February Selection: Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna


At our February meeting we will discuss the following book selected by Bill Hagens:

Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980) Knopf

Available on Kindle and from various used book sources, as low as $0.98.


Bill provides the following information about his selection:


Fin de siècle is a French term usually referring to the end of the 19th century.

Here’s how to pronounce it:


Although a noteworthy era in other major cities, Vienna’s Fin de siècle is the most often cited example.  During this period, the Hapsburg Dynasty crumbled in Austria, but in the capitol city a major “modern” movement emerged in art, science, and architecture, producing a number of talented persons for whom the word “genius” would not be ill placed.

Here’s a partial roster:

Writers: Hugo Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler, and Hermann Bahr

Composers: Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg

Painters: Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoscha, and Egon Schiele

Architects: Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, and Joseph Olbrich

Scientists: Karl Landsteiner, Hans Hahn, and Sigmund Freud


This BBC documentary, Vienna, City of Dreams, is an excellent introduction to this time period.



I hope you enjoy the read.  See you in February.




About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2017 Selections, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to February Selection: Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

  1. David Gilmour says:

    In bitter sub-freezing air, I am having a harrowing time in Idaho, 6 feet of snow on the level and three more inches today on top of already icy roads. As I listen, periodically mind you, (can’t spend all one’s time getting pissed off) to the horrifying American news about the dismantlement of democracy, of diplomacy, by El Trumpo and his benighted cohorts, I also listen daily to a talking book dealing with the history and mystery of a particular rare book. This takes my mind off today, so I think.
    Having just read Schorske’s Fin-De-Siècle Vienna for our club, I now come upon the same subject in the 2008 fictional work I mentioned, which Susan and I were listening to as we were driving through Eastern Washington. It’s a fictional work by Geraldine Brooks, entitled The People of the Book. In it, the heroine, Hanna, traces the provenance of a Haggadah codex through centuries of book handlers. One of the centers of rare books happens to be Vienna, where the protagonist, a modern Australian archivist, travels to trace some curious marginalia of the medieval Jewish codex.
    The chapter on Vienna opens with a quote by the satirical commentator Karl Kraus: “Vienna is the laboratory of the apocalypse.” What is being termed “apocalypse” is of course the fin de siècle, when the psychological cat was let out of the bag, through drama, literature and poetry, music and other arts. Through his fantastic imagination, Freud, and his divulging of a hypothetical “unconscious,” allowed people, especially artists, to think of a motivational inner life that drove them to forge their dreams or their nightmares. Reading Brooks’ work has become, again, another of those coincidences we have often referred to as a Jungian “synchronicity.”
    Some comparative passages are listed below.
    An elderly person in Vienna (in the 1990s), named Werner, explains the age he knew and some of the history of the haggadah Hanna is seeking information about:
    “I don’t know if you are aware of it, but those fin-de-siècle years saw a great surge in anti-Semitism here. Everything Hitler said and some large part of what he did with regard to the Jews was rehearsed here, you know. It was in the air he breathed growing up in Austria. He would have been, let me see, about five years old, starting kindergarten in Braunau, when the haggadah was here. So strange to think about such things… .” His voice trailed off. When he looked up at me and spoke again, I thought at first he was trying to change the subject.
    “Tell me, Hanna, have you read Schnitzler? No? You must! You cannot understand anything about the Viennese, even today, without Arthur Schnitzler.”
    [He searches for a work by Schnitzler in his bookshelves.]
    “I have only the German and you still do not read German, do you? No? Great pity. A very interesting writer, Schnitzler, very—forgive me—erotic. Very frank about his many seductions. But also he writes a great deal about the Judenfressers—that means “Jew Eaters,” because the term anti-Semitism was not yet coined when he was a boy. Schnitzler was Jewish, of course.
    He drew a book from the shelf—“This is called My Youth in Vienna. It’s a very nice edition—an association copy, Schnitzler to his Latin master, one Johann Auer, ‘with thanks for the Auerisms.’ Do you know, I found this in a church book sale in Salzburg? Remarkable that no one spotted it… .” [A work that might have been taken and burned.] He leafed through the book until he found the passage he sought. “Here, he apologizes for writing so much about ‘the so-called Jewish question.’ But he says that no Jew, no matter how assimilated, was allowed to forget the fact of his birth.” He adjusted his glasses and read aloud, translated it for me. ‘Even if you managed to conduct yourself so that nothing showed, it was impossible to remain completely untouched; as for instance a person may not remain unconcerned whose skin has been anesthetized but who has to watch, with eyes open, how it is scratched by an unclean knife, even cut until the blood flows.’” Werner closed the book. “He wrote that in the early 1900s. The imagery is very chilling, is it not, in the light of what followed… .”
    . . . “So it was possible that binding [of Schnitzler’s book] was careless because the binder was one of Schnitzler’s Jew Eaters.”
    So, in the course of their discussion of turn-of-the-century Vienna, Mahler comes up (“…only last night his wife had dragged him to hear that man Mahler’s latest, very strange composition and wasn’t he from Bohemia or somewhere of that sort?” Then Klimt comes up (“And that exhibition of Klimt that they’d looked in on—that was something different. Artistic license, he supposed one called it, but the man had a very odd conception of the female anatomy.”) And even some of the city building Schorske invokes to describe the Vienna of the early 1900s: “The city had been confident enough to raze its own medieval fortress walls and replace them with the welcoming swing of the new Ringstrasse; pragmatic enough to embrace the industrialization that dusted the horizon with a haze of prosperity.”
    I think we would agree that once a member of our club opens a new “box of tricks”—it might be a Pandora’s Box–the world around seems sprinkled with myriad references to it. More than 50 years ago in graduate school at the U of O in Eugene, I studied—read novels and dramas of— Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Hauptmann and other writers of the naturalist and social-realist style of German literature of that era. In my ordinary life today, I don’t know with whom I could have brought the subject up at any time since then. However, Bill, following his visit to Vienna, has opened Schorske’s box of tricks and I can now think about and discuss these fin-de-siècle subjects again. My hope is that on-going discussion can continue among us in light of the times we are in. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was also appropriate for us in the same way. We can now see better our own time in the mirror of times past. The power of enduring arts!
    As a classicist, to me our present gilded age looks Roman Imperial, say Tiberian verging on Caligulan. Trump Towers is the new Capri.
    Here, finally, is the remarkable quote, from Adalbert Stifter in Schorske’s penultimate chapter, that has rung in my head this past week. Yeats, by evidence of his “The Second Coming,” (particularly the lines, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”) may have known of Stifter’s ideas of revolution and freedom:
    “Distrust your hotspurs, who promise to overwhelm you with immeasurable freedom and eternal gifts of gold; they are mostly men corrupted by the power of their emotions, who are driven by their emotions to win a wide field and great gratification [for themselves]; and when they have won them, they will fall still lower and drag down all who trusted them.” (p. 281-282)
    No need to comment further on this. But, come to think of it, the whole of “The Second Coming” (take a look!) seems all the more emphatically descriptive of our age of chaos.

    The very concept of a fin de siècle is one for a good discussion on Thursday. Wish I could be there. I will look forward to listening in.

    • Neil Bergeson says:

      Spurred by David’s comment, I pulled out my trusty computer and I’d like to share the following.

      The end of the 19th century didn’t only occur in Vienna, of course. With just a cursory Google search, numerous examples that mirror the phenomenon Schorske describes can be found having occurred all round to globe. Fin de Siècle, it seems, was wide-spread. Take a look at a few:

      Greg Buzwell authored an article entitled, Gothic Fiction in the Victorian Fin de Siècle. An excerpt:

      “Later still in the Victorian fin de siècle the scene changes again: it is no longer the physical landscape that provides the location for Gothic tales but rather, more disturbingly, the human body itself. Works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886); Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); Arthur Machen’s ‘The Great God Pan’ (1894); H G Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) all explore the theme of the human mind and body changing and developing, mutating, corrupting and decaying, and all do so in response to evolutionary, social and medical theories that were emerging at the time.”

      See more at: http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gothic-fiction-in-the-victorian-fin-de-siecle#sthash.D6LEzuAN.dpuf

      David Der-wei Wang links it with the Qin Dynasty in China in his book, Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1848-1911.

      Will Tattersdill pointed to the beginnings of the science fiction genre in Science, Fiction, and the Fin-de-Siècle Periodical Press, an e-book published by Cambridge Press.

      Finally, one more: Harrington Park Press, LLC recently published an English version of Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France written by Nicole G. Albert. A short description includes the following:

      “In 1857 the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who was fascinated by lesbianism, created a scandal with Les Fleurs du Mal [The Flowers of Evil]. This collection was originally entitled “The Lesbians” and described women as “femmes damnées,” with “disordered souls” suffering in a hypocritical world. Then twenty years later, lesbians in Paris dared to flaunt themselves in that extraordinarily creative period at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries which became known as the Belle Époque.
      Lesbian Decadence, now available in English for the first time, provides a new analysis and synthesis of the depiction of lesbianism as a social phenomenon and a symptom of social malaise as well as a fantasy in that most vibrant place and period in history. In this newly translated work, praised by leading critics as “authoritative,” “stunning,” and “a marvel of elegance and erudition,” Nicole G. Albert analyzes and synthesizes an engagingly rich sweep of historical representations of the lesbian mystique in art and literature. Albert contrasts these visions to moralists’ abrupt condemnations of “the lesbian vice,” as well as the newly emerging psychiatric establishment’s medical fury and their obsession on cataloging and classifying symptoms of “inversion” or “perversion” in order to cure these “unbalanced creatures of love.”

      I don’t know about you, but just a few days ago I knew nothing about fin de siècle, let alone how to pronounce it, and now I come to find out it’s a major event in art and politics and history that is best represented in Vienna, one of Bill’s favorite cities. Not only that, like the 100th Monkey, it seems to have spread to a variety of countries and cultures. Well, blow me down!

  2. Ron Boothe says:

    In the opening paragraph of the book, Schorske mentions the musical composition La Valse by Ravel. There is a dramatic performance of this piece by pianist Yuja Wang on YouTube:

  3. Ron Boothe says:

    During our discussion of Fin-De-Siecle Vienna, one of the topics that came up was speculation about what kinds of art the Trump Administration might provoke that would be somewhat akin to Klimt’s “in your face” response to the establishment of his time. Richard suggested that it might come from within the Rap genre. An article I just saw posted on the CNN website is interesting in this regard:


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