Cycles of youth

June 16, 2020

The first book that I think of when I think about youth is not the perhaps most obvious — namely Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (which is excellent) — but another book on the same period, i.e. 1900-19251.

The book is Stephan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, which he wrote in 1942, and which captures Vienna at its fin de siècle height.

In it, he uses the words “young” or “youth” 322 times2. He has many insights on youth, but this passage in particular made me wonder whether youth might not have a cycle, rather than a constant trend towards juvenescence. It’s vivid enough to be worth quoting at length:

This dissatisfaction with school was by no means a personal attitude. I cannot recall a single one of my comrades who would be reluctant to admit that our interests and good intentions were wearied, hindered and suppressed in this treadmill. It was only much later that I realized that this unfeeling and soulless method of the education of our youth was not due to the carelessness of the authorities, but represented a definite, and what is more, a carefully guarded secret intention. The world about and above us, which directed all its thoughts only to the fetish of security, did not like youth; or rather it constantly mistrusted it. Proud of its systematic “progress” and of its order, bourgeois society proclaimed moderation and leisure in all forms of life as the only effective virtues of man; all hasty efforts to advance ourselves were to be avoided. Austria was an old State, dominated by an aged Emperor, ruled by old Ministers, a State without ambition, which hoped to preserve itself unharmed in the European domain solely by opposing all radical changes. Young people, who always instinctively desire rapid and radical changes, were therefore considered a doubtful element which was to be held down or kept inactive for as long a time as possible. And so there was no reason for making our school years pleasant; we were first to earn every form of advancement by patient waiting. Being thus constantly pushed back, the various age groups were valued quite differently than they are today. An eighteen-year-old student at the Gymnasium was treated like a child; he was punished if he was caught with a cigarette, and he had to raise his hand obediently if he wished to leave the room. But a man of thirty was also regarded as an unfledged person, and even one of forty was not yet considered ripe for a position of responsibility. Once, when a surprising exception occurred and Gustav Mahler was appointed Director of the Imperial Opera at thirty-eight, the frightened whisper and astonished murmur went through Vienna that the first artistic institution of the city had been entrusted to “so young a man” (completely forgetting that Schubert at thirty-one, and Mozart at thirty-six, had already finished their life’s work). This distrust that every young man was “not quite reliable” was felt at that time in all circles. My father would never have taken a young man into his business, and whoever was unfortunate enough to appear young had to overcome this distrust on all sides. So arose the situation, incomprehensible today, that youth was a hindrance in all careers, and age alone was an advantage. Whereas today, in our changed state of affairs, those of forty seek to look thirty, and those of sixty wish to seem forty, and youth, energy, determination and self-confidence recommend and advance a man, in that age of security everyone who wished to get ahead was forced to attempt all conceivable methods of masquerading in order to appear older. The newspapers recommended preparations which hastened the growth of the beard, and twenty-four- and twenty-five-year-old doctors, who had just finished their examinations, wore mighty beards and gold spectacles even if their eyes did not need them, so that they could make an impression of “experience” upon their first patients. Men wore long black frock coats and walked at a leisurely pace, and whenever possible acquired a slight embonpoint, in order to personify the desired sedateness; and those who were ambitious strove, at least outwardly, to belie their youth, since the young were suspected of instability. Even in our sixth and seventh school years we refused to carry school bags, and used briefcases instead so that we might not be recognized as attending the Gymnasium. All those qualities which today we look upon as enviable possessions – freshness, self-assertion, daring, curiosity, youth’s lust for life – were regarded as suspect in those days that only had use for “substance.”

The attitude, and relative power, of the older generation towards the younger seems to have some resonance today. And it’s interesting that then, as now, a thirty year old was considered to be a fledgling. It’s quite funny to imagine people trying so hard to look older.

In Zweig’s lifetime, youth went from undesirable to desirable. (Max Planck agreed.) What if attitudes towards youth are cyclical? Since generations are not born in lockstep, it would mean that some people, when young, would enjoy better treatment in youth, whereas others (like Zweig) would have a harder time.

What is today’s attitude towards youth? Favourable, one might think; people certainly try to look younger. On the other hand, the relative balance of power seems very much to favour the old.

It seems worth mentioning, though I can’t say what it means, that Zweig’s second wife was 27 years his junior. He posted the manuscript for The World of Yesterday, which she had typed, to his publisher the day before they both committed suicide, in February 1942, believing that there was no hope for the end of the War.

  1. This coincidence makes me wonder if there isn’t some invention of youth going on at the start of the 20th century.

  2. I grepped, or rather ag’d, it.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.