donderdag 29 oktober 2015


Recently Naema Tahir called Die Welt von Gestern by Stefan Zweig one of the finest books she had read. For me actually the same holds true. It is 35 years since I read it, but its instructiveness and penetrating enjoyment are still standing sharp in my mind.

However, I completely disagree with the thoughts that she then connects to her appreciation of the book. She believes that Zweig reached that grand effect because he stays on the outside: he observes his surroundings and styles his findings in a masterly way. He does not speak about himself and this controlled distance creates depth and art.

She opposes that to the tendency of modern literature to expand extensively on the inner life of the author himself or herself, including physical and sexual aspects of private life. She calls that ‘I-lit’, with Karl Ove Knausgård and Jonathan Littell as its contemporary exponents, and she abhors it. Firstly because she finds the many sexual details repulsive. But in the second place, as she says, because someone else’s inner life is not relevant to a reader. And, as I suspect based on the tone of the piece, in the third place because of the old moralistic reason that attention to one’s own inner life is selfish.

Tahirs first argument is imaginable for me: I think too it’s often not really pleasant to, for example, get served the details of other people’s sex lives. But with her second argument, namely that it would not be relevant, I do not agree. For that reason, I also heartily disagree with her normative, condemning rejection of I-centredness.

I’m afraid that Tahirs considerations are derived a bit too much from the world of yesterday where she let herself be carried away by Zweig. That world of external control, elegant but compelling objectivity, distance and styling is completely outdated, so is my conviction. It relies too heavily on elements that are irretrievably gone, such as order thinking and the assumption of a cosmic harmony that we can bring near through control and, if necessary, by use of a little violence. In short, on an essentially Platonic conception of the world.

This underlying worldview over the past century lost its credibility. For the West, from a societal perspective, to this day the now eighty-year-old corruption of our political order by Nazism and Stalinism revealed a grim turning point. According to many experts the desire for objective order and control, deeply rooted in Western thinking, made possible those totalitarian regimes.

At the same time psychoanalysis and other humanities have increased our understanding of ourselves and our often murky motives so overwhelmingly, that Zweig’s polished gentleman existence has become unattainable for us for good. Indeed, we not even consider it to be desirable because of its unrealistic character. There is for us no choice but to descend into our troubled lives, so our literature does so as well.

And yes, that can bring up all sorts of revelations that Tahir abhors such as the conclusion  by a recent biographer that Zweig which was an exhibitionist. “I do not want to hear that”,  she exclaims, “It's a kind of defilement.” It obscures beauty and it is irrelevant.

I would say on the contrary: the very fact that Tahir’s lofty image can be brought down by the disclosure makes the disclosure relevant. Frankly, I think the focus on the inner life in all its aspects, not just the sublime, is progress. Not that I’m going to read Knausgård, but I appreciate the tendency that modern people try as best as possible to deal with their not so lofty but every-day physical, sexual and spiritual needs. And I tend to see recognition of the dark diversity of human strivings as a gain. Eventually it is a better means of averting social chaos than the controlling action of an outward ideal of civilization.

After all, how else do we ever get out of that often sterile, objectifying, communicatively poor atmosphere at our offices, schools and universities, than by systematically scrutinizing ourselves and expressing ourselves as subjects? To dismiss that as self-centered I would call old-fashionedly normative. I would like to cite Wittgenstein in this regard, in conversation with Friedrich Waismann: “At the end of my lecture on ethics I spoke in the first person: I think that this is something very essential. Here there is nothing to be stated any more; all I can do is to step forth as an individual and speak in the first person.”

La Belle Epoque is definitely in the past. But that loss can be very livable, and indeed the more so as our inner life is more involved. That much faith in a certain order I still have.

Also see Escape