The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

And when at eight in the morning Christine sat down, she was tired–tired not from something achieved and accomplished, but tired in anticipation of everything ahead, the same faces, the same questions, the same chores, the same money.

“Yes, my friend, from down in the muck the world doesn’t look that delightful.”

Christine, the eponymous Post-Office Girl, is an Austrian civil servant in the years after World War One. Her brother died in the war, her father is dead, and her mother dying, and even her married sister’s family is struggling to make ends meet. Christine is fortunate that she has a job, one that is monotonous and regimented, but even allows for moments of stolen relaxation. It does not allow for a life outside of the job and Christine has never had a suitor in all her years, but she keeps her ambitions limited and can take pleasure in those stolen moments. Then her aunt, who left home and eventually married a wealthy Dutch merchant and now lives in America, inviting her to vacation at a resort in the Alps and she is swept into a world of money, luxury, and desire.

Christine arrives at the resort looking like a peasant girl, but mountain air, soft clothing, and attentions of men revitalize her and set her spinning in a world of her dreams. Her innocence of the world nevertheless awakens dormant fears and jealousies, and these forces conspire to eject her back to the drudgery of her job, painfully aware of every slight and every ache. She is somewhat saved when she meets Ferdinand, a bitter, frustrated, and injured war veteran, whose desire fulfills her and who can relate to being down in the muck of society. However, their relationship rubs dirt into her wounds since it reveals how far money corrupts every aspect of human interaction and she feels constant shame at their circumstances. Needing to take care of themselves before they can fix the world, Christine and Ferdinand concoct first one and then another plan to revolt against the society that beats them down.

The Post Office Girl is formally divided into two parts. The first details Christine’s awakening to the world of money. She starts with little, but quickly adapts to the wonders of nice clothing, good food, soft beds, and, importantly a freedom from want. More than that, though, the trip to the resort and the world of money awakens her interest in being desired. Money facilitates a range of human relationships, all of which she embraces. For Christine, money is a heady experience, but her appearance is refreshing to some people, while disturbing the social relationships already in place. For instance, after the initial delight in her niece wears off, Christine’s aunt becomes increasingly worried that her own modest background and questionable means of entry into society will be discovered, ultimately leading to cutting off her family once more. Similarly, Christine interrupts the courtship between a German engineer and a character known as the Mannheim girl, the latter of whom jealously observes this intruder, determining that after “ten or twenty gaucheries like that and it was clear she was poorly versed in the lore of the chic.” The first experience with capitalism does not itself change Christine’s personality, but the brief experience with money and then having it suddenly ripped away leaves her bitter and frustrated.

There are echoes of George Orwell and Joseph Roth in this critique of post-war Austria. (There is also some Kafka, but the bureaucracy does actually reply.) The times are particularly difficult for a host of people whose lives were broken, stolen, according to Ferdinand, by the war and the people are aware of these difficulties. But the major critique of post-war capitalism emerges first and foremost in the contrast between the mountainous land of the gods and the muck of the towns and cities where everyday people live.

I liked The Post-Office Girl a lot, though, admittedly, it falls into a sweet spot for my particular reading tastes and it was not without its problems. Christine is an effective narrator whose arc is easy to follow, but she is also something of an empty vessel reacting to desires who gets swept up in whatever situation she finds herself in. She is not a flapper, who are accounted by the novel as members of the wealthy, and there is a little bit of denigration of her as a woman, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the context described by Zweig. Christine’s emotional roller-coaster contributes to the raw power of the novel and Zweig contributes canny observations about all of the interactions between people as they struggle through a world that does not care whether they live or die. The revolution is not going to be forthcoming and it seems that only the wealthy have the luxury to enjoy life or to play political games. There is something despicable about the behavior of some, though not all, of the wealthy people in their idyllic retreat, but there is also enough delight that leads Ferdinand to ask the most important of questions:

“I don’t mean ‘why not me instead of him’…Just ‘why not me too.’”


Next up I am reading The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia, a murder mystery set in a small Sicilian town where the only honest architect in the region is gunned down in the street on the opening page.

Geeks: A few thoughts

Several days ago on CNN’s GeekOut blog, Joe Peacock wrote a post titled Booth babes need not apply. The gist of his argument is that the Geekdom has been infiltrated by attractive women who appear at various conventions scantily clad “just to satisfy their hollow egos.” He continues, saying that there are “true” female geeks, some of whom are even attractive (after all, “being beautiful is not a crime” and he does exhort you to “flaunt it if you got it”), and praising their effect on the Geekdom because, as a result, books, movies, and tv shows are smarter and of better quality. The women Peacock has a problem with are the “beauty-obsessed, frustrated wannabe models who can’t get work.” They are poachers, he says, who “seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street” and “have no interest or history in gaming.” As though he had not been blunt enough, he continues:

“They’re poachers. They’re a pox on our culture. As a guy, I find it repugnant that, due to my interests in comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and role playing games, video games and toys, I am supposed to feel honored that a pretty girl is in my presence. It’s insulting.”

He points to a problem that:

“There’s an entire contingent of guys in geekdom who absolutely love you, because inside, they’re 13 year old boys who like to objectify women and see them as nothing more than butts and a pair of boobs to be leered at,”

so “fake” women are able to make a living off the hard-earned dollar and immaturity of geeks, BUT:

“Those of us who actually like substance? We’ll be over here celebrating great comics, great games, great art, great movies and great television, because we’re actually attracted to a completely different body part: the brain.”

Those particular quotes jumped out at me, but enough on Peacock. There have been several quite cogent responses to what Peacock wrote, including from John Scalzi who declare in no uncertain terms that there is not a single spokesman for the Geekdom and anyone who who wants to be a geek is allowed to be a geek in whatever way he or she wants, Forbes, which argues that getting up in arms about fake geeks is just a stupid business plan (duh…the first rule of customer service–ahead of “the customer is always right” is that anyone who wants to spend money on your business should be allowed to), Liz Argall, who adds some notes about being a woman who is a geek, but does have some issues with the sleaziness of the Geekdom, and Genevieve Dempre.

My first reaction (as it often is to random extended rants online) is: who cares? My second is: CNN has a blog with the descriptor “It takes one to know one. When it comes to topics of interest to nerds, geeks, and superfans, we know how true that is. Geek Out! features stories from a nerd’s perspective that you can still share with your “normal” friends and family.”? Perhaps it is because I am a man, but more likely because I find it relatively easy to dismiss the rants of a single individual online, I am almost more offended by the blog description than by the post. I play board games, roleplaying games, video games, and follow sports closely. Most of my “normal” friends and family have done the same at some point or another and if they haven’t, they can be on the outside looking in for the moment without getting offended or weirded out; if they can’t, then I am fairly certain that I would not be friends with them. A blog like this reinforces the stereotype of “geeks, nerds, and superfans” as being a uniform other when the reality is that everyone has the things about which they are passionate and my geekness is different from other people’s geekness. At various points in my life I have been self-defined as and called a geek, a nerd, and a dork. Sometimes it is malicious, sometimes it is a compliment. Once upon a time the labels bothered me, but I moved on. I am who I am, I study what interests me, I read what I want, and just don’t have time to worry about the labels that come along with those actions. I would much rather be myself and let other people try to describe me through labels than choose labels and try to become what I have chosen. This is the long way of saying that labels are, by and large, a waste of time. The blog itself might contain many interesting stories, but that a major news outlet is carrying a blog so designed bothers me.

Though Peacock goes about it in a rather ham-handed manner, he does bring up some valid points about geeks and women in that the tendency to create social outcasts out of people who fail to conform or lack the social skills to make friends is a persistent issue, and certainly high school (the flawed model of social interaction that it is) does often result in a division between the popular kids and the geeks. But perhaps it is the Geekdom itself, what with generations of stereotypical social outcasts and misanthropes, combined with popular culture, that perpetuates the more insidious myth that because you are a geek you therefore lack social graces and of course the popular girl won’t ever talk to you. Because of this myth, the geek never develops social graces and, in turn, develops his own misanthropy, thereby perpetuating the cycle. The lack of social interaction, most likely, develops from a discomfort from both directions, but in order to change this one side or the other has to make a leap of faith that the other side is more than their stereotype. Sure, people can be mean and cruel, so it is possible that the cheerleader will turn up her nose at the geek, but it is also possible that the geek will make her undergo initiation to prove her intelligence/cred/whatever. Both sides of these imaginary communities need to be just a bit nicer to each other.

I should also point out that I generally feel honored when a pretty girl is in my presence, but I think that has more to do with the fact that I am a man. I don’t feel dishonored when another man or a woman I don’t find particularly attractive physically is in my presence and, in many instances, I am and/or would be more honored by a man in my presence than a woman. I may even gawk. I also can’t deny that there is a chance I would act differently in the presence of a pretty woman–there is a reason that coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and most sales jobs actively seek attractive women to work for them, though there always has to be a balance between competence and looks. Sex sells. This does not mean that you should treat the “ugly people” (barista, bartender, author) badly by any stretch of the imagination, but in a capitalist system, you do whatever you can to make sales.1 And for “booth babes”? Even if they are only there for the modeling gig, I would guess that it has more to do with the money than for the leering eyes. To think otherwise would be akin to thinking that the dancers at a strip club really get up on stage in front of strange men for the attention. Some women probably do enjoy taking their clothes off in front of men and performing, but in such a purely objectified way (as Peacock seems to argue) is improbable. More likely, most dancers do so because they have few other options and need to eat. Besides, even according to Peacock’s article, geeks aren’t exactly the prime demographic for such attention seeking, money-grubbing women (as they are described in the article) to seek.2

The rest of the misogyny I will leave for other people to address, as they have summed it up better than I can.

What I want to conclude with are some of Peacock’s assumptions about men. Women have done wonderful work for science fiction, fantasy, comic books, movies, etc, but I still think that the best authors in the field are men. This is not a sexist comment, but rather an observation (with Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear sitting on the table in front of me). I suppose that these male authors could be writing good books because there are more women than there used to be who will read them, but I can only think of the phrase post hoc ergo propter hoc here. I suspect that they write good books because they are good authors, not because of any particular demographic shift in their readership. It may actually be that the growing acceptability of being a geek (I suspect due to the internet and, perhaps ironically, due to a growing emphasis on entitlement and individuality that, I think, is having some particularly nasty side effects) has caused better writing and more women being involved the Geekdom. Peacock’s “boys will be boys, except for those of us who are just above the fray” argument bothers me because it assumes that most men are incapable of being polite, incapable of enjoying a good book, or a good movie. Men retard culture and women are required to improve it. Only, not all women, because some of theme are leeches.

Yes, there are serious social issues with misogyny, manners, and stereotypes, but going on a fundamentally flawed rant that actually buys into many of these stereotypes just perpetuates the problem. I nearly subtitled this post “Who cares?,” as was my initial reaction. There are real issues address when it comes to the Geekdom, so, perhaps most of all, the focus on how “real” of a geek someone is, or how real a hipster, or a feminist, or most anyone else is vis a vis their cultural tag is pointless. To quote Admiral Percy Fitzwallace from the West Wing, “I got some real honest-to-god battles to fight. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.”

1 When I managed a Quizno’s, my boss once saw a young woman come in for an interview and immediately told me to hire her. I did so, but only after going through the application and deciding she was qualified for the position and would be a good fit–not because she was attractive.
2 More than the posers, though, Peacock suggests that his real problem is with the corporations who have learned that geeks have money and are now exploiting their basest immature fantasies. While this is probably true, I still don’t understand how this is any different from any sort of advertising or business model…ever. A monied economy basically boils down to the idea that there is a set amount of money out there, so people go to work in order to gain some of this money, most directly my creating a business that will provide some good or service that the person or people with money need or want in order to persuade them to give that money to the business owner. The employees are willing to trade their time in order to share in that income, and then some other business finds a way to separate those people from their money. The fact that corporations or pretty women have found a way to seperate another group of people from their money shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.

Money, money, money

I don’t remember off hand whether the 5,000 talents Harpalos requisitioned before beating his way out of Babylon were of gold or silver, but in either situation it is a lot of money and weighed a lot. For those who don’t know the story, this guy really liked to spend money–more than any trophy wife I have ever heard of– and when Alexander was returning from India he was also punishing people who were corrupt. Harpalos, the treasurer for the entire empire, decided to run away rather than face his cousin and left Babylong with 5,000 talents, which weighed around 140 tons.

If these talents were of silver, then the rough modern estimate for value is around 32.5 million dollars US. That is a lot of money, but not that huge an amount. Yes, it is enough that Alexander probably had to go chase him down and try and get it back, but not a jaw dropping amount (outside of the weight).

If the talents were of gold, however, the lower end for modern estimated value is 1.5 billion dollars. Yes, billion. The upper end for the estimate is around 3.3 billion. This amount is absolutely ridiculous and with that amount of money Harpalos could quite effectively make friends to oppose Alexander. Now I would be pissed if someone stole 32.5 million bucks from me, but I would be hiring hitmen and hunting that bastard down myself not even pausing to eat, sleep, or anything if someone stole 1.5 billion, let alone 3.3.

Yeah, that is a lot of money.

I am also willing to state right out that I think Diodorus has his wires crossed when it came to the Egyptian treasury Ptolemy inherited. He says that there were 80,000 talents in Egypt. If it was all silver that is around 520 million dollars, if all gold the upper limit is around 52.8 billion in modern equivalence–that is the amount saved, not the amount of income. Hyperbole anyone?