Quote of the Day: Robert Walser on his "Docile Little Dog"

"At times, Walser's stylistic prowess tempts him to believe that style is all. But never for long, since, in spite of his precarious life on the margins, he was also a writer with strong convictions about how people should behave, what a civilized society would look like etc. Yet he never lapses into sentimentality. What saves him from that fate is the pervasive self-irony that kept following him, as he once put it, 'like a docile little dog.'"

Walser Translator Mark Harman


The Simple Joy of Bashing A Culture

Mystery of the Missing Million from Phil Rees on Vimeo.

Germans love Japan. I live in Düsseldorf, home to one of the largest Japanese expat communities in Europe, and it shows. There's an annual Japan Day, a cultural institute (the Eko-Haus) -- complete with temple, garden, bell, and a traditional Japanese house -- and excellent Japanese food everywhere you turn.

When I visited Japan, most of the other tourists seemed to be from Northern Europe. Like me, they all raved about the discreet hospitality, the cleanliness, the attention to detail, the love of traditional handicrafts, the organization, the quiet, the world-class museums, the excellent fresh food everywhere, and all the many other things that make Japan such an intense pleasure to visit (seriously, drop everything and go now). Northern Europeans have an instinctive preference for cleanliness, order, and discretion, and they immediately sense they are among kindred spirits in the Japanese. And if you think that's a crude generalization based on outdated national stereotypes, loosen up. We're not in a seminar room here.

But of course these are only surface impressions. They obscure two central facts: First, many of the things cultured Europeans love about Japan (the tea ceremony, Noh theatre, Kabuki) are like organ music in Europe: followed only by a tiny, graying minority of aficionados.

Second, Japanese society overall is in long, possibly near-terminal decline.

Which brings us to an interesting 2007 book about Japan written by an American journalist who spent years there: Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation (book excerpt and interview here). The first part of the book deals with the bizarre Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori: young people, 80% male, who simply drop out of society altogether. They cannot take the pressure to conform, the endless high-stakes testing, the cram schools, the bitter rivalry to get into the best colleges, and the myriad other pressures of Japanese life. 

So they simply drop out, like Bartleby. They retire to a room in their parents' house, and never leave. They usually change their sleep schedule to stay inside during the day and leave, if at all, only at night. They don't go to school, don't work, just sketch or read or play video games or watch porn. Their parents allow them to stay and provide them with food and other necessities, and often cover up the fact that their son or daughter has become a recluse to save face.

The defining factor of hikikomori is that they're not mentally ill. They are also usually of above-average intelligence, since it is these children who are under the most pressure to perform. Usually, their reclusion starts after some stinging failure (failed exam, university rejection, bullying) along the assembly-line route of school-college-job. These people have simply decided to reject a society which they see as forcing them through a bunch of meaningless and terrifying hoops, all in service to a failing and irrelevant social model which nobody seems to be able to change. Estimates are that there are between 500,000 and a million hikikomori in Japan. The consensus seems to be that this precise phenomenon happens only in Japan.

The author, Michael Zielenziger (who speaks Japanese) interviews a number of hikikomori and the counselors and psychologists who try to help them. What's refreshing about his book is that Z pulls no punches. He obviously likes the Japanese, has enormous admiration for their many achievements as a society. He's not simply spewing a rant, he backs up many of his assertions with interviews, statistics, and other staples of good journalism. And many of the harshest indictments come from Japanese themselves. But still, to use an appropriately American phrase, he tears Japan a new asshole

American and Japanese psychologists have demonstrated that when faced with a social situation they do not like, Americans readily try to influence others to change their behavior. Japanese, by contrast, are far more likely to adjust their own behavior to the demands others make upon them, to accommodate the wishes of the collective....

The group harmony this homogeneous people struggled so obsessively to achieve—through the pressure to conform, the resistance to criticism, the repression of dissenters, and a desperate, almost pathological need to keep “outsiders” at bay—carried a dark and destructive seed. Not only did this system seriously constrain individuality to the point of “infantilizing” many of it own people, effectively robbing them of their own identities; it also stripped the nation of its ability to adjust to the unforeseen changes in the world and in business practices that the inexorable process of globalization was now stirring up. Until this moment, Japan had been able to appropriate the trappings of the modern world without creating for itself a critical consciousness, a truly democratic sensibility, or a vision of how a “unique” people might interact easily and equally with the rest of the world. “The essence of Japan is to have no essence,” one famous Japanese political scientist concluded, arguing Japanese had never learned to properly differentiate between the instrumental and the ideal. His society, he said, was like a pot crammed with octopus, unable to discern a world separate from its own outsized tentacles. By analogy, he suggested, Western societies, where Judeo-Christian values had taken hold, or the Chinese culture, where Confucianism remains central, more resembled the sort of whisk broom used in a traditional tea ceremony, in which a sturdy, unitary wooden base splays itself into a finely separated tip, with space for each long and articulated tine of bamboo fiber to stand free and apart from the others....

As I got to understand it better, I saw that, rather than a vibrant free market, Japan actually functions more like a highly controlled, quasi-socialist system where bureaucrats feel they know best how to organize the system of production, and have the power to make life unpleasant for those who don't agree....

Predictably, the book has stimulated as many howls of outrage as it has nods of understanding. Which is a good thing.

Polite society these days enforces an unspoken code of never criticizing other cultures. You wouldn't want to be accused of cultural imperialism, or Orientalism, or condescension, or any of the other mortal sins of orthodox politically-correct sensitivity. But these taboos do what taboos always do: reduce everything to mush.

Some cultures are just more successful at certain things than others. In fact, some cultures are more successful at almost everything than others (here's lookin' at you, Scandinavia!). Everyone who's lived abroad understands this. And a bracing, well-informed critique is more honest and useful than a bunch of feel-good pabulum. The book was published in Japan. Many of his interviewees told him, they would never have spoken to a Japanese journalist, since they would be ashamed to discuss embarrassing secrets with someone who shared the same complex social codes.

It's not the be-all and end-all, but is a refreshingly blunt and lively book. Perhaps one day I'll write something similar about Germany. Germany, I love you, but I know just about all of your dirty secrets....


Bambi's Friends the Communist Spy and the Viennese Whore

Bambi

[from the extremely NSFW website Slutbambi]

If you're a fan of Roald Dahl, you know that in addition to the beloved children's classics such as James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he also published a collection of erotic stories entitled Switch Bitch.

But that's nothing compared to what the author of Bambi got up to. Bambi was originally published in Austria in 1923 as Bambi, eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde (Bambi, a Life in the Woods) by the Austrian writer Felix Salten.

Now before we get to the Viennese whore, it's time for a detour to visit with the Soviet spy. Bambi was translated into English in 1928 by none other than Whittaker Chambers, one of the most notorious American figures of the Cold War. Take it away, Wikipedia:

Whittaker Chambers ... was a 20th-Century American writer, editor, and Soviet spy.

After early years as a Communist Party member (1925) and Soviet spy (1932–1938), he defected from communism (underground and open party) and worked at Time magazine (1939–1948). Under subpoena in 1948, he testified in what became Alger Hiss's perjury (espionage) trials (1949–1950) and he became an outspoken anti-communist (all described in his 1952 memoir Witness). Afterwards, he worked briefly as a senior editor at National Review (1957–1959). President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1984.

But Bambi's unwholesome associations go even further. Long before he wrote the story of the cuddly deer baby Bambi, Felix Salten wrote what one critic called "the only German pornographic novel of world-wide status", the 1906 book entitled Josefine Mutzenbacher, or the story of a Viennese Whore as Told by Herself (Josefine Mutzenbacher oder Die Geschichte einer Wienerischen Dirne von ihr selbst erzählt) (full German text here). The initial printing was subscription-only to avoid censorship laws.

Salten never explicitly admitted authorship of Josefine Mutzenbacher, and because neither he nor the publisher submitted it for copyright protection, it was freely pirated, and remains in print to this day, having sold some 3 million copies to date. It furnished the basis for not one but 11 German soft-core porno films made between 1970 and 1994 (the original film's English title was "Naughty Knickers").

But even that's not all. The original novel itself was put on an "index" of books harmful to minors by the Federal Republic of Germany's Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors in 1969. This didn't mean the novel was banned, but it did severely restrict sales and marketing. The Wikipedia summary of the book's plot may give you an idea of why they made this decision:

The story is told from the point of view of an accomplished aging 50-year-old Viennese courtesan who is looking back upon the sexual escapades she enjoyed during her unbridled youth in Vienna. Contrary to the title, almost the entirety of the book takes place when Josephine is between the ages of 5–12 years old, before she actually becomes a licensed prostitute in the brothels of Vienna. The book begins when she is five years old and ends when she is twelve years old and about to enter professional service in a brothel.

Although the book makes use of many "euphemisms" for human anatomy and sexual behavior that seem quaint today, its content is entirely pornographic. The actual progression of events amounts to little more than a graphic, unapologetic description of the reckless sexuality exhibited by the heroine, all before reaching her 13th year. The style bears more than a passing resemblance to the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom in its unabashed "laundry list" cataloging of all manner of taboo sexual antics from incest and rape to child prostitution, group sex and fellatio.

Adding to the general perversion, Bambi himself makes a cameo appearance in one of those group-sex scenes [no, he doesn't -- ed.]. In the late 1970s, a legal campaign was launched to remove the book from the index. In 1990, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court issued a landmark decision on the case.

Although the court acknowledged the book had plenty of potentially child-endangering pornographic elements, including a rather eye-popping amount of pedophilia and incest, it also had literary qualities which qualified it as a work of art, thus entitling it to protection under the artistic freedom provisions of Article 5 of the German Constitution.* The Court decision held (g) that some parts of the youth protection law were unconstitutional infringements of artistic freedom.

Nowadays, Felix Salten is largely forgotten, but that didn't stop the Austrian government from sending an official delegate (g) to the Jewish Museum of Vienna (Salten was Jewish) to open a 2007 exhibition on the man and his work.

Continue reading "Bambi's Friends the Communist Spy and the Viennese Whore" »


Humorless Queue-Bargers

American writer Rebecca Schuman on her book about Germany, Schadenfreude, A Love Story:

Kafka is the muse of the book. Does his work encapsulate the German character—even though, as you are reminded again and again in the book, he wasn’t German at all? Do Germans find it annoying that the German-language writer who’s most widely read in English wasn’t even German?

They find it SO annoying, and I actually think that particular arc—someone saying, “Oh, you’re German—I love Kafka!” and then the German getting an opportunity to be pedantic (Ektually, zet’s not right is the national phrase of Germany, and I say that with love)—is the single most German thing in the world.

His work, though, definitely encapsulates the Austrian character (Prague, where he lived, was nominally Austrian for a lot of his life) with its endless bureaucratic entanglements. When I lived in Vienna for a year—a chapter, by the way, that got cut from the book—I had such a hard time getting registered for the university. I had to wait in line for 5 hours, and then when I finally got to the front, the worker was just like, Oh, I forgot to move you from one column to the other one, like it was the most normal thing in the world to require someone to come in for five hours to ask for a minor clerical task they didn’t know needed to be done. I got back to my desk at the research institute where I was doing my Fulbright and I said to my Austrian colleague: “I just realized that Kafka wrote nonfiction.”...

Do you have German friends who’ve read the book? What do they think of your portrait of their culture?

Just one so far, and he thinks it’s spot-on—but he’s very Americanized and has a great sense of humor about his mother culture. One of the most endearing things about Germans is that they neither understand nor enjoy exaggeration as humor. Given that hyperbole is my primary form of communication, I imagine many Germans will disagree with their culture’s portrayal. However, the second-most-endearing thing about Germans is that a sign of true friendship with a German is that you stay up all night screaming at each other in disagreement but still remain best friends. Germans don’t really believe in small talk and they don’t think that “certain subjects” are to be avoided in polite company, and they are pedantic as hell, but they don’t get offended easily. It’s one of the best things about them.

Is there a humor mechanism that replaces comic exaggeration, for the Germans? Or are they as humorless as some stereotypes suggest? (I grew up in England where the trope about Germans is that they always barge to the front of queues. I think this mostly speaks to the profound respect the English have for the queuing process.)

Oh, the queue thing is true. When I lived in Berlin I went to a Blur show in the dead of winter and had to check my coat. (It was a great show, by the way; Damon Albarn did an A-level in German and addressed the audience in German!) Afterward, I spent no less than 45 minutes in an obscene grinding mosh pit of German bodies, when a proper queue would have taken 5 tops. For a culture that prizes order so much that the idiom for “everything OK?” is Alles in Ordnung? the queuing habits are inexplicable.

As far as the humor thing—well, the stereotypes are true and they aren’t. The two most popular types of humor in German are slapstick and just bone-dry sarcasm. A great German “joke” is to say the meanest and most tragic thing possible and then follow it with a slight grimace. (Somehow it works.) Kafka, for example, was absolutely, rip-roaringly hilarious, obviously in a very dark way. Most people don’t know this about him, and early translations of his work (most of which are canonical) don’t play this up at all.

Might be a fun, light read. 


The Feuilleton and Its Discontents

Alexander Stern has an essay on the feuilleton which is as readable as it is erudite, no mean feat:

“In the beginning was the press, and then the world appeared.” So begins a satirical 1922 poem by Karl Kraus. A ruthless critic who regularly excoriated the press in his magazine The Torch, Kraus blamed German newspapers for the outbreak of World War I. He reserved a special hatred for the feuilleton (pronounced “fuh-yah-tawn”) section of the paper, which included, along with art, literature, and reviews, short impressionistic pieces about city life and culture. And he was far from the only one to bemoan “the age of the feuilleton,” as novelist Hermann Hesse dubbed it. In 1929 the philosopher Theodor Lessing, who would be assassinated by Nazis four years later, reflected that “feuilletonist” had become “the nastiest insult in the German language.”

Whence all this contempt for light reading material?

The answer is complicated, but lies somewhere at the intersection of a volatile political climate, quickly modernizing cities, and the emergence of mass culture. In papers like Die Frankfurter Zeitung, Das Berliner Tageblatt, and Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, German journalists attempted to come to terms with their fast-changing times, writing literary vignettes that reflected philosophically on culture, technology, and politics. The feuilleton section thus became a battleground over the meaning of modernity. The controversy it generated prefigured present-day concerns about the deterioration of attention and the media’s role in shaping—or, as Walter Benjamin suggested, generating—public opinion....

n modernity we are wrenched out of history, take up an “objective” viewpoint on our culture, and immediately find genuine connection to much of it gone. God dies, traditions wither, only the words remain. To the feuilletonist, in Benjamin’s view, this means we can finally think clearly. We can finally view religion, tradition, and so forth objectively—things that to premoderns were still obscure because they were too close to their culture, because the words meant too much.

The feuilletonist thus covers all his subjects with a finish of urbane, pseudo-philosophical detachment. Kraus wrote:

When a streetcar accident takes place in Vienna, the gentlemen [of the press] write about the nature of streetcars, about the nature of streetcar accidents, and about the nature of accidents in general, all with the viewpoint: what is man?

Glib generalization and a tone of seen-it-all skepticism seduces the reader and seems to lift them up into the writer’s realm of free-floating observation. Even when written in the first person, the feuilleton takes up a kind of third-person “I” that surveys the scene, wary and detached, hovering above the crowd. Judgments seem to emerge effortlessly. Individual observations always serve some unassailable universal point. Feuilletons were written with what Benjamin called a “false subjectivity that can be separated from the person and incorporated in the circulation of commodities.”

The feuilletonist is like a conversation partner who convinces you of something by assuming you already knew it. A tacit note of almost conspiratorial intimacy accompanies his opinions: This is just obvious to two people of our intellect and experience. The reader is, on the one hand, flattered without argument into accepting the view expressed, and, on the other, infantilized.

The result is the manufacture of opinion—not that the feuilleton necessarily indoctrinates its readers. Rather, it absolves them of having to think for themselves. “It is precisely the purpose of the public opinion generated by the press,” Benjamin wrote, “to make the public incapable of judging, to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed.”

Read the whole thing, as they say. I love feuilletons, which don't exist in the English-speaking press. I've often thought of trying to import the genre, but there's probably a reason it doesn't seem to travel well. At first, the English-speaking reader is put off by the distinctive tone of amused, world-weary detachment. He's used to either facts or opinions, dammit, not some weirdly subjective mix of the two.

But once you get up to what masters like Roth and Kracauer and Tucholsky are up to, you're hooked.


Pale Copies of American Literature

A Japanese writer on the dominance of English:

When published in 2008, The Fall of Language in the Age of English created a sensation in Japan, winning awards, becoming a bestseller, and igniting a furious online debate between its detractors and defenders. This first book of nonfiction by Minae Mizumura, whose four novels have all won national awards, was published last year in a superbly readable English translation. This powerful, insightful work analyzes the predicament of world languages and literatures in an age when English has become the universal language of science and the default language of the internet. Even for creative writers, it is the virtually inescapable medium for those desiring to be taken seriously in an age of globalized discourse....

The Fall of Language in the Age of English concludes with somber reflections on the internet and the implications for national languages and literatures of hegemonic English, the world’s de facto universal language. But Mizumura also criticizes self-defeating public policies that have impoverished the Japanese language, and Japanese literary works that “often read like rehashes of American literature.” She calls for teaching more Japanese to younger students, and mandating that older ones read the full texts of Japanese modern classics.

She ends her rich, profound meditation on language and literature by encouraging people in English-speaking nations to consider the possibility that the advantage of fluency in our age’s universal language can also be a disadvantage:

If more English native speakers walked through the doors of other languages, they would discover undreamed-of landscapes. Perhaps some of them might then begin to think that the truly blessed are not they themselves, but those who are eternally condemned to reflect on language, eternally condemned to marvel at the richness of the world.


Kafka Made Him Unhappy

A letter sent to Kafka:

Dear Sir,

You have made me unhappy.

I bought your “Metamorphosis” as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of this story. My cousin gave it to her mother, who doesn’t know what to make of it either. Her mother gave the book to my other cousin, and she doesn’t know what to make of it either. Now they’ve written to me. They want me to explain the story to them because I am the one with a doctorate in the family. But I am baffled.

Sir! I spent months fighting it out with the Russians in the trenches without flinching, but if my reputation among my cousins went to hell, I would not be able to bear it.

Only you can help me. You have to, because you are the one who landed me in this situation. So please tell me what my cousin ought to make of “The Metamorphosis.”

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Siegfried Wolff


Other Peoples' Indians; or Why the Soviets Loved James Fenimore Cooper for All the Wrong Reasons

1989_cpa_6128-6132_strip

The Paris Review is first mystified by the Soviet Union's love of American frontier novelist James Fenimore Cooper, but is soon set straight by someone who points to the ideological jockeying it represented:

I was perplexed to learn that the Soviet Union, in its waning days, produced a series of five vivid postage stamps devoted to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. It seemed as if some lazy Soviet bureaucrat must’ve made a mistake. Why, after all, would the USSR want to commemorate some of the foundational texts of American lit, especially when Natty Bumppo stands as a paragon of rugged individualism? In other words, how had one of our folk heroes found an audience in a place where he should’ve been reviled?

Sandra Nickel, an author of young-adult novels, got the answer from her daughter’s Russian godmother, whose youth was apparently filled with totally authorized American classics:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Thomas Mayne Reid. Almost every Russian child had read these by the age of twelve—and read them more than once.

I am sure the Soviet state approved these books because of their propaganda value. Put together, these three volumes could portray Americans as slave-owning destroyers of Native Americans, who are bigoted against Mexicans. Racists, across the board, in other words.

Instead of finding the disgusting evidence of prejudice and imperialism, though, young Russian readers tended to see the novels as ripping good yarns, so much so that their characters were inducted into public life.

As I've said before and will say again, other people's Indians.


Trump and Musil's Moosbrugger

David Auerbach compares Trump to...Moosbrugger (!), the lust-murderer from Musil's The Man Without Qualities:

Musil’s core insight is that Moosbrugger possesses a cosmic sense of himself that removes him from the world of human agency and responsibility, akin to Strawson’s objective attitude. Moosbrugger’s indifference to all values and to the very idea of values threatens yet fascinates, since it offers us the freedom to give voice to our most egregious selves and see them reflected back at us not as human qualities but as forces of nature. So it is with Trump, a catalyst that transforms resentment and worship into fame. Elsewhere, Musil describes Moosbrugger’s dissolution of self into universe in this way:

Anyone can conceive of a man’s life flowing along like a brook, but what Moosbrugger felt was his life flowing like a brook through a vast, still lake. As it flowed onward it continued to mingle with what it was leaving behind and became almost indistinguishable from the movements on either side of it. Once, in a half-waking dream, he had a sense of having worn this life’s Moosbrugger like an ill-fitting coat on his back; now, when he opened it a bit, the most curious sort of lining came billowing out silkily, endless as a forest.

This is a kind of super-solipsism, not just a conviction that no one else exists but an inability to conceive of one’s own self as a separable agent in the world. Trump’s psychology only makes sense after this traditional conception of ego is discarded. I do not think that theADHD-addled Trump cares how he is remembered; all there is for him is the attention, the worship, the now. For Trump, who defines himself only against his immediate surroundings, liminal forms of relating take precedence over any and all values, facts, or even goals. This lack of temporal awareness and planning may be his downfall, since all he knows is immediate escalation and pandering in pursuit of the immediate win. If he amassed an army of brownshirts, he couldn’t be bothered to give them orders.

As cosmic entities, Moosbrugger and Trump are only human as far as we perceive them to be. As raw forces of narcissism, they demand that we perceive them. And yet because they are empty, they are constitutionally incapable of taking responsibility for anything they do, or of having any intuition that words and thoughts should tend to accord with an external reality. Trump’s profound and sweeping ignorance of all things serves his narcissism; knowledge would only put constraints on his ability to be what people want him to be and what people will love him for.

I'd call this an interesting failed argument. Not because Moosbrugger is a serial murderer and Trump isn't, that's too obvious. The real problem is that, as the passage describing Moosbrugger's adaptation to prison shows, Moosbrugger is insane. Musil was quite knowledgeable about psychiatry, and portrays many different symptoms of schizophrenia in these passages: delusions of reference (statements directed at the general public are meant for me alone), command hallucinations, and of course voices:

Moosbrugger heard voices or music or a wind, or a blowing and humming, a whizzing and rattling, or shots, thunder, laughing, shouts, speaking, or whispering. It came at him from every direction; the sounds were in the walls, ill the air, in his clothes, in his body. He had the impression he was carrying it in his body as long as it was silent; once it was out, it hid somewhere hi his surroundings, but never very far from him. When he was working, the voices would speak at him mostly in random words or short phrases, insulting and nagging him, and when he thought of some- thing they came out with it before he could, or spitefully said the opposite of what he meant. It was ridiculous to be declared insane on this account; Moosb~gger regarded these voices and visions as mere monkeyshines. It entertained him to hear and see what they did; that was ever so much better than the hard, heavy thoughts he had himself. But of course he got very angry when they really annoyed him, that was only natural. Moosbrugger knew, because he always paid close attention to all the expressions that were applied to him, that this was called hallucinating, and he was pleased that he had this knack for hallucination that others lacked; it enabled him to see all sorts of things others didn’t, such as lovely landscapes and hellish monsters. But he found that they always made far too much of it, and when the stays in mental hospitals became too unpleasant, he maintained outright that he was only pretending. The know-it-ails would ask him how loud the sounds were; a senseless question, because of course what he heard .was sometimes as loud as a thunderclap, and sometimes the merest whisper. Even the physical pains that sometimes plagued him could be unbearable or slight enough to be imaginary. That wasn’t the important thing. Often he could not have described exactly what he saw, heard, and felt, but he knew what it was. It could be very blurred; the visions came from outside, but a shimmer of observation told him at the same time that they were really something inside himself.

Other people in the novel (especially Rachel) project qualities onto and into Moosbrugger, which is somewhat analogous to Trump. But Musil makes it clear that Moosbrugger is simply insane. Unusually intelligent and self-aware, but clearly nuts.

Whatever else you might say about him, Donald Trump has no real problems with reality-testing, to use the psychiatric phrase. He may be a narcissist, but this simply means he has a distorted view of how the world should treat him and what he's entitled to, not a distorted perception of what is real and what isn't.

So, I say Auerbach fails, but fails interestingly.