Thursday, September 22, 2011


Summer was very great, as Rilke said, but it's now over. My Duncan article is very nearly finished enough to submit to a journal, and I'm going to do it on or before next Wednesday the 28th. On that day I'll be boarding a Lufthansa flight from Chicago to Frankfurt, from there to Berlin.

Why Berlin? It's largely fortuitous: a friend who lives there has offered me the use of his "work flat" for two weeks while he and his family are traveling. I had been wanting to go to Europe this fall, since I'm on leave and have the time; my original idea was to revisit some of the cities that feature in my novel-in-progress: Trieste, Budapest, maybe Venice, ideally Ljubljana. Berlin was never part of the picture, but perhaps it will become part of it. Or I can use the time to get back in touch with poetry again. Or it will function as a kind of parenthesis, its own creature, which may or may not result in anything concrete. I have to give myself permission to do "nothing" there, if I can, or else the anxiety of constraint will be too great.

Berlin has loomed large in my imagination: the whole country of Germany was to me in my childhood a kind of mental wasteland, a no-fly zone of the mind, the site of incomprehensible historical horrors that, inexplicably, settled over my life like a fine, imperceptible ash. Because I'm Jewish; because my mother was born in Budapest in 1942; because both of her parents went to Auschwitz and, against all the odds, came back again. Then of course it's the capital of the Cold War, an atmosphere of hysteria and fear that lived in the background of everyday life for my generation, spinning off odd bits of pop cultural detritus like Red Dawn and Gotcha! (anyone remember that one? With Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino? Anyone?). Weimar Berlin, too, everyone's favorite Berlin, inseparable in my mind from the grinning masklike face of Joel Grey as the Emcee in Cabaret: decadence, delusion, death. And the city of history that I somehow missed as a callow college student in the years 1989 - 1991, unable fully to take in the dismantling of the wall between East and West, "free world" and Communism that had defined the entire structure of my world.

Growing up, I understood quite simply that Germany and German-ness, if not individual Germans, were synonymous with evil. I well understood from the movies that a German accent was always a sign of sinister intentions. My mother would not drive a Volkswagen, though it otherwise would have suited her quasi-hippie sensibilities. I often fantasized about visiting Europe but never once imagined Germany as anything other than a land of barbarism, even if it sometimes took comic form. (C.f. another ineradicable bit of 1980s culture.)

As I grew older and my interest in poetry deepened, along with new interests in critical theory and intellectual history, I began to find German intellectual culture completely indispensable. A litany of names--Kant, Schiller, Hölderlin, Hegel--became the dazzling points of a constellation that had somehow, without my realizing it, guided my own sense of the almost ineffable, fragile connections I intuited between aesthetics and ethics. Then there were the German Jewish heroes that came later:  Marx, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Freud, Mahler, Franz Rosenzweig, Rosa Luxemburg, and the whole Frankfurt School, with Walter Benjamin becoming for me as for so many others the diffidently charismatic secular saint of the 20th century. Germany was the indispensable nation of my intellectual maturity, much more so than the French theorists, though my primary allegiance remains with the poets and novelists of the English and American traditions.

But that childhood fear is still very much in me. And I wonder how and whether I will feel my Jewishness differently there, in a that has replaced Judenfrei with a bizarre nostalgia for the Jewish culture it eradicated. (My understanding is that, if I so choose, I can hear klezmer music in Berlin any night of the week.)

I go to Berlin as I would go into a trap: cautiously yet with mounting excitement, alive to the possibility of danger. Moral danger? Intellectual danger? Or just the danger of being ambushed by atavistic emotions, the fears I inherited somatically without realizing it from my mother, my grandfather, my own imagination? Whatever my expectations, they are sure to be in some way disappointed. It's the first European city I've traveled to that is not, I think, a museum; I will be struck there not by the immense age of things but by a more American sense of frenzy and newness, even as I constantly round the corner and find myself confronted with a survival of something older than an American can know.

Confronted with what's not quite American in me, I mean. My share in otherness--call it geekiness, call it Jewishness, call it poetry. I feel it in large gatherings (even, maybe especially, large gatherings of Jews) and at Christmastime, when I hear Hebrew (a foreign language to me) or have to be around people talking about sports (a foreign language to me). Something that I inherited from the historical experience of my mother's side of the family--call it fatalism, or the tragic sense of life, or a kind of mournful delicacy, or if you wish neurotic self-preoccupation--has always kept me a little apart from my own Americanness, whiteness, straightness, maleness. I'm a generally positive person, people who know me would agree, but I have a share in something very dark, something that tarries with the negative.

When my daughter wakes in the middle of the night she tells me she's afraid of "the black things" that she sees around her in the air. I know how she feels.

I'm going to Berlin to write, to be a tourist, to drink some very good beer and try the currywurst. But also on some level to meet, to confront, in waking life, die schwarzen Sachen, the black things.

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