Why Central European melancholy could make us happier.
In the course of a recent quiet weekend, I dipped into the soul of central European melancholy.
I watched 210 minutes of a 1964 black and white TV adaptation of Radetzky March, a novel by Joseph Roth. Later I listened to Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter’s Journey). Spoiler alert: this blog mentions key plot points of both.
Radetzky March is about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, illustrated through three generations of the Trotta family. The eldest Trotta, a humble infantry lieutenant of Slovenian origin, saves the life of Emperor Franz Josef at the battle of Solferino in 1859 and is rewarded with ennoblement, becoming a baron. Through a series of tragicomic events, the reasons for the ennoblement become obscured, and later generations of Trottas, although part of the nobility, never feel they truly belong there. The TV adaptation follows the tragic fate of the first baron’s grandson as he grows up steeped in a web of duty to a crumbling empire, patriarchy and militarism in the run-up to the First World War; and his dismal relationship with his well-meaning but blinkered father.
Everyone dies, not necessarily in the most cheery order. The TV adaptation ends with crippled war veterans hobbling across a square to the background of the Radetzky March (a jaunty military march you will recognise instantly and still a favourite in Vienna), in the same location that, in the opening sequence, a military band played the same tune as townsfolk gathered and applauded.
The Winterreise makes the Radetzky March look like a laugh-a-thon. A man falls in love and is rejected. He leaves the town at night and wanders through a desolate winter landscape, longing for death and musing on loneliness, loss and suffering. Opinions differ as to whether the hurdy-gurdy man the traveller encounters in the final song (A hurdy-gurdy man stands with numb fingers… swaying barefoot on the ice… his plate is empty… no-one wants to hear or look at him, dogs snarl at him…) represents death, or a future companion. The Winterreise was completed as Schubert died of syphilis, aged 32.
But at least the ambiguous end of the Winterreise is less of a downward spiral, and leaves open more hope, than Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (The lovely maid at the mill), where a cheerful young bloke falls in love, is rejected in favour of a more suitable suitor, despairs, and drowns himself in a stream (the final song is the babbling of the brook).
Both are cheery set against perhaps Schubert’s most famous work, the Erlkönig, based on a poem by Goethe, where a father, riding through the night with his sick son, who is delirious with fear, strives to reassure him that the eerie figure of the Elf-King, who seems to be reaching out towards the boy, is no more than a rustling of leaves or a wisp of fog. Father, father, he’s touching me, the child cries, The Elf-King has hurt me! The final section reads:
Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
(The father, horrified, rides swiftly, Holding the groaning child in his arms, He reaches the farm with difficulty; In his arms the child is dead)
What to make of all this? One could write an essay. But for now, let’s stick to the following. We should celebrate the fact that we are still alive. If we or our loved ones are heading for death, we should remember that others have passed that way, too.
Schubert was born and grew up in Vienna. His father’s family came from Moravia, in the east of what is now the Czech Republic; his mother’s from Silesia, now mostly in Poland. He was one of 14 children, nine of whom died in infancy. Joseph Roth was born in Brody, and went to university in Lviv, then the eastern outposts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, now both in Ukraine.
For: melancholic thoughts can help you focus on what is important in life
Against: can be depressing.
P.P.S. When I stayed in Lviv to learn Ukrainian in 2009, a dish of “soup with ears” was described as a Galician dish. In the treachery-based board game “Diplomacy”, set in 1901, control of Galicia was key to controlling central Europe. Now, Galicia is split between Poland and Ukraine. The Czech and Slovak name for Galicia, Halič, is similar to the Turkish name for the Golden Horn (Haliç). I think this is a coincidence.