By Arthur Schnizler.
Translated by Horace Samuel from the orinal Germen DER WEG INS FREIE, 1908.
412 pages
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923.

Comments of Bob Corbett
April 2001

Please note that at the bottom of my comments I have added some very interesting comments from an internet reader.

On a beautiful sunny, if chilly, April afternoon it seems rather appropriate to sit, as I am, sitting in the Café Griensteidl in Vienna to write about Schnitzler's novel. Looking out the window from my table I see the famous Adolf Loos house of the same period, the "building without eyebrows" which so disgusted Kaiser Franz Josef that the had the windows opposite the building in the Hofburg draped so that the Habsburg family wouldn't have to look out at this modernist building. Loos.

The Griensteidl of today is not the same Griensteidl which played host to Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Peter Altenberg and other members of Jung Wien (Young Vienna), the avant garde writers of the turn of the century Vienna. That café at this same location, closed in 1897. Yet the revival of the name and the ambiance of the café seems a decent place to write these comments about Schnitzler's work.

He well deserves his reputation as an astute observer and recorder of the nature of life in fin-de-siecle Vienna. The Road to the Open is not only no exception, but is perhaps one of the best examples of how he earned that reputation.

The main story-line is quite simple, even thin, particularly from our perspective a hundred years later. George von Wergenthin, a very young baron, has an affair with a woman not of his class. This was a common, routine, fairly well accepted and expected practice. She becomes pregnant and this long story works out the details of how George and Anna Rosner's lives play out. The novel is hardly about their lives; rather it is a revealing portrait of upper class Vienna at the turn of the century.

The brilliance of the novel is in the revealing characterizations of this cultural milieu. Unlike some of Schnitzler's shorter works which I've reported on in these pages (VIENNA 1900: GAMES WITH LOVE AND DEATH and the short novel LT. GUSTL) this long novel is not strong on form. In one sense the story of George and Anna does organize the novel and it can be read as the story of their affair.

On the other hand one of the novel's greatest strengths is the set of insights into disagreements within the Jewish community on questions of assimilation and Zionism and of the anti-Semitism of the time and finally on the place of the Jewish bourgeoisie of which Schnitzler himself was a member. The "Jewish theme" dominates 2/3 the novel and George's life is sort of something thrown in which organizes the visits and meetings at which the Jewish questions are discussed. Then, as though Schnitzler had had his say, this these virtually disappear in the last third of the book, coming back into play in the very last pages when a Jew kills a Gentile army officer and is then has the proceedings against him quashed by the emperor's intervention.

Along the way in that first part of the book, however, Schnitzler gives us a profoundly revealing look at the Jewish bourgeoisie and anti-Semitism. George is a musician and composer, wishing to be a conductor. At one point he has resolved to write an opera with a writer and friend, Heinrich Bermann. The writer is a cynical angry Jew. He is railing about anti-Semitism and George challenges him that many Gentile are like him, not really caring. Heinrich replies:

"Do you think there's a single Christian in the world, even taking the noblest, straightest and truest one you like, one single Christian who has not in some moment or other of spite, temper or rage, made at any rate mentally some contemptuous allusion to the Jewishness of even his best friend, his mistress or his wife, if they were Jews or of Jewish descent?" And without waiting for George's answer: "There isn't one. I assure you. You can try another test also if you life. Read for instance the letters of any celebrated and otherwise perfectly shrewd and excellent man and observe the passages which contain hostile and ironic expressions about his contemporaries. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it simply deals with an individual without taking any account of his descent or creed. In the hundredth case, where the miserable victim has the misfortune to be a Jew, the writer will certainly not forget to mention that fact. That's just how the thing is, I can't help it. What you choose to call persecution-mania, my dear George, is in reality simply an extremely intense consciousness that has been kept continuously awake of a condition in which we Jews happen to find ourselves. And as for talking about persecution-mania, why it would be much more logical to talk about a mania for being hidden, a mania for being left alone, a mania for being safe; which though perhaps a less sensational form of the disease is certainly a much more dangerous one for its victims. My father suffers from it, like many others of his generation. He at any rate made such a radical cure that he went mad in the process."

However, Schnitzler's dominant Jewish theme is not anti-Semitism from Gentiles. It is about the terrible conflicts within the Jewish community over Hertzl's notion of a Palestinian homeland and the question of assimilation. The bulk of Schnitzler's characters are assimilationists, converted and not converted, or Jews in secret while publicly Catholic. They fight bitterly among themselves, the assimilationists believing the publicly practicing Jews are fools and the cause of much anti-Semitism. The "real" Jews, on the other hand, resent the assimilationists as cowards and traitors if not out-right heretics.

The irony is, of course, as Schnitzler could not fully have foreseen, the issue was not assimilation or orthodoxy. In the world of just one generation later, Jews of every stripe were seen as cut of one cloth -- evil capitalists, the cause of all of Austria's problems. That this claim was absurdly applied equally to the underclass Jews only compounds the foolishness of it, though the underclass Jews were attacked in their own right as undercutting traditional crafts and artisans by their hawking of manufactured goods.

Just a bit before the above position of Heinrich is revealed another of George's Jewish friends warns of the extent of anti-Semitism. The Gentile Lieutenant whom I spoke of above has been badgering the Jewish soldier under him, Leo. Leo has taken action against the Lieutenant, who has been severely reprimanded but continues the attacks on Leo. The warning of Schnitzler's character, Demeter Stanzides is quite chilling:

"We live in a mad age. I assure you" -- he turned to George -- "First Lieutenant Sefranek is no more of an anti-Semite than you or I. He visits Jewish homes. I even know that he was extremely intimate for years with a Jewish regimental doctor. It really seems as though everybody were going mad."

This novel was published in 1908, but just one short generation later Demeter's thesis of madness was fully evidenced. Schnitzler's clear rendering of Austrian anti-Semitism of this period is a strong case against those who would wish to take the easy road of blaming the holocaust on Hitler. One later critic of Austrian anti-Semitism under Hitler claimed that the Germans were good Nazis and awful anti-Semites while the Austrians were bad Nazis but excellent anti-Semites.

The story of George and Anna allows Schnitzler a field day in dealing with the institution and the custom of upper-class men taking mistresses, and the comfortable acceptance of it all. Nevertheless, in insightful Schnitzlerian ways we learn that it's not all so simple, and while the novel plays out in the end "as it should" for the mores of the time, we read much more of the complexity and humanness of what occurs within the artificial realms of social conventions. For a while George is nearly beaten by his own passions, sympathy and thrown back toward moral sensibility. In the end he acts out his part as a good Viennese noble. Anna, however, emerges with more character and honor than the tradition would have allowed her to have had.

Schnitzler is at his best in the details of the myriad characters he creates. We meet a long cast of supporting characters, one more fascinating and alive than the next and in the process turn of the century Vienna is laid bare. To illustrate his phenomenal ability to create and reveal "types while giving them individuality and vivid pulsing reality, I give you one character whose significant life and death occupy only two pages as told by her brother. George is with his casual coffee-house friend Edmund Nurnberger who tells him the story of his sister's life and death:

It was on a misty February day, while they were at the railway station waiting for the train to Vienna, and walking up and down with each other on the platform, that Nurnberger told George the story of this sister, who when a child of sixteen had become possessed as it were by a tremendous passion for the theatre, and had run away from home without saying goodbye in a fit of childish romanticism. She had wandered from town to town, from stage to stage, for ten years, playing smaller and smaller parts, since neither her talent nor her beauty appeared to be sufficient for the career which she had chosen, but always with the same enthusiasm, always with the same confidence in her future, in spite of the disillusions which she experienced and the sorrow which she saw. In the holidays she would come to the brothers, who were still living together, sometimes for weeks, sometimes only for days, and tell them about the provincial halls in which she had acted as thought they were great theatres; about her few successes as though they were triumphs which she had won, about the wretched comedians at whose side she worked as though they were great artists, tell them about the petty intrigues that took place around her as though they were powerful tragedies of passion. And instead of gradually realizing the miserable world in which she was living a life which was a much to be pitied as that of any one else, she spun every year the essence of her soul into more and more golden dreams. This went on for a long time, until at last she came home, feverish and ill. She lay in bed for months on end with flushed cheeks, raving in her delirium of a fame and happiness which she had never experienced, got up once again in apparent health, and went away once more, only to come back home, this time after a few weeks, in complete collapse with death written on her forehead. Her brother now travelled with her to the South; to Arco, Meran, to the Italian Lakes, and it was only as she lay stretched out in southern gardens beneath flowering trees, far away form the whirl that had dazed and intoxicated her throughout the years that she realized at last that her life had been simply a racketing about beneath a painted sky and between paper walls -- that the whole essence of her existence had been an illusion. But even the little everyday incidents, the apartments and inns of the foreign town, seemed to her memory simply scenes which she had played in as an actress by the footlights, and not scenes which she had really lived, and as she approached nearer and nearer to the grave, there awoke within her an awful yearning for that real life which she had missed, and the more surely she knew that it was lost to her for ever, the clearer became the gaze with which she realized the fullness of the world. And the strangest touch of all was the way in which, in the last weeks of her life, that talent to which she had sacrificed her whole existence without ever really possessing it manifested itself with diabolic uncanniness.

"It seems to me, even today," said Nurnberger, "that I have never heard verses so declaimed, never seen whole scenes so acted, even by the greatest actress, as I did by my sister in the hotel room at Cadenabbia, looking out on to the Lake of Como, a few days before she died. Of course," he added, "it is possible, even probable, that my memory is deceiving me."

"But why?" asked George, who was so pleased with this finale that he did not want to have it spoiled. And he endeavored to convince Nurnberger, who listened to him with a smile, that he could not have made a mistake, and that the world had lost a great actress in that strange girl who lay buried in Cadenabbia.

In addition to revealing the period by means of his characters, Schnitzler more frontally addresses some of the conflicts of the period in two central philosophical characters, the cynical Edmund Nurnberger and the constantly probing Heinrich Bermann raise many questions. Perhaps the central issue is the conflict between how much ought each of us bow to the conventions of the society and how much should we seek to become individuals choosing what we have personally taken hold of. It is only in that latter mode that a person can truly become him or herself on Schnitzler's view.

It is to Heinrich that this fundamental revelation is given, and the root of the English title. While discussing the battles within the Jewish community over Hertzl's Palestinian dreams, George asks Heinrich how the question should be settled. Heinrich's reply is more than just to that question, it is a fundamental orientation toward life:

"Who knows," said George reflectively, "if you won't be regarded as right -- in a thousand years? But till then?"
"Why, my dear George, there won't be anything in the way of a solution of the question before then. In our time there won't be any solution, that's absolutely positive. No universal solution at any rate. It will rather be a case of a million different solutions. For it's just a question which for the time being everyone has got to settle for himself as best he can. Every one must manage to find an escape for himself and out of his vexation or out of his despair or out of his loathing, to some place or other where he can breathe again in freedom. Perhaps there are really people who would like to go as far as Jerusalem to find it… I only fear that many of them, once they arrive at their official goal, would then begin to realize that they had made an utter mistake. I don't think for a minute that migrations like that into the open should be gone in for in parties… For the roads there do not run through the country outside but through our own selves. Every one's life simply depends on whether or not he finds his mental way out. To do that of course it is necessary to see as clearly as possible into one's most hidden crannies, to have the courage to be what one naturally is -- not to be led into a mistake. Yes, that should be the daily prayer of every decent man: to make no mistake."

THE ROAD TO THE OPEN is not an easy book to find. It is long since out of print. My own copy, gotten from a used book dealer in a small town in Nebraska was the only copy I could find offered on-line. Perhaps libraries will have it here and there, and today it is not hard to get items on inter-library loan. Despite the quest it may take to find a copy, I most highly recommend this novel. It takes us all to the roots of a developing modern culture at the turn of the 19th/20th century and I think any reader will be enriched by the vivid characterization and profound insights of Arthur Schnitzler.

For links to more about the period of turn of the century Vienna see: the course I taught on this subject in Vienna in 2001   or to go directly to more info about the people and places visit my links to files and external sources on the this period.

Comments from an internet reader

Corbett notes: I received the notes below from Jack Patterson in July 2006. I think they are very thought provoking and interesting, so I wrote Jack to ask his permission to append them to my notes. He note only agreed, but then added a further note.

I am very appreicative of Jack's notes and offer them for your consideration.

Jack Patterson Jack Patterson

I was surfing online after rereading Der Weg ins Freie (in the German) - perhaps for the second or third time over the past decade - and I came across your article on Schnitzler. I have several comments on your article. First of all, it seems astonishing to me that someone would translate the title as "The Road to the Open" which does not make any sense in English and misses the point of the novel, which has to do really with the issue of human freedom and the need to reconcile personal freedom with social responsibility. This is the dominant theme, not class relationships in Vienna or the rise of anti-semitism which are interesting but really sub-themes. The brilliance of the novel does not lie, as you suggest, in Schnitzler's characterizations of the cultural milieu, but rather in his exploration of the human soul, of the relationship between the sexes, his utilization of the stream of consciousness technique to highlight the unconscious mind of his main character. Schnitzler was a friend of Freud, and used his writings to experiment with some of Freud's key ideas like dream theory, free assosciation, introspection and self-analysis. Schnitzler was one of the first modern writers to experiment with the interior monologue, and his anti-hero, Georg von Wergenthin bears an uncanny resemblance, at least for me, to Michel in André Gide's L'Immoraliste. Schnitzler's heroes, like those of Gide, are men who have an unquenchable thirst for freedom from the constraints imposed on them by traditional social mores, but who are also driven to perpetuate antiquated and unjust codes of conduct, in their patriarchal relationships with women, for example, or their attitudes towards other races. They are individuals who are torn between their obsessive need for complete freedom to enjoy all the physical and spiritual pleasures that life might offer them and their sense of social morality, their responsibility towards others. Their downfall is that they fail to maintain an equilibrium between these two human needs; they err either on the side of freedom(becoming unbearably egotistical and hedonistic) or on the side of social responsibility(wallowing in puritanical self abnegation). They are incredibly unreliable as narrators because they see the world as it appears filtered through their own biases and complexes. They lie, distort the truth, project onto others their own failings.You suggest that there seems to be a "comfortable acceptance" of Georg's behaviour towards Anna and that in the end Georg "acts out his part as a good Viennese noble". However, I believe that just as in the novels of Gide, who is a contemporary of Schnitzler and one of the very first modernist authors, there is an implicit negative judgement on the part of the other characters and of the author in respect to the main character. Indeed, Georg himself seems to feel a measure of guilt for his actions and, ironically, it is the tortured and anxiety-ridden Heinrich Bermann from whom Georg obtains his absolution.

Added a bit later after I asked Jack if I could append his note to my comments. He agreed and then sent the following additions.

There are just a couple of other points I realized I wanted to make after sending my first e-mail.

With regard to the character of Georg von Wergentheim , we become aware of certain events in his past thanks to Schnitzler's interior monologue technique. Georg seems to be obsessed first of all with the death of his father to which he returns again and again in his thoughts, as well as with his mother's death which he apparently witnessed by himself as a teenager. We are given to believe that these two events were extremely traumatic for him, indeed, Georg's continuing preoccupation with them suggests feelings of guilt on his part - maybe at not being able to prolong their lives, or perhaps at not having been loved enough by them. His relationship with Felician, on the other hand, seems rather formal and detached. They share the same apartment but rarely see each other. Georg also seems to avoid the company of Felician's friends. Georg is obviously haunted by a number of family issues, which is strong evidence of Freud's influence on Schnitzler.

Georg is also obsessed with the memory of one of his previous mistresses, Grace(an American?) and young Labinski who committed suicide while on holidays with Grace and Georg. This does not happen during the course of the novel, but is a memory which haunts Georg incessantly. After Labinski's death, Grace abandons Georg for good. Was Georg responsible in some way for Labinski's death? In any event, he is very troubled by this part of his past. So the constant themes which keep cropping up in Georg's consciousness are those of the deaths of people who have been close to him, of his betrayal of others and his repressed or sublimated feelings of guilt associated with the betrayal and the deaths of these others. Georg comes across, on the whole, as a very shady, amoral character with a somewhat murky past, a person rather lacking in compassion or empathy towards others. His betrayal of Anna and his guilt surrounding the death of their child at birth are not isolated incidents, but part of a pattern in Georg's life. Georg is perhaps meant not to exemplify the typical Austrian aristocrat of that period, but to be a kind of virtual representation of what Schnitzler himself, or anyone for that matter, could become if they are unable to balance their quest for freedom and individuality with compassion and responsibility towards other people.

Jack Patterson


Bob Corbett

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