The Nameable and the Unnameable

This volume presents a comprehensive, inter-disciplinary re-evaluation of Hofmannsthal’s most successful play and, more widely, on his contribution to literary modernity and its aftermath. Der Schwierige marks Hofmannsthal’s attempt to depict and overcome the language crisis he himself recognized in the ‘Letter’ to Lord Chandos.

Written between 1909 and 1920, the play reflects Hofmannsthal’s experience of the atrocities of war, unnameable but constantly present behind the chatter in the Viennese salons. The volume looks at the relationship between poetological and poetic texts, and sheds new light on the position of Der Schwierige in Hofmannsthal’s work. Contributions address central motifs of the play (community, identity, gender) as well as the way in which it positions itself as a tragic comedy after the end of a catastrophic war. Translations into other languages, its performance on stage and on screen, philosophical reception, and Hofmannsthal’s reaction to the downfall of the Habsburg Empire and his views on the role of marriage, are recurrent themes that are investigated from various perspectives.

„An indispensable book for Hofmannsthal students.“

Austrian Studies


By Martin Liebscher, Christophe Fricker, and Robert von Dassanowsky

An ageing writer returns to a place of his Austrian childhood. Hugo von Hofmannsthal in Bad Fusch, confronted with his former life as child prodigy and prolific author, realizes how much time has passed, and what that passage of time means. This is the theme of Austrian writer Walter Kappacher’s 2009 novella, Der Fliegenpalast. The author received Germany’s most prestigious literary award, the Büchner Prize, shortly after the publication of the work. The lost world of Kappacher’s protagonist, H., is the one that Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Schwieriger looks back upon. Both characters shy from the reality of a Central Europe after the war. Kappacher’s H. is reminded of his Schwierige in a moment of ‚zärtliches Sehnen,‘ a mood that is prevalent in „his“ play. The world has grown petty, provincial, and already unaware of a past that H. clings to. He is surprised to return to a resort hotel that has now seems unrecognizable. Guests no longer seem to know how to dress properly, waiters have lost some of their impressive skills, plants grow as they please. Maybe crucially, there is hardly anyone ‚der seine Dame zum Tisch begleitete, ihr den Stuhl zurechtrückte.‘ Men have lost their shadow identities as cavaliers. The change is almost unspeakable for H.

Kappacher’s novella has brought Hofmannstahl to the reader again – a rediscovery for some, a terra incognita for others, and for the scholar, certainly an underscoring of the ongoing relevance of Hofmannsthal as a key figure of European literary modernity, and of his comedy Der Schwierige. The play crystallizes Hofmannsthal’s critical concerns as a writer. It marks his attempt to both depict and overcome the language crisis he recognized in the ‚Letter‘ to Lord Chandos‘ and which never abated. Written between 1909 and 1920, Der Schwierige reflects Hofmannsthal’s experience of the atrocities of war, unnameable trauma constantly present behind the chatter in the Viennese salons, as they seemingly ignore the set that changes around them. This shallow surface provides an insufficient cover for the numinous character of the existential crisis suffered by an individual faced with the twilight of his civilization.

Hofmannsthal: Der Schwierige as comedy

Der Schwierige is a comedy of rare refinement and subtlety‚ (Robert Vilain). Although by no means cautious, this opening statement of a recent article on Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play is among the more restrained general declarations. Other scholars do not hesitate to emphasize the ‚greatness‘ (Thomas A. Kovach) of both author and text and call it ‚buchstäblich unvergänglich‘ (Ulrich Weinzierl).

Some of the hermeneutic challenges that the play poses, embodies, and possibly even resolves are the subject of articles in this volume. Equally important, it is a collection that attempts to deal with some of the gaps in scholarship on the play and to focus on its „reborn“ relevance in a world of communication technology and rapidly shifting and destabilizing signifiers; on Der Schwierige and his author as a recognizable reflection of the unnameable but expertly repressed crisis of postmodern and posthumanist life.

Even a cursory glance at some of the central concerns of the play reveals its continuing relevance. We may, for instance, still be surprised by the statement that ’nach einem unglücklichen Krieg müssen Komödien geschrieben werden.‘ The period after our last and most unglücklichem Krieg, the period after 1945, has not exactly been characterized by an urge to write comedies. Surely, the two wars were too different for easy comparisons, and it would be difficult to think of an author after World War II who was in a position similar to Hofmannsthal’s after World War I. Nevertheless, we would still feel uneasy about – or challenged by – a literary text situated among the elite around 1945 that is as ambiguous about its date as Der Schwierige. Questions about the personal consequences of political events, and the reception of both continue to remain centre stage in Germanophone studies, and Der Schwierige in all its anachronisms seems to be a useful starting point for discussion.

Another aspect that invites renewed attention is the significance of the empire that may or may not have ended at the time the action in our play unfolds. Are we still so sure that the framework of the k.u.k. monarchy would have been completely inadequate when it comes to addressing the political challenges of Europe today? Long periods in the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are ever more often cited as examples of the relatively successful coexistence of various peoples. Even notions of regionalism and ethnic character, never in fashion, seem to have re-entered the political stage. And it is with a new interest in Hofmannsthal that it returns. Ulrich Weinzierl contends that Hofmannsthal’s national stereotypes, however unsubtle they may be, ’sind als grobes Raster brauchbar.‘

A third aspect that will attract our attention is the role of social networks. We may feel that the conversational conventions of late Habsburg-era Viennese salons are anachronistic at best, but questions about contemporary social networks have assumed new urgency. How strongly do venue, prior knowledge of participants, and standardized forms of expression shape the way in which we build or burn bridges between our experiences and our acquaintances? A recent article on Facebook asked if we can have ‚zu viele Freunde‘ to deal with what really matters to us. Gerhart Pickerodt once asserted that it is ‚undenkbar, dass jemand in Der Schwierige monologisiere.‘ But recent developments may force us to revisit the play and ask if dialogue is always dialogue, or sometimes a coordination of monologues. Have we returned to an age where the safest way to establish community is ‚Absonderung,‘ as Maximilian Bergengruen quotes Landauer in a recent article on Der Schwierige? Has conversation already failed when it becomes the topic of conversation? Do innovations such as webcams recreate the conditions for the chatter of salons, for kisses and comments, both all-important at one moment and meaninglessly transitory in sudden retrospect? Is there a new crisis of language as it disintegrates from established forms into the rapidly dialectical vernacular of slang and the emotionally undecipherable abbreviations of text messaging? WWHD (What would Hofmannsthal do)?

The Nameable and the Unnameable

Hofmannsthal’s Der Schwierige Revisited

Edited by Martin Liebscher, Christophe Fricker, and Robert von Dassanowsky
München: Iudicium, 2011

219 pp., 22 Euro
ISBN: 978-3-86205-030-7