The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
"Of all the good wishes I received for my fiftieth birthday, it was yours that delighted me most."
—Egon Friedell, quoted by Friedrich Torberg in Die Tante Jolesch
Egon Friedell's polite message doesn't sound witty until you are supplied with the information that it was sent as a printed card. The recipients must have loved it. You can imagine them considering themselves members of an exclusive club for the rest of their lives. A lot of Viennese wit was like that: shared jokes that traveled in a collective memory, and often didn't get into print until a long time later. Friedell (1878-1938), a student of natural sciences who graduated to the twin status of cabaret star and polymath, was a figure unparalleled even in Vienna, where there were several learned cabaret artists and even a few funny polymaths, but nobody who was both on such a heroic scale.
For more than 40 years in Vienna, talk was a way of life. Most of the Jewish figures in Vienna's intellectual life were secular, but the rabbinical tradition was strong. The wisecracks were concentrated wisdom, and the verbal thumbnail sketches that were treasured, polished, elaborated, and passed on had a moral background. Wit and point were taken for granted. As happens in any literary circle, some of the Viennese writers were better in conversation than they were on paper. The minor Hungarian literatus Friedrich Karinthy has vanished into obscurity, but his eternal question remains unanswered: "What can you make out of a day that starts with getting out of bed?" Journalist Anton Kuh (who later died of a broken heart in New York, unable to survive out of his cafe context) wrote pointed articles and sketches that are well worth reading, but his talk, by all accounts, was on another level: too good to miss and therefore, alas, too fast to catch. One of his few lines to survive is a definitive physical description of Stefan George: "He looks like an old woman who looks like an old man." The main reason more of the stuff wasn't written down was because everyone was Johnson and nobody was Boswell. The sense of something precious came only after the collapse.
The tradition began in the 1890s at the Café Griensteidl, where Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal were both regulars. But really it can't be confined to the cafes: In the whole culture right through until the Nazis turned out the lights, talk was a way of being, and it was universally understood that the best talkers had the right to talk it all away. When the distinguished and wildly eccentric legal advocate Hugo Sperber played cards, people would take turns to stand behind him so they could overhear his running commentary: The queue would stretch down the aisle between the tables all the way to the door of the cafe. Talk was one thing and literature was something else. Even the feuilleton, a demanding genre that reached a high state of development in Vienna, was commonly thought to be more talk than literature.
And then it ended. Friedrich Torberg's retro-guide Aunt Jolesch recorded many remembered moments after the war, when the Anschluss, the deportations, the mass murder, and the rigors of exile had trimmed the cast of characters. In 1938, just before the Nazis took over, there were about 180,000 Jews in the city—down from about 201,000 in 1923. After 1945 only 10,000 came back, and most of the rest, of course, had not chosen to be absent: They were absent because they had been slaughtered. But even in the great period not all the participants were Jews, and postwar, it has been argued, the tradition might well have revived, even if in restricted form. Torberg contends that there was more than one reason it didn't. In the old days, people concerned with literature and journalism had time for a cafe existence even when they were busy. Peter Altenberg was only one of the many literati who did everything but sleep in the cafe, although he might have been unique in having it as his address: P. Altenberg, Café Central, Wien 1. Novelists and critics wrote in the cafe, impresarios made their plans there, publishers read manuscripts and corrected proofs. Today, people use machinery to write, and need a telephone right in front of them, instead of in a little booth downstairs next to the lavatory. They write at the studio or in the office. They might meet for lunch at the cafe, but a lunch hour isn't long enough to get the unimportant things said. The talk that counts is the talk that doesn't matter, and to get that you need time to spare.
So argues Torberg, with reason. But there is also an unintended pathos, like a nervous whistle in the dark. In Vienna, the Jewish cafe habitués had no other real home. They were assimilated, but mainly in a technical sense: Except for the cafe, where they could pay for a place by the hour, there was nowhere they belonged that was not overseen by a watchful landlord. They could feel comfortable only in public. They could feel private only in public.