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July 2006
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Nostalgia for the Middle Ages?

A recent report by the "German Hygiene Council" concludes:

Germans are making themselves and others sick because they do not wash their hands or change their underwear often enough. [L]ess than half of all German children are inoculated against such common childhood diseases as whooping cough and measles.

The good doctors blame "misunderstood environmentalism":

Misunderstood environmentalism helps spread contagious disease, [Dr. Martin Exner] claims.

"So as not to sully the environment with paper tissues, people will cup their hand over their mouth when sneezing, but then will not wash their hands before handling produce at the market or shaking hands with people," Exner says. "And if they use a handkerchief, they neglect to change it often and launder it properly."

To spare the environment, many Germans do their laundry with weak detergent, or no detergent at all, and at a low temperature.


German and American Foreign Poliicy

Jan, Ross, in Die Zeit, writes about how German foreign policy is made in Welterklärer, verzweifelt gesucht (G) ("Desperately seeking world-explainers"). The key foreign-policy think tank in Germany is the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (Science and Policy Foundation, or SPF), which is state-funded and required to be as independent and neutral as possible.

Ross contrasts this with the situation in the U.S.:

[T]he United States plays in a league of its own. American career politicians may normally be fairly provincial, but there is a real foreign-policy elite – whose members cycle actively between government jobs, private firms, universities, and think-tanks – to manage the country’s superpower role. The think-tanks are not only numerous, they’re also private, opinionated, and in many cases extremely ideological. The boldest proposals get the attention; Washington is full of 30-year-olds who are willing to explain the world, and precisely how it should be governed. (The fact that their proposals are often nonsense and fail in practice is a matter for another day.) A state institute like the Science and Policy Foundation, by contrast, must produce consensus-tested material for all political camps, both the government and opposition. “There are committee meetings,” says Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, “in which five political parties cite the same paper of the SPF.” However, this fact also ensures that the Institute’s expertise cannot be bought by an interest group or lobby – and that it’s not driven by world-domination fantasies, as is the cases with some planners of the universe in Washington.

A certain dull earnestness is perhaps the key flaw of the German foreign-policy debate. Ambitious strategic doctrines like American neo-conservatism were perceived in Germany as dangerous and insane, not as intellectual challenges. Political scientist Herfried Münkler observes an “extremely strong tendency toward mainstreaming” in Germany, whereas in the U.S. models are “tested on the basis of global strategic visions.” Perhaps Münkler’s work itself shows something’s beginning to change, and that even in Germany bolder, fresher thinking is becoming possible – his book Empires is a stunningly cold-blooded survey on the logic of world domination that glides effortlessly through the centuries and across the globe. Writing something like this is “itself an anti-imperial act,” according to Münkler, an attempt at intellectual independence. Münkler is actually an historian of ideas, not a traditional specialist for international relations. Did foreign policy interest him 20 years ago? “No,” comes the immediate answer. The world situation’s gotten more exciting, and the intellectual atmosphere has as well.


German Joys Uncut: On Film Music

And now for something very special. A project I've been working on for the past month or so. An entire, uncut essay by Max Goldt.

English-speakers are asking: 'Who is Max Goldt?'

He is a respectable-looking young man in his early 40s. Judging from the readings I've been to, he's partial to cordury jackets. You could call him the poet laureate of young, hip, well-educated, marginally-employed Germans, but he'd probably find that descrition pompous and trite. He writes essays and, in cooperation with comic-strip designer Katz, forms the 'comic-duo' Katz und Goldt (G). Here are a few of their T-shirts (G), which bear slogans like "Wasps - Your Reliable Partner When It Comes to Wasp-Stings"; "Hay Fever is like Rock 'n Roll for the Nose",  and "At a certain age, the only option left for meeting new people is to give birth to some."

There's no real way to convey Goldt's peculiar genius; but you might say he lives in a German-speaking neighborhood a few exits down from S.J. Perelman and Glenn O'Brien, where there are strange murals on the walls and bohemian-looking beggars. Better to just read a bit of Goldt and craft your own analogies. That's hard for non-German speakers to do, because I don't believe anything of his has been translated into English, more's the pity. So I translated* this essay, from the July Titanic (G) magazine:

On Film Music: Or more Precisely, on Television Music

It is the year of our Lord 900, or, as it was called in East Germany, “according to our calendar.” On an island off the Welsh coast live two wise, holy women who are bound to each other by two things, namely: a) a life-long enmity; and b) blazing physical desire. On an autumn night which is stormy even by Irish Sea standards, the two women completely independently search out an ancient Celtic grave-site, to solve a folk-mystery whose origins – even back then – were lost in the mists of time. A fearful battle ensues under an oak whose trunk splits at 30 feet. During the battle, deep, probing kisses alternate with millimeter-precise fist-blows. After both achieve a simultaneous sexual climax, one tries to wall the other into a dungeon, so that she will wither away gruesomely. The other, however, happens to have exactly the same idea. Something happens which never happened before in the entire early middle ages: Two women wall each other into the exact same tower. They die slowly of thirst, hideously cursing their fate from within their respective chambers. Moss and owls, but also spiders, as well as greedy Time, Space’s sometimes-unfriendly colleague, do their worst.

1104 years later, the Hamburg journalist, moderator, cat-raiser, bar-owner, foot-jewelry designer and, of course, author Heidi Würsel spreads the just-described dramatic material over 800 pages, to “float a few toads.” “Floating toads” – in her private jargon, this is how she refers to the profits from the activity that, in interviews, she calls “writing really exciting and, most importantly, historically credible entertainment”, but which, among friends, she calls her “bread job.” That is, that’s what she calls it when she’s in command of her senses, which, thank God, she usually is. However, when she’s among her very innermost circle of friends and the partying’s been serious, and lasts not just “a little longer” but into the wee hours, it can happen that she calls the bread job “throwing together a bunch of literary garbage for fat women,” but that doesn’t happen so often, so the other members of her posse say nothing more than that she can be “deliciously incorrect,” which of course is really the most ‘super-refreshing’ thing about Heidi. She sticks the dough from the “nicely lesbianized Middle-Ages plot” into the restyling of the Bali-Lounge of her restaurant “Schinkenkeller” on the island of Sylt, whose regulars include her half sister, the not-yet-very renowned sports car restorer, but already internationally renowned rock-garden expert – and, of course author – Eileen Würsel-Ahmadenijad, and the film and television composer – but recently almost completely television composer – Henner Larsfeld.

Everyone knows each other in this small circle, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone, at least insiders, that Larsfeld got the commission to deliver the music for the multi-million dollar TV film of the Würsel material.

Continue reading "German Joys Uncut: On Film Music" »


Pope: Vacation is Holy

Pope Benedict XVI's least controversial pronouncement to date:

Working too hard, even for those leading the Catholic Church, is bad for the spirit, Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday as he greeted tourists at his summer residence outside Rome.... Benedict quoted [St. Bernard] as advising pontiffs to "watch out for the dangers of an excessive activity, whatever ... the job that you hold, because many jobs often lead to the 'hardening of the heart,' as well as 'suffering of the spirit, loss of intelligence.'"


German Film Teacher on Harvard Students

German director Jan Schütte, who directed the 1987 immigrant drama Drachenfutter ("Dragon Chow") and Auf Wiedersehen, Amerika, is teaching film at Harvard for one year. The German campus freebie magazine Unispiegel asked him what how he would compare German to U.S. students:

There are no bad students in Harvard," said [Schütte], "the bottom third [of unmotivated students] is simply missing." However, Harvard's level is hardly out of reach. A good German student, Schütte says, can compete without special preparation.

[Unispiegel 4/2006, p. 19].


Guenter Grass: Two Defenses, One Attack

John Irving defense Guenter Grass "as a writer and a moral compass" here:

The man (and the writer) is a model of soul-searching and national conscience. People are saying he deliberately withheld this information until after he won the Nobel prize for literature, because he would never have won the prize if it were known he'd been in the SS...

The fulminating in the German media has been obnoxious. Grass is a daring writer, and he has always been a daring man. Was he not putting himself at risk - first at 15, then at 17? And now, once again, at age 79? And, once again, the cowardly small dogs are snapping at his heels.

Peter Gay joins in:

I think that whatever Mr. Grass has said in election campaigns (usually as a loyal Social Democratic speaker) or in his powerful novels, all essentially on the present or the recent past, retains its value.

... Ralph Giordano, a German writer and, by the way, a Jew, has noted that Mr. Grass was only 6 when Adolf Hitler was invited to become Germany’s chancellor. (The overused phrase “seizure of power” badly distorts what happened around Jan. 30, 1933, the date of the Führer’s accession. A coup d’ état would have been bad enough; that Hitler’s appointment was perfectly legal only makes it worse for German history.) And Mr. Giordano has asked, reasonably enough, “What else could he have done during that time in the face of the Nazis’ all-powerful propaganda apparatus?” And answers his own question: “Nothing.”

Grass' confession seems to have been met with rather more patience and understanding from English-speakers -- especially his writer colleagues -- than in Germany. One of the reasons must be that these writers know Grass primarily, or only, from his novels and from meetings with him.

They also probably know little about many of Grass' innumerable moral and political judgment calls (for Grass, the two virtually always go together) that don't have to do with World War II. Take it away, Christopher Hitchens:

When German reunification finally occurred after 1989, [Grass] referred to it with scorn as an Anschluss whereby the West had annexed the former "German Democratic Republic." When challenged on the absurdity of this, he wielded the truncheon of moral blackmail and said that, after Auschwitz, his critics had no right to speak about history. At a discussion in a Berlin theater at about that time, I heard him defend these propositions and felt that I was listening to a near-perfect example of bogus pseudo-intellectuality. By this stage, he had already become something of a specialist in half-baked moral equivalences. At the PEN conference in New York in the mid-1980s, for example, he had sonorously announced that conditions in the South Bronx put the United States on a par with the Soviet Union … I didn't like being lectured by a second-rater then and I like it no better when I discover I was being admonished by a member, however junior or conscripted, of Heinrich Himmler's corps d'elite.

Believe what you will about Hitchens, he knows how to end a polemic. With a truncheon:

"Let those who want to judge, pass judgment," Grass said last week in a typically sententious utterance. Very well, then, mein lieber Herr. The first judgment is that you kept quiet about your past until you could win the Nobel Prize for literature. The second judgment is that you are not as important to German or to literary history as you think you are. The third judgment is that you will be remembered neither as a war criminal nor as an anti-Nazi hero, but more as a bit of a bloody fool.


In Praise of Prize-Rejecters

People who've won major international prizes are a select group, but even selecter is the group Perelman190_1 of those who have refused them. The latest to is 40-year-old Russian mathematician Dr. Grigory Perelman, who just refused a Field Award for helping to solve a century-old mathematical puzzle called the Poincaré conjecture:

"Dr. Perelman, 40, is known not only for his work on the Poincaré conjecture, among the most heralded unsolved math problems, but also because he has declined previous mathematical prizes and has turned down job offers from Princeton, Stanford and other universities. He has said he wants no part of $1 million that the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass. has offered for the first published proof of the conjecture."

Sir John M. Ball, president of the International Mathematical Union, traveled to Perelman's home in St. Petersburg to convince him to accept the prize, but Perelman was "adamant." A previous New York Times profile of Perelman featured former colleagues' impressions of him. He had long hair and fingernails, they said, and looked like "Rasputin." The only hobby he described was collecting mushrooms in parks near St. Petersburg.

Jean-Paul Sarte refused the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 with a rather windy declaration about his "independence." Samuel Beckett accepted the prize in 1969, having learned from Sartre's experience that publicly declining it just draws even more attention. Beckett, however, declined to attend the award ceremony. He wished King Gustav all the best, and had his Paris publisher tell the world that he "had no need either for the notoriety or the money" and was enjoying a swim vacation in Nabeul, Tunisia.

Perelman's approach is the purest: just decline without statement or explanation. I find this somehow admirable. Happy mushroom-collecting, Dr. Perelman!


I Wiki'ed Dedecius

When I picked up a book of German translations of poems by Wislawa Szymborska, I noticed that the man who translated them into German (and wrote a nice foreword) was named Karl Dedecius. Hmm, interesting name.

Then, while leafing through Hans Magnus Enszensberger's Museum der Moderne Poesie, Enszensberger's famous collection of lyric poems from 100 poets from all over the world, I noticed that the aforementioned Dedecius had translated almost all the Polish poems in that volume.

I looked Dedecius up in German Wikipedia, and found out that he is a prominent Polish-German translator, and in fact founded the German Poland Institute. He started translating Polish and Russian literature in his spare time, while he was an employee of the Allianz insurance company.

I liked the Wikipedia entry so much I decided to translate it into English; you can see the result here. My favorite part:

[Dedecius] was severely wounded in the Battle of Stalingrad and became a prisoner of war. During his time as a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union, he taught himself Russian. Quote: „I lay in my sick-bed, and the nurses brought me books by Lermontov, for instance. For one year, I learned the Cyrillic Alphabet and Russian by reading Lermontov and Pushkin. Eventually, the guards asked me to write love-letters for them, because I wrote like Pushkin"