Ironists of a Vanished Empire

Marjorie Perloff is one of America’s leading critics of poetry, having spent a long career writing on the work of avant-garde poets from Frank O’Hara to Charles Bernstein. But though she is the author of many books, she wrote in her 2004 memoir, The Vienna Paradox, “when I see [my] name in print…there is always a moment when I wonder who Marjorie Perloff is. It just doesn’t look or sound like me.” That is because, until she became a US citizen at the age of thirteen, she was called not Marjorie but Gabriele—Gabriele Mintz, the name she was born with in Vienna in 1931. Just seven years old when she came to America, Perloff can be counted as perhaps the youngest of the great wave of European Jewish intellectual refugees who immeasurably enriched American culture. On March 13, 1938, the day after Hitler’s armies marched into Austria to annex it to the Reich, the Mintz family boarded a train for Zurich, and kept moving until they had reached the Bronx, where Perloff would spend the rest of her childhood.

Joseph Roth
Joseph Roth; drawing by David Levine

The dramatic metamorphosis from Gabriele to Marjorie, from haute-bourgeois Jewish Vienna to middle-class Riverdale, is the subject of Perloff’s excellent memoir. The Austria where she was born was a rump state, carved at the end of World War I from the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. But it retained some of the grandeur of the empire’s multinational culture. And none of the empire’s many ethnic groups—Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slavs—did more to create that culture, or held it in greater reverence, than its Jews. The emigration of Jews from rural villages in Galicia and other parts of Eastern Europe to the capital in Vienna had created, before World War I, an intelligentsia of amazing accomplishment, including figures like Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud.

As Perloff writes, Vienna’s Jews were passionate about German culture even though, or perhaps because, they were for the most part rejected as members of the German nation:

The alternative to…nationality was the Kulturnation of German Enlightenment culture—the liberal cosmopolitan ethos of Bildung [development], which had its roots in the classical Greek notion of paideia. Bildung was more than “civilization,” since…it was conceived as having a distinct spiritual dimension. Thus the cult of Kultur was gradually transformed into a kind of religion.

In her memoir, Perloff is alternately nostalgic for this religion of culture and suspicious of it. Plainly, the Viennese Jews’ enthusiasm for art and intellect did not earn them a secure place in Austrian society. On the contrary, fin-de-siècle Vienna was one of the birthplaces of political anti-Semitism, the place where the young Hitler first expressed his hatred of Jews. For all the accomplishments of the German Jews, Kultur could be seen as a kind of lullaby they sang to themselves as the walls closed in.

For a young girl trying to grow up into an American, Perloff writes, her parents’…

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