Poetic telegrams, pastries and tarts from old Vienna
By Andrei Codrescu
Ive taken a survey of 800 poets, including Dave Brinks, and we agreed that the best times and places to be a poet was Vienna at the end of the 19th century, and New Orleans at present. In Vienna the cafes of the time teemed with the high flames of idealism and art burning inside any number of people, some of them moved by bohemian faith, and others just pretty. In Vienna, for instance, you could run into Peter Altenberg, the author of Telegrams of the Soul, who might say: Religion is a kind of ideal application of the persecution complex on human nerves!
Altenberg said that around 1899, and was praised for it by Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler, writers whom you might run into if you frequented the right cafes and burned with esprit du temps.
In those cafes you might also find people like Albert Einstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Kraus, all of whom had something new in mind and were ready to explicate it in dazzling detail, especially if you were young, had auburn hair and deep black or violet eyes. Peter Altenberg adored nature, but rarely left Vienna for the real thing. He rhapsodized about the daughters of his acquaintances with an inspired ease that today could easily be mistaken for pedophilia; but for physical company he preferred prostitutes for whom he bought flowers, and treated to layered cream pastries and hot chocolate.
Inspired by Baudelaire, Altenberg wrote his poetry in prose paragraphs under the influence of morphine, cocaine and alcohol, but the baroque wallpaper in his room may have been equally influential. The entities that came to life in the wallpaper dictated his frank and weird reflections. For instance: Forest, lake, spring, winter, woman, art all fade away, and theres only one still thrilling thing left: your lovely walking stick!
Altenberg collected walking sticks and was known to wield one if provoked late at night in a dubious neighborhood. He was portly and had a sense of humor that may be untranslateable today, but it made the likes of Kafka and Mann roll on the floor.
Fin-de-siecle Vienna bubbled with culture like an overripe Brie or a kirsche torte (chocolate cherry pie) left in the window of a pastry shop too long. Which is why everyone was amazed when the nazis jackbooted their way through such refinement. Lucky for him, Peter Altenberg was way dead by then, having exited his hefty frame in 1919.
Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose Pearls of Peter Altenberg is now in English, translated by Peter Wortsman, published by Archipelago Books. Anyone who wants to understand or participate in the current bohemian revival in New Orleans, should take a copy of this book to the Gold Mine on Thursdays and let him or herself be seen with it. Stay off the wallpaper!