To talk about the Vienna of 100 years ago, we have to talk about an 'old world' way of life, an old world attitude, the way of life that America deliberately constructed itself to be by turning 359 degrees away from it in the details, but the reality is therefore that it's only 1 degree to exactly the same and all you have to do to see that is turn in the other direction.
How do you get to the center of that worldview, well? Let's turn first to a writer that literally nobody remembers. Everybody with intellectual pretensions makes their way through Kafka at some point, and everybody with those pretensions at least pretend to make their way through Freud and Wittgenstein. Some highbrow' readers might still read Stefan Zweig - who at the time was thought of as a high-middlebrow writer like John LeCarre or Gillian Flynn. A bunch of famous critics still write about Joseph Roth - whom we'll talk about later. And if you've read anything by Jonathan Franzen you might have heard something about Karl Kraus.
But Egon Friedell, a writer whom I almost literally happened on by accident when going through the bargain bin at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, (how's that for pretentious?), published a three-volume book in 1930 that was apparently purchased by just about every middle class German-speaking household during the three years before Hitler's rise to power. But there's not much chance that anybody who didn't read the book at the time would have read him since.
Friedell is just one of a series of semi-forgotten writers that we're going to be looking at today. A lot of people would say that these are the second-stringers, the ones that deserve to be forgotten, but towards the end of the class I'm going to tell you exactly why we're focusing on them. In case of Friedell, I like his writing for a lot of reasons, in part because he reminds me of someone who may be speaking to you right now.... One way in which he resembles someone in this room is that until he released this book, he was better known for being a stage performer than for his amateur intellectualism. Another way he reminds me of me is that if you read this book, you realize that he really is a great writer in his bombastic way - like a certain person you know, his writing is as great as his ideas are astonishingly poor.
I can't recommend Friedell's magnum opus, A Cultural History of the Modern Age, highly enough. There's literally at least a fascinating idea on every page, and they're almost all bad. It's not that the book itself is bad or even that the book doesn't have a couple dozen great ideas alongside its thousands of horrible ones. But by reading all the obviously wrong things the book espouses, you find a portrait of an era, its beliefs, its hopes, the good qualities which we lack today, the bad qualities we have shaken off, and maybe even exactly what made that particular time and place catch on fire.
So to see the basis of this worldview, which I think was taken as a given just about everywhere in Old Europe, let's cede the floor to this extraordinary and forgotten figure who during a very brief time but significant time was as important as any thinker in the German world:
The aim of this book is to sketch an intellectual and moral picture-page, a spiritual costume-history of the last six centuries, showing at the same time the Platonic Idea of each age and the thought which inwardly inspired it and was its soul. This Thought of the Age is the organizing, the creative, the only truth in each age, although in actuality it is seldom seen in the pure state; for what happens is that the prism of the age breaks it up into a many-coloured rainbow of symbols. Only now and then is the age so fortunate as to produce the one great philosopher who reassembles the rays in the focus of his intellect.
And this brings us to the real key of the age. We find it in those great men, those strange apparitions, that Carlyle called Heroes. They might equally well be called poets, if we did not one-sidedly regard a poet as a person who dabbled in pen and ink, but remembered that everything can be turned into poetry, given creative force and imagination; and that the great heroes and saints who have made poetry with their lives of deeds and sufferings stand actually higher than the poet of words.... ...In history there are only two real wonders of the world: the Spirit of the Age, with its fabulous energies, and Genius, with its magical effect. The man of genius is the most complete absurdity, an absurdity because of his very normality. He is what all others should be: a perfect equation of aim and means of task and accomplishment. He is so paradoxical as to do what no one else does: he fulfills his destiny....
...An age which does not find its hero is a pathological case: its soul is underfed and suffers, so to say, from "chronic dyspnoea." But no sooner does it get its man, who gives utterance to all its needs, than fresh oxygen streams suddenly into its organism, the dyspnoea disappears, the scirculation is regulated, and it is well again. Geniuses are are the two or three men in every age who can speak. (The rest are dumb, or stammerers.) Without these we should know nothing of past ages, for we should merely have hieroglyphics which confused and disappointed us."
This worldview which sees the greatness of one person's achievements justifying everybody else's existence would, in a Jewish context, seem not too far off from idolatry. But these centuries of thinkers who believed that Great Men move history; just about all of them grew up in places where their entire frame of mind was shaped by the Church. Even people born Jewish like Friedell. If you were going to rebel against the Church and say that some people matter even a measurable fraction as much as God does, it's almost impossible to do that without finding someone else to worship.
A lot of people make the argument that both Hitler and Stalin were, in effect, God substitutes for many of their followers. And whether or not your new God is a political leader or a cultural leader, the fact that as a child you probably were made to sit through six hours in a Lutheran service (which are notoriously long) and memorize large passages of the Bible probably meant that you were conditioned to venerate whoever it is you revere as much as you would God. So in a world where human beings are still thought of as instruments of divine will, it's just one step removed from saying that we are the will of Great Men, who put us in touch with a world we can neither see nor touch.
Think of classical music, probably the most important of all artforms in this time and place. It's disembodied music, meant to give you beautiful sounds that literally seem to hail from a different world and make you forget about this one. It's almost exactly one-hundred-eighty degrees from what music is meant to do for most people today when rhythm is the most important element. People dance at the vast majority of shows today, and music without a steady beat is almost unthinkable. In classical music, what generally matters is not rhythm but the harmonies, which are much more unpredictable than most music people listen to today, and are meant to show the contours of a more spiritual world while you absorb passively it. Music influenced by America is supposed to make you remember your physical self, music influenced by Germany was supposed to make you forget it.
So let's talk a little bit more about this very 19th century idea that geniuses are everybody else's reason for living and how difficult that is to implement in reality, and let's look at a critic who, today, is only much known in the English speaking world because he's championed by Jonathan Franzen. This is Karl Kraus talking about how unappreciated certain composers before they die. Please understand, this is Vienna, the city of music, so if it seems like this is just a musician relying on what he knows, try to understand that thinking of old Vienna without mentioning classical music in depth is like mentioning Elizabethan England without talking about Shakespeare:
Has torture been abolished in Austria?
It is still permissible to torture geniuses to death.
In full view of the public!
Smetana (great writer of operas, also composed the Moldau) was tortured until he died demented.
Smetana's life was a slow death by starvation.
When he was no longer able to hear it, definitely unable to hear it, they called him the Mozart of our time.
How much good that does a man when he is already lying between boards that are not associated with all the world being a stage!
Smetana is finished . . .
Anton Bruckner (great Austrian symphonist) is placed in the dock. The penal process continues.
Hanslick (a music critic, Jewish) asks:
Do you plead guilty to having written symphonies?
Bruckner is silent and creates.
The chief judge gently applies the small thumbscrews.
He declares that he leaves the Musikvereinssaal (Vienna's most famous concert hall) before a Bruckner symphony is played in order not to witness the desecration of the Musikvereinssaal.
The crowd hoots. They leave the Musikvereinssaal before every Bruckner symphony.
Bruckner's bones crack.
But Bruckner has a strong constitution.
Assistant Döpke (another music critic) rolls up his sleeves.
The chief judge asks:
Anton Bruckner, do you plead guilty to having written a quintet?
Bruckner is silent and creates.
Assistant Dömpke steps forward: "Anton Bruckner composes like a drunkard!"
The crowd hoots.
Bruckner's bones crack.
But Bruckner has a strong constitution.
Assistant Kalbeck (another music critic) is called. He presses his slouch hat down over his face.
The chief judge asks:
Anton Bruckner, do you plead guilty to writing symphonies against us to this day and to enticing foreigners?
Bruckner is silent and creates.
Assistant Kalbeck begins to "tighten" Bruckner.
The crowd hoots.
Bruckner's bones crack.
But Bruckner has a strong constitution.
He is decleared insane.
But he does not want to go insane. He has faith in God and believes in art.
He writes his Ninth and dies.
Assistant Kalbeck is still "tightening" him . . .
Now Hugo Wolf is captured.
The chief judge asks:
Hugo Wolf, do you plead guilty to having invoked, through your sons, the spirit of Moerike (a famous German poet) that was already asleep in literary history.
Hugo Wolf rants, raves, and creates.
He has to be softened up.
Hugo Wolf (great composer of songs) is killed with silence.
The living man is deleted from life. A vacuum is created around the creative man.
Hugo Wolf suffers.
So he is still alive.
The chief judge asks:
Hugo Wolf, do you believe in Brahms (the one living Viennese composer of the era who was honored)Hugo Wolf curses the clique.
He does not get soft.
In the meantime, Assistant Dömpke has left.
Assistant Kalbeck is prepared to "tighten" Hugo Wolf as well.
The chief judge asks:
Hugo Wolf, do you confess that you still believe in Richard Wagner (most famous composer of the era, hated by the Viennese bourgeois)?
Hugo Wolf rages and thrashes about, and creates.
The chief judge loosens the thumbscrews: "Undoubtedly a man of spirit and talent, but he must beware of 'good friends' and arrogance."
The good friends feed Hugo Wolf.
Let him beware of eating.
The good friends shelter Hugo Wolf.
Let him beware of resting in the beds of good friends.
He is no longer starving. So let him beware of arrogance, says the chief judge.
Hugo Wolf bewares, goes to the insane asylum, and dies.
The people wake up and send their condolences to Doctor Michael Haberlandt (music scholar who championed Wolf)Hugo Wolf has become ripe for anecdotal obituaries.
He died of his Goethe (most famous German writer) and Moerike songs.
If he had set to music the poems of Rudolf Lothar (mediocre German writer), his name would never have disappeared from the columns of the daily press; he would have been called "our immortal Hugo Wolf" twice a day; he would have been interviewed like a haberdasher or a hatmaker.
In two hundred years some historian will study Viennese culture at the end of the nineteenth century from yellowed daily journals.
He will write:
"At the end of the nineteenth century Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner, and Hugo Wolf made futile attempts to gain recognition of small circles in Vienna. Their names paled before the fame of an artist whose presence could not be expunged from the memories of the Viennese. If we may trust the sources at our disposal, Charles Weinberger must be regarded as the most important composer around the year 1900."
Two things obviously stand out:
1. Apparently the treatment of great composers is of such existential importance that it can be compared to torture. And the threshold of what legally constituted torture in 1900 was, let's face it, much higher than it is today. I'm sure there were practices all throughout the Empire that would be considered torture today.
2. In musical circles, the Viennese are extremely well known for their shabby treatment of artists until the year after they die. Old Vienna worshipped culture, and it's much harder to worship the living, who have a physical self and issue strange sensations than it is to worship the dead, whom you never meet and whose music you've had time to acclimatize.
But Kraus, Friedell, Peter Altenberg, Alfred Polgar, even Stefan Zweig, these are all people who had they exact opposite trajectory. They turned out to be less stars than meteors who were worshipped in their lifetimes, and the moment old Vienna ceased to exist, their celebrity pretty much ended. They turned out to be the exact antithesis of a museum in which you never know if anybody really appreciates it. They brought a large public to learning, and making learning fun for them. So in order to understand this, let's read a bit about why in the next selection:
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus. More broad, and in many ways more fun. In Vienna there were no exams to pass, learning was a voluntary passion, and wit was a form of currency. Reading about old Vienna now, you are taken back to a time that should come again: a time when education was a lifelong process. You didn't complete your education an then start your career. Your education was your career, and it was never completed. Fr generations of writers, artists, musicians, journalists and mind-workers of every type, the Vienna café was a way of life... The habitués might have had homes to go to when they wanted to sleep, but otherwise where they lived was in the café. For some of them, the café was an actual address. Most, though not all, of the café population was Jewish, which explains why the great age of the café as an informal campus abruptly terminated in March 1938, when the Anschluß wrote the finish--finis Austriae, as Freud put it--to an era. It also partly explains why the great age had come to fruition in the first place.
Even in Germany, where the Jews had full civil rights until Hitler repealed them, there was a de facto quota system in academic life which made it hard for people of Jewish background to be appointed to the faculty, no matter how well qualified they were... In Austria the quota system was built into every area of society as a set of laws, limits and exclusions. As an inevitable result, in Austria even more than in Germany there was a tendency for scholarship to be pursued more outside the university than inside it... Whole generations of Jewish literati were denied the opportunity of wasting their energies on compiling abstruse doctoral theses. They were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation and the necessity to entertain. The necessity to entertain could somtimes be the enemy of learning, but not as often as the deadly freedom to write as if nobody would ever read the results except a faculty supervisor who owed his post to the same exemption.So before we discuss any of this, let's look at a few of the quotes that made some of these people famous. Try imagining a much more serious proper academic saying any of these and you'll begin to understand their popularity. But before you do, let's make sure we understand two things:
1. Witty does not necessarily mean funny. These are aphorisms like Oscar Wilde's, but these are German aphorisms, and while some of them are funny, really they are, any laughter they provide secondary to the truth they're trying to elucidate. You can find a very similar aphoristic writing style in other Austrian Jews who did succeed in academia like Wittgenstein and Martin Buber.
2. Most of these writers were considered dilettantes by proper German academics. They were Jews, usually from families of means, who squandered their gifts almost as a matter of course. Altenberg and Polgar never wrote full books. Altenberg didn't even have a permanent address, he simply spent his time in 24 hour cafés and wrote essays, some of which were only a paragraph long. If they did truly serious work, wouldn't that ruin the fun of it? And from what everybody says, there were ten great lines they had in simple café conversation for every one they wrote down:
Psychoanalysis is the illness for which it presumes itself the therapy.
There are women are not beautiful but only look that way.
My unconscious knows more about the consciousness of the psychologist than his consciousness knows about my unconscious.
An aphorism can never be the whole truth. It is either a half-truth or a truth-and-a-half.
Sexuality poorly repressed unsettles some families; well repressed, it unsettles the whole world.
I have often been asked to be fair and view a matter from all sides. I did so, hoping something might improve if I viewed all sides of it. But the result was the same. So I went back to viewing things only from one side, which saves me a lot of work and disappointment. For it is comforting to regard something as bad and be able to use one's prejudice as an excuse.
I and my public understand each other very well: It does not hear what I say, and I don't say what it wants to hear.
Many desire to kill me, and many wish to spend an hour chatting with me. The law protects me from the former.
The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people meaner.
The world is a prison in which solitary confinement is preferable.
Family life is an encroachment on private life.
You don't even live once.
To be human is erroneous.
Lord, forgive them, for they know what they do!
There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that's already three things and there are a lot more.
I never dreamed of being a Shakespeare or a Goethe, and I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror, the sort that a woman can carry within her purse; one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to her heart.
Art is art and life is life, but to live life artistically; that is the art of life.Egon Friedell
Of all the good wishes I received on my fiftieth birthday, yours delighted me the most. (sent out as a printed card to all his friends)
The worst prejudice we acquire during our youth is the idea that life is serious. Children have the right instincts: they know that life is not serious, and treat it as a game...
Artists of all sorts remain youthful for so long, and in many cases attain a grand old age. The explanation is that they live in an almost permanent condition of stimulation and excitement.
Clothe an idea in words and it loses its freedom of movement.Alfred Polgar
Too often man handles life as he does the bad weather. He wiles away the time as he waits for it to stop.
It is best to never have been born. But who among us has such luck? One in a million perhaps.
Civilization and culture, if they are left in peace long enough by war and pestilence, generate mould. And over this mould a layer of dust forms. And in this layer of dust microscopic life-forms settle. And these microscopic life-forms generate excrement. And in the breakdown-products of this excrement even less visible life-forms find their domicile. And these life-forms, as long as they are resident within the periphery of Vienna and eligible to vote in the central electoral district, generate the world portrayed in the comedies of Raoul Auernheimer. (from a negative review he wrote)
Work is what you do so that sometime you won't have to do it anymore.
The striking aphorism requires a striken aphorist.
Abel, if he had fled from the murderous attentions of his brother Cain, would as an emigrant have had to put up with an even more bitter inconvenience. He would have had to wander the world for the rest of his life with the brand of Abel on his forehead.
It is the destiny of the emigrant that the foreign land does not become his homeland. His homeland becomes foreign.
I think you see what I mean by this.
So what happened? Why is it that in this Teutonic culture that's notoriously stereotyped for being pompous, all these Jewish-born gadflies arise in one time and place that is so atypical of it? Yes, compared to even the average American writer these writers might be considered a little too pretentiously erudite, but everything they write seems to mock the pretensions of a culture that takes itself so seriously!
So in order to have an answer, I'd like to take us back to Stefan Zweig and a story he wrote called Buchmendel, about one of those legendary geniuses (illium) of the shtetl who left and made a life for himself in the secular world. He had what was called a Talmudic memory - meaning that the memory which in Yeshivas would memorize whole chapters of the Talmud at a time could be put to other services that were useful in the secular world.
...genius--for the man had, and knew himself to have, a titanic memory, wherein, behind a dirty and undistinguished-looking forehead, was indelibly recorded a picture of the title page of every bok that had been printed. No matter whether it had issued from the press yesterday, or hundreds of years ago, he knew its place of publication, its author's name, and its price. From his mind, as if from the printed page, he could read off the contents, could reproduce the illustrations; could visualize, not only what he had actually held in his hands, but also what he had glanced at in a bookseller's window; could see it with the same vividness as an artist sees the creations of fancy which he has not yet reproduced upon canvas. When a book was offered for six marks by a Regensburg dealer, he could remember that, two years before, a copy of the same work had changed hands for four crowns at a Viennese auction, and he recalled the name of the purchaser. In a word, Jacob Mendel never forgot the title or a figure; he knew every plant, every infusorian, every star, in the continually revolving and incessantly changing cosmos of the book universe. In each literary specialty, he knew more than the specialists; he knew the contents of libraries better than the librarians; he knew the book-lists of most publishers better than the heads of the firms concerned--though he had nothing to guide him except the magical powers of his inexplicable but invariably accurate memory.
True, this memory owed its infallibility to the man's limitations, to his extraordinary power of concentration. Apart from books, he knew nothing of the world. The phenomena of existence did not begin to become real for him until they had been set in type, arranged upon a composing stick, collected and, so to say, sterilized in a book. Nor did he read the books for their meaning, to extract their spiritual or narrative substance. What aroused his passionate interest, what fixed his attention, was the name, the price, the format, the title-page. Though in the last analysis unproductive and uncreative, this specifically antiquarian memory of Jacob Mendel, since it was not a printed book-catalogue but was stamped upon the grey matter of a mammalian brain, was, in its unique perfection, no less remarkable a phenomenon than Napoleon's gift for physiognomy, Mezzofani's talent for languages, Lasker's skill at chess-openings, Busoni's musical genius. Given a public position as a teacher, this man with so marvelous a brain might have taught hundreds of thousands of students, have trained others to become men of great learning and of incalculable value to those communal treasure-houses we call libraries. But to him, a man of no account, a Galician Jew, a book-pedlar whose only training had been received in Talmudic school, this upper world of culture was a fenced precinct he could never enter; and his amazing faculties could only find application at the marble-topped table in the inner room of the Café Gluck. When, some day, there arises a great psychologist who shall classify the type of that magical power we term memory as effectively as Buffon classified the genera and species of animals, a man competent to give a detailed description of all the varieties, he will have to find a pigeonhole for Jacob Mendel, forgotten master of the lore of book-prices and book-titles, the ambulatory catalogue alike of incunabula and the modern commonplace.
...When it was over, he willingly, nay, enthusiastically, tendered all the information at his disposal, not forgetting relevant anecdotes, and dramatized accounts of the prices at which other specimens of the same work had fetched at auctions or in sales by private treaty. He looked brighter, younger, more lively at such times, and only one thing could put him seriously out of humour. This was when a novice offered him money for his expert opinion. Then he would draw back with an affronted air, looking for all the world like a skilled custodian of a museum gallery to whom an American traveller has offered a tip--for to Jacob Mendel contact with a rare book was something sacred, as is contact with a woman to a young man who has not had the bloom rubbed off. Such moments were his platonic love-nights. Books exerte a spell on him, neer money Vainly, therefore, did great collectors (among them one of the notables of Princeton University) try to recruit Mendel as buyer or librarian. The offer was declined with thanks. He could not forsake his familiar headquarters at the Café Gluck. Thirty-three years before, an awkward youngster with black down sprouting on his chin and black ringlets hanging over his temples, he had come from Galicia to Vienna, intending to adopt the calling of rabbi, but ere long he forsook the worship of the harsh and jealous Jehovah to devote himself to the more lively and polytheistic cult of books. Then he happened upon the Café Gluck, by degrees making it his workshop, headquarters, post-office--his world. Just as an astronomer, alone in an observatory, watches night after night through a telescope the myriads of stars, their mysterious movements, their changeful medley, their extinction and their flaming-up anew, so did Jacob Mendel, seated at his table in the Café Gluck, look through his spectacles into the universe of books, a universe that lies above the world of our everyday life, and, like the stellar universe, is full of changing cycles.Imagine for a moment, Jews who had just come out of Shtetl and were primed to achieve in the larger world. We have to face the fact that the Jewish concept of Yichus, a kind of Jewish class system whose elitism would certain be frowned upon today, may be in some small part responsible for Jews accounting for things like 23% of the Nobel Prize's recipients. Yichus is the Yiddish word for lineage, and what Yichus meant in practical terms was that the greatest honor for a businessman would be to marry his daughters off to Torah scholars. A literal marriage of practical intelligence to book learning. And perhaps, and I'm not saying surely, but perhaps, the result would be that when a Jewish goes into scholarship, he or she might have more often looked at scholarship from a more practical point of view than a Gentile equivalent: How to write so people will like to read it, or how to make ideas better understood to more people. Just as when a Jew takes on a more practical profession, perhaps, and I emphasize perhaps, he looked at it from a more scholarly point of view, gathering more data about people's preferences and buying habits, or figuring out advertising that better gets people's attention.
Buchmendel is clearly a scholar, but he is confined to the single most practical of all scholarships - where do you find the books? If Jewish scholarship is something that was bred through a kind of artificial selection, and again, I emphasize if, then it was something done under desperate circumstances to survive. A people without land or defense who had to live by their wits.
Long before Jews were great writers and artists and composers, they were considered great critics, great art dealers, great actors and performance impresarios, great instrumental performers and music theorists. But even during the generation of writers like Zweig or Kafka or any of the above, it was commonly assumed by prejudiced people that Jews could never be great writers or composers or painters. Kafka was an unknown, Mahler was considered a much better conductor than composer and Schoenberg's music was hated, Chagall and Modigliani were still barely known. Just as it's assumed by prejudiced people today that there hasn't been a Shakespeare or Mozart among women or non-Europeans yet, that there won't be. Today, it's clear as day that the reason Jews never achieved great creativity until the 20th century was that antisemitism didn't give them the opportunities to achieve, in just the same way that racism and sexism have not given other disadvantaged groups the opportunities to achieve, and why should anyone not believe that once the field of play is leveled, every other disadvantaged group will have a similar explosion of creativity in the high arts?
But it can't be denied, it happened for Jews first. We are, as always, the seizmograph for where the world is going. We are the harbingers of a world in transition. In the declining German lands, we were known as the parasites facilitating their decline, in the rise of America and to a lesser extent England, we were known as the yeast which leavened the rise.
As we said before, the essence of Judaism seems to be criticism and debate. So as the world's natural critics, we will be embraced in a country with a lot of strengths to point out. But in a country that has a lot of flaws, we will not be forgiven for pointing them out.
Stefan Zweig wrote this story in 1929. There is no way he knew what was coming a few years later except as a vague fear, and yet this story seems to have so much of the Shoah coded into it. When you read this longish passage about the downfall of Buchmendel, just think of all those unworldly shtetl Jews who had no idea how to be recognized as having any rights due to a citizen of anywhere.
"Down to the outbreak of war, and after the war had begun, he continued to come here every morning at half-past seven, to sit at this table and study all day just as before. We had the feeling that the fact of a war going on had never entered his mind. Certainly he didn't read the newspapers, and didn't talk to anyone except about books. He paid no attention when (in the early days of the war, before the authorities put a stop to such things) the newspaper-vendors ran through the streets shouting, 'Great Battle on the Eastern Front' (or wherever it might be), 'Horrible Slaughter,' and so on; when people gathered in knots to talk things over, he kept himself to himself; he did not know that Fritz, the billiard-marker, who fell in one of the first battles, had vanished from this place; he did not know that Herr Standhartner's son had been taken prisoner b the Russians at Przemysl; never said a word when the bread grew more and more uneatable and when he was given bean-coffee to drink at breakfast and supper instead of hot milk. Once only did he express surprise at the changes, wondering why so few students came to the café. There was nothing in the world that mattered to him except his books.But Buchmendel is the perfect metaphor for the Jew in the world - or, more to the point, his home is the Jewish home, which in normative Judaism is not connected to land but to the Torah and then the Tanakh and then to all the books which elucidate them. He is, literally, from no land but the hidden world of books, and like Jews have often been, he is a middleman whom, through his book learning, helps connect the world together. He's trying to go about his life as anyone would with the added proviso that he's so preoccupied by what he does that he notices nothing of what the world demands of him. Like so many Jews, he is a person from nowhere who has a great gift to offer anybody willing to recognize it, but it's precisely his gift which makes him unfit to live in the world for long before the world comes crashing down on him.
"Then disaster befell him. At eleven one morning, two policemen came, one in uniform and the other a plain-clothes man. The latter showed the red rosette under the lapel of his coat and asked whether there was a man named Jacob Mendel in the house. They went straight to Herr Mendel's table. The poor man, in his innocence, supposed they had books to sell, or wanted some information; but they told him he was under arrest, and took him away at once. It was a scandal for the café. All the guests flocked round Herr Mendel, as he stood between the two police officers, his spectacles pushed up under his hair, staring from each to the other bewildered. some ventured a protest, saying there must be a mistake--that Herr Mendel was a man who wouldn't hurt a fly; but the detective was furious and told them to mine their own business. They took him away, and none of us at the Café Gluck saw him again for two years. I never found out what they had against him, but I would take my dying oath that they must have made a mistake. Herr Mendel could never have done anything wrong. It was a crime to treat an innocent man so harshly."
The excellent Frau Sporschil was right. Our friend Jacob Mendel had done nothing wrong. He had merely (as I subsequently learned) done something incredibly stupid, only explicable to those who knew the man's peculiarities. The military censorship board, whose function it was to supervise correspondence passing into and out of neutral lands, one day got its clutches upon a postcard written and signed by a certain Jacob Mendel, properly stamped for transmission abroad. This postcard was addressed to Monsieur Jean Labourdaire, Libraire, Quai de Grenelle, Paris--to an enemy country, therefore. The writer complained that the last eight issues of the monthly "Bulletin bibliographique de la France" had failed to reach him, although his annual subscription had been duly paid in advance. The jack-in-office who read this missive (a high-school teacher with a bent for the study of the Romance languages, called up for "war-service" and sent to emplyo his talents at the censorship board instead of wasting them in the trenches) was astonished by its tenor. "Must be a joke," he thought. He had to examine some two thousand letters and postcards every wee, always on the alert to detect anything that might savour of espionage, but never yet had he chanced upon anything so absurd as that of an Austrian subject should unconcernedly drop into one of the imperial and royal letterboxes a postcard addressed to someone in an enemy land, regardless of the trifling detail that since August 1914 the Central Powers had been cut off from Russia on one side and from France on the other by a barbed-wire entanglements and a network of ditches in which men armed with rifles and bayonets, machine-guns and artillery, were doing their utmost to exterminate one another like rats. Our schoolmaster enrolled in the Landsturm did not treat this first postcard seriously, but pigeon-holed it as a curiosity not worth talking about to his chief. But a few weeks alter there turned up another card, again from Jacob Mendel, this time to John Aldridge, Bookseller, Golden Square, London, asking whether the addressee could send the last few numbers of the "Antiquarian" to an address in Vienna which was clearly stated on the card.
The censor in the blue uniform began to feel uneasy. Was his "class" trying to trick the schoolmaster? Were the cards written in cipher? Possible, anyhow; so the subordinate went over to the major's desk, clicked his heels together, saluted, and laid the suspicious documents before "properly constituted authority." A strange business, certainly. The police were instructed by telephone to see if there actually was a Jacob Mendel at the specified address, and, if so, to bring the fellow along. Within the hour, Mendel had been arrested, and (still stupefied by the shock) brought before the major, who showed him the postcards and asked him with major, who showed him the postcards and asked him with drill-sergeant roughness whether he acknowledged their authorship. Angered at being spoken to so sharply, and still more annoyed because his perusal of an important catalogue had been interrupted, Mendel answered tartly.
"Of course I wrote the cards. That's my handwriting and signature. Surely one has a right to claim the delivery of a periodical to which one has subscribed."
The major swung half-round in his swivel-chair and exchanged a meaning glance with the lieutenant seated at the adjoining desk.
"The man must be a double-distilled idiot," was what they mutely conveyed to one another.
Then the chief took counsel within himself whether he should discharge the offender with a caution, or whether he should treat the case more seriously. In all offices, when such doubts arise, the usual practice is, not to spin a coin, but to send in a report. Thus Pilate washes his hands of responsibility. Even if the report does no good, it can do no harm, and is merely one useless manuscript or typescript added to a million others.
In this instance, however, the decision to send in a report did much harm, alas, to an inoffensive man of genius, for it involved asking a series of questions, and the third of them brought suspicious circumstances to life.
"Your full name?"
"Book-pedlar" (for, as already explained, Mendel had no shop, but only a pedlar's license).
Place of birth?
Now came the disaster. Mendel's birthplace was not far from Petrikau. The major raised his eyebrows. Petrikau, or Piotrkov, was across the frontier, in Russian Poland.
You were born a Russian subject. When did you acquire Austrian nationality? Show me your papers."
"Papers? Identification papers? I have nothing but my hawker's license."
"What's you're nationality, then? Was your father Austrian or Russian?"
Undismayed, Mendel answered:
"A Russian of course."
"What about yourself?"
"Wishing to evade Russian military service, I slipped across the frontier thirty-three years ago, and ever since I have lived in Vienna."
The matter seemed to the major to be growing worse and worse.
"But you take steps to become an Austrian subject?"
"Why should I?" countered Mendel. "I never troubled my head about such things."
"Then you are still a Russian subject?"
Mendel, who was bored by this endless questioning, answered simply:
"Yes, I suppose I am."
The startled and indigant major threw himself back in his chair with such violence that the wood cracked protestingly. So this was what it had come to! In Vienna, the Austrian capital, at the end of 1915, after Tarnow, when the war as in full blast, after the great offensive, a Russian could walk about unmolested, could write letters to France and England, while the police ignored his machinations. And then the fools who wrote in the newspapers wondered why Conrad von Hotzendorf had not advanced in seven-leagued boots to Warsaw, and the general staff was puzzled because every movement of the troops was immediately babbled to the Russians.
The lieutenant had sprung to his feet and crossed the room to his chief's table. What had been an almost friendly conversation took a new turn, and degenerated into a trial.
"Why didn't you report as an enemy alien directly the war began?"
Mendel, still failing to realize the gravity of his position, answered in his singing Jewish jargon:
"Why should I report? I don't understand."
The major regarded this inquiry as a challenge, and asked threateningly:
"Didn't you read the notices that were posted up everywhere?"
"Didn't you read the newspapers?"
The two officers stared at Jacob Mendel (now sweating with uneasiness) as if the moon had fallen from the sky into their office. Then the telephone buzzed, the typewriters clacked, orderlies ran hither and thither, and Mendel was sent under guard to the nearest barracks, where he was to await transfer to a concentration camp. When he was ordered to follow the two soldiers, he was frankly puzzled, but not seriously perturbed. What could the man with the gold-lace collar and the rough voice have against him? In the upper world of books, where Mendel lived and breathed and had his being, there was no warfare, there were no misunderstandings, only an ever-increasing knowledge of words and figures, of book-titles and authors' names. He walked good-humouredly enough downstairs between the soldiers, whose first charge was to take him to the polcie station. Not until, there, the books were taken out of his overcoat pockets and the police impounded the portfolio containing a hundred important memoranda and customers' addresses did he lose his temper, and begin to resist and strike blows. They had to tie his hands. In the struggle, his spectacles fell off, and these magical telescopes, without which he could not see into the wonderworld of books, were smashed into a thousand pieces. Two days later, insufficiently clad (for his only wrap was a light summer cloak), he was sent to the internment camp for Russian civilians at Komorn.
Here is one of those Torah scholars who has an incredible memory for the one thing he knows anything about, and knows nothing of the wider world. Today I'm sure we'd consider him to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Jews are generally considered to be a very practical people, and if they were generally imprisoned, it wouldn't be for something as stupid as what Buchmendel did. But this kind of practical stupidity was true of THESE Viennese Jews whom we're talking about, who spent their lives as intellectual playboys who thought themselves both Austrian and part of the great German intellectual tradition, when in fact, they would all be rejected as cosmopolitans for what they were born as and for the irreverent, therefore "Jewish", way they approached the German intellectual tradition they so revered.
It's difficult to understand the allure of Germany to 110 years ago. In that generation, if you wanted to be cultured, you spoke German. FDR was taught to speak fluent German as a child and both Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson learned to read it, Mark Twain wrote an essay about how horrible he found it to learn German, but he realized he had to. German was the English of 1900, and Germany was considered, in every way, the acme of a Progressive nation. The fact that what happened happened in Germany was almost as shocking as the fact that IT happened at all.
Every era has a different standard and criteria for what it considers progressive. Even if the Austro-Hungarian Empire would not be considered progressive today, it was considered progressive simply for the fact that it allowed Jews to accumulate enormous wealth, and rise to eminent positions in culture and government. The Jews of their time, who for whatever reason seem to see everything in the context of everything else in a way that no one else seems to, see the flaws that were present in the society, and they try to correct those things. A progressive place tries to right its wrongs, and if one group can take such advantage of these opportunities to the extent that they can correctly point out everything within their culture that's weak, the larger culture will not forgive them for it. And if the position of this minority is fragile enough, their particular talents would not be able to exist outside of the borders of the places they are most accepted.
So let's think about Contemporary America for a second. We have our own arts here, and we love them. But we do not elevate our high artists into gods and prophets, if anything we make sure to do the opposite. In many ways, that's the way we elevate our popular artists. But the whole point of popular art is that we are all individuals, not just material within a higher collective.
Think of it like this: Why do most of us listen to electronic music more often than acoustic? Why do most of us watch movies and TV more than we read books? Is it because we're stupider? Or is it perhaps that as Americans, a disembodied experience may remind us that we may not be as individualistic as we think we are? When you have a bodily, sensory experience; when the music is loud enough that you feel it in addition to hear it; when you see and hear the characters rather than imagine them, wouldn't you feel more connected to your individual self?
Just the same way that Austro-Germans seem to believe in higher planes and genius and connection to the collective, we seem to be believe in individuality. The truth is, as much as we believe that we're right and they're wrong, any evidence we show is ultimately self-serving. We can point to certain things in which we've clearly improved the world, but look around you. Will we survive Global Warming? Will we survive bioterrorism? Will we survive the proliferation of nuclear weapons and guns? There's no way of saying for certain, and until there is, we can't say for certain that our way of looking at the world will result in any better a solution than the German way was proven to.
In both cases, we're looking into a time and place in which we believe too much in what we believe. In both fin-de-siecle German-speaking lands and early 21st Century America, nobody believes in higher institutions anymore, they no longer believe in the cohesiveness of their country, so whatever they do manage to believe in, they believe in desperately. The German reactionaries believed that military greatness and bloodlines will save them, the German progressives believed that genius and higher planes of truth will save them. Today's American reactionaries believe that individual liberty will save us, today's American progressives believe that social justice and equality will save us.
And just in case the two places don't seem similar enough, let's look at my favorite novel of this time and place by a writer I love: Joseph Roth. Who was a Jewish journalist from Galicia, now Western Poland, where the poorest Ashkenazi Jews lived in the poorest part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He might have become a great Yiddish novelist rather than German had he come from a place with more opportunity...
The Radetzky March is generally considered to be his masterpiece, and it's about, of course, the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an Empire that had been declining for fifty years before it was founded. The routines which everyone once thought to be ironclad were shattered precisely because they were routine and everybody had forgotten why they were there in the first place.
But just about everybody's favorite chapter is the same. It's a chapter told from the point of view of the old Emperor Franz-Josef, who is so old that nobody can even remember how old he is, he's a little senile, he realizes his Empire will die shortly after he dies, he doesn't know why he's going through the motions of imperial glory, nobody else does either. He goes to watch the Imperial Drills of his army, which is the only thing he really enjoys, but even he realizes everything that happens in front of him is so clearly of a different era that even to him, these drills seem like ghosts from the past - something which both Franz-Josef, and the vast majority of his soldiers would soon become. I believe this is one of the greatest passages in Jewish or any other literature. As you read these five excerpts from it, think of an air show or gun show or any of those nationalistic American displays which may be starting to show their age in an era when America is no longer definitively the best place in the world to live, and may have been showing their age since the late 60's.
The Kaiser was an old man. He was the oldest emperor in the world. All around him Death was circling, circling and mowing. The entire field was already cleared, and only the Kaiser, like a forgotten silver stalk, was still standing and waiting. For many years his bright hard eyes had been peering, lost, into a lost distance. His skull was bare like a vaunted wasteland. His whiskers were white like a pair of wings made of snow. The wrinkles in his face were a tangled thicket dwelt in by the decades. His body was thin, his back slightly bowed. At home he shuffled about. But upon going outdoors, he tried to make his thighs hard, his knees elastic, his feet light, his back straight. He filled his eyes with sham kindness, with the true characteristic of imperial eyes: they seemed to look at everyone who looked at the Kaiser, and they greeted everyone who greeted him. But actually, the faces merely swirled and floated past his eyes, which gazed straight at that soft fine line that is the frontier between life and death--gazed at the edge of the horizon, which is always seen by the eyes of the old even when it is blocked by houses, forests, or mountains.
It was a heavy day. Franz Joseph looked at the slip outlining his agenda hour by hour. The only church in the village was Greek Orthodox. Mass would be celebrated first by a Roman Catholic priest, then by a Greek Orthodox priest. The most strenuous duties of all were the church ceremonies. He felt he had to pull himself together before God as if facing a superior. And he was old already. He could spare me any number of things! the Kaiser mused. But God is even older than I, and his decisions seem as unfathomable to me as mine seem to the soldiers in the army. And where would we be if every subordinate could criticize his superior?
The Kaiser stood up. His barber came. Every morning he regularly held out his chin, and his whiskers were trimmed and neatly brushed. The cold metal of the scissors tickled his nostrils and earlobes. At times the Kaiser had to sneeze. Today he sat before a small oval mirror, serenely and eagerly following the movements of the barber’s thin hands. Ater every little hair that dropped, after every scrape of the razor and every tug of the comb or brush, the barber sprange back and breathed “Your Majesty!” with quivering lips. The Kaiser didn’t hear those whispered words. He only saw the barber’s lips in perpetual motion, didn’t dare ask, and finally concluded that the man was a bit nervous.
“What’s your name?” asked the Kaiser.
The barber--he had the rank of corporal, although he had been with the militia for just six months, but he served his colonel impeccably, enjoying the goodwill of is superiors--the barber sprange over to the door, his bearing elegant, as demanded by his craft, but also military: it was both a leap, a bow, and a stiffening at once, and the Kaiser nodded benignly.
“Hartenstein!” cried the barber.
“Why are you jumping like that?” asked Franz Joseph. But he received no answer.
The corporal timidly reapproached the Kaiser and completed his work with hasty hands. He wished he were far away and back at the camp.
“Hold on!” said the Kaiser. “Ah, you’re a corporal! Have you been serving a long time?”
Six months, Your Majesty!” the barber breathed.
“I see, I see~ Corporal already? In my day,” said the Kaiser, as a veteran might have said, “it never went that fast. But then you’re a very smart looking soldier. Do you plan on staying in the military?”
Hartenstein the barber had a wife and child and a prosperous shop in Olomouc and had already tried feigning rheumatism several times in order to get out fairly soon. But he couldn’t say no to the Kaiser. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said, knowing he had just messed up his entire life.
“Fine. Now you’re a sergeant. But don’t be so nervous!”
So. The Kaiser had made someone happy. He was glad. He was glad. He was glad. He had done something wonderful for that Hartenstein. Now the day could begin. His carriage was waiting. They slowly drove uphill to the Greek Orthodox church on the peak. Its golden double cross sparkled in the morning sun. The military bands were playing the imperial anthem, “God Save.” The Kaiser stepped down and entered the church. He knelt at the altar, moving his lips but not praying. He kept thinking about the barber. The Almighty could not show the Kaiser such sudden favors as the Kaiser could show on a corporal, and that was too bad. King of Jerusalem: that was the highest rank God could award a majesty. And Franz Joseph was already King of Jerusalem. Too bad, the Kaiser mused. Someone whispered to him that the Jews were waiting for him outside the village. They had forgotten all about the Jews. Ah, now those Jews too! the Kaiser thought, distressed. Fine! Let them come. But they had to step on it! Otherwise they’d be late for the fighting!
The Greek Orthodox priest hurried through the mass. The bands launched again into the imperial anthem. The Kaiser emerged from the church. It was oh-nine-hundred-hours. The fighting was to start at oh-nine-twenty, Franz Joseph decided to mount a horse instead of climbing back into the carriage. Those Jews could just as well be received on horseback. He sent off the carriage and rode out toward the Jews. At the end of the village, by the start of the wide highway leading to his quarters and also to the battle site, they billowedtoward him, a dark cloud. Like a field of strange black stalks in the wind, the congregation of Jews bowed to the Kaiser. He could see their bent backs from the saddle. Then, riding closer, he could make out their long, flowing, silvery-white, coal-black, and fiery-red beards, which stirred in the gentle autumn breeze, and the long bony noses, which seemed to be hunting for something on the ground. The Kaiser sat, in his blue coat, on his white horse. His whiskers shimmered in the silvery autumn sun. White mists rose from the fields all around.
The leader of the Jews, a patriarch with a wafting beard in a white prayer shaw with black stripes, flowed toward the Kaiser. The Kaiser paced his horse. The old Jew trudged slower and slower. Eventually he seemed to both pause in one spot yet keep moving. Franz Joseph shivered slightly. He suddenly halted, and his white horse reared. The emperor dismounted. So did his retinue. He walked. His glossy boots became covered with highway dust, and their narrow edges were coated with heavy gray mire. The black throng of Jews billowed toward him. Their backs rose and sank. Their coal-black, fiery-red, and silvery-white beards wafted in the soft breeze. The patriarch stopped three paces from the Kaiser. In his arms he carried a huge purple Torah scroll topped by a gold crown with tiny, softly jingling bells. The Jew then lifted the Torah scroll toward the Emperor. And in an incomprehensible language his toothless, wildly overgrown mouth babbled the blessing that Jews must recite upon seeing an emperor. Franz Joseph lowered his head. Fine silvery gossamer floated over his black cap, the wild ducks shrieked in the air, a rooster hollered in a distant farmyard. Otherwise there was silence. A dark muttering rose from the throng of Jews. Their backs bowed even deeper. The silver-blue sky stretched cloudless and infinite over the earth.
“Blessed art though,” the Jew said to the Kaiser! “Thou shalt not live to see the end of the world,”
I know! thought Franz Joseph. He shook the old man’s hand. He turned around. He mounted his white horse.
They fell in on the boundless fields, the regiments of all branches, unfortunately in the field gray (another newfangled innovation that was not to the Kaiser’s liking). Nevertheless, the bloody red of the cavalry trousers still blazed over the parched yellow of the stubble fields, erupting from the gray of the infantrists like fire from clouds. The matte, narrow glints of the swords flashed before the marching columns and double columns; the red crosses on white backgrounds shone behind the machine-gun diversions. The artillerists rolled along like ancient war gods on their heavy chariots, and the beautiful dun and chestnut steeds reared in strong, proud compliance.
Through his binoculars Franz Joseph watched the movements of each individual platoon; for several minutes he also felt sorry to lose it. For he already saw it smashed and scattered, split up among the many nations of his vast empire. The huge golden sun of the Hapsburgs was setting for him, shattered on the ultimate bottom of the universe, splintering into several tiny solar balls that had to shine as independent stars on independent nations.
They just don’t want to be ruled by me anymore! thought the old man. What can you do? he added to himself. For he was an Austrian.
It is hard to make very different kinds of people live together under one government who don't want to live together. But the end result of that is a worldwide cataclysm, and if you look closely, it seems as though the Jews are the only ones who seem to have some real inkling what will happen, like harbingers from eternity - and bear in mind, this was written in 1932, a year before Hitler came to power, when few people could still even fathom the possibility.
In a letter to Stefan Zweig, Roth wrote:
You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes. Apart from the private — our literary and financial existence is destroyed — it all leads to a new war. I won't bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.When Hitler came to Austria in 1938, Altenberg was long dead from drugs. Karl Kraus stopped publishing his newspaper after Hitler came to power so he wouldn't endanger his contacts in Germany, and soon died of a heart embolism. Joseph Roth checked into a hotel in Paris, and deliberately seemed to drink himself to death. Stefan Zweig moved to England, then New York, then Brazil. In Brazil he wrote The World of Yesterday, and then he and his wife killed themselves. Egon Friedell, born Egon Friedman, waited for the SA to arrest him. When they came, he had his maid stall them, he went to the top floor of his apartment, shouted down to people on the street politely to please get out of the way, and he jumped into the street and died instantly.
The reason old Vienna was great was because the types of people who flourished there did not flourish anywhere else in the world. These people from Jewish families had no belief in their ancestral religion, but they believed in the arts with all the ruach of a Chasid. They believed that anybody who came into contact with these higher truths would become better, more human, more compassionate. But Adolph Hitler also spent his formative years as an artist in Vienna too, and in their own way the Nazis believed so greatly in the same higher collective truths that Friedell and Zweig and Kraus did that Hitler was willing to kill millions for them. Everything they believed in turned out to be wrong, and they couldn't live with that knowledge.
But let's end this with Zweig, who though he killed himself shortly thereafter, has a genuine note of hope that has fantastic resonance for us today, and that we ought to take very seriously indeed. For this one, let's go around the room and each read one sentence at a time:
If I try to find some useful phrase to sum up the time of my childhood and youth before the First World War, I hope I can put it most succinctly by calling it a Golden Age of Security. Everything in our Austrian Monarchy, then almost a thousand years old, seemed built to last, and the state itself was the ultimate guarantor of durability. The rights it gave its citizens were affirmed by our parliament, a freely elected assembly representing the people, and every duty was precisely defined. our currency, the Austrian crown, circulated in the form of shiny gold coins, thus vouching for its own immutability. Everyone knew how much he owned and what his income was, what was allowed and what was not. Everything had its norm, its correct measurement and weight. If you had wealth, you could work out precisely how much interest it would earn you every year, while civil servants and officers were reliably able to consult the calendar and see the year when they would be promoted and the year when they would retire. Every family had its own budget and knew how much could be spent on food and lodging, summer holidays and social functions, and of course you had to put a small sum aside for unforeseen contingencies such as illness and the doctor. If you owned a house you regarded it as a home for your children and grandchildren; property in town or country was passed on from generation to generation. While a baby was still in the cradle, you contributed the first small sum to its way through life, depositing them in a money box or savings account, a little reserve for the future. Everything in the wide domain was firmly established, immovably I its place, with the old Emperor at the top of the pyramid, and if he were to die the Austrians all knew (or thought they knew) that another emperor would take his place, and nothing in the well-calculated order of things would change. Anything radical or violent seemed impossible in such an age of reason.We live in a time when it's impossible to believe in the mid-century liberalism of our grandparents, or even the Obama-era liberalism we had just last year. The world has demonized each other, and even if, as I am, you are convinced that one side is much more responsible than another, we still have to deal with the reality, as our ancestors did, that these people feel the way they feel. But even if terrible tragedies come our way, good times will follow that, and as best we can, we need make sure we're still there to enjoy them, because that's the biggest mistake the writers just talked about made.
....But for all the solidity and sobriety of people's concept of life at the time, there was a dangerous and overweening pride in this touching belief that they could fence in their existence, leaving no gaps at all. In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the direct and infallible road to the best of all possible worlds. The people of the time scornfully looked down on earlier epochs with their famines and revolutions as periods when mankind had not yet come of age and was insufficiently enlightened. Now, however, it was a mere matter of decades before they finally saw an end to evil and violence, and in those days this faith sin uninterrupted, inexorable 'progress' truly had the force of a religion. People believed in 'progress' more than in the Bible, and its gospel message seemed incontestably proven by the new miracles of science and technology that were revealed daily.... People no more believed in the possibility of barbaric relapses, such as wars between the nations of Europe, than they believed in ghosts and witches; our fathers were doggedly convinced of the infallibly binding power of tolerance and oscillation. They honestly thought that divergences between nations and religious faiths would gradually flow into a sense of common humanity, so that peace and security, the greatest of goods, would come to all mankind.Today, now that the word 'security' has long been struck out of our vocabulary as a phantom, it is easy for us to smile at the optimistic delusion of that idealistically dazzled generation, which thought that the technical progress of mankind must inevitably result in an equally rapid moral rise. We who, in the new century, have learnt not to be surprised by any new outbreak of collective bestiality, and expect every new day to prove even worse than the day just past, are considerably more skeptical about prospects for the moral education of humanity. We have found that we have to agree with Freud, who saw our culture and civilization as a thin veneer through which the destructive forces of the underworld could break at any moment. We have had to accustom ourselves slowly to living without firm ground beneath our feet, without laws, freedom or security. We long ago ceased believing in the religion of our fathers, their faith in the swift and enduring ascent of humanity. Having learned our cruel lesson, we see their overhasty optimism as banal in the face of a catastrophe that, with a single blow, cancelled out a thousand years of human effort. But if it was only a delusion, it was a noble and wonderful delusion that our fathers served, more humane and fruitful than today's slogans. And something in me, mysteriously and in spite of all I know and all my disappointments, cannot quite shake it off. What a man has taken into his bloodstream in childhood from the air of that time stays with him. And despite all that is dinned into my ears daily, all the humiliation and trials that I myself and countless of my companions in misfortune have experienced, I cannot quite deny the belief of my youth that in spite of everything, events will take a turn for the better. Even from the abyss of horror in which we try to feel our way today, half-blind, our hearts distraught and shattered, I look up again and again to the ancient constellations that shone on my childhood, comforting myself with the inherited confidence that, some day, this relapse will appear only an interval in the eternal rhythm of progress onward and upward.
I'll leave you to ponder the contemporary relevance of this for yourselves, but for now, I bit you all a good night until next week, when we talk about the much more feet-on-the ground realm of Yiddish Lit.