Ian Brin­ton

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Breath­ing the World’s Air

Mes­sages from a Lost World, Ste­fan Zweig, trans­lated by Will Stone, Pushkin Press, 2016, 224pp, (hard­back)

The Sto­ry­teller: Tales out of Lone­lines, Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Verso, 2016, 240pp, (pa­per­back) In his Pref­ace to the Sec­ond Edi­tion of Mod­ern Painters John Ruskin made his views very clear about the weak­ness of gen­er­al­iza­tion by re­fer­ring to it as the act of a ‘vul­gar, in­ca­pable, and un­think­ing mind’:

To see in all mountains noth­ing but sim­i­lar heaps of earth; in all rocks, noth­ing but sim­i­lar con­cre­tions of solid mat­ter; in all trees, noth­ing but sim­i­lar ac­cu­mu­la­tions of leaves, is no sign of high feel­ing or ex­tended thought.

Wil­liam Blake was more suc­cinct in his an­no­ta­tion of The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘[to] gen­er­al­ize is to be an Id­iot.’ Ruskin firmly be­lieved that ‘[t]he more we know, and the more we feel, the more we sep­a­rate; we sep­a­rate to ob­tain a more per­fect unity.’

Unity and di­vi­sion are cen­tral ideas through­out the work of both Ste­fan Zweig and Wal­ter Ben­jamin, and per­haps the most strik­ing early ex­am­ple of the in­ter­wo­ven na­ture of the two can be lo­cated in the Bi­b­li­cal myth of the build­ing of the Tower of Ba­bel. In Zweig’s 1916 es­say for the Genev­abased paci­fist jour­nal, Le Carmel, he saw that early ar­chi­tec­tural as­pi­ra­tion as a yearn­ing to join forces to­wards a com­mon end. In Zweig’s re-telling of the nar­ra­tive ‘these men were united and in ac­cord, be­cause they never paused in their work and came to each other’s as­sis­tance in a spirit of mu­tual har­mony.’ When God dis­rupts the build­ing of the Tower he does so by

con­fus­ing their lan­guage:

Sud­denly, overnight, in the midst of their labours, men could no longer un­der­stand each other. They cried out, but had no con­cept of each other’s speech, and so they be­came en­raged with each other.

As a re­sult each man re­turned to his own home in his own land and ‘erected bound­aries be­tween their fields and ter­ri­to­ries, be­tween their cus­toms and be­liefs’, only cross­ing these bound­aries for the pur­pose of in­va­sion.

By the time that he wrote a lec­ture to be given in Paris in 1934, en­ti­tled ‘The Uni­fi­ca­tion of Europe’, Zweig’s ideas con­cern­ing Euro­pean unity were even more di­rect, prompt­ing him to as­sert that all the lead­ing heads of state, in­tel­lec­tu­als, artists and schol­ars were con­vinced:

that only a slen­der al­le­giance by all states to a su­pe­rior gov­ern­ing body could re­lieve cur­rent eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties, re­duce the propen­sity for war and eliminate anx­i­eties aroused by the threat of con­flict, which are them­selves one of the pri­mary causes of the eco­nomic cri­sis.

The ten pas­sion­ate es­says in this new vol­ume of Zweig’s work, subti­tled ‘Europe on the Brink’, have been trans­lated by Will Stone, and his introduction to the book is a model of clar­ity and in­sight. Com­ment­ing on the in­ter­link­ing mes­sage of these es­says, where one re­in­forces an­other, Stone high­lights Zweig’s be­lief that na­tion­al­ism is the sworn en­emy of civ­i­liza­tion in that ‘its mal­odor­ous pres­ence’ thwarts the ‘de­vel­op­ment of in­tel­li­gence’; its tenets are those of ‘di­vi­sion, re­gres­sion, ha­tred, vi­o­lence and per­se­cu­tion.’ The op­ti­mistic and flour­ish­ing world of the Weimar Repub­lic, ‘an idea seek­ing to be­come a re­al­ity’ (Peter Gay), was born out of the Ger­man de­feat of 1918 and the ar­chi­tect Wal­ter Gropius was not alone in rec­og­niz­ing the dev­as­tat­ing sense of what had hap­pened within the sec­ond decade of twen­ti­eth-cen­tury Europe: ‘This is more than just a lost war. A world has come to an end. We must seek a rad­i­cal so­lu­tion to our prob­lems.’

The War­burg In­sti­tute sprang up within the Weimar years as a char­ac­ter­is­tic ex­pres­sion of gen­uine hope for a sta­ble and hu­mane fu­ture. Fritz Saxl, along with Er­win Panof­sky, en­sured that the War­burg Li­brary was closely af­fil­i­ated with the new Univer­sity of Ham­burg and Ernst Cas­sirer was ap­pointed to the Chair of Phi­los­o­phy there. It was a world in which, in 1927, the play­wright Hugo von Hof­mannsthal could ad­dress an au­di­ence at the Univer­sity of Mu­nich with the vi­sion of life hav­ing a new world of the fu­ture achiev­able through valid connections: ‘…all par­ti­tions into which mind has po­lar­ized life, must be over­come in the mind, and trans­formed into spir­i­tual unity.’

Ad­dress­ing his au­di­ence in al­most mys­ti­cal terms he urged ‘spir­i­tual ad­her­ence’ and that ‘life be­comes liv­able only through valid connections.’

Wal­ter Ben­jamin also per­ceived the First World War as the great di­vide and the introduction to this ex­cel­lent new selec­tion of his sto­ries ap­pear­ing from Verso makes this clear:

Be­fore the on­set of the First World War, we are told, ex­pe­ri­ence was passed down through the gen­er­a­tions in the form of folk­lore and fairy tales…With the war came the sev­er­ing of ‘the red thread of ex­pe­ri­ence’ which had con­nected pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, as Ben­jamin puts it in ‘Sketched into Mo­bile Dust’.

This first ma­jor col­lec­tion of Ben­jamin’s fiction gives us work rang­ing from 1906 to 1939 and its ti­tle, The Sto­ry­teller, echoes the 1936 re­flec­tions he wrote on the work of Niko­lai Leskov in which he had sug­gested that the art of sto­ry­telling was com­ing to an end:

Less and fre­quently do we en­counter peo­ple with the abil­ity to tell a tale prop­erly...Was it not no­tice­able at the end of the war that men re­turned from the bat­tle­field grown silent - not richer, but poorer in com­mu­ni­ca­ble ex­pe­ri­ence.

The con­clu­sion that Ben­jamin had reached was that the art of sto­ry­telling was reach­ing its end be­cause ‘the epic side of truth, wis­dom, is dy­ing out.’

Subti­tled ‘Tales out of Lone­li­ness’, this new pub­li­ca­tion of sto­ries is di­vided into three sec­tions, ‘Dream­worlds’, ‘Travel’ and ‘Play and Ped­a­gogy’. The first sec­tion of fan­tas­ti­cal fiction in­cludes some of his ear­li­est writ­ing but also pro­vides us with ex­am­ples of the writer’s own dreams from the 1930s and as the introduction tells us, ‘Dreams shape his­tory and are shaped by it.’ Their im­por­tance lies in their ex­pres­sion of de­sires which are both con­di­tioned and de­ter­mined by his­tory: ‘They thus hold to the anx­i­eties, ba­nal­i­ties and bru­tal­i­ties of each epoch as much as they point to the destruction of those con­di­tions.’

In the sec­tion deal­ing with travel, we are pointed to­wards the ex­cite­ment and risk in­volved in move­ments across Europe since, af­ter all, to travel is to leave be­hind the fa­mil­iar and to dis­cover that rail­way sta­tions are the thresh­olds to other worlds. Cityscapes pro­vide the trav­eller with an in­sight into how lives and lo­ca­tions in­ter­twine; street names can be like intoxicating sub­stances ‘that make our per­cep­tions more strat­i­fied and richer in space.’As the introduction sug­gests, the street name can be­come a po­etry avail­able to all, ‘a strat­i­fi­ca­tion and am­pli­fi­ca­tion of sense and senses that will cas­cade for those who are open to it, a cataract of connections, lead­ing into and out of po­lit­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing and emo­tional truth.’ The lit­tle story ‘Sketched into Mo­bile Dust’, writ­ten in 1929 and trans­lated here by Se­bas­tian Trusko­laski, has a deep poignancy as an in­scrip­tion traced in dust brings to life a past in which a stone ma­son had carved the name of his co­cotte lover into a stone Gothic cap­i­tal dur­ing some cathe­dral ren­o­va­tions. The world of late sto­ries by Henry James comes to mind as Ben­jamin ‘draws out of the things he wit­nesses an in­ter­pen­e­tra­tion of im­ages which is a con­cen­tra­tion of the en­er­gies of the world in their most po­tent state, am­pli­fied be­cause of the con­stric­tion of the space that holds them.’

Travel was also of cen­tral im­por­tance to the life of Ste­fan Zweig and, as he moved be­tween Paris and Lon­don, in a Jour­nal en­try from Septem­ber 1935 em­pha­sised that fun­da­men­tal as­pect of the way he lived his life:

Is it be­cause the world shakes on its foun­da­tions that one is so used to liv­ing in per­pet­ual move­ment? Is it the pre­mo­ni­tion that a time is ap­proach­ing when coun­tries will erect bar­ri­ers be­tween them, so you yearn to breathe quickly, while you still can, a lit­tle of the world’s air?

The last es­say in Mes­sages from a Lost World is the 1941 dec­la­ra­tion of sol­i­dar­ity in the name of Ger­man writ­ers in ex­ile pre­sented at the ban­quet of the Amer­i­can PEN club in New York. ‘In This Dark Hour’ opens with a word of unity as Zweig ap­peals to his au­di­ence of Euro­pean writ­ers ‘whose aim is to en­dorse our old avowal of faith in favour of in­tel­lec­tual union.’ Speak­ing in un­com­pro­mis­ing terms about how one can never cut one­self away from the roots of our learn­ing, the lan­guage in which we first be­came aware of our connections to the truths of the past, Ste­fan Zweig pre­sented some ideas that were to re-emerge haunt­ingly in 1970 with the sui­cide of Paul Ce­lan:

But if a writer can aban­don his coun­try, he can­not wrench him­self from the lan­guage in which he cre­ates and thinks. It is in this lan­guage that we have, through­out our lives, fought against the self-glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of na­tion­al­ism and it is the only weapon re­main­ing at our dis­posal that al­lows us to con­tinue fight­ing against the force of na­tion­al­ist crim­i­nal­ity which is lay­ing waste to our world and tram­pling the spir­i­tual en­dow­ment of mankind into the muck.

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