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The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Denn man dachte anders über die Dinge vor dreißig und vierzig Jahren als in unserer heutigen Welt. Vielleicht auf keinem Gebiete des öffentlichen Lebens hat sich durch eine Reihe von Faktoren – die Emanzipation der Frau, die Freudsche Psychoanalyse, den sportlichen Körperkult, die Verselbständigung der Jugend – innerhalb eines einzigen Menschenalters eine so totale Verwandlung vollzogen wie in den Beziehungen der Geschlechter zueinander. Versucht man den Unterschied der bürgerlichen Moral des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, die im wesentlichen eine victorianische war, gegenüber den heute gültigen, freieren und unbefangeneren Anschauungen zu formulieren, so kommt man der Sachlage vielleicht am nächsten, wenn man sagt, daß jene Epoche dem Problem der Sexualität aus dem Gefühl der inneren Unsicherheit ängstlich auswich. Frühere, noch ehrlich religiöse Zeitalter, insbesondere die streng puritanischen, hatten es sich leichter gemacht. Durchdrungen von der redlichen Überzeugung, daß sinnliches Verlangen der Stachel des Teufels sei und körperliche Lust Unzucht und Sünde, hatten die Autoritäten des Mittelalters das Problem gerade angegangen und mit schroffem Verbot und – besonders im calvinistischen Genf – mit grausamen Strafen ihre harte Moral durchgezwungen. Unser Jahrhundert dagegen, als eine tolerante, längst nicht mehr teufelsgläubige und kaum mehr gottgläubige Epoche brachte nicht mehr den Mut auf zu einem solchen radikalen Anathema, aber es empfand die Sexualität als ein anarchisches und darum störendes Element, das sich nicht in ihre Ethik eingliedern ließ, und das man nicht am lichten Tage schalten lassen dürfe, weil jede Form einer freien, einer außerehelichen Liebe dem bürgerlichen ›Anstand‹ widersprach. In diesem Zwiespalt erfand nun jene Zeit ein sonderbares Kompromiß. Sie beschränkte ihre Moral darauf, dem jungen Menschen zwar nicht zu verbieten, seine vita sexualis auszuüben, aber sie forderte, daß er diese peinliche Angelegenheit in irgendeiner unauffälligen Weise erledigte. War die Sexualität schon nicht aus der Welt zu schaffen, so sollte sie wenigstens innerhalb ihrer Welt der Sitte nicht sichtbar sein. Es wurde also die stillschweigende Vereinbarung getroffen, den ganzen ärgerlichen Komplex weder in der Schule, noch in der Familie, noch in der Öffentlichkeit zu erörtern und alles zu unterdrücken, was an sein Vorhandensein erinnern könnte. The fact is that thirty or forty years ago, thinking on such subjects was not what it is in the world of today. Perhaps there has never been such a total transformation in any area of public life within a single human generation as here, in the relationship between the sexes, and it was brought about by a whole series of factors—the emancipation of women, Freudian psychoanalysis, cultivation of physical fitness through sport, the way in which the young have claimed independence. If we try to pin down the difference between the bourgeois morality of the nineteenth century, which was essentially Victorian, and the more liberal uninhibited attitudes of the present, we come closest, perhaps, to the heart of the matter by saying that in the nineteenth century the question of sexuality was anxiously avoided because of a sense of inner insecurity. Previous eras which were still openly religious, in particular the strict puritanical period, had an easier time of it. Imbued by a genuine conviction that the demands of the flesh were the Devil's work, and physical desire was sinful and licentious, the authorities of the Middle Ages tackled the problem with a stern ban on most sexual activity, and enforced their harsh morality, especially in Calvinist Geneva, by exacting cruel punishments. Our own century, however, a tolerant epoch that long ago stopped believing in the Devil and hardly believed in God any more, could not quite summon up the courage for such outright condemnation, but viewed sexuality as an anarchic and therefore disruptive force, something that could not be fitted into its ethical system and must not move into the light of day, because any form of extramarital free love offended bourgeois 'decency'. A curious compromise was found to resolve this dilemma. While not actually forbidding a young man to engage in sexual activity, morality confined itself to insisting that he must deal with that embarrassing business by hushing it up. Perhaps sexuality could not be eradicated from the polite world, but at least it should not be visible. By tacit agreement, therefore, the whole difficult complex of problems was not to be mentioned in public, at school, or at home, and everything that could remind anyone of its existence was to be suppressed.
This had been strongly recommended to me (thanks, Thomas!) and it was a good call. It is the memoir of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, about the artistic and writing circles where he grew up, and the impact on European civilisation of the First World War and the rise of Hitler. The overall tone is of course an arc from enthusiasm to depression; shortly after the book was sent to the publishers in 1942, Zweig and his wife, exiled from their home and with no prospect of return, killed themselves. The tone shifts noticeably from ruefulness to despair as the chapters roll on.

But to be more positive: Zweig wasn’t quite a stratospheric writer, but he was a huge fan of those who were, and a lot of the best passages of the book are essentially fannish anecdotes of encounters with writers and other artists who he admired. There’s a lovely early moment, for instance, when he is visiting Brussels and is present in the studio of sculptor Charles van der Stappen as he finishes off his bust of writer Émile Verhaeren, who Zweig deeply admired. It is a striking piece of art.



Other points that fascinated me:
  • Zweig’s friendship with Theodor Herzl, and the impetus given to Herzl’s thoughts on Zionism by the Dreyfus case - Herzl was actually present when Dreifuss was stripped of his rank and uniform.
  • the unsuccessful attempt by the new Austrian emperor to turn on the Germans and negotiate a separate peace with the Allies in 1917.
  • Richard Strauss challenging the Nazi regime by producing an opera written by Zweig.
  • Zweig’s friendships with Rilke and Rolland, neither of them writers I know much about but both sound very interesting.
Zweig embodies the concept of being a citizen of Europe, particularly once his homeland has turned on him. Of course that is not fashionable in some quarters today. Reading The World of Yesterday is a reminder of where we came from, and what was lost along the way. Well worth getting.

NB that the translation is by Anthea Bell, known to me in my childhood as the translator of the Asterix books.

This was both my top unread book acquired in 2016, and my top unread non-fiction book. Next in those piles are Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy, and So, Anyway..., by John Cleese.

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