The Viennese Spirit

2016-01-11 09.02.15
A military procession in the centre of Vienna

Over the past few days, I’ve been an outsider here in Vienna, attempting to reach some kind of understanding about what sort of people the Viennese are.  I’ve caught glimpses: the cloakroom manager at the ballet’s obvious regard for rules, the assertiveness of people in the queue.  People’s desire to help, but only within the strict remit of bureaucracy.  The sarcasm of the library manager when my card wouldn’t let me out of the gate (“You’ll have to stay forever,” he said, totally deadpan, and I stupidly believed him, only for him to laugh in my face.)

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Discarded Christmas trees, in their allocated space. The sign reads ‘No Tinsel’.

Authority is obviously respected here, but it can’t be as simple as blind comformity.  In most societies where the State is paramount, there is a certain degree of rebellion in the population, no matter how slight.  I experienced this in Vietnam, where the Communist government is an extreme example, breeding a sense of paranoia and secrecy amongst its citizens.  And indeed, through my research into Viennese society and history, as well as discussions with expats who have lived here sometime, the Austrians underpin this outward submission to bureaucracy with a irony as well as a desire to live life to the full.

[The Viennese are] self-indulgent yet self-ironizing, fatalistic yet hedonistic, self-pitying yet generous-hearted

Nicholas T. Parsons, Vienna: A Cultural and Literary History

Due to their difficult history, throughout which they have been vicitims of plague as well as occupation by various foreign powers, the Viennese have developed both a distrust of outsiders, and a sense of hedonism.  To deal with the former first, expats I have spoken to have told me of a Viennese reluctance to fully accept them.  Tourists, they are happy to suffer because of the monetary benefit, but any permanent visitor from elsewhere is disregarded.  Quite a feat, considering that in 2006, 19% of people living in Vienna held a foreign passport.  But also understandable, given the division of the city after the Second World War, as well as their landlocked position surrounded by other powers: they need to defend themselves on all sides in order to survive.

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A man blowing giant bubbles outside the National Library

At first, I thought their affinity for rules and authority was somewhat at odds with the abundance of art, music and culture in the city.  But the Viennese place their trust in the state due to its permanance and stability through eras of change.  For the same reason, they like to kick back and enjoy themselves: their turbulent history has taught them to make the most of each moment.

The Viennese have suffered enough in their history from invasion, persecution, plague and sundry other evils to know the value of enjoying life while you can, and whether or not you should.

Nicholas T. Parsons, Vienna: A Cultural and Literary History

For the people of Vienna, this enjoyment of arts and culture is not so much a diversion, but part of their identity.  Their inner turmoil is between the trivialities and necessities of everyday life, and their desire to be free of these constraints.

The Viennese suffers from an ever-present discrepancy between obligation and desire…like everyone else he is compelled to do all sorts of things his entire life: he must exist, he must work, eat, drink, sleep and undertake a thousand concrete, mundane things – he who was specifically created for the approximate, the accidental, and whose consuming passion is not for the factual but for the imponderable, not for the completed whole but for the subtle nuance.

Jorg Mauthe, Wiener Knigge

This is something I can definitely relate to: a longing to escape the mundane and live freely.  And that is precisely what I have been given by the panel at KulturKontakt who chose me for this residency: a month away from washing and other home duties, to focus purely on hedonism, and art.

2016-01-11 17.25.30
My accidental and bizzare dinner (there’s cheese inside those sausages)

I’ve been reading a great deal about the Habsburg family, and strongly believe they are so bizarre that someone should write a comedy show about them: sort of Family-Guy-meets-Blackadder.  With all the inbreeding, werid obsessions and hoarding, it would make for a hilarious show.  More soon…

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