I have just returned from three weeks in Europe — ten days of which were spent in Austria.
For those of us born after World War II, we have sometimes been tempted to view Austria as a kind of footnote to history — permanently affixed with the asterisk of being Hitler’s birthplace. But as any student of the past knows, Austria was once a global superpower — an empire as powerful as England or Spain with tentacles that reached across the globe.
Now, as visitors from around the world enjoy the country’s incredibly rich cultural, artistic, musical, and architectural heritage, they come to learn that all of those glorious museums filled with global riches, timeless music that fills opulent concert halls, ostentatious palaces to rival the most beautiful buildings in the world are a result of Austria’s immense political power which lasted for centuries.
All that power came to end virtually overnight in 1918.
Four years earlier, the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne started the global conflagration known as the Great War or World War I. By the time that war ended, the Austrian empire was gone. That’s how fast it happened.
While I was in Austria, I monitored the news coming in from the United States, and I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between the end of the Austrian Empire and our current state of political affairs. I found myself wondering — is this the beginning of the end of the United States as a global superpower?
Throughout the rest of my trip — which took me to six more countries — this thought surfaced more than once as I visited the memorial site of the German concentration camp of Dachau, saw a photography show about political dissidence in Heidelberg and got to know a little about Hungarian history.
I thought about it a lot.
While I was away, I posted my usual travel photos on social media. I often saw connections in the photos I took to current events, and posted those as they arose.
Then one day I saw this response to this photo I took of the orchestra pit at the Vienna Opera — a photo I took because my perspective on the orchestra pit reminded me of one of my favorite John Singer Sargent paintings.
The response was this: “Your positive attitude is inspiring, but I'm beginning to think you don't watch or read news at all. You are either dangerously out of touch, or deliberately ignoring things for the sake of your own piece of mind/book sales. I guess Joy IS a selfish thing, and keep on finding that if it works for you, but...you're coming across as oblivious, which is...regrettable. Sorry for being rude. I'll see myself out...”
My previous photo posting had been this blue angel from an altarpiece by Rogier van dear Weyden inscribed “prayers for our world”.
This was an earlier photo, taken at St Stephens Cathedral — which made me comment about the history of the silencing of women — which came up for me as I followed the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.
So I was surprised to be called oblivious. I felt far from oblivious. In fact, finding joy every day and sharing it had been a conscious choice to try to stay positive during such an incredibly disheartening and scary couple of weeks.
But I didn’t reply. I just thought about it — and continued to think about it. Then one morning while walking above Lake Constance in Switzerland, something came to me — something I could do. Something that I hope can make a difference in a more conscious and connected way — something that ties the daily practice of joy into action. So I am beginning the process of launching that endeavor. But a more immediate form of action was missing. Something I could do right now. I waited to find out what that might be. . .
Then this morning, I realized how long it had been since I had written a blog post. I hadn’t missed it. I had needed a break while I was working on my new book. This morning I felt it — I was ready to write again. I finally had something to say that I could trust came from my heart.
So here goes. Each week I am going to write about a photo I have taken somewhere at some time. I take pictures because they are connections — visual filaments connecting me to the world, the world to my heart, my heart to others, and all of us to one another. These photos are ideas made visual. This is today’s photo.
I took this photo at the top of a very large — gosh, now that I think of it, I’m not sure what you’d call it architecturally — is it a monument or a folly? It is an IMMENSE architectural construction at Schoenbrunn Palace — the summer “home” of the Austrian royal family. This ginormous monument to themselves is the focal point that can been seen from the palace. It is a visual manifestation of their power which they could see every day. And so could everyone else.
My friend Seanetta and I climbed to the top of this white ostentation, from which we had a 360-degree view of Vienna and the surrounding forests. At the top were two enormous eagles — the symbol of the Habsburg, the Austrian ruling dynasty. The eagles held gold wreaths and indeed evoked exactly what they were supposed to evoke: POWER. Power over others.
We were looking at these eagles when suddenly one of the squawked. Loudly. Seanetta looked at me like “WTF?” I burst out laughing and told him that I had just seen a raven fly onto the eagle’s head. He just couldn’t see it. As I walked around the other side, suddenly the raven flew off of the eagle, divebombing something below. Naturally, what I heard was what I was supposed to hear: “Nevermore.”
In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand precipitated the start of the Great War. Not four years later, the Austrian Empire had come to an end. But anyone could have seen it coming — the decadence of an empire so focused on its own self-image that it couldn’t grasp all the ways it was killing off any form of progress that didn’t serve its antiquated ideas of what a ruling class should be. The ways that ruling class distorted power for self-preservation — its key took for forming political alliances was marriage. Empresses were expected to produce MANY children, all of whom would be married off to foreign royalty to reinforce the far-reaching power of Austria. The increasing disconnect between the changing modern world and old ideas of wealth and power. The ability to turn a blind eye to the common man, woman and child despite the fact that those common men women and children were becoming increasingly powerful in a modernizing world.
A glorious read for anyone interested in the beginning of World War I is Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. (OK — as far as I’m concerned, pretty much anything by Tuchman is a glorious read!) She wrote that Austria-Hungary was determined to wage war on Serbia “with the bellicose frivolity of senile empires”. My visit to Austria — beautiful though it was in so many ways — was rife with evidence of all the bellicose frivolity of senile empires. And it was precisely this that I found so disturbing while listening to the news coming out of the United States.
Because it is my profound fear that we have become a senile empire and that our leaders are waging war on the world with a bellicose frivolity that many of us believe may lead us to where Austria found itself exactly a century ago — becoming a dinosaur empire filled with relics of an overwrought past.
So what happens from here? Well, what happens is what always happens. The eagle turns out to be a raven that wisely knows nevermore.
Something has to change. Something has to stop. And those of us who have the voice to speak have to find means to speak to that change in ways that feel true to ourselves.
So that is what I hope to do with these photo essays. I cannot throw the baby of my joy out with the bathwater of despair — not just because I am unwilling to give up on the joy that I struggled so hard to regain. No! It’s because without joy we cannot change the world. Without joy — there is no change.
Rainer Maria Rilke was born during the latter days of the Austrian Empire. He saw it crumble and saw the effects of the war that decimated the globe. His words about the necessity of joy give me the courage to remember that to feel joy and remind others to feel it does not make us oblivious at all:
“Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.”
Without feeling the hope of beauty, we have no motivation to change the world. But without being honest about the state of the world as we see it, joy will be a frivolity as we become so oblivious to the world crumbling all around us that become our own monuments to a failed past.
We must speak our nevermores to those who seek to silence us. We must enact our nevermores to those who wish to enforce their senile agendas of war. We must have the courage to admit that something is broken before it breaks us. And we must seek to find new ways of being before the world collapses around us. But we must continue to find the joy in our connections with one another and with our world — for our ability to find the beauty in the world is at the heart of our ability to save it!
That is the power and hope and necessity of joy in a broken world — the beauty that keeps us believing that this holy world can remain whole!