The World of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
"In this world, let me have my world, to be damned with it or to be saved." (Tristan and Isolde)
Welcome to The World of Yesterday on Substack. What features and characteristics mark the ‘World of Yesterday’? I’m not exactly sure, but while I can’t say exactly what this world of yesterday contains, I know enough to believe it lost, either in whole or in part from the world we now inhabit. This construction of thought is the same, albeit in the opposite sense, to the infamous resolution of art historian Kenneth Clark in his BBC documentary series, Civilisation (1969). Clark, standing before the Notre Dame in Paris, attempts to define Civilisation (1:17—End):
“What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms — yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it.” As he turns toward the cathedral, Clark goes on, “And I am looking at it now.” Civilisation, says Kenneth Clark: I do not know what it is, but I know I’m looking at it now. The World of Yesterday? I do not know what it is, but I know I’m not looking at it now. And I should add that this claim, this sentiment, is not meant to sound like the words of an old man shaking his fist at the sky. Rather, these are the words of the sky looking down at the old man, speaking in a soft but increasingly intense thunder. They are the uncertain words of a cocksure boy looking up at this sky that is forever looking down at the old man and all that used to surround him.
The title of the newsletter is of course borrowed from the title of my favourite book from my favourite author, The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. The book was written in midst of Zweig’s escape from continental Europe that started in England, continued in the United States, and ended, finally, devastatingly, in Brazil, where he died by suicide alongside his second wife in February 1942. Author George Prochnik, in the title of his biography on Zweig, called this journey an ‘An Impossible Exile’. Zweig’s exile was not completely in vain, however; he reputedly completed The World of Yesterday a day before his death (though these facts are hardly coincidental).
The World of Yesterday is loosely an autobiography but more strictly an exposé on Europe in the early 20th century, a homage to its distant past of freedom, wonder, liberty, beauty, that 2500 years of its history had culminated in. The World of Yesterday is an elegy to the Europe that once was, a book of lives lived within its gentle borders, Zweig’s chief among them. Zweig was primary witness to the best and worst of human output as it existed in Europe through the turn of the 20th century, as it paused in unexpected horror during World War I, then as it fell off a cliff in the lead-up to World War II. Zweig, self-assigned protector and surveyor of the European soul, was a contemporary and friend of Freud, Rodin, Verhaeren, Rolland, and Strauss (among others). Zweig, defender of personal freedom, liberty, and a Jew, was likewise (for not one of these reasons more than the other) targeted by the Nazis soon after their rise to power, remaining on their minds (and lists) even after leaving his native Austria in 1934 - his name appears (no.81 below) in ‘The Black Book’, persons of interest in England to be apprehended after Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain.
Zweig was forced to carry, cradle, the bleeding heart of Europe that only he could feel, that only he could secure, across channels, seas, and oceans. From it, the manuscript of The World of Yesterday was the only part of Zweig that returned to Europe. Zweig’s body, and perhaps with it Europe’s bled out heart resting somewhere near his own, was buried in the mountains that lie just to the north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Against my will, I have witnessed the most terrible defeat of reason and the most savage triumph of brutality in the chronicles of time. Never—and I say no not with pride but with shame—has a generation fallen from such intellectual heights as ours to such moral depths.
Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday
There is of course no comparison (none is attempted) between the yesterdays and todays of Zweig’s world with that of our own. The ‘World of Yesterday’ I have in mind exists outside of time. It is anything good that has been lost, anything good that almost was. When a building is destroyed, left to crumble in disrepair, its original form—its most beautiful form—that is the world of yesterday. When buildings are demolished in the name of ‘urban renewal’, that is the world of yesterday. When we replace sculpted, marbled water fountains with a soulless contraption that is crowned with a blue plastic turd, that is the world of yesterday. When we do not pursue the beauty, the sacred—so close at hand, yet ever so much farther away—that, all of it, is the world of yesterday.
Great moments are always outside time.
Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday
The World of Yesterday is not a time of yesterday — the idea has nothing to do with the time that has inconvertibly passed. The world of yesterday is no time machine, but rather a metal detector of meaning. It holds that while the world is getting better in some respects, it is simultaneously (not consequently) getting worse in others. It believes, by extension, that there is no relationship between increased lifespan and quality of art, between soaring economic output and beauty in architecture, between the availability of vaccines and virtue, between improving technology and quality.
Aris Roussinos @arisroussinosThis is great, and London should do the same with its dried-up Victorian drinking fountains and troughs https://t.co/wTIiPQol1Y
Despite all this, Zweig communicates an implicit hope for a future in which the lost virtue of the past might be regained. The World of Yesterday proceeds like a funeral march, yes, but the purpose of a funeral in the first place is to show the living that there was once life, and to honour and celebrate the life that has passed. It is incredible that Zweig came to even write, let alone finish, this book at all (it was indeed one of the final actions of his life). Zweig, ardent humanist, must have believed in the future, in us, in humanity, to have still left such a lengthy suicide note filled with life and with beauty (despite 75 million reasons not to). In a glimmer of the same spirit, I write in hope, in great hope, that the World of Yesterday, whatever it contains, might be the World of Tomorrow. If this eternal way is truly eternal, then it can never be fully lost; it only needs to be refound.
Even from the abyss of horror in which we try to feel our way today, half-blind, our hearts distraught and shattered, I look up again and again to the ancient constellations that shone on my childhood, comforting myself with the inherited confidence that, some day, this relapse will appear only an interval in the eternal rhythm of progress onward and upward.
Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday
In The World of Yesterday, Zweig espoused a feeling I find great kinship with: that when growing up, past the point of when one would normally be considered to be grown up, he retained the feeling that his life was yet to start, that nothing he was doing was ‘truly real,’ like a sprinter that only jogs for practice and never races. Now, for the first time in my life I feel old, that is, older than I thought I was. Enough. I was 22 when the pandemic started. I still feel 22, though I am 24. Enough. I have put off writing and my own pursuit of truth for a long time. The only proper way to live is in honest accordance to your values, in accordance to your self. I step forward over the starting line and never back.
Something else: to be a writer, you must write. So here it is. And here is one thing more: please allow me the patience to produce the quality I believe I can achieve —not by waiting for to be within me—but by producing something that is less, then more that that, and thus improving. Please excuse the clumsy sentence structure, the lazy idioms, the lack of courage in avoiding definite positions, the uncertainty, occasionally, the cowardice, and all of these fucking commas. These mishaps come from true feeling, and I write, if anything, in honestly (which is now defined by uncertainty). I have much to say, and there will likely be a recalibration as my silence becomes noise for the first time. I hope the rush to speak does not dampen the quality in what is being said. I will get better, as myself.
What does your conscience say? - ‘You should become the person you are.’
I have continued to be ambiguous in describing the precise nature of this World of Yesterday, wading in and out of speaking about its nature. The most honest answer I can provide, as to what the World of Yesterday is: I don’t know, but it is what I am here to find out, though with no expectation (or even wish) of discovery. So to this question I respond: ask me in 50 years.
I spoke above about the disparity of feeling between my present state of living and the actual state of real life. Well, my real life starts today. For the first time in my adult life, the sun rises, sets, and finds me living in dignity, in honesty. This is the World of Yesterday. This is the World of Tomorrow. That time could be tomorrow. That time could be never again. But that time could be tomorrow.
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And to take us out today—
Oh, this city's changed so much
Since I was a little child
Pray to God I won't live to see
The death of everything that's wild.
Arcade Fire, Half Light II (No Celebration)