Sunday, March 17, 2013

Der ewige Spießer/The Eternal Philistine

Ödön von Horváth (1901–1939)
Was born near Trieste, the son of a Hungarian diplomat. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 he relocated to Vienna, but on the day of the Anschluss — March 13, 1938 — he fled to Budapest. From there, he soon moved to Paris, but on June 1, 1938, he was killed when, caught in a rainstorm coming out of a theater on the Champs-Élysées, he took shelter under a tree that was hit by lightning; von Horváth was struck by a falling tree limb and killed instantly.

May I say that I think the Philistines have gotten a bum rap?
 At one time they ruled five kingdoms, including the Gaza; no one appears to know the origin of their tribal name, and yet, according to Trude Dothan--foremost scholar of Philistine culture--they were a formidable enemy of the Egyptians and others, fermenters of strong spirits, and speakers of an Indo-European language. So, what gives? They worshipped Baal--everyone was supposed to figure out monotheism, and I suppose the fact that they didn't was a strike against them--and I remember from the story of Samson in, what was it? Judges? that the Philistines were the bad guys, but what was so great about Mr. Longhair?

Yes indeed, as my tattered Catholic Encyclopedia informs me, the Philistines show up in Judges 13 as enemies of the Israelites, and in Samuel (1) the Philistines run off with the Ark of the Covenant. And the Philistines were not only enemies of the ultimate rulers of Palestine, but also of the formidable Assyrians. But there isn't a word in the Bible--I've been checking just now--that would justify their association with "materialism. capitalism, and bourgeois culture" as well as a long list of other unsavory associations.

Well, as you know, it was Matthew Muttonchops himself, Mr. Arnold, who appropriated the word 'philistine' to denote those who were anti-intellectual, who despised the fine arts and the "best that was thought and written" in the Western tradition. But this was pure snobbery. Arnold, like Goethe, used the word to refer to those who hadn't the benefit of a university education--indeed, the "philister" was the lout from town who battled the university student--the uncouth, materialistic numskull who not only was unlettered, but an enemy of letters; in Jena, scholars (imagine!) fought philistines to the death over the value of learning. How did this happen? Apparently Goethe and Arnold took Judges' Samson to be a kind of intellectual hero, while his enemies, the Philistines, were relegated to the status of vulgarians. I remember reading Nabokov's lectures on literature many years ago and wondering at his characterization of Emma as a "philistine"--what gives, I remember wondering, the poor woman has a boring husband and likes novels, what's so bad about that? But Nabokov was echoing a long tradition of viewing anyone with the slightest material interests as contemptible--and an enemy of culture.


But wait--the unhappily fated Ödön von Horváth had a different view: "The philistine is, as is generally known [sic], an egotist who suffers from hypochondria, and this is why he seeks, like a coward, to fit in wherever he goes and to distort every new formulation of the idea by calling it his own."

Say what? It appears that the pejorative power of the term 'philistine' is unlimited--a materialist, a cultural pretender, a bourgeois, a hypochondriac, a hypocrite....and all because of a few obscure verses in an unread book of the Bible! The more I read about the Philistines, the more I find to admire...they need a publicist, an apologist, and not, certainly, Ödön von Horváth's little novel, published in 1930, that tells the story of a dishonest used-car salesman (yes, oxymoron) who travels to Barcelona for the World's Fair but who is, in fact, running away from a society that is, at its heart, corrupt and replete with philistines--no, worse, with the bourgeois.  This salesman, Kobler, is perhaps a little grasping, but no more so than any other European of the "low dishonest decade" between the wars--he would have fit nicely on Miss Porter's Ship of Fools--and who can blame him, given the times? 

Such an odd little book! It's like a literate borscht-belt monologue, full of one-liners, gags really, that push the the story (which is, honestly, rather clunky) from set piece to set piece. Kobler, the putative philistine, isn't a bad sort, just an ordinary man in a world that is falling apart, and his attending the World's Fair is a bad joke, a celebration of progress at the time when liberalism was dead as a doornail, machine-gunned on the battlefields of the Great War. Reviving one's fortunes by visiting Spain--a very bad joke, given what the political and moral condition of Spain was in the '30's.

And that is the point of The Eternal Philistine--the world is corrupt, and everyone in it partakes of this corruption....As I read this novel I couldn't help but think that it was the perfect book-end to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. All of the terrible things that Jake thinks and feels in the darkest passages of Hemingway's book are filled out, deepened, and rendered both more satirical and more terrible in von Horvath's novel. Knowing what's coming is awful, and being a philistine (as I am) makes knowing what's coming even worse because, in the end, I have no idea what to make of the folly of the age, and I ask myself, as a good bourgeois--why couldn't they see it? Such folly!

The Eternal Philistine is published by the wonderful people at Melville House, with a rather annoying introduction by Shalom Auslander (why berate people who have purchased the book?)....


  1. Agreed on the last paragraph. The intro is quite misleading, the book itself a very odd event that is hard to place, but Mr. Auslander's rants do not help at all in that task.

    1. Thank you for your comment; yes, the book is an oddity in many ways, but enjoyable to try and puzzle out. It is gratifying to discover a new writer and to encounter a wholly unique sensibility, so different from that of "mainstream" fiction. All the best, George Ovitt and Peter Nash.