The Austian myth about Russia

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Another important theme for both Austrian and Russian writers is hunting. For both of them hunting is a metaphor of learning and self-discovery, but for Masoch hunting is first and foremost a way to the unconscious mind, “discovered”  by virtue of psychoanalysis, in which humans’ strive for beauty (like the delight that nature brings to the human’s heart) is closely intertwined with the strive for the heinous, forbidden (in case of hunting it is the desire to kill).

Of course, Sacher-Masoch was not the only one influenced by Turgenev. His works were clearly appreciated by writers, who praised the beauty of their native nature – A. Stifter, C. Silsfield and other representatives of the Biedermeier epoch.

The Austrian myth about Russia in the early 20th century

In the early 20th century novels by F.M. Dostoevsky and L.N. Tolstoy as well as short stories and plays by A.P. Chekhov became an integral feature of Austrian culture. This is, of course, partly due to the common interest among European people in Russian culture and Russian spirituality since the late 19th century. At the same time, Austria had its own reasons to pay special attention to Russian literature. The 1890s in Austria-Hungary were marked by the emergence of impressionism, originated from E. Mach’s philosophy (1838–1916) (who, by the way, was highly respected by Russian theoretical revolutionists, especially by L. Trotsky).

Mach’s concept was based on criticism of traditional categories and their reevaluation in the context of subjectivism. He claimed that the world is a mixture of feelings. For Austrian culture, where art and music are connected with classic, realistic pieces, this became a totally new development stage. A new art school Secession (G. Klimt, E. Schiele) and O. Vagner’s architecture studio appeared with their pretentious eclecticism, ornamentality, pseudo-Byzantine and Oriental touch and sensitivity. In literature, Austrian modernism found its expression in eccentric, eroticized and aestheticized drama, novelistics, and poetry.

Criticizing their fathers’ inflated hypocrisy, young artists let go of all their instincts and rushed to portray all the forbidden aspects of life. Following the medieval tradition of portraying a “carousel of death”, Schnitzler chose to portray a couple of lovers as protagonists, one of whom proceeds to the next scene, while the second (a tired aristocrat) meets a prostitute from the first scene thus finishing the play. What does it have to do with Russian literature, you might wonder. The main similarity is the realization of how vain and futile philistine life is, the feeling of emptiness, lost ideals, the urge to find reality in living in the moment, the immediateness of existence. All of it correlates with the ideas of Russian writers, especially Chekhov. Just like Chekhov, Austrian modernists share the same skepticism about former ideas and values, silence and idleness as breaking the vicious circle: “Just like Chekhov, who his contemporaries often compared him with, Schnitzler makes the right diagnosis but does not dare to suggest treatment. Ailment of a modern soul, which he keeps portraying in his plays and novellas is existential fear, fear of life, which comes from the alienation of soul <…>”. Exiled from reality, Schnitzler’s character wanders among customary facts and relationships as if in the alien land, scared of his own alienation, not recognizing the most simple things. “I watched the rooks and was amazed and frightened that they were flying”, – says the protagonist in Chekhov’s Terror (1905), and his feelings completely coincide with a psychological situation, repeatedly described by Schnitzler, for example in his novella Die Frau des Weisen (Wiseman’s wife) (1896) with a similar plot. Interestingly, A. Schnitzler was familiar with not only Chekhov’s, but also with A.M. Gorky’s works; appreciated acting and directorial skills of the troupe of the Moscow Art Theater.

Chekhov’s angst about the future, his longing for real life can be found in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s essay Diary of a young girl, dedicated to Maria Bashkirtseva, a painter and a diarist, who died a premature death. H. Bahr raises a theme of “inner tension and concentration of an artist”, “their ability to be different every minute” in his essay Russian journey, where he described his impressions of Saint Petersburg, full of literary ghosts, cold and fear.

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