Today we just say Germany. It saves intellectual and emotional effort. Like Heiner Müller says, it is better to speak of people than of the people.
I would like to propose a brief filmic experiment, with a nod to Karl Kraus. Imagine this sentence, written on a blackboard:
The more closely you look at a word, the further back it looks.
Now, concentrate on imagining this sentence. And now, write underneath it, on the imaginary blackboard in your head:
Look at the word ‘Germany’ for a while. I would now ask that those of you who believe the word has moved further away raise your hand. Who is for further? Who is for closer?
[The majority votes further]
I Was a Translator in Minsk
(Report from 2015)
I was a witness to the legendary evening session that led only to a sham peace that was nevertheless a (hole-filled) ceasefire. I noticed the chancellor closely watching the Russian president. It was in the fourth hour of the night. Aside from her, no one else in the room was wide awake. Later, I questioned the chancellor on the plane. She had checked, she said, to see whether, in the sitting posture and the president’s facial muscles, she could observe a sudden stiffening, a ‘craziness’, which would tell her negotiations had failed. She could read the signs; although Putin sought to maintain a poker face, a mask, the movements of the facial muscles are not subject to willpower. Just as experienced foresters in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania can deduce from the posture and flews of foxes running toward them whether it is an ‘accidental attack’, a case of rabies or crazy fox syndrome. For forester Heinz Ullman, whom the chancellor knew, assumption alone is no reason to shoot an animal. You have to closely examine their muzzle, dentition, saliva secretions, the whites of the eyes and the body. In a figurative sense, the chancellor acted as a forest guardian. To the chancellor, the Russian president seemed to be ‘trapped in a communicative cage’. According to what she said on the return flight, she did not think he was making decisions alone. Rather, she opined, his decisions seemed to be formed by someone caught in the middle of a raging group of schoolchildren at recess. Was he reliable? She didn’t know but certainly hoped he would turn out to be, on a case-by-case basis.
Steamship Docking at the Federal Chancellery
A few tourists arrive at the Tourist Ship Docking Station: Federal Chancellery. They do not wish to visit the Federal Chancellery. They want to visit the House of World Cultures. On the lawn in front of this building – a protected historical monument – two stands offer a choice of beer with either baked potatoes or bratwurst. On the roof of the building, a band is rehearsing loudly for the evening. The rehearsal serves to mark their territory in the cultural garden.
Visitors to the Federal Chancellery do not disembark from any of the steamers at the dock. From the rear entrance to the chancellery, which faces the steamer docking station, the business of governance is invisible. How would you recognize the business of governance from the front, for example? Nothing reveals it externally. Even inside, visual impressions are not very informative. The business of governance is also nearly inaudible.
A spy who had researched all of the chancellery’s operations (though such a feat would be neither physically nor technically simple) would still not know what was happening in the government. To fully understand, he would have to investigate the preceding actions and their circumstance, then the objective possibility, which limits all actions and resolutions. He would have to gain experience of how decisions are made. Maybe he would say: We’re dealing with a federal chancellery of hesitation. The chancellery attempts, among other things, to avoid or delay bad decisions. The structure of the chancellery reflects the work of the individual ministries in the form of functional units. With the help of this structure, the chancellery keeps a braking organ at the ready to reduce the excess of impulses. It is similar to the human brain. It too is only apparently the site of resolutions. In reality, the brain, physiologists tell us, merely contains the stormy desires coming from the body.
The governing effect of the office is therefore clearest when the chancellor and her chief of staff are gone. Out of 2 billion potentially bad decisions today, 60,000 are prevented simply by the fact that the chancellor and her inner circle were forced to postpone their return from the US because of a cloud of ash over Iceland.
On another day, the chancellor’s plane succeeded in making a detour around the lava cloud to the south. She landed in Rome. From there, it took the buses two days to get to Berlin. Of course, the buses, though they were rented, contained communication devices. The Chancellor of the Third Reich would have been forced to stop the train to make a phone call (he never traveled in buses).
It’s different today. Still, no one expects the head of the government to make decisions while ‘wandering about’. Furthermore, one bus got a flat while passing through South Tyrol. Politically, it was appropriate for the chancellor to wait until the damage had been repaired to avoid splitting the group. It would have created a divide between a ‘Group of the Superfluous’ and an avant-garde. One too many among the many decisions. The whole group spends the night at a hotel in Bozen. Thanks to a natural occurrence in distant Iceland, a generous provision of six days (between departing from the US and arrival in Berlin) had been granted to the function of the chancellery.
During this time of intensive, high-performance functioning of the office, external observers in orbit heard a shrill, very high-pitched noise, an angel’s chorus of crisis-avoiding politics. Late-morning languor led to the band continuing to practice its acoustic scraps until midday. Simply to show they were fulfilling their contract which included scheduled time to practice. They couldn’t go to the hotel and just wait and be silent until their performance late in the afternoon. After all, they were being paid for doing and not omitting.
For the Lioness, Homecoming Remains Foreign
A charitable organization dedicated to rewilding colonized animals in their native places returned a trained lioness to the wilds of Togo, a former German colony. (This was after the enactment of a ban on keeping and displaying such animals in circuses.) She was transported in a comfortably appointed cage under veterinary supervision.
Released into the wild, this homecomer was kept under observation by a team of experts. It soon became apparent that the change of location (which was incomprehensible to an animal) had not caused the creature to forget her training. The lioness did not join in with the other lionesses, who begged for scraps from tourists. Instead she often performed jumps when a copse of trees reminded her of the rings she had been trained to jump through. She was often melancholic when her ‘art’ was not rewarded. Not now, and not later.
A pride of lionesses patrolled the area where she was released, but the lioness did not join them. Who was she? Was she a wild animal? Was she African or European? Had she been ‘civilized’ by the circus? Did she oscillate between two identities? Of the two of them, the part of her which had been proven to originate on the savannahs and woods of northeastern Togo, from which her ancestors were proven to have come from, constituted the smaller part of her character. She behaved like a foreigner.
She acted strangely. The tourists watching her through binoculars liked it. The team of experts was irritated. So what is emancipation? That’s what the reporters who followed the case for the public broadcasters NDR and WDR as well as the Süddeutsche Zeitung asked. What does ‘rewilding’ mean for a creature who still trusted its training, who still mourned the training that had challenged and rewarded it?
For a long time one could see the lioness, who was still young, standing ‘thoughtfully’, ‘somehow passively’ under the trees. Hesitantly, after many long, hungry days, she began to hunt. ‘She didn’t want to be wild,’ claimed the reporter in her Jeep, holding her precision binoculars as she watched patiently. She thought she could see that the rewilded lioness was ‘waiting’. She expected a ‘task’ from her environment. Something that deserved a reward. It was possible, the reporter concluded, that the lioness would have performed without a reward. But where – in the savannah or in the jungles – could she have found an audience? A brief, affirmatory gesture from her trainer, where could she find such a thing in the first nature of wilderness? The lioness, as the reporter who came from Bergisch Gladbach put it, was addicted to glory. The lioness soon interpreted a bush as a wheel of fire, through which she sprang.
News of the failed emancipation of the animal (you probably also can’t simply ‘return’ works of art, which are like living creatures) could not be printed in the Süddeutsche Zeitung or broadcast on NDR or WDR. The reporter had trouble justifying her substantial expenses. She had observed for longer than seemed necessary given the unattractive report.
Diary, Night of 3–4 November 2020. Wednesday Morning. Four o’clock.
My wife and I are in front of the television. It’s rare for us to get up at four in the morning and sit in front of the television. We’re watching CNN. My daughter uses her iPhone to transmit news from the individual US states, from regional coverage and from the web. A surfeit of news makes for an indecisive picture. It’s possible that President Trump will prevail for another term. We go back to bed. At seven, we take another look at the data through our TV window. Never in my life have I felt as politically incapacitated as now. We citizens of the Federal Republic do not take part in the elections of the superpower. Neither the German chancellor nor other instances of the european public sphere – just like those in Africa and other continents – have much influence on the decision upon which war and peace depend, at least in the distant future.
The almost insoluble problem consists in letting neither the power of others nor our own impotence render us dumb.
Almost insoluble. Which means soluble. Adorno’s sentence, in which I believe deeply (irreducible through facts), is nevertheless difficult to apply at the moment. It can only be true through the most difficult imaginative work. Would it make sense for me, my relatives, my companions, the people I work with – my crew, if you will – to go to work for a public opinion influencing foundation in Washington, so as to have an influence there even without being registered to vote? What’s to be done? At the same time, we would have to split our efforts: some of us would have to appear before Chinese students, while the rest worked in the USA. I don’t believe that anyone would want our services in either place. Hard work (for the balance of the world) in Switzerland, in Davos? Or at the Munich Security Conference? Or at a conference in Africa? I only know one thing: there will be something (we have yet to discover, it must be sought urgently), which will shore up faith in and provide evidence for Adorno’s sentence.
Keyword: Bildung (Eruditio)
Bildung = eruditio. To craft something from raw wood (Latin: rudis = raw).
Educatio = to lead someone out of the wild woods. Orientation. Knowing the paths, for children but also for adults. Getting to know the pathways, animal crossings and finally the streets that pass through the woods. The danger of bildung: that the forest would be devastated by designated routes. But untraversed forests don’t belong to humans. There must be a balance between the destruction of the forests and the impenetrability of the wilds. With cathedral schools, we enticed the raw minds of the Saxons. We protected Bildung from the parries of local potentates. We distilled it into books, into pathways, into the habits of the educators. We, the philologists, the Bildungskünstler, the caretakers of language, the only humane form of dominion over people, our constitution, which lodges and works before and in the midst of all given works of law. Eruditio: a grammar of magnanimity.
He Is Full of Worry
On the day after his birthday, I call Jürgen Habermas. He is outraged about the delayed response from the European Central Bank, which has admitted that a fiasco portended during the crisis from 7 to 9 May 2010. It threatened to be more severe than the scenario that arose after the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The public should have been told! How could the political have a chance if such information remains hidden from people, at the time when major decisions are made, partially on the telephone, partially in a great haste over the course of three sessions over a weekend. Habermas spent his birthday in Dublin. Now the family is planning on spending their vacation in the south of France. He is full of worry. The thin veneer of civilization beneath which the terrible course of reality is charted resembles an ice sheet growing ever more transparent. A philosopher will reflect on the world from any place.
End of Life
At the age of ninety-one, a young-at-heart Russian born in the year 1929, who lost both of his parents in 1937, stayed at the Brandenburger Hof Hotel in Berlin. He went for a late-night walk through the streets of the Scheunenviertel, which he had last seen as a soldier in 1945. The sidewalks, irregular because of the war, were still as desolate as they had been back then, but with fresh grass sprouting up between the cobblestones. Now the entire area was surrounded by new buildings, buildings with which he could no longer form a connection.
How Does One Tell a Story About Closeness?
It snows all night and all day. The branches of the trees are covered with a forearm-thick layer of snow. My daughter hesitates to leave Munich and drive back to Berlin in this weather. We talk about the book she wants to write. She gets angry whenever my suggestions remind her of the ideas I have in mind for my own work. I concentrate on putting myself in her shoes and only giving her ideas narrative advice. We walk through the park seven times, taking detours.
I suggest she write love stories, observations about the state of relationships. Such love stories could cover three successive generations, following three women from the same family, even if they are staggered in their relationship, i.e. cousin, aunt, grandmother, mother or daughter. I notice in the first sentences that the words don’t fit the closer observation of relationships or family relationships that well. Where it would be interesting to bring together many distinctions, they use a metaphorical, proverbial, even schematic word that only evokes a general idea. To avoid this the words would first have to wage war with one another a while, to reforge one another. There needs to be a kind of friction between them to allow for distinctions to bubble up. What interests me is how the rules people follow to either approach or separate from one another, that is, enter and exit the realm of intimacy, and thus the course of love stories over three or four generations, over the period from about 1914 to 2021, have fundamentally changed. I see cycles: a bond in 2021. It casts its shadows back to 1942. The two of us, my daughter and I, know the case. Our sentences become shorter and more rapid as we exchange observations. ‘One word leads to another.’
In 2043, the education of a child born this very week will have lasted twenty years. The child, a corona child, will be looking at an alien world in 2043. This leads us to the conclusion – the paths of the park form figures of eight and can easily be covered several times – that a characteristic century like that from 1815 to 1945 contains different love stories than the time thereafter, as the canon of getting to know each other and the canon of separation through divorce or death are strikingly different from a story taking place between 1945 and 1989. Then another push: noticeably different pop lyrics, hit songs and stories in the period from 1989 to 2043. I won’t be there at the end. My daughter is grappling with the fact that the cycles we’re talking about are of such different lengths:
130 years – 44 years – 54 years.
What I mean, I say, is that the sequence of ‘centuries of intimacy’, that is, of love stories, is accelerating. I think that the cycles of economics and politics are accelerating even more. Where are the resting points? Where are the lagoons in the ‘waters of love’? Where is there something flowing at a speed that suits us humans? My daughter waves away the words ‘the cycles of politics and economics’. She is interested in observing relationships. We come to the key term ‘semantic fields’. To talk about them nowadays we don’t need a new grammar, but countless new ways of paraphrasing. Not because love is becoming more complicated, but because the distance between the level of telling stories and the masses of facts of our time is widening enormously.
Theodor W. Adorno and Alexander Kluge
Photograph courtesy of the author