Thursday, September 29th, 2016

As plain a thing as an ordinary sentence

Don’t all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics?

These words are by André Aciman and they apply to him also, though it can be difficult to look beneath his style, which is so unusual, so beguiling in its coils and toils, that it’s often the first thing critics mention. So let’s dispose of that style summarily and look at what “lurks far deeper,” then return to the style to consider it as a manifestation of that deeper thing.

The uniqueness of Aciman’s style follows almost entirely from his willingness to write long sentences. His sentences are remarkable for more than their length, but length is their precondition. Because Aciman is willing to give himself space, to sacrifice the sacred cow of modern English prose—immediate, self-effacing intelligibility—in pursuit of more rarefied aesthetic goals, he simply has more room to experiment. Long sentences, as should be mathematically obvious, have more possible variations than short sentences. Many of Aciman’s long, recursive sentences have an exploratory feeling, as if he is always probing into the terra incognita of syntactic hinterlands. Here’s a lovely example:

You go out into the world to acquire all manner of habits and learn all sorts of languages, but the one tongue you neglect most is the one you’ve spoken at home, just as the customs you feel most comfortable with are those you never knew were customs until you saw others practice completely different ones and realized you didn’t quite mind your own, though you’d strayed so far now that you probably no longer knew how to practice them.

Within these long sentences, Aciman performs miracles of subtle rhythm and felicitous diction. He seems to feel what few writers, however inventive and vigorous their prose, feel anymore: the difference not just between the right and the wrong word, but between the beautiful and the ugly word. His sentences are beautiful, but they’re emphatically not his signature, hidden nerve, secret chamber.

That would be desire.

Desire’s a funny thing. It’s a pain, a discomfort, because it signifies a lack. When you desire something, you move toward it restlessly, hoping you’ll get it and desire will cease. But if you get the thing you want, and have no further desires to prick you with further discomforts, likely you’re bored. Boredom is even more uncomfortable than desire. And so the life of someone attentive to their own gratification will be a constant rocking to and fro between desire and its fulfillment and the emptiness that brings. Perhaps the lowest point of all is to be bored so intensely that you begin to desire to desire something: and this desire, this meta-desire, a second order self-consciousness of the lack of desire, is numbness.

These three moments in the movement of desire are basically the entire focus of Aciman’s writing. Writers with such exclusive focus upon their theme are rare. If he were a lesser writer, this narrowness of vision would make him minor; but I think he plumbs the depths of his theme, makes the minor major by sheer thoroughness.

The book I read recently which prompts these reflections is called Alibis. It’s a collection of travel writing, but as, I imagine, anything Aciman writes will tend to do, each piece bends toward evoking and analyzing the workings of desire: “it is not the things we long for that we love; it is longing itself. . .”




When Aciman visits a place, his regard slides off the present into memories of his own dreams of the future. You know that aesthetic, the retro-future? The future as imagined by someone from the 50s, say? That’s Aciman’s experience of the present: he revisits a place and remembers how he imagined it otherwise. He experiences this both as a painful thwarting, and, self-consciously, as an exquisite pleasure. So when he goes to visit Rome, where he lived as a boy, he thrills with nostalgia for the memory of how he despised the streets he is now seeing, how he used to imagine them as the streets of other cities from the books he escaped into. Or when he writes about New York, he imagines how it might have appeared to Walter Benjamin if he had managed to escape France and emigrated to America. “What we ultimately remember is not the past but ourselves in the past imagining the future.”

But boredom is also there in the elaborate pains Aciman takes, when visiting or revisiting a place, to arrange the most exquisite sensations, to ensure that he will stir up the most poignant desires. And when he fails, he complains about numbness, and turns to writing to kindle the missing fire, and then turns against writing with doubts about its suitability for the therapeutic role in which he’s cast it: “Does writing, as I did later that day, seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?”

If these brief adumbrations of the theme he explores at excruciating (and exquisite) length, in every variation, haven’t made it clear, I’ll say it bluntly: Aciman’s travel writings use terrestrial geography as a pretext to explore the geography of consciousness. These essays, and the travel that occasioned them, are themselves pretexts for inner journeys away from the places his outer journeys are toward. The full title of the book is Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere. That word “elsewhere” does typical Acimanian double-duty, alluding both to the fact that this is a book of travel essays, and to the fact that Aciman himself is always elsewhere than where he travels to.

I say this is about desire, because I think Aciman raises to the level of an all-absorbing theme a dynamic of universal significance—desire itself—but Aciman himself seems to interpret his hidden nerve, secret chamber, signature, as exile. In childhood his family was forced to move from his birth city, Alexandria, and also to descend socially due to the circumstances of their departure. So he attributes his “parallax” vision, his constant absence from the present in favor of the speculations of the past or the counterfactual future, as a consequence, an internalization of the fact of exile: “an exile is a person who is always in one place but elsewhere as well.” His sense of exile is so complete that it has no relation to place; it’s an exile in time, a complete exile, permanent, irrevocable: “This feeling of being cut off from oneself or of being in two places at the same time is as though what was left behind were an amputated limb, something that was cut away from us and was not allowed to travel with us—an arm, a grandparent, a baby brother.”

So, given this absolutely unwavering interest in the dynamics of desire as raised to consciousness by the fact of exile, what are we to make of the style? Is there a connection between those lovely long sentences and the displacements of desire? I think so, yes, absolutely.

For one thing, at their most expansive and wandering, his very long sentences act out the displacement he’s usually describing. With imperceptible slippage, clause by slippery clause, he leads you to a thought that leaves you wondering: where did that sentence begin? You wonder not in a startled, confused way, as when the run-on sentence of a bad writer startles you into attention by a sloppy failure to be consistent in tense or precise about antecedents: no, instead it’s the kind of wondering that comes from wandering, as when you look up from your walk and realize you don’t know where you are are because you got lost in thought and then in reality, or when you’re trying to meditate, to think of nothing, and catch yourself cleverly metamorphosing this well-intentioned nothing into elaborate daydreams.

But the best part about the perfect fit between Aciman’s style and his subject is that he professes to be as helpless in the former as he is in the latters. He regales us with the intricacies of his travels by foot into memory because that’s just how he can’t help but experience those travels, and likewise, “cadenced prose, for all its pyrotechnics, is also a way of hiding that I can’t write as plain a thing as an ordinary sentence in English.”

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

On Philosophy: What Is It?

Since I am not teaching this year, I had assumed the large-scale questions about philosophy’s nature and significance, the ones that obsessed me as the lecturer in an undergraduate intro class, would subside (for me) for a while. Instead, my organism misses the act of lecturing. And, yes, the act of worrying about philosophy. I’m still thinking about it. To exorcise this distraction, I want to set out very simply, without a whole lot of technical detail or defense of minutiae, what I believe about the nature, method, and importance of philosophy. I’ll do so in three blog posts.

Clarifying the Question

First, what is philosophy? It’s a question answered so many times in such contradictory ways that venturing one’s own answer might seem both impertinent and pointless. But I think some of the apparent intractability comes from ambiguity. Is the question asking, what has philosophy been for its classic exponents? Is it asking, what does it mean to love wisdom (as the etymology of the word “philosophy” might lead you to expect)? Is it asking, what is the dominant view of the academic discipline of philosophy according to its own practitioners? Is it asking, what unites the genre of writing classified as philosophical? Is it asking, what does it mean to live the contemplative life?

(My point about the ambiguity of the question is a very philosophical one, by the way. One of Aristotle’s favorite observations about virtually any word or concept was, “it is said in many ways.” He would follow this observation with a virtuosic set of distinctions, often the most stimulating passages in his books.)

I mean the question “what is philosophy?” this way: assuming that philosophy is a form of inquiry, what sets it apart from others? This version of the question sets aside (perfectly reasonable) questions about what a philosophical lifestyle would look like, what academic departments of philosophy are for, and what self-styled philosophers have claimed for themselves. Those aren’t unimportant questions; they’re just not the one I’m interested in right now. By assuming that philosophy is a form of inquiry, I am assuming that it is a way of seeking to answer questions. That is not to disqualify other uses of the word, just to specify the use I am interested in exploring.

Take the commonly acknowledged core disciplines of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. What’s the difference between metaphysics and theology or cosmology? What’s the difference between epistemology and psychology? What’s the difference between ethics and legal thinking or ideological thinking? Not their objects, I think, which, often as not, are shared. “Does God exist?” is a question about which metaphysics, theology, and cosmology have had things to say, for example.

So, in my sense of the question, what is philosophy?

My Answer

Here’s my answer: I think philosophy is uniquely married to the way of thinking known as dialectic. I use this word, dialectic, in its ancient sense, as inquiry by dialogue, not in the interesting but more complicated senses that one can find in Hegel or Marx or other modern philosophers.

“What is philosophy?” “Philosophy is inquiry by dialogue.”

To reason by dialectic is to form an answer to a question, then to modify or defend it in response to alternative answers and strong objections. It’s inquiry by dialogue because it maps out the territory of answers to a question, disposing of facile ones and sharpening plausible ones and, often as not, inspiring new ones. It’s inquiry by dialogue because it’s basically an extrapolation of what happens when two or more reasonable and well-intentioned people try to answer a difficult question together. Even when you perform dialectic alone, it’s a dialogue. To do it by yourself, you have to imagine the alternatives and objections of someone else.

(This, by the way, is why Socrates is commonly treated as the fountainhead of philosophy. There were philosophers before him, and there are philosophers in traditions quite separate from him. But he is like an avatar of dialectic: what we are most certain about, in his case, is not the content of his beliefs, but the dialectical method by which he sought to answer questions.)

Philosophy’s closeness to dialectic explains why it’s the mother of so many other sciences. In the 17th century, for example, a whole slew of natural sciences peeled off of “natural philosophy.” Often their founders or first innovators thought of themselves as philosophers. This is because almost all sciences that have a method are a specification of dialectic.

For example, taxonomic inquiries are a pure form of dialectic in which objections take the form of pointing out instances of a thing which escape current definitions, and modifying or replacing those definitions with better ones. (Hey, why not try it yourself and contribute to the taxonomic inquiry into tardigrades?) Even sciences of proof-making, as in many branches of mathematics and pure logic, are basically dialectical. When you make a proof, you construct an argument that shows how premises which have no plausible alternatives lead without contradiction to a certain conclusion. (Think back to the proofs you constructed in geometry class.) The plausibility of alternatives and the possibility of contradictions are the tests by which dialectic proceeds in all its forms.

Why define philosophy that way?

So why do I claim that dialectic distinguishes philosophy in particular, if I think virtually all forms of reasoning are specifications of it? Precisely because philosophy is the form of inquiry that employs dialectic without specification. The standards of evidence that specify other forms of inquiry set them apart as particular forms of inquiry. To inquire whether you have a broken arm, a doctor will manipulate the limb, ask for a subjective report of your feelings, and perhaps order an x-ray. These result of these tests are considered adequate to answer the question. Philosophy differs, I think, in that it has no such specifications, and therefore it really is, at root, about two or more well-intentioned and reasonable people trying to hash out the answers to a question together, by whatever means possible.

Some Consequences of My Answer

As a consequence, nothing’s ever settled in philosophy. Many people consider this a decisive objection to practicing it. I don’t: instead, I consider a sign of the inescapable role of philosophy in the ontogeny and phylogeny of human thinking. It’s a direct consequence of philosophy’s refusal to specify and standardize the kind of objections and alternatives that count in philosophical dialectic. To “settle” most inquiries requires that two or more people posit what kind of dialectical tests will count as decisive for both of them. In short, almost by definition (I think), special sciences are going to produce a lot more consensus than philosophy. That’s sort of the point of them.

Let’s carefully distinguish between “philosophy never settles things” and “philosophers never settle things.” The latter claim is false. Many philosophers think they have settled things, and have a reasonable claim to it. The answers they espouse have fared well in the dialectical tests they have administered, in the debates they’ve participated in. The possibility of such temporary and contingent decisiveness is probably why philosophy isn’t actually demoralizing, but exciting and even fulfilling. But the grinding engine of philosophy as a whole tends to undermine the claims to settlement of even the most successful philosophers in their own day.

Philosophy’s refusal to specify dialectic makes it generative. A lot of the more special sciences, where the limits of dialectical conventions have enabled enormous progress in inquiry (the way putting your thumb over the end of the garden hose makes the water shoot out farther) grow out of the dialectical free-for-all of philosophy.

Why Philosophy in My Sense is Useful

I think, if I’m right about what philosophy is, that I can plausibly argue it’s a useful form of inquiry for anyone to learn about and attempt to practice. (I’m not arguing everybody should be a pro philosopher in their spare time, or even that philosophy classes should necessarily form the core of an undergraduate curriculum. I’m just saying pretty much anybody can benefit from it.):

(1) Philosophy will make you better at conversing intelligibly in everyday life. After all, it’s just an intensification, a formalization of two reasonable, well-intentioned people trying to answer a question together. And most of us find ourselves in that situation multiple times a day. Why not learn to do it better?

Aristotle wrote, in a book about dialectic called The Topics:

The possession of a plan of inquiry will enable us more easily to argue about the subject proposed. For purposes of casual encounters, it is useful because when we have counted up the opinions held by most people, we shall meet them on the ground not of other people’s convictions but of their own, while we shift the ground of any argument that they appear to us to state unsoundly.

(2) Philosophy will school you in intellectual humility. It does this in two ways: first by demonstrating, over and over again, that there’s more to be said after even the wisest or cleverest have had their say. Second, by highlighting the role of posture or attitude in the pursuit of truth. In more specified forms of dialectic—when you’re hunting for tardigrades, let’s say—the decidability wrought by conventional standards of evidence can induce the idea that inquiry is a mechanically applicable method. What philosophy’s open dialectic shows, over and over again, is that the best thinkers are the most self-critical ones, the ones who are best at imagining what a reasonable opponent would say. Literally no other study teaches the importance of learning to think against oneself in the way that philosophy does. And a refusal to think against oneself retards the progress of many special sciences and many powerful people: they could use some experience of dialectic.

In The Dawn of Day, Nietzsche writes:

Make it a rule never to withhold or conceal from yourself anything that may be thought against your own thoughts. Vow it! This is the essential requirement of honest thinking. You must undertake such a campaign against yourself every day. A victory and a conquered position are no longer your concern, but that of truth and your defeat also is no longer your concern.

(3) Philosophy makes it easier to take up more specific forms of inquiry. Because of its unspecified dialectic, philosophical discussions always pass through stages of disambiguation and definition, and end up working out careful, detailed distinctions. In short, practicing good philosophy makes you more precise, better at thinking about how your assertions sound to others, and avid for clarity and simplicity of expression. (This might surprise you if you’ve read the awful writing of a lot of academic philosophers: but more on that some other time.)

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume writes:

[I]n every art or profession, even those which most concern life or action […] a spirit of accuracy, however acquired, carries all of them nearer their perfection, and renders them more subservient to the interests of society. And though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling. The politician will acquire greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and balancing of power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern governments above the ancient, and the accuracy of modern philosophy, have improved, and probably will still improve, by similar gradations.

Everything I’ve just said about philosophy is highly contentious and scandalously simple. Being a graduate student in philosophy is like an indoctrination against the kind of bold generalizations I’ve just committed. Nonetheless, it’s more or less what I think, as I would explain it to someone who is not themselves knee deep in the morass of a graduate program in philosophy.

Next up, when I get to it, I’m going to explain how I think you—anyone, really—can do philosophy. (This is something I think a lot of undergraduate introductions to philosophy neglect in favor of presenting the history of philosophy.)

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

The Giggle-sob

Anagrams was Lorrie Moore’s first novel. A stutter-start of four sections featuring characters with the same names in different configurations (anagrams, get it?). Things really get underway with a novella-length fifth part, where we find the same character-names redeployed in yet another configuration. Each version features someone named Benna. She’s always struggling with loss and loneliness, usually rejection or betrayal of some sort.

But is it a novel?

The first four parts are short stories, and the last isn’t quite a novel yet. But the whole thing works as more than a story cycle. So let’s call it a novel, or the preliminary sketches and roughed in canvas for an eventual novel. Despite this feeling of sketchiness, it has a precise emotional unity, or complementarity. Like symphonies, where you don’t just go stealing the Adagio from one and sticking it after the Andante from another, likewise even in novels made up of several narrative worlds, a thematic or tonal unity remains. Leitmotifs remain. The balance of the conception remains.

In Moore’s Paris Review interview, she says this:

Anagrams is a novel that takes as its form a short novel and four stories. The stories are variations on the central narrative line—rearrangements that visited me while I was writing the main story. Since the novel was about (among other things) the powers and imperfections of the imagination, I decided to include these stories as part of the structure of the overall novel. Although it was necessary to impose a sequence upon them, ideally they should be thought of as little satellites orbiting the longer […] section. […] At the time I thought of this novel as a kind of sculpture, like a Calder mobile, with the main narrative sprouting these little reworkings. The reworkings came to me because of my habits as a story writer, obviously.


It’s about the giggle-sob.

Like most good short story writers—and she’s mostly a short story writer—and like most great lyric poets, Moore specializes in a few emotions. In her case, they’re the ones that make you gulp with laughter while you’re crying. Or if we’re going with Nabokov’s physiological categorization of literature—he claimed to be all about the shiver down the back—Moore is all about the giggle-sob.

A range of things fall under that reaction. People behaving ludicrously because stuck in a tragic situation. Smart, funny people bearing up under sadness by cracking jokes. Fun or funny things that take a turn for the ghastly or grizzly. I don’t think it’s black humor per se, it’s not the tragic things themselves that are made to appear funny (though often tragedy itself gets caught up in the joke). Instead it’s defiant whimsy in the face of pain, or the lightheardedness of a broken heart at play. Sometimes the laughter is defensive, sometimes wry, sometimes delusory, sometimes grim, sometimes cynical, sometimes purely a physiological contrast, laughter because something’s too sad for tears.

(I have my own physiological contradiction. I always start giggling uncontrollably during life-threatening situations. While carrying extremely heavy objects up stairs, teetering on precipices, or driving in ice. It will almost certainly kill me one of these days, either from the situation I am helplessly giggling about or from the well-justified vengeance of whomever I happen to be with at the time.)

Anyway, Anagrams takes this classic Moorean leitmotif, the giggle-sob, and expands it into an interesting theme and variations. In the long version of the story, Benna has a made up friend and a made up daughter. She talks to them all the time, and these figments gradually reveal themselves as the poignant expression of her deep loneliness and sense of failure. But they’re also the sources of the funniest lines and moments.

Anagrams succeeds in presenting writing itself as a kind of giggle-sob. What’s a writer but a Benna with imaginary friends, after all?

And it caused a giggle-sob.

Apparently critics didn’t like it. It was too “experimental”—which is a verdict I find hard to believe. From a critic with any sort of real reading experience. In her Paris Review interview, she sums up the fallout from publication in her typical giggle-sob way:

I expected my editor would veto the experimental form of this book, but happily she didn’t and it went out the way I’d written it and got a lot of bad reviews and did terribly, and we were all brave and philosophical about it, although my editor did suggest that if I were feeling strapped for cash perhaps I should consider entering my cat in the Purina Cat Chow contest. Shortly thereafter, for money reasons indeed, I left New York for good.

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Why did I read four biographies of Stefan Zweig?

[Trigger warning: talk of suicide and despair, including a disturbing picture.]

Why did I read four (well, three and a half) biographies of Stefan Zweig in a row? The short answer is, I’m not sure. The long answer will take us through train rides, insomnia, paragraph-structure, marriage, suicide, political despair, and then leave us where the short answer did, in uncertainty. So come along if you don’t mind futility.

These days I choose what to read according to spontaneous interest or arbitrary schemas, in order to maintain the impetuosity of my enthusiasm. Lately I’ve put the list of all the books I want to read onto Goodreads, where I can order them by author or publication or title or whatever. Just for the serendipity of the thing, I’ve been reading them alphabetically by title. I had a long train ride coming up, so I needed a journey-specific project, and I was getting a little tired of books beginning with A. First I thought I’d start from the other end and read one beginning with Z. But then that seemed too predictable. So I really mixed things up and decided to start with authors whose last names begin with Z. Which led me to Stefan Zweig.

I got hold of a few of his novellas, and his wildly acclaimed autobiography, The World of Yesterday, and settled in for my train ride.

Clive James had alerted me to the existence of Zweig in his crotchety fabulous Cultural Amnesia. According to James, Zweig was important for the friendships he cultivated and for the portrait The World of Yesterday paints of pre-war Vienna; his fictions, James thought (if I’m remembering correctly), were competent but inconsiderable.

Well, by the end of my trip I disagreed with James. I found Zweig’s novellas masterpieces of concentrated narrative. And most of the world agrees with me, having kept him continuously in print. The US is waking back up to him too, and recent years have seen lots of new translations and republications and biographies and so on. Zweig is in the air. He ought to be. I felt that I had a lot to learn from his craft as a writer. His paragraphs for example, dazzled me. They’re longer than you find in contemporary fiction. But they’re also propulsive and remarkably orderly, even while they seemed to grow organically from the demands of the story. They are a strange hybrid of the logically unfolding paragraph of the essayist or historian and the dancing-forward, streaming paragraph of the story-teller. Here he is, for example, describing a professor who only really comes alive as the genius he is when a lecture rises spontaneously from a discussion in his classes:

Soon what began as mere intellectual conversation became electrical excitement and took fire, with his skilful hand fanning the flames— forceful argument countered claims made casually, sharp and keen interjections heated the discussion until the students were almost at loggerheads with each other. Only once the sparks were really flying did he intervene, calming the overexcited atmosphere and cleverly bringing the debate back to its subject, but at the same time giving it stronger intellectual stimulus by moving it surreptitiously into a timeless dimension— and there he suddenly stood amidst the play of these dialectical flames, in a state of high excitement himself, both urging on and holding back the clashing opinions, master of a stormy wave of youthful enthusiasm which broke over him too. Leaning against the desk, arms crossed, he looked from one to another, smiling at one student, making a small gesture encouraging another to contradict, and his eyes shone with as much excitement as yesterday. I felt he had to make an effort not to take the words out of their mouths. But he restrained himself— by main force, as I could tell from the way his hands were pressed more and more firmly over his breast like the stave of a barrel, as I guessed from the mobile corners of his mouth, which had difficulty in suppressing the words rising to his lips. And suddenly he could do it no longer, he flung himself into the debate like a swimmer into the flood— raising his hand in an imperious gesture he halted the tumult as if with a conductor’s baton; everyone immediately fell silent, and now he summed up all the arguments in his own vaulting fashion.

(Admittedly I also like this paragraph because it describes—and I say this without imputing to myself the success Zweig’s character has with it—almost exactly the method I used to lecture when I taught philosophy. I’d stir up an argument, nurture it like a little fire—the same metaphor has even occurred to me—and restrain myself from jumping in until things had gotten really intense and I could count on the students caring about my intervention.)

But anyway, after I’d read a few of his novellas, I moved on to Zweig’s autobiography. The World of Yesterday was certainly remarkable, evocative, fascinating, but it raised more questions for me than it settled.


Zweig had purposefully retired into the background of his own autobiography, but I couldn’t help wondering about his career—how did he support himself when he decided to just take a few years off to translate obscure French poets? How did he parachute into a regular gig at the Viennese equivalent of the New Yorker, becoming one of their lead essayists when still in his teens? Why did he turn from writing poetry to writing the narrative fiction for which he became famous? Also, naturally, his personal life intrigued me—what was his relationship to Judaism when his career was launched by the founder of Zionism and yet he himself became the living symbol of pan-Europeanism, an avatar and advocate of assimilation? How did he make friends so easily—seemingly considered a bestie by everybody who was anybody in Middle European culture—even when he was a nobody absconding to France from graduate school in Berlin? And of course, why did he commit suicide in Petropolis, Brazil, with his much, much younger second wife Lotte, shortly aftering mailing in The World of Yesterday for publication?

I would have to read another biography.

But I didn’t get to it for a few days, too busy socializing at the place my train had taken me. Then, one night, I found myself sweating onto a matress in an air-conditionerless basement where the humidity was approximately 323%—breathing felt like chugging a glass of water—and the dark, lucid wings of insomnia unfolded above me. So I got up and downloaded onto my Kindle a biography-cum-memoir by Zweig’s first wife, Frederike, and proceeded to read it in one sitting.


Federike and Stefan Zweig

It was a strange mixture of compelling memories and shrewd analysis interwoven with unreadable schmaltz and special pleading. The first caution of a biography about an artist who took their own life must be, I think, not to interpret the whole life as a journey to suicide; but Zweig’s wife is understandably fixated on his end, and you can tell a lot of her character-analysis is basically an attempt to understand why he did it, and to blame it, as much as possible, on the woman he left her for. I found Friderike’s information illuminating. She explained some of the contradiction I had noticed in The World of Yesterday, such as the way Zweig castigates the sexual repression of the pre-WWI Vienna but then complains about the sexual freedom of post-WWI Vienna. He apparently exhibited the same contradictions about freedom as a step-parent:

He could not, he said, repress a feeling of envy at seeing the youth of today enjoying itself in such free and easy fashion. And this explained a strange trait, entirely contradictory to the rest of his nature: incited by such memories, he would suddenly deprive the children of some harmless pleasure he himself had suggested. Such retractions, coming from a man who loved to make people happy, seemed inconceivably harsh.

One of the sad implications of Frederike’s biography—and I don’t doubt her for a moment, because it’s an old, familiar story—is that Zweig’s demands as an artist whose life needed to be managed by others and protected from disturbance stole her own career from her.

As guardian of his inner world I was to keep the outer world away, pregnant as it always was with disturbances. Therefore — a fact but seldom openly confessed — I was to have no world of my own, no work of my own that might possibly deflect me from my watch. The circle was widely extended, but I had to stay within it.

I was glad for the shadows Frederike’s biography added to my perception of Zweig. But now I had become interested in her, curious how candid her apparently very open and honest memoir actually was. Some things struck me: even in her own account of their romance, for example, it’s clear that Frederike decided she would go get Zweig for herself, even before he knew who she was, when she was a young unhappily married mother of two. She got him, and according to her became the light of his life, only to be betrayed for a secretary after twenty years of marriage. I had no real desire to exonerate Zweig of being a patriarch, a shitty father, or a ungrateful lover; but there are usually two sides to stories of domestic distress.

So when I got home from my trip I picked up another biography of Zweig, this one by George Prochnik: The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World.


Here I feel a made a mistake. I don’t mean that Prochnik’s is a bad book or that I regret reading it, but the reason I wanted to read it was to clear up some of the details about Zweig’s career that remained for me, and to add to that an assessment of Frederike’s candor as a memoirist. Prochnik’s book isn’t actually a biography. It’s a meditation on exile and a very moving investigation of the reasons for which Zweig committed suicide, presented in a mixture of novelistic scenes, brief out-of-chronology explorations of his past, and comparisons to the experience of other exiles, including, most prominently, Prochnik’s own grandparents. It was interesting; but it answered virtually none of my questions and raised a bunch more. I think I’ll probably write something about the book on its own account another day. In the story of why I read four biographies of Zweig, however, its role is just that it wasn’t what I needed at the time.

I confess it: at this point I began to get tired of Zweig. I was an absurd expert on certain details of his life. I could probably write my own biography, of considerable length, just from memory. But, an intractable puzzle, I couldn’t leave his life alone, particularly because I still hadn’t gotten any real insight into the things that most concern me when I read a writer’s biography: the material basis of their career, their working habits, how they learned their craft, whether they felt they had completed their work when they died, that sort of thing.

So, with some hesitation, I picked up my fourth biography, Matuschek’s Three Lives. Immediately, it became clear I should have begun with that biography. It was a normal chronological study, based on an exhaustive survey of available sources—including new batches of letters and so forth—and fully satisfying me as to the material details and personal chronologies I was so curious about. But a weird transformation in my motivations for continuing to study Zweig began to take shape as soon as I realized I’d found what I wanted.


Suddenly I didn’t care about my usual practical interests in this writer I liked. Suddenly I was obsessed with his suicide.

The unthinkable had occurred. I’d fallen prey to that morbid kind of clue-seeking attitude that afflicts biographers of artists like Virginia Woolf or Ernest Hemingway. I blame Prochnik. The end of his book is a truly horrifying account of Zweig’s last hours, and of how his body and that of Lotte, his young wife, were found. Some of Lotte’s clothes were in an untidy heap beside the bed, and it was apparent she’d taken her poison shortly after Zweig. Prochnik speculates that Zweig took his while she was in the shower or bath, and she realized what had happened only after it had happened; she was faced suddenly with the choice of whether to follow him or not. Prochnik has this line I’d like to quote—but don’t have the book in my hands at the moment—about how Zweig looks dead, but Lotte looks in love. That’s because after she took her poison, she climbed in beside her already dead husband, she lay down on her side, gazing at his face, and wound her fingers through his. To pound home the nail with a last blow of the emotional hammer, on the last page Prochnik prints the death photo he is describing. I doubt I’ve recreated the effect of these pages in my brisk summary, but this is what they did to me: I was now obsessed with Zweig’s suicide, with the existential fact of it, with imagining it, horrified and fascinated.

Lotte and Stefan Zweig, as found by their housekeeper and the police.

Lotte and Stefan Zweig, as found by their housekeeper and the police.

As a result I gave up on the last, best biography of Zweig halfway through it. It was now not the book I wanted. As Emil Cioran says:

Each desire provokes in me a counterdesire, so that whatever I do, all that matters is what I have not done.

I gave up reading, but I didn’t give up thinking. I continued to obsess over Zweig’s last days, to imagine the causes and moment of his suicide.

He was by then a refugee. A wealthy and opportunity-rich refugee, admittedly, but one exiled from land and language. His books were banned in both Germany and Austria. He had spent a few years flying, dissatisfied, from country to country, Britain, the US, Brazil. Just before decided to do the deed, he and Lotte had descended into Rio for Carnival, a festival that tended to put him back into his usually happy, gregarious, life-loving frame of mind. Something happened during that trip. Perhaps he read some of the newspapers, with their stories of German advance on the fronts of WWII. Perhaps it was a chance remark a friend made to him around that time, when he casually asked them whether they thought Brazil was safe from Nazi agression—they thought not, that Hitler might come for them, and Zweig’s face had shown he took this prediction much harder than its source warranted. Whatever the case, he was suffering from political despair.

The situation seemed hopeless. Because he had invested his entire life in the cultivation of international literature with a specifically political purpose—the creation of a European culture that could transcend the disgusting aggressions of nationalism—he experienced that political despair as an existential despair, a despair about himself and his own life. Despite his continued wealth, the wife he loved, his many friendships, the prospect of continued work, and the beauty of the landscape in his adopted country—despite all this, he was done with life.

It occurred to me today, when I sat down to write a blog post for an hour (and then apparently forgot about that limit and wrote this behemoth instead) that I finally feel like I understand Zweig. I feel some small taste of political despair myself right now, the day before the first presidential debate in the most sickening election cycle of my life. I can hardly bear what is happening to my country or what may happen to the world, and I am oppressed by nightmares and dark daydreams about how things could, will, must go terribly wrong and plunge our century into bloodshed and hatreds that will make the 20th century look like an era of humanity and hope. I don’t pretend this is a fraction of the political despair felt by Stefan Zweig; but perhaps reading about him was a way for me to cope with my own small despairing. That’s my best but still inadequate explanation for why I read three and a half biographies of the same person in a row.

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

A Landslide In the Mind

I read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women out loud with Rachel. We try to make it a habit to read together every evening, partly because it’s a pleasant, intimate way to spend time, a way infinitely superior to watching TV together, and partly because we’re trying to establish a culture of bildung among ourselves for the eventual day when perhaps we’ll add a tiny third. I was required/privileged to sit for an hour every evening as I was growing up, in an extremely religious household, for “family devotions.” It’s an institution whose purposes of religious indoctrination I now deplore, but it really did contribute to my love for books and serious conversation. Reading aloud together, playing the piano, intentionally conversing are probably the secular echo, in my menage, of that regular childhood experience.

We’d heard Pym’s Excellent Women was hilariously funny, so we read it hoping to laugh. It’s not that funny, or it wasn’t to us. But it’s pretty interesting. It’s about the (lack of a) lovelife of an English woman during or a little after WWII, who grew up in a manse and now teeters on the edge of old maidenhood. A smart couple with a rocky relationship move in below her flat, the male half of whom she finds charming, while her best friends, the local (unmarried) vicar and his sister try to cope with the fact that he’s fallen in love with a boarder they take on.


The book’s actually pretty painful. Mildred Lathbury, the heroine, is smart and perceptive, kindhearted and good in an emergency, but her internal monologue is relentlessly self-deprecatory. As Rachel said when we read the last line, with a frown, “I thought she was going to stand up for herself!” Everybody uses her without consideration for her feelings or hopes: married and unmarried female friends, flirting husbands, eligible bachelors in need of people to cook their dinners and help them with secretarial work, even clergymen who are supposedly there to minister to them. This book is about how the spinsters of England, back then at any rate, if they were religious and docile, got burdened with all the emotional labor of everyone in their lives and were expected to assume the role of mother and wife-servant to the public at large. Endless tea-making, listening to other people’s troubles, lavishing time and attention where it isn’t requited, while enduring the condescension and mockery of the same people they served. It’s searing, the longer you think about it.

The funniest parts—because it was funny in places—are when Mildred questions some of these expectation of the spinster’s part, and gets slapped down. As here:

Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury . . .’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.

What makes the novel ultimately pretty sad is that this landslide in the mind never really gets any momentum in Mildred’s own mind. As how could it?

I was reminded, reading Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, of Excellent Women, when I got to this passage:

Custom seemed to preserve [young girls] as a symbol of its most secret ideals, as an emblem of womanly chastity, virginity, and unworldliness. But what a tragedy it was if one of these young girls missed her time, if she was not yet married at twenty-five or thirty! Cusom pitilessly demanded of women of thirty and forty years of age that for the sake of “family” and “morality” they maintain this condition of inexperience and freedom from desire, of naivete although it no longer suited their age. But then the sweet picture usually turned into a sharp and cruel caricature. The unmarried maided became an article left on the shelf, and the left-over became an old maid, the butt of shallow derision of all the comic papers. Whoever picks up a volumen of the *Fliegende Blätter*, or any one of the humorous magazines of that period, will shudder at their stupid jeering at aging maidens, who with nerves disturbed did not know how to conceal their natural desire for love […] people ridiculed them with a lack of understanding that disgusts us today. For a society is always most cruel to those who disclose and reveal its secrets, when through dishonestly society itself has outraged Nature.

When I read this, shortly after finishing Excellent Women, it stopped me cold. Rachel and I agreed, as I mentioned earlier, that the book wasn’t as hilariously funny as it was reported to be, and it suddenly occurred to me that this supposed hilarity might have been a misplaced perception that the book was a contribution to the literature of mockery that Zweig talks about here. Perhaps many of its first readers thought it was so very funny because they believed there was something laughable in being a middle-aged unmarried woman? I have no idea if that’s true; but if is, that’s horrifying. If anything, Excellent Women is a book that demands empathy for the oppressed, the shows the real unhappiness of a supposedly laughable kind of person.

An English example of the cruel humor that Zweig describes.

An English example of the cruel humor that Zweig describes.