Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back

It's been a pretty busy couple of days here in Vienna (Wien). Amy and I have certainly made the most of this old Imperial city. We started with a little midnight jaunt around the old town Friday night. On Saturday, we took the bus audio tour of both old and new Wien, getting an earful of the city's storied past. I felt a bit lame on that bus, which was completely unconducive toward snapping photos, but we really didn't see any other option. Unlike Praha, where you can walk most of the main sites in a few hours, Wien is a sprawling modern metropolis and it's main attractions are far-flung. That night, we got a special treat: a night of Viennese Opera and Chamber music performed in the Orangerie at Schönbrunn palace, the former royal residence of the Hapsburgs. It was certainly a memorable occasion, hearing Mozart in a hall where he himself debuted many of his works, but I'd forgotten that I cannot hear Strauss without thinking of Looney Toons. That evening, we searched about madly for a bar (not a cafe, not a discotheque, just an honest-to-goodness bar) and ended up in some dodgy watering hole which reeked of stale tobacco and spilt beer. There was loud Eastern European folk music playing through what looked like Gypsy MTV and all the other patrons seemed to be over-50 inebriated Yugoslavians. The waitress didn't speak a lick of English, but it seems I've picked up enough German to ask for "zwei weissenbier, groß bitte." I believe that if you can order drinks and swear in a language, you've mastered the important bits.
Today, we returned to the Schönbrunn and walked around the extensive palace gardens. We bought exhorbitantly priced soft drinks (Almdudler, a sort of Austrian sparkling lemonade) at the Gloriette Cafe, then headed back to the hostel to make sandwiches. We had a good Viennese coffee afterwards at a corner cafe, then walked along the Meiselstraße through a lively Turkish neighborhood. We came upon a huge neo-Romanesque church surrounded by a concrete plaza which hosted several bizarre metal fountains. A bunch of young Turkish guys were riding unicycles around the fountains. The whole scene struck us as a bit surreal, like a scene from a Michel Gondry film.
Here in Wien, more blatantly than in Praha, I've had to face somewhat of a bugaboo. Every educated Westerner knows about this ghostly figure called the Empire. You know what I'm talking about, that Empire which we know exists, which we know to be evil, and which we must rebel against at all costs. From Star Wars to Foucault's Discipline and Punish, we are trained to believe in the reality of this invisible Empire and the necessity of our rebellion. Wien is riddled with relics of a real Empire, one which was opulent and successful for hundreds of years before losing everything through fighting on the wrong side of two world wars. This Empire exuded an ambiance of epic scale, the stuff of which can only be guessed at by listening to Don Giovanni at Schönbrunn while a ferocious thunderstorm rages outside. I guess as a self-aware American, I like to think I'm with the rebels, which of course carries much more cachet than claiming to be part of the Empire. But then I see a place like Wien, where the Empire was an inescapable fact for almost half a millenium and I wonder just how farcical our rebellion is. If Foucault is right, then even the act of subverting (or claiming to subvert) the Empire, is paradoxically perpetuating that Empire. Despite my best efforts, the Empire remains, monolithic, shrouded in marble masonry and plaster fresco.
I must also own up to the uncomfortable fact that as an American travelling abroad, I am automatically viewed as an agent of a very real and present Empire, despite my best efforts to prove the contrary. To my hosts, I am a synecdoche for not just the political empire of Washington (a city, we must not forget, build to evoke the ancient powers of Rome and Athens), but also the commercial empire of New York and the cultural empire of Hollywood. The prevalence of this last and most shadowy empire is astounding; in Praha, I met a Swedish girl who had never been to the states who spoke English with an almost perfect American accent. A guy I met in Ireland says that American English has permeated the younger generation of English speakers across the world. The surfing community in California starts using words like "like" and "whatever" as nonfluencies and within a couple decades, the vehicle of popular entertainment has spread them to the most remote corners of the world. Europeans know their duty to resist the Empire every bit as much as we do. So what do you do when you become your own devil? What do you do when you are seen as an envoy of an Empire that you spend every mote of intellectual energy denouncing, even though it benefits you indirectly? It is only because of this Empire that I can walk into almost any establishment in Central Europe and the staff will speak my language. Did those Austro-Hungarian intelligentsia suffer from a similar crisis of conscience at the height of their empire? I can't really say for sure, nor do I think it's really my responsibily to apologize for every bad thing America has done any more than I would expect an Icelander to make an apology for the financial meltdown, the volcanic-ash cloud, and almost two decades of Björk. It's hardly their fault as a people that she sucks so badly. All I can do is try to reassure my hosts that yes, I'm an evil American, but that doesn't mean I'm blind.

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