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Fondness for a Show

November 27, 2010

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

A press of work in the day job has kept me from this blog awhile. Looking back, I see that my last post was a frivolous one on November 11, Veterans née Armistice Day. In my own defense I can point out that I’m frequently unaware of the date and even the day of the week. On holidays I look around and wonder why the office is empty. My cell phone, which displays date and time, tells me as I begin writing that it’s 11/27 and 12:06, and only by close attention to the punctuation marks can I figure out which is which.

Thus a much-too-late note for Armistice Day, or perhaps an early post for Chanukah-Christmas. (Thanksgiving gets ignored, I’m afraid. Football and food induce sleep, not bloggery.)

In earlier posts I’ve mentioned the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, who, though personally safe from the Holocaust, killed himself in despair in 1942, soon after finishing his memoir The World of Yesterday. Below is an excerpt from his chapter about the onset of World War I, the war to end wars that brought us the Veterans Day that we now use to remember many subsequent wars. What’s striking is the innocent belief that things were going to be all right, even after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that sparked the conflagration.

The coffins of the murdered royalty were quietly taken to Artstetten and interred there. Vienna, whose perpetual fondness for a show was thus deprived of a great opportunity, had already begun to forget the tragic occurrence. … In less than a week, however, attacks suddenly began to appear in the newspapers, and their constantly mounting crescendo was regulated too consistently for them to have been entirely accidental. The Serbian government was accused of collusion in the assassination, and there were veiled hints that Austria would not permit the murder of its supposedly beloved heir-apparent to go unavenged. One could not escape the impression that some sort of action was being prepared in the newspapers, but no one thought of war. Neither banks nor business houses nor private persons changed their plans. Why should we be concerned with these constant skirmishes with Serbia which, as all knew, arose out of some commercial treaties concerned with the export of Hungarian pigs? My bags were packed so that I could go to [poet Emile] Verhaeren in Belgium, my work was in full swing, what did the dead Archduke in his catafalque have to do with my life? The summer was beautiful as never before and promised to become even more beautiful—and we all looked out upon the world without a care. I can recall that on my last day in Baden I was walking through the vineyards with a friend, when an old wine-grower said to us: “We haven’t had such a summer for a long time. If it stays this way, we’ll get better grapes than ever. Folks will remember this summer!”

He did not know, the old man in his blue cooper’s smock, how gruesomely true a word he had spoken.

(Bison Books edition, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964)

What would Zweig make of today’s maneuvering in the Mideast and the Korean peninsula? Perhaps even more to the point, would he see in our “perpetual fondness for a show” a way of deluding ourselves about the future?

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