Tuesday, January 15, 2013

`His Purest Happiness and Personal Freedom'

“Let’s withdraw;
And meet the time as it seeks us.” 

The simple words, all but one of a single syllable, are spoken by Cymbeline in his palace, Act IV, Scene 3. I passed over them in my rereading of the play last month. Often with Shakespeare, the brilliance is like wallpaper, everywhere and easy to overlook, but the words glow in isolation, removed from their dramatic context. Cymbeline suggests a principled dissent from the present, an abstaining from its temptations and corruptions. This is not quietism; rather, a strategic withdrawal accompanied by vigilance. A military man, the king of Britain, is speaking. It might be General Grant: advance when advanced upon. I thought of Cymbeline while reading a tweet on Monday from David Myers: 

“If there were a prize for the critic who is most out of step with the literary Zeitgeist, I would win it hands down.” 

It’s a boast, of course, and a good one. Some of us have withdrawn, if we ever belonged among them, from the company of the trendy writers, prize committees and workshop hacks who fancy themselves tastemakers and agents of perpetual revolution. Orwell called Dickens “a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.” He might have been thinking of David. I happened upon the lines from Cymbeline again while reading Stefan Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday, in a new translation by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press, 2009). Zweig uses the passage as his epigraph. Late in the book, in 1939, war is about to break out in Europe. Zweig is in England, where he fears, because he is Austrian, being treated as an enemy alien. He considers attending a PEN Club Congress in Stockholm, and writes: 

“But something odd in me refused to obey the dictates of reason and save myself. It was half defiance—I was not going to take to flight again and again, since Fate looked like following me everywhere—and half just weariness. `We’ll meet the time as it meets us,’ I said to myself, quoting Shakespeare. And if it does want to meet you, I told myself, then don’t resist. Close as you are to your sixtieth year, it can’t get at the best part of your life anyway, the part you have already lived. I stuck to that decision.” 

Zweig and his wife remained in England and then sailed to New York in 1940, and later to Brazil. On Feb. 23, 1942, shortly after Zweig delivered the manuscript of The World of Yesterday to his publisher, the couple committed suicide in their house in Petrópolis. In the note he left, Zweig writes: 

“But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom — the most precious of possessions on this earth.”

1 comment:

Roger Boylan said...

I've recently returned to Zweig after a long absence with renewed appreciation for his literary powers, his honesty, and his basic decency. A far cry from Tom Wolfe.