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.

And yet, rather astonishingly, despite this disillusionment, Zweig still subscribed to a radical kind of wishful thinking, which is exemplified in a passage from The World of Yesterday that I love for its balance of heartbreak and hope:

We long ago ceased believing in the religion of our fathers, their faith in the swift and enduring ascent of humanity. Having learnt our cruel lesson, we see their overhasty optimism as banal in the face of a catastrophe that, with a single blow, cancelled out a thousand years of human effort. But if it was only a delusion, it was a noble and wonderful delusion that our fathers served, more humane and fruitful than today's slogans. And something in me, mysteriously and in spite of all I know and all my disappointments, cannot quite shake it off.

Zweig, like most Europeans of his day, could no longer believe in the inevitable rise of a new “common humanity.” But he chooses to say there may be a value in holding onto imaginary ideals. In part, this is because the “noble and wonderful delusion” of a better, more tolerant future allows us to think ourselves out of problems that might be insoluble when looked at from a strictly realist point of view. After all, what exactly is the “realism” to which we must otherwise submit ourselves? I think Zweig looked at what his world had become, and thought, “What good does it do me to believe in this?”

Along with this he also saw real practical potentialities in art and in the aesthetic imagination, which he refused to surrender. On his final trip to Paris, in April 1940, Zweig gave a talk that formed the seed of The World of Yesterday (the talk was called “The Vienna of Yesterday”). There, he celebrates the city from two perspectives. First, he talks at great length about the mongrel nature of Vienna: how this rich ethnic and ideological diversity necessitated a kind of tolerance between factions, and even helped foster a general sense of appreciation for human variety. Underneath the sheer aesthetic splendor of cultural diversity, in other words, lies his main ethical ideal of tolerance.

Then, he links this valuation of diversity with Vienna’s unbelievably exaggerated dedication to the arts—suggesting that artistic imagination and the ability to exercise an empathetic imagination go hand in hand. He reminds us how Vienna was critiqued by the Germans for its investment in theatre and music and in writing, while the more pragmatic aspects of economy building, technology, and the growth of industry, were neglected. But putting the city’s most passionate energies into creating spectacles of great beauty had great power to unite a diverse population—people came together in appreciation of art’s graces. And because the Viennese appreciation of music was more intense than anywhere else in the world, the deeply informed and appreciative audiences fueled greater and greater achievements within the arts.

Zweig might easily have left his Viennese rhapsody there, exalting the spiritual solidarity that can derive from a shared experience of art. But instead, he goes on to make a very unexpected twist. The Germans, he says, considered Vienna the Falstaff of cities—a city devoted to jouissance, a lazy, fun-loving city. However, after the first World War, it was revealed that this mask of frivolity worn in Vienna had deceived even the Viennese. Because their investment in the arts, and in handicrafts, was precisely what enabled them to rebuild the entire city when it lay in devastation—collapsed buildings, grass in the streets, mass starvation—in a matter of a few years. Those artistic skills—essentially skills of the imagination and of the aesthetic hand—proved to have in reserve the power to make the world anew after a disaster. It’s an enormously beautiful paean to the importance of cultural work.

It’s one that we in the United States would do well to heed, considering our own tendencies toward (what Zweig would have estimated) the Germanic approach to productivity, statistical convenience, the organization of comfort and so on. These are all ideas that obviously resonate very deeply with American values; as a mass culture, we tend to downplay the importance of demanding aesthetic work. But Zweig showed us that the imagination gives us something more than an idle fantasy life. Maybe this other side of the imagination could only be called upon in times of great need—but then it revealed a a truly magical power to resurrect, to recreate reality better than it had been before. Zweig speaks quite movingly about the fact that not only was Vienna restored, there was also investment in idealistic new projects, most notably the enormous, progressive housing blocks created for workers, which in fact represented the most successful socialist experiment in Europe at the time. They became a subject of study by many different social movements around the continent. So there was a high valuation of the human and a willingness to strive for economic justice that he saw as linked to the same dedication to the imagination the Viennese had always shown.

I was amazed recently to read a passage from Zweig’s book on Erasmus that addresses some of these same issues about the role of the imagination in nurturing practical social reform. As a person of tolerance and promulgator of humanist values, Erasmus was one of Zweig’s great heroes. And it’s not incidental that Zweig was completing his study of this model humanist in the months after Hitler’s ascendancy to the chancellorship of Germany—on the eve of his own descent into exile. There’s a chapter in this book when he speaks about the limitations of Erasmus, his failure to properly estimate the destructive power of fanatic factions within society, just beneath the surface—the same mistake Zweig, like many, made much later in underestimating the power of National Socialism’s ideology as Hitler rose to power. Despite Erasmus’s idealized understanding of humanity, Zweig still felt he played a crucial role.

That historic hour in which the sun of human trust shone with gentle effulgence down upon our European earth was a beautiful moment in time. If the delusion that the peoples were always at peace and united was premature, still we must respect it and return grateful thanks that it ever existed. Men have always been needed to would be bold enough to believe that history is not a dull and monotonous repetition, the same game played over and over again under different disguises, but have had an invincible confidence that moral progress is a reality, that mankind is slowly climbing a ladder to better things, leaving behind its bestiality and returning to godliness.

We need leaders, in other words, who still believe in the myth of progress even if it must remain to some extent perpetually a myth. Zweig is writing this seven years before the memoir, but is already clearly aware of the degree to which there was a great deal of delusion in the faith he and his peers had placed in education, and in this possibility of lifting the masses out of their disenfranchised condition by way of cultural enlightenment alone. But he insists that this very delusion also enabled people to begin laying the foundation stones for what we would now call pan-European values, and super-national civilization. I’m certain that he would have seen the EU, for all its flaws and limitations, on a spectrum with the ideals he fought for. (He once labeled his pan-European project the coming “world Switzerland.”) Zweig ultimately views the arts and the most sublime possibilities of humanity as linked in both speculative and in practical ways.

Since the Second World War, and the many atrocities that have followed, there’s an insistence on the importance of recognizing evil. The question is when that recognition becomes an engine to something greater, and when it serves merely to confirm the status quo. I think, yes, there is evil so unspeakable that it sucks all good into it. But I think we must still beware of brutal cynicism masquerading as realism—still believe we can be better, too, even if we fail time and time again. I think that Zweig is saying: I know better than this optimism, I know better than to have faith in the belief that humanity is rising up in this beautiful steady ladder to the stars. But Im not going to completely surrender it, because then the worlds a void.

And that’s when Zweig’s point—his insistence that we need cultural leaders to toil in the name of human progress, even if that progress is a delusion—begins to make more sense. He was not arguing for some rosy form of kneejerk optimism. Nor did he claim that great art alone could save a society from humanity’s worst instincts (he knew this as well as anyone). Zweig understood the cultured, peaceful utopia he dreamed of would remain a “fiction”—but he also knew that the great figures of literature are no less capable of inspiring individuals and societies to struggle for real change, despite their illusive status. Artists constantly use empathy, compassion, and listening to project themselves beyond the limits of their isolated selves. It is impossible to say just how another person feels, but writers try; it is impossible to give flesh and blood and dignity to characters who never lived, but writers try. Maybe universal tolerance and world accord are impossible dreams, too—but don’t we need dreamers to chase after that great, receding fiction, and use their imaginative gifts to remind us how much better the world might be?