Sex, Sex, Sex: A Look at Arthur Schnitzler's Vienna

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons features two men in conversation walking down a city street. Surrounding them are dollar signs -- in every window, on every car, on everything. The caption reads: "Remember when everything was sex, sex, sex?"

This image came to mind the other afternoon at a dramatic reading by Annabelle Gurwitch and Sam Tsoutsouvas of "Arthur Schnitzler -- Being Jewish," a work based on Schnitzler's own writings as culled by Lorenzo Bellettini, an Austrian scholar. The performance at USC was followed by a panel discussion about Schnitzler and his work, with the speakers including Bellettini, Peter Schnitzler -- the documentarian and Schnitzler's grandson -- the Austrian journalist Philipp Blom and historian Sharon Gillerman from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The event was moderated by USC historian Paul Lerner (a similar reading and panel had been held earlier in the week at the Getty) and was sponsored by the Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies and the Jerome H. Louchheim School of Judaic Studies at USC.

Schnitzler, who lived from 1862 to 1931, was a playwright, novelist, essayist and diarist who spent most of his life in Vienna. His father, Johann Schnitzler, was a prominent Hungarian-Jewish throat doctor who treated some of Vienna's best-known singers and actors; his mother was the daughter of a physician. Schnitzler also became a throat doctor and continued to practice, even after his writing career took center stage. When he was in his 40's, he married Olga Gussmann, a 21-year-old singer and actress. They had two children, but later separated, in part, according to scholars, because Schnitzler's fame eclipsed hers. They remained friendly for the rest of his life, but separation agreed with Schnitzler; it allowed him to pursue his libertine lifestyle.

Schnitzler is most famous for his play Reigen (Merry-Go-Round), a series of vignettes of characters amorously linked to one another shown before and after sex, and more popularly known as La Ronde, for the film adaptation by Max Ophüls. It is a work that continues to inspire to this day -- the most recent version being Fernando Meirelles' 2011 film, 360. Schnitzler's works also inspired Tom Stoppard's Dalliance, David Hare's The Blue Room and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

Perhaps no writer since Casanova has paid as much attention to, or has gotten as much literary mileage out of, his numerous sexual encounters. From the age of 17 up until two days before his death, Schnitzler kept a diary -- some 8,000 pages, now collected in 10 volumes -- that is notable for the casualness with which he describes his sexual encounters, as well as for his obsessiveness; for several years he kept an inventory of each of his orgasms, notated day by day.

In his day, Schnitzler was branded a pornographer and his works were banned, although he was later acclaimed and embraced as one of the most important writers of his era. He was part of a small circle of intellectual lights of fin-de-siècle Vienna that also included his friend Theodor Herzl (although Herzl's Zionism seemed to get on Schnitzler's nerves), and Sigmund Freud, who called Schnitzler his "doppelganger," and who, Freud said, seemed to intuit in his characters the psychological truths Freud had worked so hard to discern. The group also included the essayist Karl Kraus, who was Schnitzler's literary enemy, taking him to task for work Kraus adjudged decadent.

However, after World War I, some dismissed Schnitzler as passé. As the USC panelists made clear, the reasons for his rise and fall were several: He was praised as one of the first writers to use interior monologue and stream of consciousness to define character and attack the established order: In "Anatol," he described an immature playboy; in "Lieutenant Gustl," the rigid military code; in "Fräulein Elise," a young aristocratic Jewish woman's moral dilemma. He was an early master of the short story, and he captured the anomie of a middle and upper class with too much time on its hands. He was critiqued for his amoral characters, for the lack of political engagement in his work, for returning to the same themes over and over again -- and he was attacked for being Jewish. Which brings us back to "Schnitzler -- Being Jewish."

The late 19th century in Austria brought forth not only the emancipation of the Jews, but also their rise to the highest levels of Austrian society and culture. It was Jewish families who built the Ringstraße, filled the opera houses, and in many cases it was Jews who wrote the music, the plays, owned and wrote for the newspapers, magazines and literary journals, crowded the cafes, and who posed for and were patrons of the great artists. Vienna arguably had become the greatest city in the world for the highly successful Jewish population, the majority of whom felt themselves to be completely assimilated and could not imagine a turning back on their bright future ahead.

However, in 1897, Karl Lueger became mayor of Vienna. His Christian Social Party would employ no Jews, and he became among the first in the 20th century to exploit anti-Semitism as a political philosophy. Schnitzler could not have been more surprised. It was Lueger, Schnitzler is supposed to have said, who made Schnitzler realize he was a Jew. It was also Lueger who made the Viennese concerned about politics, a subject the Jewish middle and upper class had become comfortable enough to become disinterested in.

Schnitzler, who was in no way observant, therefore embraced his Jewish identity -- he was critical of those, like the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who wanted to deny it, or those like Herzl who felt that fleeing to Palestine was a solution. Jewishness was, for Schnitzler, a consciousness, a racial identity divorced from its spiritual dimension, a quality that he sought to reveal in his characters. Yet, as being Jewish had increasing political consequences, Schnitzler's attitude, like his work, came to appear old-fashioned. Sex had become a luxury. In Vienna, the topic was no longer sex, sex, sex, but politics, politics, politics.

Now, at the 150th anniversary of his birth, Schnitzler seems to be very much in the air -- mentioned in the Getty's Klimt exhibition and also making an appearance in LACMA's Kubrick exhibition. When I asked the panel at USC why this was, their answers varied. Peter Schnitzler observed that his grandfather's work comes in and out of style as society itself goes through periods that are more conservative or liberal.

"Art and death, betrayal and [sexual] liaisons are eternal themes," said the journalist Blom, and all of them remain relevant to this day. Yet Schnitzler's work, in which so many characters reach an unhappy end, also contains a warning that regardless of the material comforts and seeming social mobility of the Jews, anti-Semitism never fully goes out of fashion. And that a life without meaning is as eternally alluring, and inevitably unfulfilling, as a merry-go-round of sex, sex, sex.

Portrait of Arthur Schnitzler, Atelier Madame d'Ora, 1915. Image courtesy of ONB/Vienna, 203.759-D. By permission of USC Prof. Paul Lerner.

This article originally appeared in print in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.