Early in the 20th century Max Weber, the German who founded sociology, stole the ancient word "charisma" from the theologians and handed it over to the political journalists, who are gratefully using it even now to describe that magnetic and glamorous power so spectacularly lacking in, say, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.
These days Weber (1864-1920) seldom gets mentioned in the mass media, but he lives on in the language, not only as the man who secularized charisma but also as the intellectual explorer who discovered the Protestant work ethic, the moral justification of capitalism that evolved in Protestant and Calvinist Europe.
Weber's thinking often gets analyzed, but in the past his life hasn't been much described. That era in his posthumous reputation ends this season in Germany with the publication of Joachim Radkau's long, long biography, Max Weber, which reveals that chronic sexual dysfunction paralyzed Weber's work for many years and that his best writing coincided with his sexual satisfaction.
Impotence ruined his marriage and led to a breakdown in 1889, when he was 25. This information comes from the many letters his wife Marianne wrote about his sexual failure to his mother, behind his back. When he was frustrated, Weber wrote about the asceticism of the Protestant ethic but when his sexuality revived his work also came to life. In his last decade or so, he fell in love with a woman, lost her after two months to his brother, and started another and much happier affair. Seven years later he fell in love with the first woman for a second time, and a year later died.
During these last years he did some of his most inventive work, particularly on the subject of charisma.
I am able to report these facts not because I have suddenly learned to read German, and have perversely set out to conquer it with a book that runs 1,008 pages, but because generous scholars have gone to great lengths to make available in English much of the best cultural writing in German and Swiss newspapers.
Every week signandsight.com e-mails to anyone who wants it a collection of articles translated from the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Berliner Zeitung and several other papers. Behind this program lurks the frustration of German writers who feel isolated within their mother tongue. One of the editors involved, Thierry Chervel, says "German newspapers have the best feuilleton pages in the world" but hardly anyone outside the German-reading countries knows about them. "Feuilleton pages" indicates a somewhat elevated version of what we call arts and entertainment sections, a little heavier than we are on philosophy and more likely than we are to shift over into political and social commentary.
In Germany they have become the major forum for sophisticated and open discussion. Chervel and his colleagues have given up hoping that they will get any more readers in German (he says that as a subject of study the German language is now about as popular as ancient Greek). So they set out to get German views distributed wherever people read English.
When they started this service they held a public discussion of the question, "Do we have to speak English to become Europeans?" The answer appears to be yes. Chervel claims that the French now learn less German and the Germans less French. The Internet has hugely expanded the power of English, which was becoming the global language even in the pre-Internet era. Chervel notes an oddity about online institutions. Services such as Amazon, Google, eBay and Yahoo have altered the lives of the computer literate but "it remains a mystery why none of these wonderful if problematic ideas originated in Europe."
Through another bulletin from signandsight.com I've been reading about what many Germans consider this year's most unsettling book, Hitler's Volkstaat (Hitler's people's state), by Gotz Aly, a historian and journalist. Aly says the Nazis were accepted partly because of the benefits they showered on the masses. The National Socialist German Workers Party was a great friend to most of the public, and the public was grateful. "This was the driving force behind his criminal politics, not the interests of industrialists and bankers."
Aly's essay, "I Am the People," claims: "For the majority of young and by no means monstrous men, National Socialism meant freedom and adventure, a physical and mental anti-ageing program. They were looking for challenges, fun and the ultimate kick in the modern mobile war. They were in their early twenties, trying to find themselves ... They created, in a destructive sense, the most successful generational project in modern history."
As for their elders, Hitler won them over by delivering key elements of the welfare state: health insurance for pensioners, tenant regulations, protection against unfair dismissal and other finely tuned laws aimed at political appeasement. He doubled the number of public holidays and gave the wives of German soldiers twice as much family support as their British and American counterparts. Many people had more money than in peacetime.
While keeping me informed of the big exhibitions, like the Willem de Kooning show ("One of the great things is its focus on the orgiastic climax in de Kooning's career" reports Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), signandsight.com has introduced me to an adventurous movie critic and journalist, Katja Nicodemus. Reviewing the new Wim Wenders film, Don't Come Knocking, with Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth and Sarah Polley, she writes: "There are takes which almost creak under the vast directorial weight, and actors that are directed with such chronic awkwardness that they can only struggle to stay afloat in the vast emotional depths of the script." And that's a film she likes.
She's also a fearless interviewer, as she demonstrated in her recent talk with Lars von Trier about his new film, Manderlay. Katja Nicodemus: "Why does Grace, the heroine, lust after a strong black man?" Lars von Trier: "Why shouldn't she?" Nicodemus: "It's just a bit cheap." Trier: "Sexual fantasies generally are cheap." Nicodemus: "Still, it's odd that in a film that's trying to question all cliches you use a hackneyed porn fantasy."
As a connoisseur of arts writers and critics, I'm now in touch, through a benign version of German nationalism, with a fresh regiment of them, all previously unknown to me. Sweet are the uses of the Internet.