An Exile Among the Books
The Lost Library: The Autobiography of a Culture.
by Walter Mehring.
Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. Bobbs-Merrill. 290 pp. $3.50.
Forcefulness was never the forte of the progressive literati of the Weimar Republic. Except in the case of Berthold Brecht, with his South German temperament, which drew its strongest effects from its violent rejection of the Catholic Church, an aggressive melancholy prevailed in the avant-garde. These writers were humanistic, skeptical, and overbearing; such an attitude placed them quite naturally in opposition to the National Socialists—whose dynamism they failed to understand just because of their attitude; but it also preserved them from being to any serious degree infected with Communism. They still reflected the Byronic conflict between spiritual and political ideals, but in them the rift engendered only ink and gall. They laughed at the German philistine and watched him being transformed into an SS man, and they laughed at themselves; it was the grim humor that went before the concentration camps, a danse macabre performed by living bodies. They knew this, and the knowledge made them all the more melancholy and aggressive.
Walter Mehring, in his satire The Merchant of Berlin, which Erwin Piscator produced in his Berlin experimental theater in 1929, portrayed this nihilistic liberalism in a notable manner—in as notable and shadowy a manner as the cartoonist George Grosz, “who sat on the terrace of the Café Groessenwahn [Megalomania] dressed in a loud-checked jacket, posing as the ‘saddest man in Europe.’” Then everyone was everyone’s enemy, and no one was anyone’s comrade; conversations took place merely for the purpose of reducing the word and the world to a glittering witticism.
Mehring had always written chansons, popular ballads of more or less political and topical character, very simple in their language, laudable for their progressive spirit—jingling stanzas of a respectable radicalism, which I could never really enjoy. Their message glanced past the reader; they lacked the life force that came to expression in poorer poetry produced by men whose attitudes were more vacillating and often even repellent.
The idea of Mehring’s new book is something to marvel at. His father, who died in 1914, bequeathed to him an extensive library, a collection of 19th-century works. These he retrieved in 1937, as an exile in Vienna, only to lose them forever, since, on March 13, 1938, he was compelled to leave the Austrian capital in the dead of night and in the face of the oncoming Hitler forces. Now, living on a New England farm on the Housatonic, he sits and unpacks in spirit the lost treasures left to him by his father. The books speak to him about themselves, and he begins to speak to them about himself. Three strata of time are touched upon in this “autobiography of a culture”—the current American era; the period comprising Vienna in 1937 and the years of Mehring’s emigration; and finally the 19th century, the century falling between the French Revolution and the age of upheaval in the Western world, the literary century that was still Goethe’s and almost Freud’s, the time cycle that embraced the lives of such giants as Ibsen and Dostoevsky, Balzac and Dickens.
It is an idea to marvel at, although it seems to stem from the 18th century rather than from the 19th—the idea of a genuine bibliomane and encyclopedist. But is not the idea of pitting books, as the true reality, against life and mankind, actually only a splinter of an idea, an aphoristic fantasy that does not yield enough substance for a full-length book? It might have been stimulating to apply this idea by playing the three-time strata of present, past, and antecedent past against one another, showing the one mirrored in the other, thus achieving a triple irony. But America and the present, as a time stratum and hence as a subject of study, remain wholly unmastered. Mehring’s “Epilogue on a New England Farm” is, intellectually and artistically, a flat failure; here, his exposition, which is elsewhere levelheaded and sober, is lost in a confused gibberish. Moreover, the period of emigration, which in a sense represents Mehring’s lifetime, remains as obscure and elusive as his own character. Here and there a confession seems to emerge: “And here I am, poorer than Sindbad the Sailor, pillaged down to my last book, wearing the borrowed clothes of translation, begging for a hearing on my own account . . . . For I have come to realize that my present and my future carry the hereditary taint of my books, the taint of two thousand years of intellectual inbreeding—the European tradition. My father’s library, like my last home in Vienna, like the capuchin tomb of the Hapsburgs, like the Christian medieval state of the last Eternal Austria, like the Turkish mocha in the last coffeehouses, like the ‘Heurige Wein’ in the Grinzing taverns, like each of the things I loved with my whole being, like France’s Liberté to which I swore eternal fealty, like the Third Reich which sonashed them all—all these things still exist only in the pluperfect tense, or in a passé défini, and the vain search for a lost age could be successful only in an optative mood, in the ‘might have been.’ The ‘remembrance of things past’ is a vain enterprise.”
It is the old pathos of Heinrich Heine, who in 1830 in Paris knelt sobbing before the Venus de Milo, and who, on contemplating a manuscript of Walther von der Vogelweide, wept for Germany and for the past. But this pathos has become stale in the past one hundred and twenty years, for the reason that, in this age of crisis, of great wars, and of mass civilization, the fate of the spirit and the fate of the exile have become identical. It is sheer idleness to complain about one’s political exile, because all of us, in a much deeper sense, have learned to look upon ourselves as refugees and as sharers of the destiny of Ulysses. The fact of political exile today must be taken for granted, as something that cannot be otherwise, just as the fact that the spirit lives and creates in banishment, and that there has arisen a worldwide community of men who regard their homelessness as a natural condition, and a prerequisite for deeper insight and greater approximation to truth. The pathos of Heine’s retrogressive attachment to his origins has become sentimental and flabby, and the Wandering Jew has become a mythical figure and a symbol of the spirit. He walks without rest among the nations, testifying to his experiences. For him, the “remembrance of things past” is the daring adventure of Kafka’s K., of Mann’s Biblical heroes, of Proust’s Swann, and of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Walter Mehring’s Lost Library consists of quotations, anecdotes, and imaginary dialogues, in which the author displays great erudition, keen observation—although not always of essentials—and much wit, and which are juxtaposed without any internal order. It is a causerie about a thousand things and nothing, chiefly about the author himself, who takes the greatest pains to remain invisible. Just as in Heine, there is in Mehring much of the narrow rationalism of the 18th century, of the Enlightenment. The culture that here presents its autobiography, as it were, is a gallant lady who has grown old, and whose pen is guided by a brilliant abbé. In reality she has perpetrated much greater sins than this book of hers would suggest, but on the other hand she has given birth to far more interesting children.