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||Egon Friedell (1878-1938)|
Austrian essayist, cabaret performer, and amateur cultural historian, best known for his brilliant, playful, and stimulating magnum opus, A Cultural History of the Modern Age (1927-31), written under the influence of Oswald Spengler and Jacob Burckhardt. Friedell hoped for a rebirth of Western culture; the Modern Age, which was born from the Great Plague of the fourteenth century, has come to its end. At the eve of World War II, Friedell committed suicide by jumping from a window of his apartment. The German writer Thomas Mann ranked Friedell as one of the greatest stylists of the German language.
"The bioscope is killing human gesticulation, as sound film is killing the human voice – and the same is true of the radio; at the sometime, it is freeing us of the necessity of concentration, and we are now able to enjoy Mozart and sauerkraut, or the Sunday sermon and a game of cards, at one and the same time." (from A Cultural History of the Modern Age, Vol. 3, 1931)
Egon Friedell was born Egon Friedmann in Vienna, the youngest
son of Moriz Friedman, a Jewish cloth manufacturer and Karoline
(Eisenberger) Friedmann. Friedell lost both of his parents in his
childhood. Shortly after his birth, his mother deserted her family and
ran away with a voice instructor. Formally his parents divorced in
1887. Moriz Friedmann died in 1891, after which Friedell's relatives
took care of him, first his aunt, who lived in Frankfurt am Main.
Friedell's mother reappeared in 1928, demanding support from him. She
died in 1933. Friedell's brother Oskar Friedmann established in 1899
the first exclusively literary publisher in Vienna, the Wiener Verlag,
which attracted writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur
Schnitzler, and Robert Musil. Later it was taken over by a businessman
named Fritz Freund.
His studies Friedell did not take very seriously. In 1894 he was dismissed from a secondary school in Frankfurt and it was not until 1899 when he passed his final school-leaving examination (Abitur) at the Gymnasium in Heidelberg. A few years earlier he had renounced the Jewish faith and converted to Protestantism. Before entering the University of Heidelberg, he studied philosophy at the university of Berlin.
From 1900 until his death, Friedell had the same third-floor residence in the Gentzgasse, sharing it with his housekeeper Hermine Schimann and her daughter Herma. Friedell never married and it was rumored that he was homosexual or impotent and that Herma was his child. After she married a carpenter named Franz Kotab, the couple and later their two children continued to live in a small room in his barchelor apartment. Friedell named Hermine Schimann as his sole heir.
At the turn of the century, majority of the liberal, intellectual elite of Vienna was Jewish, and like Friedell, many of them changed their religion. Friedell characterized the Jewish God as one "imagined as a purely national figure, concerned only with the interests of his own people, a hard autocrat and a pitiless persecutor of all rivals". (A Cultural History of the Modern Age: Volume 1, Renaissance and Reformation by Egon Friedell, new ed. 1964, p. 241) However, in Vienna, as Arthur Schnitzler remarked, "it was impossible, especially not for a Jew in public life, to ignore the fact that he was a Jew." Sigmund Freud, whom Friedell criticized for bolstering irrationalism with tools of rationalism, never hid his strong Jewish identity. Friedell's attitude toward Freud was ambivalent. Psychoanalysis had according to Friedell all the characteristics of a religious sect, but on the other hand Friedell acknowledged Freud's achievement in revealing the significance of the unconscious.
Friedell studied German literature and philosophy in Heidelberg under the philosopher and historian of philosophy Kuno Fischer, and completed his studies in Vienna, receiving his doctorate in 1904. His dissertation about Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was rejected, but the following attempt, dealing with Novalis' universal science and dedicated to Kuno Fischer, was finally accepted although declared poor. Novalis als Philosoph was printed under the name Fri(e)dell, but officially Friedell changed his name in 1916.
Forced to abandon his hopes for an academic career, Friedell took a new turn in his life and became a cabaretist. He contributed to Karl Kraus's Die Fackel and then he was appointed artistic director of the Vienna cabaret Fledermaus, named after Johann Stauss' operetta. His plays, written in collaboration with Alfred Polgar, included Goethe (1908), in which he acted in the title role, Der Petroleumkönig; oder, Donauzauber (1908), and Soldatenleben im Freden (1910) . The first wife of the architecht Adolf Loos, writer and actress Lina Loos (Carolina Catherina Obertimpfler) was involved in the cabaret, too. Lina, to whom he unsuccessfully proposed marriage, was the great love of his life. Arthur Schnitzler's based his play Das Wort (The Word) on a true love story between Lina and a young man, who committed suicide after being spurned by her.
Friedell, Peter Alternberg, and Polgár were the stars of the literary circle at Café Central. Friedell also wrote a study on Peter Altenberg, Ecce Poeta (1912), and edited a collection of writings, Das Altenbergbuch (1922). Viennese coffeehouses, the meeting places of intellectuals, were laboratories of new ideas. All epoch-making personalities knew each other in this unique world of grand cafés, where professors, writers, musicians, and artists freely argued at tables, enjoying at the same time a cup of coffee and perhaps a strudel. Friedell's other friends included nearly all the major authors of the period, Franz Werfel, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. To advertise his lectures 'Shaw oder die Ironic' and 'Besser als Shakespeare' Friedell used in posters Egon Schiele's face from Self-Portrait Nude, Facing Front (1910); this violently coloured watercolor portraying a figure convulsed in a spasm became one of the icons of the avant-garde circles of Vienna.
to his alcohol problems and depression, Friedell spent some time in a
sanatorium near Munich. He also suffered from diabetes. In spite of his bohemian appearance, Friedell was
reluctant to see any changes in his daily routines. The
outbreak of WW I was greeted all over Europe with joy and celebration.
Like a numbrer of writers, Friedell volunteered for military service.
However, he was rejected for physical reasons. Later he defended
Germany's role in the war in his Cultural History of the
Modern Age by comparing it with the fate of the
From 1924 Friedell cooperated with Max Reinhardt and acted in his productions at the Vienna Burgtheater and in Berlin at the Deutschen Theater. In Vienna Friedell worked also as the codirector of Intimes Theater. He had a major role in Molière's Imaginary Invalid, produced by Reinhardt in 1923 at his own Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg. On stage he spoke with a typical Viennese accent which was difficult to understand for the German theater audience. Die Judastragödie (1920), produced in the Vienna Burgtheater in 1923, portrayed Judas as a hero. The play was performed only eight times. To the surprise of the Catholic authorities, Fiedell undertook to prove in his prose work, Das Jesusproblem (1921), the real and divine existence of Christ. Later it was republished as Der historische Jesus Christus.
Friedell's film, drama and literary criticism appeared in magazines and newspapers such as Schaubühne and Berliner Zeitung am Mittag, published in Berlin, Die Fackel, establised by Karl Kraus, and Neuen Wiener Journal. He stated in an opening speech to a film screening, that the cinema is "a very precise and characteristic expression of out time. First of all, the cinema is brief and rapid, almost as if its presentations were written in code, and it stops for nothing. It has a compact, precise, and military-like quality about it." ('Prologue Before the Film (1912-13),' in The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907-1933, edited by Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer, and Michael Cowan, 2016, p. 179) Friedell also translated or edited works by Emerson, Hebbel, Lichtenberg, Carlyle, Hans Christian Andersen, Johann Nestroy, and Macaulay. In 1914 Friedell published a translation of Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic History, which emphasizes the role of the individual in history.
Die Reise mit der Zeitmaschine (1946, The Return of the
Time Machine), written in the mid-1930s, was a homage to H.G. Wells's
classic science-fiction novel The Time Machine (1895). It
included a spoof corresponcence
between Friedell and Wells's secretary. Friedell's main interest in his
work, which pretends that Well's story was literary true and depicts
later adventures of Wells's hero, is in the theory of the time machine.
Friedell, who wrote self-assuredly about Einstein's relativity theory
in A Cultural History of the Modern Age, develops a complex
mathematical scheme to prove the ultimate futility of time travel,
"the resistance of Earth time." In order to reach the past, one must
first travel into the future. The novel was reissued in 1974 as The Return
of the Time Machine
(Die Rückkehr der Zeitmaschine). It was translated by Eddy C. Bertin
for DAW books in 1972 and reprinted by Starmont House in 1987.
A Cultural History of the Modern Age, inspired by H.G. Well's The Outline of History (1920), was dedicated to Max Reinhardt. Its first volume dealt with Renaissance and Reformation, the second Baroque, Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and the third part Romanticism, Liberalism, Imperialism, and Impressionism. Friedell's view is subjective and intuitive – all history is saga and myth and it is nothing more than a difference in degree between historian and poet. "All the classifications man has ever devised are arbitrary, artificial, and false," Friedell stated, "but simple reflection also shows that such classifications are useful, indispensable, and above all unavoidable since they accord with an innate aspect of our thinking." Following the Hegelian lines of though, Friedell sees his subject basically as a the process of spiritual history. Oswald Spengler's (The Decline of the West, 1918-1922) pessimism and atheism he rejects. From the English writer, historian, and critic Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) Friedell adopted the romantic "great man" theory of history, the hero-worship, totally ignoring its ominous connection with the political reality of his day. Every era and every generation has according to Friedell its own hero, a genius, who personifies the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Nietzsche was for Friedell the epitome of the pre-WW I era. A Cultural History of the Modern Age was published by the respectable publishing firm Beck; the American translation by Alfred A. Knopf came out in 1930-32 (reprinted in 1933).
After finishing A Cultural History of the Modern Age Friedell started to work on the two-volume cultural history of antiquity, Kusturgeschichte des Altertums, which he did not complete. However, its first part came out in Switzerland in 1936, after publishers in Germany refused to accept anything from Friedell.
The Nazis invaded Austria in March 1938 and the country was incorporated into Hitler's Reich. Anti-Semitism broke out in full force. Jewish apartments and synagogues were ransacked and men and women were beaten on the streets. Friedell's books were banned and his position was not only intolerable but he knew he could be arrested by Gestapo. On March 16, 1938, shortly after the "Anschluss" (annexation), Friedell leaped from a window to his death, as he heard storm troopers coming to his apartment. His last words, according to a dark anecdote, were: "Vorsicht, bitte!" [Watch out, please!] Friedell was buried in Vienna's Central Cemetery.
For further reading: Egon Friedell: der geniale Dilettant by Bernhard Viel (2013); Egon Friedell. Abschiedsspielereien by Gernot Friedel (2003); 'Friedell, Egon, in Encyclopedia of World Literature on the 20th Century, vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Egon Friedell: Momente im Leben eines Ungewöhnlichen by Wolfgang Lorenz (1994); The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, 1890-1938 by Harold B. Segel (1993); Egon Friedell by R. Wiseman (1987); Schriftspieler, Schausteller: Die künstlerischen Aktivitäten Egon Friedells by Heribert Illig (1987); The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History 1848-1938 by William M. Johnston (1983); "Egon"; The Misunderstood Clown. Egon Friedell and His Vienna by G.M. Patterson (1980); Der Partylöwe, der nur Bücher frass by P. Haage (1971); Der junge Friedell by K.P. Denker (1970) - For further information: www.kabarettarchiv.at