How Creativity Could Save Humanity

Stefan Zweig, the obscure Austrian writer whose life and work inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel, believed imagination could help propel society toward universal tolerance and accord.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

After decades of being virtually unread in English, Stefan Zweig is in the news again: The filmmaker Wes Anderson has characterized his latest caper, The Grand Budapest Hotel, as a layered homage to the obscure Austrian writer’s work and persona. “I stole from Stefan Zweig,” Anderson said in an interview with historian George Prochnik. 

In the 1920s and 30s, Zweig was a full-blown literary celebrity whose books—championed by artists and thinkers like Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud—routinely broke sales records. He “had to barricade himself in his house in Salzburg in order to avoid the fans lurking around his property,” writes Joan Acocella in her introduction to Zweig’s novel Beware of Pity. “According to his publisher, he was the most widely translated author in the world.”

But for Zweig, who had witnessed a cultural golden age in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and who spent his entire life advocating for the virtues of tolerance, openness, and personal freedom, Europe’s descent into war in the late 1930s was too much to bear. He was not only banished from the borders of his nation, but his homeland as he remembered it disappeared—and both factors contributed to his suicide in Brazil in 1942. The day after finishing his memoir—The World of Yesterday, an ode to the cultural progress made and squandered in his lifetime—Zweig and his young wife poisoned themselves. An obituary ran on the front page of The New York Times.

“The world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself,” he wrote in his suicide note.

When I spoke to George Prochnik—whose book The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World is out today after months of Anderson-fueled advance press—he asked to discuss a passage from Zweig’s memoir that embodies the author’s blend of dashed hopes and radical optimism. Though he lost faith in science and technology as a means of progress, Zweig retained his belief that the creative imagination had the power to save humanity from its worst instincts.

Prochnik’s biography gives special attention to Zweig’s life after he left Austria in 1934, and it delves into the psychology of exile itself as it explores the effects of displacement on Zweig’s work. His other books are In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise and Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology. He spoke to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn.

George Prochnik: Stefan Zweig’s literary project, both in his fiction and in his historical studies, was to show the kaleidoscopic nature of humanity. He wanted us to see that all the different ways of being human were equally deserving of attention. Over and over, he said that what made Vienna great was its attitude of “live and let live”—the broadly tolerant stance of that city’s diverse populace fed its cultural achievements and fabled sensuous atmosphere alike. Zweig always valorized the idiosyncrasies of people, he liked to encounter passions and viewpoints taken to the extreme, and he felt that—unless someone’s views were directly impinging on other people’s capacity to live—their way of life should be respected, even embraced, by the larger culture. “The more a man admires, the more he possesses,” Zweig declared in an early biographical study.

I discovered Zweig completely by accident. I was doing a research project on Brazil, when I grabbed a completely random jumble of books off the shelves of the public library. One of those books was Zweig’s Brazil: Land of the Future, which was first published in 1941. It’s an unusual hybrid work of travelogue and personal observation, which interested me, and I found myself intrigued by the spirited, jaunty tone. But most of all, I was struck by how, right in the introduction to the book, Zweig was able to acknowledge he had originally come to Brazil with a whole host of classic European prejudices. Chiefly, that he was going to find a complete intellectual backwater, a country that wasn’t conducive to anyone but adventurers. He acknowledges a surprising degree of European arrogance—then explains that he was stunned, and his attitudes were subverted, when he realized that Brazil manifested a very impressive degree of refinement and culture in a European sense.

In fact, in the most important areas, he felt Brazil was superseding Europe. In an extraordinary set of passages in that book’s introduction, he speaks about how committed he and his peers had been to ideas of progress essentially gauged by statistics: the degree of comfort, the degree of productivity, the degree to which life could be organized for convenience. He writes on how this whole value standard was degraded once one realized that those sorts of statistical indices of progress could co-exist with the kinds of acts of barbarism that were then being unleashed on humanity.

In other words, Brazil had come much closer to the kind of peaceful, tolerant, and humanist society that Zweig had once hoped to see flourish in Europe—and by the mid-1930s, when he began writing the book, felt Europe had been grotesquely betrayed. One thing that’s important about Zweig’s story is the fact that, up until the First World War, he was deeply optimistic. In 1908, he described watching a zeppelin fly over Vienna—and in this airborne vehicle, effortlessly crossing national borders, cheered on by citizens of disparate countries, Zweig saw a symbol of the brotherhood of humanity that was to come. He saw technological progress and social progress as absolutely aligned, working in lock-step to unite the Continent through the beauty and significance of its peoples’ achievements.

In his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, Zweig describes how electric streetlights, and the telephone, and cars and planes, and the beginnings of modern medicine briefly convinced Europe that humanity was entering a new golden age. “Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles,” he wrote, and health and wealth had increased with them, and for a brief time a new utopia seemed within reach. “People no more believed in the possibility of barbaric relapses, such as wars between the nations of Europe, than they believed in ghosts and witches,” he wrote. “They honestly thought that divergences between nations and religious faiths would gradually flow into a sense of common humanity, so that peace and security, the greatest of goods, would come to all mankind.”

Although Zweig himself had once shared that faith—it was already shattered with regard to technology by 1914, and it only proceeded to break down into smaller, more jagged pieces from there. By the end of his life, he had no illusions that peace and widespread accord were imminent or even possible. He’d seen firsthand how the extraordinary technological advancements of those years went hand-in-hand with the depths of barbarism. I think the most despairing moment in the memoir is when he describes the situation in Vienna after the Anschluss, about which he says:

How timid, how petty, how lamentable my imagination—all human imagination—in the light of the inhumanity which discharged itself on March 13, 1938.

And then he uses this extraordinary phrase:

The mask was off.

For Zweig to propose that the efflorescence of evil at that moment was so engulfing that it actually defeated and outdid the imagination must be understood as a spiritual collapse. He’d made the imagination a virtually divine element in the human constitution; therefore its supersession was unspeakably damning. I think this probably represents the pivot moment for Zweig when the humanity he wanted to believe in no longer felt possible. The idea of the mask is integral to his expression of this loss of confidence—because the mask is endemic to Viennese culture in art and leisure and because, on an individual, psychological level, masks evoke the freedom to don and discard a multiplicity of personae. For Zweig this notion of preserving a mobility of character was bound up with his definition of personal freedom—and personal freedom he described in his suicide note as “the highest good on this earth.” But all of this transcendent possibility slipped away when Hitler entered Vienna, and what lay revealed was just the hideous ugliness underneath.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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