Some time around 2010, give or take a year, I was on one of these family holidays with all the uncles around. Some treasure unearthed from grandpa’s eclectic bookshelf made the rounds. Someone had randomly taken the book out and after a few pages started reading a bunch of memorable passages out loud to the rest of us, and after another day or two whoever was reading the book at the time constantly searched for it, as others snatched it away to read it in full themselves. The final winner was I, it’s still in my shelf and I habitually recommend it to any history aficionados I encounter out there: Stefan Zweig’s biography of Joseph Fouché.
The cheap and torn old paperback’s subheading luridly calls him “the only man Napoléon was ever afraid of”. Fouché was the emperor’s own police minister, i.e., head of an all-knowing web of spies ranging from one end of the world to the other. Helping her to pay off her ever-growing gambling debts, Fouché even had the empress Joséphine on his payroll, and half the empire down from there. Fouché on the one hand managing the interior and his counterpart Talleyrand in the ministry of foreign affairs on the other hand were two essential pillars for Napoléon’s reign. The two are exemplary of totally opposite characters complementing one another. Fouché was a man from the province, ugly of looks and not exactly well-integrated into the high society, diligently amassing ton upon ton of tiny scraps of information on his desk, till slowly but steadily a picture of the greater whole emerged from them that would reduce all the many options he entertained in his mind to the one he would then pursue. Often he could afford to just sit there and wait, as everyone would be aware that Fouché knew every single of their dirty secrets, and always reliably betted on the winning party in a conflict.
Talleyrand on the other hand stood at the centre of attention: Legendary feasts took place in his residence, he knew everyone and their dog, had as many lovers as was customary in the 18th century and wasn’t exactly known for his fondness of hard work. He was smart enough not to have to. Given some input – a missive, a discussion –, in a second he would connect the dots and through the smallest necessary amount of diplomacy – more than Fouché he knew how to handle the carrot and not just the looming stick – get closer to what he wanted. Their respective working methods have been perfectly described about a hundred years later by someone who might not have known about Fouché and Talleyrand:
[…] knowledge, too, is nothing more than the construction of myths about the world, since myth resides in its very foundations and we cannot escape beyond myth. Poetry arrives at the meaning of the world anticipando, deductively, on the basis of great and daring short-cuts and approximations. Knowledge tends to the same inductively, methodically, taking the entire material of experience into account. At bottom, both one and the other have the same aim.
Neither of them had any goal or belief that they would value higher than survival, and so they both survived polar opposites of successive systems: The ancien régime, the revolution, the directory, Napoléon. Both were shaped by the church: Fouché as an Oratorian tutor, Talleyrand eventually even as the bishop of Autan. Both were legendary as turncoats and backstabbers (see “survival”), and both loathed each other. The one time they amiably showed up together in public, Napoléon raced back to Paris from his campaign in Spain at a record speed when he heard the news that Fouché had attended one of Talleyrand parties, receiving a most courteous welcome and chatting cordially with the host for half an hour. Such was their reputation that the hypothetical threat of them overcoming their rivalry scared the most powerful man since Charles V (since Caesar, if the blog’s censor is asleep!) shitless – which to achieve had in fact been the sole reason behind their rendezvous.
When back then I first read Zweig’s biography, it was my final years of school and history was, though rather accidentally, one of my three main subjects. Just a couple of months had passed since we had covered Napoléon extensively – damned timing! Ever since, I’ve recommended it to all the fellow history freaks I’ve met, and it’s by far the best of Zweig’s many historical biographies. 16 to 18 is the perfect age to get into his books, because the main shortcoming of his writing is the exaggerated pathos that comes naturally to teenagers, anyway (if you don’t know what I mean, re-read some opinion essay you wrote in high school). Fouché is suffering less from this than Mary Stuart or Erasmus of Rotterdam, because pretty much all the characters surrounding Napoléon were larger than life anyway. I’m still re-reading the Zweig biography from time to time, right now however it’s Adam Zamoyski’s “1815” about the Congress of Vienna that’s my current lecture and perhaps the main impulse for this post. In comparison with Zweig, his writing seems even more objective than it probably is, and all the more it stands out how Zweig didn’t really exaggerate the bizarre personalities and incidents at the dawn of the long 19th century. Ah, what a blessing such protagonists must be for the historian! Each one an absolutely unique specimen.
Closing the book when the cuppa tea’s empty yanks me out of a different world as if I had been reading fiction. Involuntarily you wonder why we haven’t got characters like that ruling our countries anymore. Certainly I wouldn’t expect a Napoléon, considering just how utterly singular his appearance was – but where are the Metternich, Castlereagh and Freiherr vom Stein of our days? The Wilhelmine of Sagan whose bed played a greater role in diplomacy than many official treaties, and the Prince Eugène with his surreal extent of loyalty? The autocrat-turned liberal Tsar Alexander and rags-to-royal Bernadotte?
As always when presented with a hypothesis along the lines of “back in the olden days everything used to be better” it clashes with my dogma of “Nothing Ever Changes”. Hence the question: How were the politicians of 1815 perceived – in 1815?
And there we arrive at a very familiar picture. Elected governments (i.e. chiefly the British) fear for re-election and everything they do gets fire from the opposition. The autocrats seem to have it better, but are often judged by proxy: In that age it is universally accepted that it is their ministers and counsellors that matter; and these are subject to similar dynamics as the elected actors, battling domestic rivals, foreign rivals and the public opinion, each of which could lead to their demise.
At the same time, and as always, the stories that are common knowledge today weren’t recognised while still in the making. Long-term gambles can never be judged, nor seen at all, until way after they paid off (or failed to do so). Applied to our present we can test the latency by looking back 10, 20, 40 years. Passing by the momentous events of our time, there’s 9/11 – a story still far from codification as long as there are still people of all nations battling in the Near East without even knowing what for yet (yet!). There’s the fall of the Iron Curtain – a story that I’d wager might consolidate itself in relatively near future. Now that Thatcher and Kohl have died, perhaps we just need to wait for Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev’s exit from the stage for a narrative to become general consensus – in other words: for those real people to become characters in a story. This has already happened to the generation before them: Willy Brandt, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro. The recently deceased Kohl is still so much a real human in the collective mind that we’d think of his fallouts with his sons, his Lady Macbeth of Oggersheim and his biographer issues as the problems of a real person; while the skirt-chasing of Brandt and Kennedy are talked about in a similar way as you would talk about Zeus“ adventures, while Fidel Castro even so shortly after his death has already turned into a more entertaining James Bond villain than all the products of Eon combined.
And yet the seeds of stories about our current present are already starting to bud. This entire question of trying to find the mythological in the present we live in is something on which I spent much more thought than ink. There was, however, another draughtsman and printmaker and most notably, writer, whose work is entirely centered on that one question: Bruno Schulz, who happens to be the author of the above-quoted passage about knowledge and poetry.
Apart from a few travels, as well as study stays, Schulz spent his entire life in the small Galician town of Drohobycz, to which he had a sort of love-hate relationship. He lived there in the deepest province, often complaining how his work as a drawing teacher at the local gimnazjum didn’t leave him sufficient time for his writing and drawing endeavours, to an extent ridiculed and poorly understood by the townsfolk (as so often with this sort of trope it’s too much of a stereotype to not be taken without a grain of salt and too realistic to not be mentioned nevertheless). He was sort of an outcast of the majority Jewish community and yet didn’t join the Catholic church; he screwed up his relationships very much in the same way Kafka did; he dreamt of a breakthrough as a printmaker in Vienna or in Paris (where friends of his certainly tried to get him exhibited and to further his way – efforts eventually cut short by the outbreak of the war) and yet always returned to Drohobycz in the end, finally being murdered an SS man a hundred metres from the place where he had been born. Singular dramatic moments, adventure, great passion that would have influenced his work: nil.
The unspectacular everyday life of a rather unremarkable provincial town turned into masterpieces of mythology in Schulz“ hands. Many of his stories resemble short vignettes exploring a single topic, but spiced with hermetic cyphers that resurface again and again in his work, often organised as opposite pairs: the male and the female, seasons of the year, action and indolence. A selection of stories, English translation, from the “Cinnamon Shops” can be read here, I’d recommend the linked “Birds” as a good starter, while the title story or the “Street of Crocodiles” probably show more of Schulz“ special skill. Apart from a few outright fantastic stories, such as the “Birds”, most pieces are uneventful on the surface and only gain through their deep exploration of a theme, such as “August”, in which nothing happens, but which describes a summer so richly that you might get a sunburn from reading.
Although after a first reading it might seem different, Schulz avoided to be any more obscure than absolutely necessary in his writing, as far as I can tell. There is a short essay miniature by him that on its own could completely replace this post – in fact I’m only providing examples and illustrations for the same ideas that are condensed there, in “The Mythologisation of Reality”. It would be senseless for me to comment on it, as I couldn’t add anything meaningful to it that it doesn’t already contain.
Let’s look back towards Zweig. Full of pathos, sometimes so much that it’s outright cringy, he arrives at a high level of mythologisation. So how does Schulz“ approach differ and achieve his mythologisation in what I’d perceive as a much better way?
I’d suspect that Zweig essentially described things as he saw them. When he writes a passage about Händel finishing to write an oratorio: “The miracle of the will had been worked by the inspired soul, just as the paralysed body had once worked the miracle of resurrection. It was all written down, formed and constructed, rising and unfolding in melody – just one word still remained, the last in the work: „Amen“ ”, all his awe is heartfelt, and his emotion he writes lines that seem comical to a reader who doesn’t share it. Zweig doesn’t search for the mythos, he lives in it.
When Schulz, however, describes the Street of Crocodiles in the story of the same name: “… the ambiguous and dubious character of that district, so very much at odds with the fundamental tone of the whole town. […] [I]t had thrust its roots into a patch of its periphery, where it had developed into a parasitic district”, he consciously exaggerates to mythologise a reality that’s much less pathological to a casual observer. Schulz on purpose searches for the mythos as an outside observer. And so I’m brazenly claiming Schulz as a fellow realist in spite of all his flowery observation while accusing Zweig of the dastard offence of idealism in spite of his great skill at depicting fine psychological nuance. In the end, though, Schulz tries to get the atmosphere across he honestly feels by encoding it into mythology, and in that manner may be a realist in the same way van Gogh was. Zweig starts with a piece of reality but goes on to polish and embellish it to make it as shiny as possible, not mythologising it as a mere way of encoding and communicating but rather as a way to add aspects it didn’t have to begin with in order to underline an abstract point.
When in my own work I’m avoiding cliché views it’s because their clichéness doesn’t allow the spectator to see my ideas – instead, they view the ideas that constitute the cliché. For instance: If I would draw Notre Dame de Paris, they wouldn’t see my impression of what large and ancient church someone chose to put onto, of all places, a river island – instead, they’d see the thousand layers of kitschy Disneyesque depictions done before. If I draw such a view nevertheless, it’d be for my own pleasure: the difficulty of accurately rendering the intricacies of Gothic architecture, or some other particular point of interest in an otherwise pointlessly often repeated scenery.
It happens just so that between writing the bulk of this post, a few days ago, and now, I have travelled a bit – so judge for yourself whether it is my reality you’re seeing or just the older layers of the palimpsest; and have a look at the next post.