Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Vienna Paradox: a Memoir by Marjorie Perloff


Rating: (Recommended)




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Readers are unlikely to find a better written and less schmaltzy memoir than Marjorie Perloff’s The Vienna Paradox. I was overwhelmed by all the changes in Dr. Perloff’s life, from when she left Vienna with her family in 1938 at age 6 to her unmet expectations at Stanford in recent years. I say Dr. Perloff because that’s how I’ve thought of her since she was a professor at Catholic University when I was a student. I admired her from afar, but never took one of her courses. The Vienna Paradox gave me the opportunity to peek into her life, and an added bonus was in the many family photos that appeared throughout the book. If there’s a single conclusion from this memoir, it’s to take advantage of every situation and opportunity. Perloff worked hard throughout her life and was offered many opportunities. The ones that turned out well, she savored. When things didn’t work out, she moved on.


Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 4, “Kultur, Kitsch, and Ethical Culture.” pp. 186-189:


As a teenager, I was always hearing conversations culminating in the phrase, Dass ist doch nur Kitsch! (This is merely kitsch!) Once the judgment had been made, the object(s) in question brooked no further discussion. How “art” might be kitschified in capitalist culture, why certain material goods were beloved by the bourgeois public, and what function they might serve in their lives were never at issue. Kitsch was kitsch, and it was our obligation to call it that and display our ability to discriminate.

At Fieldston, I thus had to walk a fine line between my friends’ tastes and my family’s. everybody loved Oklahoma!, but I wasn’t taken to see it and, since at least this musical was based on the play Liliom by the Hungarian Ferenc Molnar, I was allowed to take a few friends to see it on my birthday. Of course when I expressed my enthusiasm for Carousel, my mother and grandmother gave each other a look, as if to say, “poor child, she doesn’t yet understand.”

I wish I could say that I wholly rebelled against these elitist notions of art, but the fact is that I thoroughly internalized throughout college and graduate school, I found myself wanting to dismiss this or that work that most people seemed to admire-Peter Shaffer’s psychodrama Equus or Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet-because to my mind it displayed the ersatz profundity of kitsch. A more recent example would be the film version of Shindler’s List, a film I found it impossible to sit through. I couldn’t bear the presentation of Oskar Schindler, the “good” Nazi who becomes the savior of more than a thousand Jews, or indeed the images of those Jewish victims, all of them “sensitive” and resourceful-and fine violinists to boot! And I was offended by Steven Spielberg’s pretense to deal with an unspeakable human tragedy, all the while presenting as many lurid sex scenes as possible for the sake of box-office appeal. Such kitsch, I continue to believe, is painful to encounter because of its dishonesty, as some sort of personal violation-a commitment, I suppose, to the religion of Art.

As a teenager, however, I suppressed such thoughts and resented my parents’ superior smiles and dismissive remarks. Indeed, I wanted nothing so much as to be exactly like Patsy Kook or Bobby Litt, who went to see South Pacific at least two or three times, pronounced Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead the best novel ever written, and Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset the best play. I wished that my mother could be more like other mothers-ladies who lunched, shopped, or played cards and who knew the songs featured on the Hit Parade, whereas my mother didn’t even know who Frank Sinatra was. Why couldn’t one just have fun without being so intellectual?

The only girl in my class whose cultural milieu resembled my own was Anna Kris, the daughter of Marianne and Ernst Kris, both émigré psychoanalysts from Vienna. Unlike my parents, they were affluent, because analysts made a great deal of money in the postwar years. But the life style of the Drs. Kris (Ernst Kris was an art historian/analyst who had worked closely with Ernst Gombrich and my uncle Otto Kurz) was not quite my ideal either. One always had to enter their large apartment at 135 Central Park West by the service elevator and kitchen door so as not to disturb the patients seated in the waiting room near the front door. The large and airy rooms facing the park were consultation rooms, Anna and her brother Tony occupying the darkish back rooms. Marianne Kris (who was to become Marilyn Monroe’s analyst!) never had a moment: between patients, she hurriedly popped into Anna’s room, to see what her daughter might need. She was plainly dressed and, for my taste, not sufficiently well coiffed or made up. And Ernst Kris presided over Anna’s Bildung with an iron hand: she had special afterschool tutorials in Latin and other subjects and was taken to museums for serious lessons in art history. I was happy that no such burdens were placed on me.

Indeed at home, despite all the distinctions drawn between art and kitsch in everyday conversation, I was given a large measure of freedom. My mother was busy with her studies at Columbia and was often not at home in the afternoons, so that I could gossip on the phone for ours with Patsy or Betsy. Then too, my parents couldn’t afford private lessons; on the contrary, it was my mother’s firm belief that my brother and I should learn the value of money by doing odd jobs like washing windows, for which the pay was twenty-five cents per window. We were taught to itemize all expenses, and on weekends I took up babysitting. This was a wonderful way to escape the confines of our small apartment, read romance novels or trashy magazines in someone else’s living room, and smoke on the sly. In those days, parents gave no instructions whatsoever: I would baby-sit across the street for a rather careless mother, who never told me what to do is the baby cried. When her little boy did cry, as frequently happened, I would pat him on the back and say “Shh,” since I knew nothing about bottles or wet diapers. Sooner or later, the baby went back to sleep. “Was everything all right?” asked the father when the parents returned at midnight or so. “Fine,” I said, taking my money and running. And my mother, who had no idea about baby-sitting customs in America, never asked me any questions the next day.


Perloff’s fine writing, combined with the story itself and the outstanding photos, bring pleasure to all readers of The Vienna Paradox. Readers aware of Perloff’s scholarship and criticism of modern writing will be most impressed by her ability to place the story of her life in the context of her past in Vienna and her life in America. My memories of Dr. Perloff at Catholic University were supplemented by a new understanding of the misogyny and anti-Semitism she faced in the 1960s and 1970s as an outspoken woman on that campus, and the opposition to her tenure from some of her colleagues. There are many reasons to read and savor The Vienna Paradox and I recommend that you read it.


Steve Hopkins, December 20, 2004



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

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