Vienna waits for you

October 28, 2022 06:00
Photo: Reuters

My second favourite Billy Joel offering – save from the (in)famous ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ – is ‘Vienna’.

The lyrics begin as such:

Slow down you crazy child
You're so ambitious for a juvenile

For a long while I’d founded the implicit ageism disconcerting – after all, it seemed that there is the assumption that ambition could only come with age, and that juveniles could ill-afford to be as ambitious as the imaginary audience the protagonist (Billy?) addresses. The child’s ‘craziness’ is paired with their ambition, as a sign of precociousness – the message is clear: they’re not ready for the world just yet, and yet they think they are capable of doing everything. I found such whimsical stipulation frustrating – who’s to say teens and young adults can’t change the world? Who’s to say, as Billy goes onto lamenting,

But then if you're so smart tell me
Why are you still so afraid?

…that only the youth could be afraid? Surely, the presumption that the youth can’t be smart, can’t be unfazed or dauntless, is itself a hugely problematic one.

Where's the fire, what's the hurry about?
You better cool it off before you burn it out

It was not until recently, that I began to come around to Billy’s words. Youth tend to think they know it all – that the world is their oyster, and that their dreams are prophecies of visions and futures to come. And yet, as reality packs and lands its punches, we are inevitably confronted by the frustrations and futility embedded within the vicissitudes of life. It’s odious, but it’s also part and parcel of existence. To embrace the fact that we are not smart, to accept that we need not be ambitious qua juveniles (or as individuals), to opt to slow down – is not a self-defeating, self-effacing gesture, but one that is vital to both self-preservation and maturity.

You got so much to do and only
So many hours in a day

I’d visited Vienna once when I was younger – and jet-setting across the world to shout at strangers and friends over topics I had little care for; ‘twas competitive debating, after all. And the experience felt so… real. It felt scintillating then, an opportunity to win an intellectual spar, to jostle for the coveted prize of champion and best speaker; to take down adversaries that were adversarial by fiat, as opposed to by choice. I spent the entire weekend at Vienna, yet never managed to take in its splendour and grandeur – instead, most hours of the day were spent constructing and reconstructing hypothetical arguments that few could care less about outside the ‘rounds’. Winning the argument felt like the world to me; the world felt like a backdrop to the quest for success and vanquishing intellectual opponents.

But you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want
Or you can just get old

So I got old. Now that I look back at that past life of mine, I have come to realise that the frenetic, ceaseless lifestyle – despite its virtues of excitement and intellectual stimulation – had its shortcomings. I chose to live fast, perhaps not so furiously; in so doing, I neglected all there was to life – the imperfections, the delays and hold-ups next to the traffic lights, the birds who would perch themselves atop the balcony and squawk until dawn, the missed flights and connections that allowed me to (in)voluntarily strand myself for four hours in a dilapidated airport. I had always viewed these as impediments, as barriers holding me back from my destinations. Yet the more I think about it, I more I realise ‘tis all part of what makes me – the mistakes I had made, the errors I had suffered the pains from, and the bads and the hiccups and the hurdles… these are all invaluable parts of a life that I cannot afford to live too quickly. What’s the rush?

You're gonna kick off before you even get halfway through
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?

Two days ago, whilst sauntering alongside the Central promenade, I was struck by the epiphany: Vienna isn’t a destination. It isn’t a location. Nor is it an ideology. Instead, it is an attitude and way of life. It is the Nirvana embedded within the hustle and bustle of mortal life. It is a sanctuary for those who cannot find the Shangri-La. It is the acknowledgment and active embracing – not passive acquiescence – of the fact that the best drawing features of life, are its unpredictability, momentary setbacks, and bitterness that makes success sweet. That’s life, and that’s what makes life great.

Slow down you're doing fine
You can't be everything you want to be before your time
Although it's so romantic on the borderline tonight

True romanticism is innately hopeless. It is the amorphous region straddling the possible and the impossible, the real and the unreal, the nightmares and sweet dreams. And it is through slowing down, taking it all in, recognising one’s limits, that one could cross the new divide.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Assistant Professor, HKU