In the third chapter of his autobiography World of Yesterday, entitled Eros Matutinus, Stefan Zweig describes the hypocritical sexual morality that he encountered when growing up in early 20th century Vienna.
1. Zweig's motivations for critiquing hypocritical sexual morality
Stefan Zweig, an Austrian of Jewish Descent, started his literary
career by participating in writers' circles in his native Vienna. He later cultivated literary acquiantances in Paris, Belgium, and Holland. In 1917, he gathered with some of them in Switzerland
to promote their collective body of work that was critical of the war. In the United States, he is best known for his short story Letter from an Unknown Woman
that was made into an American film starring Joan Fontaine
Zweig lived in the Austrian Age of Progress
that transformed formerly autocratic, aristocratic, and Catholic Austria-Hungary
into a country of religious freedom
, middle-class ascendancy, and constitutional monarchy
with voting rights
for its citizens. His critique of sexual mores reflected his hopes to further the Age of Progress by changing the culture to reflect reason and common sense. In his opinion, allowing young men to satisfy their natural sexual instincts would be another step forward for freedom in society.
On the other hand, the cultural reluctance to lift these prohibitions made him suspect that the monarchy desired to control youth's potential to demand social and political change so that it could forestall any further liberalization of the country.
2. The Culture of Hypocrisy towards Pre-Marital Sex
The general attitude of the middle-class professional bourgeosie (doctors, lawyers, clerks, scientists) was that their sons had to maintain an appearance of sexual abstinence
until marriage. On a cultural level, there was a broad consensus that premarital sexual relations
were indecent. The young man who transgressed this invisible law of decency
would pay terrible consequences
. Ruined by allegations of scandal
, the person would be considered an unsuitable marriage
partner and thus would have to spend his life single
Just because appearances of propriety forbid men to have sex, it didn't mean that they stayed virgins until honeymoon time at about the age of 28. That, incidentally, was probably the minimum age for men to get married, because it was at that point that they finished their professional education and began a lucrative career in law, medicine, or science. And as you can probably guess, no father would allow his daughter to marry a man who had not begun receiving income from a career.
But there's no need to feel sorry for the young fellows. There were plenty of ways for them to satisfy their sexual desires under the radar. And their parents approved as long as their sons' reputation wasn't ruined. Some parents hired a maid for the express purpose of "sexually fulfilling" their sons. Other parents had no problem when their son visited a special bar or tavern where witty, well-dressed, friendly women would first engage their sons in conversation before taking them to a bedroom. Yet others patronized prostitutes, and this became such a commonplace part of Viennese culture, that the state began to test prostitutes for venereal disease and license the healthy ones with work permits. It is quite ironic that the same government whose culture shamed pre-marital sex had semi-legalized prostitution.
Zweig believed that the middle-class families were just as hypocritical as the government towards sexual mores. Nonchalant about discreet, out-the-way sex, they were neverthless shocked and dismayed about much more innocent things. Zweig writes that there would be a scandal if a ballerina were to dance without a stocking. In fact, when dancer Isadora Duncan showed the soles of her feet at a performance, she was defamed.
Novels like Madame Bovary were forbidden because they were considered pornographic. It's quite ironic that middle-class parents in Vienna were more incensed about descriptions of extramarital affairs in a novel than by the fact that their own children were doing the very same thing in real life.
3. Zweig's hypothesis that sexual mores were a part of Austria-Hungary's conspiracy to curtail freedom of action and revolutionary behavior
So, why would the middle-class families and the imperial government condemn premarital sex publically but condone it privately? One would think that their tacit acceptance of the young male's pursuit of sex
might have led them to reform outdated conventions
. Stefan Zweig believes that reason why they chose not to was so that they could make things more difficult for youth
in order to curb their rebelliousness
Zweig writes that the reason why the bourgeoisie culture of the times feared sex was because "they viewed sexuality as an anarchical and therefore disturbing element." He believes that the Imperial Government and the middle-class professionals who benefited financially from its rule feared that freedom to pursue sexual desire would also make the students seek political change.
In the first chapter of "The World of Yesterday" , Zweig puts forward the view that the Austrian empire had a conscious policy of making young men obedient and less likely to engage in revolution by systemically denying their desires. "Young people" he writes, "who always instinctively desire rapid and radical changes, were to be held down or kept inactive for as long a time as possible."
In addition to prohibiting their sexual life, a young's man freedom was also curtailed at school. According to Zweig, the schooly system conspired to rob students of future desire for revolution by inculcating in them the value of obedience to authority and the surrender of initiative.
Since it was self-confident University students that had attempted the failed 1848 liberal revolution to overthrow the monarchy and institute democracy, it makes sense that the government would be distrustful of them and would attempt to stifle their confidence through a confining education system.
Students had no volition to act of their own accord: they were made to sit silently and had no right to ask questions of the teacher. Instead, they were to respond to the teacher's cues; they had to pay attention when he asked them questions because to answer these wrong would lower their grades.
4. The Age of Progress comes to an end.
Ironically while in the interwar period sexual restrictions in Vienna were loosened to his delight, Zweig saw the Age of Progress reverse itself. Austria became close to and eventually united itself with the totalitarian Nazi Regime.
Zweig's Jewishness forced him to leave Nazi-occupied Vienna first for London and then for Brazil after England declared war on Germany.
He faced several personal setbacks at this time. His fellow Austrian Jews were humiliated and taken to concentration camps. Also, perhaps a lesser but no more painful disappointment was that his works were forbidden publication in Germany and Austria. While they were still translated into other languages, he was distraught that they would no longer be read in the original German words in which he had written them.
These disappointments had a toll on Zweig's morale. He committed suicide in his new home of Petropolis, Brazil in February 23, 1942.
Zweig, Stefan. The World of Yesterday. New York: The Viking Press, 1943.
Schorske, Carl. Culture and Politics in Fin-De-Siecle Vienna. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985