Max Weber's great essay of 1904 has suffered from its own success. It does have a catchy title. People throw around the phrase "the Protestant ethic" constantly. It is written with an appealing (though for some, off-putting) combination of simplicity and grandiosity. And, I think, people just like they idea they think the work represents, the basic version of which is familiar to everyone. It is usually put rather crudely: Protestantism somehow led to capitalism. For many it explains how we good Protestants became good capitalists. So it provides an explanation of how, in general, we've gotten just so darn good. But this version, an optimistic description of the progress that led inevitably to our own time, misses a large part of the value of this book.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The Lost Honor is a very short novel, maybe not quite long enough to truly be a novel. At a little over a hundred rather sparsely filled pages, it meets the old Edgar Allan Poe requirement for a short story that it be able to be absorbed in a single sitting. Against Poe's recommendations, though, it doesn't aim at a single effect. Instead confronts the big ideas that motivate much of Heinrich Böll's work. In this book, as in The Clown and Billiards at Half-Past Nine, Böll sneers at the veneer of public respectability that hides immorality, shows the ways that people can use their power to manipulate others, and also betrays a general cynicism about the officialdom of postwar German society.