Friday, June 23, 2006

Why Zweig Still Matters

Early in 1942 something happened that will probably never be fully explained, though some of the reasons for it are obvious. Stefan Zweig the expatriate Viennese author and his second wife, Lotte, had settled in Brazil, in the mountain town of Petropolis. They were visiting Rio to see the Carnival. On February 16, Shrove Tuesday, Stefan was shocked to read of the fall of Singapore to the Japanese two days earlier and, in the same newspaper, of the advances made by the Germans in their drive across North Africa toward the Suez Canal. Zweig and Lotte cut their visit to the Carnival short, returning to their rented house in Petropolis. He came back to Rio only once, to give a copy of his will to his attorney, together with an envelope full of valuable autograph documents and drawings. In the envelope was a note in French to a friend, in which he said:

You know how tired of life I was after losing my homeland, Austria, and could not any longer find true life in my work, living as a nomad and feeling myself grow old more by my inward sufferings than by the years.

Later, when the friend found the note, he was in a position to realize that it was in effect a suicide note. Zweig wrote many farewell letters, put manuscripts, including his last work of fiction and draft chapters of the never-to-be-finished book on Montaigne, in envelopes. After attending to every detail, not omitting postage for their last letters, and even sharpening the pencils on Zweig’s desk, he and Lotte lay down on their bed and took massive doses of veronal, a sleep medication.

I have long believed that, for people who love either peace or freedom, 1942 was the absolute nadir of human development. To Zweig, who loved liberty and was a pacifist, it must have seemed the deepest midnight of the soul. For my own part, as I look back at the Americans of that period, people whose view of the world was expressed by the folksy banter of Fred Allen and the shallow bouncy cheerfulness of Glen Miller, they simply seem insane to me. The Greatest Generation? Don’t make me larf! At a certain level, the suicide of the Zweigs is not really a mystery. If there had been more insight in the world 1942, there would have been more suicides. Of course, we now know that year was a turning point, that things have gotten better ever since. But Zweig could not have known that. Prophecy is not part of human insight.

One of the principal themes of Zweig’s work was an aching nostalgia for the cultural world that was destroyed, you might say deliberately executed, by the previous war, World War I. One cause for this nostalgia was aesthetic. Although Zweig was familiar with modernist developments in the arts and considered Alban Berg a friend, Zweig’s own work represents, so to speak, a road not taken, much more closely related to the naturalism and romanticism of the nineteenth century than was path taken by his modernist colleagues. Together with his friend Richard Strauss, he was one of the very few representatives of this great tradition left alive. As a living tradition it, together with the “musical rhythm” he said it had once imparted to Viennese life, was a thing of the distant and ever-receding past. Artistically, he felt he was a man whose time had come and gone

Another cause for aching nostalgia, for Zweig, was that the lost world was in a certain way far freer than the new one. In his memoir, appropriately titled The World of Yesterday, he tells how he would sometimes amaze young people during the late nineteen thirties by telling them that during the pre-war years he traveled all over Europe and as far as India and America without ever being asked for a passport, indeed without ever having seen one. A Russian emigre once said to him that formerly a human being was a body and a soul, while today you are not treated as a human being unless you have a body, a soul, and a passport. Another Viennese Jew, born the same year as Zweig, often emphasized the same aspects of the pre-war period: the economist Ludwig von Mises.) Zweig maintained that, while it is true that the young of his generation were oppressed by morality (what we in the English-speaking world call Victorian morality), it is also true that the young of today (1942) are oppressed by the State.

There are at least two reasons why Zweig, for long an almost forgotten author, now matters more than ever. Surely we can now see that twentieth century statism was a nightmare from which we are now finally beginning to awaken. He was right about that one, and we were wrong. Again, now that the modernist experiment has been carried out, can’t we now see what a failure it was? The most recent piece of classical music that is still being performed on a regular basis in concert halls is the “Four Last Songs,” by Zweig’s fellow-anti-modernist, Richard Strauss. I don't think it is quite a coincidence that they were created in the same year as the great Zweig-based film, "Letter from an Unknown Woman": 1948. As far as classical music concert-goers are concerned, the half-century since that time was almost completely wasted. And what a collossal tragic waste that is. Just think of the musical works that were created in the last half of the nineteenth century! Surely Zweig was right, at least partly right, about that one as well.

Now, there is reason to think that interest in Zweig is on the rise again. Maybe he is a man whose time has come back!

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