Monday, September 12, 2005

The Vienna Paradox, the title of Marjorie Perloff’s intense & fascinating memoir, was that the Jews of the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not think of themselves as Jewish – indeed, many had been baptized – until Hitler forced them to do so. As a community, the Viennese Jewish elite had been as thoroughly assimilated into the Austrian society as took place in any European nation. Perloff’s maternal grandfather, a career diplomat, serviced successive Austrian governments even after they had become overtly fascists, right up until the Anschluss, Hitler’s “annexation” of Austria into the Third Reich. The Anschluss forced Perloff’s family to flee, most coming to the United States (tho a couple were able to wait the war out in Italy & still others settled in South America).

In place of Judaism, Perloff suggests, many turned instead to culture, the so-called high arts, as a kind of more secular religion, one that could join them to their Christian neighbors. Having to flee for their lives & assimilate in the New World not only unveiled the anti-Semitism of their neighbors – anything they couldn’t carry with them was of course stolen – but now exposed them to a new world in which the absolute barrier between art & kitsch, between populism & Kulchur, had never been fully erected. From the Vienna of Schoenberg they found themselves in the New York of Frank Sinatra, where a profane haberdasher from Missouri sat atop what emerged from the war as the most powerful nation in the world.

At one level, Vienna Paradox is the tale of the Americanization of Gabriele Mintz, who ditched her first name in a quest to de-emphasize her “exotic” Viennese roots, emerging as one of the two or three most successful & important critics of contemporary American literature of the past half century. But just as Perloff has succeeded by focusing on our most challenging texts & authors – not without controversy – The Vienna Paradox is the antithesis of the “I did this, I did that” mode of autobiography. Indeed, the book’s weakest moments are often its most autobiographical, especially once Perloff enters the adult realm of college. Her decision to focus her work on the most progressive poets of her time is handled in less than one sentence – tho the decision casts enormous light backward on the community of her childhood & on the idea of a class that immersed itself not, as Perloff makes clear, in art for art’s sake, but in art for life’s sake. If I read what Perloff almost says rightly, the avant-garde (& now presumably the post-avant) carries forward what was best about the old high culture – the constant quest to further thought, to explore, that which could be said to underlie such disparate Viennese intellectuals as Stefan George, Arnold Schoenberg & Ludwig Wittgenstein – whereas the School of Quietude is concerned instead primarily with preserving high culture’s social codes, the elitism that ultimately failed the Jewish participants the instant that the darker underbelly of anti-Semitism was revealed to be a constituent element of such social conservatism.

That is, at least on one level, the unwritten book that still lurks just beneath the surface of these pages. Vienna Paradox is at its best when Perloff is focused on the worlds of her parents & grandparents & the much more wrenching adjustments they had to make, both personally & professionally, coming to the U.S. Already in their 30s when they reached New York, Max & Ilse Mintz had to establish themselves in new careers. High achievers both – a Mintz & Schüller family trait that goes back beyond the time when my own ancestors were still illiterate fish mongers in England – Gabriele’s father became a CPA while her mother was one of the first women to receive a Ph.D. in economics & taught at Columbia. Focusing in part on these older generations enables Perloff to invoke her remarkable research & analytical skills in ways that writing about herself really doesn’t permit.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Perloff’s own upbringing was her education at Fieldston School, a private school operated by the Ethical Culture movement, dedicated to the insertion of ethics into the social function most people would reserve for religion. Popular among secular Jews – Rachel Blau DuPlessis has an Ethical Culture background as well – Fieldston could be read as an attempt to recreate the same dynamics that made up, for Perloff, the Vienna Paradox itself. In her own case, however, it was simply the closest private school available. The process of Americanization was already overwhelming her family’s old world dynamics.

The Vienna Paradox is exceptionally readable, more compelling than most novels. If anything, it cries out for a sequel. There is, I think, an entire volume hidden in this sentence (in reaction to professor’s suggestion that she turn the statistical analysis of rhyme from its original focus on Yeats in her dissertation to a poet such as Byron):

More important: I wanted to become a different kind of Modernist: no longer a student of Robert Lowell, but of the larger, early 20th century world called the Avant-Garde.

Here’s hoping that someday she will write that book.