Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Stefan Zweig

Fascinating article at The Atlantic on Stefan Zweig, a writer I had not heard of but probably should have. It also tends to play in to my particular opinion that we hit a social, cultural, and artistic high point in the late nineteenth century up to the First World War, and have been on a downhill slide since the end of the Second World War, one that is accelerating. What have we produced in artistic movements, literature, painting, architecture, and so on that compares the the Romantic Movement, the Gothic Revival, the Viennese Secession, the Beaux-Arts, the City Beautiful Movement, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and on and on. Where are Brahms and Elgar, Monet and Cézanne, Daniel Burnham and Edward Lutyens, Herman Melville and Victor Hugo? Probably working overtime on an Excel spreadsheet somewhere. Even our movies (Spider-Man, Godzilla) are retreads from before the 1970's.

Anyway, Zweig seems to have been one of those who subscribed to the religion of progress due to the amazing technical achievements mankind was making during his lifetime. Then, later in life, he realized that technical progress and social/moral progress were not related. He never quite renounced his belief in mankind's advancment however:
... One thing that’s important about Zweig’s story is the fact that, up until the First World War, he was deeply optimistic. In 1908, he described watching a zeppelin fly over Vienna—and in this airborne vehicle, effortlessly crossing national borders, cheered on by citizens of disparate countries, Zweig saw a symbol of the brotherhood of humanity that was to come. He saw technological progress and social progress as absolutely aligned, working in lock-step to unite the Continent through the beauty and significance of its peoples’ achievements.

In his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, Zweig describes how electric streetlights, and the telephone, and cars and planes, and the beginnings of modern medicine briefly convinced Europe that humanity was entering a new golden age. “Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles,” he wrote, and health and wealth had increased with them, and for a brief time a new utopia seemed within reach. “People no more believed in the possibility of barbaric relapses, such as wars between the nations of Europe, than they believed in ghosts and witches,” he wrote. “They honestly thought that divergences between nations and religious faiths would gradually flow into a sense of common humanity, so that peace and security, the greatest of goods, would come to all mankind.”

Although Zweig himself had once shared that faith—it was already shattered with regard to technology by 1914, and it only proceeded to break down into smaller, more jagged pieces from there. By the end of his life, he had no illusions that peace and widespread accord were imminent or even possible. He’d seen firsthand how the extraordinary technological advancements of those years went hand-in-hand with the depths of barbarism. I think the most despairing moment in the memoir is when he describes the situation in Vienna after the Anschluss, about which he says:

    How timid, how petty, how lamentable my imagination—all human imagination—in the light of the inhumanity which discharged itself on March 13, 1938.

And then he uses this extraordinary phrase:

    The mask was off.

For Zweig to propose that the efflorescence of evil at that moment was so engulfing that it actually defeated and outdid the imagination must be understood as a spiritual collapse. He’d made the imagination a virtually divine element in the human constitution; therefore its supersession was unspeakably damning. I think this probably represents the pivot moment for Zweig when the humanity he wanted to believe in no longer felt possible.

The Germans, he says, considered Vienna the Falstaff of cities—a city devoted to jouissance, a lazy, fun-loving city. However, after the first World War, it was revealed that this mask of frivolity worn in Vienna had deceived even the Viennese. Because their investment in the arts, and in handicrafts, was precisely what enabled them to rebuild the entire city when it lay in devastation—collapsed buildings, grass in the streets, mass starvation—in a matter of a few years. Those artistic skills—essentially skills of the imagination and of the aesthetic hand—proved to have in reserve the power to make the world anew after a disaster. It’s an enormously beautiful paean to the importance of cultural work.


    That historic hour in which the sun of human trust shone with gentle effulgence down upon our European earth was a beautiful moment in time. If the delusion that the peoples were always at peace and united was premature, still we must respect it and return grateful thanks that it ever existed. Men have always been needed to would be bold enough to believe that history is not a dull and monotonous repetition, the same game played over and over again under different disguises, but have had an invincible confidence that moral progress is a reality, that mankind is slowly climbing a ladder to better things, leaving behind its bestiality and returning to godliness.

We need leaders, in other words, who still believe in the myth of progress even if it must remain to some extent perpetually a myth.
Zweig is writing this seven years before the memoir, but is already clearly aware of the degree to which there was a great deal of delusion in the faith he and his peers had placed in education, and in this possibility of lifting the masses out of their disenfranchised condition by way of cultural enlightenment alone. But he insists that this very delusion also enabled people to begin laying the foundation stones for what we would now call pan-European values, and super-national civilization. I’m certain that he would have seen the EU, for all its flaws and limitations, on a spectrum with the ideals he fought for. (He once labeled his pan-European project the coming “world Switzerland.”) Zweig ultimately views the arts and the most sublime possibilities of humanity as linked in both speculative and in practical ways.
How Creativity Could Save Humanity (The Atlantic)


  1. Go see Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" now.

    1. I don't see many movies, but I'll have to check that one out.


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