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Stefan Zweig: Stendhal, in war but not of it


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Stefan Zweig: Selections on peace and war


Stefan Zweig
From Adepts in Self-Portraiture: Casanova, Stendhal, Tolstoy
Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

He sits in the shadow of war, and is well content to read his book, translate German poetry, and write exquisite letters to his sister Pauline. He is acquiring knowledge and experience, is developing into a connoisseur of life, is a straggler in the wake of every battle, an intellectual dilettante of every art; day by day he throws off further bonds, gaining freedom; and the wider his acquaintance with the world, the better he observes its phenomena, the more intricate is his cognition of himself.


Opposition is the very breath of life to him; independence his delight There are a hundred examples to show how dauntlessly and impudently this fearless malcontent throws down the gauntlet, challenging public opinion to the fight In an epoch when everyone is belauding war, when in France ‘‘the idea of heroism is inseparably connected with that of a drum-major,” he describes Waterloo as an immense medley of chaotic forces; he unblushingly acknowledges that he is bored to death during the Russian campaign, though historians in general are wont to extol this adventure as an epic of universal history; he is not ashamed to say that a journey to Italy where he hopes to see his beloved is more important than the fate of his country, and an aria by Mozart more interesting than a political crisis. II se fiche d’etre conquis, he does not care a snap of the fingers if France is occupied by foreign armies; for, being by choice a European and a cosmopolitan, he does not bother about the mad breaks of fortune in war, about opinions which happen to be fashionable at the moment, about patriotism le ridicule le plus sot, about nationalism et hoc genus omne.


We recognize in him, “man” par excellence, the eternal individual, the rare and subtle exemplar psychologically complete – precisely because he did not allow himself to be coloured with the dye-stuffs of his epoch. No other author’s work in the French literature of his century, no other man of letters, has remained so fresh, so new, so intact. His books seem to be for all time, to be full of vitality, because, irrespective of what was going on around him, he lived his own life. A man may serve his fellows quite as effectively by safeguarding his personality from the world, as by sacrificing himself to the world.


This “marvellously prescient man,” as Nietzsche calls him, though living in the days of post-chaises and wearing a Napoleonic uniform, is amazingly one of ourselves. His total lack of dogmatism, his early preference for being a European rather than a man of some specific nationality, his detestation of the mechanical regularization of the world, his hatred of pompous mass heroics, seem to us parts of our own make-up. How fine is his serene self-composure when compared with the sentimental bleatings of his contemporaries, and how splendidly did he make good by the influence he exerted upon great writers of a later generation. Innumerable are the trails and the ways he has opened to subsequent men of letters: Dostoeffsky’s Raskolnikoff is unthinkable had Stendhal’s Julien not been created; Tolstoy’s battle of Borodino owes much to its classical exemplar, Stendhal’s memorable description of Waterloo; and much of Nietzsche’s joy in thinking was derived from the refreshing perusal of his predecessor’s works. Thus the ames fraternelles, the etres superieurs, whom Stendhal sought in vain during his lifetime, gathered round him in the end, in the only fatherland his free cosmopolitan spirit could recognize and love, the fatherland of men who resembled himself.

Of all his contemporaries, Balzac alone hailed him as brother, and there are none of that generation who are more akin to us to-day in spirit and in feeling than this man, Henri Beyle. Through the medium of cold print and paper we can feel his warm and breathing presence. Although he plumbed his own depths as none other before him, he remains unfathomable. He revels in contradictions, dazzles us with the phosphorescent hues of his enigmatical personality; he lays bare his innermost secrets and hides others from our gaze, fulfilling himself and yet never completing the picture of himself, always and always a live and palpitating personality.

Those who have been out of touch with their own epoch are the very ones whom a new epoch delights to honour. The most delicate spiritual oscillations have the longest wave-length in time and eternity.

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