Friday, May 2, 2008

Austria Felix

When I was a kid, I used to dance with my grandmother. She’d come grab me and haul me on the dance floor at the Germania Society and we’d do the old one-two-three. You know, the blue Da-nube waltz, rest, by Strauss, rest, by Strauss, rest (beat on the bold-face syllables).

From my grandmother I got a romantic view of Vienna, where people wore ball gowns every night and there were princes and princesses and horses with feathers high-stepping down the cobble-stoned streets, and all was music and gaiety.

That image lingered into my twentieth year, when I was studying at the University of Munich and decided one day to hitch-hike to Vienna. Fast trains today do it in four hours. It took me much longer because getting a ride was terribly hard. Long long waits between rides.

At one point, a German on his way to Lenz picked me up and I told him how much harder it seemed to be to get a ride in Austria than in Germany, where I hitchhiked all the time. “That’s the Austrians, for you," he said. "Totally self-centered. Think only of themselves and pay no attention to anybody else.” He stopped several drivers with Vienna license plates and asked them if they would take me the rest of the way. No luck. I was convinced. Austrians are no damned good.

In Connecticut where I grew up people talked like that about the drivers across the border in Massachusetts. People in New York had other faults.

But while I hated Austria, I also loved Austria then (the stay in Vienna was magical) and I loved it each time I went back over the years. Then it was the “God greet you, Madame, I kiss your hand” from the shopkeepers to their lady customers. Today it’s the memory of Christmas in the mountains and the snow and tile stoves and carved wooden furniture with hearts for holes, and the way they roll their r’s and say Jenner for January and dozens of little details that still bring back the image I got from my grandmother.

Who had never been there.

When I got older, more stuff piled on to the image of “those Austrians” with their smug self-centeredness. Kurt Waldheim and the readiness Austrians seem to have for burying their Nazi past. The Anschluss, where 99.7% of the population said “take me, take me” and then insisted after the war they were as much victims of the war as anybody.

“I don’t like Austrians much,” I heard myself say once, for no particular reason. Followed by, “Where the hell did that come from?” I realized I had made a nice little package of images, the kind that is possible when your knowledge base is scant.

What had happened to that other Austria? Archduke Ferdinand and the Hapsburgs - “bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube” (“others wage war, but you, happy Austria, marry”), the Salzburg Mozart festival, Haydn, Schubert, all those Strausses, Freud, Wittgenstein, Martin Buber? Arnold Schwarzenegger!?

Over the years I lived in Japan I became intimately familiar with the way non-Japanese, myself included, put the country and its culture and customs under a microscope. Everybody and his cousin Pico wanted to write a book about it, and entirely too many did. We used to say if you’re going to write a book about Japan, you’d better do it in the first two years. After that your opinions get too clouded by layered information that puts a lie to whatever conclusions you want to draw.

Not that foreigners are the only culprits in this kind of bumper sticker social analysis. Each time some gruesome kiddie porn scandal or suicide pact or other example of the limitless possibilities of human folly comes to the surface, the media have a frenzy of navel-gazing. “What is it in the Japanese psyche that makes these things possible?”

Now I’m watching this pseudo-analysis over the macabre event in Amstetten where this man locked his daughter in a dungeon for twenty-four years and produced seven children off her. While all while mama lived upstairs and knew nothing.

And we’re off and running. Is this an “Austrian” phenomenon? A “Lower Austrian” phenomenon? A “town of Amstetten” phenomenon?

Why not a germanophone phenomenon? How about a catholic phenomenon? Austria is a catholic country and fiercely paternalistic historically. Which explains the appeal of Nazism and the willingness not to question papa’s orders not to go into the basement poking around. Why not a circumstantial problem? Austria, because of the cold, builds sturdy houses with concrete basements easily made into dungeons. You won’t find a Tahitian creep pulling something like this in Tahiti. They don’t have the houses for it.

What a silly game it turns into. And even serious people play it. Yesterday, it was the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Today it’s The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune going on with “what is it about Austria???”

Japan is kiddie porn. It’s also an exquisite sensibility that enables it to declare living artists as official national treasures. Austria is unrepentent Nazis. It’s also Mozart.

This is merely the media with their poisoned pens turned momentarily on felix Austria. Wait a day or two and they’ll be back reducing Obama to Jeremiah Wright and Hillary to her gaffe over Bosnia. And the lively example of America’s democracy in action to a bitter feud between self-destructive democrats. Not that they won’t be right about the way people interpret what’s going on. Of course they’ll be right. They lead the flock into temptation and then write stories about the fall.

It’s a media game. A reason for not reading the papers.

But then where are we?

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