Academic journal article German Quarterly

Political inscription, artistic reflection: A recontextualization of contemporary Viennese-Jewish literature

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Political inscription, artistic reflection: A recontextualization of contemporary Viennese-Jewish literature

Article excerpt

As American and German literary scholars have begun to document in the course of the last few years, a small but vibrant Viennese-Jewish literary scene has developed during the late 1980s and '90s.1 An aesthetically heterogeneous conglomerate united around such political issues as Vergangenheitsbewaltigung and the fight against anti-Semitism and racism, the group includes the writers Robert Schindel, Ruth Beckermann, Doron Rabinovici, and Robert Menasse, as well as more marginal figures such as Anna Mitgutsch, Elfriede Jelinek, and George Tabori. As a collective, these writers have produced a corpus of critical Jewish interventions that have resonated within and beyond Austria's literary fields. What has been insufficiently appreciated in much of the literary criticism devoted to the emerging scene, however, is the larger social and cultural context from which it emerged. In light of this lacuna, I propose to undertake a historical and cultural recontextualization of the current movement-an analytic move that is intended to supplement the available readings of contemporary Austrian-- Jewish literary formations with an interpretation of some of the larger frames underwriting their emergence. Before I proceed, I should make clear that in making this argument, I am not insisting on the analytic primacy of cultural over literary considerations. Rather, I am proposing a dialectical model that understands literary production as a constitutive function of various social and cultural fields-a situation that not only renders contextual interpretation an integral part of literary analysis, but allows for the mobilization of literary texts in larger historical arguments. It is in the latter sense that I will close this essay by suggesting that contemporary Viennese-Jewish literature serves as one marker of a transition from modernity to postmodernity in Austrian-Jewish existence.

Viennese Contexts

Over the last few years, Vienna's socio-cultural fields have been thoroughly transformed. Until well into the 1980s, the city had retained the oppressive charms marking its gradual restoration in the wake of World War II's devastation. While efforts at rebuilding the war-torn city had been highly successful, the resulting urban landscape functioned more like a museum commemorating the imperial capital's former splendor than as the site of vibrant social spheres. While other European metropolises boasted political diversity and radical cultural scenes, Vienna was characterized by the sheer conventionality of its provincialism-a situation that reproduced the Holocaust's catastrophic logic of cultural homogeneity.

In regard to the intrinsically compromised Jewish presence in post-Holocaust Vienna, this publicly-enforced national and cultural homogeneity rendered Jews the object of ongoing forms of symbolic viofence. For in their position as actual victims of Nazi aggression, Jews signified the inherent instability of postwar Austria's "founding myth"-the notion that the country had been a victim of Nazi aggression rather than a co-perpetrator of the Holocaust. It was this symbolically volatile situation that required the Jews' collectivized removal from public consciousness. Transported through governmental nonintervention, hostile bureaucracies, and other unofficial channels refracting the country's widespread anti-Semitic sentiments, this violence enforced an accommodationist stance marked by Jews' retreat into a private sphere of non-threatening difference.2 As Ruth Beckermann has noted in recalling her Jewish childhood in 1950s Vienna:

Wir lebten in Wien, doch kam man fast ausschliesslich mit Juden zusammen. Mit ihnen feierte man Gerburtstage and judische Feste, verbrachte man Sonntage und Ferien. Es war so, als wurde uns, den Kindern der Uberlebenden, mitten im Osterreich der funfziger Jahre ein vergangenes und fernes Osterreich vermittelt, das vor allem in der Literatur der Welt von gestern vorkam. In der Gegenwart war es ein Ort, auf den man sich nicht einliess. …

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