In Conversation with George Prochnik: On Why Stefan Zweig Matters Today
There was no time for small talk. For the first twenty minutes of our sit-down on sunny Easter Sunday in Brooklyn, George Prochnik and I discussed the responsibility of public intellectuals to engage the very people they’re trying to influence. It was top of mind, naturally, since he’s moderating a conversation at the upcoming PEN World Voices Festival on the role of public intellectuals in our time (he's hosting two other events, too). We weaved quickly through what we see happening in public intellectualism today, touching on the likes of Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Žižek, and Cornel West, comparing their public actions—and self-imposed obligations—to those of Stefan Zweig, the reason I was in Prochnik’s home in the first place.
As we circled our way into the meat of interview, like two buzzards gently descending toward a fresh carcass, Prochnik pointed out that we were on this topic because of a question he initially posed, as if he were the one conducting the interview, not the other way around. So set the tone not so much for an interview, but an engaging conversation.
For more than an hour, our conversation divided into two main themes, which are based on two of Prochnik’s books: the relevance of Stefan Zweig today (The Impossible Exile, Other Press) and the politics of silence (In Pursuit of Silence, Doubleday). Because the discussion on each of these topics was equally rich I decided to publish the conversation in two parts. This part focuses on Zweig; the second part can be read here.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Stefan Zweig was the most widely read and translated writer in the world. He had the Midas touch—every short story, novella, and biography he wrote turned to gold. Zweig was also a scene maker and cultural connector, bringing together Vienna’s elite in hopes that some greater artistic and cultural outputs would come of the experiments. He married high culture to low culture, amassed a collection of more than 10,000 books and musical scores, and was a passionate advocate for humanism and the sanctity of individualism. The rise of Hitler and the descent of Western civilization into unfathomable tyranny and destruction forced Zweig into exile, first to the United States and then to Brazil. It was there in a tiny bungalow in the town of Petropolis that Zweig and his wife, disconsolate and disconnected from the ideal humanist project he once imagined, committed suicide. He was sixty years old. The year was 1942. Despite his worldwide fame, Zweig today is hardly a household name in the U.S. Should we care?
SHAUN RANDOL: Do you think Stefan Zweig would be on Twitter or Facebook or blogging?
GEORGE PROCHNIK: He’s exactly the type of person to be on it all the time and also be using it to question those formats and media. He wrote more than 30,000 letters in his lifetime. He saw himself explicitly as a connector, as a person who was a cultural broker. He loved putting people together in different contexts and hoping something positive germinated from those interactions. He would have been home in social media completely.
What fascinates you about Zweig?
He is inexhaustibly complex. His ambivalences and his passions were so deeply reflective of and in some instances influential on a whole fabric of socio-intellectual concerns of the day. I began reading him as an adult when I was researching something on Brazil and I chanced on his book Brazil: Land of the Future. There was something so remarkable in the introduction because basically he comes out and says—in an incredibly appealing way—I came to Brazil filled with all these prejudices; I was a typical European snob; I thought this was a backwater and there was nothing there for anyone except for adventurers and people who want to exploit a primitive culture.
He says I went there and I was blown away by the degree of development of traditional forms of culture that Europeans see themselves as having a hegemony on. He goes on to say that in key aspects he finds Brazil to be even more civilized because European culture has been judging progress through statistics, statistics indicating degree of productivity, organization of comfort, all these things. He’s writing that book in the second half of the 1930s and he says now we’re forced to recognize that all of that stands for progress can co-exist with absolute barbarism. In Brazil he wanted to believe there was in fact a greater cultivation of ultimate values: tolerance, humanism, etc.
He idealized the degree of freedom Brazil enjoyed from prejudice, but if we think about what was going on in Europe in 1936 and then for him to walk the streets of Rio and see people of different colors holding hands with no sense whatsoever of a pejorative social attitude toward that, that must’ve been amazing.
I started reading this and I really liked the self-effacement. I soon recognized the degree of his fame and his willingness to say “I was completely wrong about everything.” I found that really refreshing.
I was also fascinated by his fascination with other people and other cultures in the world. When he was young he wrote a study of the Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren, one of the chapters is called “The Ethics of Fervour,” where he really lays out an ethical attitude based on the idea that the more we admire, the more we possess, the more we expose ourselves to different kinds of individuals and cultures, the richer we ourselves are. It’s this rapturous enthusiasm as an ethical position. He was later taken to task for this because fascism has also of course used enthusiasm and passionate fervor as a key militating strategy, if not with anything like Zweig’s culturally hybrid embrace.
Where is he relevant today?
What immediately comes to mind is his suicide note. He writes at one point: “I think it is better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom and highest good on Earth.”
There’s no leitmotif to his life of greater importance than his insistence on the primacy to personal freedom as giving value to life. By personal freedom he meant a number of things that are extremely pertinent to our current predicament. Nothing that he writes about politically has such sense of dismay and outrage as his feeling that, after the first World War, that life becomes bureaucratic and subject to endless restrictions on geographic mobility, endless demands for documentation, endless confinement within official determinations of your identity. Zweig says again and again that what matters is your innermost self, and your innermost self is absolutely subject to external corrosion. He says in a letter somewhere that the more he feels his identity forcibly, compulsively manifested through official documents, the less self he has. He becomes this transcription of himself that is given by a state in which he does not believe for reasons with which he would never consent to take part in if he had a say.
Zweig is fiercely committed to the notion that when you are reduced to these labels of being, whatever it is—ethnicity, physical type—it isn’t just a reduction, it’s actually a degradation of something on a deeper level. It’s not just that you’re less than you are; you’re actually taking away the essence that might be left.
And so it’s the individual’s responsibility to push back.
Absolutely. And clearly in his suicide note he felt like he can’t anymore.
What Zweig comes back to again and again is how life gets its meaning through it heterogeneity. The last time he was in Paris was April 1940 and he gave a speech called “The Vienna of Yesterday,” which became the seed of his memoir The World of Yesterday. What he talks about in his speech is in a distilled form, so it’s easier to see than in his memoir. He talks about Vienna as this incredible mélange of people from everywhere, customs from everywhere, and ideas from everywhere. What he was terrified of were monocultures, essentially, as a body ultimately seen in totalitarian countries.
I think about this in the United States when I go to different areas. Here again it’s in a consumer format, whether it’s the erasure of a space into a mall or these stores that we see over and over; it’s the erosion of heterogeneity in the visual space, the physical space, the neurological space. He has a great deal to say about that, and I think homogeneity is an enormous threat.
In your essay on Zweig for the Quarterly Conversation, you refer to an essay he wrote in 1925 on the monotonization of the United States and obliteration of individualism through consumerism. It struck me as so relevant to today, so prescient.
I think it’s where a lot of it began. I think of in relation to reality television or aspects of social media or other aspects of our culture, these global fashions and trends in entertainment and in dress. He describes it as a rush into servitude. A rush into servitude. I think about that idea now with reality television and Orwell’s idea of Big Brother: what Orwell couldn’t see was how many people would rush to be observed that way, because the fear of disappearing would be greater than the fear of living without any kind of camera at all. That’s where Zweig was completely prescient.
Was this his problem with life in exile, that it was a forced disconnection between the cultures he tried to espouse, bring together, and participate in? Did this contribute to his undoing?
There’s a remarkable statement made by a reporter who had interviewed him when he had given a press conference in 1935, where he described how when Zweig spoke about the division of Europe into different cubicles of nationalist and bureaucratic identity, the reporter said he had this feeling like he was sitting with someone talking about their own physical dismemberment. Zweig so totally identified himself with the continent as a whole. The disconnection from the ideal that Europe had been for him, to which he had devoted essentially his adult life, was extremely difficult.
Could he not make that transition or leap to a global, humanist ideal? Here he is, forced to live on the other side of the world with new people and new culture, and rather than fully embracing or adapting to North or South America he still clung to a humanist, ideal landscape based in Europe.
That’s a really interesting point. I would say a couple of things. When he went to Brazil, he fell in love with that culture. He saw it as embodying the best of a great deal of what Europe was. And in fact what’s really weird, have you read his suicide note? It’s only a couple of paragraphs. What’s strange about this note is, if you read the beginning of it, it sounds like something you would read at a dinner banquet. I have to read you the beginning:
Before parting from life with my free will and in my right mind, I am impelled to fulfill a last obligation: to give heartfelt thanks to this wonderful land of Brazil, which afforded me and my works such kind and hospitable repose. My love for the country increased from day to day. Nowhere else would I have preferred to build up a new existence, the world of my own language having disappeared for me, my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.
He says that he’s tired; he’s sixty years old. That he’s re-started his life already twice. In the end he couldn’t participate at the level he felt as an intellectual he always aspired to in what Brazil was, even though he respected it. He couldn’t have spoken more warmly about the country.
Over an over in his letters and memoir when he speaks of Europe he uses the word suicide: “Europe is committing suicide.” It’s a very harsh statement, but he did not mean that culture had stopped globally. He saw that it was going to happen somewhere else, but he didn’t see how he could insert himself in it. He felt he was too old.
Why don’t I know more about him? Why did he disappear so completely in the United States?
It’s a combination of historical accidents and also philosophical predispositions. So much of what Zweig wrote about was the idea that sometimes surrender and resignation could be morally valid positions. I think that really goes against the grain of this culture in lots of way. His suicide upset a lot of refugees who saw it as a form of surrender to the Nazi project. In this culture it reads in certain ways; it reads as defeatist. It’s very against American values. That combined with the way so much of his writing was enveloped in the aura of a culture that in the immediate post-war era was seen as bankrupt. The American moment really takes off, profoundly in the arts, and people who came over here did thrive in Hollywood and wherever. There was a rejection of a lot that was happening in Europe. I don’t think that did him any favors here, for starters.
It’s also true that as recently as 1938 there had been a movie made of his book Marie Antoinette that was one of the biggest MGM productions of the 1930s, a massive success. His drop was precipitous and fast, but it happened to a lot of people.
Zweig was obsessed with the inevitability of oblivion and the randomness of fame. There’s a beautiful essay he wrote, I think the year he went into exile. He was in London and there was a big book fair. His British publisher Desmond Flower had arranged an exhibition of bestsellers since 1830, and Zweig wrote an essay about going to this exhibition and realizing he doesn’t recognize very many of the writers, and that there are many years in which they can’t find a single copy of the biggest seller of that year. He says it doesn’t matter what a bestseller you are. In a sense what he understood was that fame in the way that he enjoyed it was being part of the zeitgeist. In his case, the zeitgeist was so obliterated beyond just the passage of time that he saw his fame as arbitrary grace in a way that’s kind of appealingly modest.
The thought occurred to me that we could come up with something called the Zweig-American Paradox: The myth of this country elevates the individual and individualism to a high degree and he is a major proponent of that, and yet Americans have yet to rediscover or relate to his ethos. It wouldn’t be his literature that would be relevant today, but his moral outlook and ethical framework.
That’s really nice. And that’s part of what I was doing with The Impossible Exile. My book is mis-characterized as a biography; it was never intended as that. What I tried to do was actually create a hybrid portrait that would show why his character mattered because of all the ways he was steeped in different movements and different ideas at the time. We’re not going to get to his fiction very easily just going to the fiction. I felt we have to understand how he identified with this greater fabric of ideas of individuals, that we have to come at him as a full restoration of that medium in which he thrived.
Why the “impossible exile”?
Zweig was the impossible exile as an individual in the sense that he could not have been more difficult, more disconsolate, more unable to adjust. He was impossible in his refusal to accept that these conditions could be imposed upon him.
But then I also mean the impossible exile in that it extended beyond him, that it was in some ways inconceivable that Zweig and others like him should be put in that position.