Friday, February 25, 2011

'Beware of Pity' Stefan Zweig

Here in the arena of the inner man the big tournaments take place.
Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky Stefan Zweig

From my very first dreams, that is, from my very childhood, I was unable to imagine myself otherwise than in the first place, always and in all turns of life.
The Adolescent Dostoevsky

Compassion is the chief, perhaps the only law of being for all mankind.
The Idiot Dostoevsky

Stefan Zweig is the early 20th century inheritor of Dostoevsky; or so he would have us think. Like the Russian master, his fictional territory is the human soul, or to put it in Freudian terms, the ego.  Zweig was the author of an influential and well-regarded study of Dostoevsky. This novel –the only full length novel published by Zweig in his lifetime -  may be read as dialogue with two ideas of Dostoevsky: the development of the self, and the centrality of pity or compassion in the human heart.  

The protagonist, a cavalry officer in the Austrian army, Lieutenant Hofmiller, a young man of 25 who has only known the army, inadvertently insults a young crippled girl at a dance. In order to make amends, he befriends her and her family, and her doctor, the enigmatic Dr Condor. He becomes ever more deeply embroiled in the affairs of the family until things reach a crisis of conflict between his duty to his regiment and his duty to his crippled friend, Edith, who has fallen in love with him. From this small incident, Zweig builds a large psychological edifice in much the same way that Dostoevsky does.

Zweig’s two main themes here are the development of the ego through the pity aroused by another human being’s suffering; and the consequent loss of freedom this entails.

Zweig’s dialogue with Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky charts the development of the ego in his penultimate novel, The Adolescent, in which Arkady achieves a fully socialised ego through the conflict aroused by insults. In Zweig’s novel, this development of ego awareness is occasioned not by insults, but through pity. By experiencing pity, Hofmiller becomes aware of his own individuality and the reality of another.  His growing friendship with the family, and his increasing centrality in the world of the cripple brings him to the realisation that he can be an important part of other people’s lives, that he is not just an insignificant cipher in a unit, as he had until now regarded himself.

Zweig’s second theme, that of compassion, is most clearly enunciated by Dr Condor: Pity is a confoundedly two-edged business. Anyone who doesn’t know how to deal with it should keep his hands and above all his heart off it. Dr Condor has married one of his patients, a woman whom he had been unable to cure of blindness, perhaps in an attempt to fulfil the Dostoevskyan maxim from The Adolescent: I would set it down as a commandment for any developed man to make at least one being happy in his life, unfailingly and in something, but to do it in practice, that is in reality. Dr Condor warns the young Hofmiller that pity is like a drug for the person who is the object of it. That person demands more and more, until pity becomes a terrible burden on both pitier and pitied. Pity has the power to corrode and infect all other emotions. Hofmiller is forced to ask himself does he really love Edith, or is it merely pity? Does Edith really love him, or is her love merely an addiction to the pity he gives her? Both pity and love become a burden, a loss of freedom. True sympathy cannot be switched on and off like an electric current…anyone who identifies himself with the fate of another is robbed to some extent of his own freedom.  

Zweig’s model of ego development

Having set himself a Dostoevskyan task, however, Zweig falls short of fulfilling it. The novel contains a number of weaknesses which ultimately undermine Zweig’s claim as the inheritor of the mantle of Dostoevsky in early 20th century central European literature. These weaknesses stem from a rather constricted, perhaps one can say, timid approach to life and humanity,  a lack of a truly original  imagination, an Austrian Herrkoemmlichkiet that Zweig simply cannot escape from.

Dostoevsky’s model of the ego posited an initial, rampantly egoistical self, an untamed monster at the heart of its own world: Arkady in The Adolescent says: I was unable to imagine myself otherwise than in the first place, and gradually this ego becomes socialised through its awareness that others also have this experience, in other words, a simultaneous awareness of itself as subject and object marks the first step of ego awareness.

Dostoevsky’s work is full of examples of protagonists who do not become healthy socialised egos, but who remain locked in their immature solipsism. The narrator of the short story A Gentle Creature, for example, seeks to understand his wife’s suicide only in terms of his own impact on her, not in terms of her own problems, in terms of her own experience of her life: She was frightened by my love, asked herself the solemn question whether to accept it or not, found the question too much for her to bear and thought it better to die.

Hofmiller has the same moment of immaturity, when he visits the cripple for the first time after his inadvertent insult, his second meeting with her. She is seated in the same corner at the same table, with the same rug over her knees, hiding her deformity. Hofmiller remarks in parenthesis (Why repeat a situation so painful to me?) an insight into his solipsism. He shows no awareness that she also has feelings about the situation; he is locked into his own egoistic perception of it, projecting them onto the other, in much the same way the narrator of A Gentle Creature is. 

However, the insight of this Dostoevskyan psychology is undone by the revelation that Hofmiller has until now regarded himself as a nothing, as an insignificant nonentity. Packed off to the army at an early age by an uncaring family, he believes himself to be marginal, overlooked, insignificant, and only at the age of 25 does he realise that this might not be correct. This simply does not ring true.  Dostoevsky’s psychology, of an initial untrammelled egoism socialised through internal conflict is both more original artistically and more accurate psychologically than Zweig’s notion of an ego unaware of itself brought to awareness through an awakening of pity. One simply cannot have the kind of solipsism Hofmiller shows in the earlier stages of the book when he projects his fears onto Edith if one believes oneself to be a nonentity.

Zweig starts with an ego which is nothing and which becomes something; Dostoevsky starts with an ego which is everything and which becomes something, a vision which is both more radical and more insightful.

The Aphorism

Another main area of weakness in the novel occurs at what we may call the level of the aphorism. Any novel that aspires to enduring greatness includes in addition to plot, description and dialogue, aphorisms in which the ‘teaching’, or the ‘thinking’ of the author is revealed. These aphorisms interrupt the flow of the story, stand outside it, comment on it, and add to the multiplicity of voices in the novel in that they are not the voice of the narrator, but closer to that of the author. Hugo’s narratives, for example, or Eliot’s are full of these kind of aphorisms. They add depth and interest to the reading experience, Hugo’s through their sonority and portentousness, Eliot’s through their sheer originality of thought and expression. At the same time, they reveal, unwittingly, perhaps, the soul of the author. (It’s interesting that Dickens, who towers above everyone else, completely eschews these kind of aphorisms, while Dostoevsky’s aphorisms are never Dostoevsky’s, but always those of his characters or the narrator, who is always a character in the story.)

Zweig’s aphorisms are also given by the (first person) narrator, but here the difference between narrator and author is so indistinguishable as to be tantamount to the same thing. And the aphorisms reveal further the sheer conventionality of Zweig’s soul.

“It is always encouraging to a talker to find he is being a success.” “Any form of constraint fetters the true forces of the spirit.” “Our decisions are to a much greater extent dependent on our desire to conform to the standards of our class and environment than we are inclined to admit.” “ A man of limited vision is hard to bear with in any sphere in which he is invested with power, but in the army it is intolerable.” These are aphorisms of such banality that they are hardly worth the labour of reading or copying. They exist on about the same level of: “A carriage has wheels.” They do not challenge, they do not startle, they do not rattle the soul. They barely even interest.

In describing the tyranny of the Colonel of the regiment, a martinet before whom everyone trembles, officers and men together,  Zweig writes: A human being will accept the strictest disciplinary measures with a better grace if he knows that they will fall with equal severity on his neighbour. Justice in some mysterious way makes up for violence. Are we really to believe and accept that a deserter, for example, lined up with other deserters in front of a firing squad about to be shot as a disciplinary measure will feel much better about it because he knows he is not alone in his punishment? Are we really to accept that this is a form of justice? Does Zweig really expect us to accept this guff?

Where Zweig really reveals himself, though, is in the aphorisms about love and sexuality. He who is himself crossed in love is able from time to time to master his own passion, for he is not the creature, but the creator of his own misery; and if a lover is unable to control his passion, he at least knows that he is himself to blame for his sufferings. But he who is loved without reciprocating that love, is lost beyond redemption, for it is not in his power to set a limit to the other’s passions… So far so good, so far so general. However, when the aphorism switches from generalities about love to the specifics of love between men and women, Zweig really reveals his conventionality: When a women resists an unwelcome passion, she is obeying to the full the law of her sex, the initial gesture of refusal is a primordial instinct in every female, and even if she rejects the most ardent passion, she cannot be called inhuman. But how disastrous it is when Fate upsets the balance, when a woman so far overcomes her natural modesty as to disclose her passion to a man…and he, wooed, remains cold and on the defensive… not to return a woman’s love is to shatter her pride, to violate her modesty. The man who rejects a woman’s advances is bound to wound her in her noblest feelings.  So ladies, let me ask you, do you agree? Is the full and only law of your sex to resist unwelcome passion? Is the primordial instinct of the female to refuse? How do you feel about being designated as ‘inhuman’ on those occasions when you do not refuse, and when you break your ‘natural modesty’ and reveal you have the hots for a man? Are your impulses to make advances towards a man really your noblest feelings?

Zweig’s aphorisms do everything to confirm the prejudices and worldviews of his readers. They maintain the Gemutlichkeit of his world, rather than puncturing it.


The novel is not all bad. There are some redeeming features. Hofmiller’s internal predicament is shattered by the assassination of Ferdinand and Sophia in Sarajevo, and the public historical world finally impinges in the personal and psychological. The descriptions of the mobilisation and early days of the war that follow are very fine. The book gives an admirable portrait of a class and time long vanished, and in spite of its faults and narrowness of soul, is somehow compulsively readable.

Finally, I hate to cast cold water on NYRB for their excellent efforts to revive the forgotten books of the past, but they need a better editor. The translation appears to have been made by writers who do not know English let alone German (Ungeduld Des Herzens actually means The Heart’s Impatience); and the introduction, by some American journalist, is therefore, as one would expect,  a miracle of cultural ignorance and illiteracy.

Compassion is the chief, perhaps the only law of being for all mankind.
The Idiot


Russ said...

Love that picture.

slick said...

I am really curious what about the introduction makes it a miracle of cultural ignorance and illiteracy.

Murr said...

Thanks Russ, it's by Egon Schiele.

In her introduction, Acocella reveals that she has not read any Dostoevsky, for example. She writes: "Only Zweig could have created the scenes between Hoffmiller and Edith", when in fact, these scenes are pale copies of the kind of emotional encounters Dostoevsky does again and again, better.

She also makes the bizarre assertion that 'the book is the first sustained portrait of emotional blackmail based on guilt.' This is not correct, Racine, Euripides, Zola being just a few examples that spring to my mind of writers who explored the same theme.

slick said...

Thanks. I looked her up and read a bit of the intro in an Amazon preview and was kind of surprised.

Anonymous said...

are you a woman? Answer this to me first and then I ll be in a better position to make comments on your analysis. Zweig is not accusing women as inhuman. He is describing the differences between a womans instict and a mans. And he is doing so because we have to go against our insticst to seek the truth. And love is first of all truth.

Paul said...

Dear Tomcat Murr

Thanks for your review and I have bookmarked the Lectern.

No question that you are right about Dostoyevsky and Zweig.

There is a new translation (Anthea Bell) of Beware of Pity just published by Pushkin Press.

Murr said...

Paul, thanks for your comment, and for bookmarking The Lectern.

And thanks for the heads up on the new translation.