My very first impression of Austria — this morning, just after we crossed the border on the Bratislava-Vienna shuttle — was “Yikes.” Barely had we spotted a German-language sign before the conductor came around collecting tickets and started barking at Paula in German to remove her feet from the opposite seat. She hastily did, but he continued to harangue her in a tone I took as menacing. I can have you put off the train. Something like that. And he flung, or flang, our tickets down on the empty seat so contemptuously and stalked off. Get a grip, dude. The seats around were littered with beer cans and used tissues. Pick those up before you start lecturing folks about the Neat and the Tidy. Such were my thoughts. I remembered that we can choose how to respond to fellow human beings. The words of David Foster Wallace come to mind: “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down” (“This is Water,” Kenyon College commencement address 2005). Still working on that …
We passed a menacing fixture atop the late-empire façade of the Regierungsgebäude, Government Building:
A two-headed eagle. Calculated to inspire horror, I should think. A freak of nature. Brrr, it works on me. To me it says, “Beware the Force. Don’t get us pissed off.” Wasn’t Austria-Hungary or their rulers the Habsburgs once possessors of the most powerful land empire in the world? So it’s another in a long line of collapsed empires.
The double-headed eagle is a very ancient figure, though — found in Hittite cylindric seals unearthed in Boğazkale, Turkey, dating from about 3800 BCE (Wikipedia, “Double-headed eagle”). Tons of countries have used it as emblems — Russia, for example. Something about symbolically linking the monarch with the divine. Power. Force. Triumph.
It was a warm day. We bought ice cream cones. Gelateria Perrella’s ice cream was good and cheap, the service charming. We sat in the little outdoor café and admired the accoutrements and the passing cavalcade.
And remembered Vienna the crucible of genius. Musically, isn’t this city held to be without peer in all the world? Schubert, the Johann Strausses, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg were native to Vienna; Haydn and Mozart were Austria-born; Gluck, Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler adoptive Viennese. The founder of psychoanalysis, hugely esteemed for his contributions to philosophy, was almost a local yokel, having moved here from Moravia (nearby but now in the Czech Republic) at the age of four. The arguably greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein — local boy. On and on goes the parade of The Brilliant. Some of it is outlined in Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture by Carl E. Schorske (Vintage, 1981) that I am so slowly reading.