A Strange Book to Read in Vienna – The Death of Virgil

February 24, 2022

by Joao Pinheiro da Silva, Alumni Scholarship Recipient and MA student in the Department of Philosophy

I was always fascinated by fin de siècle Vienna. A lot of my heroes lived during that time. From Freud to Wittgenstein, Mises to Zweig, Musil to Kraus, Schnitzler to Mann, the list is never-ending. Late Viennese culture managed to achieve and create that unique environment that gave birth to a golden era of geniuses. It was, in my young imagination, the closest thing we had to the Classical Greek era of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Xenophon and Aristophanes.

But ironically, just like Classical Greece, fin de siècle Vienna’s geniuses were the product of times of trouble and crisis. The society that Robert Musil called Kakania – which can be read as both “Imperial-Royal” or “Excrementia” – was an abode of paradoxes: “Liberal in its constitution, it was administered clerically. The government was clerical, but everyday life was liberal. All citizens were equal before the law, but not everyone was a citizen.” (The Man Without Qualities).

The splendor of Viennese culture masked a tremendous existential malaise, a tragic and melancholic reality. It was from this pit of contradictions that emerged the great tragedies of the last century. That golden era of geniuses also prepared what Eric Voegelin called the “descent into the depths” of the moral and spiritual abyss of totalitarianism.

The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch, is the synthesis of all this milieu. Broch will re-create the story of Virgil’s eighteen last hours of life as a way of understanding his own culture crisis. Just as the great artists and intellectuals of fin de siècle Vienna witnessed what Ortega y Gasset called “the revolt of the masses”, Virgil witnessed the repulsive and vile street life of the Rome he once glorified.

Virgil starts to think of burning his great poem, the Aeneid. It seems that all his life was devoted to a mere propagandistic illusion commissioned by the emperor of a great empire that never was.  While we go through the marvellous prose of Broch, one can’t help but smell the gunpowder, the smell of gas of his own time. One cannot help but see not only Broch’s but an entire culture 's eyes hovering over Virgil's fatal end.

It is strange to say that this is the best book I read in Vienna. After all, it seems to be a crude judgment of its fin de siècle culture. And it is. But Broch’s judgment comes in the form of a love letter to that same culture. Because he knew that “of the innermost danger of all artists, he knew the utter loneliness of the man destined to be an artist, he knew the inherent loneliness which drove such a one into the still deeper loneliness of art and into the beauty that cannot be articulated, and he knew that for the most part such men were shattered by this immolation, that it made them blind, blind to the world, blind to the divine quality in the world and in the fellow”.