Tag Archives: Goethe

Triumph and Disaster

triumph

Triumph and Disaster – Five Historical Miniatures
By Stefan Zweig
Pushkin Press – £9.99

Enthusiasm, unlike a pickle/Does not keep well, but may prove fickle.

                                                                                                                          Goethe

Hmm, now there’s food for thought; or should I say, enthusiasm?

Although, whichever way one decides to look at it, the all round philosophical comprehension of this fine book ought to serve as some sort of sign – rather like so much of Stefan Zweig’s work.

Indeed, to quote Clive James: ”Zweig’s accumulated historical and cultural studies remain a body of achievement almost too impressive to take in.”

What accounts for Triumph and Disaster – Five Historical Miniatures being such a formidable read, is the acute degree to which Zweig grapples, and then ultimately comes to terms with the five very differing subject matters at hand – the titles of which are: ‘The Field of Waterloo,’ ‘The Race to Reach the South Pole,’ ‘The Conquest of Byzantium,’ The Sealed Train’ and ‘Wilson’s Failure.’ All of which are written so deftly and so remarkably well, James’s words linger with all the literary aroma of a fine wine.

For instance, writing of Captain Scott in the second short story, Zeig states: ”Scott writes English as Tacitus writes Latin, as if carving it in unhewn stone. You sense that he is a man who does not dream, fanatically objective, in fact a true blue Englishman in whom even genius takes the crystalline form of a pronounced sense of duty. Men like Scott have featured hundreds of times in British history, conquering India and nameless islands in the East Indian archipelago, colonizing Africa and fighting battles against the whole world, always with the same iron energy, the same collective consciousness and the same cold, reserved expression.”

Herein is a mere tip of Zweig’s investigative clarity, which, if (objective) truth be known, still roundly resonates today.

The following words being the perfect and most pristine example: ”A single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity.”

David Marx

Reluctant Meister

reluctant

Reluctant Meister – How Shaping Germany’s Past Is Shaping Its European Future
By Stephen Green
Haus Publishing – £25.00

To come to this altogether well considered, overtly thought provoking, excellent book, is to (almost) come to terms with a powerful and highly influential nation that has traversed every darkness, and arrived at the fine end of raw redemption.

I say almost (in brackets), as modern day Germany is still awash with inadvertent, yet pertinent reminders of its miasma of troubled history. A history it has openly avowed to come to terms with, especially since the 1960s, much more so than many other nations who would surely benefit from a similar persuasion – such as Russia and Japan (and in relation to Ireland, Great Britain).

Said persuasion is addressed on numerous occasions throughout Reluctant Meister – How Germany’s Past Is Shaping Its European Future, a particularly strong example being in the ninth chapter (‘Confronting the Ghosts of Germany Past’) wherein the author, Stephen Green, writes: ”And then there is the galloping rhythm of that phrase which appears again and again in post-war German literary references (not to mention if graffiti in public places): Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland (death is a master from Germany).

Some might argue that to a certain degree, such didactic thinking was always going to be, and will, perhaps for the foreseeable future at least, remain inevitable. Especially given the turbulent trajectory of a certain Lutherian hypothesis, wherein blind faith and blind obedience, was always going to somehow conclude by way of crass anti-Semitism and the nation’s harrowing quest for Lebensraum in the East.

Once again, the chill of such arrogance and redundancy is powerfully addressed throughout these eleven chapters, but no-where more so than in ‘The Pact With The Devil,’ wherein the author brazenly tackles the subject of evil by way of theological and philosophical analysis: ”Evil, even today, we do not use the word lightly. Indeed, it is striking that the word has not lost its power, even in a secularised, demystified age. To call an act or a person evil is to use strong, unsettling language. It is an absolute judgement, so we should pause on it […]. Using Bonhoeffer’s terms, the result is the opposite of love. Where love gives, this takes. Where love shows compassion, this shows callous indifference or worse. Where love forgives, this seeks revenge […]. If goodness is generated by love, then evil is generated by this self-centredness which is the absence of love. Yet self-centredness is part of all of us. So we all know – in ourselves – about evil, though much of the time we may be only partially honest in facing this truth about ourselves. Which is why the judgement about the Third Reich is unsettling. Self-centredness was the very essence of the Third Reich: its self-understanding entailed an entirely explicit rejection of the value of others. This utter rejection of respect, of love, was what was at the root of its evil. If we are unsettled by this, it is in part because we recognise that the Third Reich was at one end of a spectrum at some point which we all find ourselves on somewhere. In judging it to be evil, we judge ourselves.”

A philosophical explanation of the Third Reich’s madness? A Darwinian analysis of the human potential for evil behaviour?

Either way, what Stephen Green has written herein, accounts for it being a very important book. As mentioned at the outset, it is so overtly thought provoking, it will undoubtedly entice many a reader to stop and think for hours. And then perhaps more hours; which, in and of itself, can only be good thing.

This is why Reluctant Meister is one of the best, most analytical, honest accounts of Germany and its history I’ve read in a long time.

David Marx

Love Poems

LovePoems

Love Poems
By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn
Norton & Company – £12.99

In the Forward of this altogether intensely colourful collection Bertolt Brecht – Love Poems, the poet’s last surviving child, Barbara Brecht-Schall coquettishly writes: ”Papa loved women, many women […], and he was faithful to each of them. I still do not understand the attraction […]. To be completely honest, Bidi – the nickname that I used for him, a name he acquired as a little boy in Augsburg – did not wash enough and wore long underwear, well after it was fashionable. But even as a young girl, I remember that women, like flies to honey, would always find him witty and charming. His passion, whether expressed to women, to his art, or to his children, seemed all-encompassing.”

Said exposition of deep passion and (self) belief, whether its manifestated through that of art, music or indeed politics, has always been something of an abreaction – the original word of which, oddly enough, stems from the German, Abreagierung – induced aphrodisiac between the sexes. Of particular bemusement, not to mention indelible proof, is the fact that women need not always be attracted by the tall, dark and exceedingly dull type of man such as Fitzwilliam Darcy – unless of course you happen to be Keira Knightley (in which case, all artistic merit counts for nada).

For confirmation, one need only think of the effect Adolf Hitler had on women. Likewise, Jean-Paul Sartre, Woody Allen or more recently, Peter Crouch – all three of whom wouldn’t be quite so alluring to women were they mere bus conductors or fruit wholesalers.

So in answer to Brecht’s daughter’s, aforementioned comments with regards the wearing of long underwear, her father’s attraction went f-a-r beyond such norm parameters as staid visibility and hygiene. The attraction lie surely in her father’s conviction to the everyday. Not to mention the commitment to his work – of which Hannah Arendt once wrote: ”Brecht staked his life and his art as few poets have ever done.” Like Goethe, write unquestionably talented translators David Constantine and Tom Kuhn: ”Brecht was always more or less in love.’ A place where we have all invariably found ourselves from time to time. Although amid these 107 pages, it’s a love that ”is expressed, discussed, enacted in an astonishing variety of modes, forms, tones, and circumstances.”

All of which need to be read and fully visualised, before even beginning to contemplate love and life’s next move – of which Brecht was clearly something of a potential master: ”In circumstances of great inhumanity, the poem may awaken a memory of circumstances more worthy of human beings.” This is clarified in last November’s edition of New Republic, where William Giraldi wrote: ”Brecht believed that art should function as the instigation for revolt. Art must be useful, must serve the gritty aims of practicality. No self-important prettiness, no ”willing suspension of disbelief,” no Aristotelian catharsis. Brecht would rather you not be so bourgeois as to feel anything; instead, think about what you’re seeing and then go depose your tranquillized leaders.”

The German playwright and poet, apparatchik of the polemic and devout communist, left a legacy of over 2,000 poems at the time of his death in 1956 – of which Love Poems is a tiny, tiny, tip of both the passionate and the profound.

David Marx