Scribner's Magazine
Book Reviews by Eli Siegel 1931-1934

from November 1931 Issue

A Cultural History of the Modern Age, by Egon Friedell. Vol. II. Knopf. $5.

"A Cultural History of the Modern Age" is profound and helter-skelter. It takes history to new places, but it is often drunken and dim-eyed. It is fond of hallucination. It takes the older histories, and plays all kinds of cavernous and idealistic tricks around them. It is history, perverse, daring, and with banners.

It would be well to take this volume of the mystically probing German, dealing with Europe and America—more or less— from 1618 to 1814, and compare it rather closely with the customary history of the same time. It would be a study in the chasms mentally dividing mankind. Friedell is like a frisky child with a constant sense of God and metaphysics; most other historians are slow inventory-takers, snuffling accurately among the conquests, inventions, diplomats, ambassadors, and writers of the past. For Friedell has put God again into history; a merry and irrational God. He scorns those who do not see God in events.

The second volume of this mischievous and impressive work begins with the Thirty Years' War and goes to Napoleon's escape from Elba. Within this volume, Friedell does more tearing up of historical old boulevards than nearly anyone in literature. Spengler is a sober adjuster of the historical situation; Friedell shouts as he demolishes.

Did historian ever before make the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mostly "Baroque" and "Rococo"? Friedell makes the Puritans, John Bunyan, and Oliver Cromwell all "Baroque." The author makes a mighty to-do about, say, the meaning of "Baroque"; but, to me, he never gets into satisfactory sunlight here. The new verbal possibilities can all be seen in miniature in this one sentence (page 104): "The characteristic beverage of the mature Baroque was coffee ..." Years and years of loving, eating, quarrelling, planning, dying, being born: and later—an audacious historian will publish a book in Munich and say: It all was Baroque.—This has its funny side.

The large, condemning statement that can be made about Friedell, is that he, too, is not fair to the past and history. The object of history is to give one the means of fully feeling the past. The professional historians leave out vast emotional slabs, and so does Friedell. You can be so profound and novel you forget the homely and warm. Friedell describes most richly the food and dress of people, but always as an aesthetic and philosopher; as an inquisitive outsider. And history, however deep, should still be a narrative: even "cultural history," whatever that is. Friedell's book is too much a succession of static essays. It should be speedier. It should ring, move, collide. If you deal with Kant in your history, you should still get, in your style, something of Dumas and "The Three Musketeers." History is first of all: Story.

And there is no inevitability in Friedell's history, and no exciting propor-tionateness. Coleridge isn't mentioned, while the German Lenz easily gets his page. Cultural history shouldn't be so patriotic. In other places, Friedell seems to rove just as he likes: saying hello to this great man or event, talking too long to this one, and altogether snubbing that one.

Eli Siegel.

Reviews by Eli Siegel from Scribner's Magazines 1931-1934. Copyright 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 Charles Scribner's Sons; copyrights renewed. Reprinted with the permission of Charles Scribner's Sons.

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