Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 11. Nr. September 2002

Multilingual Austrian Literature

Herbert Arlt (Vienna)

To hold a conference with the theme "Nation, Language and Literature" seems to arrange a conference about a project of the past and a problematic construct of power.(1) There are a lot of processes worldwide which show that "nation" might be an antiquated concept.(2) This is true for Europe with the expanding European Union but also other parts of this world: think for example of Africa - about the currency union in central Africa and also about the efforts to support transcontinental processes in Africa(3), but in Latin America and Asia, too, transcontinental processes may be observed.

There are countries which by establishing a nation seem to be pushing a construct, about which the European Parliament is of the opinion that it led to wars in the 20th century(4), yet these states use the term "nation" in a different sense to that used in the 19th century.(5) These states understand the concept "nation" to be something similar to what the European Union intends by establishing closer ties between states, e.g. the United States of America understand themselves to be a nation, and so does India. Similarly, South Africa is calling itself a "Rainbow Nation" (but still the concept "nation" is important for this state - it is not just a "Rainbow State".

The main point is: all these constructs are used to establish smaller or larger communities under various headings (market, finance system, military union, tax union etc.). This is not the same as a "nation" in the sense of one state, one language, implying that the others are the enemies. The identity of nations of the 19th century type is defined by the outside, the difference. But this is not a creative difference.

The argument of the enemies who are outside and who serve as a motivation for a "union" is not only true for "nations". The Habsburg Monarchy had enemies like these: the Turks, the Russians (and to a lesser degree: the Germans who sometimes were the allies as well).(6)

But the enemy outside is also the reason to destroy a union. The Habsburg Monarchy or the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia were not weak because they were multinational states. This is also true for USA or India or China, which are powerful states. The point is that the motivation lies outside the union - not inside. To try to establish a common culture within theses states is the point of no return and the beginning of a rupture.

Accordingly the topic of this conference, "Nation, Language, Literature", is not only a historical question. It is a topic of the present. In the play "Broadway Melody 1492" Jura Soyfer expressed it in these lines:

We played a world in transition.
When history turns a page,
Showed the truth behind tradition
And behind our great new age.

Yes, you discover your own present
When you rub off the patina of past

In this sense I want to present a thesis about the multilingual Austrian History - about the triad (8) "Language, Nation, Literature" in the history of Austria, about the views on Austrian literature in the past, and the problems of identity and perspectives.

1. Language, Nation, Literature - phenomena of history

Since the revolution of 1848 and the emergence of the "national question" nearly all states in Europe began to organise a system of national education (archives, arts, schools, universities etc.) to legitimise the nation state.(9) When we look back to the history of Europe there is no state that has the same territory now which it had in the past. We also see that throughout the history of Europe there was at all times a large change in the population. We cannot speak about tribes today because all these populations are "mixed" and if they want to have a tribal identity it can only be a constructed identity.(10)

It is the same with languages and the arts. As long as it is not a question of power they have their own principles of development which are the same worldwide even when the languages (not only the words but also the grammar etc.) are very different. In this sense languages and art forms with worldwide elements are rich languages. Every time there was a cleansing of languages, poverty in everyday life was the result.

This is especially true for Austria. At the time of the Habsburg Monarchy Austria was a great empire. In contrast to England, France, Germany and Russia, Austria was not organised as a national state in the sense of these states (their organisation was also different, but all the time one "ethnic" group in these states had the power, which resulted in struggles over this hegemony until now). Austria or the former Habsburg Monarchy was a multinational state. When we talk about Austria we are talking about 12 languages at least. This is, of course, less than the number of languages in Cameroon or India, but it was more than one language. It was not possible to establish German as the sole language of the Habsburg Monarchy. For every "ethnic" group it was important to have their own language for university use. Within the Habsburg Monarchy some of these languages were indeed created for that purpose (like Ukrainian at the University of Czerniwzi/Czernowitz).

During this time a lot of the writers or poets wrote in different languages like Franz Grillparzer or Karl Emil Franzos. And in this sense the literature of the Habsburg Monarchy was a multinational literature.

In the present, too, Austrian literature is not only writing in German, as some of the German nationalists want us to believe. It is written not only in German but also in Slovenian, Croatian or Turkish, and when we think of the writers in exile, they use English, French or Spanish (just to mention a few languages).(11)

2. The German Language

Even the German language is not only one language. There are at least four standard variations (German German, Austrian German, Swiss German, Russian German and also German in other states of the world). These standard variations of German use a lot of words and also grammatical constructions from other languages: Latin, Greek, Hindi, Arabian and Hebrew and also for centuries words from French and English.(12) The same is true of other languages. There are no "pure" languages. "Pure" language is a nationalist construct that does not have much to do with the actual usage of languages. The attempt of Joseph II., emperor of Austria in the 18th century, to make German the language of his empire, led to deep conflicts. From this time on the other national languages were suppressed.

His attempt was based on rationalist arguments. He wanted one language for the army, the administration, trade, and for traffic. It was an attempt to make the monarchy stronger but in actual fact it grew weaker.(13)

3. Descriptions of Austrian Literature

Since the 18th century there were attempts to describe Austrian Literature. It is interesting to see that at the universities Austrian law and history included all nationalities of the Habsburg Monarchy, except for "Austrian Literature" , where the concept of a multinational literature did not apply. Until now the history of a multinational Austrian literature has not been written. Even at the meetings of the Austrian Germanists the "foreign" colleagues are not allowed to make contributions. Until some years ago they were restricted to listen to what the Austrian Germanists had to say. Now they are allowed to speak in discussion groups. So the description of Austrian literature until now is confined to a "German" concept (even by those who are criticizing National Socialism). Until now they have not been able to work out the contradictions.

4. Identities

In the UNESCO documents we find a development towards the acceptance of contradictions and diversities. One important document was "Our Creative Diversity". There are a number of similar documents from the European Council and the European Union. At present I can see a process in Africa which is going in a similar direction, even if there are a lot of critics, who tell us that not all African states are democratic states, and that it is not possible to construct an African Union when some of the participants are dictators.

But we had a similar situation in Europe after World War II, and yet it was most important to come together. This process was named the CSCE (Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe) process and led to the Helsinki documents. These Helsinki documents were the key to change in Europe, because not enmities stood in the centre of this process and its documents but common interests. which did not only mean trade, finances, and security but, more importantly, human rights, diversity and values, which were common to the populations in Europe. They understood that the most important thing is not to use differences for securing one's own power as politicians did in the Habsburg Monarchy, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and, as is now happening, in India. The problem of US politics is just the same - the definition of one´s own identity by means of an enemy outside.

5. Perspectives

In Austria we have for a long time had two tendencies: the one which defines identity through the definition of the enemy. And we have the other tendency, which has a productive aim. Some of the best works of Austrian literature like many of the plays of Franz Grillparzer or the novel "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften" by Robert Musil or the work of Jura Soyfer or poems and prose of Ingeborg Bachmann (just to mention a few) or the novels of Sabine Scholl show us writers with such productive aims. For them literature is important. And so literature, the arts, and culture should become important in transcontinental or other transnational processes. This would mean to discuss and define common values - with human beings at the centre. Without this the construct of transnationality can become problematic, as transnationalism or transcontinentalism is no value in itself. Human beings with their diversity have to be at the centre. As Jura Soyfer writes in the play "Der Lechner Edi":

We'll let that be that once was done,
Take up what we hope we can merit:
We've a legacy: it's up to us
To cherish what we inherit.

© Herbert Arlt

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(1) Compare: Homi K. Bhabha: Nation and Narration. Routledge: London and New York 1990.

(2) Compare: Eric J. Hobsbawm: Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Programme, Myth, Reality. University Press: Cambridge 1990.

(3) Most important was the conference in Durban (South Africa) in July 2002.

(4) A quote from Europe 2000, brochure of the European Parliament: "The Second World War brought immeasurable suffering to Europe. After 1945, there was a great desire among people to abolish the political structure which bore partial responsibility for the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries: the division of Europe into more than two dozen uncontrolled sovereign nation states." [Translation from the German original] Köln (1996). One example of the consequences even for towns, in this case Triest/Trieste/Trst: Boris Gombac: Trieste - Trst. Two names, one identity. Röhrig Universitätsverlag: St. Ingbert 2002.

(5) In the times before the age of imperialism, nation was also a concept with a positive meaning. At first "nation" also meant union. And it was in this sense a peace concept.

(6) See also the concept of a European Union of Hermann Bahr: Donald G. Daviau: Understanding Hermann Bahr. Röhrig Universitätsverlag: St. Ingbert 2002.

(7)"It's up to Us!". Collected Works of Jura Soyfer. Edited, translated and with an afterword by Horst Jarka. Ariadne Press: Riverside 1996, p. 357.

(8) See David Simo: About the colloquium. In WWW: View as of 31 August 2002.

(9) Just one example: Jürgen Fohrmann/Wilhelm Voßkamp: Wissenschaftsgeschichte der Germanistik im 19. Jahrhundert. Verlag J.B. Metzler: Stuttgart, Weimar 1994. And even in 1994 it was impossible to work out the difference between Germany and Austria as national and multinational states and the differences because of that in the organisation of language and literature studies at the universities.

(10) Take for example Vienna: Michael John/Albert Lichtblau: Schmelztiegel Wien einst und jetzt. Zur Geschichte und Gegenwart von Zuwanderung und Minderheiten. Böhlau Verlag: Wien, Köln, Weimar: 2. verb. Auflage 1993. Or: Herwig Friesinger/Brigitte Vacha: Die vielen Väter Österreichs. Compress Verlag: Wien 1988.

(11) The official catalogue of Austria at the Frankfurt bookfair in 1995 showed this multitude. IG Autoren: Katalog-Lexikon zur österreichischen Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Wien 1995, Bd. 1,2.

(12) For this we have a lot of dictionaries. Some example: Nabil Osman (Hrsg.): Kleines Lexikon deutscher Wörter arabischer Herkunft. Beck'sche Reihe: München 1997. Sellner: Altgriechisch im Alltag. VMA-Verlag: Wiesbaden o.J.

(13) On these contradictions see: Leslie Bodi: Literatur, Politik, Identität - Literature, Politics, Cultural Identity. Röhrig Universitätsverlag: St. Ingbert 2002.

(14)"It's up to Us!". Collected Works of Jura Soyfer. Edited, translated and with an afterword by Horst Jarka. Ariadne Press: Riverside 1996, p.165.

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Herbert Arlt: Multilingual Austrian Literature. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 11/2002.

TRANS     Webmeister: Gerald Mach     last change: 04.09.2002     INST