Sunday, October 16, 2011

Berlin Diary

Thursday, September 29, 2011

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 difference.

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.

Saturday October 1
Brandenburg Gate.

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 tourists.

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).

Ignored relic.

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, peasant, bumpkin.

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:

                        wandering, pouring spices on the fire
                        as the moon pours a bitter wine

                        over the coals of the city,
                        dousing with sparks

                        wherever 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 the telephone.

Soul explosion.

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.

Part of Roth's signature on the ceiling at Joseph Roth Diele.

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.

Chocolate shop.

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
Forty-one today.

Lepsiustrasse 20.

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 destroy.

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 effect.

House, Kreuzberg.

Wall, Kreuzberg.

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.

Fraenkelufer Synagogue.

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.

Philharmonic building.

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.

October 4

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.

Jewish Museum exterior.

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?

No comment.

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.

Saraceno's Cloud Cities.

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, 2011

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?

Lassitude. Acedia.

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 fit conscience.

View from inside Gedächtniskirche.

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.

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