The spirit of this blog is perhaps best summed up by something once said by Karl Krauss, the Viennese satirist and editor whose photograph appears at the top of the page: ‘Die Kunst dient dazu, uns die Augen auszuwischen’ – ‘The purpose of art is to wash the dust from our eyes’. To Central European intellectuals like Krauss, the coffeehouse was an essential part of their life; a place of debate, conflicting ideas and ironic humour where it was possible to speak any of a dozen or more languages and be understood and welcomed by the other habitués, even if they disagreed with your opinions. Although the blog isn’t open for public comment, invited guests will occasionally contribute, in a language of their choice, on subjects such as literature, philosophy, cinema, music and European culture in general, as well as on the many different kinds of diversity.
Recently I was re-reading Henry Bacon’s insightful study of the work of Luchino Visconti, the Italian cinema, opera and theatre director. Among the themes that Bacon discusses is the vital necessity for an artist to be free of any kind of boundary, any limit that society or life itself may attempt to impose on them, their nature or their vision. He refers to Isaiah Berlin’s reflections on certain nineteenth-century intellectuals, which he feels apply to Visconti, and also to Stendhal, who of all the writers of the era most closely resembles Visconti in character and background:
‘…they belonged to the class of those who are by birth aristocratic, but who themselves go over to some freer and more radical mode of thought and of action. There is something singularly attractive about men who retained, throughout their life, the manners, the texture of being, the habits and style of a civilised and refined milieu. Such men exercise a peculiar kind of personal freedom which combines spontaneity with distinction. Their minds see large and generous horizons, and, above all, reveal a unique intellectual gaiety of a kind that aristocratic education tends to produce. At the same time, they are intellectually on the side of everything that is new, progressive, rebellious, young, untried, of that which is about to come into being, of the open sea whether or not there is land that lies beyond. To this type belong those intermediate figures … who live near the frontier that divides old from new, between the douceur de la vie which is about to pass and the tantalising future, the dangerous new age that they themselves do much to bring into being’.
In his book on Schopenhauer, Thomas Mann made the not-dissimilar observation that art is the ultimate manifestation of immanence, aspiration, and their interdependence: ‘Conceiving the world as a colourful and turbulent phantasmagory of images through which the ideal, the spiritual glows is something eminently artistic and allows the artist to find their true nature. They can be sensuously and sinfully attached to the world of phenomenon and appearances, because they know they belong to the spheres of both ideas and the spirit, as the magician who makes appearances transparent for them’.
For some time we have been witnessing an imposition of borders and boundaries of all kinds, whether physical, moral or intellectual, which reflect the desire of fearful, insecure individuals to control that which is not theirs to control; to stifle the creative impulse. History shows us that humanity only flourishes when boundaries are set aside and imagination is given free rein, in order for connections to be created, bridges built, similarities celebrated.
As Rainer-Maria Rilke wrote, in ‘Imaginärer Lebenslauf’: ‘Erst eine Kindheit, grenzenlos und ohne Verzicht und Ziel. O unbewußte Lust’.
The Summer of Friendship
On a recent trip to Flanders, I re-read Volker Weidermann’s almost mathematically precise and limpid novella, Ostende 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft – ‘Ostend 1936: the Summer of Friendship’, which I first encountered in 2014, when the drumbeat of Europe’s current existential crisis had already long been audible, – at least to those who care to listen – in the same way that the coming war was clear to observant and committed Europeans by the mid-1930s, if not earlier.
Set in the Belgian seaside resort, then far more fashionable and elegant than drab Ostend is now, it takes a magnifying glass to a small group of mostly Jewish writers, centred on Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun, who have all fled Hitler’s rapidly expending Reich, to take refuge in Ostend; what turns out to be a form of ersatz literary exile which soon fragments under the inexorable pressure of events that were soon to engulf the whole of Europe.
Comparisons between the 1930s and the present time are, of course – and with justification – very popular at the moment, with varying degrees of accuracy and insight. The rise of highly organised and increasingly ruthless extreme right factions in almost every European country is the most obvious symptom of decadence, as well an indication of a possibly impending conflict, that we share with the immediate pre-war era. Of particular concern is the agenda of Alternative für Deutschland, who occupy 94 seats in the German Bundestag, and whose discourse is more than an echo of right-wing groups who helped bring about the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
Nonetheless, this is not the 1930s. Europe has moved on from 1945, despite what Britain’s homegrown nationalists would have us believe. For over seventy years, there has been a prolonged and historically unparalleled period of peace on our Continent.
Weidermann’s novella is not a historical commentary. Instead, and arguably more intuitively, it draws us into the often claustrophobic milieu of a small group of Jewish artists and intellectuals who will soon be scattered across the globe, and will perish – directly or indirectly – by their own hand, not that of the Nazi regime.
It describes the often tenuous and complex friendship between Zweig, Roth and Keun, and others in their circle. The reality of their situation, the looming and indescribable horror, is familiar to all Europeans and most of the rest of the world. We know what is coming, and hope that it won’t be repeated; or at least, most of us do.
Sitting in a café on a rainy afternoon in Ostend, I came across a passage that lies at the heart of this slim, clear-sighted book. In their different ways, both Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth suffered from nostalgia for a recent but increasingly bygone era – that of the Habsburg Empire, a near-continent made up of dozens of peoples and languages where – and this is the element which most closely resembles the situation in 2018 – it was possible for its citizens to move freely from one country to another without a passport, to live, love, work and retire in any nation of the Kaiserlich und Königlich dominions, to speak their own mother tongue and be understood and accepted, even if your countries had once been at war.
Perhaps the European Union will go the way of the Habsburg Empire, which it so resembles. Some of us would view that with sadness and even fear; others would not. In fact, they would do their utmost to accelerate the process.
But where the present time differs from that described by Weidermann is in the title. For we have no summer of friendship: that has already been consigned to the bonfire of the past.