Ulrich E. Bach’s slim book is about writers who lived by the Danube but dreamed of islands in the sea and colonies along tropical rivers or by distant seas. It includes close readings of various works by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Lazar von Hellenbach, Theodor Hertzka and Theodor Herzl, along with a final chapter, constituting a coda, which briefly discusses Robert Mueller and Joseph Roth. The book attempts to intertwine the discourses and scholarship on utopianism, post-colonialism and exoticism, while placing the various themes within the context of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Central Europe. It joins an ever-growing historiography in these fields. His introduction argues for the importance and intrinsic interest of the Austrian colonial imagination and its narratives of utopia in comparison with the more famous dystopian, pessimistic works of the Viennese (and Prague) fin-de-siècle writers. The theoretical framework and discussion of the scholarship could have been laid out in a clearer fashion both here and in the subsequent chapters. The first is devoted to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who located many of his stories in the exotic margins of the Empire, especially in Galicia, where colonial fantasies, repressed conflicts and social reinvigoration, according to Sacher-Masoch, surfaced and unfolded. Sacher-Masoch envisaged a pan-Slav telos for the Habsburg monarchy, eventually leading to class and ethnic resolution. A similar optimistic hope informs Lazar von Hellenbach’s book Insel Mellonta, which postulated a mixing of races, increased brotherhood and a redistribution of wealth as a possible future. Yet underlying both Sacher-Masoch’s and Hellenbach’s work is a deep ambivalence towards masculinity and sex. A common trope both in utopian narratives and the general culture of the time was a passive man in thrall to powerful, exotic, free, sexualised women. Since this trope is also evident, to some extent, in Hertzka’s and Herzl’s works, it is surprising that Bach does not investigate this theme in more depth. The following two chapters address Theodor Hertzka’ s Freiland (1890) and Theodor Herzl’s Alt-Neuland (1902). Hertzka’s and Herzl’s utopian novels both mix free, liberal, market, technological ideas with rational, communal morals. Along with ideas and narrative structures, Hertzka and Herzl had many other similarities. Both were journalists. They were, for a short time, colleagues at the Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung while also writing for many other liberal Viennese newspapers. They both originated from Budapest while also circulating in the same Viennese milieu. They were, of course, also both educated, successful Jews maturing in a time of increased anti-Semitism. In fact, for all of the writers addressed in the book, the ‘Jewish Question’ was conspicuously present: Sacher-Masoch, Hellenbach and Mueller all wrote about Jews and/or anti-Semitism, while Hertzka, Herzl and Roth were Jewish. Bach, nevertheless, is rather sketchy about the conditions and dilemmas of Viennese Jews. Throughout the book there is no real sense of the specific context of Vienna—its intellectual life, social world and political developments—out of which these writers and their works emerged. Hertzka’s and Herzl’s books in particular came out of a prosperous Jewish world threatened by the collapse of liberalism, the rise of anti-Semitism and simmering economic and social discontent. While the more famous modernists such as Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler and Kafka turned inwards towards psychological and personal journeys, the writers of utopian fiction were pointing to possible futures combining modern dynamic capitalist development with social and communal harmony. Robert Mueller and Joseph Roth share the final chapter. Mueller, whose works are little known these days, wrote a vast number of essays, short stories and novels in his short life. A believer both in the conflict and eventual fusion of races, Mueller’s Tropen (1915) ends in death and disappointment. While it follows German colonialist conventions, it is hardly utopian, instead concentrating on the psychological impact of the tropics on the individuals. Roth’s Kapuzinergruft (1938) is a strange, but also apt, case-study with which to end the book. It is strange, as it is neither about colonies nor a utopia, but nevertheless apt, for Bach’s purposes, since it represents the ultimate failure of the Habsburg monarchy—its hopes, ideas and possibilities. Bach explains his use of Roth’s novella by pointing to continuities with earlier utopian works—the engagement with contemporary issues, the search for understanding and answers. The final scene in Roth’s book is of the passive male protagonist Trotta visiting the Imperial crypt and the lament: ‘So where could I go now, I, a Trotta.’ In the conclusion, Bach notes that the works of colonial utopias addressed contemporary debates on the nation-state, sex, gender relations and anti-Semitism. Throughout the book he could have traced these themes more systematically and in more detail. In general, the various utopian works are another instance of late Habsburg culture not following the ‘flight from the political’, but rather evincing an engagement with the wider world and the possibility of creating a harmonious, prosperous society. Hopes, dreams, ideals and utopias were ever present in fin-de-siècle Vienna, as were pessimism, despair and dystopia. Bach’s book presents a sliver of light from this new vista. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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