Books: Cultural Amnesia — Stefan Zweig |
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Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) is a fitting name to introduce the coda of this book, because his life, work, exile and self-inflicted death combine to sum up so much of what has gone before, which is really the story of the will to achievement in the face of all the conditions for despair. Zweig’s own achievements are nowadays ofen patronized: a bad mistake, in my view. Largely because of his highly schooled but apparently effortless gift for a clear prose narrative, he attained, while he lived, immense popularity not just in the German-speaking countries but in the world entire, and he is still paying the penalty for it. Except in France, where his major works are never out of print, it is usually safer to call him second-rate. Safer, but not sound. Most of his poems, plays and stories have faded, but his accumulated historical and cultural studies, whether in essay or monograph form, remain a body of achievement almost too impressive to take in. Born into Vienna’s golden age, he took the idea of cultural cosmopolitanism to heart, and looked for its seeds in the past, in a series of individual studies that form a richly endowed humanist gallery, in which the first and still the most impressive portrait is his monograph Erasmus. Such names as Goethe, Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche, Rilke, Herzl, Freud, Schnitzler, Mahler, Bruno Walter and Joseph Roth might have been expected to attract Zweig’s attention, but he also wrote a whole book on Balzac, as well as valuable essays on Dante, Montaigne, Chateaubriand, Sainte-Beuve, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Renan, Rodin, Busoni, Toscanini, Rimbaud, James Joyce and many more. Full-sized books on Marie-Antoinette, Mary Stuart and Magellan were international best-sellers. For beginners who can read some German, his collection Begegnungen mit Menschen, Büchern, Städten (Meetings with People, Books and Cities) is probably the best place to start, and they will be reading much more German afterwards. His Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) is—it bears saying again—the best single memoir of Old Vienna by any of the city’s native artists, although George Clare’s Last Waltz in Vienna will always be the book to read first. A lustrous picture book, Stefan Zweig, came out in German in 1993, and in French the following year. Its dazzling pages prove that he got some of his immense archive of documents and photographs away to safety. His magnificent library in Salzburg, alas, was burned by the Nazis in 1938. They knew exactly what he represented, even if some literary critics still don’t. Stefan Zweig was the incarnation of humanism, so when he finally took his own life it was a persuasive indication that the thing we value so highly can stay alive only in a liberal context.

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With whom have we not spent heart-warming hours there, looking out from the terrace over the beautiful and peaceful landscape, without suspecting that exactly opposite, on the mountain of Berchtesgaden, a man sat who would one day destroy it all?

HEART-WARMING HOURS” sound less corny in German: herzliche Stunden. Zweig had a house in Salzburg, and from the terrace he could see across the border into Germany, to the heights on which the exterminating angel perched, gathering its strength. If Hitler had looked in the other direction, he would have seen, on Zweig’s terrace, everything he was determined to annihilate, and not just because it was Jewish. There were plenty of gentiles who came to see Zweig. But they were all infected with Kulturbolschewismus, the deadly international disease that presumed to live in a world of its own: the disease that Hitler, in his role as hygienist, had a Pasteur-like mission to eradicate. Everyone who mattered in the European cultural world knew Zweig. It was one of his gifts. He believed in the sociability of the civilized. In the long run it was a belief that might have helped to kill him. When he committed suicide in Brazil in 1942, he already knew that the Nazis weren’t going to win the war. But the Nazis had already won their war against the gathering on the terrace.

The question remains of whether Zweig had valued that gathering too much. Never a man for being alone in the café, he had staked everything on the artistic community and the mutual consideration which he supposed to prevail automatically within it. The artistic community, not his worldwide popularity, was the context of his success. When Hitler destroyed that success, Zweig quoted Grillparzer’s line about walking alive in the funeral procession behind his own corpse. Zweig had no notion that the Nazi assault on the idea of an artistic community was not unique. As late as the year of his death, he was still saying that there was “no second example” of such murderous irrationality. Though he had once been on a train ride with the Bolshevik cultural commissar Lunacharsky to visit Tolstoy’s old estate at Yasnaya Polyana, Zweig knew little of what had been going on in the Soviet Union, where the artistic community of Petersburg that had gone on flourishing between 1917 and 1929—a confluence of talent to match any gathering on his terrace—had been obliterated as a matter of policy. (The crackdown was announced by Lunacharsky himself, the erstwhile bohemian chosen by Stalin to put out the lights of bohemia.) To the bitter end, Zweig believed that the natural state of affairs between exponents of the humanities was one of affectionate respect: a professional solidarity.

He would have been horrified to find that Thomas Mann thought of him as a mediocrity. It would have been one horror too much; but, unlike the other horrors, it had not been invented by Hitler out of thin air. That Mann had uttered such an opinion was the simple truth. But we should not put too sinister a construction on a snide remark. Mann was never at ease with the idea that some other German writer might sell more books than he did in the world market. The natural state of affairs between exponents of the humanities is one of tension, suspicion, rivalry and, all too often, enmity. Only a catastrophe can bring about, among its survivors, any degree of the automatic mutual regard that Zweig dreamed of so fondly. A great deal of creativity arises from conflict between the creators, and it tends to be annulled when they are driven to make peace by supervening circumstances. Colin Thubron, who can read Mandarin, noted the blandness that prevailed in the literary aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s: when dissent had been alive, the dissenters had dissented among themselves. It is a misconception to think that the emigration from Germany produced nothing—the memoirs alone constitute a whole library of substantial German literature—but equally it would be a misconception to think that the émigrés achieved even a tiny fraction of what they would have achieved had they been left free to quarrel. (They quarrelled anyway, but on a drastically reduced scale: unable to disagree about Hitler, they could disagree only about Stalin.)

In my time, in both London and New York, there have certainly been gatherings on the terrace; and in Melbourne and Sydney they become more frequent and impressive by the year; but the herzliche Stunden can never for long be counted on as a sustaining context. Thomas Mann, a tougher nut in every way than Zweig, noted how in the Vienna of Brahms it was remarkable how the musicians, united only in their mutual suspicion, jealously protected their individuality. (The omniscient Fitelberg, one of Mann’s best shots at the figure of the cultural ominivore, says it in Doktor Faustus: “Wolf, Brahms and Bruckner lived for years on end in the same city, namely Vienna, avoided one another the whole time, and none of them, as far as I know, ever met one of the others.”) The same applies to the Paris of the great painters. Today their masterpieces hang together in the same galleries. We can find our ideal Paris in New York, Chicago, Moscow and Petersburg. While they were painting, in the real Paris, they would cross the boulevard to avoid each other. For understandable reasons, Zweig wished the world otherwise; but in that respect his World of Yesterday was a never-never land. He was always looking for concrete, tangible realizations of a coherence that can exist nowhere except in the spirit. His celebrated collection of autograph manuscripts, which was in display in the Salzburg house, brought the great artists of the past together: another gathering on the terrace. Typically, upon arrival in his last new country, Zweig wrote a book about it: Brasilien, Land der Zukunft (Brazil, Land of the Future). Quoting freely from the Portuguese, the book is a stunning tribute to his powers of almost instantaneous assimilation. But it also testifies to his corrosive grief. He tries to persuade himself that a land without a past might be a new start for civilization. The real theme, however, has all to do with what he has lost. In Rio de Janeiro the terrace was almost empty, and in Petrópolis, where he took his own life, there was no terrace at all. I have been there, and seen it; and it can be a beautiful place, when the purple quarezmas bloom against the green forest; but it isn’t long before you starve for company.

And I realized that for any man, much of the best of his personal freedom would be limited and distorted by photographic publicity.

This was an early perception of how the destructive effects of fame in the twentieth century were spreading even to the world of art. Zweig knew more about success than any other serious writer of his time. No stranger to press scrapbooks and photo albums, he documented himself with care. He was always a mighty archivist. But he saw the danger, and might well, had he chosen to live, have chosen the next stage to fame: reclusion. (He could never have done without illustrious company, but might have been quite good at scaring them all to silence.) If he could have seen forward in time, he would have well understood the course taken by Thomas Pynchon and J. D. Salinger. He would have been an appreciative student of the minimax approach to the requirements of publicity, by which the star says just enough to keep the mill turning. Nowadays, everyone knows that fame must be managed, or it will do the managing. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, in Der doppelte Boden, says that Heine was condemned to world fame. The “condemned” is the modern word, but Zweig would have seen its force. Even earlier, Proust had foreseen that there would be a desirable status beyond being well-known, in which one was known only by those that fame did not impress. In Sodome et Gomorrhe he noted that the true stars of le monde—by which he meant high society—are tired of appearing in it. Zweig never got tired of it, while it was still a society. He enjoyed his stellar status, but his good heart made him slow to grasp that his very celebrity was one of the reasons the Nazis wanted him dead. The idea that the German-speaking culture was being so prominently represented by a Jew made them angry: a sign that Nazi ideology had only a tangential relationship with nationalism.

We are a lost generation, who will never see a united Europe again.

The term “lost generation” had already been launched by Gertrude Stein. Zweig merely put it to a more appropriate use. Nobody was trying to kill Hemingway and Fitzgerald except the manufacturers of what W. C. Fields called spirituous fermenti. Zweig’s generation was up against a more formidable enemy. Nevertheless his suicide in January 1942 will always be a bit of a mystery. It seems not quite to fit the circumstances: with America in the war, the Nazis no longer looked like winning, and there was no reason to think that he would not have resumed his glittering international position when the war was over. But we could be dealing with a disposition of mind. Despite his success and his huge range of prominent friends, he had been on the verge of despair for most of his life. As the date of this quotation shows, he already felt that way while the Weimar Republic was still in one piece. He had felt that way at the end of World War I. He had wanted a depoliticized world, and it was obvious that the war had had the opposite effect: it had shattered the foundations of society, but it had also reinforced politics to the point where nobody was exempt. By 1928, when Germany was enjoying an economic recovery which might have perpetuated the Weimar Republic if the Depression had not sealed democracy’s fate, Zweig had reasons to modify his pessimism. But it deepened, because the political divisions in Europe were deepening too. From the start of his waking life, Zweig had staked everything on the concept of a coherent European humanist heritage. After the Nazis got in, there was nowhere for his pessimism to go except further into despair.

Franz Werfel said truly that Zweig was equipped to live in the countries of exile before there was an exile. He was multilingual, he was famous all over the world, his manners were perfect and there was nowhere that his stream of royalties did not reach. But his personal success meant little to him outside the ambit of its original context. His final breakdown can be seen well under way in the Tagebücher that he kept early in World War II. On page 410, we see that he was already carrying a phial of poison at the time of Dunkirk. On page 464, “der Epoch der Sicherheit vorbei ist” (the epoch of security is over). The word vorbei keeps cropping up. “It is over. Europe finished, our world destroyed. Now we are truly homeless.” By “we” Zweig didn’t mean just the Jews, a category in which he was reluctant to believe until he found out the hard way that Hitler did. Zweig meant everyone who had lived for the arts, for scholarship and for humanism. He was wrong, of course: Thomas Mann was angry at the selfishness of Zweig’s suicide—too personal. But that was the way Zweig felt, even as it became clear that the forces of destruction would not win the war. He thought that they had already won the war that mattered. We who grew up in the aftermath have a right to say that his resignation was premature, but we would be very foolish to slight its sincerity. Our united Europe of today will be doing very well if it can restore the qualities of which he was the living representative, and which led him to destroy himself because he thought they were irretrievably vorbei. The price of studying the heritage that produced him is to be steadily invaded by the suspicion that he might have been right. Reader beware.

That was why he read history and that was why he studied philosophy: not to educate himself or convince himself, but to see how other men had acted, and thus to measure himself beside others.

Zweig always wrote wonderfully about Montaigne, with whom he shared the gift of summarizing and assessing the actions of historical figures, although Zweig probably did it to a different end. Montaigne could have been a man of action: there were many official attempts to lure him out of his library, and one of them secured his services for a diplomatic initiative that probably saved France from ruin. Shakespeare, our supreme student of Montaigne, actually was a man of action for most of his life: the theatre was no cloister, and nobody could have invented Timon of Athens who had not dealt with practical matters, kept the hirelings in line, and acknowledged the power of an account book. Zweig, however, was a man of letters in the most usually accepted sense: i.e., he was not a man of anything else. His gallery of portraits of the mighty, stretching through his writings like the Uffizi collection through its long corridor, does not lead to a paradigm of action, except to the extent that to achieve understanding is an action in itself. There is something passive about Zweig, and, human nature being what it is, the passive invites a kicking. Critics capable of being sensitive about anyone else still find it permissible to be insensitive about him. While he was alive, they found it mandatory. Is he really, they used to ask, any better than Emil Ludwig, who lives high in rented villas and plush hotels while cranking out glib historical success stories to convince Philistine businessmen that they are really Napoleon? Doesn’t Zweig, by lavishing the same sympathy on both, reduce Erasmus to the level of Marie-Antoinette? Where is the man, behind that universal curiosity and suspiciously mellifluous style?

Well, the answer is that he is not behind them: he is in them. Zweig was the sum total of his appreciations, to which his style gave the spiritual unity that they never had in life. For those of us reading German as a language not our first, there is always a tendency to be too grateful for the writer who makes it easy. But Zweig makes it better than easy: he makes it effortless. There are whole pages that the beginner can sail through and leave the dictionary until later, because the impetus makes the syntax unmistakeable. Much of his prose rhythm is poetic in the raw sense of being laid out with the specific, point-to-point vividness of verse. Often you will find Zweig writing a clause that you could match to a line by Rilke. They were soulmates, although you can bet, as so often with Zweig, that the admiration was more selfless from his direction than from the other. Rilke and Zweig visited André Chénier’s tomb together. Zweig was the one better equipped to appreciate the generosity of Chénier’s last night on Earth, which he spent comforting an aristocratic young lady against the chill prospect of the morning, when they would both be taken from the Conciergerie to be guillotined. Rilke would have been more interested in her coat of arms.

The difference between Rilke and Zweig was crucial. Rilke was a mighty lover of the arts, but even that love redounded to his own glory. All that he adored was absorbed into his personal style. He glossed the world over with his own preciosity. Zweig was more humble. He could imagine a world without himself, and when the time came he made what he imagined real. (It is hard to conceive of Rilke committing suicide: how could the world have stood the deprivation?) Yet both of them are glories of twentieth-century literature in the German language. Their books are lined up in the most fruitful kind of competition, in which neither contestant can really replace the other. Collecting Zweig’s books is made the more delicious by the variety of formats and publishers. Rilke, even after his death, went on and on in the standard format lovingly chosen for him by Insel Verlag. But the gulf between the physical uniformity of Rilke’s books and the physical variety of Zweig’s invites us to look for a deeper clue. We can find it in the dates on the title page. Insel Verlag was permitted to go on publishing Rilke in Germany right through the Nazi era. Zweig’s books had no single home, and least of all were they at home in Germany and Austria while the Nazis were in power. While Goebbels ruled German culture, the state had no fundamental quarrel with Rilke’s humanism. It proscribed Zweig’s humanism because Zweig was a Jew. There is a reminder, there, that we should not get carried away by the idea that totalitarianism can’t put up with the humanist love of the arts and learning. Josef Brodsky said that Osip Mandelstam was proscribed because his lyricism was intolerable to the state. No doubt it was, but it is even more likely that he was proscribed because he wrote something rude about Stalin. Even the Soviet Union, which was much more thoroughly censorious than Nazi Germany, put up with quite a lot of overt love for the arts. The pre-revolutionary repertoire of classical ballet, for example, was never taken away from the people. (In Communist China it was: one of the several measures by which the Maoists, and especially Madame Mao, were even more insane than the Stalinists). To avoid sentimentality, we should be ready to accept the possibility that an all-knowing state will know enough to co-opt the arts by letting people love them, as long as that love does not interfere with the state’s ideological precepts. A smart bad state could afford to let the arts survive, because it would know that they are better at encouraging contentment than arousing rebellion. We should beware, then, of their seduction. Liberals and humanists are always saying that art is the soul of truth. But they are quite often ignoring the truth while they say so.

The most seductive thing about literature is the books. They are a token of how self-contained it all is, or at any rate appears to be. A printed book is actually a miracle of technology that took more than five hundred years to develop, but it does not look or feel impossibly far from the notebook and the pen that are all it takes for us to get a printed book started. For the musician, things are not always so portable. Some of the instruments are beautiful, and increasingly the instrumentalists are beautiful too—female violinists get spreads in Vogue. But a composer can’t carry his orchestra around with him, and there were no good old days in which the composer for even a single instrument, except perhaps if he concentrated on the piccolo, could pull it out of his pocket. Chopin never pushed his piano into a café. The painters used to draw in the café but were rarely allowed to paint there. Not only can the writer read in the café, he can write. And the day might always come when the book he reads in the café is the book he wrote. When he looks at his own sentences in print, he will find them transformed. The better they are—let us suppose that he can tell bad from good even when reading his own stuff—the more they will sound as if he didn’t write them. They will sound as if they were written by the single voice that all good writers seem to share when at their closest to the truth.

When children carefully inscribe their names at the front of their school-books they add their address to the name, and then add the information that the address is in a certain country, which is in the world, which is in the universe. They are trying to raise their names to universality. Print does all that for you. Print leaves your sedulously practised signature behind, along with your personal handwriting. Strangely enough, this process does not feel like the weakening of identity, but the strengthening of it. We must tread carefully here, because that feeling of having one’s identity strengthened by being absorbed into a mass is at the heart of fascism’s appeal in all its varieties. But the writers don’t cease to be themselves: far from it. They aren’t marching anywhere, they look implausible in uniform, and they have a petulant reluctance to give up responsibility for what they say. They might blend together in print, but they become, through being printed, more individual than ever. My heroes and heroines in this book would not only have been less famous if they had never been published, they would have been less defined as characters. It was being published, even after his death, that brought Franz Kafka alive: otherwise he would have been just a man who got nowhere with women. As things are, he defines the anguish of an epoch. Albert Camus would have been just a man who got everywhere with women. As things are, he is the exemplar of liberalism as the awkward truth. Anna Akhmatova would have been just a woman who broke men’s hearts. As things are, she is remembered forever as the poet who answered the prayer of innocent victims to define the nightmare that had broken the heart of her country.

You can say, if you like, that in every case the private person was the real one. But it would be a very thin conception of what a person is, and a hopelessly impoverished version of reality. Our lives are enriched by people who create works of art better than their personalities: the best excuse for the rogues among them, and the best reason for our raising the virtuous to the plane of worship. The latter reaction might seem extravagant, but we should watch out for those who say so: they are much more short on reverence than we are on judgement. There is an unmistakeable continuity between holy scripture and the accumulated secular text we call literary culture. All we have to remember is that infallibility plays no part in it. On the contrary: fallibility is of the essence. The phrase “it is written” is automatically suspect, especially when the written words are printed. The authoritative typeface might be devoted to an insidious lie. Or there might simply be a misprint. My final quotation, the only anonymous one in the book, is chosen with that possibility in mind.