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Stefan Zweig, "The Monotonization of the World" (1925)

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The Monotonization of the World

Monotonization of the World. The most potent intellectual impression, despite the particular satisfactions enjoyed, of every journey in recent years is a slight horror in the face of the monotonization of the world. Everything is becoming more uniform in its outward manifestations, everything leveled into a uniform cultural schema. The characteristic habits of individual peoples are being worn away, native dress giving way to uniforms, customs becoming international. Countries seem increasingly to have slipped simultaneously into each other; people’s activity and vitality follows a single schema; cities grow increasingly similar in appearance. Paris has been three-quarters Americanized, Vienna Budapested: more and more the fine aroma of the particular in cultures is evaporating, their colorful foliage being stripped with ever-increasing speed, rendering the steel-grey pistons of mechanical operation, of the modern world machine, visible beneath the cracked veneer.

This process has been underway for a long time: before the war [Walther] Rathenau prophesized this mechanization of existence, the dominance of technology, would be the most important aspect of our epoch. But never have the outward manifestations of our ways of life plunged so precipitously, so moodily into uniformity as in the last few years. Let us be clear about it! It is probably the most urgent, the most critical phenomenon of our time.

Symptoms. One could, to make the problem distinct, list hundreds. I will quickly select just a few of the most familiar, uncompromising examples, to show how greatly customs and habits have been monotonized and sterilized in the last decade.

The most conspicuous is dance. Two or three decades ago dance was still specific to nations and to the personal inclinations of the individual. One waltzed in Vienna, danced the csardas in Hungary, the bolero in Spain, all to the tune of countless different rhythms and melodies in which both the genius of an artist and the spirit of the nation took obvious form. Today millions of people, from Capetown to Stockholm, from Buenos Aires to Calcutta, dance the same dance to the same short-winded, impersonal melodies. They begin at the same hour. Like the muezzin in an oriental country call tens of thousands to a single prayer at sundown—like those twenty words, so now twenty beats at five in the afternoon call the whole of occidental humanity to the same ritual. Never, except in certain ecclesiastical formulas and forms, have two hundred million people hit upon such expressive simultaneity and uniformity as in the style of dance practiced by the modern white race of America, Europe, and the colonies.

A second example is fashion. Never before has such a striking uniformity developed in all countries as during our age. Once it took years for a fashion from Paris to reach other big cities, or to penetrate the countryside. A certain boundary protected people and their customs from its tyrannical demands. Today its dictatorship becomes universal in a heartbeat. New York decrees short hair for women: within a month, as if cut by the same scythe, 50 or 100 million female manes fall to the floor. No emperor, no khan in the history of the world ever experienced a similar power, no spiritual commandment a similar speed. Christianity and socialism required centuries and decades to win their followings, to enforce their commandments on as many people as a modern Parisian tailor enslaves in eight days.

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