Friday, December 24, 2010

Weimar Cities


The Autumn 2010 issue of City Journal contains this article titled "Weimar Istanbul" by Claire Berlinski. Her thesis is that certain cities experienced strong busts of artistic creativity not long before all gets swept away by one disaster or another: these she terms Weimar Cities.

She states:

There is a spookiness to living in a city at the epicenter of an impending political catastrophe, a mood of dread but also of astonishing vitality—economic, creative, artistic. It is a distinctive mood and, to anyone acquainted with history, a familiar mood.

There is, it seems, such a phenomenon as a Weimar City.

What is a Weimar City? It is a city rich in history and culture, animated by political precariousness and by a recent rupture with the past, vivified by a shocking conflict with mass urbanization and industrialization; a city where sudden liberalization has unleashed the social and political imagination—but where the threat of authoritarian reaction is always in the air.
Her archetype is Berlin during the Weimar Republic era (1919-33), and she believes that Istanbul, where she has lived in recent years, is another example as Turkey drifts away from Mustafa Kemal's reforms and towards Islamic fundamentalism.

Other examples she cites are antebellum Charleston, Moscow and Petrograd in 1917, circa-1900 Vienna, 2002 Buenos Aires and Summer of Love San Francisco.

I find this concept intriguing and highly romantic. But I am not persuaded.

In the first place, the spur of knowing that doom is almost certainly in the offing doesn't happen all that often. Moreover, the future is always uncertain. This uncertainty might affect some sensitive, artistic minds even in comparatively calm times. And it can affect minds of average folks when events turn more sour than usual, but not necessarily disastrously; the United States since the economic crisis of 2008 is a case in point. Even in the best of times, the future is uncertain and the thought of it potentially stress-provoking; consider unease of living in one's times as chronic.

I agree that residents of Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire around 1900 likely sensed the empire's decline and wondered how matters would play out once the elderly emperor Franz-Josef finally died. But did folks in Weimer Berlin in, say 1927, see doom in the future? Economic conditions were better than in the early 1920s. True, the Republic was a mess, but there was no strong reason to believe that anything would change much -- that Germany might well continue stumbling along as it had since the end of the Great War, risking disaster yet not quite encountering it. And, if there was to be fundamental change, it wasn't clear what sort of change might occur.

A second factor is that vibrant cultural and artistic periods lasted for decades in many places without much threat or actual occurrence of disaster. For example, England had a strong literary culture going back to the 18th century and continuing well into the 20th. Italy was strong in painting and sculpture from the 14th century through the 18th. Paris ruled the world of painting from the 18th century till nearly the middle of the 20th. The United States became an artistic powerhouse during the 20th century while its political and economic states were far more tranquil than those of other major countries.

Berlinski's citations of Charleston and San Francisco do not strikes me as compelling. Even though the South Carolina city held the spark that set off the Civil War, the conditions that set off that spark brewed up in conjunction with the 1860 presidential election and its result. That is, it's not like a strong sense of doom had been festering for years. And there was no general doom at in the San Francisco case (though I do think the place was approaching the tipping point from being a fun place to live to the weirdness and harshness I feel whenever I now visit it). At best, the peril in the air had to do with the Vietnam war and the threat young men had of being drafted into the army. Even that was a strong factor for those comparatively few young men of a certain age and draft number, and not young people in general.

All this is not to deny that something such as a Weimar City situation can't exist. I can see parallels between Weimar Berlin, 1900 Vienna and the two Russians cities. (Regarding the latter, I'd set the stress situation as longer term than just 1917. There was plenty artistic ferment starting the late 19th century and failure in the Russo-Japanese war resulted in a murky outlook for the czarist regime thereafter, contributing to a "Weimar" condition.)

In sum, what we are dealing with is subjectivity. How to define artistic, cultural, economic, etc. ferment along with the somewhat amorphous conditions that supposedly spark things. And where is a set of counter-examples of ferment without stress and stress without ferment, assuming such definitions can be made? Weimar Cities, therefore, might make for interesting speculation but are not likely to be a useful analytical or predictive tool of thought.

1 comment:

ironrailsironweights said...

Whatever Vietnam-related peril existed in San Francisco during the Summer of Love was hardly unique to that city. It would have existed everywhere in the United States.

As for Berlinski's comments about Istanbul, well, she may make some good points, but like some other City Journal content these remarks are infested with an unhealthy dose of Islam-will-Conquer-the-World paranoia. People are afraid of Muslims and, in consequence, see fundamentalists under every rock and behind every bush.

Peter