The Demand of Solidarity

by Stefan Zweig

Die Forderung der Solidarität. First published in „Max Brod. Festschrift zum Fünfzigsten Geburtstag“, edited by Felix Weltsch, Mährisch-Ostrau 1934. Also published in „Das Geheimnis des künstlerischen Schaffens,“ Fischer Verlag 1993. Translated into English by Manuela Kölke

“One of the most difficult problems in the lives of writers and any creative person is their relationship to the community, their undeniable duty of solidarity. And here there is an inner conflict. “Ancient enmity,” as Rainer Maria Rilke unsurpassably says, “between life and great work.” The work they are supposed to create and the intellectual, the artistic expression they want to give to their work, actually condemn writers to seclusion. In order to concentrate, in order to grasp the problems of the time as clearly as possible, they would have to detach themselves completely from what is happening, to stand alone, to think for themselves.

To remain impartial, they would have to stay clear of all prejudices, outside any group, any community. But it is precisely the effect of their work that cancels this remoteness and brings them back into relation with the real world. Poets, artists, by expressing themselves in their work, address others and thereby give others a right, a right to themselves.  As they call upon the world to share their feelings and ideas with them, the world turns to them in the likeness of countless individuals who now demand compassion for their personal misery and fate. The fame accorded to writers and artists is nothing but the sum of a wealth of human trust they have earned, and this trust inevitably turns into a demand. Since people regard them as the ones who understand and know better, they rightly demand that they also be the ones who help. Since they perceive them to be leaders in spirit, they claim that they should support them at every opportunity, and therefore actually demand that they leave behind seclusion and solitude, and with it, however, the indispensable precondition for their work. They want them, who have a powerful command of the word, to speak out on every occasion that concerns them and to express the same solidarity that they feel towards them.

Stefan Zweig

This results in a constant conflict for every artist who takes their art seriously and who also wants to fulfil the moral obligation of solidarity. Should they serve an invisible community with their work, an anonymous readership of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people, or should they willingly and helpfully stand by each individual who turns to them at every given opportunity? The right thing would undoubtedly be to work in a double sense, but such energy is not granted to everyone, and it is difficult to correspond perfectly to both worlds, the world of pure spiritual achievement and the world of real action. In purely arithmetical terms, artists help more if they can accomplish their spiritual help through their works, which are addressed to tens and hundreds of thousands, but the living misery of an individual has such an urgent and terribly real immediacy, it approaches in a more humanly moving and compelling way than that abstract (but at the same time real) concept of an anonymous mass. If artists feel themselves to be honest and humane, they will never regard their fame, their outside position, as a matter of natural asset, but as a debt which they must constantly repay. They will feel indebted to the people, to the language they come from, they will feel indebted to every person who places their trust and aspiration in them. They will always regard every demand as a demand placed on themselves, as a challenge to their powers to help, and yet they must know that their work does not allow them to meet all these demands. Genuine artists and at the same time genuine people will therefore never be completely happy, but will constantly be pressed by their conscience, either for not doing enough for their work or for not living enough.

This problem of solidarity has become more painful for the Jewish thinking and socially minded artists in recent times to the extent that Judaism has once again become a tragic fate and the moral and factual misery of countless people has increased immeasurably. They feel more and more urged to cross over into the realm of action, but on the other hand, it was never more necessary than now [1934] to show the world what our people are capable of accomplishing in this generation of persecution and denigration through literary and artistic achievements. Especially today the concentration and solitude of a Jewish artist would be more important than ever, and at the same time solidarity and fellowship are more indispensable than ever. In this way, the conflict that every honest person has been quietly fighting for years is being stirred up even more fiercely and is now being revealed to the whole world. Much is demanded of us, more than ever, and at the same time we must demand more of ourselves than we have ever attempted, and every hour presents us with a new decision.

Each artist can find the solution to this conflict only within themselves. They must suffer the problem in all its depth, to what extent they must serve their work, to what extent they must now serve these times. There is no one who can help them, no one who can advise them in this last and innermost crisis of conscience, and only one thing can help them, if they look in these days to friends and comrades who, for their part, have solved the problem in an exemplary manner. In the hours of inner conflict, I have often and frequently looked to Max Brod, who for years has realized in himself, and continues to do so ever more beautifully, the harmony between the artist, the Jew, the helpful and organizational man, in a way that one cannot express enough gratitude for. As a poet, he has presented the problem of being both German and Jewish in a series of works and most forcefully in his last novel; in his philosophical work “Paganism, Christianity, Judaism” [“Heidentum, Christentum, Judentum”] he has elevated to harmony the great laws of thought and emotional contradictions which have received far too little appreciation; as a writer he has accomplished immeasurable achievements and yet has always come to the fore where it was necessary to help in coping with real hardships.

I remember the days of the war, when he organized the Jewish refugee organization in Prague, I know how much he did in these days of the new escape, I remember the countless agitatory lectures that were to create a new spirit within the Jewish youth and the joyful devotion with which he encouraged every literary, every musical talent—exemplary of that double energy which is necessary for the morally aware artist, and therefore a whole person and a whole artist. And I only wish that many of us may learn from him this mystery of supreme solidarity, communal support, and helping, activating power for all living life.”

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