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.