You’ve probably never heard of Stefan Zweig.
I only discovered him recently. He wrote this book, you see, back in 1942. An autobiography. It’s called The World of Yesterday.
All of a sudden, people out of nowhere were recommending it to me. An old college professor. A friend’s wife. My mom. My freaking mom asks me on the phone “Have you ever read Stefan Zweig’s autobiography?”
So I call up a local independent bookstore.
“Green Arcade books,” says the man on the other end of the phone. “How can I help you?”
“Yes, hi. I’m wondering if you have Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday?”
He responds immediately. “You’re JOKING!”
I give this some thought. “No, I’m pretty sure I’m not.”
“Okay,” he says. “Yes. I have The World of Yesterday.”
“Great. How late are you open?”
He considers. “I don’t know.”
“Well, you’ve been a great help.”
“There’s a poetry reading tonight,” he explains. “I don’t know how long it’s going to go.”
Stefan Zweig would have loved Burning Man
The thing about Zweig is, he was once a world famous author. You’ve probably never heard of him … I’d never heard of him … but he was published in all the big literary journals for almost half a century. He was friends with Rilke and Rodin. He knew Freud. He knew Borgese. He knew Yeats and Pirandello and Gorky and Ravel and Joyce and Anatole France. He was kind of the pre-WWII Johnny Carson. He was a big deal, is what I’m saying. I kind of want to be him.
The thing is, he saw that whole world wiped away by the Nazis. Gone. Obliterated.
This had actually happened to him before. (Yes, yes, I know: I’ll get to Burning Man eventually. Stay with me.) He grew up as a wealthy literary kid in turn of the century Vienna, in what he calls “The Age of Security.” A time when western civilization really believed there could never be another war. When they really believed that reason was about to overcome all obstacles. When it seemed like (people actually said this) science had discovered everything important that there was to know. The world was predictable, safe, and secure.
Then Freud announced that there was an unconscious, and that women orgasmed. Then Einstein proved that the speed of light is the only constant in the universe (have we ever come to terms with that? I mean …really?). Then World War I happened. Trench warfare. Mustard gas. A whole generation of kids wiped out. The world went from a blanket of security the likes of which we can never imagine to a world where security of that kind would never be possible again.
But in the ashes of that “world of security,” came a new and fantastically exciting world. Think of it: women had orgasms! We were charting the unconscious mind! Global travel was possible on a scale never before imagined; a new, exciting, intellectual culture sprang up in the coffee houses of Vienna and Paris. It was a world in which (Andrei Codrescu says this happened) Tristan Tzara, the founder of DaDa-ism, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin could meet in a Swiss coffee house to play chess. The quantum physicists drank whiskey with the avant-garde poets and made out in alleys with the evolutionary biologists. Theater became fast and aggressive, cabaret got wild. There was no security, but what a time to be alive!
Then the Nazis came, and wiped it all away. Gone. Done. Only ashes remained.
The first time, Zweig was taken by surprise. The second time, he saw it coming. He fled Europe in time. He got out of Austria before Hitler could grab him. Only his books were burned. He fled to Brazil (I don’t know why) and, watching the world he had known scorch from far away, wrote his memoir.
He wrote this book, about how he’d seen two whole world cultures vanish before his eyes. And then, at age 60, he decided he didn’t have it in him to start in a new world again. In 1942 he killed himself.
As if overnight, his fame somehow disappeared too.
He became just one more obscure figure from a nearly forgotten past.
We, too, seem to live in a world very much on the brink. New technologies have changed the way we work and play and cheat on our spouses at the most mundane levels. The global political order is trembling: the Arab world is rising up while the U.S. is fighting three wars at once. Global economic collapse? We either have just done that or are still in the process of doing it.
Our country looks like it’s shrinking around us. All the amazing changes that have happened seem to represent decline: we’re talking about closing schools and shuttering libraries and shrinking services, ending the space shuttle program, cancelling the Webb space telescope, pulling back our exploration of the oceans. Yes, there is better civic planning and an emphasis on renewable resources, but most of this seems to be a rearguard action – defending what we have rather than expanding our capacity. The public’s mood (survey’s show) is one of depression and decline. (Rates of depression, by the way, keep going up).
Sometimes it seems like we, too, are staring at the world turning itself to ashes.
And in the middle of this … all this … some guy spends an absurd amount of his own money and devotes a ridiculous amount of his own time to organizing a formal dance in a Laundromat and a Truman Capote themed bowling tournament FOR NO GOOD REASON!
This guy is my hero.
Some guy turned down for an arts grant builds a 40 foot statue of a woman dancing and hauls it out to the desert and shines lights on it for a week anyway. A group of friends hold a viewing party for Sweeny Todd and serve suspicious looking meat pies. A group of Santas walk into a bar and complain loudly about having to lay off their elves. WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE!!!
Seriously, you’re my heroes.
We are tired. We, as individuals and a culture, are exhausted. We not only live in an age without security, we’re actively anticipating global catastrophe. It weighs us down like the chains of Marley’s ghost. Of all the dehumanizing aspects of modern life, the drive for efficiency-over-everything is the most insidious because it punishes us for being playful for its own sake, until eventually we forget how. No wonder we’re fatigued. No wonder we drag. No wonder we believe it’s all downhill from here.
And then a pirate ship filled with Jedis drives by with a woman in a Cookie Monster costume at the steering wheel … and none of that matters. We laugh, we are reborn.
Whimsy for its own sake is a cure for the malaise of our deeply insecure age.
Whatever else it may be, the Cacophony Society was an incubator for pure play. Don’t think for a minute that the midnight pancake breakfasts, and the suicide note writing workshops, aren’t important. They’re essential. Not because they’re “art,” because they’re whimsy. There are times – many times – when whimsy is better than art.
There are times is life when no amount of wisdom, no amount of accomplishment, no amount of talent will see us through. Deep down we all know that, and poor Stefan Zweig is proof.
But being playful frees us, every time.
We can’t always get there on our own … and we don’t need to. You amazing people who do such colossally stupid things: you have no idea how many skins you’ve helped me shed. How many times you’ve been my bridge to the next new world.