Written By: James Brabazon Reviewed Edition: Second Edition, 2000, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY ISBN 0-8156-0675-3 Quotes Table of Contents
James Brabazon's biography of Albert Schweitzer is thorough, insightful, professional, and engaging. It covers Schweitzer's entire life from birth to death, and from intensely personal to openly public. Schweitzer's many ethical, theological, musical, medical, and administrative ideas are described and considered without detracting from an emphasis on Schweitzer's life. Brabazon clearly interviewed many people who knew Schweitzer, reviewed published and unpublished works by and about him, and visited the locations he describes. That he was able to assemble all this data into a readable, interesting account is a credit to his writing ability as well as Schweitzer's appeal.
A highlight of the volume is its lengthy treatment of Albert and Helene Schweitzer's early relationship. Thanks to recently discovered correspondence between the two, what other biographers--including Brabazon in his first edition--had seen as a practical matter is now shown to be a passionate, profound joining of souls. Another highlight is Brabazon's correction of misconceptions of Schweitzer spread by authors who had only a slight acquaintance with his work and thought.
This volume has my highest recommendation. If you decide to read it, be sure to get the second edition. While I had difficulty limiting myself to a reasonable subset of quotes, the selections below are intended to convey a sense of Brabazon's work as well as Schweitzer's.
"The thing that differentiates Schweitzer is not that he suffered, both in himself and on behalf of other people and creatures, but that the feeling remained fresh and active in him, whereas in others it becomes overlaid or dismissed."
[Regarding Schweitzer when he was college student] "There were four classes on the trains, and he would always travel fourth class. It was an economy, true, but it was also where he met people he wanted to meet--'the real people,' he called them--swineherds and sailors, for example, no longer to argue with them or persuade them to pursue the truth, simply to get to know and understand them. He made it his business to make everybody's business his own--to share their interests and concerns, their work, their jokes and stories. From bakers he learned the secret of making dough, from carpenters the tricks of cabinet making. He grew in his understanding of life, this theologian, this academic, from the point of view of those who lived it; from the underside, where things look very different from the perspective of the theorist; more varied, more interesting and funnier, as well as truer."
"Schweitzer does not claim that Jesus was logical in the intellectual sense (although there is no reason why he should not have been). Schweitzer claims that he himself is logical in saying that if a man is obsessed by the end of the world, that obsession will underlie all his words and actions; a part-time obsession is not possible. It is not logic that makes a man connect his sayings with his belief. It is the necessity of his being. Either Jesus was obsessed or he was not. There is no third alternative.
Once again we see that other theologians trade in words, without understanding the reality behind the words, where Schweitzer trades in understanding of human beings."
"...the striking thing [about Professor Hunter's review of Schweitzer's analysis of Jesus] is Hunter's happy assumption that Jesus existed to satisfy modern Christians. This comforting belief finds echoes in many writers. ... The fact that the figure is foreign apparently makes it unnecessary to decide whether it is true. Jesus is not allowed to be foreign (which he obviously was) because thereby he becomes less useful to the modern Church. It is a curious criterion of truth."
"Helene's social conscience was almost as highly developed as Schweitzer's and in addition she had enthusiasm, efficiency, and a fine disregard of social convention. She worked among verminous children at a state orphanage. She helped found and run a home for unmarried mothers, which was not at all a proper thing for nice young ladies to do. She was one of the first women skiers. She played the organ. At a time when young women were taking eagerly to emancipation all over northern Europe, she was as liberated a woman as Strasbourg could offer. And she had decided, like Schweitzer, that she must one day devote herself entirely to social service--only her deadline was the age of twenty-five, not thirty. She was four years younger than Schweitzer, almost exactly; so her moment of decision was due one year ahead of his.
All the girls adored Schweitzer, we are told. But Helene Bresslau, with her practicality and zeal, had more to offer him than most. She offered him criticism instead of flattery...
So began a relationship which for sheer intensity and passion would be difficult to match--but which involved almost no physical contact until their marriage more than ten years later."
[Regarding a letter written by Albert Schweitzer to Helene Bresslau in 1905, seven years after they began their relationship] "A few weeks later comes almost the only moment in all these two hundred letters that actually uses the word love:
'... to share my thoughts with ... the one who does have all rights--is this not more than a "declaration of love" which I never stated formally? And I will never do it. Because I do not want the shadow of external customs on our friendship. We found each other, and nothing on this earth could be more beautiful than that. To do, each in his sphere, or together if destiny wills it, to comprehend life and, together, walk the high peaks, to be indebted to each other and to give to each other. We are rich through each other! ... Us, and our relationship I only understand correctly when I think of Him, our Lord. It is he who brought us together, not in any wrong or mystical way, but as two laborers whom he met in the morning on the street and whom he sent into his vineyards. We are on that road.'" [ellipses in original]
[From Schweitzer's farewell sermon prior to beginning his medical studies in preparation for going to Africa] "I want to be a simple human being, doing something small in the spirit of Jesus. ... 'What you have done to the least of these my brethren you have done to me.' Just as the wind is driven to spend its force in the big empty spaces so must the men who know the laws of the spirit go where men are most needed." [ellipses in original]
[From a description of Schweitzer's staying in Amsterdam at the home of Mrs. Obermann in 1928] "Another time he had traveled all night and had rehearsed in the morning for an organ concert in the evening. These rehearsals were exhaustive and exhausting. ... After he had rehearsed he went back to Mrs. Obermann's house and lay down to rest. His hostess told her children to be particularly quiet when they came back from school for their lunch. When he got up, Schweitzer asked where the children were--had they stayed at school? When he heard that they had been in the house but had kept quiet on his behalf, 'If you ever again tell your children to be quiet just for me, I'll buy each one of them a trumpet.'"
[Schweitzer, from a speech he gave on March 22, 1932, in Germany on the occasion of the centenary of Goethe's death] "To individuals, [Goethe] says: 'Do not abandon the ideal of personal, individual manhood, even if it run contrary to circumstances such as have developed. Do not believe this ideal is lost, even when it no longer seems tenable beside the opportunistic theories which endeavour simply to adjust the spiritual to the material. Remain human with your own souls! Do not become mere human things which allow to have stuffed into them souls which are adjusted to the mass-will and pulse in measure with it!'
[Brabazon, commenting on Schweitzer's speech] ... But it would be wrong to suppose that he was speaking only of Nazism or that the end of Hitler left the world with a clean bill of health. All the time and everywhere the individual will is still threatened and submerged by the mass will. If Schweitzer was right, the evil of Nazism was not simply that the dogma it forced on individuals was false and cruel; the imposition of any dogma by force or coercion must in itself be evil."
[On Schweitzer's trip to receive the Nobel Peace Prize] "The style of it all troubled Schweitzer. He had to travel first class at the Prize Committee's insistence. He found running water in his hotel at Oslo and wanted to know, 'What do I need running water for? Am I a trout?' Bouquets of flowers were banished from his room, because he hated to see flowers wither. He tried to see everyone who came but refused to speak into an impersonal microphone."
Table of Contents of Albert Schweitzer: A Biography
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