The path to freedom

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By LUIS S. KRAUSZ*

Commentary on Arthur Schnitzler's Novel

In this 1908 novel, Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), with his characteristic stylistic filigrees and delicacy of gaze, turns to the aporias of the Viennese Jewish community, to which he himself belonged. This theme, which until then occupied a marginal position in his work, is inseparable from the growth of anti-Semitism in the Habsburg capital, triggered by the political rise of Karl Lueger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, who was elected by the Christian-Social party with based on a rhetoric that, preceding Nazism by a few decades, attributed to the Jews the ills of the Austrian people in the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Der Weg ins Freie, original title of the work, it can also mean the path to the void or to the open: it is a book about Austro-Jewish vertigo and social lability. The characters, disconnected from their ethnic-religious origins, are infected by the epidemic of the desire to integrate into the higher spheres of society and to acquire new aesthetic and cultural repertoires that, as they mistakenly assume, will make them citizens of a cosmopolitan world, free of discrimination. and prejudices.

The oblivion and abandonment of the Jewish tradition, on the one hand, and, on the other, the commitment to a search for what would be essentially human, in harmony with the liberal and scientific ideology hegemonic in the last decades of the XNUMXth century, are, thus, the north and the south of the characters portrayed here by Schnitzler. And their ideals of life approach a kind of hedonistic intoxication, where worldly comforts and pleasures are renewed with the lives of others. Salons, escapes into nature, going to concerts and frequenting cafes, in a world whose features were thought to last forever. Or a radical and passionate plunge into the utopias of socialism and Zionism, destined to replace this stagnant world, often perceived as unfair.

The social and cultural transformations of the Jews of Vienna, mostly descendants of migrants from Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary and Galicia, and the penetration, over an ancestral religious worldview, of the self-redemptionist ideals characteristic of the XNUMXth century is, thus , one of the axes of this beautiful panel of life in the Habsburg capital, whose central narrative thread is a love affair between Georg von Wergenthin, a musician from the declining aristocracy, and Anna Rösner, a piano teacher from the Christian and anti-Semitic petty bourgeoisie.

It is around this main axis that small secondary dramas emerge, whose recurrent theme is the search for freedom of eight Jewish families, each linked, in some way, to the musician von Wegenthin. They are Ehrenberg; Golowski; Nürnberger; Eissler; Berman; Stauber; Oberberger and Wyner. These subordinate narratives are reflected in each other and end up taking the reader on a journey through all social strata of the heterogeneous and peculiar Viennese Jewish population, which came to represent 12% of the body of citizens of the imperial capital. Schnitzler ranges from the dimly lit apartments in Leopoldstadt, the neighborhood where the newly arrived Jews from the eastern provinces of the Empire, generally poor and religious, concentrated, to the salons where the old aristocracy met with the Jewish upper bourgeoisie, in a relationship rarely free from ulterior motives, in which name, taste and money were bargaining chips.

The Jews that Schnitzler portrays, whatever their social and economic situation, have in common the fact that they are, without exception, on their way to some unknown place or situation. Hence the title of the novel. The Ehrenberg family is a good example: S. Ehrenberg is an industrialist whose family members, wishing to integrate into aristocratic circles, hide their first name, Salomon, which sounds unpleasantly Jewish to them. Salomon, however, despises the ambitions of those who mimic the group to which they wish to assimilate and, to annoy them, he always expresses himself in Yiddish, a language that is frowned upon by those who have the ambition to become Austrians. sine name and which terrifies his family members. Meanwhile Oskar, his son, as if to compensate for Salomon Ehrenberg's inelegant manners and language, imitates the gestures, customs and appearance of the aristocrats with whom he lives to become a grotesque emblem of the efforts of appropriation, by a class upstarts, symbols of the patrician class.

More successful is the assimilation of the old Eissler, “who composed pleasant Viennese waltzes and songs; he was knowledgeable in the arts and antiquity; he busied himself in collecting and sometimes selling antiques; he was in his time the most famous boxer in Vienna and, with his gigantic build, his long gray beard and monocle, he looked more like a Hungarian magnate than a Jewish patriarch”.

There is also room, in the narrative, for socialist dreams of justice and equality: the Golowski brothers, sons of a petit bourgeois family from Leopoldstadt, engage in the socialist movement, and end up arrested by the political police of the Kaiser. Another who dedicates his life to the dream of a democratic state is deputy Stauber, who resigns after being publicly execrated in parliament and insulted as a “Jewish dog” by colleagues on the opposite bench, while Heinrich Berman, whose father dies, mad, after suffering relentless political persecution in the social democratic party, dreams of becoming an admired playwright.

The path to freedom, thus, shows the modernized Jews of Vienna as individuals in search of direction, but loose in the void. Doubts, nervousness, psychic and social fragility devour their lives and they always seem to be threatened by countless types of personal, economic or social catastrophes. Thus emerges the portrait of a group that, as the playwright Heinrich Berman says, sees itself in the contingency of, if it wants a well-ordered world, having to build it with its own strength – “which demands a lot of effort for those who do not is the good God”.

Luis S. Krausz Professor of Jewish and Hebrew Literature at FFLCH-USP and author of Twilight Rituals: Joseph Roth and Austro-Jewish Nostalgia (Edusp).

Reference

Arthur Schnitzler. The path to freedom. Rio de Janeiro, Record, 540 p (https://amzn.to/47yCxwJ).

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