Egon Friedell is perhaps less famous for his writing than for having committed suicide as the SS pushed in his door in Vienna in 1938. He was a feullitonist - which we now call "creative non-fiction", a term which sounds like it was made up by a bored bureaucrat - and a generalist, a flaneur philosopher, an amateur. How I love amateurs! He did take on a huge task – writing the history of the Neuzeit, of modernity itself - that makes him hard to, well, encompass. I confess I haven't read the five volumes of this. But he was also one of the Viennese wits – the greatest of whom was Karl Kraus - who understood that the secret of language was flair. Although Kraus would probably thrown heaps of scorn on that notion - for him, the secret of language was ethics.
The flavor of that kind of wit is shown in this aphorism.
“Materialism. I once wrote the following: Man is an eternal God-seeker. Whatever else one may say about him is secondary. Everything that he does and undertakes flows out of this source.But the printer printed this: Man is an eternal Gold-seeker… This error was really and truly from the devil; and not only the devil, but the special devil who controls not only printing but the writing, and not only the writing but the brain of the writer, and not only the brain but the soul, but the whole world. In brief, the tragedy of this erratum was – that it wasn’t one.”
Isn’t that lovely? In fact, this erratum crystalizes the whole of that Marxism that Walter Benjamin (and myself, the merest pipsqueak next to Walter, but still), Ernst Bloch, and a not insignificant segment of the interwar Left proposed with the appropriate indirection. The sentence as written and the erratum as printed are both, in this view, true. And yet, of course, they negate each other.
How very very Viennese to make this point, this juncture of negative theology and dialectical materialism, come down to one letter interjected by the printer’s devil! For angels really do dance on the heads of pins – it is the whole point of angels to do so.