Essay / 2 September 2019

Black and White in the Age of Custom

Epiphany in Austria

The European Reliquary: Austria

Never trust the artist. Trust the tale, said D.H. Lawrence. Never trust the artist. And for fuck's sake never trust the tale, say I.

It is only appropriate that the custom in my tale (groups of children impersonating the biblical Magi going from door to door around 6 January asking for donations in exchange for a song they sing) is by no means unique to Austria, though its specifics may be. After all, one of many good things which I can say about Austria is that she barely exists. While there are several long-standing ethnic minorities in Austria, their counterparts across the border in Hungary, Slovenia, etc. are never referred to as Austrian, but invariably as German minorities, or more accurately the remnants of the German population that was expelled or exterminated in 1945.

Identity is the individuality of the unindividualized. A deficient identity such as Austrianness is a lesser evil than a full-fledged one.

And it is more than appropriate that my tale should begin in 1990s Moscow, where I was engaging in anti-racist discourse with two Jewesses, one a local and the other from California. The Muscovite kept using the word негр to refer to black people. The Californian, a graduate of an elite US university who was doing a PhD at Oxford, would not have this usage. The perfectly innocuous Russian негр reminded her of the infamous American n-word. I weighed in with the Portuguese negro and similar cognates which are respectful terms for black people, and with J.L. Austen's dictum that words are chameleons which mean different things in different surroundings and can never have one true, unchanging meaning, and I asked her if she admonished the good people of Oxford to stop driving on the wrong side of the road too, but it was all in vain.

I think about this episode every time I read about an American professor in trouble for quoting the n-word or about a Hollywood actor fired for wearing blackface in a theatrical production a decade ago. Sticks and stones can break my bones but words don't bother me, sang the great Ray Charles. That was the spirit of the 1960s, I suppose. Alas, even Austria has been affected by a global change of light. The German cognate of the n-word, formerly quite neutral, has come to be perceived as offensive and is only used by racists and by yokels who know no better these days. The song which taught Austrian kids road safety around 1980, warning that n-words on coffee beans (just like Chinese on lemons and hunters on melons) cannot be easily seen, sounds utterly ridiculous to an Austrian today, and probably unspeakably offensive to an ignorant, prejudiced foreigner.

When I was a kid, I never knew that there was a Christian feast called Epiphany; I learnt about that in my twenties from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. But I did know the “three holy kings”, as they are called in Austria. The public holiday on 6 January, which marks the end of the Christmas holidays (they are still officially called that, but Weihnachten has lost its Christian meaning, so we people of reason do not much care, and the Muslims are not quite numerous enough to raise hell yet), bears their name too. I must have been about eleven or twelve when Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, representing the three continents of the Old World and dressed up accordingly, rang the doorbell of the little flat where I was living with my parents and two brothers.

I opened the door. They sang a song in the local dialect featuring the word hallelujah. While they were singing, I recognised the king in blackface. He had been my classmate in primary school. I thanked my former classmate, his two fellow Magi, and the grown-up who was accompanying them.

A few weeks later I ran into that very same former classmate. It turned out that I had caused a minor scandal by “slamming the door on the three holy kings”. I had been unaware that they had expected money in return for their services. My former classmate was much more embarrassed than I was. I did not believe in the charity of these privileged Christians. Their good deeds depended on systemic poverty. This was the early 1980s in Austria. The social welfare state entitled everybody to their meagre share of society's wealth, and no doubt the rest of the world would soon adopt Austrian ways. Religion and racism had no future.

Thirty years later I was visiting my elderly parents in that very same flat, when the doorbell rang. Outside stood those very same three holy kings and sang that very same hallelujah song. One of the kids was a white girl in blackface. But another, reflecting a change in Austria's demographic makeup, was a black boy in whiteface. I thanked them cordially and handed them one of the larger banknotes from my wallet.

They wrote the year and their initials C + M + B in consecrated chalk over our door. In a marvellous act of folk etymology, the clerical managers of the Magi have put out word that CMB stands for Christus mansionem beneficat (May Christ bless the house), probably to add some Christian flavour to the carnivalistic custom. The pluses between the words and numbers looked a bit like crosses. Did the Islamist kids who refused to write plus signs in their maths lessons because they were Christian symbols have a point? I thought about the Sunni practice of marking the houses of non-Sunnis in the Middle East, either to just scare them or in preparation for actual massacres and expulsions.

When I left for Vienna later that day, I carefully erased the chalk symbols. Would reason prevail over custom in future generations? Those little kings were being indoctrinated by an irrationalistic, intolerant, and totalitarian organization already. And if they had the brains and the guts to free themselves, they were likely to end up with ideologues and identitymongers who were even worse than the Catholic church.

Reason is increasingly just a tool in the hands of the forces of custom. And the more powerful the tool becomes, the further people retreat into the comforts of numb custom.

Long live Austria!