Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits by Harold B. Segal

There have been a number of books written about Vienna, focusing on the period between 1890 and 1938. Most notable in English are Fin-de-siecle Vienna by Schorske and Wittgenstein’s Vienna by Janik & Toulmin. Turn-of-the-century Vienna was a period of intellectual explosion and artistic creativity that occurs only sporadically in the history of Western Culture. Like Renaissance Florence, Enlightenment Paris and Post-World War II New York, Fin-de-siecle Vienna fascinates with its genius and contribution. A unique composition of “Jung Wien” writers (whom we shall meet), Secessionist painters (Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, et al), composers (Mahler, Berg, Schonberg, et al) and thinkers (Freud, Popper, Wittgenstein, et al), produced magnificent innovation for a brief period from the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire through the short life of its republic.

Harold Segal takes this period and concentrates his attention on the coffee house. Even more than the University, the coffee house was the social center of Viennese cultural life. The Universities, unlike their 21st Century Western counterparts, were bastions of conservative thought and accepted art. In addition, Universities limited, by quota, the number of Jews they accepted as faculty and students. Jews comprised a disproportionately large number of the contributors to this Vienna renaissance. Also, the established institutions harbored prejudices favoring Germans; and many of the bright lights hailed from Slavic locales in the Empire. Like the English coffee houses of the 1600’s, the Viennese coffee houses were a great social equalizer where, for the price of a cup of coffee, you had access to the most interesting conversation and company regardless of class or culture. Most of the important writers of the time frequented these establishments. Coffee houses were places of social gathering that contained a wide variety of newspapers and journals. If one wished to remain current on the various trends, gossip and artistic ferment, this was the clearinghouse of information. In his introduction, Segal paints a picture showing the spark and richness of communication that occurred amidst the aroma of coffee, which alone is reason enough to pick-up the book.

Not content to focus narrowly on the coffee house as a topic, Segal further limits his study to prose writers of the Jung Wien (Young Vienna) Movement, and two of their detractors, who met in and wrote about this environment. Young Vienna writers frequently employed the short composition forms called feuilleton and kleinkunst (literally “small art”). Those who employed these forms are included. This editorial choice makes Segal’s format quite simple: After setting the stage with his introduction, the author presents the writers. Each essayist gets a chapter that contains first, a biographical sketch, then second, a set of their small works which fits nicely into the book. (The exception is Karl Kraus who wrote criticism.) While feuilleton and kleinkunst are convenient for structuring purposes, this choice does leave out a number of famous Jung Wien writers. For example, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Beer-Hofmann, who contributed more to the literary culture of Vienna than some of those included, are ignored. But it is not Harold Segal’s goal to compose an exhaustive, encyclopedic study of Viennese writers or society. He is offering a slice-of-life detail, exhibiting coffee house regulars who wrote about this habitat and other topics. For more comprehensive books on the wealth of Viennese Fin-de-siecle culture and history, see the aforementioned Fin-de-siecle Vienna and Wittgenstein’s Vienna. There is much innovative brilliance in the decaying capitol that cannot be encompassed by Segal’s chosen arena.

About the examples of writing themselves: they are brilliant tiny gems of well-constructed and thoughtful meditations on trifles. The compositions are enjoyable to read and completely unimportant. I can do without some of the diatribes on what is good art. Also the longer pieces, primarily an attack by Karl Kraus on the Young Vienna circle and Anton Kuh’s response in a public speech, are equally ignorable.  Readers more attuned to such debates will find the arguments hysterical. Personally, I enjoy art because it is not a matter of life or death. Art does not require virulent opinions resulting in arrogant judgments and lifelong feuds. For me, art is a break from the mundane and stressful aspects of life. If there is extreme emotion, it is within the frame of the painting. Any strong meaning or content is expressed in the beauty or emotion conveyed by the work itself, and doesn’t need a tirade to explain or attack it. “What is art?” “What is good art?” These are questions whose answers are entirely subjective. So there can be no general answer we will agree upon. Art is simply communication through a medium. Enjoy what you see or find something else to regard.

The themes of these short pieces are for the most part materialistic, sentimental and superficial. Peter Altenberg writes lovingly about window displays in fine shops. Hermann Bahr attaches great significance to painting trees red. Anton Kuh illustrates his personality through his choice to wear a monocle.  Not all of the writers in this book covered trivial subjects. Polgar and Kraus are notable exceptions. But most did. Certainly, it was their right to compose on any subject they chose. But there is something disturbing, about such a choice during this historical moment for Austria. While the Jews, Slavs and intellectuals of this circle were writing kleinkunst, other more political groups within Austrian and German Society were fomenting changes that would sweep those among the  aforementioned who didn’t get away, into concentration camps, work camps and ditches of bullet-riddled bodies. The nationalism, militarism and prejudices of the time, could not have been invisible to these people. Even prior to the overwhelmingly popular Anschluss, there were ethnic hatreds and threats against republican freedoms. Additionally, some of their colleagues and fellow coffee house regulars were writing on political events. But the great majority of kleinkunst writers remained apolitical. There is no requirement that artists create political art. Indeed there are no rules at all; rules have only proven to stifle art. But if one is describing the world around him/her, these strong trends are details on which one might wish to express an opinion.

The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits provides a glimpse into a society of writers, during a creative cultural burst, that has long since been extinguished. It supplies the english-speaking reader with a sample of writings from eight gifted essayists one would not otherwise encounter. The fine introduction, short biographies and playful kleinkunst prose, add color and depth to a coffee house society that was such an important part of Vienna’s rich and innovative Fin-de siecle.


Segal, Harold B. The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1993.