In Memoriam: Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler

(May 20, 1942 – September 7, 2008)

bridges vol. 19, October 2008 / People in the Spotlight

By Fatima Naqvi

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In the few days since Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler’s unexpected death of a pulmonary embolism, one thing has become clear in Vienna: Here, as in the rest of Austria, all literary and cultural roads led to him. In the Department of German at the University of Vienna, of which

Dr. Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler

Professor Schmidt-Dengler was the chair, one assistant professor spoke of an “implosion”; co-workers and administrators stare at each other wordlessly or pass one another with downcast eyes. The silence in the university halls stands in stark contrast to the public discourse generated by and around the renowned literary critic. The media have rushed to honor the telegenic and congenial professor, a frequent guest on public radio and television channels. In the many newspaper obituaries and Internet postings that have appeared since Sunday, September 7, people have repeatedly stressed Schmidt-Dengler’s seminal role in the cultural landscape of the post-war period. Since the Zagreb-born Germanist began his career at the university in the mid-sixties, he has revolutionized the way Austrians think about their culture. In expanding their view of the canon, he has exerted an influence beyond the country’s borders. Indeed, the most recent prize he garnered was the “Preis der Kritik,” or “Critics Prize,” to be awarded at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair. Ninety-nine bottles of wine and a collected edition of Heinrich Heine were to go to Schmidt-Dengler for his cultural mediation – a maverick’s books for a fellow non-conformist.

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Schmidt-Dengler was a leading proponent of experimental Austrian writers in the 1960s, long before the works of the Wiener Gruppe or Vienna Group (Friedrich Achleitner, Konrad Bayer, Gerhard Rühm, Oswald Wiener) found general acceptance1 . He was also among the first to champion the works of Thomas Bernhard and has been the driving force behind the 22-volume critical edition of Bernhard's works  published by the highly regarded publishing house, Suhrkamp. Schmidt-Dengler's 20-year-long reflections on the conditions and characteristics of the author's oeuvre are collected in the influential volume Der Übertreibungskünstler: Studien zu Thomas Bernhard (The Exaggeration Artist: Studies of Thomas Bernhard), 1986. In this book, Schmidt-Dengler sought to confront the polemical discourse Bernhard generated during the last years of his life with a more nuanced study of Bernhard's hyperbolic rhetoric. Schmidt-Dengler also contextualized Bernhard's work within Austrian literary traditions, outlining affiliations with the authors Heimito von Doderer, Ernst Jandl, and Peter Handke, all of whom were among Schmidt-Dengler's scholarly concerns. (In one charming anecdote, Schmidt-Dengler liked to tell of an encounter with Thomas Bernhard: Bernhard approached Schmidt-Dengler in the Café Bräunerhof, where Bernhard was a regular. Schmidt-Dengler, already well known through his media presence, was ready for any question. Asked, somewhat disappointingly, whether the newspaper lying next to him was free, Schmidt-Dengler, in his own words, demonstrated his "familiarity with Bernhard's oeuvre and answered with the title of one of Bernhard's prose works: ‘Yes'." 2 )

I suspect that Schmidt-Dengler's particular esteem for Bernhard's themes and style had less to do with any natural proclivity toward superlatives or exaggeration - in his book, Schmidt-Dengler is at pains to deconstruct the binary schemas haunting Bernhard's prose - than with the Austrian professor's fascination with the various pedagogues and mentors that form a guiding thread through Bernhard's works. Schmidt-Dengler was interested in the educators who remain critical of the institutions to which they are indebted and who manage to convey this analytical, some would say rebellious, spirit to the young people under their tutelage. Unsurprisingly, Schmidt-Dengler was one of the most outspoken critics of his university's administration, reminding readers of the daily paper Der Standard that changing the names of departments or merging institutes has little to do with educational improvement and everything to do with budgetary shortcuts. Many of those readers had at some point been students of the famed professor, attending his lectures on "Austrian literature after 1945." 3

Professor Schmidt-Dengler returned the admiration students felt for him. In an essay published only this past weekend, he lauded students' continuing engagement with literature and spoke of the necessary provocation posed by challenging texts. The closing paragraph of the article, entitled "Und sie können es doch" ("And They Are Capable of Doing It"), now reads like a resumé of the four decades Schmidt-Dengler spent in classrooms and lecture halls in Vienna, Pisa, Naples, Klagenfurt, Salzburg, and Graz, as well as at Stanford and Washington University in St. Louis. He pays homage to the very students who are now expressing their grief on many web sites: "Whoever teaches others to read or just wants to practice it [with them] doesn't have an easy time," he writes, "but from experience I can say that there are always surprises when young readers work through difficult texts. And the talk about students who are getting worse and worse is simply obsolete" ("Wer heute das Lesen lehren oder auch nur üben will, hat es nicht leicht, aber aus meiner Praxis kann ich sagen, dass es immer wieder Überraschungen gegeben hat, wenn sich junge Leser an komplexen Gebilden abarbeiten. Und die Rede von den Studierenden, die immer schlechter werden, ist schlicht obsolet").4   Schmidt-Dengler was also dedicated to the training of young professors and to the expansion of Austrian Studies abroad. As the head of the Werfel Scholarship Program, he gathered academics for monthly seminar meetings during which they presented excerpts from recent projects. A yearly conference was devoted to topics ranging from Elias Canetti to the formation of the German-language canon in other countries, with particular focus on the countries of the former Eastern bloc. In private, many of these young Germanists have stressed that his financial and intellectual support was crucial for their training (and have also expressed concern over their future connections to Austria). His support made possible their many publications on topics ranging from the experimental author Brigitte Falkner to the Büchner Prize winner, the Romanian-born Oskar Pastior.

Related to his desire to convey his commitment to literature - hardly confined to Austrian writers of the twentieth century (Schmidt-Dengler studied classical philology in addition to German literature; his most recent essay project was to be on Plutarch) - was Schmidt-Dengler's intention to preserve it for future generations. As head of the Literaturarchiv at the National Library, he committed resources and time to the acquisition and publication of important literary holdings. As befits a reader of Bernhard, whose novels and plays revolve around our inability to distance ourselves from our forebearers' legacy, Schmidt-Dengler collected materials on diverse authors. Among the better known artists are Konrad Bayer, Erich Fried, Josef Haslinger, Ernst Jandl, Ödön von Horváth, Theodor Kramer, Hilde Spiel, and Dorothea Zeemann. His most recent acquisition was the Vorlass (as opposed to the Nachlass) of Peter Handke, of which he was understandably proud. 

Schmidt-Dengler's enthusiasm for Austrian literature drew people into his orbit in Vienna, but he was peripatetic in pursuing his interests. In the coming week, Schmidt-Dengler was to have traveled to a Celan-seminar in the former Galicia, together with the Czech translator of Kafka's works (also a Werfel scholarship recipient). At the end of the month, he planned to take part in a tour of Thomas Bernhard's various homes in Upper Austria with some of his co-workers and co-editors from the Literary Archive at the National Library. Finally, on September 28, he intended to travel to the United States, where he was to be fêted in New York and Washington, DC, for his 2007 prize as "Wissenschafter des Jahres" or "Scholar of the Year." In New York, an evening was planned to discuss the merits of Austrian literature with another former student, Martin Rauchbauer. The event at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York carried the title "Why We Need Austrian Literature." This was meant less as a provocation than an assertion of a conviction; it arose from his - now our - belief that indeed we do need it. 

Whether speaking about marginal literary figures in a radio program on the highly regarded station Ö1 or on the most recent European soccer championship (he was an avowed fan), Schmidt-Dengler managed to convey his viewpoints with lucidity, humor, and charming self-deprecation. For those who remain involved with Austrian literature as educators and scholars, we must attempt to follow in his (Bernhardian) footsteps, letting his dedication to testing and retesting the boundaries inspire our own commitment to art and to others.




The author, Fatima Naqvi, is an associate professor in the department of German, Russian, and East European Languages and Literatures at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She teaches courses on Vienna 1900, as well as on post-war German and Austrian literature and film.






1) A recent publication about the Wiener Gruppe pays homage to his influence. Editors Thomas Eder and Juliane Vogel, dedicating the volume of essays to Schmidt-Dengler for his 65th birthday, write: "Ohne ihn würde die österreichische Literatur nicht wahrgenommen, wie sie ist, und wäre die Literaturwissenschaft um zahllose Impulse ärmer" ("Without him, Austrian literature would not be seen for what it is, and literary studies would be deprived of his myriad impulses"), verschiedene sätze treten auf: Die Wiener Gruppe in Aktion, eds. Juliane Vogel and Thomas Eder (Vienna: Zsolnay, 2008) 6.


2) See also Anne-Catherine Simon's obituary in Die Presse, "Schmidt-Dengler gestorben: Er hat die Literatur geliebt," which conveys some of the pleasure his interviewers had when speaking with him, 8 Sept. 2008,


3) These lectures have been collected in the volume Bruchlinien: Vorlesungen zur österreichischen Literatur, 1945-1990 (Salzburg: Residenz, 1995).


4) See his article "Und sie können es doch: Die Studierenden werden nicht schlechter, sie provozieren nur. Gut so" ("And Yet They Can Do It: Students Aren't Getting Any Worse, They're Just Provoking Us. Good Thing"), Der Standard 6/7 September, 2008: 48.