By Anthony RendonDecember 5, 2020
6 Hörlgasse. The building is six stories high and relatively handsome. Unlike most other buildings in the district, it does not take up a full or even half a block. Despite its modest size, it’s still a fine example of late 19th-century Viennese residential architecture. It starts to rain, the sky grows darker, and the Votivkirche, though its towers are brightly lit, begins to look cold.
I cross the street and stand in front of the building as two men exit its tall wooden doors. One is talking, the other listening. They turn onto the sidewalk and begin walking downhill. Before they disappear, the one talking notices me beside the door and looks over his shoulder cautiously. I look back, they continue walking, and suddenly it’s quiet again. In their absence, the building gains in presence.
In graduate school, I studied the early 20th-century avant-garde and read countless works about Futurism and Dadaism. The ones I most admired were written by Marjorie Perloff. Her writings showed passion for the subject without losing the critical distance needed in academia. She helped me to understand the historical and aesthetic contexts in which those movements developed and how they impacted culture today. She deepened my interest in a subject in which I was already interested. I put academia behind me for two decades without my interest in Dadaism and Futurism subsiding. In fact, when my wife and I got married, I talked her into squeezing a trip to Zurich into our honeymoon, where we visited Cabaret Voltaire, the foundational site of Dadaism. The excitement of being in that room was dampened only by the fact that we celebrated our arrival with an absinthe toast. And then another. And then another. That led to an early departure from Cabaret Voltaire and a bad next morning, for which I blame Marjorie since she got me interested in Dadaism.
I also blame Marjorie for sending me out in the rain on New Year’s Day 2019. I met Marjorie two decades after I first encountered her works. We first met at her home in Pacific Palisades. She was as generous with her time as she was with her books, and I went home with three of her works and several volumes by other authors. She spoiled me with books the way other parents spoil their children with food. “Here, you should take this too,” she said, shoving a book under my arm while squinting at the title on the spine, “though I don’t really know what it is.”
Soon after we first met, Marjorie threw a party for me to which she invited art critics, art historians, art theorists, and dozens of other weirdos. It was the best room of people I will ever be in. Near the end of the night, Marjorie asked that I give a speech as a way of introducing myself to her friends. I stood on Marjorie’s stairs with her beside me and I talked about Dadaism and its meaning in my life. I thought it was a good speech until I glanced over at a wincing Marjorie. “Okay,” she said with a wave of her hand, signaling that it was time for me to shut up. I stopped in mid-sentence. Sometime later, Marjorie attended a panel discussion featuring an architect, an opera producer, and a muralist that I moderated at UCLA. She sat in the front row, which initially I thought would be intimidating but which proved comforting as the night progressed.
On December 26, 2018, my wife and I left on our annual European Christmas trip. When we landed, I noticed that I had an email from Marjorie reflecting on the year and what she called our “moment of crisis.” This struck a chord since I associate the word “moment” with Marjorie. It was her emphasis on moments that helped me to understand Dadaism and Futurism. Marjorie’s seminal 1986 book is titled The Futurist Moment because, for her, that period in art history was best understood through the nexus of forces prevailing at that time rather than as a grouping of like-minded artists. For Marjorie, the history of art needs to be read as the fortuitous convergence of various phenomena and personalities rather than as gatherings of artists adhering to common sets of principles or motifs.
Now here was Marjorie talking about moments again. I responded to her email by wishing her a happy holiday season and informing her that I had just arrived in Budapest and that, later in the week, I would be in Vienna, the city of her birth. Days passed, my wife and I ate good food, drank a lot, and saw tons of cool old stuff. Soon Budapest was behind us, and after a short stop in Bratislava, we arrived Vienna. On January 1, Marjorie sent an excited message, so filled with spirit that I could see her red hair bouncing and body lunging as they do whenever she talks about something that thrills her. Marjorie did not ask me to visit her childhood home. Instead, she just pointed out where it was located — 6 Hörlgasse — and claimed that “It’s still the same!”
In the late afternoon, I stood in front of this building that means so much to someone who means so much to me. And, when I was standing there, it seemed like a moment. Marjorie Perloff was born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1931. Young Marjorie lived at 6 Hörlgasse for the first years of her life. Then, in 1939, she and her family did what so many Jewish families did in Europe at that time: they left their homes. They left because of a moment, a terrible moment, and Marjorie and her family experienced that moment at 6 Hörlgasse.
The only highlight of my brief time in academia was being awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, which sent me to Boston University. There I studied a group of European artists and intellectuals, mostly Jews, who had fled Nazi Europe and settled in Southern California. The goal of the study was to determine how migrating to the United States had impacted their lives and works. These exiles included Theodor Adorno, Arnold Schoenberg, and Thomas Mann, the latter two having fled Vienna. Many of them ended up living in or near Pacific Palisades — the same place Marjorie and her husband Joseph moved to later in the century.
There was one thing from my studies in Boston that I intended to follow up on. Mann, who was profoundly influenced by Sigmund Freud, was one of the exiles who settled in the Palisades, at a home located at 1550 San Remo Drive. There he wrote Doctor Faustus (1947), a book replete with allegories of what was happening in Europe at the time. After my fellowship, I went back to Los Angeles and, for two decades, intended to visit the home. But I never did until I met Marjorie.
I was still standing in front of 6 Hörlgasse, unsure what to do next. I decided to take some pictures, six in total, of the building, the doorway, the address plate. I then leaned against the glass door and peered into the lobby with its tile work, wall of ugly modern mailboxes, and bulletin board filled with building notices. It all looked quite ordinary. Then I imagined a moment — a moment of young Marjorie and her family leaving with all their possessions, fleeing their home and Vienna, through the very door against which my nose was pressed. Buildings, like people, have stories, and stories are made up of moments. Some moments are good moments, others are bad.
At Marjorie’s home in leafy, sunny Pacific Palisades, the library which is the focal point. That’s where Marjorie gave me books and showed me Dadaist memorabilia she had collected over the years. That room seems as remote from contemporary Vienna as it does from the Vienna of the war and Marjorie’s childhood. Yet it was in that room that Marjorie said to me, “Thomas Mann? Yes, of course he lived here in the Palisades,” and when I asked where, pointing, “Just over there on the corner on San Remo. You can walk over if you want.” I decide that I would. Ten minutes later, I was standing in front of the elusive 1550 San Remo Drive.
1550 San Remo Drive. The Palisades home of Marjorie Perloff. 6 Hörlgasse. All so far from one another in so many ways, yet moments from one another in so many others.
Berggasse 19. A longtime inhabitant of this address once said, “Do you suppose that some day a marble tablet will be placed on the house, inscribed with these words: ‘In this house on July 24th, 1895, the Secret of Dreams was revealed to Dr. Sigmund Freud?’” Berggasse 19 lies two short blocks and one long block from 6 Hörlgasse and, though also handsome, is an uninspiring building, indistinguishable from others in the neighborhood. For 47 years, Sigmund Freud lived and saw patients at Berggasse 19. It was here that so many of his scientific breakthroughs occurred. Freud, like Marjorie and her family, fled the Ninth District in 1938. Freud left his home for the same reasons the Perloffs left theirs, since that moment was as scary and decisive for an internationally renowned physician as it was for a young girl living three blocks away.
Freud was born in Moravia and died in London, but he spent the vast majority of his life in Vienna, where he celebrated his 80th birthday in 1936. The celebration included a lecture by Thomas Mann at the Konzerthaus entitled “Freud and the Future,” in which Mann said of Freud’s psychoanalysis:
Call this, if you choose, a poet’s utopia; but the thought is after all not unthinkable that the resolution of our great fear and our great hate, their conversion into a different relation to the unconscious which shall be more the artist’s, more ironic and yet not necessarily irreverent, may one day be due to the healing effect of this very science.
This hopeful plea that science and the work of Freud could be used to resist the fascist ideology then sweeping Europe seems perversely naïve given the events that followed. In contrast, less than 20 years later, Mann’s fellow Southern California refugee, Adorno, famously asserted, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
The speed at which this change in consciousness occurred is striking given that it happened at the start of a century that began with great stability. The long 19th century, a period of relative peace that lasted almost 100 years, began at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–’15 where, following two defeats of Napoleon, the boundaries of Europe were re-established. The borders were intended to ensure peace by creating a balance among the powers on the continent. That peace was founded on the reconstitution of many of the monarchies Napoleon had overthrown.
The period of art history I studied began near the end of this period of stability. What struck me about Futurism, chronologically the first of these movements, was how it sought to completely break from the past. As early as 1909, the Futurists were seeking to obliterate rather than bridge the 19th century with the 20th. A decade later, after World War I, that break seemed complete. Thus, while not sympathetic or relatable figures, the Futurists were impressively prophetic.
Studying Futurism led to studying Dadaism since the two overlapped and were linked stylistically and through common artists and writers. Marjorie Perloff first appeared to me here, teaching me about Marcel Duchamp and Dadaist poetry. Dadaism struck a chord with me. Having worked at a contemporary art museum, I endured the cheap shots so often taken at modern art. I learned that so much of what people still mock about this art emanated from the absurdity of the Dadaists. By 1916, the war was in full swing and it seemed that all of Europe had gone mad. Chaos and death were everywhere. Within this context, or this moment, artists from all over Europe converged on Switzerland, a neutral state seemingly less mad than the rest of Europe. Many who went to Switzerland ended up in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire, where the first Dadaist performance occurred on February 5, 1916, the same month the Battle of Verdun began. The Dadaists wore conical hats and read nonsensical sound poems that likely seemed to the audience as silly then as they do to us now, but that absurdity was intentional. For the Dadaists were saying, “We are making silly art while you are destroying cities. We are reciting absurd poems while you are killing with mustard gas. Whose actions are absurd?” Dadaism was a protest.
One of the soldiers who fought in that war was Adolf Hitler. Before the war, he had lived in Vienna, hoping to gain admission to the Academy of Fine Arts. Twice he failed to do so. It was during his time in Vienna that he lost faith in democracy, became captivated by political rallies and propaganda, and, in his own words, “ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and became an anti-Semite.” Hitler lived in Vienna’s Sixth District, two miles from Freud. He left Vienna in 1913 but triumphantly returned in 1938, after Austria’s annexation by Germany. That same year, six-and-a-half-year-old Marjorie Perloff and 82-year-old Sigmund Freud left Vienna.
Berggasse 19. Only after arriving at Berggasse 19 do I realize its proximity to 6 Hörlgasse. The walk takes 10 minutes. I look up at the building and remember images I’ve seen of a swastika draped over the front door. It’s the same front door that stormtroopers raced past when they raided Freud’s apartment, confiscating all the money they found. Later they arrested and interrogated Freud’s daughter there. The fate of his sisters was far worse, with four of the five dying in concentration camps.
I move inside Berggasse 19 to get out of the rain. Soon I hear a familiar voice. I look up as my wife Annie, whose own parents had fled their home country because of war and then a second country because of ethnic persecution, bounds down the stairs with bags of souvenirs from the Freud Museum gift shop. I tell her about my visit to Marjorie’s apartment.
Marjorie had also visited the Freud Museum. She taught a summer seminar there a few months before my visit. To commemorate her lecture, the museum placed copies of her books in the gift shop, which I spotted when I visited the day before. I took a picture of myself holding the book and sent it to Marjorie. It was one of the books she sent me away with from her Palisades home. I think about how odd it had to be for Marjorie to lecture in an old apartment just three blocks from her childhood home.
Marjorie Perloff helped me to understand that history is made up of moments. So many of the major events of the 20th century seem so remote from one another, but on that increasingly wet walk, which I was now taking with my wife, they seemed just moments apart. The lives of the art critic, the great novelist, the famed researcher, the leafy home near the beaches of Southern California, two 19th-century apartment buildings in a landlocked European capital, and my own life now seemed separated by mere moments.
In his 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, cultural critic Greil Marcus posed the following question:
Is history simply a matter of events that leave behind those things that can be weighed and measured — new institutions, new maps, new rulers, new winners and losers — or is it also the result of moments that seem to leave nothing behind, nothing but the mystery of spectral connections between people long separated by place and time, but somehow speaking the same language?
The day after Hitler’s armies marched into Austria, Marjorie’s family boarded a train out of Vienna. The train’s first stop? Zurich. The Zurich of neutrality, Dadaism, and my absinthe-filled honeymoon. Marjorie’s father, Maximilian, was a lawyer. He was born in 1899, 32 years after the execution of Maximilian I, the only monarch of the Second Mexican Empire and the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I, whose subjects included Hitler and Freud. Maximillian I and his wife Carlotta are central to the history and folklore of Mexico that I gleaned mostly from sketch comedy routines on Spanish-language television programs my Mexican grandmother watched while babysitting me. Maximilian is buried near Franz Joseph in the Kaisergruft, just a short cab ride for us now in rainy Vienna. Should we visit their tombs? It’s late, my wife is cold, I’m hungry, plus Marjorie assures readers that her father was named after the 15th-century Hapsburg emperor, Kaiser Maximilian I. Does that make the link with Mexico irrelevant? “The happenstance of specific words in common is an accident,” Marcus wrote, “but it might suggest a real affinity.”
Marjorie’s mother, Ilse Schüller Mintz, became an economist like her father, Richard, who as Undersecretary of Trade was part of the Austrian peace delegation after World War I. Richard also fled Austria at the age of 68, climbing a mountain to cross into Italy. My wife’s parents also escaped persecution by crossing a mountain. Like many with Chinese names, she gave herself an English name and that is how “My” became “Annie.” And Marjorie Perloff? “I wonder who Marjorie Perloff is,” said the one-time Gabrielle Mintz. “It just doesn’t look or sound like me.” Gabrielle Mintz became Marjorie Mintz when she became a US citizen and later Marjorie Perloff when she married. Is any of this linked?
On March 13, 1938, young Gabrielle Mintz and her family left 6 Hörlgasse. Three months later, Professor Sigmund Freud left his apartment three blocks away at Berggasse 19. Freud died in exile the following year, never knowing the fate of his family, the full expanse of the war, or the complete horror of the Holocaust. Meanwhile, according to The New York Review of Books, Marjorie Perloff became “perhaps the youngest of the great wave of European Jewish intellectual refugees who immeasurably enriched American culture.” Perloff, Adorno, Schoenberg, and Mann.
It was through my studies of Jewish exiles that I learned of the Mann home in the Palisades and because of a visit to Marjorie’s home that I finally saw it. Mann lived at 1550 San Remo Drive until 1952, when he fled the United States due to fear of the darkening political climate associated with McCarthyism. Ironically, he returned to Europe and died in Zurich.
In Vienna, less than half a mile separates the childhood home of Gabrielle Mintz from the longtime apartment of Sigmund Freud. In Los Angeles, less than half a mile separates the current home of Marjorie Perloff from the house that belonged to Thomas Mann. I’ve traveled between the homes of these exiles and it took just moments. And now Pacific Palisades does not seem so remote from Vienna. They are connected by Perloff, Mann, and Schoenberg, who in turn are connected by their art, their Judaism, their flight from Europe, and the tragic moment that was Nazism. And me? For a moment, I simultaneously feel remote from, connected to, and remotely connected to all of it. But just for a moment. But our lives are made up of mere moments.
Marjorie, through her writings and life experiences, helped me to think about what happens when the moments that make up our lives collide with the moments that constitute the lives of others. At times these connections are manifest or intentional. At others, these convergences are, to use a word Marcus is fond of, “spectral.” Drawing these links can be viewed as a simple party trick for anyone with the slightest knowledge of history and 14 hours to kill during the plane ride from Vienna to California. But as Marjorie Perloff once wrote, “To be alive is to be part of this whirlpool, to nourish oneself with flames.” Ultimately, through this cascading whirlpool, we realize that our greatest connections are not limited to those moments through which we live our lives. Nor hopefully will our reach be limited to those moments. Rather, we are linked, all of us, by our common humanity. That is all we have, but it is so much.
Anthony Rendon is the 70th Speaker of the California Assembly. Prior to serving in the Assembly, he was an educator, nonprofit executive and environmental activist. Rendon currently resides in Lakewood with his wife Annie Lam and daughter, Vienna.
Featured image: "200729 Thomas Mann House ml" by Mirkomlux is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Banner image: "Hörlgasse, Alservorstadt, Vienna, Austria - panoramio." by trolvag is licensed under CC BY 3.0. Image has been desaturated from the original.
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