A Life in the Making

Majorie Perloff, The Vienna Paradox: A Memoir
New Directions, 2004. 224 pp., $15.95

Reviewed by Evelyn Audi


The Vienna Paradox is Marjorie Perloff’s record of her own life and it is—perhaps not surprisingly—itself paradoxical. We look at her, not within her. In a sense, we learn who Perloff is by seeing what she sees as spectators of her life rather than as her rhetorical confidents. At the same time, Perloff’s memoir is a literary interpretation of her own narrative. And yet, this would seem the only way she could have recorded her experiences for she admittedly, “[shies] away from psychological explanation or linear narrative.” This memoir is not “the great confession” that we have come to expect from artists, writers, and critics sharing their inner life as they look back on what and who shaped them and their art. Instead, we meet Vienna just before the Anschluss in 1938. We see snapshots of Perloff’s family in the early 1900s; we hear Schoenberg and Mahler, and Wittgenstein and Goethe; and among and between their connections to Vienna and New York (both during and after World War II) Perloff reveals herself as first Gabrielle Mintz, then Marjorie Mintz, and finally Marjorie Perloff. Her narrative discloses these selves through the intersections of the people and ideas that construe Viennese High Culture/Kulturdrang, the Viennese-Jewish immigrant experience, and the interaction between Viennese and American artistic culture.

Using Vienna as a way to explore the self places this memoir in the tradition of émigré fiction and in The Vienna Paradox one is inevitably reminded of the particular problems of exile. Perloff’s own memoir does confront us with fundamental problems of exile: home is Vienna but Vienna would never be home again. New York’s Café Sabarsky becomes, for Perloff, more Viennese than Viennese cafés themselves. (Sachertorte tastes sweeter in the café next door to the Statue of Liberty than in a brusquely run Viennese bakery). If this is Perloff’s way of seeing an aspect of humor in the impossibility of home, she tempers it through her revelations regarding the impossibility of Viennese-Jewish-American identity during World War II and after: “…No matter how complex the making of one’s identity and no matter what one really believes or does…Jewish identity can never merely be expunged, for the simple reason that, as the refugees from Hitler were forced to learn the hard way, one is always a Jew in the eyes of the Other.” For Perloff confronting Jewish-ness of that time and place means confronting the Holocaust, and its legacy, especially in relation to her own family.

Letters and photographs are the means by which Perloff introduces her family. In Perloff’s memoir, documents become the framework for interpretation. The early chapters in particular consist of a detailed family history accompanied by many black and white photographs of extended and immediate family. Excerpted letters from these family members to one another or to friends and even Viennese government officials direct readers to citations for Perloff’s life rather than narratives about it. She also provides a family tree to orient readers through the complex relationships among Mintzs, Schüllers, and Rosenthal’s to one another, to Vienna, and later, to America. Perloff’s documentary approach to her family’s history is an archaeology of a Viennese intellectual culture—typically Perloff mixes excerpted letters from her parents to their family describing their flight from Vienna with excerpts from Goethe’s poetry or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. (Barely a moment after we enter their Mintz’s New York apartment we are meditating on the possibility of ethical propositions.) Perloff’s readers determine the centrality of family and intellectual life by experiencing it in her writing.

For Perloff, her family life is defined by the intellectual life—a necessarily Viennese one. Narratives about individuals are interrupted by the narratives that animated them. Perloff’s description of the way that her father recited Goethe to his children could also be a discussion of poetry. We learn that for the Mintz family their identity as Viennese intellectuals was almost primary to their identity as Viennese Jews. Here we see the necessity of Kulturedrang to the lives of the Mintz’s and other Viennese refugee families. And it is this particular aspect of their being that Perloff explains “animates” their lives. Art is necessary for life—not a luxury that merely signifies wealth. Art is not “for its own sake.” It is for the sake of art that life is animated at all. Perloff writes that while she and her brother, Walter, were high-school age they were good students. The Fieldston School, where Perloff completed her high school education, is discussed at length. She admits that it took her awhile, at age 13, to adjust to Fieldston—a prestigious private school. Perloff writes that, just before entering Fieldston, she immediately changed her name from Gabrielle to Marjorie. She liked the Fieldstone School despite “my refugee background and P.S. 7.” And her she quickly became a part of the dominant social scene. Subjects were taught rigorously but congenially and Perloff makes careful note of the particular attention to a required seminar that Fieldston called Ethical Culture: “My Viennese upbringing, with its emphasis on individual talent and intellectual achievement, made it difficult to swallow such articles of faith as “diversity of thought”…I had been taught that [this] was just a polite term for blandness and lack of resolve. And so I whispered [during seminar] and was sent out of the room on numerous occasions.” Crucially, Perloff contrasts her classroom discussions of literary texts to the way that her parents and grandparents discuss them:

“In the [Fieldston] seminar, discussions of Dante or Montaigne…were extremely lively, but again they rarely continued outside the classroom. School was school, and in one’s free time, one talked about things that really mattered, like friendship, sports, and sex. No ideas but in things! Or rather, no ideas but in everyday material life.” She goes on to describe the critical distinction between art and kitsch that for Perloff is a critical distinction between American and Viennese approaches to everyday life:

My parents and grandparents…were disappointed that [as young people] neither [my brother] nor I devoted much time to intellectual pursuits. The passion for philosophical rigor, for the poetry of Goethe and Schiller, for the Greek and Roman classics—these were supposed to be the domain of the gymnasium education. Ideas mattered, even though it was not quite clear how theory might actually determine praxis. It was, in any case, my parents’ fond hope that I would read “serious” novels and classical drama and that I would stay away from kitsch or false art, the very enemy of the Kulturedrang that had animated their lives in Vienna.

Perloff goes on to take up a significant theoretical discussion of Adorno’s theory of kitsch as the “false aesthetic” indicative of mass culture. Perloff’s first person accounts of her childhood, her high school experience, and her Oberlin College days are joined with theoretical commentary, an act which suggests Perloff’s interest in examining the status and role of own narratives as literary texts. In one passage, Perloff applies Adorno’s theory of kitsch apply to her family’s household. This sort of “double narrative” has the effect of reminding the reader of the formative presence of two cultures: Viennese Jewish life and Viennese intellectual life. That is to say, Perloff’s writing mirrors the paradox of being at once defined by and rejected by Vienna. She uses memoir to present the problem that Walter Benn Michaels raises, “Why [is it] that any past count as ours?” Perloff presents her past as belonging as much to her family, to Vienna, and to all Viennese Jews, as much as it does to Marjorie Mintz who left the “foreign” Gabrielle behind as part of her “past.”

At the same time, in unfolding the complicated and dual identity of the Viennese Jew in Vienna or the refugee Viennese in New York, Perloff’s narrative explores the problems of assimilation in both the German and American context—and the impossibility of leaving one past behind for a new American identity: “Even if they had wanted to, [German and Austrian Jews] could hardly have been assimilated into the Volksnation, whose ethnicity, history, and foundational myths they did not share. But their assimilations into the Kulturnation were not without its own problems. In the words of the liberal rabbi Benno Jacob in 1927, the Jews were assimilated ‘in the accusative’ but never fully in the ‘dative,’ which is to say that ‘they assimilated the cultural values of Germany’ but ‘were not assimilated into German society.’” In this sense, The Vienna Paradox interrogates the myth of the recreated immigrant self that is such a crucial part of American myth: for Perloff, there is certainly transformation and recreation of the self, but recreation within limitations.

If it is at first difficult to find Marjorie Perloff in her memoir, it is because the narrative privileges her extended and immediate family and the intellectual forces that sustained them. When her memoir begins, Perloff describes the story of Gabrielle Mintz whose voice only exists through one or two letters. However when Gabrielle changes her name to Marjorie her voice is a stronger presence and we have more of a sense of her early participation in the intellectual world. In this way, Marjorie Perloff gestures towards the possibilities that exist for reconstructing a self in the New Word, and a sense of how narratives participate in that process. We don’t need to know “what she is feeling” to understand the individuals and ideas that shape her narrative and her self. As an American, she can “be whoever she wants to be” but, she reminds us, that for her “being” must include a Viennese, Jewish, World War II refugee.

She concludes her memoir with a discussion of one final paradoxical relationship: the friendship and mentorship between the composers Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage. Perloff explains that “For Cage, sound rather than music is the proper frame of reference. Perhaps Schoenberg was right to call Cage ‘not a composer, but an inventor—of genius.’” Perloff’s memoir is more akin to John Cage’s approach to music—we don’t hear the literary “melodies” of figurative language or confessional narrative in her memoir. Her purpose—if there is a deliberate one—is not simply to invoke our sympathies for “the refugee experience.” Rather, she wants us to hear the ideas that comprise her history and her family and hear the voices of her family. Perloff’s writing, her narrative, eschews conventional harmonies. More sound than conventional music—it is Kultur not kitsch and that is its genius.


Evelyn Audi attended St. Olaf College. She received her M.A. in English from NC State University where she currently teaches courses in composition.