Elaine Meinel Supkis
The afterglow of one of the greatest cultural periods in human history still haunt us a hundred years as it shines in the distance like a red light edging black clouds, Vienna, 1907. So many painters, writers, poets, musicians, composers, astronomers, physics, medicine, psychiatry! The golden clouds shining with a blinding light! Out of this stalked one of history's greatest mass murderers. Why?
When the Emperor released the Jews from their medieval ghettos, the well-spring of freedom and civil rights released a tremendous amount of creative energy which also swept through other peoples, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Bohemians, Germans, everyone benefitted from this new freedom and as always, free people are creative and a culture developed rapidly that covered every possible activity. And the other empires of Europe had rich cultures, too, but the significance of the Vienna hot house: it probed the innermost depths of the human soul, the outermost limits of nature. This was the weakest of all the Empires. Yet the riches it created were a towering achievement.
If I included all the artists like Dvorak, the cellist's best friend, or Dr. Freud, the man who drew the ancient world into the modern and merged them in a creative bond that fueled many of the works of art and music of his time, Einstein, the man who revolutionized the very heavens, the list is long and distinguished.
Today, I sit in the middle of the American Empire. We have created a culture, too. But something is going wrong. The intellectual hard work of striving to see the impossible, the desire to understand the darker, deeper meanings of existence, is missing.
Not that the great cultural structure built by the turn of the century geniuses saved them from utter, hideous destruction! For when their empire imploded, it destroyed nearly everything, enough was saved for us to live fuller lives and to be changed forever by the fierce, refined, powerful human forces released during this short time period.
The young Hitler was wild for Wagnerian opera, stately architecture, and inventive graphic art and design. His taste in painting was—and remained—philistine. He swore by Eduard von Grützner, a genre painter of jolly, drunken Bavarian monks. Hitler's own stilted early efforts were the work of a provincial tyro who was ripe for instruction that he never received. (The show includes a rather nice watercolor of a mountain chapel, from a commission that was secured for him by Samuel Morgenstern, a Jewish dealer.) As with any drifting young life, Hitler's might have gone in a number of ways. The most exasperating missed opportunity was the possibility of working under the graphic artist and stage designer Alfred Roller, a member of the anti-academic Secession movement whose sets for the Vienna Court Opera's productions of Wagner, which were conducted by Mahler, foreshadowed Nazi theatricality. With a letter of introduction to Roller, Hitler approached the great man's door three times without mustering the nerve to knock. As it turned out, he seems never to have consorted with anyone whose ego overmatched his own. Grandiose and rigidly puritanical, he was a figure of fun to many of his mates in Vienna's lower depths. He accumulated humiliations on the way to becoming a god of revenge for the humiliated of Germany. Meanwhile, his adopted city fired his imagination. In "Mein Kampf," he recalled, "For hours, I could stand in front of the Opera, for hours I could gaze at the parliament; the whole Ring Boulevard seemed to me like an enchantment out of the 'Thousand and One Nights.' "
What started as a meaningless assassination turned into an attempt at suppressing the Serbs in the Christian parts of the former Ottoman Empire then became a violent free-for-all. Mahler's symphonies and Wagner's operas and above all Richard Strauss' shocking Salome, all sorts of confusing energies converged and mixed in with a feeling of doom and rebirth to hatch WWI. As that war writhed across Europe, everyone was as helpless as Salome to stop it.
Teatro de la Zarzuela de Madrid. May 1979
Montserrat Caballé as Salome, Fritz Uhl as Herodes, Josephine Veasey as Herodias, Julius Rudel conductor (less)
In addition to such unconventional and popular works as Elektra (1909), Richard Strauss (German, 1864-1849) composed the opera for the German translation of Oscar Wilde's adaptation of Salome, first performed by the Dresden Opera in 1905. It is fitting that Strauss was the man who transformed Wilde's Salome -- the text of which features the attempted seduction of John the Baptist (Iokanaan) followed by Salome's unprecedented passionate post-mortem kiss for the prophet -- into opera; both Wilde and Strauss were criticized widely for unconventionality in their works. Strauss's opera was broadly rejected at first because of the "immorality" of its content--a sequence of events which raises uncomfortable questions about the deep sensuality of the Christian tradition--and for the heroine's disregard for the Christian morality.
Today, in America, much of our livelier parts of our culture comes out of the very poor, the descendants of slaves. Unlike in Vienna, much of our art is derivative or due to lack of time, swiftly done, cheap, even. Gigantic objects, overblown staged effects in movies, bombast mixed with childish naivity, rather than trying to plumb the depths of the human condition, to understand the universe and place ourselves in emotional jeopardy, our art strives to satiate and coddle.
I can barely watch any movies made these days because they are so irritatingly shallow, I have been spoiled, brought up in a cultural oddity, out of step with the century. Freud has been cast out as 'useless' by people who misunderstand the true value of his inspirations. Looking backwards into the oldest of stories told by distant ancestors, the revelations they sensed, this is part of the ability to understand our souls which don't 'exist' at all yet is the Key to our own selves!
Looking at this, finding this, understanding this, if we have any purpose in life, in the end, it is to die after understanding our own souls. And not with cheap tricks like 'Jesus loves me!' short-cuts.
The people in America dreaming of the End of Times are like Hitler who couldn't grasp the inner meanings of some of the greatest works of art that was growing all around him, lush and frightfully beautiful, it was all weeds to him, things to be uprooted and burned. So is all culture with these new nihilists.
Oscar Wilde decided to stay in England which was not experiencing this level of freedom and they put him in prison for being gay. Once he left, a broken man, he died, ever smaller, weaker, unfree. Rulers of Europe and America sought to crush all this, many artists and creators were hunted down, persecuted for their sex or their beliefs, ethnicity or truth telling.
Just as these same destroyers of culture are out to eliminate not just Freud but also Darwin not to mention Einstein, the have taken control of vast swaths of America and it shows. Despite them, those of us who congregate in certain areas like New York City, manage to ride the winged horse bred and trained in Vienna so long ago. But every year, this gets threatened by these deadly minimalists.
Just as we see fearful people in Muslim lands trying to control culture the same way, the wars being waged by all these groups is endangering not just culture but the planet. And the Jews who spearheaded this amazing rebirth of culture, they are also losing it all as they degrade and debase themselves chasing after penniless Arab children, chopping down old olive trees, brutalizing helpless pregnant women. It is making them smaller and weaker where it matters: in the soul, in the heart, the throne of liberation, an electric chair like the one in Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis', the chair of the robot who has no feelings but lust.