What could be dangerous about pity, an entirely virtuous emotion, synonymous with compassion?
No more than what could be dangerous about love when it becomes obsessive.
The phrase comes to mind when contemplating the marriage of a friend to a woman he would not have married if he had not been sorry for her, for good, honourable reasons. He understood his motive too late, when the marriage had turned miserable.
Beware of Pity is the title of a powerful novel, published in 1938, by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who in the twenties and thirties was, according to his publisher, the most widely translated author of his time. The German title is Ungeduld des Herzens (Impatience of the Heart). In 1946, the novel was filmed with Lilli Palmer and Albert Lieven. The movie was directed by Maurice Elvey.
The story takes place in Austria just before World War One. A cavalry officer in a garrison town is invited to a ball given by a family living in an opulent mansion. He asks the daughter to dance with him, not knowing that she is paralyzed. His acute embarrassment develops into obsessive pity – with catastrophic results.
“There are two kinds of pity,” Zweig wrote, “the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness…and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.”
It is no coincidence that Zweig published the novel in 1938 when the clouds were gathering before another world disaster. The novel caught the atmosphere of pre-1914 Austria perfectly. The personal tragedy described and the world catastrophe to come had in common that, when the events began to unroll, the participants were blind to what was happening.
A new translation of Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, written shortly before his suicide in 1942 in Brazil, appeared recently. The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell, Pushkin Press, 474 pp.