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The Good, the Bad & the Bourgeois

1.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the curriculum of Rugby School in England was dominated, as was true of other public schools, by instruction in Greek and Latin. In addition, however, all students from the first to the sixth grade read history, both ancient and modern, which was interlarded with generous portions of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Livy. Dr. Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby, once gave the rationale for this by saying, “The history of Greece and Rome is not an idle inquiry about remote ages and forgotten institutions but a living picture of things present, fitted not so much for the curiosity of the scholar, as for the instruction of the statesman and citizen.”1

History was central to Victorian education as a means of forming character and preparing students for the challenges of the times, and this was not the only field in which it was accorded a respect that has no equal in our own age. Because it seemed to express and validate the hopes and ambitions of the rising middle class and its belief in progress—after all, what Englishman would deny that he lived in a land where freedom broadened from precedent to precedent, and what citizen of the Bismarckian Reich that he was a beneficiary of history’s law of natural selection?—its influence was apparent in all fields of human thought and activity. This was true of the arts as well as the sciences. Historical painting remained popular throughout the century, and the historical novel had a vogue that was never enjoyed by the more analytical novels of society. Indeed, Leopold von Ranke, the most famous practitioner of Quellenkritik, always insisted that history was more an art than a science and cited Scott’s Quentin Durward as the ideal model of historical narration.2

In architecture, too, history found important expression. In an absorbing chapter in his new book on the ascendancy and eclipse of historicist culture in the nineteenth century, Carl E. Schorske writes of how the post-1848 tension between the crown and the liberal elite in Vienna was moderated by the construction of the Ringstrasse and how the different architectural styles of the principal buildings along this thoroughfare served as a kind of visual mastering of a difficult past. Crucial to this, he argues, was the construction of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and its positioning between the Rathaus and Parliament of the ascendant liberals and the monumental dynastic buildings of the Hofburg, so that it served as a bonding element between the monarch and the new elite. Schorske points out that the most visible symbol of the implied political compromise was the statue of the Empress Maria Theresa that stands in the center of the museum square, surrounded by the leading figures of her reign. These included not only her soldiers and diplomats, but representatives of the Enlightenment like the reformer Joseph Sonnenfels, who abolished torture, and Gerard van Swieten, who modernized the university, and great artists like Gluck, Haydn, and the young Mozart. He adds:

The Empress’s caring, motherly figure contrasts strongly with the two military heroes whom Francis Joseph had chosen in the 1850’s as focal statues of the Heldenplatz across the Ring. She stands in contrast, as well, to the figure whom the liberals chose to place before their Parliament: Pallas Athene. Lacking any heroes of their own in Austrian history, the liberals had turned to classical culture for an appropriate symbol.

Historicist architecture served other than political ends. It helped to alleviate the shock that the progress of industrialism and modernization inflicted on conservative sensibilities. Anyone who has traveled by train from Berlin to Hamburg will have been struck as he passes Potsdam by the imposing Turkish mosque on the banks of the Havel. This is the so-called waterworks of Sans Souci, built in 1841-1842 to pump water from the Havel to the royal fountains, and its impressive exterior is intended to conceal the Borsig steam engine that makes it work, as its minaret is designed to disguise the fact that it is really a chimney.

In cities across Europe, it was believed that such byproducts of the new industrialism as factories and railroad bridges would be less offensive and threatening if their stark utilitarianism was hidden beneath a style drawn from an earlier age. Schorske writes:

In London even the railway stations struck archaic poses: Euston Station sought in its façade escape to ancient Greece, St. Pancras to the Middle Ages, Paddington to the Renaissance. This Victorian historicism expressed the incapacity of city dwellers either to accept the present or to conceive the future except as a resurrection of the past.

Among intellectuals, the counsel of history was constantly invoked in debates about the shape of the future and the preservation of values in an age of change. Schorske describes how conservative thinkers like Coleridge and Disraeli sought an answer to the growing greed and individualism of modern society in the revival of ideas of community rooted in the religion-centered Middle Ages, and how Wagner and William Morris, at different stages of their careers, found in Nordic mythology the model of healthy community existence. Similarly, during the days when Germany was under the domination of Napoleon and seemed to have no future, Johann Gottlieb Fichte invoked the memory of the medieval German city, which he regarded as a pure creation of the Volk, as “the nation’s youthful dream of its future deeds,” and his eloquent championing of this model of communitarian morality provided new standards for the later criticisms of the nineteenth-century city as a center of capitalist individualism. Thus, also, Jacob Burckhardt, returning to Basel after the publication of his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, and sensing that the neohumanistic values that had inspired the patricians of his native city-state were threatened by democracy and industrialism, abandoned scholarly research and took upon himself a staggering burden of public lectures designed to teach his fellow citizens how to understand history through contemplation and reflection, acting, as Schorske writes, like Nietzsche before him, as “a kind of home missionary whose vocation was to develop cosmopolitan Bildung in allegiance to the local scene.”

The ascendancy of history in the consciousness of Europeans began to wane in the second half of the nineteenth century. This had something to do with the decline of faith in progress, as intractable political and social problems multiplied and the counsels of tradition seemed increasingly bootless. Schorske places the turning point in the 1850s and writes:

No agreement yet exists on the great sea change in our culture ushered in by Baudelaire and the French Impressionists, and given philosophical formulation by Nietzsche. We know only that the pioneers of this change explicitly challenged the validity of traditional morality, social thought and art. The primacy of reason in man, the rational structure of nature, and the meaningfulness of history were brought before the bar of personal psychological experience for judgment.

This is a good working definition of modernism, and it is a pity that Schorske does not discuss the movement in its European setting (we hear nothing more, unfortunately, about Baudelaire, and little about Nietzsche), confining himself to a series of essays on individual expressions of modernist consciousness in Vienna which elaborate on themes already discussed in his previous book on that city.3 Still, we have no reason to complain about this. Schorske knows a great deal about Vienna, and the essays in this section are original and penetrating, particularly those on Mahler and Freud.

The rise of modernism in Vienna was conditioned by the breakdown, at the end of the 1870s, of the political ascendancy of the Liberal Party and the rise of new forms of mass politics. This shook the confidence of the liberal elite and weakened the cohesion of its cultural tradition, that synthesis of aesthetic cultivation inherited from the baroque and of rationalist political and academic dedication inherited from the Enlightenment which Schorske calls the union of Grace and the Word. Tolerance of opposing points of view became less frequent, the search for culprits on whom to blame the disarray of the times became more common, the tie between generations broke down.

Indeed, the evolution of modernism was marked by a series of Oedipal revolts by the sons against the fathers. The first came in the wake of the expulsion of Austria from Germany after the defeat by Prussia in 1866 and the subsequent economic crash of 1873, with its revelations of speculation and corruption in high places. Die Jungen in the universities called for a thoroughgoing regeneration of Austrian society and a new German nationalism (the critic Hermann Bahr recalls telling his astonished father, “Liberalism is finished. A new age is dawning. Make way for us!”), finding their models in ancient Greek culture and in Germanic myth as preached by Richard Wagner. This tendency did not last long, for the nationalist movement was superseded by the rising force of anti-Semitism, and those among its leaders who were Jewish—Bahr, Theodor Herzl, Gustav Mahler, Viktor Adler, Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Friedjung—were expelled. Their successors—the Jung-Wien movement of the 1880s, and the Secession of the turn of the century—were not interested in remaking society after ancient models, for they no longer, in Schorske’s words, “did their thinking with history.”

Jung-Wien espoused the “modern” (a word used only in deprecation by Wagnerians) as a form of existence and a sensibility different from all that had gone before, one detached from history. Although they still used the reportorium of history as a source of images, they ceased to regard history as a meaningful succession of states from which the present derived its purpose and its place in human destiny.

This was true also in architecture. Otto Wagner, a leading social critic of the Ringstrasse style, argued in an influential book that its architects, instead of answering modern needs, had been unduly influenced by the quite different requirements of earlier civilizations. What was essential now, he argued, was a public architectural style that would be consistent with the new building materials and technologies of the present age and expressive of its democratic, commercial, practical character. In the private rather than the public sphere, the Secessionists called for an architecture based on what Schorske calls “a new, meta-historical beauty” that would seek to adapt buildings to the personalities of their owners, and thereby—somewhat mysteriously, one might think—help to brake the dissolution of the ego in modern society, which was one of their principal concerns. At the same time, a bitter opponent of the Secession, Adolf Loos, who in 1898 described Ringstrasse Vienna as a “Potemkin city” whose façades hid a world of sordidness and squalor and hypocrisy, took the puritanical view that art and aesthetics, like history, should have nothing to do with architecture at all, which was merely a business of meeting practical needs in the most economical way.

  1. 1

    Peter Gay, The Naked Heart: The Bourgeois Experience from Victoria to Freud (Norton, 1995), p. 216.

  2. 2

    Wolf Lepenies, Die drei Kulturen: Soziologie zwischen Literatur und Wissenschaft (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1985), p. 308.

  3. 3

    Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (Vintage Books, 1981).

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