08 May 2019

Artists of Souls: Peter Altenberg & Oskar Kokoschka

"There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that's already three things and there are a lot more."

Say "urban flaneur" and think of Charles Baudelaire stalking life through the streets of Paris. Baudelaire, the inveterate walker, and Peter Altenberg who preferred to watch the world go by from a table in a Viennese cafe were compatriots of the pen.

Prone to melancholy as he was, Altenberg became dependent on alcohol and a variety of other drugs. He also suffered from insomnia, having no reason to keep regular hours.  After being committed to mental institutions four times  during the period 1909-13, his pessimism only increased with the outbreak of the Great War. At a time when many regarded Austria as a charming asylum, Altenberg actually ended his days in one, dying there of pneumonia in 1919.
"Do you recognize that stack of empty slivovitz bottles?!?  Indeed I know, they're mine - " In ebullient punctuation and succinctness,  Altenberg is our contemporary.  As does his gimlet eye for social cruelties and his unseemly relishing of pretty young girls.

 Altenberg reveals himself to be conflicted in ways familiar to us.  A man who praises the pastoral life, yet  never deserts cafes  and their creature comforts, a Nietschean believer in the primacy of the aesthetic, yet a  champion of the rights of  working people who finds beauty in humble things disdained by his peers. Unusually for a man of his time and place, Altenberg displays empathy for  women, children and servants.  In The People Don't Always Feel Altogether Social Democratic we find him arguing for equality as his carriage driver upholds class distinctions. He brushed the extreme social stratification of his time aside like a annoying cobweb.  If this contradicts what I just wrote in the previous paragraph, well, that's Peter Altenberg for you.

In his writing as in hs life, Altenberg elided the contradictions between bourgeois respectability and sexual expression, frequently consorting with prostitutes and demimondaines while maintaining a Romantic's attitude to women.  When a young woman he was wooing protested that his interest in her was only sexual, he replied "What's so only?" Persecution Complex is Altenberg's argument with Sigmund Freud and the radical new "science" of psychoanalysis.  Altenberg  himself had been diagnosed with "over-excitation of the nervous system", resulting in an "incapacity for gainful employment," a diagnosis  that left him free to pursue the bohemian life he preferred. This did not prevent him from portraying his psychiatrist as a humorless stuffed shirt in Sanitorium for the Mentally Imbalanced

He may  not  be well known to non-German readers, but Altenberg has always been a favorite of other writers. Thomas Mann  recalled his reading of Altenberg as "love at first sound." His friend, the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, dubbed Altenberg a "professional neurotic" but was eager to steal his ideas. Franz Kafka described Altenberg's talent for  "finding the splendours of the world like cigarette butts in the ashtrays of coffee houses."   Altenberg and Schnitzler were nominated to be co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1914 but no prize was awarded that year.

Who was Peter Altenberg?  Born in 1859 to a prosperous Jewish family that supported him throughout his life, Altenberg's finances were also supplemented through the patronage of admiring friends.  Altenberg showed no inclination to pursue a career as motivation was never a strong point with him; he failed his high school composition examinations even though he was a talented writer. Nevertheless, Altenberg published eleven books whilet never managing a living from them;  Camping out in a series of cheap hotel rooms, Altenberg's real life was lived in the cafes where he spent most of his time, absorbing atmosphere, intuiting the psychic states of those around him, and writing everything down. He was a self-described "little pocket mirror" that reflected the world as he found it  "(I) loathe and revile people yet can;t live without them." 

Altenberg also wrote poetry on the backs of the postcards he collected, postcards having been a  recent Austrian invention (1869).  This habit inspired his friend Alban Berg to compose Five Songs On Postcards with lyrics by Altenberg.  Berg was a composer of the Second Viennese School, meaning he combined romantic lyricism with the arbitrary rigor of the twelve-tone row. When the piece premiered in 1913, the audience rioted and the piece was withdrawn, not to be performed again until 1952. At the time, people said that within a week, half the audience had taken themselves to the couch of Dr. Freud.

Altenberg's "telegrams" written on the fly and published in newspapers. They belong to a genre called the feuilleton,  a term  from French suggesting at once sheets of paper and the flutter of little leaves.  They appeared in such popular publications of the day as Ver SacrumSimplississmus, PanJugendWendingen  and Die Bombe (The Bomb). He also wrote poetry on the backs of the postcards he collected, postcards being a recent Austian invention (1869).  This habit inspired his friend Alban Berg to compose Five Songs On Postcards with lyrics by Altenberg. When the music premiered in 1913, the audience rioted and the piece was withdrawn, not to be performed again until 1952. At the time, people said that within a week, half the audience had taken themselves to the couch of Dr. Freud!



As the  Habsburg Empire slid ever closer to political instability, Vienna remained a charming place to escape the exigencies of daily life. The educated class had come to regard political activity as futile, so narcissism was a ready escape. The writer Theodore Herzl, only nineteen 1879, identified the neurotic personality of his time as one "falling in love with his own spirit, and thus of losing any standard of judgment." If this sounds to our own preoccupations, then reason enough to pay attention to Altenberg now

Oskar Koksochka (1886-1980) wrote poetry and plays but his portraits and landscapes are the embodiment of expressionist. Kokoschka said that when he painted portraits he painted the soul of his sitter and not their likeness or, as he wrote in his autobiography, "the distillation of a human being that would survive in my memory."  Kokoschka's Altenberg, balding and mustachioed,  reveals angst in every fiber of his face and hands. One sitter, Adolf Loos, was so taken with the artist's version of himself that he said "This picture is more like me than I am."

In Telegrams of the Soul Peter Altenberg is well-served by his translator Peter Wortsman (Brooklyn, Archipelago Books: 2005).

Images:
1. Oskar Kokoschka - Portrait of Peter Altenberg, 1909, oil on canvas,  private collection, New York.
2. Ludwig von Zumbach  - cover art for Jugend magazine, 1896, Albertina Museum, Vienna.

5 comments:

Hels said...

You are quite right that Altenberg may not be well known to non-German readers, which is true for me. I know Thomas Mann, Arthur Schnitzler and Franz Kafka quite well, and I can recognise Oskar Kokoschka's art quickly. So it is even more of a tragedy that Altenberg and Schnitzler were nominated to be co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1914, but war intervened. Fame can be fleeting, can't it?

Jane said...

Hels, Altenberg's work has been translated into English here in recent years and Stanley Kubrick's final film "Eyes Wide Shut" with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruse was based on a Schnitzler novella. So there are second acts sometimes.

Rouchswalwe said...

Fascinating! Thank you for this, dearest Jane!

Jane said...

Rouchswalwe, doesn't the little man in the Jugend illustration look like Altenberg? I was tickled pink when I found it. The University of Heidelberg has the entire run of Jugend magazine online. Also those of Pan, Ver Sacrum, and all 21 years of Deutsch Kunst und Dekoration! And others that I haven't gotten around to looking at yet.

Rouchswalwe said...

Really! Oh, I'm there already ... Yes, there is a distinct likeness!!