Sunday, February 26, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 4

Zweig never suggested that his personal ideal was a social one: that no one should ever sit at an official table or accept membership in an academy. But having grown up in a world where it was possible to live happily as so free an agent, he found himself plunged into a world where it became impossible, where men had to organize to resist evil so that any freedom at all might be enjoyed. In such a world, Zweig's refusal to commit to any collective institution or endeavor appeared feeble and parasitic.

...The Great War, of course, smashed to smithereens the old world that Zweig so esteemed. But Zweig clung fast to his prewar ideals, in a climate increasingly hostile to them. Repeatedly his work extols the worth of personal freedom and denies that abstract ideas can guide a man through life's dilemmas. Zweig retained his fear of joining any association or group, however laudable its ends; he never wanted to face the choice of upholding a "party line" against the dictates of his conscience.

Zweig saw the storm clouds gathering over his native Austria earlier than many. He bought a flat in London in 1934, realizing that the Nazis would not leave Austria in peace. By 1936 he accepted that he was a permanent exile. But other German exiles criticized him for being insufficiently vociferous in denouncing the Nazis. Some even accused him of trying to reach an accommodation with them to preserve his German income intact — a nonsensical charge: his books were among the first the Nazis burned. But it is true that he joined no anti-Nazi groups and hardly raised his voice against the Nazi horror. As a free man, he did not want the Nazis to be able to dictate his mode of expression — even if it were in opposition to them.

— Theodore Dalrymple, "A Neglected Genius", Our Culture, What's Left of It

Thomas Mann condemned Zweig's suicide as egotistical disdain for his contemporaries and a dereliction of duty, suggesting that it would provide that much more of an aggregate advantage to the morale of the enemy. In hindsight, I think we can safely grant a 60 year-old Jewish intellectual an exemption from making what would have been useless, symbolic gestures. As Schopenhauer said in an essay on suicide, if a man has an incontestable right to anything, it's to his own life and person. Likewise, we should be wary of those who would assert the right to determine our ultimate sacrifice for us.

Thankfully, the stakes are much lower in our own day, and none of us are likely to face similar choices. Still, we see a version of the same argument in moral miniature, as it were — what are you doing to resist modern fascism? Even before the histrionics reached their current plateau in the age of Trump, I had a dim, tedious former reader who would periodically insist that my writing should reflect (his) political priorities. Leaving aside the insulting notion that I should spend my free time being an unpaid propagandist, the practical effect would have been nil, as I had a single-digit readership and no power or influence. I never could seem to get it through his skull that there are other, more satisfying ways to view a platform such as a blog than as a soapbox from which to harangue the masses.

As Mike Doughty sang, it will always be the end of time, the end of law, the end of life. Social media exacerbates people's normal tendency to seek out drama and stimulation. Paradoxically, as life becomes more standardized, monolithic and predictable, people seize on ever-smaller differences to create existential angst, which they find preferable to ennui. Hence the spectacle of seemingly-educated people portraying themselves as dissident intellectuals in exile, or even the French Resistance, by means of their emotionally-incontinent social media activity. Those who insist that we must join them in this fantasy world deserve no response other than a disgusted eye-roll. The choice was much starker for Stefan Zweig, and yet he chose to die for the sake of an ideal of freedom that he wasn't willing to tarnish. The least we can do in these far more comfortable times is refuse to be dragged down to the lowest common denominator.