Dreamers & Demagogues: Letter from Vienna

M. Allen Cunningham

M. Allen Cunningham
16 min readMay 31, 2016


Instructions for the dreamer:

1) Wake up.

2) Try not to move.

3) Speak the last image you remember.

4) Take up your pen.



Friday. En route to Vienna I have a daylong layover in Amsterdam, so I visit the Rijksmuseum and wander the city. After lunch while crossing a canal I come upon a police scene. There’s a crowd of spectators on the bridge. In the water a tourist boat waits while in front of it a dredger searches the canal with a giant claw. From an adjacent boat, a cameraman is filming the whole thing.

What are they looking for? A body? Bodies? It’s a perfunctory process, but so unsettling: every time the mechanical claw surfaces from the darkness below I brace myself to witness something grisly amid the rocks and slime in its streaming clutch.

I watch a long time. When I finally move on, I do so half in disappointment, half in relief. And throughout the day, amid Amsterdam’s photogenic houses and leafy cobblestone lanes, I find myself thinking constantly of Anne Frank and her family in their annex behind blackout curtains, of their betrayal, of the girl’s diary splayed open on the floor after the Nazi raid. Even as every scenic bridge causes me to stop and spin on my heels snapping pictures, my mind is like that claw dredging the darkness.

Herz / Heart

Vienna. Belvedere Gardens. Saturday. This is my second visit to this city and again I wonder: what makes Vienna so elusive, so cloaked and chimerical, so seemingly intangible despite its preponderantly dense and massive structures? One can know the landmarks, the historical chapters, the names and dates, the principal works of art, the varieties of coffee and cake, even (to a degree) the language. Read your Freud, hear your Beethoven, smile at the many eccentricities of the Habsburg era, stand aghast at the horrific paroxysms of the Second World War — still you are held at bay. The heart of the place is closed to you, and you find yourself enveloped by the elaborate artifice of Jugendstil sex and goldleaf, crown jewels, copper domes, horse-drawn carriages, and lemon-garnished schnitzel.

Ich shaue nur.

I’m just browsing.

Wo ist Zweig?

In March 1938, the whole of [Vienna’s] Hotel Imperial, from the café to the uppermost suite, was requisitioned by Nazi authorities for the reception of Hitler. … And the Imperial remained the domain of Nazi officials throughout the war. Today the chairs, booth backs, and carpets of the Café Imperial are midnight blue and pale gold shades. When I went there in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, there were almost no customers. … Waiters whisked in and out, zipping from one deserted room to the next. When I asked about the café’s history in the 1930s and 40s, waiter after waiter shrugged and made a face as though I’d asked where the bathroom was in too loud a voice. — George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World. p.193

Bitte, konnen Sie mir erklaren der weg nach Holocaust-Mahnmal?

Can you please tell me the way to the Holocaust Memorial?

How can one not compare the state-sponsored memorials in present day Berlin to the near absence of these things in Vienna? Compare Berlin’s open-air Topography of Terror exhibit or its massive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — which, so as to be unavoidable, is situated in the center of the city — to Vienna’s much smaller, poorly marked Holocaust Memorial in the Judenplatz, or the bronze excrescence of that ugly Jewish caricature in the Albertinaplatz. Consider the fact, as noted by author George Prochnik, that the permanent chronological exhibition in the Museum of the City of Vienna ends — halts abruptly — at World War I. Consider the prominently situated Ringstrasse statue of Karl Lueger, anti-semitic establishment figure who in 1890, some years before becoming mayor of Vienna, made the suggestion that Viennese Jews be herded onto a ship and sunk at sea. Consider the Austrian State Library’s brand new, stlyishly designed Literature Museum, which merely documents — but never so much as hints at the culpability of — those among the Viennese literati who collaborated with the Nazis, the so-called “occupiers.”

Consider the Literature Museum librarian who, when I ask why the museum includes only a single glancing reference to Stefan Zweig, flattens his mouth and explains that Zweig is not very well known in Austria, and seems bemused by my inordinate interest in this ostensibly “minor” figure of Austrian letters. Jewish-born Zweig, who was once one of the most famous writers in Austria — and throughout Europe — and who devoutly espoused himself to internationalism and made it his lifelong mission to be a multilingual citizen of the world, a passionate believer in the human community that transcends the political and dogmatic, and who swore to himself “never to write a single word that affirmed war or disparaged another nation.” Zweig, who while writing The World of Yesterday from exile in 1941 mournfully admitted his heartbreak at seeing his work totally effaced by the Nazis:

Of the hundreds of thousands and even millions of my books which had their secure place in the book shops and in innumerable homes in Germany, not a single one is obtainable today. … Everything, or almost everything that represents my work in the world during forty years has been destroyed by one and the same fist. … I could not adequately describe the fall into the abyss which I with countless others equally innocent suffered, if I did not indicate the height from which it occurred, and the singularity and consequences of this destruction of our whole literary generation, an occurrence unique in history.

Stefan Zweig

Ein Traum Gescheitert / A Failed Dream

As someone who’s come to Vienna to write, naturally I can’t help asking: Doesn’t Zweig deserve some reparations? If nothing else, this literary world-soul would make an ideal artistic symbol for a Vienna intent upon atonement. Is his present-day obscurity one indicator of the lack of will for such a thing? (But I do not ask these questions aloud.)

“A nightmare is a failed dream,” says Freud, words that could perhaps serve as a metaphorical statement about the tragedy and savagery of World War II Vienna, Freud’s own city — and Zweig’s city, where for much of its history as Zweig described it, a dream of unity seemed possible: “All the streams of European culture converged…and subconsciously every citizen became supernational, cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world” — how nightmarish the city became after the Anschluss.

Has the nightmare been adequately acknowledged? I wondered as I passed my days walking the city. Has Vienna transferred the black matter of the nightmare from the second mind of sleep to the waking one?

Where, for the writer, the artist, do these questions lead? Where, particularly when, at home, the demagoguery of the hour so resembles that of the nightmare in question — fists pounded at podiums, the mocking of the marginalized, the extolling of deportations and border closures as public virtues, the incitements to thuggery and political hysterics.

Where do these questions lead, when here in present-day Europe the stability of the European Union looks to be less than sound?

In Full Sun

“My father fought in Hitler’s army,” my Viennese friend Gabriele told me. This was several years back, on my first visit to Vienna. I had come with my family on a home exchange, and Gabriele, the sixty-something mother of the woman whose apartment we were borrowing, had appointed herself our tour guide. One afternoon she led us on a walk through the Innere Stadt, the old town, across the baroque courtyards of the Hofburg complex, and out to the broad open concrete and lawns of the Heldenplatz, where we stood in full summer sun. “I’m telling you this because it is important not to hide from it,” Gabriele said. “Too many are still hiding from what happened then. There were 200,000 people in this square on the day that Hitler gave his speech here — they were cheering at the top of their lungs, overjoyed. And today you can find hardly anyone who will admit to having been there, or who will say, ‘Yes, my parents were there,’ or, ‘My grandparents were there.’ It is shameful.”

Here and there around Vienna you see little bronze squares laid into the pavement before the doorways. These could easily be mistaken for electrical or plumbing outlets, but looking closer you find the names of people who were torn from their houses and deported to the camps. Some 65,000 Austrians met that fate.

If in Berlin they say, “We did this,” in Vienna they seem to say, “The war is something that happened here.”

Surveys show that most Austrians continue to deny that 200,000 people welcomed Hitler’s troops as they marched into Austria, despite the overwhelming evidence that ecstatic crowds gathered at Heldenplatz in Vienna’s city centre to hear him deliver a rousing speech. The view most commonly held still is that the Anschluss was forced on a reluctant people. — The Telegraph, UK, April 12, 2006

“Zweig is not considered very important here today,” said the librarian.

Tut mir leid, aber ich bin ein Auslander.

I’m sorry, but I’m a foreigner.


The Ages

You are every age in your dreams.— Micah Sadigh, “Dreams and Creativity”

Can one also, in one’s dreams and waking reveries, find oneself living in every age?

Wednesday. The heat has finally broken in Vienna, yielding to rain much like it did during my time here three years back. I am out in the wet, walking, my shirt and cap soaked. I’ve decided to pay a visit to one of Beethoven’s apartments.

Across the boulevard from the present-day university, three or four stark rooms are open to visitors. They are high up on the fourth floor of a building which is itself about four stories above street level, having been built on a remnant of the old city fortifications. In the first room you find a gorgeous blonde-wood, five-pedaled piano from the composer’s day. Beyond it, on a pedestal between two windows, is Ludwig’s stern bust in bronze.

I move slowly through the rooms, but find myself continually drawn back to the view from the windows in each. In the composer’s time here (1804–1808), ramparts still stood where the Ringstrasse is today, and beyond his window he had a view of green. Nowadays the late 19th-century university building dominates the scene, and beyond that you see the twin spires of the massive Votivkirche, the Votive Church, in their neo-gothic filigree.

Out of the front windows, much closer than both of these sights, is a contemporary office building, seven or eight stories, all glass and steel. Looking at that building, you look straight into a large conference room where, today, alone at the long wooden table amid seventeen empty chairs, a man in a white shirt sits with hands raised to the back of his head, elbows out, staring straight into Beethoven’s apartment. We see each other, share an impulse to wave, then both pretend we are looking elsewhere.

While living here just over two hundred years ago, Beethoven worked on his fourth, fifth, seventh, and eighth symphonies, a few of the Rasumowsky string quartets, and his opera “Fidelio.” In two of the rooms are small stations where visitors can sit and listen through earphones to any of these pieces. Seated at one station, you look directly out the window into the windows of an 18th or 19th-century building across the way (on the Shreyvogelgasse). In those windows, too, you can see the goings-on of a modern office, or series of offices.

With the impassioned allegro molto of the Rasumowsky Quartets in my headphones, I watch a woman in profile at her desk, speaking into a telephone headset. In another window one floor above her, a man sits at his computer monitor, motionless.

Was Beethoven’s time more propitious than ours, more compensatory for a dreamer who would sit listening to the sound in his ears? No. Outside these windows, in those days too, the world went on as it will, mostly indifferent.

A few minutes later, at the neighboring station, I listen to a glorious quartet of voices accompanied by a slow set of orchestral bass tones from a section of “Fidelio” called “Mir ist so wunderbar.”

(Click play on the following audio file and continue reading.)

To be in these rooms with this music in your ears is to sit for at least a few moments in Beethoven’s mind and body. But my thoughts remain on those people across the street.

I hardly know what to make of these juxtapositions of time and work. The long-dead composer somehow survives in these empty rooms (if only by virtue of the many visitors who come here seeking him). His music seems to grow more and more miraculous — and more relevant. Meanwhile, in our contemporary future twenty feet from here, the inexpressive workaday world ticks slowly onward for the honest employees at their desks. And sometimes, in moments of boredom or idleness, they turn — don’t they? — and look across, straight into these windows, straight at the composer’s ghost.


Whether we live in Beethoven’s time or our own, we cannot always choose what we give our attention to. Time and circumstance claim us to a degree, if not totally. And yet our time and other times also coexist continually, and in some mysterious moments we can see, vividly, their crossing over. This gives us pause. We stop and look. We may have thought our era stood alone in time, but now we see the spool of the future tugging steadily at our threadlike days, as it tugged at theirs.

“Art is visionary,” writes Jeanette Winterson in Art Objects. “It sees beyond the view from the window, even though the window is its frame. … Art is not documentary. It may incidentally serve that function in its own way but its true effort is to open to us dimensions of the spirit and of the self that normally lie smothered under the weight of living.”


Ring Road

Kann ich etwas zu mitnehmen bestellen?

Can I order something to go?

Walking Vienna’s Ringstrasse is a strange experience. You encounter so much monumentalism and grandeur on display — and it’s that verb, display, and not the marbled and crenellated nouns it refers to that draws your attention. The neo-gothic City Hall, the neo-classical Parliament building, the neo-Renaissance museums of the Maria-Theresien-Platz — they merely display. You want to bask in the beauty of those surfaces, you want to think, “Here’s another Paris,” but somehow the overriding falsity frustrates your admiration. It’s a state-sponsored grotesquerie of set pieces, bygone times rebuilt in the 1880s. Fake from their beginnings, they were then re-faked following the devastation of Vienna in World War II, and that re-faking is itself a complication deeply characteristic of this valedictory capital, this ambivalent, denial-prone “nervous splendor” of a city (as author Frederic Morton called it).

But commingled in the Ringstrasse, too, is a fanciful yearning for the best that all the European epochs produced, those times before passports, and in that there is something beautiful: you do see — don’t you? — a glimmer of Zweig’s idealized City of the World.

We are not alone in time, because all times are with us.


It was from one of those buildings along the Ringstrasse, the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, that a young Adolf Hitler descended the steps in 1908, embittered by his second failure to gain admission as a student. Two years later Hitler wrote to a friend, “Do you know — without any arrogance — I still believe that the world lost a great deal by my not being able to go to the academy and learn the craft of painting.”

The world lost a great deal…

The Vienna-born psychologist Alfred Adler believed that there are both negative and positive ways of striving for superiority. Negative striving is motivated by power and dominance, positive striving by a desire to inspire others and to improve the self. “Healthy people,” Adler said, “strive to improve the culture.”

Hitler the painter was a poseur and a hack, and his heart was already full of hate. So here’s a dream: the young painter descends the steps, rejected, and then sticks madly to his brushes in some squalid quarter, painting one kitschy scene after another, obsessively deluded by his own work and resigned to obscurity as the artist’s only sure allotment, and is never heard from again.

What might the world not have lost then?


Back at home, amid the latest revolting pronouncements broadcast from the circuit of hateful campaign politics, my mind continues to dredge the darkness. I find myself rereading Václav Havel, Czech playwrite, subversive, and statesman.

To Havel I bring the question: Where, in the midst of incessant demagoguery, does the work of the artistic dreamer belong? What purpose can such dreaming serve?

In his famous 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel speaks of “the political significance of those ‘pre-political’ events and processes that provide the living humus from which genuine political change usually springs.”

He goes on:

The question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being. … A genuine, profound, and lasting change for the better … will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of people in the world, their relationships to themselves and to each other, and to the universe. … This is not something that can be designed and introduced like a new car. A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.

An artist himself, Havel identified the arts as being among the vitally ‘pre-political’ — the arts as an attribute of, and an agent for, a better life. The arts as a living humus. Even when art is not explicitly political in substance, it remains politically relevant and vital. In a 1984 essay, “Six Asides about Culture,” Havel asks whether any “meaningful cultural act” can ever be thought of as separate from “the common good.”

Is one not an integral part of the other from the start? Does not the bare fact that a work of art has meant something to someone — even if only for a moment, perhaps to a single person — already somehow change, however minutely, the overall condition for the better? Is it not itself an inseparable component of that condition, transforming it by its very nature? And does not a change in conditions mediated by a cultural achievement open the door to further cultural achievements? Is not culture itself something that is a common good? Is not some ‘improvement in conditions’ — in the most general, the deepest, and, I would say, the existential sense of the word — precisely what makes culture culture? … Can we separate the awakening human soul from what it always, already is — an awakening human community?

Wake up. Try not to move. Speak the last image you remember. Take up your pen.

As an artist, and indeed later as a statesman who brought his artistic gifts to bear on his role, Havel knew what artistic thinking is about — that it’s about the practice of re-envisioning oneself and one’s world; it’s about taking the long view while tending to the necessary (frequently mundane) intricacies of process; it’s about inspiration and excellence, memory and enterprise, invention, entrepreneurship, lineage and legacy and belief. Artistic thinking is never less than thoroughly optimistic.

At its essence, art (like dreaming) consists of questions and conduces to enrichment and expansion via uncertainty. It’s about being at ease with uncertainty, to the extent of accommodating unconventional solutions. This is in contrast to propaganda, which concerns itself solely with “answers,” a pugnacious surety obtained via incessant repetition (sometimes dogmatic but more often enticingly disguised).

Artistic imagination is the propensity to escape the confines of the self and the pressure of the self’s narrow needs; it’s the empathic ability to see and feel what “others” see and feel, the power to express all these things. As Zadie Smith explored so eloquently in her 2008 lecture “Speaking in Tongues,” art and artistic imagination require equivocation, the shape-shifting capacity. This honorable equivocation is endemic to the arts, and it is a kind of civic virtue.

What we want is not an increasingly politicized art, but a more artistic politics.

Art is visionary. Art is not documentary.”

What we want is a politics spun from the fiber of a polity, a society, a demos, in which the higher order of the arts and artistic thinking are integral, not extraneous — characteristic, not inconceivable.

“We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin in an essay entitled “A War without End.” “We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.” (Emphasis mine.)

Never forgetting what came before, whether in order to draw strength or outrage from it, the artistic thinker, the dreamer, moves forever forward, and the further he or she goes, the more deeply integrated he or she becomes in the human community.

Only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.

Instructions for the dreamer:

Keep walking, keep looking.

Think again about windows, all the windows in this world, with all their views, all the rooms, all the hours inside them, all the darkness and sins of the history once held in these rooms and watched from these windows, and all the human imaginativeness and wonder too.

Consider the work you are doing and the days that are passing.

Look at what claims you and ask, Is it good? Meaning: Will it give some kind of goodness to others?

Sit down to your desk and say to the sound in your ears, I’m listening.

M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM is the author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), and Partisans, a short story collection entitled Date of Disappearance, and the nonfiction volumes The Honorable Obscurity Handbook and The Flickering Page: The Reading Experience in Digital Times. He recently edited and wrote the introduction for Funny-Ass Thoreau. He is the founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books and a contributing editor for Moss literary magazine.



M. Allen Cunningham

Author of the novels Q&A, Perpetua’s Kin, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), Partisans. Founder of Atelier26 Books. MAllenCunningham.com