In 1896, a group of people from the Ashanti tribe was displayed in an ethnographic exhibit in Vienna’s Prater, huts erected amid its Tiergarten, or zoo. There, to the delight of 5,000 to 6,000 visitors a day, they sang, danced the tom-tom and accomplished a host of other things not so racially typified, like eating, drinking and sleeping. These “Ashantee,” as it’s spelled on the Continent, were from the Gold Coast of Africa, the former British Colony known today as Ghana. They, but especially their chieftains, supported themselves with such European touring, setting up their villages throughout the fairgrounds and public parks of Austro-Hungary, Weimar Germany, Switzerland and France. When it was time for their Viennese village to be torn down, making way for the circus and a hot-air balloon demonstration, what remained was only this book — the posterity of Alolé, Akóshia, Tíoko, Djôjô and Na–h-Badûh, the women to whom “Ashantee” is dedicated. These Ashanti, who were illiterate, have been remembered by literature: They were loved by a balding, mustachioed writer they called Sir Peter.
Sir Peter — or Peter A., as he refers to himself throughout this modest memoir, “Ashantee” — was Peter Altenberg (1859-1919), who was another fictional creation: All these characters were born as Richard Engländer, scion of bourgeois, business-minded Jews. But this Altenberg pseudonym was only the first authorial upheaval. Once assimilated to Viennese from Engländer, the author’s days became his nights, and his lusty humor and debauched life would inspire a prose that was oppositely, religiously, pure.
Though Altenberg loved all women, and wrote of loving them frequently and well, he was as ugly and as mostly chaste as Socrates. That, at least, was the philosopher to whom he was often compared by Platonists eager to pay his tab at the Café Central, that symposium on Vienna’s Herrengasse where Altenberg received both visits from the muses and his mail. Not only was the author a flirt, and a hypochondriac vegetarian, but he was also a smoker, drinker and addict of morphine who, prematurely aged, found himself institutionalized in sanatoria, and converted to Catholicism. He slept in cheap hotels, and the list of those who footed his bills reads as if a short history of the modern German arts: Hermann Hesse, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Max Reinhardt most of all. Adolf Loos was a supporter, and Schnitzler, Rilke and Kafka, the last of whom called him, with a touch of jealousy, perhaps, “a genius of trivialities,” admired and even emulated his style. Karl Kraus, the only writer in German who could rival Altenberg for concision of expression, once wrote in Die Fackel, the newspaper that he wrote and published entirely by himself: “One sentence of Peter Altenberg makes up for an entire Viennese novel”; however, Kraus chose a longer homage to deliver at Altenberg’s funeral, which he paid for. In that eulogy, he compared Altenberg to Goethe — which, for a German, and especially for a German Jew after Heine, is to be compared to God.
Altenberg certainly must have seemed like some odd sort of white deity to these “paradise people.” With his standard wardrobe of sandals, robes, floppy hat and alpenstock; his frequent lapses into English and French, and his carefree Bohemian manner, the very public palaver between Altenberg and these young black women must have shocked the natives on both sides: Ashanti and Viennese. Altenberg’s response to such a spectacle, and to the reception of his relationships, was panoptic — to view each viewed as the viewer, and each viewer as the viewed, presenting, in 38 autobiographical sketches accompanied, in this edition, by period gouaches by Wilhelm Gause, both himself and his fellow visitors to the exhibition, and the Tiergarten’s tribal exhibitionists, as mutually exploitative, which is, to say, as one.
“We are supposed to look like savages, Sir,” Altenberg reports in the voice of a girl, Tíoko, “like Africans. It is completely silly. In Africa we couldn’t run around like this. We would be a laughing stock. Like bushmen, yes, just like them. Nobody lives in huts like these. In our country, huts are just for dogs, gbé. Quite foolish. They want us to look like animals. What do you think, Sir?! The zookeeper says, ‘Hey, there are plenty of Europeans here. Why would we need you?! You have to be naked, of course.’”
From July through October, Vienna had a bad case of what its press called “Ashanti fever,” and, as if in treatment, even when the seasons turned and the wind blew cold, the tribeswomen, on orders of their chieftains under the advisement of Prater management, went bare-breasted. Altenberg furnishes the appropriate, which is to say inappropriate, adjectives: Those breasts are a “wonderful light brown”; their “skin like silk”; elsewhere, the author falls into raptures about his friends’ “free, untroubled souls,” and sentimentalizes beyond all acceptability: “Negroes are children.… Negroes are just like sweet, silent nature.”
He’s joking, of course. Or is he? Freud, who believed that Altenberg suffered from a condition that translates to the vague “aesthetic impotence,” would tell us that there are no jokes. But here’s the historical perspective: In 1896, Freud had just coined the term “psychoanalysis,” began self-analyzing, and diagnosing the female hysteric only a streetcar’s ride away.
The best argument that can be made against “Ashantee” is that while it philosophically advocates for equality, the eroticism that Altenberg claims between himself and the Prater villagers is innately an eroticism of difference; Altenberg’s amatory nature, at the heart of this book, seems to instinctively require an exotic or Other, lest his artist’s interest perish, or be distracted. Indulging himself in dialogues, aphorisms, scene-painting and a foreign language transcribed as syncopated music, Altenberg makes new art, yes, but only through the oldest, or most primitive, of dialectics — European/African, White/Black, Viennese/Not. Though it’s revealing of Altenberg’s milieu that these contrasts are entertained in a spirit of gentility, which itself contrasts with the way related identities are opposed in that other literary masterpiece that immortalized the Ashanti — Herman Melville’s raging 1856 novella of slave mutiny, “Benito Cereno.”
Can Negro women blush?!
Negro women can blush. They turn copper-colored, lighter so to speak. For example, when you kiss their hands and behave like a gentleman.
Can Negro women turn pale?!
No, on the contrary. They - - - turn dark!
For example, when you - - - don’t behave like a gentleman.
Then - - - they turn dark!
That is the entirety of a section ludicrously titled “Physiological Features,” and reading it might impel us to blush, or, despite its niceties, darken the book itself, by closing its covers.
But if the politically correct requires a corrective of its own, such a thing might be found in the very subjectivity of these antique accounts, of which “Ashantee” is one of the best. Altenberg’s giggly whisper of a book makes for better art than more modern books of what can be called “cultural exchange,” because ultimately the author couldn’t resist not his own witty self, for once, but his women, who, when they left Vienna, left him saddened, yet writing to new depths. Altenberg knew that the only way for him to understand another culture was to fall in love with that culture’s women, preferably with many of them, and that this meant not only to talk with them but also to listen. Their discourse tells us that racism cannot be excused by irony, except that it sometimes can. Their (probable) intercourse tells us that sometimes the physical differences between people have nothing to do with erotic attraction, except they always do. Meanwhile, we readers, who are nothing if not voyeurs, fall in love with love, and uncomfortably read on.
Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.