Just wanted to take time out from my dissertation work (yep, still working on it) to wish everyone a wonderful 2020. May all your resolutions hold till February at least!
A beloved, albeit ambivalent, saying about Vienna goes: “When the world ends, I’m heading to Vienna, everything there happens 50 years later.” Actually, the jury is out on whether the original statement predicted it would take Vienna 10 or 50 years longer to end and whether the Austrian who declared it was the composer Gustav Mahler or the satirist Karl Kraus. Regardless of who the sage was, and however long Vienna would need to catch up with the rest of the world, it is exactly this saying that came to mind yesterday evening while dining at the Pfarrwirt.
What you won’t see when you visit the convenient online-reservations section of Pfarrwirt’s professionally done website is any indication that this restaurant has a smoking and non-smoking section and has reserved the superior seating for the friends of Phillip Morris. The reservation form poses all the necessary questions EXCEPT a preference for smoking or non-smoking.
In fact, nothing, NOTHING, on the carefully crafted website, complete with a gallery of room-by-room photos, gives any visual or written indication that your dining experience will begin by navigating through a hanging cloud of fumes to arrive at the non-descript back room sectioned off for non-smokers. Assuming, of course, you are lucky enough after-the-fact to secure a non-smoking table. (Unfortunately, we weren’t).
Immediately upon detecting (smelling) our dire reservation mistake two minutes after being seated at our first charming table, the staff was professional enough (or accustomed to such last-minute requests by unpleasantly surprised guests?) to swiftly re-situate us to an alternative table directly outside of the glassed-in, far smaller, non-smoking section (which, not surprisingly, was full). This new table was where hope went to die. Instead, of counting our losses and high-tailing it out of there, we recklessly remained seated and ordered, falsely believing that the two bouncing, bright-eyed 6-month olds at each of the tables next to us would guarantee a smoke-free evening.
Ten feet away, three perniciously determined nicotine addicts worked their tobacco-stained way through enough Marlboros to make up for every non-smoking diner present.
The Pfarrwirt boasts that it is Vienna’s oldest restaurant. Nestled in an enchanting, cobble-stoned square beside a picturesque church more than seven centuries (!) old, I don’t doubt that it’s true. The whole locale oozes in so much Old-World charm, you want to bundle it up and preserve it on the front cover a Christmas greeting card. Assuming, of course, that you don’t mind if the golden-winged cherubs wishing you “Good Cheer” all have Pall Malls dangling from their pouty, angelic lips.
When you go out to dinner, and particularly when you are entertaining guests from abroad, you really want three things from your restaurant of choice: 1) savory meals (and quality wine) 2) professional staff and; 3) an atmosphere that imbues you with the sense that everything has come together in effortless perfection.
Pfarrwirt achieves the first two of the three. The food was good (not great but good – though the chocolate mousse was great), the wine selection okay, the staff attentive but not overbearing (though when I kindly suggested a smoking/non-smoking button option on the website, our waiter seemed to imply it was my mistake for not mentioning my preference in the “Your message to us” box at the end of the page), but when the place reeks of cigarette stench so stifling that every non-smoking diner feels asphyxiated, no stretch of the imagination can describe the dining experience as “imbuing a sense of effortless perfection coming together.” In fact, if you venture to close your eyes in an attempt to grant them a temporary break from the stinging fumes, rather than the fine aroma of Schnitzel inspiring illusions of a visit to one of the city’s best restaurants, the pestilent odor of Lucky Strikes conjures up images of a fenced-in courtyard of a high-security prison facility. With main courses ranging in price from 12 to 30 Euros, you expect a high quality dining experience that will be impossible for Pfarrwirt to ever achieve as long as it persists in allowing a nicotine haze to permeate its air, penetrate its food, and invariably taint what-could-have-otherwise-been a (positively) memorable experience.
Two out of three ain’t bad, but it ain’t nearly good enough. In fact, in this case, it was highly disappointing.
For a restaurant that once had a smoking section and then decided it was time to go completely smoke-free, check out a local favorite – the Schöne Perle. No, it is not Vienna’s oldest restaurant and it does not look so quaint that it belongs on a Christmas card, but you will be guaranteed good food, good service, and a smoke-free atmosphere. (Reservations recommended). Save room for the Susi Torte for dessert. Decadence embodied. Usually one serving with forks for everyone is the way to go!
Hoping everyone had a great “slide” into the New Year and wishing you all in 2018 happiness, fulfillment, and plenty of quality time with good friends and great books.
As for me, I am still slaving away at my studies of female-authored historical fiction novels of the US Civil War so I am still on break from this oh-so-lucrative blogging gig and currently buried in cotton rather than coffee. I hope the old blog posts might be of use to some of you. If not – maybe my ostrich photo will make a good 2018 screen saver for some. Gotta admit those ultra-cute, clueless faces staring back at you generate more fuzzy feelings than all those eavesdroppers, and peeping Toms you’ve inadvertently granted unrestricted access to 24/7 monitoring of your every action via apps using the microphone and camera on your devices. I promise, the ostriches are non-info-gathering birds (how much can a billiard ball sized brain retain in one sitting?).
If I have one personal wish for 2018, it is that Austria will NOT go back to the stone age, cave into corporate, anti-health interests and relax the smoking laws because I do care about you (and all those poor bright-eyed, rosy-lunged service personnel out there who have to inhale your cigarette-induced hazes of death). Let’s face it, Phillipp Morris has earned enough dough to get from here to the moon and back quite a few times and emphysema is just not sexy. While puffing out a white cloud of noxious fumes through a hole punctured in your trachea might be a guaranteed crowd-generating or crowd-dispersing party trick (depending if your Friday night cohorts are more of the beer-pong or cocktails crowd), scoring a seat on the U6 with an oxygen tank in tow is a sure-fire way to get anyone’s carbon-monoxide clogged vessels bursting. And don’t go giving me that it’s your life and your body to poison how you see fit. You best believe that if you announced an intention to commandeer your trusty ol Ford pick up truck Thelma-Louise style over the nearest cliff, you can be damn well sure that I’d wrestle you to the ground and get those keys off of you before I let you kill yourself. Friends don’t let friends be stupid. I know if you are still addicted to those cancer sticks, you might just need a little nudge in the right direction. So, if you live in Austria and haven’t had the opportunity yet to sign the petition, please consider doing so: Petition against the New Smoking Law. I mean, think how ridiculous these ostriches would look with cigarettes hanging from their beaks! Not to mention venturing on the U6 with an oxygen tank in tow.
Following is a temporary hiatus from my blogging hiatus. As mentioned, I have had to cut back on the very lucrative business of blogging each week in order to dedicate myself to the equally lucrative business of working on my PhD and my next book project. Theoretically, I could sacrifice sleep and live for the calling but I’m too vain to willingly sport the zombie look before my biological clock capitulates. Now the following blog entry will seem quite random, but I ask if you have read this far already, just go with it. Maybe I am not getting as much sleep as I should but it would be nice to think that someone, somewhere, actually took the time to read this and it is not a bunch of blabber into the void. So here it goes…
This past spring I attended a one-day seminar on Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street“ (if you haven’t read it, do. It’s not long and quite good). Our group of about 30 students from all over the world discussed the story’s use in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a fascinating glimpse you can get when you’re only one of two Americans in a room full of non-Americans discussing American literature. I’ve come to sympathize with those who, based on qualifiers and affectionate-sounding tones, obviously like America yet find themselves wickedly conflicted about a country that remains a rather unsolvable mystery. Problems solved long ago and solutions which are now so “self-evident” for Europeans such as universal healthcare, gun regulations, and free higher education are still actually topics of hot debate in the US. How can a country be so internet-of-things be so unapologetically yesterday? Now more than ever, many Europeans seem to be pounding their foreheads on their desks wondering “Why, oh why are you Americans so out of your blasted minds? You’re all so bat-shit crazy and you can bet your Wiener Würstel, you’re even proud of it to boot.”
So all this got me thinking about what it is that defines Americans in our souls and has long defined Americans in literature, films, and our self-image. This prompted me to focus a seminar paper I had to write on Moby-Dick on the Pursuit of the American Dream. I will spare you the entire 20-some pages but I thought, perhaps, you might be interested in the conclusion. I think it really may be what defines us to a certain extent. While Marxist literature critique paints “rugged individualism” as the problem of the American, and it may be indeed the trait that makes us all seem a bit Captain Ahab-like “bat-shit crazy” to outsiders, but it is likewise undoubtedly the very back bone of the American dream. In the end, it might mean we’ve placed ourselves at the helm of a Pequod, steering ourselves straight into oblivion in pursuit of the great white whale of a dream, but I hope not. I hope we can come to understand that there is a way to pursue and live each of our dreams without dragging down our fellow crewman into a watery grave. There is a way to pursue the individual dream together with the common dream. It’s there. We just have to strive for it.
Now the conclusion of that essay I promised:
Marxist theorists argue that writers do not exist in a vacuum free from socioeconomic and ideological influences, and hence writers’ works are also ideological in character. Tyson writes, “like all cultural manifestations, [a novel] is a product of socioeconomic and hence ideological conditions of the time and place in which it was written, whether or not the author intended it so” (63). If this is true, then in the case of Moby-Dick, the time of its revival during the Great Depression is perhaps as significant as the time of its initial publication during the American Renaissance. During the Renaissance, American authors tried to codify an American dream. During the Great Depression, when all else seemed lost, American readers may have been desperate for a concrete example of a man who still believed in something, even if it were an ill-fated dream. Lisman criticizes Marxist theory for what he considers its narrow view that economic factors are solely responsible for man and everything which controls him. Lisman argues that as readers, we admire characters who are concerned with personal relationships and existential or spiritual questions (84). He writes:
|To contend dogmatically that the best novels are those which advocate social change involves a failure to appreciate the formal requirements of good literature and a failure to acknowledge that there are other equally important subjects and themes. (Lisman 84)|
The measure of Captain Ahab’s greatness is not in his success but in his ambition, tenacity, and perseverance to pursue his dream regardless of the consequences. Indeed, had Ahab been successful, it is doubtful whether he would have lived beyond the last pages of the novel. Though references to the novel in an everyday context may now have become synonymous with megalomaniac ventures most likely destined for failure, for Americans, at least, the image of Captain Ahab is not an entirely negative one.
All men (and women) have the potential to be Ahabs and to willingly and even recklessly sacrifice everything in order to heed the call of their personal drummer, beating the message of what they are meant to do and be in their short time here. The protagonist of the American dream is the JetBlue attendant who grabbed two beers, pulled the emergency slide and never looked back, or the NYC bus driver who, after an exemplary 17-year-long career with the NY transit authority, decided one morning to take a different turn and just keep going. Since his birth, Ahab has come to stand for dictators, tyrants, corporate executives, presidents, but moreover, every single one of us. “Melville felt that whatever essential meaning lies in Moby Dick could be found in the life of a living Ahab by an Ahab himself” (Myers 19). In the American dream, fulfillment of one’s destiny, even in light of possible self-destruction, is far more preferable than bowing to a colorless life of mediocracy and non-individuality. Captain Ahab embodies the promise that man can be more on this earth than an indistinguishable drop in the puddle as interchangeable as the machine parts of Ford’s first automatized production lines. The American dream is not what is to be believed but what is to be done. It is that yearning, burning need to unearth one’s purpose here and pursue it to its ultimate finish, whatever that might be. It can be as practically-minded as a chicken in every dinner pot or as outlandish as the chase of a singular great white whale swimming somewhere in the big, wide, unforgiving ocean.
The ambitious drive of the individualist that holds a negative connotation in some countries and cultures, is a positive and admired trait in America. As Emerson writes in “Self Reliance”:
|There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide[…] no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him (qtd in Izaquirre 20).|
Captain Ahab’s quest to kill Moby Dick may have been doomed from the beginning. However, in his failure, he succeeded. He exercises his agency to at least try and proves himself a man by doing so. No what-ifs plagued Ahab during his final breath as his dream plunged him deep into ocean. Perhaps what Ishmael contends is true –who on this earth isn’t a slave? And yet in our brief time in this world, it is up to us to determine who and what we allow to be our master. In this manner, Captain Ahab and Bartleby are kindred spirits, both abiding their inner will as captains of their chosen destinies. They and they alone choose what to do with their time here. While Ahab exercises his self-evident right to action; Bartleby exercises his right to inaction. Both choices lead in the end to the character’s destruction. A Marxist might therefore argue that it is precisely the rugged individualism that is the destructive trait. Yet by criticizing this “cornerstone of the American dream” (Tyson 57), Marxist ideology drives a stake directly through the heart of an American conviction: within every man (and woman) resides a seed, that, like the majestic Redwoods of the American West, may need a fire for its release in order to become what it was always meant to be.
Every American is born with a thousand futures and every American will die with just one past. The American dream would have us believe that whether that past will be one of an eternal blaze of glory or a fast-fading fizzle of mediocrity is up to us. We may be equal in birth but it is our life that should forever distinguish what we’ve made of ourselves.