Hermann Broch Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time: The European Imagination, 1860-1920.
Translated, edited, and introduced by Michael P. Steinberg.
University of Chicago Press, 208 pages, $13.95

Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Franz Kafka are the twentieth-century German writers who have made a deep impression in this country. But the three prominent Austrian writers of this century—Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Robert Musil, and Hermann Broch—have never found a wider audience. Hofmannsthal is mainly known as the librettist of six operas by Richard Strauss: Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die ägyptische Helena, and Arabella. His extensive work as a novelist and essayist was translated only when the Bollingen Foundation published Selected Prose (1952), the first of three volumes of Hofmannsthal’s writing. Broch wrote its introduction.

Hermann Broch was born in 1886. He was a textile manufacturer in his youth and later established a literary reputation with his three-part novel, The Sleepwalkers (1931-32).[1] In 1938, after a brief imprisonment by the Gestapo, he managed to escape from Austria and reach the United States, where he was able to live for several years on grants from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations. When these grants ran out, he was offered two thousand dollars by the Bollingen Foundation, in 1947, f°r an introduction to the Hofmannsthal volume. Broch, in dire financial straits, accepted, although his letters from this time show a strong distaste for his topic. Broch was a great admirer of the satirist Karl Kraus and must have read Kraus’s sarcastic comments on Hofmannsthal’s patriotic writing during the First World War; he must have known as well of Kraus’s attacks on Max Reinhardt and the Salzburg Festival, with which Hofmannsthal was associated. He might have known of Kraus’s remark about Hofmannsthal: “He creates artificial flowers which wilt naturally.”

At first, Broch certainly thought of Hofmannsthal as a fin de siècle aesthete, a type he had come to detest. But while reading Hofmannsthal in preparation for writing his introduction, Broch changed his mind. He became more and more interested in Hofmannsthal as a representative figure of his time and as a person whose ancestry and background resembled his own.

Broch’s account of Hofmannsthal’s forebears is, among other things, an historical evocation of the rise of the Jewish merchant class in nineteenth-century Austria. Hofmannsthal’s great-grandfather, who had come from Moravia to Vienna in 1788, made a fortune, and was given a patent of nobility by Emperor Ferdinand in 1835 (not in 1825 from Emperor Franz, as Broch states). His son, the poet’s grandfather, married an aristocratic girl from Milano and converted to Catholicism. Hugo’s father married the daughter of a provincial lawyer.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal identified completely with the Austrian monarchy and aristocracy. In 1914, although hardly conscious of politics before, he welcomed the war enthusiastically. He could say, “The beauty of Austria never stood out more powerfully than in August 1914.” During the war, he gave propaganda lectures in Sweden, wrote patriotic pamphlets on Prince Eugene of Savoy and the Empress Maria Theresia, and even wrote an article praising the Austrian military government in Poland. In 1917, he undertook to assemble essays for a volume on Austrian historical landmarks and was shocked by the refusal of prominent Czech writers he had invited to contribute. He then visited Prague and apparently for the first time realized that the destruction of Austria-Hungary was not the aim of only a few misguided Czech nationalists but the total commitment of a nation which felt the suppression of its early independence as a grievous wrong and yearned for a state of its own that would revive the ancient kingdom of Bohemia.

The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a traumatic effect on Hofmannsthai, but after the war he did not adjust to the new reality. Instead, he systematically helped to revive the myth of an idyllic, tolerant, supranational old Austria and to propagate Austria’s role as the focus of a new pan-European union. In a much noticed lecture in Munich in 1927, Hofmannsthai preached “the conservative revolution” and “creative restoration.” He supported the Europäische Revue of Prince Karl Anton Rohan and addressed a congress of cultural associations organized by the Prince. In his last years, Hofmannsthal’s political view combined a strong German nationalism oriented toward the “folk” with extravagant claims for a supranational role for Austria. Although he died too early (July 15, 1929) to experience either the Dollfuss regime or the Nazi invasion, which put an end to all such grandiose dreams, his praise for Josef Nadler’s Literary History of German Tribes and Landscapes—“Nobody has done more for the unification of the nation”—has an ominous ring to it if one knows of Nadler’s later total conversion to National Socialism.

While preparing for the Bollingen Foundation’s commission, Broch decided to write a monograph on the nineteenth century and on Austria in particular—and only then to focus on Hofmannsthal. But he had to interrupt this project when the Foundation pressed him for the introduction to Selected Prose. Broch wrote a literary-critical account of Hofmannsthal’s prose writing; it was published in English translation in 1952, after Broch’s early death in New Haven, Connecticut (on May 30, 1951). The bulk of the larger project, the monograph, appeared in 1955, in German, in a collection of Broch’s essays that included a postscript by Hannah Arendt. Another chapter from the monograph, entitled “The Tower of Babel,” was first printed only in 1975.

For Hugo von Hofmannsthai and His Time, Michael P. Steinberg has assembled all this material and translated it into English. Even the 1952 introduction appears in his new translation, which replaces that of Tania and James Stern in the Bollingen edition. Mr. Steinberg also supplies an introduction of his own which gives the publishing history of these writings and rehearses Broch’s philosophy of history and art. He uses Broch’s novels, The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil, to state Broch’s main thesis on art: that art is a form of knowledge, a total knowledge of man, society, and history. It seems strange that Mr. Steinberg, who as the translator must know his text intimately, decided to discuss the book on Hofmannsthal only in passing. I shall try to discuss it instead.

Authorized by some letters of Broch’s, Mr. Steinberg subtitles this volume “The European Imagination, i860-1920” to indicate that Broch goes back in history and discusses Europe as a whole. (The exact dates are in no way justified by the text, however.) Broch begins with a wholesale condemnation of the nineteenth century as “one of the most miserable periods of world history,” basing his disapproval on its lack of a single architectural style: the rapid succession of false Baroque, false Renaissance, and false Gothic. Broch sets his condemnation of nineteenth-century architecture in a general concept of history, popular at the time, which traced the decay and disintegration of man in the modern period from the Middle Ages. This concept of decay pervaded German thought in many versions. Although Oswald Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West) is the best known, Egon Friedell’s Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit (Cultural History of Modern Times) is closer to Broch’s discussion, since Friedell did not believe that a complete catastrophe would come to Western civilization but cherished the hope of its rebirth, a return to an integrated society and a whole man.

This scheme of disintegration and re-integration goes back to antiquity: to the myth of Dionysus, who was torn to pieces by the Titans. This myth was central to the Orphic mysteries. It was allegorized by the neo-Platonists, such as Plotinus and Photius, and reformulated as the story of man’s fragmentation and his hopes for re-integration, for a new totality. In German the theme of disintegration goes at least as far back as Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic Education (1795), where he contrasts the integrated and whole man of the Greeks with fragmented modern man. It was culture itself that inflicted this wound on modern man, Schiller argued, through the “division of the sciences and the divisions of labor.” The idea of alienation is of course closely related. It comes from theology—from the writings of St. Augustine, for example—and was secularized by Hegel and Marx. The scheme is by no means exclusively German. German writers such as Lichtenberg and Jean Paul loved to quote Addison’s casual saying, “The whole man must move together.” In Vala or the Four Zoas, William Blake evoked a vision of fragmented man and splintered humanity ultimately redeemed by Eternal Man and restored to wholeness and harmony. Ruskin, who was guilty of restoring pseudo-Romanesque and Venetian Gothic, fought a long battle against the specialization and disintegration of man. T. S. Eliot, with his vision of a unified sensibility in the past—a sensibility which was then “dissociated”—fits well with Broch’s idea, whatever the differences in vocabulary and emphasis. Broch states his idea forcefully, first in general terms and then with application to Austria. He gives it a sharply anti-bourgeois point. The bourgeois combined rationalism and hedonism, which together cover the general misery of civilization with decoration. Broch sees, however, that the realistic novel of the nineteenth century aimed at totality. In terms strongly reminiscent of Lukács’s Theory of the Novel, Broch surveys the writings of Balzac, Dickens, and Zola and then, surprisingly, recognizes another exception to his general condemnation of nineteenth-century art: the theater, where the art of acting kept alive a sense of style. Broch then describes the reaction against the failures of nineteenth-century art as a turning away from decoration. This turning away begins with Impressionism, which, according to Broch, discovered the medium as reality and returned art to the fully irrational sphere, particularly in the work of Van Gogh and Cézanne.

Broch was convinced that the world of art expresses the irrational but that it still conveys knowledge, even giving us metaphysics. “Without a grasp of reality there is no genuine art.” In his own development, Broch had begun as an engineer and a student of positivistic philosophy; he then turned to fiction writing because he had arrived at the conviction that only art can convey and express the true essence of reality. The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil are philosophical novels which combine poetry and philosophy. Only toward the end of his life did Broch return to straightforward speculation, to an immense project on mass psychology. In an autobiographical sketch he even disparaged his fictional writings. His judgment here seems overly harsh, even if we may come to the conclusion that his novels are, at times, an unhappy hybrid of philosophy and art.

While Broch admired Impressionism for returning art to its wellspring in man’s irrational essence, he also believed that it paved the way for the L’art pour l’art movement of the late nineteenth century. L’art pour l’art, for Broch, meant an indifference to social reality and a cult of cruelty. Broch finds both in Baudelaire, who with his followers paved the way for the darkest anarchy of the twentieth century. Although Pan pour Pan was anti-decorative, it did not descend to the unconscious, did not create a new myth, a new totality. Broch discusses the ideal of totality in Melville and Tolstoy, claiming that the Russian novel broke through the limits of l’art pour l’art and opened the door to a new ethical work of art; nevertheless, he argues, it did not itself create a new myth. Even Joyce ultimately failed, according to Broch, although Broch had earlier hailed Joyce as the representative of a new age, as the creator of a new novel of simultaneity, of an epic totality. This section of the book, on general European culture, ends with only a vague hope for a reconciliation of art and ethics in a new myth.

In the second section of the book Broch narrows his focus to Germany, Austria, and Vienna. The reflections on the vacuum of German art become more concrete. Wagner, characterized as an “unmusical genius of music and an unpoetic genius of poetry,” and Nietzsche are both made responsible for the shameful events of the Nazi period, even though they might have disavowed them. Vienna of the early twentieth century is described as a town of museums, alive only in the theater. Broch draws a picture of the Emperor Franz Josef as a totally isolated man who lived in solitude while the aristocracy engaged in the pursuit of fugitive pleasures—all the while expecting catastrophe. The bourgeoisie, aping the upper classes, was no better. In Broch’s view Vienna was the capital of Kitsch and Gemütlichkeit; to him this implies a wisdom that senses demise and accepts it. “Nevertheless,” Broch writes, “it was operetta wisdom, and under the shadow of the approaching demise it became spectral [geisterkaft, that is, “spookish,” not “spirited,” as the translation has it] and developed into Vienna’s gay apocalypse.” Broch’s picture here seems grossly overdrawn. Even the Emperor, old and struck by the tragedies of his family, was not that isolated. He had his friendship with Katharina Schratt and was a jovial companion of officers, hunters, and stableboys during his long months in his villa at Ischl. The ordinary Vienna burgher rarely had premonitions of the end until the later stages of the War.

Finally we arrive at Hofmannsthal. We are told the story of his ancestry, his assimilation into the Catholic aristocracy, and his religious crisis (which possibly made him contemplate entering the Franciscan order). Hofmannsthal was a prodigy. Even in the Gymnasium he published poetry and was an instant success. Broch recognizes that the youthful Hofmannsthal was not an aesthete but an artist who was searching for an ethical center. It is true that he lived in a dream world, but even the earliest poems and plays circled around the theme of life and death; their deliberate impersonality was only an attempt by Hofmannsthal to hide his struggle for self-transcendence. Broch contrasts Hofmannsthal with Stefan George and Rilke, who thought of themselves as priests of a religion of art. Hofmannsthal, in contrast, found an objective style in his work for the theater. Broch sees this turn as the result of what he calls “the second assimilation.” Hofmannsthal identified with both the Austrian aristocracy and with the people, the folk (a fairy-tale entity, in Broch’s view). Hofmannsthal searched for an individual style but found it only in his last drama, The Tower. Here Broch comments for the first time on Hofmannsthal’s “only too well-known” fictional letter, written under the name of “Lord Chandos,” which expresses despair about language. This despair led him to appeal to the magic of music, according to Broch. Broch is upset by his collaboration with Richard Strauss; he suspects the proximity of Wagner and sees Hofmannsthal’s turn to the theater as a surrender to the “vacuum of values.” Thus Hofmannsthal became, for Broch, a symbol of a disappearing Austria, of its disappearing aristocracy and disappearing theater—“a symbol in the vacuum, not of the vacuum.” Here the original manuscript of Hofmannsthal and His Time breaks off.

It was at this point that Broch composed the introduction to Selected Prose. Here he again expounds Hofmannsthal’s impersonality concept, his desire to suppress the ego, his anti-expressionism. “Confession is nothing, knowledge is everything,” Hofmannsthal writes; that is, knowledge means a complete identification with the object. Broch quotes the Sanscrit “tat van asi”—“I am you”—which he, like Hofmannsthal, learned from Schopenhauer. But this idea implies mysticism, ecstasy, the inability of the artist to ever identify with his object, confined as he is to the enmity and incomprehensibility of things. Hofmannsthal made a compromise between these views. He pronounced an injunction against lyric poetry but felt that poetry could flourish on the stage and in narrative.

Broch characterizes Hofmannsthal’s extremely varied narrative prose in general terms—as visual, as an enchantment with landscape. The alps, the plains of the Po, Venice, the motifs of travel and water dominate in it, while Hofmannsthal’s protagonists remain childlike in a fairy-tale atmosphere. Speaking in the tradition of German aesthetics, Broch sees in allegory a dangerous process of petrification. But Hofmannsthal, according to Broch, broke through to beautiful simplicity with The Woman Without a Shadow, a fairy tale which Broch rightly considers one of Hofmannsthal’s most successful works. Still, Hofmannsthal felt obliged to return to the theme of childhood in The Tower. Broch alludes to this play several times admiringly, but finds no occasion to discuss it in detail. He turns rather to Hofmannsthal’s essayistic work, praising particularly the travel sketches, The Moments of Greece, where Hofmannsthal, who disapproved of confessional poetry, came closest to speaking of himself.

Broch says almost nothing of Hofmannsthal’s literary criticism. Selected Prose includes translations of an essay on Balzac and the speech “On Shakespeare’s Kings and Noblemen” (1902), in which Hofmannsthal argues that Shakespeare’s work is noble and aristocratic, even when he depicts figures from the people. His heroes have dignity, have a “courtesy of the heart” which Hofmannsthal demonstrates by reference to the scene in Julius Caesar where Brutus withdraws the lute from under the sleeping youth Lucius. This and a few other articles are, however, exceptions. The bulk of Hofmannsthal’s literary criticism is “appreciation,” what used to be called “impressionistic” criticism but should rather be called “metaphorical,” since Hofmannsthal often indulged in those little fanciful digressions which Karl Kraus labeled “embroideries,” totally unrelated to the text under discussion. Thus an essay on Balzac concludes: “Wondrous stream, to which the soul surrenders with closed eyes, on which it drifts, like an enchanted boat, over waters which are of the color of blood or even gray like stone, or like the color of rosy mussels, from the depth of the abyss hidden beneath it.” This sort of writing seems to have pleased the taste of the time but dates Hofmannsthal’s literary criticism badly. It lacks skill in analysis and even characterization. It remains the least satisfying side of his many-sided work.

Broch’s chapter entitled “The Tower of Babel” looks like another attempt to rewrite the Hofmannsthal monograph. It is obviously later than the chapters printed first in 1955. It expounds the very same argument in somewhat different terms. We hear first of the fin de siècle style as a form of rococo. Broch alludes to the fashion for Japanese art and to the Vienna Sezession. He also discusses, again, French Impressionism, which he says produced two trends in the other arts. Impressionism in music appeals by its brightness in contrast to the gloom of Wagner’s music. Symbolism in literature is the fairy-tale of the period. In Maeterlinck it approaches pantomime and leads to the dancing of Isadora Duncan. According to Broch, Vienna did not care for symbolism, either in dance or painting.

On all these issues Hofmannsthal was a typical Viennese. He was touched by the new trends—Impressionism and symbolism —but remained a traditionalist who wanted to do things better. For Broch, Der Rosenkavalier is a comedy ennobling the style of Da Ponte, the librettist of Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Così fan tutte. About the time of Rmenkavalier many new trends were evident in the arts. Arnold Schonberg and his pupil Alban Berg were renovating Viennese music. There was Futurism in painting, which seems to Broch inferior. Cubism, he admits, was a real technical novelty, but its effect on literature seems to Broch minimal. The great novelists of the time—Thomas Mann, Henry James, Marcel Proust—were solidly upper class and bourgeois, since language puts a constraint on the artist. Only Joyce broke the yoke. Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are described as the summa of all ages. But then Broch says that they reduce man to his most primitive universal traits. “His two-leggedness is left, all knowledge useless, useless everything that man knows about himself.” Surprisingly (Broch’s conversion to Hofmannsthal’s greatness must have been then complete) Broch now states that Hofmannsthal exceeds Proust in poetic, though not in psychological, wealth and that in Hofmannsthal’s compassion for humanity he is more poetic than Joyce, who did not know compassion.

Broch’s section on “ethical art” ranges widely over social art from Ibsen to Hauptmann and Gorky and again discusses the relation between art and ethics (Broch avoids the term “morality”). He holds fast to the view that art must remain autonomous but again rejects the inflated claims of Nietzsche and Stefan George, saying that they lead to dehumanization. Hofmanns-thal’s Everyman, a rewriting of the English mystery play, was a call for a return to Christianity. But it and the Great World Theater were transformed by Max Reinhardt into almost blasphemous spectacles for the philistine rabble. Broch sees hope in the ethical art of satire, alluding to Karl Kraus. He still believed that the development of art (not its non-existent progress) serves ethical progress and that it could ultimately avert the world catastrophe. He trusts the conjunction between the naturalism of satire and the anti-naturalism of avant-garde painting— their common faith in the ethical and hence in the divinity of man. Hofmannsthal is forgotten. He would not fit on either side.

Obviously, Hofmannsthal and His Time is a bewildering panorama. In spite of some final expressions of hope, it paints a picture of unrelieved gloom, of the disintegration of man, the decadence of art, the end of the great tradition. Broch understandably felt the end of the world of his youth acutely. He believed in the Zeitgeist, the integrity of every period, and judged it from a lofty ethical and artistic point of view. The condemnation of the nineteenth century and of Vienna of the fin de siècle seems to me too sweeping. The phrase “gay apocalypse” ignores the continuity of life of the masses, who were hardly affected by the frivolity of the upper crust and who were aware of the impending disaster only when the outbreak of the war brought it home to everybody. The accomplishments of the time in the arts keep their enduring value whatever the objections to individual figures and works may be. It may be an excessively sober and commonsense conclusion to say that one should avoid two extremes. One must avoid the sentimental glorification of Old Vienna and old Austria-Hungary nurtured by a century-and-a-half-old propaganda, which ignores the sins of the monarchy and the German ruling classes against what they called “nationalities.” However great the accomplishments, quite unrelated, of writers living in Vienna —Freud and Wittgenstein (both neglected by Broch), Hofmannsthal, Musil, Broch, Karl Kraus, and others—other centers of the time could compete very well: Paris, Petersburg, and London certainly. On the other hand, one must also avoid embracing Broch’s view of a complete “vacuum of values” which can be defended only by a philosophy of history which prophesies decay and doom.


  1. The Sleepwalkers was recently republished by North Point Press; 648 pages, $15.50. Go back to the text.