Belated and Inadequate: My Thoughts on Carl Schorske

When Carl Schorske died two months ago, I wanted to write something more thoughtful and considered than the quick Facebook post or tweet. His work had meant too much to me. But when I started to re-read Fin-de-Siècle Vienna in preparation, I realized I wasn’t up for it. The book is just too symphonic; it’s like a George Eliot novel. Nothing I wrote seemed sufficient. So I did the only thing I could do: I posted a screen shot on Facebook of the opening paragraphs of the book.

Tonight I was looking for something in my blog, and I found this post from two years ago. It’s a reply to a wave of criticism I received in response to an article I wrote in The Nation on Nietzsche and Hayek. In the reply, I say some things about Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Nothing fancy, but it occurred to me: the greatest honor we pay to a writer is to use his writings. It’s in the doing of the work, the carrying out of the task, that we pay our respects. So here I pay mine:

I wrote the piece [on Nietzsche and Hayek] mainly in pursuit of an idea coming out of my encounter with Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Situating the rise of modernism in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this classic study hears the drumbeat of Viennese politics—a flailing ancien régime, a bourgeoisie struggling to extract a liberal order from “the feudals,” and a vicious street fight of right and left— in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Klimt’s Athena portraits, and other touchstones of high culture.

Schorske’s book spawned an entire literature devoted to the Viennese origins of logical positivism, psychoanalysis, atonal music, and more. Yet there has always been a conspicuous absence in that literature: the Austrian School of economics. Even though the Austrian School was forged in the same Schorskean crucible of a regnant aristocracy, weak liberalism, and anti-socialism, even though the Austrian economists offer an appreciation of the subjective, non-rational, and unconscious elements of life rivaling that of Freud, Klimt, and Kokoschka, the Austrians make no appearance in Schorskean histories of Vienna and Schorske’s Vienna makes no appearance in studies of the Austrians. It’s as if there is a tacit vow of silence among two sets of scholars: historians and leftists who do not want to concede any cultural status or philosophical depth to (in their view) vulgarians of the market like Mises and Hayek, and libertarians and economists who do not want to see their inspirations tainted by the politics of Vienna.

Strangely, two weeks before Schorske died, I was asked in an interview by the historian Andrew Hartman what were my touchstones in intellectual history. I mentioned three; one of them was Fin-de-Siècle Vienna.

Another book that comes to mind is Carl E. Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, which introduced me to the notion of cultural texts as sublimations of political conflicts. Especially in his chapter on Freud, where Schorske shows how psychoanalysis registers, in a new vocabulary of the self, the larger battles of Viennese and Habsburg politics. In the same way that Nietzsche retells the founding story of social contract theory as an internal drama of the mind’s development, so does Schorske read the Oedipus Complex as a psychic transposition of the political story of Oedipus Rex. From Schorske, I developed an interest in how cultural forms and texts—particularly, economics—are condensations or sublimations of political life or forgotten political vocabularies.

At a later point, I’d like to say more, especially about this idea of condensation and sublimation. Until then, this will have to do.



  1. graccibros November 11, 2015 at 10:25 am | #

    Corey, thank you very much, I appreciate your complex insights and directions on Schorske, and “Fin-De-Siecle Vienna,” a work which has haunted me for a long time, since the early 1990’s, as I watched American liberalism surrender intellectually to Hayek’s Market Utopianism (neoliberalism).

    As I watch the Sanders-Clinton’s tensions play out, the Black Lives Matter campaign unfold, toppling college presidents, and the nation being shocked by the depths of despair revealed in the older white-working class mortality statistics, against the atonal background music of mass shootings, I come back to these thoughts on “fragmentation” from the Introduction of “Fin-De-Siecle Vienna.” To bring it home, just ponder the fragments which make up the Democratic Party: labor, environmentalists, feminists, LGBT’s, black citizens, Hispanic citizens (and yet to be…),peace activists, civil liberties activists…and yes, to add cruel and incongruously to this list of camps, which have trouble speaking to one another, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Wall Street financiers of many “callings…” both in and out of the deepest shadows.

    To Schorske now:

    “In what seemed like ubiquitous fragmentation – Nietzsche and the Marxists agreed in calling it ‘decadence’ – European high culture entered a whirl of infinite innovation, with each field proclaiming independence of the whole, each part in turn falling into parts. Into the ruthless centrifuge of change were drawn the very concepts by which cultural phenomena might be fixed in thought. Not only the producers of culture, but also its analysts and critics fell victim to the fragmentation. The many categories devised to define or govern any one of the trends in post-Nietzschean culture – irrationalism, subjectivism, abstractionism, anxiety, technologism – neither possessed the surface virtue of lending themselves to generalization nor allowed any convincing dialectical integration into the historical process as previously understood. every search for a plausible equivalent for the twentieth century to such sweeping but heuristically indispensable categories as ‘the Enlightenment’ seemed doomed to founder on the heterogeneity of the cultural substance it was supposed to cover. Indeed, the very multiplicity of analytic categories by which modern movements defined themselves had become, to use Arnold Schoenberg’s term, a ‘a death-dance of principles.'”

    I leave everyone with a question: is what we have seen in the seasons of “The Walking Dead” the American version of the state of nature resulting from this fragmentation, from the “ruthless centrifuge” of neoliberal technological change, and our home grown version of the street fighting between left and right in Vienna…or Berlin decades later? A milder version to be sure…and where the winner will not be the conductors of torchlight parades but “the religion of entrepreneurship,” to borrow from Nicholas Lehman’s insightful article about “The Network Man” (Reid Hoffman) in the October 12 print edition of The New Yorker. (The phrase is by Nancy Lublin, a ” ‘social entrepreneur in New York.'”

    I noticed yesterday that Gar Alperovitz’s and Gus Speth’s “Next System Project” had 180 or so viewers on their panel about the future or not of “Capitalism”…Lehman says “Star Citizen,” an online “civic” version of more warlike online games, has 200,000-300,000 users per day.

    I had never heard of it. Towards the end of Lehman’s article, Hoffman, the LinkedIn founder, says ” ‘I’m trying top get politicians to understand that solving this problem is about facilitation of a network, as opposed to’ – sarcastically – ‘the New Deal.'”

    • LFC November 12, 2015 at 5:21 pm | #

      “despair revealed in the older white-working class mortality statistics”

      The Deaton/Case paper is actually about death rates in the middle-aged: specifically ages 45 to 54. (The whole paper is only 6 pages and can be downloaded w/o charge as a pdf.)

  2. graccibros November 11, 2015 at 11:45 am | #

    OK Corey, that’s a very interesting direction, the emphasis of your second point here. But if Schorske left out political economy, especially Hayek’s ideas, then he also left out the “other” not quite so famous Vienna economist from 1944 (well, political economist) working in the city at this time, already polemically engaged with Von Hayek: Karl Polanyi and his not so famous work “The Great Transformation.”

    Perhaps the reason betrays more than you think: a drift of the left away from political economy starting in America in the McCarthy era, and never really recovering unless you fit Johnson’s “War on Poverty” into that term, and heading towards cultural matters, the leanings of Schorske himself, with its origins well described by the author in the Introduction. And haven’t the most notable triumphs of the American left of the past two decades been in the cultural realm of gender politics and equality in sexual choices, not political economy?

    Perhaps we can find some further insights from another scholar who just passed away, Sheldon Wolin, and I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to comment on your posting on that sad day, Corey.

    Please consider this, though, from Wolin’s book “Tocqueville Between Two Worlds,” as my tribute, and his insights into the tensions between politics and culture, and I think readers can see the roots of Wolin’s last book (unless he’s got some unpublished manuscripts that a scholar will unearth for us) beginning to emerge, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.” (2008) Forgive me for the length of the quote, but I think readers will see quite a few roots worth tracing. Notice the fate of Tocqueville’s “ideal,” the small town participatory democracy of New England, losing out to “mass politics…” Here is how Wolin’s sums up Tocqueville’s directions:

    “His change of emphasis – from participatory practices as the center of a flourishing politics to associations as defensive in an apolitical setting – can be read as a corollary to his realization that culture offers a means of blocking the growth of democratic politics and, at the same time, of shaping the opinions, attitude and values of the various institutions and associations of civil society. Religion, schools, family newspapers, clubs, the arts, and theater are all cultural artifacts, but they, in turn, are typically shaped by the Few: by priests, teachers, parent, writers, editors, organizers, artists and performers. Culture, in other words, is ‘natural’ elitism. along with commerce, industry and science , these elites are the modern successors of aristocracy – although Nietzsche preferred to lump them all as ‘priests.’ Unlike the early modern aristocrats, late modern elites depend on mass constituencies for their survival…Their function becomes the redirection of the demos, away from politics toward personal satisfactions. All that is needed to produce a politically neutralized demos is a combination of structured work haunted (but not demoralized) by unemployment; public education that provides the utensils to consume popular culture; and representative government that regulates mass politics according to a timetable of periodic elections leaving the rest to commentary by the clerks.”

    This book came out in 2001…I would say as far as unemployment goes, based on the recent findings on death rates among the white working class, we moved from “haunted” to “demoralized” quite some time ago, beginning with de-industrialization in the 1970’s…although it is contained by its “localization” in only some, but growing, parts of society. On the way to the distribution curves of income and wealth sketched out by Piketty’s work.

  3. Roqeuntin November 11, 2015 at 8:15 pm | #

    I remember you mentioning this text way back then and not paying it much mind. I’ll have to add it to my reading list which, admittedly, is already way too long. Coincidentally, I’m reading Freud’s 1918 text on the Wolf Man “From The History of an Infantile Neurosis” right now. I’ve read the most of what would be considered the major Freud texts, with several notable exceptions. I tracked down this PDF with the complete works of Freud a few years back and spent an evening splitting the whole thing up into .txt files which could be read on the Kindle. It’s been a useful resource.

  4. peggoty November 12, 2015 at 4:09 pm | #

    Very nice point, re: Schorske’s missing Karl Polanyi, especially since Polanyi very close to Schorske’s wonderful generosity of spirit and sensibilities. But Polanyi in Vienna wasn’t 1944 but 1919-1933, during height of Red Vienna, and Schorske should have noticed given Polanyi’s pre-eminent role as writer for the leading financial newspaper outside of London.
    And hear, hear for graccibros’s observations on the left’s drift away from political economy, but I wouldn’t date it until after the rise and fall of Marxism in the 1960s and 70s.

    • graccibros November 12, 2015 at 8:29 pm | #

      Thanks very much peggoty, and you are quite right, Polanyi worked, according to Fred Block’s Introduction to the Great Transformation, “for the premier economic and financial weekly of Central Europe, Der Osterreichhische Volkswirt” through the 1920’s right on through the terrible events between 1929 and 1933, before being asked to resign. To make a slight allusion to contemporary politics, his great book was written at Bennington College in, of all places, Vermont in 1944.

      Exactly when the US left drifted away from the importance of “political economy,” I would place it earlier, following Alan Brinkley’s “The End of Reform” and Ira Katznelson’s “Fear Itself.” The outlines of the future Republican Right can be seen by 1938-1939 in the opposition to New Deal, the alliance between Southern Democrats and the Republican base…the Second Bill of Rights from 1944 got not traction further than the GI Bill and the very watered down “Full Employment” Bill of the late 1940’s…and let’s not leave out the passage of Taft-Hartley. “Political Economy” got “professionalized” within the economics profession with a certain type of Keynesianism…and labor became bureaucratized, moving away from rank and file led strikes to the “Treaty of Detroit.”

      And let’s tie this drift away from a more full throated (“passionate” even?) sense of political economy, in honor of Schorske’s work in Fin-De-Siecle Vienna, Politics and Culture: last night I reread his first chapter, “Politics and the Psyche: Schnitzler and Hofmannstahl,” which actually blends into my selection from Sheldon Wolin about de Tocqueville. For the two Austrian high culture authors, esp. Hofmannsthal, they are trying to work emotion and feeling into politics in a creative, liberating and integrating way, while in the real world the mass politics of even the left mobilizes anti-semiticism. the election of Karl Lueger as Vienna mayor. Tocqueville, Wolin tells, us was terribly fearful of mass democracy (he preferred the more demure New England town mtgs) and the fact that It might be mobilized against “property…” and he praised American religious traditions as a major break on political passions.

      If Michael Walzer is correct that the “Passion in Politics” for the left is egalitarianism, then you can see McCarthyism as draining the left of its political passion; passion – for the Right – “animal spirits,” is reserved for the heroes and heroines of the market…I have illustrated the unfair emotional equation of the existing political spectrum with the public career and fate of Yanis Varoufakis in Greece, if you have been following the “restraints” clamped around him…and care to compare them to what Trump has been allowed…

      Also, let’s not forget that US culture took a very deep inward turn in the 1970’s, when the Bretton Woods order collapsed and the future direction of political economy was up for grabs between Keynesians and the Rand-Friedman-Hayek Right, so that individual, group and “let a thousand flowers bloom” therapies of every type flourished…about as far as one could get from collective, joint action to deal with unemployment-inflation conundrums of that crucial decade…and tended to blend into all the self-help manuals always emerging from the positive thinking, remake yourself individualistic bent of the American Dream business culture…The minor political economy protest notes from those who fought de-industrialization under the banners of economic democracy and community control (think Barry Bluestone and others…Youngstown!) plus the serious Marxist economists who were pushed out of MIT and Harvard to less visible places of exile…just a sketch to keep the flow going here…

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