Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Road to the Open: grotesque and repulsive peculiarities

Even though I’ve only been able to read through Chapter 4 of The Road to the Open by Arthur Schnitzler I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Schnitzler paints a complex and conflicted portrait of fin-de-siècle Vienna. People defer to the main character, George von Wergenthin-Recco, because of his title yet he feels out of place in either aristocratic or bourgeois social circles. He had originally studied law but when his father allowed him to pursue general studies George worked on a musical career. “Worked” may not be the right word. Despite showing great promise, George is a dilettante, rarely finishing anything he begins. That flightiness carries over into his personal life. He is unable to commit to anyone or anything. His happiness when with his lover is replaced by his happiness in being alone the second he leaves her. He feels he leads a double life in his affair with Anna, the lower-middle class woman he gets pregnant. The responsibility of fatherhood sounds “oppressive, almost sinister” to him.

The actual oppression comes from the anti-Semitism on display by many characters as Schnitzler presents a complex and multifaceted picture of the toxic atmosphere. Jewish characters face many questions on assimilation and identity. Summing up how many Jewish characters feel, especially in the younger generations, is Nürnberger: “I’m not baptized,” replied Nürnberger quietly. “But on the other hand I am certainly not a Jew either. I’ve ceased to belong to the congregation for a long time, for the simple reason that I never felt myself to be a Jew.” At the other extreme lies a burgeoning Zionist movement, yet few people can agree on what their goals should be. Many in the older generation feel homesickness for a land they haven’t seen but they identify with it much more than the younger generation (in general). Heinrich Bermann, one of George’s friends, proves to be abrasive but more insightful than most characters. He expounds on part of the problem as he sees it:
“But I will not deny that I am particularly sensitive to the faults of Jews. Probably the only reason is that I, like all others—we Jews, I mean—have been systematically educated up to this sensitiveness. We have been egged on from our youth to look upon Jewish peculiarities as particularly grotesque or repulsive, though we have not been so with regard to the equally grotesque and repulsive peculiarities of other people. I will not disguise it—if a Jew shows bad form in my presence, or behaves in a ridiculous manner, I have often so painful a sensation that I should like to sink into the earth. … One gets embittered at being always made responsible for other people’s faults, and always being made to pay the penalty for every crime, for every lapse from good taste, for every indiscretion for which every Jew is responsible throughout the whole world.”

Heinrich goes into detail on the Jews he really hates, those “who try to offer themselves to their enemies and despisers in the most cowardly and cringing fashion, and think that in that way they can escape from the eternal curse whose burden is upon them, or from what they feel is equivalent to a curse.” There is so much more and I realize I’m barely scratching the surface on the dysfunctional society Schnitzler presents. Schnitzler also prepares the groundwork to delve into generational conflict and poisonous politics, preventing any possibility of normal relations in Vienna at this time. But that will have to wait for another post…

(All quotes from the translation by Horace Samuel)

No comments: