The Art of Acquiescence

At 30, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, was deep in melancholy. In 1888, he and his country were at a crossroads.

Freud lived down the street, slowly coming to terms with the unexplored frontier of the subconscious. Things like democracy and freedom and capitalism were no longer simple ‘ideals’ that could be ignored. Even as they admired the glittering palace on the monarchy, everyone could feel the Crown losing its grip. The Austrians had what they call the ‘nervous sickness of modernity’. They knew that change was coming but they didn’t know when.

His father, a Hapsburg King no less, was having none of it. Rudolf, whose liberal ideas were soon validated, was forced to sit and wait. He wasn’t playing the system so much as waiting for a chance for the system to let him play. A Prince, no matter how old or smart, is still considered a child – at least while the king is still alive.

“My youth is over,” he wrote. “Nobody believes in me and I can’t take hold.”

His father assigned him the important job of sitting through long society dinners and waiting. Waiting as the empire crumbled, and protests exploded across the country. He took to writing anonymous columns in the national paper but was powerless to act on the ideas he wrote about. And then he lost that last bit of relief too, in favor of a busy opera schedule.

Rudulf took his mistress to a empty palace in the woods. They signed a suicide pact. He shot her, waited two hours, and then turned the gun on himself.


Rudolf’s problem – aside from what was probably a chemical imbalance – was that he tied his own happiness to what other people ‘let him do.’ Anyone know can see where the world is going but is relatively powerless to do anything about it knows exactly what he was going through. It is crushing and depressing and humiliating. Waiting is awful, because it’s not just waiting – it’s wasting.

But dispersed throughout the year before Rudolf’s death were times of great happiness. Mary Vetsera, his mistress and he had fallen deeply in love. Through conduits, he’d found exciting ways to subvert the empire and he was certain that change was coming. And then he let someone take it all away.

I know for me, I have the same cycle. Big huge runs where the success (and now, a little money) starts to roll in. When it naturally dries up, I’ll convince myself that I must have it or something better, back. It is not a pleasant crash. When you let external factors validate your happiness, you lose the sovereignty of self.

The balance has to come from the inside. Otherwise, you end up being the guy whose murder-suicide causes the First World War. And all the stuff you supposedly cared about and believed in gets put off for half a century.

[1] A Nervous Splendor by Frederic Morton

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