Prose & Poetry - Hermann Broch

Hermann Broch Austrian writer whose reputation rests on a number of formally inventive and intellectually ambitious novels.

The dilemma of the artist in a period of historical crisis is the subject of Broch's (1886-1951) masterpiece Der Tod des Vergil (1945, The Death of Virgil).  Broch's attempts to reconcile the scientific worldview with a mystical conception of experience is at times reminiscent of his Austrian contemporary Robert Musil, who also came to literature after first pursuing a technical and commercial career.

"Oh, Augustus, der Schreiber lebt nicht; der Erlöser hingegen lebt stärker als alle, denn sein Leben ist seine Erkenntnistat, sein Leben und sein Tod." (from Der Tod des Vergil)

Hermann Broch was born in Vienna into a well-to-do Jewish family.  His father was Josef Broch, an industrialist, and mother Johanna Schnabel Broch.  He was first educated privately and then his education was intended to prepare him for an administrative position in his father's textile factory in Teesdorf.

Broch studied at the Imperial and Royal State Secondary School (1897-1904), the Technical College for Textile Manufacture (1904-06), and Spinning and Weaving College in Mülhausen (1906-07).  During World War I he served as an administrator for Austrian Red Cross.  From 1907 to 1927 he administered family's factory in Teesdorf.

In the cafes of Vienna Broch met such intellectuals as Musil and Franz Blei.  In 1919 he was a reviewer at Moderne Welt.  After working for many years in the family textile firm, Broch devoted himself from the age of 40 to intellectual pursuits.

Broch divorced in 1923 and sold the factory in 1927.  From 1926 to 1930 he studied mathematics, philosophy, and psychology at Vienna University, where the highly influential Vienna Circle was organized in 1929.

Its members, including Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, and Friedrich Waismann, and other logical positivist, campaigned against metaphysics as an outdated precursor of science, and attempted to add the technical equipment and logical rigour of modern mathematical logic to the empirical tradition of Hume, Comte, and Mach.

Broch himself saw that the unique task of literature was to deal with problems whose solutions elude the "hard" sciences.  Disappointed with his professors' reluctance to consider metaphysical questions, Broch abandoned his studies.

At the age of forty-five Broch published his first novel, the trilogy Die Schlafwandler (1931-32), which reflected the author's Spenglerian conviction that history progresses in cycles of disintegrating and reintegrating value systems.  Its central subject was the disintegration of cultural values in Germany in the period between 1880 and 1920.

According to Broch, the characters in the novel experience the social, political, and economic troubles as periods of personal difficulties and transition.  Paserow, a Prussian aristocrat and a military officer, breaks with the oppressive conventions with the Bohemian prostitute Ruzena, but ends in a joyless marriage with Elisabeth, his neighbour and social equal.

Esch, the impetuous bookkeeper, is a transitional figure.  His world falls apart when he is fired from his job.  At the end of a period of wandering, he marries a restaurant owner.  Huguenau is the 'value-free' person, who swindles and murders his way to social and financial success.

He epitomizes a social system devoid of traditional values.  Huguenau deserts the army, kills Esch, rapes Frau Esch, and becomes a respected businessman.  The structure of the novel is loose, fragments of philosophical essays, pieces of journalism, sections of dialogue, and fantasies follow each other.

The spread of fascism made Broch abandon his literary projects and in 1937-38 he worked on the Völkerbund-Resolution (Resolution for the League of Nations), suggesting that the international recognitions and enforcement of human rights might stem the tide of fascism.

Broch's interest in the collective psychological sources of Nazism was also later expressed in Massenpsychologie (1951), which was written with the aid of several American foundations during and after World War II.

Die Verzauberung (1976) was a novel about mass psychology.  The story was set in a small Tyrolean mountain village where farmers fall for the promises of a fanatic fundamentalist and even participate in the ritual murder of a young girl.  Broch worked on the book periodically since the 1930s, but it was left unfinished.  At the time of his death, he was going through the third version of the text.

Broch was arrested by the Nazis on the day of the German annexation of Austria and detained briefly in 1938.  Inspired by the visions of impending death in the prison in Altaussee, he wrote a few elegies, which became the core of Der Tod des Vergil.  With the help of James Joyce and other writers, Broch was allowed to emigrate from Nazi Austria.  He moved to London, then to Scotland, and finally to the United States, where he settled first in Princeton, New Jersey.

Because Broch did not have academic degrees, he was unable to obtain regular faculty appointments at Princeton or Yale.  He received a series of stipends from various fellowships, including Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Bollingen, Oberlander, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  From 1940 Broch was involved in refugee work, and much of money he gave to other European refugees of the war.

The Death of Virgil, one of the great monuments of exile literature, was completed in the United States.  The four parts of the book are ruled by the four elements - water, fire, earth, and air.  The first section consist of the poet's return to Italy through filthy and noisy streets of the port - he is carried from his boat to the palace in Brundisium.

The second is predominantly a fevered dream in the palace of the emperor Augustus.  The third consists of Virgil's decision that the Aeneid must be destroyed because society is doomed and poetry is useless, and his struggle with the emperor who wants the work preserved.  In the last chapter Virgil finally accepts death in a fantastic cavalcade that reverses the creation of the universe. 

Within the framework of eighteen hours, the dying poet is engaged in long philosophical conversations with his physician, with the emperor, and with his friends.  The conversations with Caesar deal partly with the nature of totalitarianism and the relationship of religion and the state.

In this work Broch attempted to represent the transition from life to death through a musical and poetic technique.  Long, almost unstructured sentences, convey the complexity and emotional and aesthetic content of a single thought.

Added with recursive language, the novel is a difficult read.  Hannah Arendt and Aldous Huxley greatly admired Broch's treatment of the idea of art as "an affiliation with the human community, which was the aim of real art in its aspiration toward humanity." On the other hand, Huxley was bewildered by many of the the quasi-poetic sections of the novel. 

Broch was among those intellectuals who were convinced of the decay of the West, but he hoped for a rebirth of Western culture.  He saw that in the Middle Ages there was a real totality.  The nineteenth century was for him one of the most miserable periods in world history.  Wagner was "an unmusical genius of music and an unpoetic genius of poetry" and Baudelaire paved the way for the darkest anarchy of the twentieth century.

Totality was a central term in Broch's literary criticism.  According to Broch, "art which is not capable of reproducing the totality of the world is not art." He condemned the search for beauty - it can only lead to kitch.  The term in his writings refers to repetition.

"In science and art alike the important thing is the creation of new expressions of reality." - "Kitch is certainly not 'bad art'; it forms its own closed system, which is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art, of which, if you prefer, appears alongside it." (Broch in Kitch: an Anthology of Bad Taste by Gillo Forfles, 1969)

Broch spent the last years of his life in close contact with Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.  In 1949 he became a fellow at the Saybrook College.  On the eve of a planned return to Europe he died of a heart attack on May 30, 1951.  Although Broch had converted to Catholicism as a young man, at the time of his death he was planning a return to the Judaism of his childhood.

Article contributed by Petri Liukkonen, website Author's Calendar.

"Beachy Bill" was the name given to one of the Turkish guns which regularly shelled Anzac Cove.

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Prose & Poetry