Anyone reading Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity – the Austrian author’s 1939 novel about the catastrophic effects of pity in human relations – will be amazed at how modern it seems. A dark melodrama set in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it seems from that description alone to offer a reading experience of Heinrich Boll or Thomas Mann-like heaviness. Yet from the outset the novel fairly zips along and seems as urgently relevant now as it did when published.
The story itself is very simple. In the last months before the First World War, a young lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian cavalry is kicking his heels in a Central European border town like any other. One afternoon the monotony is broken up by the entry into a café of an unfamiliar young woman, all social poise and sensuality. Her name’s Ilyona, and to get to know her better Hofmiller attends a soiree at the castle of her uncle, a wealthy local industrialist. To his surprise he finds himself seduced by the castle and its atmosphere. There’s music, dancing, a “rainbow of liqueurs” to drink and “cigars as thick as asparagus”, Hofmiller dances cheek to cheek with his Ilyona, the world seems to say yes to him, and all is perfect.
Then he makes a catastrophic error. There is another girl there, his host’s daughter Edith, whom Ilyona is keeping company. Wouldn’t it be simple courtesy to ask her to dance too? Hofmiller does so, but is floored to find that at his invitation the girl breaks down in a storm of accusatory tears. Edith, unknown to him, is crippled by polio from the waist down, and even watching the other dancers causes her anguish. Hofmiller is mortified and Ilyona immediately rescinds her interest in him: “Are you out of your mind? … Don’t you know? … Didn’t you notice? … You callous…”
Beware of Pity now screams to have its message heeded
It’s in his desperate attempts to make it up to Edith that Pity – the novel’s real protagonist – makes its malignant first appearance. Soon it will dance them both in an awful tarantella which, it’s clear from the outset, is going to end badly. Edith and Hofmiller become horribly entangled with each other. She’s addicted to him. He’s addicted to Pity, that emotion which seems benign and charitable at first but ends up as a toxic passion. Hofmiller feels little for Edith; but pity for her, which humiliates them both, forces him into ever more compromising situations. Pity quickly becomes like a devil on Hofmiller’s back, commanding all his choices, brooking no reluctance, and riding him mercilessly onto the next mistake.
Beware of Pity has a horrible, hurtling momentum to it, uncomfortable to read but impossible to stop, in a way we don’t necessarily associate with books from the past. This was quite deliberate. Zweig – a massively popular author in his day – was ruthless about trimming the fat off his texts and hated unnecessary detail. “Only a book that steadily, page after page, maintains its level… and carries one breathlessly to the last line, gives me perfect enjoyment,” he said, adding that the task of cutting was what “really affords me the most enjoyment.” Zweig in other words was the reader’s friend, and feels like it.
The book has its fanatical admirers, novelist Ali Smith among them. Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian said it was like being inside “an emotional tumble-dryer” that had “the power to make one put one’s free hand over one’s mouth as one reads”. For historian Antony Beevor it was “the most exciting book I have ever read… a feverish, fascinating novel”. Jeffrey Archer called it a “masterpiece” and Zweig a “great storyteller and a great writer, amazing combination.” Yet what none of them mention is how relevant it is to our time and how Beware of Pity now screams to have its message heeded.
* * * * *
Every era has its own grand game, its shared endeavour to animate people. In the Thatcher period it was, broadly, “Grow prosperous, whatever the cost” – and those who couldn’t play the game were left behind. But at the tail end of the Thatcher regime, one began to hear a growing clamour for a more caring society. John Major, Thatcher’s replacement, offered “compassionate conservatism”. Tony Blair, who followed him, traded on his stagey empathy, as much trendy vicar as PM. “Caring” and “compassion” became the new game in town and, after Diana’s death, empathy climbed the charts to No.1.
Much of this was overdue – few could have argued that the lot of BAME and LGBT people didn’t need improving in the UK, and the Blair government can take credit for advancing both. Blair was the first PM to make a virtue of the fact that we were a “multi-coloured” country, a big step forward. In the 15 years before 1998 and 2013, we also went from its being genuinely sensational to “out” Peter Mandelson on Newsnight to the legal recognition of gay marriage. It was a seismic change in so short a time, but it carried the public with it.
In the years since then, however, something has gone wrong. Just as the entrepreneurial energy released by the Thatcher government gave way to the soulless, brazen avarice of Loadsamoney, so the tendency towards compassion which followed has curdled into something cheaper: a bullying emotional blackmail, and a compelled pity. It was genuine compassion that led to the institution of gay marriage. It’s arguably compassion’s afterlife – the Grand Game gone haywire – that have led to such surrealities as an “LGBT sandwich” at Marks & Spencer or, in August 2020, the appearance of Britain’s first ever Gay Train.
There is virtually no institution in the country now which doesn’t seem to have forgotten its first principles
Many have termed it “weaponised empathy”, and we now see it everywhere. It’s at the heart of offence-taking, victimhood, buzzwords like “vulnerability”, the aggressive demand to feel “safe”. In 2019, when Piers Morgan publicly refused to accept there were 100 different genders, activist Benjamin Butterworth started a Twitter campaign to get him sacked. His words to Morgan on Good Morning Britain were bitterly ironic: “You don’t need to be a gender expert. You just need to be compassionate.” When people recently complained about the Christmas episode of the Vicar of Dibley being used as a platform for BLM, Dawn French was to tweet ironically, that it was “a lovely calm day, full of humanity” and “compassion”. Increasingly the word is being used to shame or shut down reasonable debate. Label someone lacking in compassion and you no longer have to engage with their motives or reasoning. They are out of the game.
To list the ways in which Pity has corroded national dialogue, to name all the institutions into which it has seeped, would make this article an unreadable checklist of gutted or demoralised estates. There is virtually no institution in the country now which doesn’t seem to have forgotten its first principles – from the British Library, to the Metropolitan Police and even (God help us) to Doctor Who.
In the 1980s, many were scandalised by the monetisation of things which, previously, had seemed not commodities for sale but natural rights. Now, just as effectively, social engineering beats everything and the quota rules. Challenge it at your peril.
The National Trust imposes rainbow lanyards on its workers to promote the gay credentials of one of its properties. Want to question that, or the ubiquity in modern Britain – close to fanatical – of the Rainbow Flag? Then prepare to be accused of bigotry and heartlessness.
The Turner Prize is awarded, in the name of inclusivity, to all four candidates. Feel like pointing out that the award is now castrated; that it no longer has any credibility at all and in future no one has any need to respect or strive for it? Don’t – or find yourself on the wrong side of history.
Make the case that Penguin’s introduction of racial quotas for publishing books is, though doubtless “progressive”, conceivably in conflict with putting literary standards first? Then risk being pasted day after day in the liberal press, get Twitter-stormed and labelled a racist – as author Lionel Shriver discovered to her cost after raising such questions in The Spectator in June 2018. We are killing ourselves with “kindness”.
As Zweig makes plain, the roots of Pity lie not only in guilt but in narcissism too
Pity, we can see, is a drug, and must be taken in larger and larger doses. As Zweig makes plain, the roots of it lie not only in guilt but in narcissism too. Hence the modern progressive you sometimes meet, often well-meaning and concerned but with an unmistakable note of self-congratulation, of being on the Right Side. Pity, you sense, is not always for the benefit of the recipient but for the person feeling it. It was a point writer Joanna Williams made recently in Spiked. Writing about the creeping racial apartheid on campuses apparently willed by the authorities, she asked tartly whether “racialising and segregating staff and students is a price worth paying for university leaders to feel good about themselves.”
A similar point was made by Rod Liddle, in a furious exchange about Syrian immigration five years ago with the historian Simon Schama (Question Time). When Schama advocated taking as many refugees as possible, Liddle blasted him: “I’m interested in outcomes, not in your emotion. I’m interested in what is good for those people, and what is good for this country, not in how you feel about yourself.” Liddle’s words deserved more attention – it was one of the quotes of our time.
We see this same narcissism in Zweig’s book as well, where pity becomes integral to Hofmiller’s self-esteem. Marvelling at his effect on others, he tells us: “At such moments I felt a kind of strange astonishment that I, who had nothing at all to offer but my genuine pity, had so much power over other people.” On a later, similar occasion, when he’s given in to pity and acted to mollify others: “I was God that night. I had created the world…” Pity has its pay-offs, and they’re not always altruistic.
Hofmiller’s Godlike feeling does not last. Under the pressure of his own pity, he begins to screw up royally with the regiment and to sabotage his own good record. His inner conflicts drive him to drink, to fall-outs with his colleagues and contretemps with his superiors. The self-indulgences of spasmodic pity are paid for with the loss of control and status.
There are eerie parallels in modern UK. One thinks of RADA, recklessly declaring itself an endemically racist institution, thereafter finding its dramatic policy being set by student pressure groups rather than the management. Or of Sheffield University effectively neutering itself by offering advice to tutors (albeit non-compulsory) that students may opt out of exams whose content they find upsetting, without having to “explain their backstory”. Once such authority is relinquished, it’s hard to get it back again. As Zweig says, “You do not bring trouble on yourself so much through wickedness or brutality as – almost always – through sheer weakness.”
It remains to be seen what will be left of the UK’s institutions when this weaponised Pity has done its work
None of this is to deny the sanctity of genuine compassion and kindness, without which we are lost. Seeing another human suffering, it’s natural to want to reach out. Often we can do no other. But to compel this or to make it a tool of social advancement is to cheapen it beyond redemption. One remembers Vassily Grossman, the Soviet war-correspondent and novelist. Harried by the NKVD throughout his life, losing his mother to an SS death-squad, Grossman knew the worst of human nature as well as its best. Kindness, he said, “remains potent only while it is dumb and senseless, hidden in the living darkness of the human heart – before it becomes a tool or commodity in the hands of preachers, before its crude ore is forged into the gilt coins of holiness. It is as simple as life itself. Even the teachings of Jesus deprived it of its strength.”
If even Christianity had made it, for Grossman, a gutless and inauthentic thing, one can only imagine what he would have thought of the commentariat-commissars and Twitters mobs now stalking our cultural landscape, enacting their power-grabs, carrying out their hit jobs and leaving a calling-card marked “Pity” beside each reputation’s corpse.
“No one,” said Zweig, “will show any pity to a man fooled by his own pity.” His novel is a warning to us all. It remains to be seen what will be left of the UK’s institutions when this weaponised Pity – increasingly unfettered and out on its spree – has done its work. “Go woke, go broke,” is the popular modern expression. Stefan Zweig might have put it differently, “Beware of Pity. Lest you yourself become pitiable.”
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe