Books: Cultural Amnesia — Coda: Eckstein and the Egyptian Kinghopper |
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WHEN THE Vienna newspaper Presse carried a story about the latest poem by Kun-Han-Su, nobody in the Café Imperial had ever heard of Kun-Han-Su except for Eckstein, who knew all about him. Eckstein, referred to always and only by his last name, was famous for knowing absolutely everything. Eckstein told his young admirers about the creative heights to which Kun-Han-Su had carried some of the ancient verse forms under one of the last emperors of the Ming dynasty. Next day the Presse regretfully announced that “Kun-Han-Su” had been a misprint for Knut Hamsun. It transpired that Eckstein had known all about the misprint, and indeed could give an account of misprints, in all languages, throughout the ages.

Eckstein’s universal knowledge was also memorably proved when he was out walking with Hofmannsthal and Hofmannsthal’s beautiful daughter, Christiane. They saw a hopping bird. Eckstein identified it as an Egyptian kinghopper. “It can’t fly,” he expatiated. “It can move forward only by hopping. It spends the winter in Egypt, hence the name.” Hofmannsthal looked around, saw no persuasive evidence that this conversation was taking place anywhere except in Vienna, and mildly objected: “You said only just now that the bird couldn’t fly.” Eckstein said: “That far it can fly.”

These stories about Eckstein are told by Friedrich Torberg in his Die Tante Jolesch, with due acknowledgement that Eckstein really was a very learned man. In his youth Eckstein was a pupil of Anton Bruckner, and later on he wrote an important monograph about his teacher. Eckstein was enormously well read. He just couldn’t bear to admit that there was something he had missed. It is very easy to get that reputation. When strangers know that your speciality is books, their usual way of breaking the ice is to ask you if you have read such-and-such a book. The penalty for saying no is to hear a précis. The quickest way out of a potentially boring conversation is to say yes. But it only takes one smart-arse to test you with a fake title and you’re cooked.

As the alert reader will have often noticed, this has not really been Eckstein’s book, even when it most seems to be. I have not read everything, nor have I remembered everything I have read. What I tried to do was keep some of it with me and draw lessons from it. Hegel once said that neither a people nor its government could learn much from history. Had he lived to see the twentieth century, he would have found his belief confirmed after World War I, when the victorious powers, pooling their wisdom in the conference at Versailles, carefully laid down the conditions to ensure that the catastrophe which they had barely survived would be soon repeated. There were observers—John Maynard Keynes was one—who guessed what would happen next. But even among them, few were prescient about the scale of the horror. Thinkers who had seen a million soldiers die concluded that the enemy was war itself. They didn’t foresee that millions of innocent civilians would die next. They thought that peace could be made a principle. But peace is not a principle: merely a desirable state of affairs. The only answer to Hitler was a contrary violence. There were intellectuals who refused to believe it. There were still more intellectuals who refused to believe that in the Soviet Union the real enemy of the people was the Communist Party: the enemy of its own people, and of any other people living under democratically elected governments. It would be wrong to conclude, however, that there was something about being an intellectual that precluded the seeing of the truth. There wasn’t then and there isn’t now. For all but the born prodigy of common sense, opinions are arrived at by the sifting of opinion. The process might occasionally lead to error, but ignorance will lead to error always. So we seek out the best of what is said on weighty matters, and naturally assume that the very best resides amongst what is said well.

There is a danger there, as I have tried to point out. Any effective writer of expository prose is an artist of a kind, and artists give shape to the facts. But facts are recalcitrant, and often they refuse to fit, especially when political. The artist who fancies himself above politics is tacitly conceding that the world is too much for him, even as the concession gives him freedom. It can be a fine freedom, but it counts for nothing beside the freedom of the common people, and when the discrepancy shows up with tragic force, we are right to call a halt to our admiration, and ask: is this really so well expressed, if reality is so very different? We question, that is, the earthbound soul behind the transcendental work. To say so might seem to let in the incubus of biographical enquiry, and thus issue a licence to every dunce who wants to make a living out of the elementary revelation that our idols have feet of clay. But there was never any humanism without humans. The only peril is that we will stop short, by failing to realize that the personality of the creator is a created marvel in itself, and all the more so for its weaknesses, which are close to the source of its inspiration. Fame is not the spur. Fame is the result. Creativity starts in the well of human feeling which for want of a better single word we call the soul. It is more glamorous and exciting to believe that creativity starts in the gift; but by what has happened to some gifts we can see that the soul is where they came from, and is what reaches us even when we fight shy of reaching it. Among my hero Alfred Polgar’s fellow émigré writers who praised his accomplishments, most felt compelled to frame their encomia as aphorisms that would equal his for brilliance, as if style were the thing in question. And so it was, but the style came from a cast of mind, which the comparatively unspectacular journalist Hans Sahl had the simple boldness to define. He said that Polgar had a spiritual superiority that could transmit the terrible, and that he was not only clever and witty, but wise.

The getting of wisdom is a hard road. Most of us are not equipped by nature to travel it at high speed, and some of us must crawl like babies. Our chafed hands and knees can easily make us wonder if the journey is worth it. If I could go back in time and design my own birth, I would introduce the genetic material that might have made me a bit less of a dunderhead. Even today, in my seventh decade, I meet people forty years younger who are patently more sensible than I was when I set off on my great adventure. I was their age then, but they are my age now: old heads on young shoulders. What I had to learn by trial and error, they seem to have been born knowing. But perhaps they have had the luck to be born into a better time. If so, and if they are to stay lucky, the worse time had better not come back. For those it didn’t kill or maim, it injured the air. Uncertainty was something we all breathed in, back then. The horrors of the past and present made us nervous about the future, and the habit is hard to shake. The young might do well to tie a handkerchief over the rear-view mirror and just get on with it. The world is turning into one big liberal democracy anyway. Terrorism will punch angry holes in it, but in the long run nothing will stop the planetary transformation. Even if armed with a second-hand atomic bomb, an obscurantist can do nothing for the poor. Most of the poverty on Earth is caused by the number of people being born who would ordinarily have never been conceived. Prosperity gave them life. All too frequently the life seems not worth living, but when we cry out at the injustice we are asking for more democracy, not less. Subsidiary populations that migrate into the liberal democracies are seeking a legitimate economic advantage in comparison to the homelands they left. They are understandably reluctant to accept that their economic disadvantage in the homelands they left might have been at least partly due to the culture they grew up in. In their adopted countries they are often encouraged in this reluctance by local humanitarians who think it illiberal for an imported culture to be criticized for its backwardness. But when the zealous young men of the imported culture begin to practise terrorism under the encouragement of their religious leaders, even the local absolutists for human rights come to see the point of restricting the freedom of religious leaders to preach violence against the adopted state. So eventually the rule of law under an elected, replaceable government will have even the humanitarians behind it. It can’t lose. Why, then, bother to ponder how we got out of the maelstrom? Why be an Ancient Mariner, who stoppeth one in three and boreth them to tears? The only answer comes from faith: faith that the rule of decency—which at last, and against all the odds, looks as if it might prevail—began in humanism, and can’t long continue without it.

How will we know if our earthly paradise is coming to pieces, if we don’t know how it was put together? It was the human mind that got us this far, by considering what had happened in history; by considering the good that had been done, and resolving to do likewise; and by considering the evil, and resolving to avoid its repetition. Much of the evil, alas, was in the mind itself. The mind took account of that too. The mind is the one collectivity that the free individual can thrive in: which is lucky, because live in it he must. Even within ourselves, there are many voices. Hegel, when he said that we can learn little from history, forgot about Hegel, author of the best thing about history that has ever yet been said. He said that history is the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself.