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The crisis of a European soul

If I were qualified to write a history of Europe in the second millenium, I would hope I had the perspicacity to call it The Crisis of the European Soul, and the fearlessness to begin it thus:

Through the unfathomable depths of space there wander countless stars, luminous thoughts of God, blest instruments on which the Creator plays. They are all happy -- for God desires a happy world. A single one there is among them which does not share this happiness; on it, only men have arisen. How did this come about? Did God forget that star? Or did he honour it supremely by giving it leave to soar into bliss through its own efforts? We do not know. A tiny fraction of the history of this tiny star forms the subject of our story.

Ah, but even if I had those two qualities, I would still lack whatever it is (mad genius, I think) that would allow me, by the twenty-third page, to deliver myself of the following remark:

More than that: incredible as it may sound, the present writer has for some years possessed an Expressionist dog. I maintain that a creature so hopelessly askew, so drunken of build, as it were, so made up of sheer triangles, has never yet been seen.

But in any case it matters not, for we have Egon Friedell Ph.D -- or we had him, until the Nazis triggered him to autoannihilate. Beside Thomas Carlyle, he is the brightest star in my intellectual firmament. I can't recall where, two years ago, I found him; I think in a footnote somewhere. I had to traipse down two flights of stairs to the library basement, and there grope through the dimly lit stacks in order to locate his three volumes of A Cultural History of the Modern Age - The crisis of the European soul from the Black Death to the World War.

It was in the third volume that I first encountered Charlotte Stieglitz, that most fantastic and improbable of suicides. Egon eventually shared Charlotte's fate, though with a more readily comprehensible motive. A Viennese Jew persecuted by the Nazis, but unwilling to give up his book collection and meticulously ordered life by attempting to flee, in 1938 Friedell leapt from his high apartment window just as the SS knocked down his door. His book, by some miracle, was translated into English in the 1950s, and rapidly achieved an unwarranted obscurity.

Joseph | 18 Nov 2003

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