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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Zeitgeist

I am trying to identify writers who give us a sense of life at a particular place and time… a zeitgeist. And to understand what exact skills that requires. Marcus Aurelius and Montaigne perhaps abstract too much from their context to qualify; Pepys and Boswell, as diarists, focus perhaps just a bit too narrowly on the London quotidian. Marcel Proust is simply too incestuous.
I am left with names such as George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Vasily Grossman and Hans Fallada but also people such as Richard Cobb, Tony Judt, Timothy Garton Ash and Geert Mak
What do they have in common (apart from all being male!)? Orwell, Grossman and Mak were/are journalists; Koestler and Fallada writers; Cobb, Judt and Garton Ash academics. 
The terms, of course, are arbitrary – indeed my distinctions seem to imply that journalists and academics do not also write! In using these terms, I was simply referring to the main source of income. 
Half of those on the list wrote novels – some (Orwell and Fallada) famously so but that is not quite how we remember them. The sort of writing I am talking about seems to exclude the “suspension of disbelief” required by novelists…..Clearly many good European novels do give a sense of “zeitgeist” (Voltaire’s Candide; Flaubert's Madame Bovary; Zola; Thomas Mann) - but, compared with the writers on my list, they seem to lack a certain “voice”.  

Initially I thought I had identified three features of these writers – range of experience; breadth of insight; and literary capacity. The first group of names all had the harrowing experiences of war; the last group the privileges of access to academic sources about 20th century European savagery and, in Garton Ash’s case, more direct sources about post-war European change and conflicts. Some writers not on my list (such as Norman Lewis, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy and Jan Morris) of course give a terrific sense of place and time - Naples; central Europe in the 1930s and 90s. And Diane Athill is one of several European women I wrote about recently whose diaries give an excellent sense of zeitgeist (Simone de Beauvoir is perhaps the supreme example). Diaries and travelogues, however, always run the risk of self-centredness. In that sense I have a preference for the more detailed analysis which Clive James gives in Cultural Amnesia.

At what point do individual memories become part of social – if not political - history? 
The painting is Max Ernst's Europe After the Rain II (1940-42)

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