A breeze insinuates itself through open windows into a warm room. On the stereo, Anne Sofie von Otter sings the song cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman’s Life and Love). I am content. An evening listening to German lieder occurs rarely. I can’t recall when I indulged one before last Thursday. It helped me settle into it that I was joined by a friend who shares this much of my taste in music.
Schumann (1810-1856) set the eight songs, more like short movements, to an embarrassing set of poems written by the justly obscure Adelbert von Chamisso. In the poems, a woman recalls times with the man she loves, even though by dying he has deserted her. Fortunate, in this case, that I don’t speak German, so that it is the music, and not the lyrics, that claims me. Still, it does take me through a life: Whose, I don’t really know, but possibly a romanticized version of my own. There’s the song of a mind at peace, another of happy expectation, yet another of disillusionment, one of fond remembrance, and finally one of bitter resignation. But unlike the text, the music ends not at the last verse, but with a return to the lovely, reassuring piano chords with which the cycle began. Life has been filled with joys and sorrows, and now death is no longer deniable. But with these concluding notes, a poignant resolution is achieved.
Nineteenth century romantics like Robert Schumann (no more Austrian than me except that he spoke the language) were preoccupied with both love and death. As my Vienna evening with his music suggests, contemplating them together can sometimes be irresistible. Perhaps it’s a sign of reconciliation to the inevitability of endings.
Those rare evenings, possible only in spring or fall temperatures, make me think of fin de siècle Vienna. My speculations for why this should be are thin. During my two-year study of German, I read a ghost story by an Austro-Hungarian in that twilight era when World War I was approaching. Perhaps the ebb and flow of cool air suggests the presence of a ghost, a word probably derived from “geist,” today’s German word for spirit, as in “zeitgeist,” spirit of the times. Whatever the reason, my Vienna evenings are disconnected from the city of that name. Last Thursday, no tortes were on hand, no waltzes danced. Only cabernet drunk.
Schumann lived at the dawn of the Romantic era that we associate with Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, when a lot of people dwelt on death and the end of the world. But there are people in every era who celebrate what they see as impending finality. The bible’s Book of Revelation epitomizes it. The turn of the twentieth century brought an end to the Romantic epoch. Did it feel like twilight to the Viennese? Europeans at the time certainly had forebodings of war. But they couldn’t have foreseen the outcome for the Hapsburg Empire: its being smashed into fragments of small countries.
Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1949) made their dystopian marks before and after World War II, and as the twentieth century went on, we were deluged with disaster forecasts actually acted on by “survivalists” stocking up on canned food and spare generators. Today’s outlandishly wealthy Silicon Valley magnates have taken dystopian precautions to an even greater extreme, as Even Osnos details in his January 30, 2017 New Yorker article, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich.”
Last Sunday’s New York Times had a story about Stephen Bannon’s preoccupation with a dystopian book, Neil Howe and William Strauss’s The Fourth Turning, one of those gloom-and-doom books that purports to find cycles in history. In this case, each cycle, for some reason tracking only American history, lasts eighty years, each ending in catastrophe. The first cycle supposedly started with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, resume with the Civil War in 1861, and picked up again with Pearl Harbor in 1941. Here we are, in 2017, approaching eighty years later.
History does have broad patterns. Empires do fall. But history gives us insufficient data to predict when exactly the end occurs or even to know that a decline has begun. For this reason alone, cyclical theories of history are silly. They’re also invariably selective. The Fourth Turning apparently chooses to discount the forced Indian migrations and the Mexican War that occurred between Bunker Hill and Fort Sumter, the labor union struggles and World War I between Appomattox and Pearl Harbor, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars between Nagasaki and today. The authors could claim that no wars cost more American lives than the Civil War and World War II, which would be true. However, while the Civil War cost both lives and national unity, World War II, though it cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, brought about national unity. It was the Vietnam War, well into the auspicious phase of the so-called cycle, that disrupted national unity. Besides, the theory seems to focus on wars, even though the event that may have had the biggest impact on twentieth century America was the Great Depression, which began only sixty-one years after the end of the Civil War.
Many of us are concerned that the Trump administration is doing irreparable harm to America, but such fears prove nothing about the theory. However, a true believer might be in a position to help it along. Enter Steve Bannon, who talks glibly about “deconstructing the administrative state,” showing a poor grasp of the meaning of “deconstruct” but revealing he intends to help along the destruction of America’s institutions. One wonders why he would actively contribute to a terrible outcome, especially when in his view it is preordained.
A chill-tinged wind through a room lacks the fragrant expansiveness of a cool breeze on a summer’s day. Psychologically, if not by definition, it takes us inside. Going into the interior is to risk a venture to thoughts that depress, another reason for me to think of the waning years of the Viennese empire, home of psychology’s pioneers. Could Bannon’s determination to destroy be borne of personal depression? If so, he would deserve sympathy, but he really ought to refrain from turning his fears outward and inflicting them on the rest of us.
If Bannon isn’t depressed, he’s indulging in a form of armchair anxiety. As my occasional Vienna evenings force me to admit, there is something perversely pleasing in contemplating the embers of history. But a Vienna evening isn’t a predictor. Just because I’m in a certain mood or state of mind doesn’t mean I’m sensing the future. How often a carefree mood has been brought up short by an emergency, or feelings of foreboding dissolved by someone’s laughter.
It has been forty years since the suicide of nine hundred people instigated by Jim Jones in Guyana, a self-fulfilled prophecy of the end—one ending, at least. We can hope that the Bannon faction in the Trump administration will turn out to be the current apotheosis of self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, after which they can meet the fate their proponents seem so eager to inflict on the rest of us.
Schumann had a tragic life, ending with a failed suicide attempt and two years of hospitalization when he was in his mid-forties. But in Frauenliebe, he bequeathed us the gift of affirmation. The voice wanes, but the lovely opening piano chords return.