Small Shovels

Allan, in his anti-inaugural inaugural post, illustrates — with charming anecdotes — how chance encounters can lead to memorable beginnings. True words. It was after all a chance encounter with one man that inspired me to start web-logging…

His name was Peter Altenberg. He lived in Vienna and he wore wooden clogs in winter. He also wrote; his work Pròdomos is an impassioned crusade against socks. Like his near-contemporary Lewis Caroll, he worked under a pseudonym and fancied pre-adolescent girls. The comparisons basically end there. He was more of an Austrian Wilde, prone to bon-mots that no one knows he invented (“Art is art and life is life, but to live life artistically — now that is the art of life”). Altenberg died in 1919 from pneumonia, which makes me think —


Otherwise, I’m a fan. Altenberg breathed life into a Modernist literary form — Kleinkunst, or “small art” — which confined itself to short, impressionistic prose. The feuilleton is a classic example, but Altenberg preferred “the miniature” — brief sketches of the mundane, the ordinary, the lived. Anecdotes. Stray thoughts. Little snapshots of life.

Sound familiar? No? Scroll down, friend.

I was halfway through Altenberg’s reflections on “Japanese Paper, Vegetable Fiber” (who published this?), when I realized — OH-EM-GEE, he’s a blogger!!!!one. When we say he embodied the fin-de-siècle spirit, we should ask — which century? In his fondness for Kurzprosa (short prose) and the everyman’s humdrum life, Altenberg has found his literary descendants among the Cheeto-stained blogger crowd. If only he had known how to use the interwebs… He wouldn’t have had to hang out in those crappy coffeehouses, danget.

Kleinkunst, blogging — their greatness stems from their smallness. Altenberg never aimed for profundity, but it often crept into his work. Here at the Quadrangle, we just write stuff. Sure, a lot of it will be trivial. So? I’m unapologetic. In our studies we spend a lot of time digging for “universal truths” — the inevitable reactions, the undeniable beliefs, the basic commonalities that make up the Jungian bedrock of all humankind. Ec concentrators funnel world markets into one-size-fits-all models. Gov students run away scared from the exceptions to their theories (don’t talk to me about Norway, don’t!). But why do we even bother? Maybe there is some common thread that binds us all together — maybe all great civilizations have dreamed of dragons, and maybe the word “mother” sounds the same in 34 languages — but it’s too elusive for me to grasp. So we won’t waste time digging for bedrock. Instead, we’ll excavate the topsoil of life — it’s interesting enough! — and maybe we’ll get deeper than we think. We’re archaeologists with small shovels, and we like it.

Harold Segel observes of Altenberg, “He was a writer who thrived on smallness, who wrote in small, cramped quarters… in the belief that it was in smallness that bigness was to be found” (120). I live in a small space, too (but oh, thank God for singles), and I intend to thrive in it.

And now — before I violate the spirit of small art — I should wrap this up. Let me grab my shovel. I’m off to dig.


P.S. For a sampling of Altenberg’s works in English, try this. A word of warning, however — it translates poorly.

Work Cited: Segel, Harold B. The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits 1890-1938. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1993.


1 Comment

Filed under Caterwauling

One response to “Small Shovels

  1. Elizabeth

    Maia I love this! It’s so beautifully written, and so true. Man, am I blessed to have such talented and insightful friends.

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