Sunday, December 11, 2011

Unordnung und frühes Leid

The phrase means disorder and early pain. I came across it when I read a novella by Thomas Mann of that title in my youth. It’s usually translated as Disorder and Early Sorrow, but Leid has many meanings, among them suffering, grief, sorrow, and pain. I was nineteen at the time, and the moment I read it, it became part of the fabric of my life. I’ve repeated it countless times since, always in German, always just to myself, and always when I felt genuine pain—which has a much more active quality than sorrow. But never mind.  Mann’s story is set in the Munich of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic, a time of virulent inflation and disorder in Germany. We see that world through the eyes of a history professor, Abel Cornelius, his family, his parents, his wife, his teenage children. The resonance was present right away. Cornelius saw his times—indeed the present—as lawless, insolent, and unaware of history. The theme of the story is withdrawal, into the private, and the conservation of the timeless and therefore holy and beautiful past—which the professor feels guilty in embracing, seeing his animosity to unfolding history, while embracing that which is no more, as the unclean love of death. So he felt—the character—echoing his own creator, Thomas Mann himself, who was writing something strongly autobiographical. Yet here I was, nineteen, filled with life and energy, and yet I agreed with him. And through my life I came to see it differently; I’ve come to see what he regarded as the past as something in another dimension, and his embrace of death as a mistaken embrace, instead of the transcendental.

Of late I’ve been lending a hand to the family enterprise, and, in the process, looking deeply at a score or more of major industries at a far deeper level than I usually do these days in retirement. Not surprisingly, therefore—the repetitious assault of chaos finally wearing me down—that the old phrase, Unordnung und frühes Leid, was once more on my lips. Lordy, lord, lord. To hell in a handbasket. But this disorderly present, as I see from my studies—and remembering Thomas Mann and the 1920s—is always with us. And the holy and the beautiful remain, as always, at one remove.

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