What – I ask myself, and not for the first time – is it with Austrians? What lurks in the collective psyche to cast such a dark pall over the culture? I mean, it’s not like the grown-up end of German arts and letters is long on chuckles, but if you want someone to plumb the most abject, woebegone recesses of the soul, get an Austrian in. I exaggerate, you say? Let’s consider some examples from a range of disciplines: music (Hugo Wolf), painting (Oskar Kokoschka), illustration (Alfred Kubin), literature (Thomas Bernhard), performance art (Hermann Nitsch), cinema (Ulrich Seidl). Well beyond mere morbidity or melancholy, each of them has created art of utter, desperate wretchedness.
To that cheerless crew we must add poet Georg Trakl, despond’s writer-in-residence. Trakl was born in Salzburg in 1887, his mother’s drug addiction meaning he was largely raised by a French nanny. Named Marie Boring, she was clearly anything but, introducing her young charge to poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud. The teenaged Georg imitated not just their verse but their dissent and dissolution as well, frequenting brothels and consuming drugs and alcohol in alarming quantities.
An early attempt at writing for the theatre – his first pieces staged when Trakl was just 19 – met with no great success. Dejected, he concentrated on his studies. His motivation for choosing pharmacy, it would seem, was largely to secure his supply. Trakl was most likely self-medicating recurrent episodes of depression, as well as the torment of incestuous love for his sister Margarete (despite or perhaps because of their shared sensitivity and chemical dependencies, Trakl and his mother were never close).
The year 1913 dawned inauspiciously for Trakl. On the first day of the year he tried to get himself dismissed from a civil service desk job – a position he had taken up the day before. The only thing between him and penury was an (anonymous) stipend from Ludwig Wittgentstein, who was impressed by the “tone of true genius” in his poems (other beneficiaries of the wealthy philosopher’s largesse included Rainer Maria Rilke, Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos and Else Lasker-Schüler). That year Trakl wrote to a friend that he was “lost between gloom and intoxication,” and that he “lacked the energy and will to change a situation which becomes more ominous every day, leaving only the wish that the storm might break and purify or destroy me.”
But 1913 also marked the publication of the only volume of Trakl’s work issued during the poet’s pitifully short life. Exactly 100 years ago, in mid-July 1913, the book simply entitled Gedichte (“Poems”) appeared. These verses reach a kind of harrowed ecstasy informed by the memory of loss and the presentiment of loss and little else. With the close observation of the truly responsive soul, Trakl foresaw not only his own demise but that of civilized Europe.
The longed-for storm duly broke in the form of World War One and the poet rushed into its path, voluntarily enlisting as a medic. He was utterly traumatised by what he witnessed in the field, suffering a breakdown during which he had to be restrained from suicide. He was hospitalised in Cracow and Wittgenstein, alerted to Trakl’s perilous condition, set out to visit him. But even the war was unequal to the poet’s own self-destructive urges. In November 1914, at just 27, Georg Trakl died of a cocaine overdose as an indifferent moon hung full in the cold Galician night. Wittgenstein arrived two days later.
From Gedichte, “Nähe des Todes” (“Nearness of Death”):
O the evening, reaching into dark hamlets of childhood.
The pond beneath the willows
Fills with mephitic sighs of melancholy.
O the forest, quietly lowering its brown eyes.
There where the bony hands of the lonely one
Casts the purple of his ecstatic days.
O the nearness of death. Let us pray.
In this night the lithe limbs of lovers
Loosen into tepid pillows yellowed with incense.