Hermann Broch

Austrian writer whose reputation rests on a number of formally inventive and intellectually ambitious novels.

The dilemma of the artist in a period of historical crisis is the subject of Broch's (1886-1951) masterpiece Der Tod des Vergil (1945, The Death of Virgil). Broch's attempts to reconcile the scientific worldview with a mystical conception of experience is at times reminiscent of his Austrian contemporary Robert Musil, who also came to literature after first pursuing a technical and commercial career.

"Oh, Augustus, der Schreiber lebt nicht; der Erlöser hingegen lebt stärker als alle, denn sein Leben ist seine Erkenntnistat, sein Leben und sein Tod." (from Der Tod des Vergil)
Hermann Broch was born in Vienna into a well-to-do Jewish family. His father was Josef Broch, an industrialist, and mother Johanna Schnabel Broch. He was first educated privately and then his education was intended to prepare him for an administrative position in his father's textile factory in Teesdorf.

Broch studied at the Imperial and Royal State Secondary School (1897-1904), the Technical College for Textile Manufacture (1904-06), and Spinning and Weaving College in Mülhausen (1906-07). During World War I he served as an administrator for Austrian Red Cross. From 1907 to 1927 he administered family's factory in Teesdorf.

In the cafes of Vienna Broch met such intellectuals as Musil and Franz Blei. In 1919 he was a reviewer at Moderne Welt. After working for many years in the family textile firm, Broch devoted himself from the age of 40 to intellectual pursuits.

Broch divorced in 1923 and sold the factory in 1927. From 1926 to 1930 he studied mathematics, philosophy, and psychology at Vienna University, where the highly influential Vienna Circle was organized in 1929. Its members, including Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, and Friedrich Waismann, and other logical positivist, campaigned against metaphysics as an outdated precursor of science, and attempted to add the technical equipment and logical rigour of modern mathematical logic to the empirical tradition of Hume, Comte, and Mach.

Broch himself saw that the unique task of literature was to deal with problems whose solutions elude the "hard" sciences. Disappointed with his professors' reluctance to consider metaphysical questions, Broch abandoned his studies.

At the age of forty-five Broch published his first novel, the trilogy Die Schlafwandler (1931-32), which reflected the author's Spenglerian conviction that history progresses in cycles of disintegrating and reintegrating value systems. Its central subject was the disintegration of cultural values in Germany in the period between 1880 and 1920.

According to Broch, the characters in the novel experience the social, political, and economic troubles as periods of personal difficulties and transition. Paserow, a Prussian aristocrat and a military officer, breaks with the oppressive conventions with the Bohemian prostitute Ruzena, but ends in a joyless marriage with Elisabeth, his neighbour and social equal.

Esch, the impetuous bookkeeper, is a transitional figure. His world falls apart when he is fired from his job. At the end of a period of wandering, he marries a restaurant owner. Huguenau is the 'value-free' person, who swindles and murders his way to social and financial success. He epitomizes a social system devoid of traditional values. Huguenau deserts the army, kills Esch, rapes Frau Esch, and becomes a respected businessman. The structure of the novel is loose, fragments of philosophical essays, pieces of journalism, sections of dialogue, and fantasies follow each other.

The spread of fascism made Broch abandon his literary projects and in 1937-38 he worked on the Völkerbund-Resolution (Resolution for the League of Nations), suggesting that the international recognitions and enforcement of human rights might stem the tide of fascism.

Broch's interest in the collective psychological sources of Nazism was also later expressed in Massenpsychologie (1951), which was written with the aid of several American foundations during and after World War II.

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