The Ballad of the Wiener Kaffeehaus
Author and Viennese denizen Nicholas T. Parsons offers an ode to Vienna's café culture
At Café Central, a statue of Peter Altenberg seated at his regular table keeps the legend of the Literaten alive | Photo: Andreas Präfke
(The above video is a reading of the poem “The Ballad of the Wiener Kaffeehaus” by BBC radio presenter Piers Burton Page.)
The [ Café ] Central-people are always attracted like the murderer to the scene of the crime, to where they killed so much time, wiped out entire years.” – Alfred Polgar: “Theory of the Café Central”
Time was when they sat in coffeehouse Wien,
The thinkers, the drinkers, the frech or obscene.
Their lives were warfare, waged with wit
(They hated guns, but they could spit).
Their mirthful malice saddened the sad,
Their gallows humour drove men mad.
Red velvet the niches where genius aspired
At least to be heard, beschimpft, or admired.
Here were the solitary, needing a crowd,
The social, whose silence was suddenly loud.
Misfits, philanderers, idlers and frauds,
Schmarotzer at home, in the coffeehouse, lords.
And lovers there were, heedless of time,
Adrift in this city far from sublime,
Sustained by dreams, an idyll that beckons,
And veils the fear des imminent Schreckens.
Veltliner flowed and smoothed the lie:
“Only you will I love till the day I die.”
Altenberg lives! (or we live in his shade),
A man of bons mots and bills not paid.
Die Deutschen deplore this whimsical soul,
Whose crackpot fads and narcissist role
Make Piefkes cross, inclined to be crosser:
“Was soll der Quatsch? The man’s a tosser!”
Rare spirits glide here from heaven or hell –
From the latter, Karl Kraus, from the former, Friedell:
Echoes of quarrels, and hubris, and lies,
Of much to admire and much to despise;
Of Bambi and porn and belligerent Bahr,
Of a world still near, and yet so far.
Yet Polgar half loves the Café Central
(Ambivalent praise for a shady Lokal),
Where the wit was ground, distilled en masse,
And the air grew foetid with cerebral gas.
The Silesian pilgrim and Polgar agree:
“Thou’rt not in the place; the place is in thee.”
And all this explains the Centralian’s crime:
Lest time killed him, he first killed time.
The Angst of Eden hung over his days,
An unnerving suspicion that talent decays,
That much can be done, but all is vain,
And what survives is a tortured brain.
Illusion of progress sustained them then,
Illusion from which all others stem –
“Asphalt, street-cleaning, doorkey and heating” –
What Kraus demanded. All else is fleeting
In Franz’s town, the Capua of minds,
Where genius dazzles and darkness blinds.
But coffeehouse Wien is a subtle game,
Where all that changes stays the same –
The world is warming, an ice age loomed;
Whichever it is, we are surely doomed.
But all is well: “Kollege kommt gleich!”
(So also “der Tod und a schöne Leich….”)
Nicholas T. Parsons is the author of Vienna: A Cultural and Literary History, and a regular contributor to The Vienna Review. To read a Kaffeehaus interview, see “Nicholas T. Parsons: Too Nice to the Austrians” in Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012 TVR.
Kaffeehaus Glossary for “Nicht(wahl)Wiener”, or non-Viennese
Vocabulary: frech: insolent, impudent; beschimpft: insulted, abused; Schmarotzer: layabout, sponger or parasite; (Der Schatten) des Schreckens: the shadow of terror; (Grüner) Veltliner: the quintessential Austrian white wine; Piefke: derogatory Viennese term for their humourless German neighbours; Lokal: place for eating and drinking; Angst: fear, anxiety; “Kollege kommt gleich”: “My colleague will be with you shortly” – said to be the phrase most often heard in a Viennese coffee house; “der Tod und a schöne Leich”: “death and a lovely funeral”. (“a schöne Leich” literally means “a beautiful corpse”, reflecting the city’s notorious obsession with death and funerals).
Alfred Polgar (1873-1955): Described by Walter Benjamin as the “German master of the short form,” Polgar wrote feuilletons, essays, aphorisms, reviews and cabaret pieces, but also spent hours in the coffeehouse (mostly the Central and Herrenhof.) Also a merciless observer of coffeehouse narcissism and the celebrated Viennese Feuilleton: “Nothing is ever too high, too big, too distant, too strong, too old, or too tragic not to be mashed in the Viennese Feuilleton into porridge, to literary fare for the toothless.”
Peter Altenberg (1859-1919): Pen-name of Richard Engländer. Altenberg was seen as a sort of poet laureate for Vienna, and his sketches of the city (he produced only literary miniatures) are still regarded by many as sui generis masterpieces. A health freak, his rigid prescriptions for nutrition, clothing, hygiene etc. did not preclude him from spending most of the day in a smoky coffee house. His lifestyle represented the Bohemian ideal, living from the benevolence of well-wishers, never really wanted for anything, but didn’t want much anyway. “There are”, he wrote, “three types of person who have no money: the spendthrift, the poor and the greedy.”
Karl Kraus (1874-1936): Famously pugnacious and independent-minded, Kraus published a political and literary journal (Die Fackel – The Torch), most of which he wrote himself. He disliked factions and lobbies and wrote a devastating attack on the “Young Vienna” literati led by the self-important Hermann Bahr (q.v.) under the title The Demolished Literature. “I am the bird”, he said, “that is fouled by its own nest.”
Egon Friedell (1878-1938): Playwright, journalist and something of a polymath, Friedell was more of a scholar than most denizens of the coffeehouse. His Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit (1927-31, A Cultural History of the Modern Age) brought him fame as populariser of culture, like a modern television academic before his time. In his The Practical Art of Living he warns against the coffeehouse, where “overburdened people … rob you of your time without affording you any real recreation.” His view of mankind was, on the whole, pessimistic. “There are people”, he once wrote, “who are even too stupid for prejudices.”
“Bambi” (1923), the famous children’s story about a deer written by Felix Salten (1869-1945), a coffeehouse habitué who also (anonymously) wrote the pornographic novel Josephine Mutzenbacher: Die Lebensgeschichte einer wienerischen Dirne (Josephine Mutzenbacher. The Story of a Vienna Whore, 1906) – aimed at a rather different audience.
Hermann Bahr (1863-1934): Chief protagonist and noisy propagandist for the Jung-Wien (Young Vienna) côterie of writers, which championed Modernism in literature and spent a lot of time at Café Griensteidl. Of Kraus, he wrote bitingly: “Many an aphorism is the gravestone of a great thought prematurely deceased.”
“The Silesian Pilgrim”: In Polgar’s “Theory of the Café Central” (1926) he quotes the German mystic writer Johann Schefler (1624-77), known under his pseudonym Angelus Silesius (the Angel of Silesia).
Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872): Austria’s most celebrated dramatist, whose grumpily ambivalent poem Abschied von Wien (Farewell to Vienna) famously refers to the city as “Capua der Geister”, or “swamp of spirits” (Capua, in Italy, is a city of marshes). He predates the Kaffeehaus habitués and had a complex attitude to Viennese, in fact, Austrian identity. “Understanding and the ability to use it”, he remarked drily, “are two quite separate talents.”