This changed for me when Mad Men came to TV. (That's an odd thing to cause an epiphany, but there you are.) Here was the world of some of my earliest memories, painstakingly reproduced, and the dominant contemporary culture responded to it as if it was some freak show filled with ignorant cavemen. The light bulb went on over my head. First, it was obvious that I had been spun out of mainstream culture, as often happens to folks in middle age. This really didn't bother me because I have always been a contrarian sort, and mainstream culture can suck it. The cool thing it did for me was to make me lose adherence to the mythology. If the world looked at a past I knew to be as complex and deep as the present and chose to see it as shallow and backward, how could I justify doing the same to times before mine. History went from black and white cathode ray, to full-on IMAX 3D.
In this context The World of Yesterday has been a joy to read. Although sold as an autobiography, it is predominantly an overview of how life was lived during the lifetime of the author, Stefan Zweig. Zweig keeps the focus on the world and the events of the times rather than his personal life -- he was twice married but barely mentions either spouse.
Zweig was born in 1881, in Austria, and died in 1942 in the midst of WW2. Thus, his life starts in what is the late stages of one of the longest eras of peace Europe had ever known (there had been only small skirmishes post-Napoleon), a time that has been declared a gloriously free and stable age by virtually anyone who documented experiencing it. From that point, his world descends into the aimless slaughter of WW1 and the evil carnage of WW2.
(Quick note: because Zweig writes so clearly and accessibly, this review is going to consist mainly of quotes.)
From last month I quoted Zweig's description of the end of the 19th century and I'll repeat it here:
In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the direct and infallible road to the best of all possible worlds. The people of the time scornfully looked down on earlier epochs with their wars, famines and revolutions as periods when mankind had not yet come of age and was insufficiently enlightened. Now, however, it was a mere matter of decades before they finally saw an end to evil and violence, and in those days this faith in uninterrupted, inexorable 'progress' truly had the force of a religion.Notice how the vision and language of progressive idealism has not changed for probably 150 years. This description could be a template for every politician, journalist, community activist, college freshman, or other loudmouth who speaks of the glories of the coming age when their pet ideas have finally triumphed. Are we there yet?
Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles. Social welfare was also proceeding apace; from year to year more rights were granted to the individual, the judiciary laid down the law in a milder and more humane manner, even that ultimate problem, the poverty of the masses, no longer seemed insuperable. Sociologists and professors competed to make the lives of the proletariat healthier and happier--no wonder that century basked in its own sense of achievement and regarded every decade as it drew to a close as the prelude to a better one.
How about the generation gap, surely that came about with the brave new world in the beautiful 1960s, right? Well, no.
None of these young people believed their parents, the politicians or their teachers. Every state decree was read with distrust. The postwar generation [post-WW1] emancipated itself with a sudden, violent reaction...Anyone or anything not their own age was finished, out-of-date, done for...School councils...were set up, with young people keeping a sharp eye on the teachers and making their own changes to the curriculum, because children wanted to learn only what they liked. Girls had their hair cut in such short bobs that they could not be told from boys; young men shaved off their beards to look more like girls. Homosexuality and lesbianism were very much in fashion, not as a result of a young person's instinctive drives, but in protest against all the old traditional, legal and moral kinds of love.Oh my. Zweig insightfully suggests that all this disorderly liberty contributed to Hitler's rise, keenly noting that the fascist rises not from creeping oppression, but in reaction to chaos.
Then there is this regarding the written word:
The definite article was omitted, sentence structure reversed, everything was written in abbreviated, telegraphese style, with excitable exclamations.Sadly, they had yet to discover the glory of a 140 character limit.
One of the interesting aspects of Zweig's life is that he encountered seemingly most of the renowned artists, writers, and thinkers of his day, though many the names are now unrecognizable to the contemporary world. His description of the life of these figures is quite different from how we would picture a life in the arts today.
"To all outward appearance, the life of these Impressionists whose work now fetches tens of millions of dollars was just like the life of a petit bourgeois living on a small income--a little house with a studio built on to it, none of the showy splendors of the grand villas...The writers whom I soon came to know personally lived as simply as the artists. Most of them held minor public office in a job that did not call for much strenuous work...For instance, they might be appointed as librarians...others were doctors...or ran a little picture gallery...or taught in grammar schools...none of them were pretentious enough to base their lives on the independent pursuit of their artistic inclinations, like those who came after them and had inflated ideas of themselves as a result of films or large print runs of their works."I am reminded of one of Jerry Pournelle's comments from long ago, that he saw no reason a writer shouldn't have a day job. Of course, I suppose it could be argued that for most people in the arts, self-promotion is their day job.
He gives a harrowing, yet strangely upbeat, account of the times of hyperinflation after the end of WW1.
Strangest of all is the fact that today, with the best will in the world, I cannot recall how we managed to keep house in those years, when everyone in Austria had to raise thousands and tens of thousands of crowns...just to survive, and then had to do it again and again. We got used to the chaos and adapted to it. Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days first hand would probably imagine that at a time when an egg cost as much in Austria as the price of a luxury car in the past, and the later fetched four billion marks in Germany--roughly the basic value of all the buildings in the greater Berlin area before inflation--women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and theatres and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in the bank and government securities melted away, speculators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept turning the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still...the baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated land, trains ran regularly...the bars and theatres were full to overflowing. For with the daily loss of the value of money...people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in midst of disaster the nation a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch.Whoa. So much to comment on in that paragraph. First, our underwater mortgages don't hold a candle to real financial chaos. Second, it seems that in certain circumstances financial chaos doesn't lead to social chaos. Would our world of service jobs and energy dependence and class envy and entitlement fare as well? Gotta give this one to the cavemen.
This one is self-serving, but it's another observation that you could have just as easily read right here on this blog.
A book really satisfies me only if it maintains it's pace page after page, carrying the readers breathlessly along to the end. Nine-tenths of the books that come my way seem to be padded out with unnecessary descriptions, too much loquacious dialogue and superfluous minor characters; they are just not dynamic and exciting enough. I get impatient with many arid, slow-moving passages even in the most famous classic masterpieces, and I have often suggested a bold idea of mine to publishers--why not bring out a series of great works of international literature...with the unnecessary parts cut?Heh, heh, heh. Preach it, brother.
When Hitler's takeover of Austria was imminent Zweig was travelling in the U.S. and South America. (He was one of the wise and/or lucky Jews who escaped.) That time generated this wonderful snippet.
But travelling, even as far as to other worlds under other stars did not allow me to escape Europe and my anxieties. It seems almost like Nature's fierce revenge on mankind that the achievements of technology through which we have taken her mysterious forces into our own hands simultaneously destroy the soul. The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time. Previous generations could retreat into solitude and seclusion when disaster struck; it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening anywhere in the world at the hour and second when it happened.Why didn't he just log off Twitter and shut off his cell phone? Oh wait, this was 1938. TV was barely on the radar at that point, yet a similar rant is written on some blog just about everyday today. Could it be that our problems aren't so new and special after all? And how far back do you have to go to find solitude? Do you suppose the Neanderthals had it right?
Should you read The World of Yesterday? I found it so rewarding that I can't say no. But I also can't deny it will have only niche appeal. If you have the same historical curiosities I have you shouldn't miss it. If you don't really have historical interests or are comfortable with the mythology (no reason not to be) it's going to be tough to appreciate. Although there are some bits of interest from an artistic angle, including encounters with Strauss, H.G. Wells, Shaw, and Freud, they will not add much to your understanding of them or their work. But I found the book so rewarding that I can't imagine a thoughtful read not yielding pleasure.
The arc of Zweig's life was ultimately tragic. He was born into a the comfort, peace and stability of the centuries-old Habsburg Empire and saw the world get progressively more bloody and savage through the course of his years, all in the interest of progress. He died a stateless Jew, effectively on the run from Hitler in 1942, never seeing the end of the 20th century horrors. Had he lived to 135, he would have found today rather familiar.