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

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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. 


Bestselling Olympian of all Time: Dr. Spock

...is Dr. Benjamin Spock:

Spock ... won an Olympic gold medal in rowing in 1924 while attending Yale University....

In 1946, Spock published his book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, which became a bestseller. Its message to mothers is that "you know more than you think you do."[1] By 1998 it had sold more than 50 million copies. It has been translated into 39 languages. Later he wrote three more books about parenting.[citation needed]

According to The New York Times, Baby and Child Care was, throughout its first 52 years, the second-best-selling book, next to the Bible.[6] According to other sources, it was among best-sellers, albeit not second-best-selling.

I came from a Spockian family. My mother swore by the book, which is still a refreshing, reassuring, jargon-free guide, despite the fact that it was written under the influence of psychoanalysis. Spock had the practical intelligence that teaches you not to be impressed by jargon, but also to realize that there may be useful ideas concealed beneath it. Our family talked about "Dr. Spock" so much that I always called Mr. Spock from Star Trek Dr. Spock, and thought they were somehow related, perhaps even the same person.

Spock also came out swinging against the Vietnam War, denouncing it every chance he got and getting himself arrested during protests. I'd be willing to wager that this is one of the rare cases in modern history in which a writer has actually influenced mass opinion on an issue of actual importance. Dr. Spock found it objectionable that an entire generation of young men he had helped raise were being sent across the earth to fight, kill, and die in some steaming jungle in a pointless, savage war. 

So writers, if you really want to influence the world, all you have to do is write one of the best-selling books in history addressing a topic of concern to every living human!


Quote of the Day: Dostoevsky on Virtue Signalling

The narrator describes an article by the writer Karmazinov, Dosteovsky's satirical portrayal of Turgenev:

"A year before, I had read an article of his in a review, written with an immense affectation of naïve poetry, and psychology too. He described the wreck of some steamer on the English coast, of which he had been the witness, and how he had seen the drowning people saved, and the dead bodies brought ashore. All this rather long and verbose article was written solely with the object of self-display. One seemed to read between the lines: 'Concentrate yourselves on me. Behold what I was like at those moments. What are the sea, the storm, the rocks, the splinters of wrecked ships to you? I have described all that sufficiently to you with my mighty pen. Why look at that drowned woman with the dead child in her dead arms? Look rather at me, see how I was unable to bear that sight and turned away from it. Here I stood with my back to it; here I was horrified and could not bring myself to look; I blinked my eyes—isn't that interesting?'"

Dostoevsky, The Possessed