Berlin. Fog of sleep deprivation coloring an otherwise
perfect blue autumn day a sort of miasmic yellow in my mind. Bus ride, taking
in the printed shirt, ice-cool glasses and goatee of a young man who would not
be out of place in Bucktown or Brooklyn or anywhere: a hipster is a hipster is
a hipster. But this hipster appears to be traveling with his late middle-aged
parents, her with hair dyed purple-black, him gently balding, in glasses that
don’t challenge his son’s. Mesmerized by the U-bahn’s sinuousness, the way the unseparated
cars wriggle together and apart and up and down as they pursue the tunnels.
Remembering that that was the first thing they got back online, postwar, the
U-bahn, when everything else was still smashed to shit. ’47?
Two blocks from the Nollendorfplatz U-station to
Winterfeldtplatz, where I find the “work flat” of my friend Peter where I will
be staying for the next two weeks. It is a lair,
such as I have scarcely dreamed of. In the room where I type this a large
window swings open like a door to admit the mild morning air and view of a
squared-in courtyard, typical of the city I’m told, cool and white, shaded with
greenery, governed by the rectilinear forms that I can already tell will form
my chief impression of the city. And a blue sky lids it.
But the apartment! It is crammed with books, floor to
ceiling; I haven’t seen anything like it since my night at the Waldrops’ in
Providence. A sort of expressionist spoof on a classic sort of painting stands
high above the doorway, a mustached shabby-looking man in an overcoat and his
basset hound in a landscape, looking sidewise out of the picture in a manner
sure to unnerve me late at night. Books on the floor, books behind me on
shelves, books in every room: one feels stalked by them, books in German and
Swedish and quite a lot of English; I can see all my dithering over what books
to bring was entirely in vain, there’s plenty here to feed me. Plus it has the
advantage of being touched by Peter, the whole thing shimmers with his personal
mana, Peter the author of European Trash,
translator of Benjamin and Shakespeare, who couldn’t meet me this morning
because he’s getting back late from the production of his new translation (in
Swedish) of Die Zauberflote in Stockholm.
He is a man of prose, and I am here to learn prose, or to evade it—no
Self-portrait as Corydon in front of a Cy Twombly at Hamburger Banhoff.
I’ve longed for this, it terrifies me. One more painting,
right over the desk, a blue river at night with a greenlit bridge and the sort
of squat, hatted houses I saw from the plane, a sailboat without sails in the
foreground. It’s not detailed at all, just color and brushstrokes, a signature
in white that I can’t make out. The Spree? The Seine? The path taken by
Rimbaud’s drunken boat? Clearly it’s here as a point of departure, invitation
to a voyage like the note Peter’s left me on this desk. Fingers of green paint
under the bridge mark the reflections of the lights in the water. You don’t put
your hand on a river and you can’t clench it with your fist. You open your
fingers and feel the flow.
Memorial to persecuted gays at Nollendorfplatz U-bahn.
Went to bed at ten, exhausted from many hours wandering the
city, up Potsdamer Strasse to Potsdamer Platz, then further north to the
Brandenburg Gate, east in the tide of tourists Unter den Linden, turning north
onto Friedrichstrasse, then once I reached the Spree following it west until I
came to the Reichstag. I walked and walked, on not very much lunch and not
enough water, from midday to evening. Everything mellow golden, perfect
autumn-summer weather. Young people, sharply dressed middle-aged
middle-European Volk, an abundance of
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, with Die Welt balloon in the background.
Though my map told me it would be there, I was shocked to
encounter the memorial on my way up Eberstrasse with the park on my left: A
field of monoliths or stelae taking up a full city block, irregular in height:
not the stones themselves, some two thousand of them, but the undulating ground
they are pitched on, create this impression. Ich bin ein Jude, I said to myself
over and over again, a touch melodramatically. But I felt for the first time
the shock of it, what this city is, underneath the manifold beauties of its
nineteenth and twenty-first century architecture (it’s the middle century, the
twentieth, that’s missing).
As abruptly as this feeling had arrived, it departed, as I
again let myself be swept up to the Gate, which in an easy irony I found
swathed with Coca-Cola banners set up for some kind of festival that’s going up
this weekend. The city begins to take on a generic generic European quality
here, like the imaginary monuments decorating the euro notes. The Spree could
have been the Seine, could have been the Danube: a river walled in, patrolled
by the ugly long excursion boats, lined with restaurants. Between the tables at
one café was a mysterious concrete obelisk with the words dauer sauer mauer bauer written upon it,
and a historical plaque I only notice now in the photograph. Not a brick in the
Wall, surely, not there on the river. steady
sulky wall cage, my dictionary tells me, though Bauer also means pawn,
Ubiquitous "Kepab" stand.
Giraffe made of legos at Potsdamer Platz.
The Reichstag was beautifully lit, with a long green lawn in
front of it where groups of young people, some of them speaking French,
sprawled and lounged. I sat under a tree and read a few poems from Joseph
Donahue’s Terra Lucida:
pouring spices on the fire
the moon pours a bitter wine
the coals of the city,
you are not.
Each lyric is headed or titled “00,” a kind of double
negation that reminds me, inevitably, of the code for international dialing on
Sitting in front of the open window at the desk, the stars
are still out. Is that Orion? I am seethed and jumbled and uncertain. Tomorrow
will visit the address of my great-great-grandmother Elenor Reitzer Montag,
whose existence I only just learned of, who lived here at the turn of the
century, around the time of Benjamin’s Berlin childhood, at Steglitz
Lepsiusstrasse 20. There’s a tension, a strong one, between the ordinary culinary
pleasures of being in Europe and the peculiar history that has had its hidden
hand in shaping me and the destiny of what I am forced to call my people.
Melancholy and irony are summoned, but offer no defense, any more than they did
for Joseph Roth. The restaurant I ate at last night was named for him, on
Potsdamer Strasse, a cozy pub-like place with his pictures everywhere and
quotations on the walls, even copies of his books—I leafed through a collection
of his Paris feuilletons while eating my schnitzel. Paris for Roth was freedom,
France a restoration of the childhood that the Great War had stolen from him;
Berlin had been a purgatory, an object of satirical rage, a place not to feel
nostalgia for even before Hitler came to power. By Roth’s lights I’m working
backwards, being here.
The people stream by, the Berliners, whom I haven’t much of
a handle on. They seem sophisticated, oddly yet smartly dressed, intellectual
in fits and starts (I was joined at the outside table for a while by a woman of
Asian descent reading something by or on Shakespeare, and her German husband or
boyfriend brought out a stack of books from the used bookshop next door—yes,
Peter’s street is a writer’s paradise, almost a parody of one). Many people
whom you’d think ought to know better wearing silly T-shirts with English or
pseudo-English phrases on them—I’m surprised such English-for-the-hell-of-it is
still in fashion, don’t these people know our empire’s on the way out? And
cigarettes all the time, smoked by middle-class people; struck by how much
cigarettes are a class marker back home but here they’re still universal.
Speaking of empire, no sense whatever on the street of the
present crisis in the Euro, and Germany’s new role as reluctant banker and
savior to innumerable collapsing economies. Me not speaking the language, of
course, but still, no mood of crisis that I can perceive, any more than the
desperation back home is perceivable in the upper-middle-class enclaves I
frequent, aside from the unpicturesque human flotsam clustering around the
Greenwood care center or the halfway house on Main Street, whose numbers have
not appreciably increased since the crash. But who knows? Like the people
around me, I don’t focus on these things, I am consumed by daily life and the
things I think I can control: career, family, relationships. Politics migrates
inward and becomes something else, not even a climate, mere opinion, as one
resigns almost gratefully one’s faith, misguided once again, in a savior politician
like Obama. The only solutions reside outside existing institutions: we need to
put pressure on what exists so that it collapses or adapts under the strain.
But it will take more than Liking things on Facebook to accomplish that
Seen at the movie theater where I saw Attack the Block, near Hackescher Markt.
Why is the sun setting? My body seems much slower this time
in catching up with its time zone. Remembering someone’s lovely claim about how
the soul cannot travel much faster than walking speed, and so when you fly to
another continent it can be days or weeks catching up with you. Now for the
house of my great-great-grandmother, whom my cousin Ava, my main source for
information about my mother’s family, says had a daughter, Illona whom, she
writes, “was taken to Auschwitz in 1943 where she perished.” Ilona, who was
she? She perished. It’s a good word,
perishing, it suggests, doesn’t it, something of the completeness of the
annihilation, the more-than death, that enfolded the Jews here. Death of
personhood, death even of memory. Who was it I read recently that remarked of
the third generation’s typical obsession with the past? Claudio Magris, was it?
Or was it Joseph Roth, who said of his generation, the WWI generation, that it was
in the unhappy position of putting their grandfathers on their knees, and
telling them stories?
Historical revisionism at work at Karl-Marx-Allee near Alexanderplatz.
Sunday, October 2
There wasn’t anything to see, of course.
The building was a tawny stucco thing, clearly postwar in its construction, in
Steglitz, a perfectly ordinary pleasant bourgeois neighborhood, leafy and
quiet. Who knows if its character was remotely similar a hundred years ago.
What’s reinforced is that sense of ordinary life, how ordinary and full of
preoccupation all these lives were, until the war came. So hard to understand
the connections between ordinary life and “History,” how one apparently
transcends the other. Yet this must be an illusion: how we live our lives, the
little decisions we make, must somehow accumulate into gigantic convulsions
capable of sweeping all that ordinariness away. “Capitalism” seems too simple
an explanation, though it explains a lot. Certainly an ordinary blameless
bourgeois life led now cannot be separated from the drain on the Earth’s
resources, the carbon filling the atmosphere, the animals whose habitats we
Caspar David Friedrich, Frau am Fenster (Woman at Window), 1822
Spent a couple of hours at the Altes Nationalgallerie,
looking at nineteenth-century artworks by guys with names like Schinkel (Karl
Friedrich, painter and architect, who virtually built the city). There were
some interesting things in there, a few Max Beckmanns; but it’s my
understanding that the most interesting parts of this collection were dispersed
or destroyed as degenerate art in the 1930s. The Caspar David Friedrich
paintings were not as compelling as the famous ones I’ve seen reproductions of,
though the Rückenfigur motif does
keep popping up in those landscapes he chooses to people. A lot of
contemplating the moon goes on. All of Friedrich’s paintings seem to be about
looking; there’s a very good one, taller than it is wide, of a woman, her back
to us, looking out of and blocking our own view through a window, creating a
little drama out of our own frustrated desire to see. And there’s a seascape
with a hole in the clouds, dead center of the painting, that has the same
Saw a bit of Kreuzberg, which has a sizable Turkish population. Big
tenement-like blocks of buildings studded with satellite dishes—a look I
associate with Third World-countries where the infrastructure is unreliable.
Astonishingly vigorous and profligate graffiti, some of quite striking. On my
map I saw “Orthodox synagogue” so I walked down there, to the banks of a river
where a church bell was ringing incessantly. The synagogue itself was a
depressing sight: fenced off, security cameras everywhere, plastic sheeting
over the windows to deflect (I presume) rocks, a booth marked Polizei. I later learned (and saw) that
every Jewish site in the city enjoys, if that’s the word, that level of
security. There was no one around except a single policewoman walking slowly
back and forth along the river across the street from the shul. It is,
emphatically, not a living place, in spite of the off-puttingly cheerful
Mediterranean blue color of some of its columns.
A man approached me as I was walking away and asked me if I knew
what the building was. “Synagogue,” I blurted, and when he didn’t understand
me, I pointed toward the freestanding metal information plaque that explained
the synagogue’s dismal history: “Da.” There was a bit of black comedy in that
moment: me the Jewish guide to the ruins of German Jewry, historian of what I
don’t understand, unable to communicate in the language of a no doubt
innocently curious German who has possibly never met a Jew.
Mahler’s First Symphony at the Berlin Philharmonic: kitschy
and glorious: he has been thoroughly plundered by pop culture, so that
I hear incongruous echoes continually. The eerie opening sounds like nothing so
much as the opening notes of the old Star
Trek theme, just before William Shatner intones space. There’s a part in the second movement where the
clarinetist puts so much soulful squeal into his playing that it sounds like a
klezmer band; is this in the original, is that Mahler’s homage to Jewish
folkways, or was it the interpretation of the musician or tonight’s conductor,
Zubin Mehta (an Indian who lives in Israel)? When the trumpets sound it’s like
the cavalry, or a fox hunt. His symphonies are intensely narrative, film scores
avant la letter, but the man died in
1911; did he go to the cinema, where orchestras often played along?
Tribute to a composer at Deutsche Oper U-Banhof.
A rather kindly old man just helped me through the mysteries
of the German Laundromat, which operates on a kind of federal system or Bunde: you feed your money into a single
control panel that runs all the machines and dispenses soap as well. Now my
clothes are being treated a bit roughly by the machine and I’ll dry them and
fold them and stuff them in my backpack to go home. Last night I spent a long,
late evening with Ken Babstock at a macabre little bar in Charlottenberg with
puppets and marionettes everywhere. None of the other clientele, whom were
never more than three in number, was a day under seventy, and the bartender
looked to be in his eighties at least. Topics included but were not limited to:
the elder generation of Canadian eco-poets; sight versus sound when it comes to
word spacing; the dismal state of the world economy; the dismal state of
American politics; question: is history taking place, right now, in the form of
the Occupy Wall Street movement?; Toronto’s similarities with Chicago;
childcare challenges for expatriates; whether or not I should go to Prague; his
favorite poets of the moment (August Kleinzahler, Peter Gizzi); my favorite
poets of the moment (Lisa Robertson, Jennifer Moxley); August Kleinzahler’s failings as a teacher; the influence of Michael Palmer;
the influence of Erin Mouré; the benefits and drawbacks of the PhD; the
generally deplorable state of cuisine in Berlin; and much else. We exchanged
books and I very nearly persuaded him to go out for another drink when the
puppet bar closed, but he wisely declined.
Victor Kégli, Hershel and Gretel in the Jewish Museum (2011), just outside.
The Jewish Museum. The architecture, by Daniel Liebeskind,
is shattering; that basement area, with the three Axes—of Continuity, of the
Holocaust, and of Exile—was for me the center of the experience, compared to
which the (adequate) exhibits above ground seemed like something of an
afterthought. The Axis of Exile ends in the Garden of Exile: a group of stone
pillars with plants and trees growing out of their tops, and a slanted ground
that makes walking between them a disorienting experience, which is of course
the point. Had the thought that, according to the onto-topological argument
implicit in the design, the Garden of Exile was where I was born. It’s not
strictly true—my father was born in the U.S., my mother was born in Hungary in
1942 and only emigrated after the war—but it feels true. How long have I felt,
even at home, not quite at home, on slanted ground, everything looking straight
but not feeling straight?
The Axis of the Holocaust ends, as it must, in a cul de sac:
a tower or “void” that was one of the most terrifying rooms I’ve ever stood in.
It’s a bit like a concrete grain silo, unheated, with a few holes and slits
admitting a minimum of daylight, as well as ordinary Berlin street sounds. It
actually felt like being inside a grim sort of musical instrument: the sounds
of my footsteps seemed to echo, the scrape of soles on concrete, the faint
rasping of my fingertips on brushed metal.
Menashe Kadishman, Fallen Leaves.
Friday, October 7
Show your wound,
says Joseph Beuys. Yesterday at the Hamburger Banhoff seeing some of his work
for the first time. The video of How to
Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, Beuys’ head encapsulated in what looked
like gold leaf, the upper left corner of the image obliterated somehow, like a
dead zone in the lens. At one point holding the rabbit’s ears in his mouth so
as to make its paws prance across the floor with his hands. Show your wound, the hole, the
inadequacy that you are, the vampiric double-gash of the equals sign in I = I.
Reading Andrew Joron’s prose, The Cry at Zero, which I brought with me as vade mecum. His hunger
for a beyond to the dead-end of social construction, his focus on the body as a
local instant of the cosmos. Neo-surrealism: insistence on emergence, the novum, the astonishing fact that life
arose from the unpredictable interactions of inorganic matter. Connections
spawning in my mind with Quentin Melliassoux’s attack on "correlationism," the
postmodern doctrine that you can never discover or even approach X, only a
socially and ideologically mediated viewpoint on X. His magnificently simple
example of a form of knowledge that contradicts this: our knowledge of the world
before life, before a human or even merely biological sensorium existed. Speculative
realism: entertaining the possibility of a world that exists independently of
our knowledge and the beyond, therefore, of ideology. The winds of intellectual
fashion are tending in this direction, which is reason enough to be cautious.
But it is not surprising that I, long dissatisfied with the purely social and
nearly nihilistic dispensations of postmodernism, would feel myself pulled in
this direction, which promises a non-dogmatic, un-idealist access road (ein Weg) to the universe.
Little face inside Bruce Nauman's Room with My Soul Left Out, Room That Does Not Care (1984) at Hamburger Banhof.
Aside from Beuys I was most impressed by the variations on
architecture and utopian construction on offer at the Hamburger Banhoff. There
was a magnificent exhibition of Buckminster Fuller-esque globes or “biospheres”
suspended by wires that filled the museum’s great hall by an Argentian artist,
Tomas Saraceno, called Cloud Cities.
Some of the globes you could enter, and climb up into and roll around in on the
clear plastic floor suspended high above the ground, like the bouncy houses at
street fairs that Sadie likes so much; she would have loved these. Some of the
globes are gardens, with plants inside, sometimes permitted to flourish their
long grasslike leaves up and out the top of their globes.
There were other utopian/dystopian dwellings deeper in the
museum. An Israeli artist, active apparently for just six years before he died
at a very young age, built ascetic model houses that looked a little like
miniature versions of the desert dwelling of Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen and
Aunt Beru. There was one model that you could go inside, made of white painted
wood, and inspect the tiny bunk, the little bathroom/shower, the kitchen which
would have room, just about, for a single burner, with a skylight that the top
of my head emerged from. Inevitably one imagines what it would be like to
actually live in such microscopic quarters. And at the end of the long hall of
exhibitions a terrifying piece by Bruce Nauman, which I couldn’t help but find reminiscent of the Holocaust
Tower in the Jewish Museum. Inside a darkened hangar-like hall of the museum is
a black structure, basically cross shaped, dimly lit by yellow brutalist
sconces, with a grilled floor at the center where you can look down into a
similarly cavernous space or up through a hole to the Banhoff’s roof. An
intrinsically chill and lonely construction.
Graves of Helene Weigel Brecht and Bertholt Brecht.
Also of note was a film in one of the basements by an artist
named Anri Sala, Dammi i colori
(2003), in which the camera surveys an unnamed city, “the poorest in Europe,”
which indeed seems to stand in ruins (Wikipedia tells me the city is Tirana, in Albania). However, many of the buildings we see are
brightly and idiosyncratically colored; this seems in some way credited to the work of our onscreen guide Edi Rama, a friend of Sala's, the mayor of Tirana, and an artist in his own right. People live in the direst poverty (unforgettable
shot of an old man, in unaccountably purple pantaloons, stepping into a second
pair of trousers, conducting his toilette outside for all to see in a bitterly
matter-of-fact way) but surrounded by bright, almost Disney-esque colors. Color and ornament are seen attempting to supplement and
make up for tragic deficiencies in the city's infrastructure, making it one of
the most incisive and moving commentaries I’ve ever seen on art’s desire to do
real work in the world, while never falling into the fatal gap in which artists
deceive themselves into thinking that their artworks, merely by existing,
actually accomplish this.
Another night Donna Stonecipher took me to a German
intellectual bookstore, Pro Qm, that was very nearly a parody of itself:
everything clinical white, the customers and employees all serious and intent
and intense, in severe eyeglasses, browsing through what is truly a remarkable
collection of books on art and social theory, many of them in English.
Everything was expensive, much more so than in the states, so I refrained from
buying anything except for a cheaply printed paperback, Everything under Heaven Is Total Chaos. This is one of Slavoj
Zizek’s favorite Mao quotations, which in full reads “Everything under Heaven
is total chaos; the situation is excellent.”
Window, Kunsthaus Tascheles.
There was a talk there, based on a dissertation
with the imposingly simple title of Dichte:
not referring to poetry but density, it was a work of urbanist theory. Apparently
all dissertations must be published here, and of course the dissertation is just
a stepping-stone on the way to the habillitationshrift
and full professorship; Donna says there’s no such thing as a young academic in
Germany. The talk was all in German so was interesting to me from a
sociological point of view, until standing on a hard floor for an hour
subtracted even that level of interest. Fortunately afterward there was
excellent Vietnamese food and I got to know Donna a bit better. We talked about
what I dubbed “the zone of inarticulacy” that she and certain other poets I
admire (herself, Camille Guthrie, Sarah Gridley—not sure why this list is
all-female) preserve for themselves: refusing or rejecting the growing
imperative in our intellectual culture to explain oneself, to write criticism,
to package your work in advance of its own imperatives.
A rare sign of Jewish life, near the KaDeWe department store.
Fountain outside KaDeWe.
This came up again last night when I went out for a very
late pizza dinner with a motley collection of expatriate artists and
litterateurs, most of them in their late twenties and early thirties, after the
ambassadorial launch of the first novel of a young Irishman, John Holten,
called The Readymades. His very
beautiful American girlfriend told me that in art school she had been told that
one had two choices as an artist, the political or the exploration of one’s own
subconscious. Reductive to the point of ludicrousness, the stark choice thus
presented does suggest something of the real terrain young artists are asked to
negotiate. And while there are clear paths and nearly automatic comradeship
promised by the first option, which in Clarice’s view tends to mean art
accompanied by or interpermeated with text,
the second option is necessarily lonelier and for a visual artist must mean the
outright rejection of textuality (explanation, recitative, critique).
Monday, October 10,
Still there’s the shadow. Though I’m not religious, I’m not
unaware of its having been Yom Kippur over the weekend, and there’s a real
sense I have here of being unwritten into the Book of Life. Because real life
is home where Emily and Sadie are, and my friends and my routine. Perhaps I’m
not the traveler I’ve dreamed of being. Or is it just Germany, der Vaterland, that has me feeling
oppressed and low? Hard on myself. I expected something of this trip—some turn,
some Wende—that, if it’s occurred,
I’m not aware of it yet. Quandary and squandering—do they have the same root?
Graffiti at Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg.
Wednesday, October 12
Only now toward the end have I really been able to write, to
address my novel afresh. I went back into the manuscript and started organizing
things a little, creating section breaks, filling in a good deal—the
transition, basically from when Gustave and M are reunited in Paris to their
flight to Cherbourg, where they finally make love that one and only time and
she tells him the story of her failed attempt to visit Auschwitz. Just now I
was able to write again some more, a fair chunk of M’s story, as she tells it
to Miklos, of her life just before and after Ruth was born, in Queens, for
which I borrowed a few details of my mother’s biography, right down to the IRS
job. I don’t remember a lot of what I was told, so memory tips imperceptibly
into invention, which is what I want, after all—it’s a novel.
Marx and Engels, together again.
So there’s that feeling of redemption that comes after
writing, especially when it comes fluently and there’s more than a couple of
pages produced. Whether it will seem valuable when I reread—that’s of no
consequence, don’t look back, forward! It is a novel, it may not be a great
novel, it will bear its flaws of sentimentality and structural inconsistency
and be downright puerile in spots, but it wants to be a novel and it will be,
it will be my novel, and perhaps it will be only the first, or else I will be
released by it, the achieve of it, and can go back to poetry with a clean and
The novel. I want to believe I’ve crossed some tipping point
here, that from now on it will just seem like a job of work, and fun, and not
some precious goddamn bit of china that I have to carry oh so carefully in very
short little bursts, setting it down after just a few steps for fear of its
cracking. If I can just go on like this, a little, at home, I can make my goal
of a finished draft this year. Why the fuck not? It’s my novel, it goes on as
long as I say it goes on, I’m writing it. A certain amount of—I don’t know, surrender
, is vital to any creative
project, and I do want to respect certain rhythms, be open to chance,
contingency, reality, as I’m writing. At the same time it’s nothing magical –
it’s not a poem. And if I learn nothing else except that novels aren’t poems,
it would be a very worthwhile thing to learn at last.
Paul's Boutique, Prenzlauer Berg.
Doors to Jewish Cemetery, Prenzlauer Berg.
Looking up Victory's skirt at the top of the Siegessäule.