1914, Ludwig came back from England to enlist in the infantry – but not as a patriot so much as to test himself, to find out if he is brave enough to face death. It was during those long months at the front, that the notebooks came into being. And he came back to Vienna after five years a changed man. “The war,” he said later, “saved my life.”

In those long months of war, Wittgenstein had been searching for “a redeeming word,” a kind of core principle that would resolve everything. “What he came to learn,” Perloff writes, “is that there are no answers, only questions,” questions as to what it is possible to say, and what defies the power of language to express. It was his understanding of these conundrums – which began to emerge in these notebooks – that became the core of his philosophy.

As a critic, the puzzles of language have been Perloff’s preoccupation as well. And passion. “Perhaps it is, at least in part, the passion of exiles,” she added, “those of us who must learn to negotiate the world in a language not originally our own.”