Of Imperial Cities, Old and New

Vienna is a very lovely city, just au point, al dente, goldilocks perfectly cooked, absorbing and redistributing cultural influences from the Germanic world, from Italy, from Slavic middle Europe. It should be obvious why this is so, for it was the capital of the Hapsburg or Austro-Hungarian empire up until the beginning of the last century. Perhaps it is a common argument to make, but one early flowering of globalizing modernity occurred in Secessionist Art Noveau, Art Deco Vienna├é┬áprecisely because the Hapsburg Empire had to hold within it so many distinct nationalities, neither federal states nor colonies, but something in-between, for which it was derided at the time as a ‘prison house of nations.’

There is a vast difference, however, between that Vienna that was once the center of so many cultural-visual-political-aesthetic debates, and the one I visited this week. Vienna is now merely the capital of Austria, an EU nation of some eight and more million people. The city is still connected to other German speaking nations, but its relations with northern Italy and with Slavic nations seem less active. Budapest is two hundred and twenty kilometers down the Danube and was once a sister city to Vienna, but few people I met had been there recently. Perhaps the later history of the twentieth century has taken its toll: the aftermath of Empire, the iron curtain, the economic and cultural ascendence of Western European nations and now Germany herself.

The city of Schumpeter, Rilke, Klimt and Freud, Vienna is still an aesthetic marvel, a little lilly-pad of urbane sensibility with a rich tapestry of writing, thinking, and meaning-making scripted into her street corners and cafes. It is just no-longer a node for the networks of global capital.

It is, in this sense, the very antithesis of contemporary Indian cities like Dilli, Bombay, Bangalore. Not that these cities don’t have histories, but more that those histories are written at a different scale altogether. Moreover, these megacities are churning along furiously, burning up their hinterlands and creating giant cauldrons of humanity that are larger than all of Austria itself. The massive churning of which we are a part, in these capitals of India, have yet to craft their individual aesthetics, their synthetic forms of meaning.

It is a favorite joke in Vienna, first offered by the cabaret writer Karl Kraus in 1912, that I read atop a tourist bureau in the city: ‘I have shattering news for the aesthetes: Old Vienna was once new!’ There is a tremendous vitality to a life lived in interesting times. It may not always be so elegant.

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