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Messages from a Lost World by Stefan Zweig

Reviewed by A. M. Kaempf

May 20, 2016

Messages from a Lost World

Messages from a Lost World

by Stefan Zweig

Translated by Will Stone

Pushkin Press, 2016

On May 15th, 1941, Stefan Zweig delivered a speech to his fellow European exiles at the American PEN club in New York. After expressing his dismay and shame at the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, he issued a plea for solidarity:

It is for us today, those to whom words are granted, in the midst of a reeling, half-devastated world, to maintain in spite of everything faith in a moral force, confidence in the invincibility of the spirit. Let us then make common cause; let us accomplish our duties in our work and in our life, each in their own mother tongue, each for their own country. If we can remain faithful to ourselves at this hour and at the same time to one another, then we will at least have performed our duty with honor.

Nine months later, Zweig committed suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil. After seven years of exile, he at last succumbed to despair. In his suicide note, he declared that “the long years of homeless wandering” had left him too old and weary to bear a new beginning. Europe, his “spiritual homeland,” had destroyed itself. He ended the note with a salute to his friends: “May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before.”

During his life, Zweig was one of the most famous and successful writers in the world. But after his death his popularity diminished—so much so that in 1981, the centenary of his birth, John Fowles claimed that Zweig had suffered “a darker eclipse than any other famous writer of this century.” In Fowles’s opinion, Zweig “was arguably the most widely read and translated serious author in the world,” yet by the second half of the century, very few readers of English knew anything about him. And despite Fowles’s effort to remind the reading public of Zweig, he remained in relative obscurity until recently. But now, with books by and about Zweig appearing at a steady rate, it seems impossible to avoid him.

Pushkin Press leads the Zweig revival: in the past ten years it has published thirty of his books, the latest of which is Messages from a Lost World, a collection of essays and speeches translated by Will Stone. Ranging from 1914 to 1941, they survey the conflict in Europe between civilization and barbarism. As Stone writes in his thorough introduction, Zweig proposes “a moral defense of the European soul” against the same destructive forces that threaten Europe today; he defends “sanity against insanity, unity against division, tolerance against intolerance, intelligence against ignorance.” While it is disheartening to read these pieces today, knowing how Zweig’s life ended, it is inspiring to see that they have been published. However defeated Zweig might appear to contemporary readers, however aloof or naïve, his idea of the European soul is still worth defending. “Zweig’s hopes of European unity are remote from any realistically imaginable future,” John Gray writes in a foreword to the book—and given the present European crises, he seems correct. But even so, he recognizes that Zweig’s work remains relevant, stating that “the self-division of Europe finds striking contemporary expression in this brilliant and self-divided writer. His doubts and fears are those of his readers, and resonate as strongly today as ever.”

After reading Gray’s foreword and Stone’s introduction, Zweig’s first few pieces come as something of a disappointment. His intentions are admirable, but his reliance on grandiose metaphors renders his prose vague and unconvincing, and his mythic and poetic conceptions of history are misguided, especially when one considers the political atmosphere in which he was writing. He often floats away toward lofty abstractions, leaving the reader—and reality—behind. And although his faith in humanity is encouraging, it rarely reaches beyond shallow expressions of optimism, as in the following excerpt from “The Sleepless World”:

Even though mass destruction appears omnipresent today, monstrously spreading across a terrorized world, it is in the end nothing compared to the more powerful energy of life, which, after each interval of anguish, instills a period of recovery to ensure existence becomes stronger and still more beautiful.

Language like this is vastly inadequate for the task it chooses. It is the kind of language that might appeal to a crowd but that leaves an individual reader unsatisfied. Unfortunately, it pervades these opening pieces, undermining Zweig’s intentions and leading to simplistic conclusions, as when he discusses the Tower of Babel, one of his favorite topics:

This myth taken from the opening pages of the Bible is a wonderful symbol of the idea that with humanity as a community all is possible, even the highest aspirations, but only when it is united, and never when it is partitioned into languages and nations which do not understand each other and do not want to understand each other.

Zweig’s knowledge of the Western cultural tradition is impressive, but his writing would be more compelling if he chose to plunge deeply into this knowledge rather than sweep over its surface. He writes in the broadest of terms, avoiding the quotidian details of life that are often more significant than the grand themes and trends we notice in retrospect. He is a storyteller, not a historian, and the stories he tells here are better suited to schoolchildren than adults. History, as he presents it, is composed of great people and events—and nothing else. It is a source of poetry, an inspiration for metaphor, a foundation for myth. “History has made perfect poetry of herself,” he writes in “History as Poetess.” This is a lovely sentiment, but it is far from factual. History is not a work of art, not a metaphor, not an abstraction. It is defined as much by pettiness as it is by grandeur, as much by the ordinary masses as it is by extraordinary individuals. It is not a poetess, and to describe it as such is to display a worrisome detachment from reality.

The book becomes more interesting with “The Unification of Europe,” an unfinished piece composed around 1934 and intended to be delivered as a lecture in Paris. Here, Zweig’s argument for a unified Europe is tempered by an acknowledgement of nationalism’s inherent advantages. “The European idea is not a primary emotion like patriotism or ethnicity,” he writes; “it is not born of a primitive instinct, but rather of perception; it is not the product of spontaneous fervor, but the slow-ripened fruit of a more elevated way of thinking.” Nationalism, he admits, appeals to people’s emotions as rational arguments do not. It has the masses at its service; it has the army and the education system. Against all this, the written word is “woefully ineffectual.” Zweig then makes a call for action, and in doing so he expresses a sense of futility and despair about his intellectual way of life: “Let us now abandon the aloof humanist way of thinking, the airy notion that with mere words, writings and yet more conferences one can make an impact on a world saturated with weaponry and bloated with mutual distrust.”

Zweig is indeed a self-divided writer, as Gray notes in the foreword, and this plea for action—if taken seriously—seems to contradict his entire way of life. Surely there is a middle ground between impotent words and mindless actions—a middle ground on which Zweig’s success as a writer was founded. Words may not win wars, but they can certainly change the world in meaningful ways. The writers Zweig admired proved this in their lives and work; Zweig himself proved this in his illustrious career, and he continues to prove this long after his death, with the renewed popularity of his work.

The publication of Messages from a Lost World is timely, and many of its passages are as apposite now as when they were written. In “The Historiography of Tomorrow”—one of the most engaging pieces in the book—he writes:

However at odds our opinions might be, there is one fact on which we all agree wherever we may dwell on this earth: that presently our world finds itself in an extraordinary situation, in the midst of a deep moral crisis. In the case of Europe particularly, one has the sense that all its peoples and nations are currently locked in a state of unhealthy nervous tension. The merest inducement is sufficient to provoke a surge of emotion. We welcome bad news far more easily than good. Individuals as much as races, classes as much as states appear more disposed to hate than to listen to one another. No one it seems has any faith in calm and rational processes. On the contrary, the whole world lives in fear that a massive eruption of some kind will occur at any moment.

Written in 1939, this passage is haunting in how it pertains to the present situation in Europe. Many other passages in Messages from a Lost World do the same, giving the book a profound relevance today. It may not be among Zweig’s best books, but it is worth reading as a supplement to them, and as a source of insight into our troubled times. The pieces are arranged chronologically, and as they progress one can see Zweig maturing as a writer. Beyond his early fondness for empty abstractions, he offers a thoughtful alternative to the popular attitude of patriotic philistinism. He defends a culture based on tolerance and internationalism; a culture that celebrates art, literature, music, and philosophy; a culture that values the life of the mind, the life of the spirit. Perhaps such a culture is merely an idea, but even as an idea it possesses great power.

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A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.