Central European Melancholy

Central European melancholy: why embracing it can cheer you up

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Central European melancholy can make you happier.  If that sounds topsy-turvy, check out these four depressing, life-affirming examples.

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.

Central European Melancholy

Central European Melancholy: Radetzky March

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.

Central European Melancholy: the Winterreise

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.

Die Schöne Müllerin

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).

Der Erlkönig

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 in desperation; In his arms the child is dead)

Celebrate the fact we are alive

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.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you may enjoy my piece: Living your best life: can you reimagine your relationship with time?

P.S. If you enjoy fresh, original writing, you can follow me on Facebook or sign up for my newsletter (you can unsubscribe anytime you wish).

P.P.S. On the subject of Galicia: when I stayed in Lviv to learn Ukrainian in 2009, we ate a “Galician dish” of “soup with ears”.  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 – but do tell me if you have evidence to the contrary!


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5 Responses

  1. Man kann “Die Winterreise” auch lesen als die Geschichte eines -verkannten – Künstlers, der sich auf einer Lebensreise mit allen Höhen und Tiefen befindet. Es gibt, ziemlich in der Mitte des Zyklus ein Lied: “Lustig in die Welt hinein, gegen Wind und Wetter. Kann kein Gott auf Erden sein, sind wir selber Götter.”
    Zum Radetzkymarsch muss man wissen, dass Joseph Roth, als Jude, Kaiser Franz Joseph und somit der Habsburg Monarchie, lebenslang dankbar war, weil unter Kaiser Franz Joseph den Juden das Aufenthaltsrecht genehmigt wurde. Daher ist der Zusammenbruch der Monarchie und das heraufdämmern des Nationalsozialismus für ihn eine Katastrophe. Er emigrierte nach Paris, wo er verarmt als schwerer Alkoholiker verstarb.

  2. Es gibt ein paar Topoi im Film / im Roman, die auf Dauer dem Vergessen-Werden-Können entzogen sind: Da ist die Empörung des alten Trotta, als er ganz zufällig im Lesebuch des Sohnes die eigene Heldentat von Solferino zur Nicht-Erkennbarkeit entstellt entdeckt und – zuerst bei den Behörden, dann beim Kaiser selbst – Korrektur durchsetzen will. Dann sind da die Heldentaten des Enkels Carl Joseph: das Retten des Kaisers (scil. seiner Büste) aus dem Bordell und der Tod im Geschoß-Hagel beim Wasserholen für die Soldaten.
    Lieber Robert Pimm, (ausnahmsweise) ruhige Wien-Wochenenden mit den rückwärtsgewandten U-Topien Joseph Roths zu verbringen und die nur scheinbaren Paradoxa zu genießen (“Einmal pro Woche war Österreich”), ist eine charmante Form, (ein Jahr danach) Angekommen-Sein zu signalisieren.
    Darf ich für das nächste derartige Wochenende DIE STRUDELHOFSTIEGE und/oder DIE DÄMONEN empfehlen?

    1. und vor allem nach dem Lesen einer deprimierenden Lektüre das Wochenende bei einem ruhigen Spaziergang durch die Weinberge ausklingen zu lassen…. vor allem in Gesellschaft mehrerer aufbauender Wanderer

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