To a certain kind of child, the Viennese ethos of Bildung must have felt so oppressive.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal at first appeared to be the perfect child of Viennese aestheticism, immediately recognized as the city’s greatest poet when he was seventeen. A central theme of his work, though, was a critique of aestheticism, an inventory of its costs, many of which were presumably felt personally, although Hofmannsthal always wrote with so much distance that there is no way to tell.
In his 1902 story “The Letter” (or “The Lord Chandos Letter”), a writer explains his lack of literary production after a promising start. It is a description of an aesthetic and linguistic crisis. His plans to write a kind of “Key to All Mythologies” omnibook leads him into some sort of heightened aesthetic state (“In those days I, in a state of continuous intoxication, conceived the whole of existence as one great unit: the spiritual and physical worlds seemed to form no contrast, as little as did courtly and bestial conduct, art and barbarism, solitude and society…,” 132) which ends in an inevitable crash, but one that takes a strange form. Words begin to separate from their meaning. Any concept capable of verbal statement (“This affair has turned out well for this or that purpose”) seems false (“indemonstrable, as mendacious and hollow as could be”, 134). The problem is with the words, not the concepts:
For me everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea. Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back – whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void. (135)
The narrator’s solution is to engage with the world, with the thing itself, and avoid words; his composition of the formal, elegant letter that is the text of the story might appear to be a contradiction, but that is merely a form, almost a reflex, while his true language is “a language none of whose words is known to me, a language in which inanimate things speak to me and wherein I may one day may have to justify myself before an unknown judge” (141).
What part of this Hofmannsthal experienced himself is a mystery, but by the time he wrote “The Letter” he had abandoned poetry and to some degree fiction (he wrote but did not publish), and instead turned his attention to theater, opera, and essays, from private to public forms. An enduring, eminently public, achievement was co-founding the Salzburg Festival.
The “Lord Chandos” quotations are from Selected Prose, Bollingen, 1952, tr. Tania & James Stern.
Hermann Broch suffered a related crisis. The Death of Virgil (1945) is the novel in which he abandons novels. I should read it.
The Australian writer of prose fiction Gerald Murnane recently published a long prose fiction, Barley Patch (2010), which begins with the question “Must I write?” and is in effect a fictional novelist’s fictional justification of his abandonment of fiction. Murnane’s narrator is the one who dislikes the word “novel” and keeps repeating the phrase “prose fiction,” along with many other phrases. Some readers would find this intensely irritating:
Sometimes, when I was trying to report in one or another passage in my fiction the connection between one or another fictional personage and one or another fictional landscape, I would suppose that one or another of my readers might later have overlooked the passage that I was trying to write in the same way that I had overlooked the foreground and the middle-ground and even the background of the painting mentioned not long before in this piece of fiction and might have seemed to see behind my fiction, as it were, a semblance of the Midlands of Tasmania or of the Canterbury Plains of New Zealand (94).
Murnane’s, or the narrator’s, purpose is fundamentally Proustian, an attempt to pin down specific combinations of childhood memories through the medium of fiction, a search for some kind of impossible truth, but without the Proustian language and image that only leads to blurry failure. If all the author can imagine is that a character lives in “a building of two or more stories,” then that is how the building will be described. The inadequacies of memory and imagination battle the inadequacies of language. And the narrator, like Lord Chandos, insists that this is the end, really, no more writing, once he finally explains, in writing, why he gave up writing.
Barley Patch also makes interesting use of Matthew Arnold’s “The Scholar-Gypsy” (1853). I would like to read someone else’s essay about that. Thanks in advance.