Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig

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I listened in astonishment, my interest particularly aroused by the vehemence with which he now went on: ‘Don’t let us deceive ourselves. If in any country whatever a recruiting campaign were to be launched today for some utterly preposterous war, a war in Polynesia or in some corner of Africa, thousands and hundreds of thousands would rush to the colours without really knowing why, perhaps merely out of a desire to run away from themselves or from disagreeable circumstances. But as for any effective opposition to a war – I wouldn’t care to put it above zero. It always demands a far greater degree of courage for an individual to oppose an organized movement than to let himself be carried along with the stream – individual courage, that is, a variety of courage that is dying out in these times of progressive organization and mechanization. During the war practically the only courage I came across was mass courage, the courage that comes of being one of a herd, and anyone who examines this phenomenon more closely will find it to be compounded of some very strange elements: a great deal of vanity, a great deal of recklessness and even boredom, but, above all, a great deal of fear – yes, fear of staying behind, fear of being sneered at, fear of independent action, and fear, above all, of taking a stand against the mass enthusiasm of one’s fellows. It was not until later on in civil life that I personally realized that most of those reputed to be the bravest at the front were very questionable heroes – oh, please don’t misunderstand me!’ he said, turning politely to our host, who was pulling a wry face. ‘I do not by any means except myself. ‘
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This was how it came about that during the next few weeks I spent the latter part of the afternoons, and as a rule the evenings as well, at the Kekesfalvas‘ . Very soon these friendly chats became a habit and, what is more, a form of indulgence that was not without its dangers. What a temptation for a young man who from childhood up had been buffeted about from one military institution to another unexpectedly to find a home, a home after his heart, instead of bleak barrack-rooms and smoke-filled mess-rooms! When, at half-past four or five, my duties finished, I strolled out there, my hand would no sooner lift the knocker than Josef would delightedly throw open the door as though he had seen me coming through a magic spy-hole. In all sorts of delightful, obvious ways I was made to realize that I was regarded as one of the family. Every one of my little weaknesses and predilections was anticipated and encouraged; my favourite brand of cigarettes was always laid out ready for me, the book that on my last visit I had happened to say I should like to read I would find lying, as though by chance, the pages carefully cut, on the little stool; one particular arm-chair opposite Edith’s chaise-longue was regarded incontestably as ‘my’ chair – trifles, mere nothings, all these, to be sure, but such things as imperceptibly cast a homely warmth over a strange room and, without one’s being aware of it, cheer and lighten the spirit. There I would sit, feeling more at ease than ever I did among my comrades, chatting and joking away as the mood took me, realizing for the first time that any form of constraint fetters the true forces of the spirit and that the real measure of a man is only revealed when he feels entirely at his ease.

But yet another, far more mysterious, factor was responsible for the fact that I found the daily company of the two girls so exhilarating. Ever since I had been sent, at an early age, to the military academy, that is to say, for the last ten or fifteen years, I had lived continuously in a masculine, a male environment. From morning till night, from night till morning, in the dormitory at the military academy, in camp, in barracks, in the mess and on the march, in the riding-school and in the class-room, always and always I had breathed an air that reeked of the male, first of boys, then of grown lads, but always of men, men; I had grown used to their virile gestures, their firm, noisy tread, their guttural voices, their tobacco-y smell, their free and easy ways and sometimes coarseness. To be sure, I was extremely fond of most of my fellow-officers, and could not really complain that my feelings were not reciprocated. But there was one exhilarating element that this male atmosphere lacked; it contained, as it were, insufficient ozone, insufficient power to rouse, invigorate, stimulate, quicken, electrify; and just as our excellent military band despite its exemplary rhythm and swing, nevertheless remained a brass band, its music therefore harsh, blaring, depending solely for its effect on rhythm, because it lacked the delicately sensuous tones of stringed instruments, so did even our jolliest times in barracks lack that element of subtlety which the presence or even the mere proximity of women invisibly adds to all social intercourse. Even when, as fourteen-year-old cadets, we had promenaded two by two through the town in our smart gold laced uniforms and had come across other lads flirting or chatting idly with girls, we had felt regretfully that because of our monastic incarceration our young lives had been violently robbed of something that was every day permitted to our contemporaries as a matter of course, in the streets, in the parks, in railway trains and in dance-halls: the untrammelled enjoyment of the society of young girls. We, segregated, imprisoned behind iron bars, stared at these short-skirted imps as though at enchanted beings, dreaming of even a single conversation with a girl as of something unattainable. Deprivation of that kind is not easily forgotten. The fact that, later on, swift and, for the most part, cheap adventures with all kinds of accommodating wenches came our way, by no means compensated for those sentimental boyish dreams, and I could tell by the gauche and clumsy way in which I stammered and stuttered whenever I happened to be introduced to a young girl in society (although I had by this time slept with a dozen women) that long years of deprivation had impaired, robbed me of, my naive and natural ease of manner.
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‘Odd!’ murmured Condor. ‘Odd! I always thought he was exaggerating when describing you. And I may as well tell you frankly – it’s obviously my day for making false diagnoses I was a little suspicious of his enthusiasm. . . I couldn’t really believe that you only went to the house because of that first little mishap, and then went again and again simply out of sympathy, out of friendliness. You’ve no idea how the old man is exploited, and I had made up my mind (why shouldn’t I tell you?) to find out what it actually is that takes you to the house. I thought to myself, either he’s a – how shall I put it politely? – a designing young fellow, who is trying to feather his nest, or, if he does go there in good faith, he must be very young emotionally, for it is only on the young that the tragic and dangerous exerts so curious an attraction. Incidentally, the instinct of really young people in that respect is nearly always right, and you were absolutely on the right track. . . Kekesfalva is really quite an exceptional person. I know perfectly well all the things that can be said against him, and it seemed to me, if you’ll forgive my saying so, somewhat funny your referring to him as a nobleman. But, if you will believe someone who knows him better than anyone else here, there’s no need for you to feel ashamed of having shown him and that poor child so much friendliness. You needn’t let whatever anyone says bother you; it really doesn’t apply to the touching, pathetic, moving person that Kekesfalva is today.’
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To think that I had been going about the world at the age of twenty-five with such unseeing eyes! During all these weeks I had been a daily visitor to the house, and, befogged by my own pity, I had refrained, out of a stupid feeling of delicacy, from ever asking either about Edith’s illness or about the mother who was so obviously missed in the house, had never asked how this curious old man had come by his wealth. How could I have failed to see that those veiled, almond-shaped, melancholy eyes were not those of a Hungarian aristocrat, but that their keen yet weary gaze reflected the age-long tragic struggle of the Jewish race? How had I failed to perceive that in Edith yet other elements were mingled, how failed to realize that over this house hung the spectral shadow of a strange past? In a flash I now called to mind a whole series of minor incidents, remembered with what a frosty stare our Colonel had on one occasion dismissed Herr Kekesfalva’s greeting, merely raising two fingers half-way to his cap, and how my friends had talked of the ‘old Manichaean‘. I felt as one does when the curtains in a dark room are suddenly drawn aside, and the sunlight is so blinding that everything swims purple before one’s eyes and one reels in the dazzling glare of the almost inconceivable flood of light.

But, as though he had guessed what was going on in my mind, Condor leaned over me with almost professional solicitude, and his small, soft hand patted mine reassuringly.
‘You couldn’t possibly have known, Herr Leutnant how could you? You have been brought up, after all, in a secluded world, a world apart, and you are, moreover, at the fortunate age when one has not yet learned to regard anything out-of the-ordinary with immediate suspicion. Believe me, as an older man, I know there is no need to be ashamed of being taken in by life now and again; it is, if anything, a blessing not yet to have acquired that over-keen, diagnostic, misanthropic eye, and to be able to look at people and things trustfully when one first sees them. You could not otherwise have helped the old man and his poor sick child so splendidly. No, don’t be astonished, and, above all, don’t be ashamed – you have instinctively behaved in the best possible way!’ Hurling his cigar-stump into a corner, he stretched himself and pushed back his chair. ‘But now I think it’s about time for me to be going.”
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Why was the old retainer looking at me so ecstatically? I asked myself in amazement. Why was he so fond of me? Were people really made so kind and happy by seeing others display kindness and pity? If that were so, Condor was right; if that were so, anyone who made a single person happy had fulfilled the purpose of his existence; it was really worth while to devote oneself to others to the very limit of one’s strength, and even beyond. If that were so, every sacrifice was justified, and even a lie that made others happy was more important than truth itself. Of a sudden I felt my step grow firm, for a man who knows that he is bringing happiness with him has a new lightness in his tread.
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A man of limited vision is hard to bear with in any sphere in which he is invested with power, but in the army is intolerable. Since service in the army consists of the carrying out of a conglomeration of a thousand-and-one over-meticulous, for the most part outmoded and fossilized regulations, which only an out-and-out martinet knows by heart, and the literal carrying out of which only a fanatic demands, none of us ever felt safe from this worshipper of the sacrosanct army code. As he sat in the saddle his corpulent figure was the very embodiment of military precision, he presided at mess with eyes as sharp as needles, he was the terror of the canteens and the regimental offices. A cold wind of fear invariably heralded his coming, and when the regiment was drawn up for inspection and Bubencic came riding slowly along on his stocky chestnut gelding, his head lowered slightly like that of a charging bull, every movement was stilled in the ranks as though enemy artillery had been brought into action and were already unlimbering and taking aim. At any moment, we knew, the first shot would be fired, and no one could be sure that he himself would not be the target. Even the horses stood as though frozen to the spot; not an ear twitched, not a spur jingled, not a breath stirred. Obviously enjoying the terror that he struck into everyone’s heart, the tyrant would ride forward at a leisurely pace, spearing one after another of us, as it were, with his accurate eye, which let nothing escape it. It took in everything, that steely military eye, it spotted the cap that was pulled down a finger’s-breadth too low, detected the button that was badly polished, spied out the slightest speck of rust on a sword, or a badly groomed horse; and no sooner had the most trifling irregularity come to light than the culprit was for it. Beneath his close-fitting uniform the Colonel’s Adam’s-apple would swell up apoplectically like a tumour, the forehead under the closely cropped hair would turn the colour of beetroot, thick blue veins would stand out on his temples. And then, in his raucous, hoarse voice, he would burst out into a storm, or rather a muddy torrent, of abuse; floods of foul invective would be poured upon the head of the guiltily innocent victim, and sometimes the coarseness of the Colonel’s epithets was so embarrassing that we officers would gaze in discomfiture at the ground for very shame in the presence of the men.
The men feared him as though he were the Devil incarnate, for he would shower fatigues and punishments on them, and sometimes, in his fury, would even punch a man full in the face with his great fist. I myself had on one occasion in the stables seen a Ruthenian Uhlan make the sign of the Cross and tremblingly mutter a short prayer when the ‘old bull-frog’ – we called him that because his fat throat swelled to bursting-point in his fury – was rampaging away in an adjoining box. Bubencic chivvied the wretched lads to the point of exhaustion, cuffed them, made them do rifle drill until their arms almost broke, and compelled them to ride the most restive horses until their legs were chafed and bleeding. Surprisingly enough, however, in their obtuse and frightened way these good peasant lads were fonder of their tyrant than of more lenient and yet more aloof officers. It was as though some instinct told them that this severity of the Colonel’s had its origin in an obstinate and narrow desire for a divinely ordained state of order. The poor devils, moreover, were consoled by the knowledge that we officers did not come off very much more lightly, for a human being will accept the strictest disciplinary measures with a better grace if he knows that they will fall with equal severity on his neighbour. Justice in some mysterious way makes up for violence. Again and again the soldiers were cheered by the story of young Prince W.; related to the Imperial family, he had imagined that he could claim all sorts of special privileges, but Bubencic had sentenced him to fourteen days’ detention just as ruthlessly as though he had been a peasant’s son; in vain distinguished personages had rung up from Vienna to intervene; Bubencic had refused to remit a single day of the young aristocrat’s sentence – a piece of defiance, incidentally, that cost him his promotion.
But what was odder still, even we officers could not help feeling a certain affection for him. We too were impressed by his blunt, implacable honesty, and above all by his feeling of absolute solidarity with officers and men. Just as he would not tolerate a speck of dust on a tunic, a splash of mud on the saddle of a single horse, so he could not endure the slightest injustice; he felt that any breath of scandal in the regiment was a slur on his own honour. We belonged to him and knew perfectly well that if ever one of us got into a scrape the wisest thing to do was to go straight to him. At first he might abuse us roundly, but in the end he would do his utmost to get us out of it. When there was any question of obtaining promotion or of securing an advance from the special officers’ fund for any of us who was in a tight corner, he always took a firm line, went straight to the War Ministry, and forced the matter through with his bullet head. No matter how he might annoy and plague us, we all felt deep down in our hearts that this peasant from the Banat upheld more loyally and honestly than all the sprigs of the aristocracy the spirit and tradition of the army, that invisible glory on which we poorly-paid subalterns subsisted far more than on our pay.
This, then, was Colonel Svetozar Bubencic, the arch-slavedriver of our regiment, in whose wake I now climbed the stairs. During the Great War he was to call himself to account in the same manly, blinkered, naively honest and honourable way in which he was for ever coming down upon us. During the Serbian campaign, after Potiorek’s disastrous defeat, when exactly forty-nine men out of our whole regiment, the Colonel’s pride, retreated safely across the Save, he stayed behind to the last on the opposite bank; then, feeling that the panic-stricken retreat was a slur on the honour of the army, he did something that only a very few commanders and senior officers did after a defeat: he took out his service revolver and put a bullet through his own head, so as not to be obliged to witness the downfall of his country which, with his limited perception, he had prophetically foreseen in that terrible moment when he had watched the retreat of his regiment.
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Our decisions are to a much greater extent dependent on our desire to conform to the standards of our class and environment than we are inclined to admit. A considerable proportion of our reasoning is merely an automatic function, so to speak, of influences and impressions which have become part of us, and anyone who has been brought up from childhood in the stern school of military discipline is particularly apt to succumb to the hypnotic and compulsive force exercised by an order or word of command; a force which is logically entirely incomprehensible and which irresistibly undermines his will. In the strait-jacket of a uniform, an officer will carry out his instructions, even though fully aware of their absurdity, like a sleep-walker, unresistingly and almost unconsciously.
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I bent down and kissed her hand. When I looked up, I could not understand how this woman with the grey hair, the harsh mouth, and that bitter look in her blind eyes had at first seemed ugly to me. For her countenance now shone with love and human sympathy. I felt as though those eyes that mirrored nothing but eternal darkness knew more of the reality of life than all those that gazed out, clear and radiant, upon the world.
Like a man cured of an illness I took my leave. The fact that at this moment I had pledged myself anew and for ever to another helpless outcast no longer seemed to me to entail a sacrifice. No, it was not the healthy, the confident, the proud, the joyous, the happy that one must love – they had no need of one’s love! Arrogant and indifferent, they accepted love only as homage that was theirs to command, as their due. The devotion of another was to them a mere embellishment, an ornament for the hair, a bracelet on the arm, not the whole meaning and bliss of their lives. Only those with whom life had dealt hardly, the wretched, the slighted, the uncertain, the unlovely, the humiliated, could really be helped by love. He who devoted his life to them atoned to them for what life had taken from them. They alone knew how to love and be loved as one should love and be loved – gratefully and humbly.
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