In the Shadow of Europe

By Jan Baetens

On: Marjorie Perloff, Edge of Irony. Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2016


This book, this truly great book, should be read without further delay by all those who feel concerned by the idea –past, present and future– of Europe.  At first sight, it is only a book on a rather overlooked form of Modernism; that is, the Austrian Modernism of the post-World War I period (Modernism, as we know, is more commonly studied in other linguistic and geographical areas, and Austrian Modernism remains strongly associated with pre-World War I culture). Moreover, the Modernism in question is only rarely seen as the sparring partner of the more fashionable avant-garde: the authors studied in this book are not Kafka but, in this order, Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, Paul Celan and Ludwig Wittgenstein; that is, authors whose writing style is – rightly or not – less often considered traditional than avant-garde. At second sight however, it becomes clear that Perloff’s study of Austrian Modernism is much more than an attempt to fill in an (important) gap of our knowledge of Modernism. It addresses a crucial redefinition of Modernism itself, which cannot be separated from a certain idea of Europe, in this case the multilingual and multicultural Austro-German Empire shattered by the war.

What then, is Modernism in a county that, literally overnight, was born; a state with a suddenly oversized capital (Vienna), a tiny country  left over after the breakup of an immense Empire, a supposedly monolingual and no less supposedly mono-cultural  entity that could not really be the home for its numerous ‘new outsiders’? For many citizens of the former Austro-German Empire, many of them Jewish (but the category of Jewish covers a wide range of positions and situations), were no longer accepted as ‘real’ Austrians. To Marjorie Perloff, the Modernism developed by these great outsiders can be approached by the two terms that form the title of this book. ‘Edge’, to start with, refers to the necessarily external point of view of the outsider, both the one living in the periphery of power and excluded from it. ‘Irony’, second, designates the refusal of closure. This irony, however, is never a triumphant one: it is less the desire to enlarge one’s life with some supplementary identity positions as the struggle against the streamlining and monopolizing pressure of the center. In that sense, the ‘edge of irony’ is fraught with incurable nostalgia: it is the melancholy that comes with the consciousness of a lost paradise, that of the no longer existing imagined community, whose reconstruction is no longer judged possible, hence the reluctance to radical politics in the work of these progressive writers and their focus on ethical practice rather than ethical theories.

What all this has to do with Europe is clear. It is Europe’s multiculturalism and multilingualism that actually engendered this form of Modernism –very different from the Modernisms that developed in the Soviet Union or in North-America. And it is today’s Europe that helps us understand why American or Soviet visions of Modernisms –not to speak of the contemporary vision of ‘global Modernism’– are too homogeneous and linear to be capable of disclosing the many internal tensions and contributions of Austrian Modernism, perhaps the most European of all Modernisms.

As demonstrated by the corpus studied in this book, there is also something deeply nostalgic and melancholic in Edge of Irony. Not only because the book is written by an author of the edge (Marjorie Perloff was born in Vienna and her family was brutally hit by the dismantling of the Empire) with an exceptional sense of irony (each of the chapters offers a dramatically rich rereading of authors we thought we knew, but whose work is here radically reframed). But also because one feels that by choosing a set of writers whose work covers the whole gamut of the genre system (journalism, theater, novel, memoir, essay, philosophy, poetry), while charting all the possible relationships one can have with one’s ‘mother’ tongue (sometimes one’s ‘first’  language”, sometimes an adopted language,  sometimes written against other languages, sometimes  a language rediscovered in or through  exile, but never a language that is self-evident or natural), Perloff has tried to reproduce the very structure of the culture whose vanishing she deeply mourns. At the same time, her great sense of irony prevents her from all attempts to ‘close’ the works and authors she is reading. From that point of view as well, this book should be compulsory reading, and not just in Europe.