Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

This is uncomfortable reading. It’s an examination of the kind of situation that you know before you ever start reading is going to end in tears, that is going doomed to miss its chances to go right, and you spend the whole time dreading the crash. It’s all the worse because mingled with the emotive nature of the dread is the more petty but just as powerful, perhaps even more unbearable, element of embarrassment. This mix of dread and emotiveness and petty but overruling embarrassment is innate to the pity dynamic and this book is a really thorough exploration of the implications of the situation it sets up. There’s something that seemed very Victorian to me in the way it uses its small set of characters as a microcosm, to demonstrate what happens from beginning to end when they are posed with an ethical dilemma.

Edith Kekesfalva and her father, the characters who are pitied, are less the subject of this book than the pitiers, the young officer Hofmiller and the doctor Condor. I liked the way Hofmiller is intoxicated by his discovery of emotional intelligence; Zweig is good at making the simple concept of pity far-reaching in its relevance. The essential problem is the embarrassment element. In some ways, sometimes, pity means to be embarrassed by someone. Hofmiller is alternately embarrassed into and out of his pity for the Kekesfalvas. Condor’s pity is an absolute commitment to a person, to allow oneself to be eaten alive in order to create others. It stands as a reproach to Hofmiller after he has very thoroughly learnt the lesson “beware of pity”. Pity, at its best, is pitiless in its demands of pitiers. To pity one must be prepared to give all, the moral seems to be. Once engaged in the relationship of pity you cannot escape whole.

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