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Stefan Zweig’s pity in a modern setting

By Elias Tezapsidis.

A close friend of mine gave me Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity over the summer saying it was a book by a “writer’s writer”. Hackneyed as that may sound, I cannot think of a better way to describe Zweig’s hyperconscious prose. The novel—reissued by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint with an insightful introduction by Joan Acocella—destroyed me in the best way possible. I experienced the rare feeling of being taken almost against my will as a reader to a dark familiar place, a place consciously evaded.

Following Acocella’s introduction, the primary lesson crystallized by the end of Beware of Pity is succinctly condensed in Zweig’s own words in the selected excerpt at the beginning of the NYRB reprint:

There are two kinds of pity. One, of the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only one that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.

In other words, Zweig’s concept of pity—as presented above—diverges into two distinct categories: 1. pity stemming from a duty provoked by social or ethical reasons (the “sentimental”) and 2. pity that is heartfelt and selfless (the “unsentimental”), which is synonymous with love.

In the capitalist economies that have defined the Western world in recent history, the rapid development of technology has altered the way we understand ourselves and our surroundings, extending to drastic changes in the nature of labor and even the way we interact and communicate with our loved ones. Were we to add technology and the ubiquity of media as elements to Zweig’s story, would his semantic approach to pity be the same?

How does Zweig’s dual categorization of pity translate to a modern framework?

First, I investigate romantic relationships to illustrate how Zweig’s concept of pity remains valid: in interpersonal relationships, the dyadic separation of pity into sentimental and unsentimental holds true.

Second, I move towards an exploration of consumption patterns which show how that definition of pity differs. The capitalist economic system reflects how we consume and buy things we love-hate, by abiding to a desire that may be rooted in the middle-ground between “sentimental” and “unsentimental” pity. This middle-ground became possible as the result of consumers’ acceptance of irony as the quintessential means to show their self-awareness and their inability to change their circumstances.

The mainstreaming of irony is both a cause célèbre due to the rising self-awareness of populations—the hoi polloi have gained cultural knowledge previously unattainable to them— and a reason to mourn, marking the end of a time when the genuine expression of thoughts or feelings could be trusted unequivocally.


Zweig’s story itself is not remarkable, but the complexity of the motivations and manipulative mechanisms of the characters—especially the “lovers”— construct an exceptional mosaic of the human psyche.

Zweig’s personal history provided ample experience to draw from to depict the—perhaps redundant—pain we put ourselves through in the pursuit of romantic companionship. Friderike von Winternitz was a female fan who wrote to Zweig, and ultimately became his first wife, after first leaving her husband. Having been married and divorced from Friderike, a marriage that lasted more than two decades and coincided with the zenith of Zweig’s career, he then married the younger Lotte Altmann. Lotte was the secretary Friderike had hired for her husband in 1933. Zweig’s manic devotion to work was likely a better fit for his former secretary, but he had to attend to her medical condition as a severe asthmatic. Taking parallels with Zweig’s life, Edith seems heavily based on Lotte, and the physical dependency she presented to her lover. However, the most nuanced prose in Beware of Pity appears a derivative of the guilt the writer felt for leaving his first wife.

The protagonist, Anton Hoffmiller, serves as the unreliable narrator of this unorthodox love story. Anton finds himself in a difficult position following a gaffe that instigates an unlikely romance: he hurts Edith’s feelings by inviting her to dance, not realizing she is bound to a wheelchair. Edith comes from an affluent background, and her father, Kekesfalva, holds a respectable position.

Beyond being of noble origins, Edith is also incredibly manipulative. She uses her disability as a means to extract sympathy from Anton, hoping that it will ultimately be transformed into love. Indulging in the use of such strategies of emotional conditionality is a path leading to the tyrannical love Edith requires of Anton: it is a love that deserves pity. Such a romance, based on the guilt a partner feels for the other’s wretchedness—in this case Anton’s guilt about Edith’s condition and well-being—serves as an example of what love is not; it is pure sentimental pity.

The theme of obsessiveness, and a love defined by the toxicity such obsessive behavior engenders, recurs throughout Zweig’s novel. Deciphering how much emotional intensity is appropriate to disclose upon meeting someone who romantically triggers an unfounded trust comprises a great challenge. To reveal too much might daunt others and push them away, while to obscure one’s intensity might only prolong the inevitable: eventually it will surface.


Often, the cause of the sort of pity that is misconstrued as love is the participant’s indulgence in transfiguration. The intensity of the feelings coded as ‘love’ can drive one insane with expectation. To an extent some blame falls on those who idealize an intensity that could send them insane; the idea that the toxicity which Zweig views as pity could be more than that.

The problem with trusting someone when a connection appears so definitive and dangerous, but presents the possibility of toxicity, is that then someone else—outside of yourself—knows who you are fully. They know your deepest fears and your biggest insecurities, and if you should not have shared that knowledge they will use it during a fight, and try to apologize after by saying they just said the most spiteful thing they could. The lesson most of us learn from such unfortunate circumstances is that we should initially be extraordinarily cautious before we let anyone else near our darkness, because if our romantic interests try to destroy us collectively—as a couple—we might lose ourselves individually, too

Ideally, an emotionally intense person might manage to succeed in revealing a reactionary function, gauging in a thoughtful manner how ready a potential partner is. Instead of turning an allegorical switch of intimacy on or off, a dimmer might be used to facilitate a smoother connection. The challenge in such cases of the gradual opening up of an individual becomes the fulfilment of going through with the completion of total revelation, to its utmost honesty: when the appearances match what is underneath, when the illusion subsides to allow for the sort of love that is not built on pity and feeling sorry for one’s partner.


Following the catastrophic results of being dishonest and acting in manipulative ways, the idiosyncratic couple of Zweig’s novel meets its end. Edith commits suicide after realizing Anton felt only sentimental pity for her, and Anton is confronted with a new guilt: his own for the result of his actions. His inability to distance himself from a woman he led on—because he felt sorry for her—concluded in her demise. Her demise was his fault: he made her feel betrayed by talking to outsiders about her little progress in overcoming her waist-down paralysis. Anton’s shame for his lover manifested itself in a way that made Edith realize his behavior was performed, not heartfelt.

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,” states our narrator in a sentence that suggests every action an individual engages in may be rationalized.

This notion of rationalization appears naive in the irony-filled circumstances that surround us in our time of hypermodernity. The reasons people act a certain way are not always easy for any outsider to identify, but they never really were, as Beware of Pity beautifully suggests to readers.

In a critical essay on Zweig for The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard convincingly argues that Beware of Pity is a work centring on disillusionment, and the undeniable necessity of the process. “His stories are full of characters poisoned by things left unsaid, or situations misread. We tell ourselves stories about what is going on; but sometimes these are the wrong stories,” writes Lezard. Astutely, Anton, Edith, Kekesfalva all serve as paradigms of characters who keep getting lost in facades that do not fully represent the reality.

In most cases, both in the book and in life, people do not even know what others are actually thinking, so they take a stab at a likely guess and act according to their assumption. In the modern world, such a guess is usually based on ambivalent sources. When encountering elliptical content through modern technology—ambiguous text-messages, overly brief gchats, even emails written carelessly on mobile phones—meaningful communication becomes a challenge. The potential for toxicity in romantic relationships is exacerbated by the misinterpretation of such texts. The propensity to make assumptions about others’ expectations and wishes forms the biggest barrier in building a loving partnership.

Ultimately, Lezard asserts that disillusionment is a process that—regardless of the way in which it is attained and the adversities it calls for—needs to occur. As Anton’s misery becomes apparent, the reader understands the primary message is one that challenges individuals to act as they genuinely feel, ignoring the sentimentality that others impose on them. By behaving in a way that is different than one’s true will, people only trap themselves in a reality they enabled for unrelatable reasons, primarily responding to others’ expectations and wishes.



Thus, the way in which we behave—our actions—defines us. In a contemporary framework, this is clear when we consider how we socially interact when we first become acquainted with someone, usually asking them what sort of work they perform, or what activities they enjoy engaging in. Surely, one’s profession does not fully define him/her as an individual, but to argue our self-realization and how we understand ourselves is not heavily correlated to our workplace would be naïve, in late-capitalism.

In the framework Zweig sets in Beware of Pity a similar notion of self-realization surfaces in Hofmiller’s experience serving in the military. In an attempt to receive advice on leaving the army, moving out of Austria and possibly even pursuing a new career, Hofmiller has an extensive dialogue with a higher officer, Balinkay. Balinkay insists that the army is the source of affirmation for young men like our protagonist, even if he is openly not content in his current position.

Well, I don’t want to interfere, but believe me, Hoffmiller, you’re making a mistake. You don’t know what you’re doing. You are, I fancy, somewhere between twenty-five or twenty-six, and not so far off promotion to first lieutenant. And that’s something not to be sneezed at. Here in the army you’ve got your rank, you’re somebody. But the moment you try to launch out into a new career, the dirtiest ragamuffin and lousiest counter-jumper will rate more than you, for the very reason that he hasn’t got to trail around our fool prejudices like a knapsack.

The internal commentary Hofmiller provides [as our narrator] serves an exhilarating purpose by making clear his skepticism regarding Balinkay’s proto-corporate hierarchy views. Even his eventual high recognition of receiving military decoration does not birth any pride nor joy. Hofmiller merely continued in the army as a result of his complete lack of alternate options. Receiving the highest order the Austrian army confers; Anton remains internally unsatisfied with his path. While the narrator does not focus on the emotion of pity as he experienced it personally, the army decoration is a fine reminder of the difference between phainesthai and being: while to outsiders Hoffmiller may appear successful and accomplished (phainesthai) that is not representative of his own existence (being).

Entitled “To Be or Knot to Be,”  the initial phainesthai of Adam Phillips’ review of The Hamlet Doctrine for the LRB is endearingly geeky, but far from guffaw-inducing. Upon further reading, its “being” shines through. Phillips uses Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy as a jumping off point to show us how Hamlet is paralyzed by his disgust for the world surrounding him. Individuals who come to understand the essence of things eventually realize their inability to change this essence.

“Knowledge kills action. To be able to do anything we need veils of illusion to conceal the horrifying truth from ourselves,” writes Phillips. Contrasting the need for disillusionment Lezare thought necessary, considering the necessity that illusion itself serves as a meaningful purpose in understanding the way people act today, often hiding from truths too harsh to handle. The review concludes that Hamlet is pursuing the “real” that Lacan would eventually introduce, but he is confined to the sort of real that is capable of breaking the individuals who pursue it. Hamlet is being driven by the disgust he feels for his surroundings, but he is also paralyzed by it. Paradoxically, his ambition to conquer infinity is the very same one that limits him.

In today’s system of order, it becomes necessary for modern workers to embrace a degree of self-illusion to be functional and effective in their role as productive elements of the labor force. The ability to evade painful truths can be an essential tool in avoiding the feeling of uselessness, a feeling that could paralyze them from actively partaking in the economy. The creation of such illusions can be a positive factor by enforcing efficiency in people’s career goals, but it may also have deleterious results when it becomes the central strategy in one’s professional life.

Companies that are primarily placing their energy on the formation of an illusion as a strategy require too much of their employees, and are nefarious institutions for both employees and potential customers. Beyond the frequently targeted financial institutions selling abstract financial products, other firms stand on the grounds of an illusion to turn profit, renaming it as a “vision” and sometimes including it in the company’s mission statement. When corporate culture appears similar to cults, even by demanding employees’ relentless trust, tragedies such as Enron ensue.

The ambivalent regulative specifics of our economic system of order enable other firms to employ unethical business methods. Virginia Sole-Smith’s investigative journalism piece “The Pink Pyramid Scheme: How Mary Kay Cosmetics Preys on Desperate Housewives” for Harper’s excellently presents the dark reality of disillusionment in business. Pretending to be interested in a career with the firm, Sole-Smith gets inside the corporate mechanisms of Mary Kay.

In the training sessions for one’s transition towards a sales-position with Mary Kay, the “unlimited opportunity” of becoming a friend who helps their networks in purchasing cosmetics is underlined as the key towards success. Of course, the success of a Mary Kay girl is based on her willingness to turn towards her personal networks of relatives, acquaintances and, primarily, friends. Suggesting strong strategies such as the hosting of parties, Mary Kay codes Mary Kay parties as “parties with a purpose,” by clarifying these events are about enriching women’s lives.

Making the case for grand economic success stories in the beginning—ones about economic prosperity from selling Mary Kay products and early retirement as a likely possibility—the corporate ethics the firm employs are despicable. They ignore bringing up that the primary source of financial stability for the firm is the entry fees associated with the recruitment of new members to join the Mary Kay team, the very same members whose failure and subsequent exit from their positions work in favor of the company. Another shameless corporate tactic Mary Kay uses: purchasing of set amounts of products leads to one’s promotion. The reason Mary Kay is capable of getting away with such a precarious business model is the Federal Trade Commission’s classification of firms that make money only through “fees and participation” as pyramid schemes.

In Beware of Pity, Anton begins spending time with Edith’s family, the Kekesfalvas, following their misunderstanding. He quickly begins to question the ethical dimensions of their material generosity:

What really vexed me was that I began to doubt my own motives. Wasn’t I, after all, really behaving like a sponger? Ought I, as an officer, as an adult person, to let myself be dined and wined evening after evening? […] He was trying to buy me, to pay cash down for my entertaining company, just as he had promised Ilona a dowry simply to get her to stay and nurse his poor child. And I, simpleton that I was, had almost fallen into his trap without realizing that I was becoming a downright sponger.

Anton’s exploration of his motivations was an attempt to comprehend whether the Kekesfalvas’ generosity was transactional. Was he entering a relationship bound to be conditional, a business-like agreement?

The unclear lines between what is ethical in conducting business show that both illusion and disillusionment in professional settings can trigger problems for workers. This ambiguity becomes even more apparent if we think about the role consumers play in today’s markets, and the omnipresence of irony in our consumption patterns.


Considering the role consumers play in today’s markets, and the omnipresence of irony in our consumption patterns, the ambiguity between what we truly value and what we mockingly give value to—via purchasing—becomes even more apparent.

John Mullan’s “As if Life Depended on It” profiles F.R. Leavis as a fervent believer of the existence of objective value, a belief he exercised as the person in charge of admissions at Cambridge. Mullan’s portrayal of Leavis as an austere critic with absolute opinions, perhaps even somewhat of an elitist, contradicts the modern idea of what an academic figure represents: open-mindedness and willingness to adapt. Leavis despised television and emphasized reading as a means to resist the modern world, and opposed mass culture. Today’s academics have accepted mass culture, and have even added disciples of study to respond to new areas in the humanities, such as New Media Studies.

In “The Culture Industry,” Theodor Adorno asserts that mass culture “prevails as a canon of synthetically produced modes of behavior.” The agency of consumers in this process morphs into their conviction that their choices arise as the names of the different brands to which they are exposed. Considering the limited options we have as consumers, and comprehending the limited impact our purchasing power as entities may have on a market level, irony becomes a useful tool in accepting our current reality.

Rather than ignore music, film and other products we do not like—or even things we dislike—we mock them lovingly, engaging in cognitive dissonance. Many of us click on links to articles we know will infuriate us, to hate-read them and carefully dissect their flaws, forgetting that our attention translates to the power of the writer/journalist. Attention itself equals to someone’s success today, regardless of the nature of the feelings that led to it; the intentionality behind our market actions and decisions does not really matter.

Despite the lack of the love-hate consumption enabled by irony in Beware of Pity, the concept of attention itself being indicative of a payment can easily be tied to Zweig’s narrative. Anton’s time spent—knowingly or not—in the Kekesfalva household is monetized by Edith’s socially established father. Anton even goes on to compare Edith’s handicap to his financial state: he considers it his most restricting condition

And as she continued to stare at me with the same puzzled and, as I foolishly thought, contemptuous look, I was suddenly seized with an impulse to expose the full extent of my poverty to her. Just as she, on one occasion, had hobbled defiantly across the room on purpose to torture us, who were sound of limb, to revenge herself on us for our smug good health, so did I now feel a kind of angry pleasure in revealing to her in an exhibitionistic way the restricted and dependent state of my existence. ‘Have you the remotest idea what the pay of a lieutenant is?’ I snapped. ‘Have you ever given a thought to it?’

The juxtaposition of the differences in the financial standing of Anton and Edith presented above, irrevocably clarifies that the nature of their relationship, it is, indeed, transactional. Anton devoted his time in Edith’s presence to material gains, but the terms of the unspoken agreement he made with Kekesfalva were not ones he could accept to Edith’s satisfaction: he could respectfully pity her, but not love her.


David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction” provides a thorough analysis of how television first spread the meta-irony which then became the norm for modern American writers. Wallace declares irony as an effective entertainment mechanism of modern US culture, but simultaneously recognizes the limits this irony imposes by disabling revolutionary rebellion on a cultural level.

Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval. The old postmortem insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “how banal.” Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.

We are still continuing to witness a culture of irony, much like the one Wallace described, but of unprecedented proportions. The Internet’s introduction to our daily reality has made us accustomed to consistent stimulation. On a grand cultural scale, we are reaching a level of collective irony unlike any that has come before. Deciphering when a friend or a lover is being deadpan never seemed as arduous a task as it does today.

Hopefully, in the name of clarity, we might soon resort to the sentimentality and melodrama Wallace identified as the probable tools “real rebels” would employ.

Modern individuals’ propensity for illusion—or transfiguration—as it pertains to love survives the test of time, by giving a dual definition of pity Zweig described diachronic value. What has actually changed on a cultural level for humanity is linked to labor markets and the way people/consumers perceive (and/or neglect) their purchasing power.

Still, Anton Hofmiller is constructed as a timeless example of the human capacity to obfuscate in his attempt to seek a larger truth. The intensity of his truth-seeking, his primary driving force in understanding his circumstances, simultaneously embodies his quest for something impossible. The narrator of Beware of Pity appears convinced that once he understands he will be able to make up his mind. Sometimes, lovers have to make a decision first, then watch everything else “make sense”.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 5th, 2014.