Review: The World of Yesterday

Review: The World of Yesterday

The World of YesterdayThe World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Memoires often make the best travel books. I began this book in preparation for a short trip to Vienna, and quickly discovered that I had chosen well. Whatever your opinion of Zweig, The World of Yesterday is worth reading simply for the wealth of information it contains. Few history books paint so rich and full a picture of European culture during these transformative years—above all, in Paris, Berlin, and Zweig’s original home of Vienna—from the peaceful span preceding the First World War, to the Indian Summer of the interwar years, to the terrible hardships that led to the second great conflagration.

The last two autobiographies I read were of Benvenuto Cellini (whose beautiful salt-cellar is on display at the Vienna Art History Museum) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two very different men alike in their narcissism. Whatever faults Zweig may have had, he was not a narcissist. This is the least personal of autobiographies, almost never mentioning Zweig’s so-called “personal life”—his marriages, private disappointments, and intimate friendships. Instead Zweig focuses his gaze outward, at the world around him, the cultural milieu, the slowly shifting tides of history.

By being so self-effacing, Zweig succeeds in producing a surprisingly insightful look at his world. A delicate, sensitive, and intelligent man, Zweig was extremely well-read, and knew virtually everybody—every famous European, at least—and so was in a uniquely advantageous position to write the history of his times. To give you some idea of his social circle, Zweig knew Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí (he even facilitated a meeting between the two when Freud was in London), he met Auguste Rodin, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and was friends with Richard Strauss, Benedetto Croce, Rainer Marie Rilke, Romain Rolland, and Maxim Gorky, just to name the names that come to mind.

Zweig’s history is largely one of tragic loss, as he repeats again and again. He begins his life in an affluent home, the son of a successful industrialist, in a period of calm stability and cultural efflorescence in Europe. He hones his writing skill, quickly gains success, meets several famous contemporaries, travels and sees the world, and then witnesses the body of European civilization tear itself apart for the flimsiest and most fatuous of reasons during the First World War. The war eventually comes to its bloody end, Austria and then Germany suffer terribly, Zweig meanwhile becomes one of the world’s most famous and most translated authors (although the English never liked him), and then Hitler’s rise begins, forcing Zweig to flee. The book ends just as the Second World War is commencing.

Despite the tragedy that Zweig lived through (and committed suicide during), it is impossible for me not to have life-envy. Here was have a man born into wealth, who had the time and resources to dedicate his whole self to his art, who could travel wherever he pleased whenever he pleased, who achieved instantaneous success seemingly without effort, who was able to meet and befriend all of his contemporary heroes, and who was even wealthy enough to collect manuscripts of his deceased idols—in short, it would be hard to imagine circumstances more favorable to the creation of a writer than those Zweig enjoyed. If you had asked me, before reading this book, to give my prescription for creating a first-class writer, I don’t think the result would be far off.

Yet for all his cultural capital, Zweig does not come across as pretentious or pompous. He is timid, uncharismatic, and even mundane. It is easy to imagine bumping into him on the street. (Though, as Hermann Kesten wrote, the Zweig of reality was far more eccentric than than Zweig of this book.) As a writer, he is skilled, consistent, and accessible. In a word, his prose is fluent: easy to read and digest, even in large doses. He is always interesting and never overpowering, like an excellent dinner guest. The one quality he lacks is humor—a serious deficiency, but not a fatal one. Perhaps the best way to describe Zweig is that he is a sophisticated middle-brow author, which might be why the high-brow world has had trouble accepting him; unlike Milton, Zweig intended to soar a middle flight.

It is hard to criticize Zweig—the champion of European solidarity, whose message is especially important now—who asks so little and never imposes his views. But I must say that he had several blindspots.

First, I think that his narrative of events is deeply colored by his affluence. Zweig—a rich, successful, cosmopolitan intellectual—simply cannot imagine why anyone would do something so insane as to start a war. How is he to travel to Paris or to attend the theater festival in Brussels if men are fighting? His explanation of the conflict—which comes down to thoughtless stupidity—is historically unsatisfactory. And even though I, of course, agree with his anti-war ideals, I couldn’t help thinking that his social status prevented him from understanding why less fortunate people might be dissatisfied with his wonderful world.

More generally, I think that Zweig’s life demonstrates why art should not be made into a religion. Zweig did not only love art, he worshipped it. His intense focus on the objects that artistic geniuses have touched—their manuscripts and notebooks and even their furniture—reminded me of the reliquaries of Catholicism. Every time he introduces one of his famous acquaintances, he writes a mini-hagiography, obsequiously describing even his subject’s face, manners, and expressions, as if artistic skill sanctified one’s mortal frame.

I personally found it all very distasteful—how, for example, Zweig fetishized every item that was in Beethoven’s room when he died. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course; but it makes it very easy to confuse aesthetic with ethical values. This confusion leads to the kind of political apathy Zweig succumbed to. When the beautiful is all that matters, why worry about tawdry things like social welfare?

Zweig had the attractive, but ultimately vain, notion that he could live aloof from politics. He never mentions anything even remotely political in his fiction; he didn’t even vote. Then he is surprised and dismayed that politics follows him everywhere. Granted, he does have a political stance: he is a pacifist, a humanist, and an internationalist. But this stance is not the product of reasoned consideration; it is the stance that allows him to continue his life as a traveling author unmolested. To steal a phrase from Michael Hoffman’s scorchingly hostile review, he is more a passivist than a pacifist. What Zweig wants from politics, in other words, is what would be necessary for him not to bother with politics.

Now, it is worth asking whether we ought to live in a world where we have no choice but to pay attention to the dreary doings of politicians. Be that as it may, Zweig certainly didn’t have a choice, which led to the irony of this most apolitical of authors structuring his autobiography according to political events.

All these criticisms notwithstanding, I think most people will find here a fundamentally sane, humane, and liberal book. For my part, Zweig supported the right causes, if not always for the right reasons. One thing, however, is left unclear: the relation of this book to Zweig’s suicide. Zweig, along with his wife, ended his own life not long after finishing this book. One might expect this to be his final message to the world; but as the translator notes, it is difficult to read this as a long suicide note. Zweig talks of a future, his future, with more books to write and years to live. The book even ends with a paean to life.

Whatever reason Zweig ended his life, one thing was certain: the Vienna of his youth, the Vienna he so lovingly describes here, is mostly vanished. If I can judge from my short visit, the city is entirely changed: Vienna nowadays is a city of tourism. Instead of the music-loving, critical, and discerning audiences Zweig describes in theaters and concerts, the city is now full of tourists who will pay periwigged salesmen to attend generic Mozart concerts, which run identical programs of greatest-hits that tireless musicians perform nightly. In the streets, English and Chinese are more commonly heard than German. Of course, Vienna is still lovely and full of cultural treasures; but these cultural treasures are of the past now, not the living present.

Did Zweig sense this change coming? Maybe not in so many words, but I think he knew that his world had forever passed into memory. There was no putting Europe back into the same postwar shape after so much destruction and death. That past now exists only in museums, grand old buildings, and books like this.

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Review: Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis

Review: Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis

Introductory Lectures on PsychoanalysisIntroductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The medulla oblongata is a very serious and lovely object.

When I was in college, I used to get in long and rather aimless arguments with a friend about Freud. The funny thing is, both of us agreed that Freud was fundamentally wrong about most things. The argument was, rather, whether Freud was worth reading and thinking about—and was even potentially useful—in spite of his theories’ veracity. My friend said he wasn’t, and I said he was. I still think this way, which is why, every now and then, I find myself making my way through one of his books.

Probably I should have come to this book sooner. Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis is his attempt to give an accessible introduction to his system, and is thus probably one of the best places to start if you’re curious about his work. The lectures, given over one academic year, are divided into three sections: the parapraxes (the “Freudian slips”), the interpretation of dreams, and the neuroses. The material is arranged this way for pedagogical purposes, beginning with the simplest and most easily observable phenomena and ending with genuine mental disorders. By necessity, the last section is both the longest and densest.

One thing that fascinates me about Freud is how a system of ideas with paltry factual support could be so seductive and gripping. For my part, I find Freud’s system remarkably attractive; thinking along his lines has an undeniable emotional appeal, at least in my case. In my review of Civilization and its Discontents, I gave a partial explanation of this by likening Freud’s system in outline to that of Christianity. But I don’t think that’s the whole story, and thus I want to explore it further.

While reading this book, it struck me that Freud’s system is comparable with the Aristotelian physics and cosmology that held sway for so long in the Western world. Both of these systems, Freud’s and Aristotle’s, are so compelling and take such hold of one’s mind because they seem to explain everything while offering very little in the way of falsifiable propositions. Aristotelians could throw around terms like matter, form, ideal, potential, perfect, nature, and soul without providing any circumstances in which these concepts could be tested and disproved.

These categories were specific enough to be rationally compelling, and yet vague enough to be applied to nearly anything. Similarly, Freud created a system that could be applied to history, religion, mythology, and literature, while never specifying how its categories—repression, unconscious, transference, libido, censor etc.—could be disproven. It thus gives the illusion of an airtight and exhaustive system while remaining safe from testability.

The main reason that Freud’s theories are untestable is that they rely on interpretation; and interpretations, by definition, cannot be falsified. Now to be fair I think Freud’s system is most plausible, as a therapeutic technique, when he has his patients interpret their own dreams and symptoms. If a patient is free-associating, it makes sense that they might be able to hit upon an emotionally resonant interpretation.

Nevertheless, I think it would still be incorrect to call even the patient’s interpretation the “true” one, since being emotionally affected by something now in no way proves that this same thing motivated a dream in the past. And this is putting to the side the fact that Freud’s explanation for how dreams are formed relies on unobservable processes and entities that he posits in the mind. But let me stop here before I get sucked down the rabbit hole.

To repeat, then, although I think it cannot be proved that any interpretation of a dream is a “true” one, I still think having patients interpret their dreams might help them to explore their own feelings. But when Freud begins enumerating a kind of “key” for dream interpretation, his system gets really unsupportable. According to Freud, certain things always symbolize other things in dreams, irrespective of the individual, their cultural background, or their experiences. And, of course, most of these symbols are representatives of sexual matters:

We have earlier referred to landscapes as representing the female genitals. Hills and rocks are symbols of the male organ. Fruit stands, not for children, but for the breasts. Wild animals mean people in an excited sensual state, and further, evil instincts or passions. Blossoms or flowers indicate women’s genitals, or, in particular, virginity. Do not forget that blossoms are actually the genitals of a plant.

There is an entire lecture like this; and personally I find it so ludicrous that it makes me deeply suspicious of Freud’s judgment. It relies on so many unsubstantiated premises—that dreams have a deeper meaning, that this deeper meaning is always a desire, that this desire is always illicit and sexual, that somehow certain symbols are universal, and that Freud is somehow privy to this information—that it boggles the mind trying to unravel it.

When Freud does offer the explanation for why one thing symbolizes another, it bears a remarkable similarity to the logic used by conspiracy theorists:

And, speaking of wood, it is hard to understand how that material came to represent what is maternal and female. But here comparative philology may come to our help. Our German word ‘Holz’ seems to come from the same root as the Greek [hule], meaning ‘stuff’ ‘raw material’. … Now there is an island in the Atlantic named ‘Madeira’. This name was given to it by the Portuguese when they discovered it, because at that time it was covered all over with woods. For in the Portuguese language ‘madeira’ means ‘wood’. You will notice, however, that ‘madeira’ is only a slightly modified version of the Latin word ‘materia’, which once more means ‘material’ in general. But ‘material’ is derived from ‘mater’, ‘mother’: the material out of which anything is made is, as it were, mother to it. This ancient view of the thing survives, therefore, in the symbolic use of wood for ‘woman’ or ‘mother’.

Clearly this sort of thing wouldn’t past muster in any scientific journal nowadays, and it’s hard to see how it could have been convincing in Freud’s day either.

The above is just one example of the un-falsifiability inherent in Freud’s thought; and this is a big part, I think, of why his system can be so seductive. But there is another reason for its appeal: It is fundamental to Freud’s system to question the motivations of its detractors. That it, the system has a built-in defense mechanism in that anyone who disagrees can be accused of being a repressed individual who can’t face the truth of his own illicit desires.

To take just one example, let’s look at Freud’s discussion of his famous Freudian slip. In these lectures, he claims that all slips of the tongue are caused by a repressed desire that is finding a distorted expression. Now to be fair, there are definitely many instances when this seems to be the case, that somebody accidentally said something they were trying to keep secret. Nevertheless, it is absurd to claim that all slips of the tongue have this origin. For one, you cannot legitimately make a universal generalization from any finite data set. You cannot, for example, claim that all apples are delicious after you’ve eaten 100 delicious apples. Moreover, and once again, finding the “deeper meaning” of a Freudian slip relies on interpretation, and interpretations can never be objectively determined.

But a more troubling problem for me is that Freud essentially asserts that it is impossible to make an innocent mistake. If you are tired and you misspeak, it cannot just be an error, but must be the expression of a deep and terrible desire of which you are not aware. And if you deny this, it only proves Freud’s point; obviously you can’t face the truth about yourself, you are too repressed. Thus there isn’t any way out. You can’t disprove Freud’s interpretation (since it’s an interpretation and can’t be disproven), and all your protestations only make you look more guilty. And this sort of double bind isn’t restricted to Freud’s theories on slips of the tongue, but apply to the interpretation of dreams and neurotic symptoms. I wouldn’t be surprised if Freud argued that any time somebody fell off a bike it was because of a latent death wish.

To be fair to Freud, none of these criticisms is unique to his system. To the contrary, they can be applied to many, if not all, religious and political ideologies. The questioning of other people’s motivation is especially destructive in the latter sphere, and can be found on both the Right and the Left. Democrats only want to expand social security because they’re communists who want to make everyone dependent on the government; they only want to expand background checks to take away everyone’s guns and make them unable to fight against the government tyranny. Meanwhile, poor whites are too dumb to vote for their own interests, those who disagree with Obama are racists, those with Hillary are sexists, and if you disagree it’s your privilege talking.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that these accusations are necessarily incorrect, and indeed I think they are often quite compelling. Nevertheless I think you have got to be careful when you questions the motivations of your opponent, because it makes it impossible to have a reasonable debate. Probably it’s best to assume good intentions unless proven otherwise. But this brings me pretty far from Freud.

Or does it? I began by saying how useful is Freud even if one disagrees with him, and I think one way is to see how unsupported ideas can become widely accepted. But of course that’s not all.

Freud was, in my opinion, quite obviously brilliant. His ideas were so original and his thought process so novel that it is fascinating just to see him at work. What is more, even if they lack rigor in a scientific setting, Freud’s ideas, terminology, and system have undeniably enriched how we think about the human experience. That dreams can reveal a deeper meaning, that slips of the tongue can reveal hidden intentions, that desires can be repressed, that traumatic memories can be unconscious, that much of your motivation lies beyond your conscious awareness—all this and more we owe to Freud.

Two weeks ago I was walking through the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, where there is a wonderful painting by Salvador Dalí: Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening. The painting, which makes no rational sense, was partly inspired by Freud’s ideas on the dream-logic, how ideas get associated in the unconscious. Thus the elements in the painting are associated, not by reason, but by other chains of association—the sounds of their names, specific memories, visual properties, sexual desires. The entire logic of the painting can thus be said to be Freudian. Now, considering this, can you argue that he didn’t enrich our culture?

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