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on Ferdinand Kürnberger, for Vienna Modern mokes


Der Mensch ist geboren, nackt zu gehen und Kokosnüsse zu essen, nicht Uniformen zu tragen und Militärbudgets zu bewilligen. 


“Man is born to go about naked and eat coconuts, not to wear uniforms and approve military budgets.” – Such is the conclusion of Ferdinand Kürnberger, a Viennese satirist from Nestroy’s generation. His essay on Cold weather and world history, written in 1865, laments the wrong turn made by history when the inhabitants of the Indus, enjoying great weather and blue skies, decided to migrate to the Danube and upwards: a mistake! “And thus hot Indians became cold Germans.”

Kürnberger was a radical – he was on the socialist-anarchist side, against the prevailing classical liberalism of the time, or at least in the beginning. He was even suspected of being a part of a ring of conspirators who brought off the storming of the war ministry in Vienna in 1848 and the lynching of the war minister, Latour. He spent a lot of time hopping from one German town to another, trying to escape shadowy policemen. From this experience he developed an outsider’s distance and a satiric edge, which he especially used to dissect the Austrian government. He was also a great fan of Schopenhauer – whose reactionary instincts became, transformed, a subversive theme in Viennese culture.  Kürnberger’s phrase “life doesn’t live” is quoted not only by Wittgenstein, but by Adorno in Minima Moralia. There’s a melancholy here that preceded the war-defined twentieth century, as Austrian intellectuals, living in the Funhouse of the Habsburg Empire, instinctively felt the black spot in classical liberal culture, the distortions it was producing. Karl Kraus’s prophetic career was fed by these springs.

Kürnberger’s novels and plays are forgotten – by which I mean that they are fodder for the stray dissertation, but have no real hearing in intellectual life. In contrast, his occasional essays are still alive. He was a master of the feuilleton, which he transformed into the anti-feuilleton, a critique of nineteenth century progress and all of the newspapers that followed in its wake. He is a spiritual descendent of Nicholas Chamfort – although aren’t we all? Some of the Viennese wits have English language fans – I’m thinking of Clive James attempt to make Alfred Polgar a name to at least recognize among the literati. Kürnberger has not been so lucky. Although what is luck to a dead writer?

There is, I feel, a large appreciation and even nostalgia in American literary culture for Vienna. That Jonathan Franzen chose to write a book on Karl Kraus, or a translation of Karl Kraus, doesn’t seem that odd when you consider that books like Wittgenstein’s Vienna sold, for academic books, very well. Musil is now on the list of author’s one might not read, but one must recognize (and sigh and say, I’m going to read The man without qualities one of these days). For those who groove to Vienna Modern,  Kürnberger is a nicely prefiguring nineteenth century marginal. In his introduction to a collection of his literary essays, he speaks about his relation to the collection of them, in his desk drawer, as one more of an editor to posthumous works than of an author to his own living work – a trope picked up by Musil for his own essay collection. And his anti-ornamentalism definitely influenced Adolf Loos. Kürnberger was highly sensitive to the exponential increase in visuals – drawings, paintings, photographs, etc. – in his time, and correctly saw the newspapers as a key mediator between an older, visually abstemious culture and his visually decadent one. He predicted the coming of the filmed adaptation of the “classics” – which for him was a product of the decline of the imagination.

“When a Goethe, with the mightiest poetic imagery, brought forth a Gretchen, what sketcher, shaver and doodler should dare place himself between me and Goethe with his pretension: you should imagine Gretchen not as Goethe willed her, but as I do? Can that be even allowed? What after all is all the intellectual pleasure of poetry more than the stimulus, which the phantasy of the poet communicates to the fantasy of the reader? And now, between the two, we have to have a dabbler push himself in, who illustrates, and between the union of us two makes himself the third?  I imagine that there is more than one kind of union that is too intimate, too personal for a third!”

This has been a minor but persistent complaint about visual culture since the cultural industry overwhelmed us with its own pics, films, etc. I am a child of the cultural industry, myself, and can’t imagine certain characters from novels without imagining the actors who played them. That purity of contact – the sort of fucking that Kürnberger sees as the model for reading – is a thing I doubt. Goethe’s Gretchen and Gretchen’s Gretchen are distinct entities – perhaps one of Kürnberger’s faults as a novelist, in as much as his novels are pretty much forgotten, is that he has way too idealistic view of fantasy, and the contract between author, image, and reader. I suppose this is a good place to mention that Kürnberger was a friend of Sacher-Masoch and prefaced one of his novels.