Title: Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink
Author: Stefan Zweig, translated by Will Stone
Genre: Non-fiction (essays)
Release Date: January 28, 2016
“As Europe faced its darkest days, Stefan Zweig was a passionate voice for tolerance, peace and a world without borders. In these moving, ardent essays, speeches and articles, composed before and during the Second World War, one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers mounts a defence of European unity against terror and brutality.
From the dreamlike ‘The Sleepless World’, written in 1914, through the poignant ‘The Vienna of Yesterday’, to the impassioned ‘In This Dark Hour’, one of his final addresses, given in 1941, Zweig envisages a Europe free of nationalism and pledged to pluralism, culture and brotherhood.
These haunting lost messages, all appearing in English for the first time and some newly discovered, distill Zweig’s courage, belief and richness of learning to give the essence of a writer; a spiritual will and testament to stand alongside his memoir, The World of Yesterday. Brief and yet intense, they are a tragic reminder of a world lost to the ‘bloody vortex of history’, but also a powerful statement of one man’s belief in the creative imagination and the potential of humanity, with a resounding relevance today.
Translated by Will Stone, with an introduction by philosopher and historian of ideas John Gray.” (Pushkin Press)
I don’t even know how to describe this book. It made me sad; it made me smile; it inspired me; and at times it made my heart feel full to bursting. I think the only way I can write this post is to break down the aforementioned feelings individually, and look at why the book made me feel how I did.
Why it made me sad.
All of these essays were written between 1914 and 1941. In many of them, Zweig expresses his sorrow at the state of Europe, namely the destruction caused by the wars and the inability of Europeans to band together to form a unified Europe, rather than one made of conflicting countries. Fast forward to today.
Technology has made the world a much smaller place than it was in Zweig’s time and we are connected to each more than ever before. This level of connectivity should unify us. Instead the world is not that much different than it was in Zweig’s time. There is a refugee crisis not dissimilar to that in the years preceding and following World War Two, but the fear of a few bad eggs has caused many countries to close their borders to those in need. In my opinion it is right to practice caution, but not to let fear control your actions – no one would ever do anything otherwise.
But the most devastating thing for me is the fact that Zweig had so much hope for the future, yet the willingness of humanity to destroy itself in WWII caused him to lose that hope and take his own life before the end of the war.
Why it made me smile.
History was one of Zweig’s great passions and he expresses this passion in a way that many of us can only dream of. In the essay, ‘History as a Poetess’, Zweig looks at our learning of history starting at school, which was for him “a real bore” for the most part.
“But then came the other episodes which we adored, like so many adventures, chapters where we could not turn the pages fast enough, where our most inward being, our most secret energies were inflamed, where our own fantasy glided into those admired figures, and so we imagined ourselves Conradin, Alexander, Caesar or Alcibiades.”
And although many of us (myself included in some cases) believe that history is doomed to repeat itself, Zweig has a different opinion:
“[…] nothing ever happens in the same way twice. History is so rich in material that she can always draw new situations and hypotheses from her inexhaustible arsenal. She never repeats, she only transposes, like a musician transposing a theme.”
Oh, to be able to express myself so wonderfully.
How did it inspire me?
“Art is the divine on earth.” I’d never thought of it like this before. And when Zweig says art, he doesn’t just refer to paintings – he means music, books, everything. Who are these Divine Beings who walk amongst us and create things that capture the hearts and mind of us less talented folk? They are flesh and blood like the rest of us, so how do they do it? They have the simplest of tools at hand, yet they manage to create something beyond spectacular. . For example,
“If he is a painter, then with the aid of the seven colours of the spectrum and the alternation of light and shade he creates a painting which, once we have gazed on it, is projected deep in our soul.”
I’m convinced that I’m not a master painter in the making. But if those Divine Beings I admire – writers – have mostly the same tools at hand as myself, surely I can create some of my own divinity.
Why did my heart feel so full?
Although he took his own life, in these essays we can see Zweig’s hope for a unified humanity and know that there definitely is hope for the future, despite how fragmented some things may appear. And his writing is just so damn beautiful and passionate – how can that not make your heart full?