Vienna has always been a city that nurtured a fetish for death and the macabre, but the present city is greatly different than  the vibrancy of the Austrian capital a century ago. These days it is with a ghoulish presence that one explores forgotten neighborhoods that once filled the streets with dozens of languages. It is a depressing endeavor for a set of completely different reasons than one would normally presume.

Today the capital of a small mostly heterogeneous German population, Vienna is still awash in its former glory. It is a testament to what an interminable personality Emperor Franz Joseph was that a tourist can still find a small painting of his likeness hanging in an overlooked corner of a delicatessen or dress shop. Nevertheless, these small examples of nostalgia belie a much larger and grandiose world that existed for centuries.

Into this world of stale memories, Frederic Morton brings new vigor. Morton notes ruefully, “The future keeps mocking the past. The past, in eerie resilience, keeps shadowing the present.” No better description exists of such a unique place and time as Vienna in the year before the Great War set off a century of barbarism.

In Morton’s Vienna, readers encounter a vagabond Stalin, who spends his days researching his social tracts that he hopes will gain him greater recognition than his foe, the internationally known Leon Trotsky.

Other fellow travelers in this locus of culture are characters as diverse as Freud, Jung, Adler, and even Hitler himself.

However the narrative driver of Morton’s work that is really his freshest writing is the complicated and antagonistic relationship that Franz Joseph shares with his nephew and heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Rebuking his uncle and the Schonbrunn court, Ferdinand years earlier married a woman of ‘lower’ standing despite the warnings from his Imperial Majesty. As such, Ferdinand lives essentially two lives; at home with his wife and children he is a devoted father and husband, where the world is equal. However at formal occasions one would suspect he was a bachelor because he was not allowed to escort his wife in with him and his heraldic honors. The Imperial Court obviously took pleasure in rubbing salt into these open wounds that Ferdinand opened because it was decided that Ferdinand’s wife must enter at the very end of the heraldic chain, emphasizing to people the shame of her situation.

Despite this ignominious treatment, Ferdinand looked forward to when he would be King, and set about modernizing an empire that, according to Morton, Ferdinand believed, did not treat all of its subjects to the best of its ability.

The scenery that Morton describes in razor sharp detail is engrossing. Morton’s Vienna comes alive with the sounds of spring dances and the smell of coal-fired industry. From the palace of the Hapsburgs to a hovel on the street, this is as good a description of the socio-political geography of Austria before the wars as I have yet read.

Recommended for readers with introductory knowledge of Central Europe and above.

Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 by Frederic Morton. Da Capo Press: 2001. 410 Pages. Purchased copy.

 

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When it turned out that Johann Hari had attributed quotes from his interviewee’s books to the actual conversations he was having with them, and then used those quotes out of context in his articles for the Independent newspaper, I was naturally befuddled. How could a young man of incredible talent, who had been awarded the Orwell Prize for his journalism in the Congo, be a fabricator?

I made peace with it and hoped that one day Hari would be able to share his gift with all of the Anglophone world again.

I hadn’t thought much of journalistic plagiarism after that point, at least until this last week when New Yorker writer and neuroscience wunderkind Jonah Lehrer quit his job with the aforementioned publication after it came to light that he had fabricated quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan. Yep, that’s right, Bobby Zimmerman.

What these two young men have in common is both have achieved an unprecedented level of professional accolades so early in their career, and have been pushed to keep publishing . Of course I don’t mean to in any way say that what they did was excusable—It wasn’t and isn’t.

I just mean to say that I understand, at least in the Lehrer case, of a lie that became bigger than it was supposed to be and that ultimately ended up hurting a lot of people. If that is in fact the case what happened with Lehrer, I think that a lot of people have done said and done things they regret (myself included), but that’s part of why being in the public sphere is such a big deal; we hold these persons to a higher level of accountability in part to show that our own society is marginally redeemable for the sins others commit.

That sounds like a lot of hyperbole probably, but its important to remember that when we hold people up, that we’re doing so for the right reasons, and that they also recognize their responsibility to the rest of us.

Slavo Zizek reviewed the new film by Ralph  Fiennes, Corioluanus. A retelling of the Shakespeare play that TS Eliot once proclaimed was superior to Hamlet.

Money quote:

And this is why Fiennes’s Coriolanus is like the eyes of God or a saint in an Orthodox icon: without changing a word in Shakespeare’s play, the film looks squarely at us, at our predicament today, offering us the figure of the radical freedom fighter.

Yes, they do. Goldblog:

Yes, Palestinians exist. I’ve seen them with my own two eyes. I’ve seen them in their cities, I’ve seen them in their villages. I’ve seen them on the beaches, I’ve seen them eating peaches.  I’ve seen them in cars, I’ve even seen them in bars. Gay bars in Tel Aviv, to be exact. Ah, you might ask, what was Goldblog, a known heterosexual, doing in a gay bar in Tel Aviv? Well, how was Goldblog supposed to know it was a gay bar? Okay, the Palestinian dude grinding his shwarma against the Israeli dude was a clue. But I often miss such clues. I visited Andrew Sullivan in Provincetown once and thought that everyone was really muscular and shirtless by accident.

Goldberg’s snobbery about the Palestinian right to exist is just ugly.

A win for lovers of the band everywhere.

 

 

A bloody brilliant performance by one of the best new acts of the year (decade in my opnion). It can be found on their new EP, The Big More.

Previous posts about TJF here, here, here and here.

 

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quionto, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore.

This is a little gem of a film. It’s not easy to create a compelling film that takes place entirely on two office floors, but director J.C. Chandor manages it with ease.

Based loosely on the collapse of Lehman Brothers (the CEO is named Duld God’s sake), the film covers the 24 hour period from the discovery of bad securities by a young risk assessor (Quinto) on the firing of his boss, (Tucci). From there, the seven or so odd characters are all sent scrambling on how to save their firm (and their jobs in the process).

Jeremy Irons is used perfectly as the CEO. Moore, whom I really am not fond of as an actress manages to deliver a solid performance by playing against her bellicose normal sermonizing.

However, it is Paul Bettany that steals the film. His witticisms and amoral views makes the least complex, but most enjoyable character to watch. It is refreshing to see Bettany take on roles more suited to his dapper ability. That whole apocalyptic film thing was not good.

At the heart of it Margin Call is a film about relationships. The bonds and trust that people build. From the CEO to the senior staff, and from the traders to their buyers. When that trust erodes, nobody is buying or selling. In a roundabout way it shows the crux of investment banking: you have to trust that the guy who is selling you a securities product, or its just not worth.

And that’s the big lesson of this film.