Divine Judgment Turns Bravado: Reflections on Dueling ca. 1900
A talk given at the Austrian Cultural Forum, New York City, February 2003, in conjunction with the 2003 production of Jonathan Bank's "Far and Wide," a Mint Theater adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's "Das weite Land "
In the third act of Arthur Schnitzler's play "Das weite Land" (1911), Aigner tells Friedrich Hofreiter that his ascent of the peak now bearing his name—"Aignerturm"—followed soon after his separation from his wife. He has realized in retrospect that the danger of the climb was on the par of a divine verdict ("Gottesurteil") which would decide whether he returned from the mountain. In this case, it is an ordeal of man against mountain. In those cases where the struggle was man against man, however, divine favor was thought to rest with the man whose cause, claim, or oath was right: in other words, with the winner.
The disturbing logic of such thinking is present in the other duels of the play, which all take place off the stage and are surrounded by speculation and innuendo. For us today, Schnitzler's references to dueling require some excavation, because the amount of understanding he could expect from his audience in 1911 can no longer be taken for granted. My own interest in the subject of dueling does not stem from wanting to restore its sensational aura, but from wanting to shed light on an institution often misunderstood as nothing more than a laughably arcane leftover of medieval chivalry. In these remarks, I want to touch briefly on the "why" and the "who" aspects of dueling in Schnitzler's Austria-Hungary to show that the offstage duels in "Das weite Land" are indeed a reminder of the specter of compulsory dueling experienced and endured by the upper-middle class and aristocracy.
In Schnitzler's works there are duels that result from offenses that are verbal, physical, or having to do with a third party. Verbal insults in Schnitzler's day were reminders of the ancient power accorded to speech. Since an oath had a contractual nature, to have honor meant to stand behind one's oath with one's life. By calling someone a coward, one was questioning that man's ability to back up his oath with his sword, and one was declaring that his statement was true until proven otherwise—not by logical weapons, but real ones. Similarly, by calling someone's ethnic background or most cherished convictions into question, a man was effectively suspending rational discussion and calling upon the sword or pistol to decide which man was right, or at least—and this is the important difference between ancient duels and Schnitzler's time—to shed the blood necessary for satisfaction or put challenger and challenged through their paces to appease the public god of honor.
In other words, to tell a man he is a coward or a swine or a liar is to make an insult that sits on him until he has demanded and gotten his satisfaction for the insult, even if that means putting his life in jeopardy. It is not going too far to think of the insult as a stain or a sin on one's armor of honor that can only be cleansed through bloodshed. Very palpably, the public eye views the absence of honor as the presence of shame. The same is true if a man is boxed across the ears or discovered to have tolerated his wife's infidelity. The man who strikes another is asserting, "I am stronger than you and can treat you as I please." And in the second case, the assertion is being made, most likely in the form of a rumor: "Look at this pitiful excuse of a man! He can't control his own wife—why should he be trusted to bear arms?"
The man of honor is not allowed to strike back spontaneously in anger, because that's how the lower classes act. Nor can he appeal to civil court to redress his slander, because that is admitting he is not strong enough to defend himself. But if he overturns the claims against him by submitting to the fixed dueling ritual—whether by facing the bullet unflinchingly or slashing away with sabres, all is forgiven, his shame is wiped clean, and he has the honor community on his side again.
No, of course you're not going to challenge someone to a duel of severest conditions if he elbows you and coughs in your face on his way to the next restaurant table. But obviously if he has been sleeping with your daughter, sister, or wife, it behooves you to unhesitatingly seek the dueling conditions that match the crime. Yet the glaring irony remains: even if you stipulate a pistol duel with fewer paces (because you want to teach that someone a lesson) nothing guarantees your satisfaction--not to mention the fact that there is no retreat from the duel once its machinery has been set in motion, even if both parties lack the passion for it and call it a mistake. Since the duel is not allowed to be about revenge, you may not only be the cuckold, but also show up simply to die for it, given the heightened chance factor or the state of your marksmanship or swordsmanship.
What it amounts to is this: dueling for revenge was not the ideal proof that one belonged among the "Satisfaktionsfähigen"—those obliged to demand or give satisfaction. Dueling for the sake of reconciliation, for establishing male equality, for protecting masculinity from femininity, for cordoning off the elite from the masses, for keeping the army and its reserve officers combat-ready: these were the ideal reasons.
Now a word about who was dueling. As a reserve officer, Schnitzler himself was under the umbrella of the honor code, until he was dishonorably discharged for failing to challenge a conservative journalist for comments made following the publication of Lieutenant Gustl on Christmas Day 1900. Reserve officers were expected to abide by the standards privileged them by their uniform. These men were often active in professions such as education, finance, industry, medicine, and law. Dueling provided them with the means to prove that their identity did not rest with their pursuit of wealth, but in their readiness to risk their life for an ideal—in other words, "sein" over "haben," or being over having. Hence the proliferation of parliamentary and journalistic duels, even at a time when many aristocrats were beginning to form Anti-Dueling-Leagues to question the wisdom of decimating the officer ranks during peacetime.
Let me close by relating Schnitzler's response to his friend Paul Goldmann, at the time Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper "Neue Freie Presse," who fought a duel in 1896 to defend his opinion that a judicial error had led to the indictment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus: "If you feel obliged to insult someone, you'll at least know exactly why you're doing it, and will be automatically in the right. You won't have to resort to the laughable falsification of the facts that is introduced by an exchange of bullets."
By the same token, the final word should go to Eißler, the narrator of Schnitzler's late story "Der Sekundant," who wonders whether along with laughing at the anachronism of dueling, we're laughing at the disappearance of honor, virtue, reputation, and other qualities worth giving a damn about. Can it be that life a few short years ago was charged with more electricity, and that life during the 1920s has fed the instinct of greed to the expense of honor? This question I leave up to you to decide.