Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. November 2003
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To My Son

Milo Dor (Vienna)


My dear son,

Since this is an imaginary letter, not a real one, let's assume it is the last one I will address to you.

More than twenty years ago I translated the stories of Isaak Babel together with Reinhard Federmann, a friend of mine who died at an early age. In one of the stories there is a young Jew in an unfamiliar city in the Ukraine, who winds up entering a stranger's house. He is at once asked for his name, and he gives it. Then he is asked what he is looking for. And he simply replies, "I am seeking happiness".

This sentence of the search for happiness expresses everything that I can give you to take with along your way, which I hope is a long way. If you understand and have been able to come to terms with the fact that you are nothing more than a product of chance on this still beautiful earth, more calmly will you then be able to seek happiness, a thing which is so cunning and which means something different to everyone.

In my youth, I sought my happiness in the welfare of all people and became a Communist, at a time when it was by no means pleasant to be one. On the contrary, we were the ones who were persecuted and ostracized in what was then royal and pro-Fascist Yugoslavia. In the 1930's, the rulers of this pathetic Balkan state, which through favorable circumstances was bloated with pride, believed they had to go along with the times, and thus transformed the country into a military dictatorship. We, the young intellectuals, also followed the latest fashion and went into opposition. We demonstrated against the marching of German troops into Austria and the invasion Czechoslovakia, against the war, and God knows what else. We wanted to change the world, which at that time truly did look lousy, and make it more humane, that is, make it conform to our foggy notions of an ideal socialism. The one positive result of our radical struggle was the victory over National Socialism, which had strived for and nearly succeeded in the absolute subjugation of Europe and the annihilation of all human values handed down over time. The majority of my friends did not live to experience the day of our longed-for peace. Many of them later perished in the disputes over the "one true way" to socialism. Luckily, I was no longer there, because I do not know which solution, possible or impossible, I would have been in favor of under those pressing conditions. Following my work camp and prison stays, I wound up in Austria while the war was still on. I have stayed here since then and, over the course of time, maintained an intimate, benevolent, and yet somehow distanced relationship with my original homeland, which soon freed itself from its Soviet bondage as well.

And now we have come to the core of my thoughts. It was not easy for someone from the Balkan to conform to the harsh customs of a foreign land, but: since my ancestors from Banat had already been, Austrian subjects under Maria Theresa, I was finally able to manage in Vienna. Yet to go from being a foreigner to a native overnight was, of course, not feasible, not even with my heritage. The Second Austrian Republic, to which I have felt attached from day one, itself had to go through a long maturing process in order to finally become free, independent and self-sustaining after its many previous aberrations.

Many of my friends, who came from different democratic camps and whom I met in Vienna in the years directly following the war, helped to build a modern national consciousness in which, for the most part, those errors were overcome that had been present in both the multinational monarchy, since it collapsed, as well as the so-called corporative state in its fascist variety. Through their help, as well as through the help of the experience I have gathered over the years, but above all through the help of my own imagination I have worked out a philosophy which has made it possible for me to overcome the many disappointments and defeats that are so common to the world we live in and to the world of my dubioious profession.

I consider myself lucky to live in a country that does not have any pretensions of being a superpower. It therefore does not have to constantly try to prove its historical importance. Since we no longer plan on making history, we may just have a better chance of going down in it - and if not, then that's fine, too. We Austrians have our great defeats behind us; we \ thus know how transitory all power and greatness in this world really is. That is also the advantage we have over all other nations which have not yet had their defeats. I find that most pleasant. It is much more difficult to live in a country that suffers from its imagined greatness, yet always has to reconfirm it. Such places offer too little room for leisure and individual musings - things which make life worth living. Life there is serious business. For us, that is not always the case.

Of course, we, too, have a load of problems, but at least here they are on a more human scale, and thus seem easier to solve. And if they are not, then we just ignore them. At some point they will work themselves out - or else remain unsolved forever, which is not so bad either. In short, I like the sort of nonchalance with which we try to come to grips with life here.

You will not be able to go that far careerwise in this country, especially not if you are in the arts. But instead, you will have the opportunity to become happy, as long as you ignore the smalltime, provincial side of a small country, earn your money elsewhere, for example in Germany, and then flaunt it back here. Your fellow citizens will then think very highly of you. As you see, life among masters in the art of living can also have its drawbacks. But don't let that discourage you. Try to withstand those around you, no matter how kind they appear, no matter what they profess to be doing, and no matter what kind of garbage they want to pass off as truth. If you give an inch, they will take a mile. Above all, do not believe: any prophets who promise you eternal life; they are all lying. And besides that, they are all a bunch of imitators. The great non-conformists all ended up either on the cross, the gallows, at the stake, or in an asylum. Their followers are only trying to make money out of them. Therefore, be wary of all so- called world views and those who propagate them. In this life - and I have my doubts there is another - deeds are the only thing that count, not words. One needs to prove here and now that one really means what one says. Be radical in your doubts and in your criticism. If you should fail, you can be comforted in the knowledge that your ancestors, both physical and spiritual, also failed in the end. You are the descendant in a whole line of failures, and you should be proud of it. The ostensibly successful people, the victors, are not likable. Their alleged victories have robbed them of their human qualities. They do not know what true happiness is, which, in the end, is what really matters in life.

Happiness lies in the details and not in the overall design. From the bottom of my heart, I hope you will find it and be able to live with yourself in peace.

Your Father

© Milo Dor (Vienna)

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For quotation purposes:
Milo Dor (Vienna): To My Son. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003.

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