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The Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929) was one of the great modernists in the German language, but his importance as a major intellectual of the early twentieth century has not received adequate attention in the English-speaking world. One distinguished literary scholar of his generation called Hofmannsthal a spiritual-moral authority of a kind German culture had only rarely produced. This volume provides translations of essays that deal with the Austrian idea and with the distinctive position of German-speaking Austrians between German nationalism and peoples to the East, whether in the Habsburg Monarchy or beyond it, as well as essays that locate Hofmannsthal's thinking about Austria in relation to the broader situation of German and European culture. It is the true accomplishment of this translation that Hofmannsthal's language, recreated in a clear and elegant English, regains its melody of an earlier time. If there ever was a captivating documentation of the European potential of Austria beyond the stereotypes of Vienna at 1900, it has been brought together in this volume of essays that responded to the tragic challenges of World War I in a constructive way. Frank Trommler, University of Pennsylvania.

About the Author

David Luft received his BA in comparative literature from Wesleyan (Connecticut) in 1966 and his PhD in modern European history from Harvard in 1972. He taught for thirty-six years at the University of California, San Diego. He joined the Department of History at Oregon State University in the fall of 2008 as Thomas Hart and Mary Jones Horning Professor in the Humanities.

Praise For…

Journal of Austrian Studies 45:1-2

David S. Luft, trans. and ed., Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the Austrian Idea: Selected Essays and Addresses, 1906–1927. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 2011. 201 pp.

What explains the relative lack of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s resonance in the canon of early-twentieth-century Western cultural philosophy beyond his position in Germanophone arts and letters—and even, arguably, there? Without doubt it derives from the same reasons that in the Anglo-American mind Paris oddly eclipses rather than resonates with Vienna as the home of modernism in the arts; that Ravel’s La Valse, a tone-poem tribute to composers ranging from Johann Strauss to Mahler and beyond, originally titled “Vienna,” has become associated solely with the demonization of Austria- Hungary; that existentialism in prose is now said to have started with Sartre and Camus rather than with Schnitzler and Rilke. To the victors go the philosophical spoils as well, apparently. Hofmannsthal’s Kulturstaat concepts, his European essentialism, his archaic modernity that sought to reconnect an atomized Mitteleuropa facing post-bourgeois totalitarianism to values swept away by a pseudo-revolutionary mania produced some of the most perceptive writing to come out of the collapse of the Old Order. Sadly, even in the twenty-first century, Hofmannsthal’s oeuvre beyond the libretto for Rosenkavalier or the ritual of Jedermann seems distantly esoteric, or more reprehensibly, a well-kept secret among even postcolonial cultural scholars.
The sociopolitical conditions Hugo von Hofmannsthal believed necessary for Austrian-German culture and for a healthy European future in the wake of the catastrophic war led the author to stress the need for counter experience. An example of one of his tools for this purpose was cinema. This new medium furnished Hofmannsthal with the possibility of reanimating the lost imaginary, providing a platform showcasing Vienna’s multicultural impulses, and transcending a verbal crisis that ballet and opera had only partially remedied. For Hofmannsthal, film imagery could (re)create a sense of sociocultural continuity with the cultural entity of Mitteleuropa and even the possibility of a greater pan-European idealism on the subconscious level. Rhetoric had failed the author in this quest, and despite his love of the “schöne Sprache” he believed that it had been somewhat responsible for the confusion of social and political identity in the prewar era. But what film theory text in any language (including German) today notes that the author’s “A Substitute for Dreams” (1921) contains what is ostensibly the earliest psychological understanding of scopophilic desire and the question of cinematic reality?
In a contemporary European Union criticized by restless populations for having lost the sense of Europeanism to the deceptions of nationalist-tinged bureaucratic self-perpetuation, why is the wartime “Idea of Europe” (1916) not pressed into the hands of every new Euro-parliamentarian? And for all of Austria’s trauma in its postimperial reconstitution in defining, redefining abandoning, and quietly readapting concepts from the multicultural state that made it what it will forever be, has any political theoretician looked to the many essays on Austria and its relationship with Germany (and on Germany in a European context) in attempting negotiation with these identities on so many crucial levels? While Hofmannsthal’s dramas may have endeavored to reconstruct a sensitive “beauty” the early twentieth century no longer recognized or desired, his incisive prose and Euro-philosophy has mostly lost out to the xenophobia the writer himself criticized in “Boycott of Foreign Languages?” (1914). The essay might be of immediate interest to American academics and policy makers. On the other hand, Hofmannsthal’s incisive reflections in “The Written Word as the Spiritual Space of the Nation” (1927) might well have been written as a tonic for postmodern, virtualized, and fragmented globalism.
While David S. Luft’s richly contextualized and evocative translations in Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the Austrian Idea: Selected Essays and Addresses, 1906–1927 cannot singlehandedly resolve a century of neglect surrounding the philosophy of Hofmannsthal, it can offer a fresh resource to those outside the German language in the study of modernism and in a necessary reevaluation of a place and time beyond the clichés of cultural despair. Luft’s choice of essays and addresses make this compendium a long overdue resource to allow the Anglo-American academic utilization of the author-as-methodology in the way Benjamin has been used. His translations are accomplished and refined, and his lucid commentary underscores the apprehension that has kept Hofmannsthal distant in the minds of most academics and cultural critics:
                Although most of these essays will be new to readers of English, they are not difficult to read in the way that modern German or French writers can sometimes be. Indeed, Hofmannsthal is an elegant stylist, comparable to essayists like Oscar Wilde and Matthew Arnold. What is difficult in Hofmannsthal is the range of metaphors and subtlety of ideas, as well as his immersion in the German intellectual heritage since the Enlightenment with his sensitivity to the peculiar situation and possibilities of Austria. (23)
For a world fascinated with such a strong lingua franca bias toward English, Hofmannsthal’s crisis of language was a profound caesura in early modernism (at the birth of the motion picture) and led to the exploration of the very process of coming to terms with foreignness in the mind of the writer and translator. Its utility to contemporary critics of a global society in which virtuality allows for the dissolution of sociocultural identity but encourages the “foreign” on an inauthentic and even masking level remains untested. Luft adheres to the Hofmannsthal’s lessons on  interpretation: “As much as I want to communicate the distinctiveness, the foreignness, of these texts, my instinct has been to translate [. . .] to write as Hofmannsthal might have, had he lived in the United States in the early twenty-first century” (24). In doing so Luft has painstakingly maintained the rhythm and wit of the originals, the encoding of the Hofmannsthalian word—which might have caused the author so much anxiety in his “Chandos Letter” but to which he could not help but reconcile himself. His post-crisis language and language-culture examinations shimmer with a nearly metaphysical sensibility, which however never undercuts the logic and clarity of the argument and its viability in praxis.
This landmark translation of essays, which in its very process demonstrates the qualities and theories of the author, should, as Luft suggests, “open up issues for both Austrian and German historians and for Europeanists” (25). The reduction of regional culture by perceived geopolitical dominion and, more specifically, limited subjective examinations of post-imperial Central Europe were Hofmannstahl’s great concern in his critical work. His ideas are no less useful today in approaching these areas of discourse—past and present.

Robert Dassanowsky University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

October 2011 Vol. 49 No. 02
A publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries
A division of the American Library Association
Language & Literature - Germanic

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the Austrian idea: selected essays and addresses, 1906-1927, ed. and tr. by David S. Luft. Purdue, 2011. 201p bibl index ISBN 9781557535900 pbk, $24.95

At the turn of the 20th century, Hugo von Hofmannsthal was well aware of the contradiction that was Austria, in cultural and intellectual terms. Vienna was fast becoming the hub of Western European civilization while wrestling with its tradition and image as a provincial, almost insular community. Hofmannsthal's pride at the accomplishments of Mozart, Grillparzer, and Stifter, among others, was tempered by his acknowledgement that in terms of international reputation and respect, Austria was still living in the shadow of Germany and France. As Luft (Oregon State Univ.) indicates, Hofmannsthal wanted to share his outlook through not only his famous literary endeavors, his plays, poems, and libretti for Strauss, but also his essays. The challenge: how to both laud Austrian aptitude and recognize its limitations. In selecting essays, Luft intentionally avoided introspective discussions of playwriting and focused instead on work that looks at subjects with broader ramifications. His translations are fluid yet precise, a difficult task given the often-stilted, pedantic German of that age. Thanks to his consummate understanding of his subject and the ideas involved, Luft opens a window to the innermost thoughts of Hofmannsthal for the benefit of Anglophone readers. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. -- C. L.Dolmetsch, Marshall University

Product Details
ISBN: 9781557535900
ISBN-10: 1557535906
Publisher: Purdue University Press
Publication Date: April 15th, 2011
Pages: 201
Language: English
Series: Central European Studies