November 21, 2013

This week in 1913: Kaiser Wilhelm hates dancing, Kafka weeps, Joyce talks Hamlet, and Musil writes about love


Just before one of its darkest moments came the twentieth century’s most exciting year . . .

It was the year Henry Ford first put a conveyer belt in his car factory, and the year Louis Armstrong first picked up a trumpet. It was the year Charlie Chaplin signed his first movie contract, and Coco Chanel and Prada opened their first dress shops. It was the year Proust began his opus, Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring, and the first Armory Show in New York introduced the world to Picasso and the world of abstract art. It was the year the recreational drug now known as ecstasy was invented.

It was 1913, the year before the world plunged into the catastrophic darkness of World War I.


November 20: In mid-November the fun-loving countess of Schwerin-Löwitz, wife of the president of the state parliament, or Landtag, issues an invitation to a tango tea-dance in the Prussian Landtag. On the floor: dancers in a close embrace with dignitaries and serious military officers. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who finds the tango vulgar, cracks down. On 20 November an imperial bill is passed, henceforth banning officers in uniform from dancing the tango.

Franz Kafka notes in his diary: ‘Went to the cinema. Wept.’

Date unknown: In the Minerva Hall in Trieste, the southernmost harbor city of Austria-Hungary, James Joyce delivers a series of lectures on Hamlet. He has previously tried to make some money by opening a cinema in Dublin and has toyed with the idea of importing tweed from Ireland to Italy. But it came to nothing. His attempts to earn money with his books have been a disaster too. Now he is scraping a living as an English teacher in the morning—and in the afternoon he gives private lessons, notably to the future author Italo Svevo. And in the evening he talks about Hamlet.

Date unknown: Robert Musil is tired and goes to bed before his wife. But he can’t get to sleep, and eventually he hears her going to the bathroom to get herself ready. Then he takes his notepad, which always lies on his bedside table, and his pencil, and simply writes down what he is experiencing:

I hear you putting on your night dress. But it doesn’t stop there by any means. Again there are a hundred little actions. I know you are hurrying; clearly it is all necessary. I understand: we watch the mute gestures of animals, amazed that they, who are supposed to have no soul, line up their actions from dawn to dusk. It is exactly the same. You have no awareness of the countless moves you make, above all those that seem necessary to you, and remain quite unimportant. But they loom widely into your life. I, as I wait, feel it by chance.

Love is also apparent in feeling, marveling, enthusiastic, tender hearing and observing.