“Zweig was immersed in the problem of the disjunction between our grand desires for the kind of life we dream we should be living and the actual circumscribed canvas on which we must operate.”
At his peak, Viennese author Stefan Zweig was one of the most widely read authors in the world. How did he and his wife end up in a double-suicide in a bungalow in Petropolis, Brazil? George Prochnik joins us to talk about his new biography, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World (Other Press). We discuss the arc of Zweig’s exile, why Zweig remains important to our age (both in his writing and in his character), how he lost his belief in the power of bildung, the fleetingness of fame and the accident of survival, the role of education in changing political dynamics, the contemporary revival of Viennese culture, the reason why Zweig fled New York City, and more!
“I think he felt that the more we have to produce official documents to indicate who we are, the more we are reduced to that strip of paper.”
We also talk about our respective introductions to Zweig’s work, the ways that his final novella may be an allegory for Vienna, the danger of looking for clues to Zweig’s suicide in his writing, and how he may have been the inspiration for Woody Allen’s Zelig. Give it a listen! Go pick up a copy of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World! And check out my Zweig-shelf!
About our Guest
George Prochnik’s essays, poetry, and fiction have appeared in numerous journals. He has taught English and American literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine, and is also the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise and Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam and the Purpose of American Psychology. He lives in New York City.
Credits: This episode’s music is Brazil by The Coasters. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Prochnik’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Prochnik by me.
Note: DG Myers died on Sept. 26, 2014, about 6 months after we recorded this episode. You can read my contribution to his festscrhift here.
“I would take an evil delight in asking my colleagues what they were reading, and watching the look of panic on their faces. Because everyone reads scholarship now, and very few primary materials. Our academic specialties are an inch wide and a mile deep.”
Literature professor and book critic DG Myers is dying of cancer, but that doesn’t mean he’s planning to go gentle into that good night. In a far-ranging conversation, we talk about why he believes university English departments will barely outlast him, how he made the move from Southern Baptist to Orthodox Judaism (getting recircumcised a few times along the way), what he’d like to be remembered for, why the idea of The Western Canon is a canard, which books and authors he’s trying to get to before he dies, who he regrets not reading before now, and the identity of the one author he’d like to hear from. Give it a listen!
“Every Shabbos I thank Hashem for my cancer, because it has focused me on what’s good and enabled me to ignore what’s not.”
We also talk about his plans to dispose of his library, the joys of studying under Stanley Elkin, the relation of books to moral life, the things that cease to matter in the face of a terminal diagnosis, the failure of English departments in the age of Theory, the thorny question of whether creative writing can be taught, and what writers and readers should do to save the humanities. Also, check out the list of books that came up in our conversation.
About our Guest
DG Myers is the author of The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, a work of literary scholarship. He has been a critic and literary historian for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities, and was formerly the fiction critic for Commentary. He has written for Jewish Ideas Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Weekly Standard, Philosophy and Literature, the Sewanee Review, First Things, the Daily Beast, the Barnes & Noble Review, the Journal of the History of Ideas, American Literary History, and other journals. He is working on a memoir, Life on Planet Cancer, and lives in Columbus, OH, with his wife Naomi and their four children: Dov, Saul, Isaac, and Miriam (“Mimi”). He writes at A Commonplace Blog.
Credits: This episode’s music is First We Take Manhattan by Jennifer Warnes. The conversation was recorded at Prof. Myers’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Prof. Myers by me.
I was working on my From the Editor column for the Jan/Feb issue of my magazine, and I realized that you guys might dig the one I wrote for the Nov/Dec issue:
In October, I received a couple of press releases about a new outfit called Kadmon Pharmaceuticals. The name was familiar, so I broke out my copy of Gershom Scholemâ€™s Kabbalah, a book detailing Judaismâ€™s mystic tradition. I re-learned that Kadmon â€” to be precise, Adam Kadmon â€” means â€œprimordial man,â€ or â€œoriginal manâ€; itâ€™s not just the first person created by God in the book of Genesis, but the primal being, the first emanation of the divine before the universe shatters and becomes the world we know. (As per their interpretation of the Torah and its commentaries. Iâ€™m a scholar, not an adherent.)
â€œGood for them,â€ I thought. â€œI suppose the pharma industry could do with a few more Kabbalists.â€
Then I noticed the name of the chief executive officer of privately financed Kadmon: Samuel P. Waksal, Ph.D. You may remember him as the former chief exec at ImClone. You may also remember the insider-trading scandal that put him in federal prison for five years and led to Martha Stewartâ€™s imprisonment. And you may remember that I once called him â€œa great example of manâ€™s capacity for delusion.â€
That last bit was my April 2009 response to a New York Magazine article about Mr. WaksalÂ intended to pave the way for his return to NYC society. The article mentioned that, much like Mike Tyson, Dr. Waksal read a lot of books when he was in prison:
He also read. â€œI reread all the Greeks,â€ he says, smiling. â€œAll. I read everything. Euripides, and Sophocles, and every other Greek that had ever written. You just have to read Aristotleâ€™s Poetics, and you read what tragedy is â€” and you look at yourself and think, â€˜[. . .], man, this is tragic.â€™
Back in my brief 2009 editorial postscript, I noted, â€œNo matter how â€˜brilliantâ€™ a mind you have, you really need to look inside sometimes.â€ Right after calling him delusional.
Now that Dr. Waksalâ€™s back in biopharma, I probably need to expand on that statement. See, one of the major points of Aristotleâ€™s Poetics is that character is revealed by action. That means, what we do is who we are.
In 2001, when Dr. Waksal became aware that ImCloneâ€™s stock was about to tank because the FDA had rejected the Biologics License Application (BLA) for Erbitux, what action did he undertake and what did it reveal about his character?
He contacted family and friends and told them to dump their shares in the company, before the news got out and wrecked their value. In other words, when faced with a crisis, he chose to defraud those investors who werenâ€™t lucky enough to be family (or the mother of his ex-girlfriend).
In prison a few years later, Dr. W. looked at himself in light of Aristotle and the tragedians, and judged himself a tragic figure. An outside observer might look at those same actions and say, â€œWhat a petty and craven human being!â€
Apparently, the Securities and Exchange Commission agreed with that outsiderâ€™s take, barring Dr. W. from serving as an officer at a publicly held company. Ever.
On the other hand, some investors now feel that heâ€™d be trustworthy with $50 million (or more) in financing. Itâ€™s a good thing the last few years have taught us that the smart money isnâ€™t really very smart.
* * *
All of which brings us back to that name: Kadmon. Is Dr. W. implying that his new private equity-backed biotech is somehow going to partake in the macrocosmic vision of that primordial man? That itâ€™s going to play a role in restoring the universe to its perfect state (as per Kabbalahâ€™s goal of Tikkun olam)? Did he embrace this religion in order to deal with life in prison, a la George Bluthâ€™s religious conversion on the (brilliant but canceled) TV show Arrested Development? Is he somehow framing himself as the primordial man, reborn after his stint in the joint? Is he just copying neat-sounding words from Mr. Scholemâ€™s book? (Iâ€™d have gone with Zimzum Pharma.)
At press time, Kadmon doesnâ€™t have a website up, so all we have to go on is Dr. Waksalâ€™s quote from a news release:
Kadmon is building a new paradigm for bringing pioneering medicines to market more rapidly and cost effectively. This includes the simultaneous execution of a dual strategy, combining an operating commercial business with novel compounds at various stages of clinical development.
Aha! Apparently, the world can be restored by making sure you have some cash flow while working on drug development. I hope heâ€™s successful in developing some new drugs, but not so successful that he tries to take the company public.
Sure, you can take my sniping as sour grapes. Am I jealous of the high-flying lifestyle, literary salons and SoHo loft that Dr. W once enjoyed and the tens of millions of dollars â€” if not more â€” that he banked after Lilly bought ImClone? Heck, yeah!
On the other hand, my only run-ins with the law have involved speeding tickets, and I never put my parents in a position where the feds could threaten to put them in prison if I didnâ€™t cop a plea.