Saturday, August 09, 2008

Ganz Wien

In what is one of the strangest and mysterious contradictions of my life is my deep affection and connection to Vienna. In a unusual way I belong and fit into this city. A question which is frequently asked of me is why I have such a fascination with Vienna. A conservative and provincial city is usually not my cup of tea. Still, I have become Viennese through and through.

Though Vienna is somewhat provincial it is one of the most urban cities in the world. Vienna is a metropolis of nearly 2 million people. It has the finest architecture of any city in Europe. It has the best designed and urban planning of any city except for New York and Chicago. Most importantly, it has a world class public transit system. It has the most extensive tram and subway network of any other Western city. Vienna was built with rapid kinetic electrical motion in it's design.

Vienna remains the last bastion of Marxism in the Western world. There are still hundreds of thousands in this city that identify as Marxist. Though Marxism is declining here it is still normal to identify as a Marxist and Communist and not be viewed as mad or someone to be viewed with suspicion. The Communist Party of Austria, while in a deplorable decline, is still a key part in Vienna's intellectual and cultural milieu. The Socialist Party of Austria for all intent and purposes owns Vienna. In the last municipal elections the Socialists won 50% of the vote, winning 19 out of the city's 22 districts. Since 1919, the Social Democrats have ruled City Hall with the exception of the fascist and Nazi period of 1934-45. The mainstream right wing party only obtains 19% of the vote. The Socialists alone win more votes than the 3 right wing parties combined. The Socialists are the intellectual and cultural linchpin of Vienna. All prominent writers, musicians and intellectuals are members of or affiliated with the party. Many of the bars and nightclubs and cafes in the city have some affiliation with the Social Democrats.
The downside is that the Socialists have shifted to the right over the past decade much to the annoyance of the intelligentsia and the workers. However, the Socialists know that there's no other choice for voters. There's too much hatred and resentment for the Catholics since they smashed Red Vienna in 1934. The city's working class, unlike their counterparts in other Western countries, are largely hostile to Catholicism. The intellectuals seething contempt of the Catholic Church is only excelled by the French. Sadly the Viennese working class are voting increasingly for the fascist Freedom Party as the Social Democrats have largely taken them for granted. However, the majority of the voters in Vienna will never elect the Freedom Party to City Hall. Though the Social Democrats face potentially being reduced to 3rd place in next months Federal Elections and disappearing politically in most of Austria, they will always have Vienna. Sadly, it appears that the Socialists will only have power in Vienna while being shut out in the rest of the country. The only Red MPs in the National Parliament will only come from Vienna.
Vienna inspires me as a poet that no other city has. This city has produced Western Lit's greatest modern writers and poets. Vienna is the cradle of Modernist art and one of the early homes of the Avant-Gard. Vienna remains the last city in the Western World where Bohemians still exist and survive. These are real Bohemians, not slackers. Unlike in North America where privileged middle class people supported by their parents or trust fund, the Bohemians in this city are poor but they write poetry and books. They compose music. They have political and philosophical arguments. Like with Marxism, Bohemianism is waning as well but it's still possible to live a Bohemian lifestyle in Vienna.
Vienna's conservatism is both part of its charm as well as boon. Conservatism is a double edged sword. In the original sense of the word, Conservatism was to conserve the traditions of the past. It became a reactionary force after the French Revolution when it attempted to conserve feudalism and the supremacy of the church. After the Bourgeoisie consolidated power and capitalism became entrenched did the former revolutionaries become conservative in the face of uprisings by the working class.
In Vienna, the conservatism keeps many of the old structures in place. About a third of the trams in Vienna are from the 1950s. Everyone complains about the new trams. Worse are the new subway cars. People want to conserve the old tram and subway trains. There are many cafes that have been around for more than one hundred years. Many of them look and feel so. Many cafes were last renovated after the Second World War in the 1950s. When one goes into a cafe the air still smells of the last half century and older.
(The 1950s aesthetic in Vienna was by far the best of the Western World. The 1950s were an extremely reactionary time as reflected in its style but in Vienna it's conservative but not reactionary.)
Many business' stay open for decades. Once a shop is open, it rarely goes out of business. Change happens very slowly in this city. After 10 years, I know there will be certain cafes, bars and shops which are certain to still be open.
The best part of Vienna's conservatism is the refusal to implement smoking bans that have spread like cancer across the Western world. A smoking ban would infuriate everyone. Non-smokers in Vienna are vehemently opposed to any smoking ban. Many non-smokers allow guests and visitors to smoke in their homes. That stems from the excellent hosting of the Viennese. When the Viennese have guests, they allow guests to be as comfortable as possible even if it means enduring slight inconveniences.
Last winter, my roommate didn't smoke. However, unlike the anti-smoking tyrants in North America which ban smoking inside the apartment, he saw no reason why I should not smoke in my room with the doors closed. Should any government be stupid enough to implement a smoking ban, many cafes and bars would ignore it. While the Austrians may have reactionary tendencies, they see bans of any sort as extreme. The only good thing that the right wing parties have in their policy is to preserve smoking freedom. Vienna will be the last city in the Western World to ban smoking. It will come but no sooner than 10 years from now.
While there is lots of racism in Vienna, it's not any more than found in most other Western cities. At the same time, I have never encountered as many colour blind people in Vienna. This is extremely complex and complicated. I do have the luxury of being an intellectual from New York. I have excelled here artistically than any other city that I have lived in. I have become a widely known figure in Vienna's poetry scene. My name is known throughout the city even if people have never read my works or have seen me live. I have never received this level of recognition any place else. There are two paradoxical reasons for this.
In North America I was supposed to be a "Black" poet. That meant that I was supposed to be a rapper. That meant that in the middle of my performance I would have to break out in a Soul song. That meant that I had to assert a type of Negritude or Afrocentric style. Being a Beat punk industrial techno poet is not what most North Americans expect from a Black New York artist. To the contrary, it confuses and alienates the public. I have been questioned countless times as to why I don't rap or make hip-hop music. If I came to Vienna as a typical "Black" poet hip hop rapper, I would be ignored. I would be the stereotype which is boring. I would not be involved in intellectual scenes. I would just end up playing in hip-hop clubs in the trashy Viennese scene.
In Vienna my own individual and unique style is what makes me popular. I am not a rapper. I am seen as an intellectual performance artist. No one questions why I do not rap nor make hip hop music. Not to put a too fine point on it, my race does not even come to the mind of the Viennese intellectuals. When people describe Der Kosmonaut, they will mention that I am always well dressed in classy suits. I am known for my Soviet Red Army Panzer Cap with the Hammer and Sickle with red star. People will explain my high energy and rapid kinetic electric antics of my performances. The last thing people will bring up is that I am Black.
There is of course a dark reality. If I were from Africa, life would be very different for me in Vienna. I would not be carousing with the bohemian poets and writers in the scene. I would not find a welcome mat at the Rhiz or other well known intellectual creative spots in the city. If I were African, I would have little social contacts with most white Austrians. I would face open racial hostility. I would be racially profiled, harassed and beat by the police. If I were African, I would be reminded of my race every day. I would not fit into Vienna. I wouldn't be Viennese. I would just be another SheiƟ Neger Auslander. My bona fide New York birth certificate, American passport, good command of German, along with my "good" English spares me from most overt forms of racism. When I lived in Pointe St. Charles in Montreal I faced racial hatred the way Africans do in Vienna. Vienna is racist but I have faced much more in Canada in 6 years than a decade of living on and off in Vienna. Still, I am not blind to the reality around me. It remains a duty as a privileged honorary Viennese to resist and fight against the racism against Africans and other immigrants of colour in Austria.
Vienna suits my Upper West Side mentality quite well. This city reflects my moody bohemian character. I have come to realise that I have started taking on the mannerisms of the city. I swear and get pissed off for silly reasons. I find myself grumbling and complaining when I see that I have to wait 7 minutes for the next subway. More positively my sense of humour meshes really well in Vienna. The fact that I am able to tell subtle and sarcastic jokes in German reveals how deep my integration in this city is in fact.
Still, Vienna is in many ways what an Austrian friend of mine living in New York described as a "golden cage". Life is very easy in Vienna. The Austrians are lazy and have a aversion to work. I say this not as an insult. I think there is nothing wrong with being lazy as long as some productivity comes out. Having an aversion to working a job to be exploited is quite healthy. There is plenty of food in Vienna. There's lots of coffee houses. The city has some of the nicest parks in the world. The Danube River has one of the best urban recreational facilities offered in any inland city. The pace is easy going and relatively slow. However, there is always a tram or elevated train passing by and above keeping the city in perpetual motion even when the city seems to be completely still. Life is too easy here.
I need a break. I'm going on holiday. I'm going camping in Serbia. I hate camping and have a native Manhattanite's visceral aversion to nature. How I detest the great outdoors! I haven't been camping or in nature for 9 years. I believe that I am overdue. For me going camping and going into the nature is like going to the dentist. I do both only once every 10 years out of neccesity rather than desire. There will be much to write about in September. Enjoy the rest of the summer!

-Vienna, Austria

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