Being: Winter Semester

It rains all the time in the Rhine Valley. Dripping, foggy, penetrating damp, Tag ein Tag aus–you would take the coldest of Vermont winters over this.

At the same time, though, it makes the sun all the more beautiful. You wake up to bright clear skies one morning and skip out on an entire day of studying to walk in the city, and to find out how the stained glass windows in the churches look with sun behind them.

They look glorious, by the way.

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St. Stephanskirche, Mainz

It’s strange, this being in a foreign country. Most of the time it all feels normal, more or less like living at home, but then some little thing happens and the strangeness of it all is brought back to you. Sometimes you go outside in the morning and are shocked that people aren’t speaking your native language. It takes several seconds to remember where you are. You keep forgetting the small things–that lines in the supermarket move 10x faster than they do in America, that no one wants to help you in the clothing store, that you won’t be able to do any banking on Friday afternoons because the German motto is work smarter, not longer.

It’s the different conception of academia that shocks you the most, though. Your university–37,000 students, some 150 institutes–is worlds away from the tiny college you graduated from last spring. Part of it’s good–students in Germany have much more freedom, are treated like adults with the ability to plan their own time and think for themselves. But it’s the apathy that gets you.

For instance: your Herr Dr. Professor–widely published, with his own wikipedia page, applauded by the students at the end of every lecture–is teaching Hamlet. He never smiles in class, seems rather bored by the whole affair. You want to go and shake him at the end of the day and say, “This is a privilege, this! Don’t you see–you are so privileged, so lucky, so blessed to be able to teach this text, to be able to teach at all! The existence of Hamlet is a miracle. The fact that you have a job where you get to read Hamlet every day is also a miracle.”

It’s good, though, too, because you now see what you want to spend the rest of your life fighting against: apathy, boredom, this brand of tired post-modernism that sees the entire world as a deconstruction of a deconstruction of a deconstruction. You want to teach with personality, dammit, in a place where you can sit across the desk from your students and talk about beauty and art like they really matter.

Here in Germany, you have the feeling that the professors think you smile too much in class. But how can one not smile–Hamlet is Hamlet. And apathy aside, it’s good to be here. The cathedrals are still glorious.

Immer weiter….

IMG_0514So apparently I just graduated from college. And apparently I am leaving for Germany in a month and a half. What??!!

I’ll be in Germany for the next two years, getting my Masters in Comparative Literature as a DAAD-Stipendiatin. For those of you who wish to keep up with my international adventures, I direct you to my travel blog, http://emilysarahabroad.wordpress.com/. The already-existing content is from my month in Würzburg two summers ago.

Gaudeamus igitur!

Literature: Thomas Mann: Zauberberg and Faustus

Various thoughts on the worldviews, music, and endings of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), inspired by studying for my German Comps. Rather longer and more academic than most posts here. The quotations are from the estimable John Woods translations, with occasional edits of my own.

Zauberberg

Thomas Mann is the most unflinching of writers. His works, read from the perspective of early 20th-century Europe, are ideological, painful, inescapably overt. They are remarkable because Mann wrote at a time when it was so easy not to be these things–his was the age of surrealism, absurdism, symbol and neo-Romanticism, and many of his contemporaries were falling away from reality. In contrast, his didacticism is refreshing. He poses questions and he answers them.

Works like Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, in particular, belong to this vein. They are what my professor calls “test-tube novels”–all the fixations, terrors, questions, and beauties of a new century thrown together, the results brought under Mann’s lazer-sharp analysis. His characters critique and harangue, propose and debunk.

Der Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, implicitly and explicitly, are works that ask questions about art. What do we do with our artistic past? How do we move forward? Can we create a 20th century work of art–what should it look like? Can we find a solution to the artistic problems of the past century? The novels, I argue, offer two very different sets of answers to these questions.

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But first, Thomas Mann and Richard Wagner–the representative artist, in Mann’s mind, of Europe’s artistic past. He located in Wagner’s operas everything that was disturbingly problematic about German Romanticism–the death-drunkenness, the beauty in perversion, the baroque-colossal aesthetics, the sympathy with the abyss. Wagner was the questionable wizard of the past century, whose vast inner landscapes were in essence sick and impure. The apotheosis of these tendencies, of course, was Tristan und Isolde–the most beautiful opera in the world, the love story that in the end did not have to do with the love of the beloved, but rather with the love of death. Wagner’s art is a superlative, Eduard Hanslick wrote. And there can be nothing beyond a superlative.

Philosophically and stylistically, then, Wagner’s was an art without a future. After so much perfection and so much Liebestod, what was left over for the artists of the 20th century?

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This is the question that Mann takes up in Der Zauberberg–what is left over? The novel was published in 1924, almost two decades before the horrors of World War II. Here, the answer Mann suggests is inherently humanistic, forward-looking, even cautiously optimistic.

 Philosophically, he separates his hero from Wagner’s Todesrausch in the Schnee (Snow) chapter of the work,  when Hans Castorp finds himself alone in a storm in the Alps. He dreams, and in his dream Mann constructs a vision of a world that has renounced all sympathy with death, all of Wagner’s love of abyss and annihilation. Der Mensch soll um der Güte und Liebe willen dem Tod keine Herrschaft einräumen über seine Gedanken. For the sake of goodness and love shall mankind grant death no dominion over his thoughts–there, in the single italicized sentence of the entire work, Mann presents the renunciation and defeat of all of Wagner’s philosophy.

In Der Zauberberg, too, Mann offers us a (possible) stylistic paradigm of the new art, a model for the aesthetics of the 20th century: Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum, the Lied for piano and voice that so fascinates Hans later in the story. The piece has everything that Wagner’s operas lack–classicism, humanism, beauty in smallness, self-restraint, hope. The text of the song, while it deals with the possibility of self-destruction, does not end with death and Liebestod, but rather with the thoughtful return to life of the speaker. In Der Zauberberg, Mann’s description of the Lied matches almost exactly his description of the ideal artwork of the 20th century, as sketched out in a brief essay from 1911. A new classicism must come, he wrote–to the artistic future of Germany belonged a clear-headed and upwards-looking art, whose spirituality would be cool and healthy instead of drunken and bombastic.

Profound but logical, deeply-felt but never excessive, Schubert’s Lindenbaum in Der Zauberberg is thus more hopefully modern than anything by Wagner. Unlike Tristan und Isolde, the Lied transcends Romanticism to look towards a constructive future.

Of course–of course, Thomas Mann–this beautiful image is destroyed in the final pages of the novel, or at least called deeply into question. For all the forward-looking hope and resolution of Der Lindenbaum and all the heroism of the conclusions in the Schnee chapter, Hans’ own story does not end so neatly. He leaves the mountain, and, in the chaos of 1914, disappears from sight on a dark and bloody battlefield. Mann does not reveal whether he lives or dies.

On the final pages of the novel, however, Mann again leaves room for optimism. His response to Wagner and the 19th century this time is less tidy, more cautious—bloody historical circumstances are not as forgiving as idealistic philosophizing or Schubertian artistry. But even so, Mann opens the possibility of transcendence. He closes his 900-page novel with a question, itself inherently forward looking in that it demands an answer from the future: “And out of this world-festival of death, out of this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all around–will love someday rise up out of this, too?” Mann addresses both love and death in this final sentence, but unlike Wagner he no longer takes it for granted that they belong together. He leaves us not with Hans’ Liebestod—but with the possibility, however gritty, of love’s ultimate resurrection from death.

And in one final touch of hope, Hans sings as he disappears from sight. The music that struggles to rise above the final pages of the book is not Isolde’s Liebestod, not some epic, backward-looking paean to death and transfiguration, but Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum. It is a piece shot through with death, to be sure, but so is life. What is most important, for Hans and Thomas Mann and Germany itself, is that Schubert does not end with that final surrender.

In the end, what towers above even the most ambiguous passages of the book, as Mann wrote, was “the idea of the human being, the conception of a future humanity that has passed through and survived the profoundest knowledge of disease and death.”*  Redemptively humanistic, Mann points to the vital necessity of a spiritual and artistic future where life and love rise above the fascination of death.

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So that is Der Zauberberg. What about Doktor Faustus? The book was composed some twenty years after Der Zauberberg, as Mann watched the self-immolation of his country from exile in America. The story is wrenching–composer Adrian Leverkühn sells his soul to the devil (in the form of intentionally contracted syphilis) for twenty-five years of possessed brilliancy, creates, and loses everything in one torturous final scene. All of this is set down by Serenus Zeitblom, Adrian’s childhood friend–an old man, a teacher of Latin, a humanist, full of sorrow and pity and unspeakable horror at the collapse of Germany that parallels that of his friend.

Doktor Faustus still asks the same questions as Der Zauberberg–how do we grapple with our artistic past, how do we look forward towards the future? The answers Mann gives, however, are very different. If Zauberberg is at least cautiously open to optimism, Faustus is inescapably pessimistic. Serenus’ world is one where all art, and Romantic art above all, is its own parody and a lie. The only response to Europe’s artistic heritage seems to be Adrian’s brand of mocking laughter, and the only valid form of expression is satire of a satire of a satire. Descriptors like “pure,” “classical,” and “genuine” are simply outdated.

The idea of a constructive future to follow the 19th century is hardly developed, or even mentioned. There’s one very short conversation towards the end of the novel: as Serenus reports, “The hope was voiced that the youthful 20th century might develop a more elevated and intellectually cheerful frame of mind. The conversation broke apart and exhausted itself in a disjointed discussion of the question of whether there were any signs of that or not.” That is all. There is no hopeful looking-forward, no lofty for the sake of goodness and love. The familiar “20th century as solution” topic fades before it has begun, to the sound of Adrian’s mocking laughter.

And this laughter, this sardonic mockery that permeates the composer’s life and work? This is new response to the artistic past, to Wagner et alia. Irony opposes Romanticism, not pure and lovely “new classicism.” The new creative genius is born of scorn and disease and forever bound to them.

Jose Clemente OrozcoJose Clemente Orozco, Dartmouth College, from The Epic of American Civilization

Mann’s treatment of humanism is here also very different from Zauberberg. If Goethe’s Faust is post-Christian, Mann’s is post-humanity. Adrian’s universe is barbarously, scientifically vast, and mankind and his values, puny and transient, are just “a drop in the bucket.” In one of the most excruciating chapters of the work (XXVII), even Serenus, the Classicist and lover of belles lettres, is forced to conclude that his “humanistic Homo Dei, this crown of life, along with his spiritual duty, was therefore presumably the product of marsh-gas fecundity on some neighboring star…the flower of evil.” “That mostly blossoms into evil,” Adrian adds. After all, what place can humanism, with its affirmation of the moral and artistic worth of mankind, have in a world where everything exists to be mocked? Where art lies? Where Europe is falling into an abyss of painful self-annihilation? A philosophy where Man and his creations are genuinely worthy of respect and study is a thing of the past, consigned to same rubbish heap as the quaint geocentric theories of the Dark Ages.

Again, compare the above to Der Zauberberg. In a sense, the book is about humanism. Hans’ Bildung (Education) is essentially humanistic, whatever else it may be. There is something redemptively transfigurative about it, in the end. In Zauberberg‘s world, human creation and ideas may be perilous or lead to death, but they are always more than fodder for parody.

Finally–what about the endings of Faustus and Zauberberg? Interestingly enough, Faustus also closes with questions, with a figure vanishing from sight. In the final paragraph, Serenus gives us personified Germany herself, who “plummets from despair to despair…in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror.” He asks, “When will [Germany] reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of this final hopelessness, will a miracle that goes beyond faith bear the light of hope?”.

But what sort of questions are these? Do they look towards the future for an answer, or only backwards, on the war that has brought horror and debasement? Are they asked by a man entirely despairing of a hopeful answer? A sort of prayer forms the final sentence of the book: “A lonely man folds his hands and says, ‘May God have mercy on your poor soul, my friend, my fatherland” (534). But the speaker is almost broken by disgust and grief, the friend already consecrated to Satan. What else is left?

apokalypseAlbrecht Dürer, from the Apokalypse

So it all begs the question: is the query at the end of Zauberberg different? Is it somehow more forward-looking, less despairing? The answer is ambiguous, no doubt. But look at the differing backdrops to these final paragraphs, and examine what has come before the questions. In Faustus, there has been no preceding humanistic Bildung, no talk of dying for the future with the word of love on one’s lips–no talk of a future at all, except to express disgust over the travesty of it all. There has been no coming-of-age, but rather its reversal, a descent to madness. Adrian’s forced return to childhood on the final pages is truly worse than death, this rending of soul from body.

And the music in the last chapter of Dr. Faustus is no melancholy but ultimately life-affirming Schubert Lied, no representative of 20th-century classicism. Instead there is Adrian’s own Lamentation of Dr. Faustus, a gargantuan wail in 12-tone serialism for choir and orchestra, a monstrous work that permits “no consolation, reconciliation, transfiguration.” “It ought not be” is its great leitmotif, felt in every measure and cadence. Adrian’s definitive statement on the work comes some thirty pages from the end of the novel, in one of the most heartbreaking passages in modern literature:

“I have discovered that it ought not be.
“What ought not be, Adrian?”
“The good and the noble,” he replied, “what people call human, even though it is good and noble. What people have fought for, have stormed citadels for, and what people filled to overflowing have announced with jubilation–it ought not be. It will be taken back. I shall take it back.”
“I don’t quite understand, my dear fellow. What do you want to take back?”
“The Ninth Symphony,’ he replied. And then came nothing more, even though I waited.

Of course Adrian means Beethoven’s Ninth, that forward-looking exposition of  joy and humanism, representative of a world purposefully negated in Faustus. As Serenus concludes, “There were years when we children of the dungeon dreamt of a song of joy–Fidelio, the Ninth Symphony–with which to celebrate Germany’s liberation, its liberation of itself. But now only this work can be of any use, and it will be sung from our soul: the lamentation of the son of hell, the most awful lament of man and God ever intoned on this earth, which begins with its central character, but steadily expanding, encompasses, as it were, the cosmos.”

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So that is Doktor Faustus. Where does it leave Thomas Mann? At the end of his life, did he believe in art, his own or anyone else’s? Was Adrian’s world, fought against in Zauberberg, at last fully his own? I certainly have no definitive answer to these sorts of questions. Perhaps a clue, though, can be found in his last book, Felix Krull, only partially complete at his death in 1955. It is a return to high comedy, and a focus on mankind’s ability–if not for high nobility and wisdom, then at least for reason, craft, survival.

And of course, there is the very fact that Mann kept writing. Doktor Faustus was not his last book. That in itself–the creative act–is, I think, the most hopeful, inherently humanistic and forward-looking act of which mankind is capable. “It ought not be,” it seems, was Adrian’s motto and not Mann’s own.

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*From “The Making of the Magic Mountain”–Mann’s own writings on his magnum opus, a must read.

Being: Waiting

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Senior year is such a strange time.

You are pulled in all directions at once. Part of you wants to get out, get out, get out–out of the midwest, the eternal flat, the small-town campus, the Catholicism, the insomnia, the March grayness. The other part of you will be weeping come graduation–no more poetry on Friday nights, no more swing dancing till midnight, no more drawing dragons in the writing center walls, no more of those intensely personal discussions on German literature and philosophy that are changing the way you see the world. The way the sun hits the windows of the faculty building when you walk to your 8am Roman Literature course–blood-orange, in-your-eyes because of the flat horizon. You will miss that. It’s the end of something stunning, this leave-taking of an intellectual community from which you have learned and against which you have fought, and which you have loved for the past four years.

And behind it all is the waiting. Everyone is getting job offers, being accepted to graduate school, making wedding plans and looking at apartments. For you, though, everything is entirely up in the air–applications to grad schools in Germany aren’t even open yet, you have no idea where you will be, you have no idea if you will just end up sitting at home next year with all sorts of failed plans. Those scholarship programs you applied to six months ago are probably going to leave you hanging until you go crazy, and you won’t hear anything positive anyway. You listen to Bach and lots of bad pop music.

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And then suddenly, you aren’t waiting any more. The morning that you know you will finally hear something, you take a walk into town in the freezing wind, to try to calm yourself down. Revel in it–these are the last few hours when the possibilities are still infinite.

And then suddenly there’s an email, and it’s not from the Fulbright at all, but from that other program you applied to and really never thought you’d get–the one that will send you to Germany for two whole years, the one that will give you more money than you’ve ever had to get a Masters in Comparative Literature somewhere in Bavaria. That one. And you’ve won it–the highest stipend they give. The possibilities are still infinite. The enigmatic German professor practically starts crying when you tell him, and denies everything when you try to say that he wrote your letter of recommendation and your language evaluation and thus deserves as much of the credit as anyone. The world is insane.

Everything happens very fast–call everyone, cancel the summer job, look at apartment prices, email Germanistik departments, learn more about German geography in a week than you have in the past three years. By the end of the week, you are emotionally exhausted–shocked, overwhelmingly grateful. It still doesn’t seem quite real, but when you call the scholarship office in New York City they know your name.

In exactly three months, you will be flying to Europe.

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Photography from my incredibly talented sister.

Literatur: Franz Kafka und Theologie

Author Franz Kafka, ca. 1910s. Courtesy: CSU Archives/Everett Collection.

Franz Kafka is completely and utterly compelling.

Unfortunately, I’ve been doing all the reading and discussing and thinking and writing about him in German, and most of my thoughts haven’t yet sorted themselves out into English. Strange, this business of finally beginning to know another language. It’s freeing, though, too–there are topics I can only really discuss in German, in this language that is so new to me and thus carries with it none of the baggage and associations of my mother tongue. At any rate, I apologize to any readers (Jim!) who have been waiting for thoughts on Kafka, and promise to get something up in English quite soon.

In the meantime, here is a small essay in German, on the potential of a theological interpretation of The Castle. I’m rather proud of it, actually–the enigmatic German professor, usually reticent in his praise, said it was good and well written. And if any of my German-speaking readers would like to correct my syntax and grammar, please have at it!

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       Es ist allzu leicht, glaube ich, Kafkas Werke als reine Allegorien zu deuten. Der Mangel an absichtlich ideologische Aussagen des Autors lädt dem Leser ein, selbst eine umfassende Bedeutung in einen Roman oder eine Novelle hineinzulesen. Allegorische Interpretationsweisen sind bestimmt wertvoll, aber nur insofern als sie nie als die einzige Deutung eines Werkes gelten. Vielleicht sind Kafkas Werke nur Träume, die wir einfach als ästhetische Ereignisse annehmen sollen.

       Wenn es aber eine allegorische oder symbolische Interpretation von Das Schloss gibt, dann ist sie mit dem Theologischen tief verbunden. Es ist einfach genug, eine religiöse oder metaphysische Deutung des Werkes zu entwickeln: das Schloss repräsentiert den himmlischen Bereich oder die Gottheit selbst und K. der Alltagsmensch, der dringend versucht, sich in dieser Welt (und in der Sicherheit, Gemeinsamkeit, und Verständnis, die sie ihrer Eingeweihten anbietet) einzuwurzeln. Aber wenn das Schloss ein Symbol für das Metaphysische oder Theologische ist–wenn K.s Kampf um Eingliederung in die Gesellschaft auch ein religiöser Kampf ist–dann ist das Porträt der Religion, das Kafka uns hinterlasst, sehr zynisch. Kafka zeigt uns die dunkle, unmenschliche Seite der Religion, und die Tragödie oder sogar die Qual eines Menschen, der vergebens nach einer sinnvollen Verbindung mit seinem Gott sucht.

        In Kafkas Universum wird das Schloss (und der religiöse Bereich, den sie repräsentiert) immer unbestimmter, je näher man sie anschaut. Am Anfang des Romanes scheint das Schloss ein Teil einer handfesten, vertrauenswürdigen Welt zu sein. Das Gebäude liegt “deutlich umrissen in der klaren Luft und noch verdeutlicht durch den alle Formen nachbildenden, in dünner Schicht überall liegenden Schnee” (486).  Es wird ganz leicht sein, glaubt K., direkte Kontakt mit so einer Institution herzustellen–er hat schon einen Aufnahmebrief von Klamm und die telefonische Zusage des Schlosses selbst. Nach und nach aber wird das Schloss immer unerreichbarer. Das Gebäude verschwindet in der Dämmerung (568) und K. findet endlich heraus, dass alle Verbindungen mit den Schlossbeamten höchst betrügerisch sind. Auch der Telefonanruf des ersten Kapitels war vielleicht nicht mehr als der bedeutungslose Scherz eines “übermüdeten Beamter” (544). Es wird K. immer klarer, dass das Schloss für ihn nur auf unverständliche Weise zugänglich sei, wenn überhaupt. Jedem menschlichen Versuch, Eingang zu finden, setzt es sich wider.

        Die Welt des Schlosses steht dem Humanismus entgegen. Ihr Bereich liegt außerhalb (oder jenseits?) der Vernunft und des Verstandes. K.s Humanismus und Demokratie nutzen hier nicht. Er will als Mensch behandelt werden, sagt er, er will “immer frei sein” (485), er will sein Recht (546). Er will Antworten auf seine Fragen bekommen, und sofort. Er hat keine Zeit für Aberglaube und Zeremonie und haltet es als Gewinn, “frei vor einem Mächtigen [ie. Klamm] gesprochen zu haben” (524). Sinnvolle Forderungen–aber in Kafkas Welt hat der Weg nach oben, die Verbindung mit der Gottheit, nur wenig mit Vernunft und Rationalität zu tun. Hier gibt es nur Tyrannie und Verwirrung und Ambiguität. Die offizielle Vertreter des Schlosses gehören auch zu dieser Welt–der Sekretär Klamms ist sinnlos und verwirrend, die Gehilfen absurd und lächerlich, Klamm selbst geheimnisvoll und unerreichbar. K. erkämpft seine Autonomität, gewiss, aber nur, als er endlich zugibt, “als gäbe es gleichzeitig nichts Sinnloseres, nichts Verzweifelteres als diese Freiheit, dieses Warten, diese Unverletzlichkeit” (575).

       Vielleicht der tragischste Moment K.s Suche findet sich im achtzehnten Kapitel, als K. endlich zu einem Sekretär gerufen wird. Im Herrenhaus trifft er zufällig auf einen Beamten namens Bürgel, der anscheinend bereit ist, K.s Fragen zu beantworten. K. hat zum ersten Mal eine wirkliche Chance, echte Erklärung zu gewinnen–aber hier, fast am Ende des Romanes, ist er zu müde, diese Gelegenheit zu nutzen. Er schläft in Bürgels Buro ein, “abgeschlossen gegen alles, was geschah” (721), und verpasst völlig seine Rede. Scheinbar hört K.–der bisher nie nachgegeben hat–völlig auf, weiter zu kämpfen. Er hat kompromisslos nach einer Verbindung mit dem Schloss gesucht und jetzt ist endlich imstande, Hilfe und Antworten zu finden und etwas Echtes zu erreichen. Aber wenn er eine echte Möglichkeit hat, sich seinem Ziel wirklich zu nähern, ist er zu schwach, seiner eigenen Erschöpfung zu entgehen. Der menschliche Körper versagt ihm. Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, sagt Kafka, stirbt an Entkräftung.

       Kafkas Darstellung der theologischen Welt ist am Ende völlig pessimistisch: die Gottheit ist unbestimmt und unnahbar, ihre Methoden liegt im Bereich der Irrationalität, und der Weg nach oben führt zur Erschöpfung. Wenn es Gnade irgendwo gibt, dann ist sie dem normalen Menschen scheinbar nicht zugänglich. K. wird gerufen–oder mindestens glaubt er, dass er gerufen worden ist–aber dann ist es ihm unbegreiflicherweise nicht erlaubt, weiter zu gehen und etwas aus diesen Ruf zu machen. Der Mensch, oder das Wesen, oder die Täuschung, die ihn gerufen hat, bleibt vollkommen unkennbar, unbestimmt, und fabelhaft. Und weiterhin endet der Versuch, diese Verwirrung zu überwinden, mit Erschöpfung und Versagen. In Kafkas Welt ist der Mensch gleichzeitig weitsichtig und schrecklich limitiert–er ist klug genug, eine Verbindung mit dem Schloss zu suchen, aber zu beschränkt, sowohl geistig als auch physisch, den richtigen Weg dahin zu finden.

__________

Zitate aus Franz Kafka: Die Romane, S. Fischer Verlag, 1966.

Being: Summer 2013

pizzaoven1

It is a strange and contradictory summer.

Part of the time, you are entirely, freeingly unacademic. You bang down dirt roads in a rusted-out truck with no muffler and no inspection sticker, dust towering behind you. The windows are permanently rolled down, country radio permanently turned up. You help throw 300 haybales off a wagon and stack them in the barn, you set up sheep fencing, you learn how to drive the John Deere. Your father is building an outdoor oven in the garden behind the house, and you spend the last hour before dark with your little brother, balancing on top of the dome to apply the final layer of stucco. You both feel like giants, silhouetted against such a wide evening sky.

You work–six days a week as the vegetarian cook at a local farm and riding school. Up at 5:30 every morning, heat from three ovens on your face, to run a tight ship and bleach things and kill flies only when your Buddhist boss isn’t looking. You order quinoa in bulk and learn an astonishing number of ways to cook tofu. You play opera at all hours of the day, turned up as high as it will go, and make a few Cecilia Bartoli fans. You listen to talk radio, and try desperately to understand something of politics. And to your delight, you find a tiny community of intellectuals at this small Vermont farm. There is Jenn, the self-professed Feminazi, and Peter, the yogi, undergraduate degree from 70s Berkeley. You stand in the kitchen at six in the morning, pancakes burning behind you, and talk about psychoanalysis and gender roles and comparative religion with all of your might. It is a great gathering-in of perspectives, a time to ask a thousand questions you can’t ask anywhere else.

And you write. You live half in the future, on the other side of the grad school and Fulbright applications you agonize over.  You want to be in Germany, you want to get out of mid-western American academia, you want to already have your PhD and be the teacher of some students at some college, somewhere. You draw up a sort of intellectual creed for your future self, wildly romantic. Pursue REAL scholarship, the most rigorous there is, not watered down or “friendly.” Never take the easy way out. Only the exhaustive is truly interesting. Engage DIRECTLY with real ideas, texts, thinkers, the most meaningful that exist–no hiding behind secondary literature, behind works that are technically interesting but say nothing about the human soul. Focus on the connections, the dialogue, between whole genres, epochs, minds. Look the hardest ideas in the face, actively pursue Truth. The ultimate goal of scholarship must be teaching, otherwise it becomes something monstrous. Shrink from specialization. Be charitable. Be humble, but not self-effacing. Turn outwards. Elegance, humanism, joy, admiration ALWAYS.

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You start to realize how much of an idealist you are–the world is always marvelous and beautiful, even when it is horrifying. Most people are genuine and wish you well, and you wish them well in return with all your heart. Scholarship and academia and philosophy are toweringly meaningful, lovely realms. You will revel in everything, even if you are rather solitary and overworked and sometimes terrified.

The windows are flying open again, and behind it all are the lyrics of a song from a pretty exceptional band, which you listen to almost as often as the Cecilia Bartoli.

Keep the earth below my feet

For all my sweat, my blood runs weak.

Let me learn from where I have been–

Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn

Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.

___________

Photography, as always, from Anna.

Being: Fulbright II

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAHere is the second part of my ETA Fulbright application–the Statement of Purpose. It’s a bit more business-like than the first, but perhaps of interest to other applicants. This whole process has put all other writing projects on hold…I should be back to normal posting next week. The picture is from one lovely day in Munich last summer.

My love of Germany began with opera and old books–Wagner and Thomas Mann, specifically, revelled in over the course of three long highschool summers. It was heady stuff, and by the time I graduated I had erected a sort of German Mythos, all leitmotiv and Rhine rivers and half-mad artists. It was toweringly beautiful, I found, but essentially unreal, disconnected from the questions and concerns of the 21st century.

Now, nearly four years later, I feel like the Mythos has transferred into reality. I have learned German, spent time abroad, sought above all to ground my love of old art in contemporary existence. Last spring, I sat at a conference on modern Germany and realized what draws me to the country as it is today: it was the willingness of the panelists to engage with difficult issues head-on, the transparency,* the urgency behind the questions they were posing. This wasn’t distant academia–here were real people and concerns, sometimes uncomfortably close. Land, race, language, memory. What do those things mean today, and how do they shape who we are? We ask ourselves the same sort of questions in America, of course. In Germany, however, the discussion seems often to be more more critical, the answers brought into sharper focus because of Germany’s historical heritage and current position in Europe.

In the end, then, this is why I am applying for an ETA in Germany–not only for the beauty of their art, but because the important questions there are so pressing. The country today seems to serve as sort of catalyst for the hard questions, for investigations which can then be turned around to reflect on issues in America and elsewhere.

As a student of languages interested in pursuing education as a career, I am thrilled for the opportunities of growth and service the ETA provides. I bring almost ten years of teaching experience to the program, and a fascination with the methods of pedagogy that goes back to childhood. As a homeschooled student, I was encouraged to translate the academic into the personal, to observe what worked and what didn’t at the most concrete level. This early experience made clear to me the power of individualized, hands-on learning. Today, my job in the Writing Center is teaching me the value of real Socratic dialogue and conversation, my position as a German tutor the skill of simplicity and conciseness. As the co-director of the Latin program at a local school, finally, I have learned the importance of organization: education, however inspired, can hardly be effective without the framework of well-defined goals and curricula.

Today, I seek to bring these qualities–personalization, dialogue, simplicity, organization–to whatever teaching situation I find myself in. In a program like the ETA, however, I would add one more element: an ongoing, inclusive discussion of US culture and politics. As a participant in my college’s required courses on America’s historical, intellectual, and political heritage, I have had excellent models for this sort of exchange. While in Germany, I would be honored to serve as a representative of both the US and the Fulbright by helping students draw connections between their experiences and my own.

Outside of the classroom, I hope to continue to pursue the vital questions connected with the study of German thought. I am and always will be fascinated by 19th- and early 20th-century music, literature, and philosophy. In the end, however, there is always something discomfiting about my study of old art–a feeling that, by taking it all so seriously, I am disconnecting myself from the issues of today. With these concerns in mind, while in Germany I would like to examine the heritage of creators like Wagner and Mann in the context of the 21st century. How do these figures continue to be a part of the cultural and political dialogues of today? Most importantly, how are current German thinkers building on their legacy, and how are they moving beyond? In answering these questions I will seek real involvement wherever I am placed in Germany, especially in contemporary artistic, cultural, and academic circles.

Bieto ParsifalCalixto Bieito’s 2010 production of Parsifal, for instance. This is Richard Wagner in the 21st century–hard-hitting, painful, real. Perhaps ludicrous. Wo ist Gott?

Such a project will not only offer me a platform for social engagement while an ETA, but also lay the groundwork for further studies in the country. I intend to pursue a Masters in Comparative Literature in Germany, before returning to America for a PhD in Germanistik. With the experience gained as a Fulbrighter, I will be better equipped to one day teach languages and literature at an American university, and able to bring a more holistic perspective to the study of German art, literature, and thought–both the old and the new.

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*This theme of transparency in contemporary Germany is fascinating to me, and seems to play out at all sorts of different levels, art and academia aside. Scroll down this post from last summer, for instance, to pictures of the Reichstag and other government buildings in Berlin, architectural mirrors of the same clarity and openness.

Being: Fulbright

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The below is a reasonably polished draft of my personal statement for the Fulbright Scholarship Program, specifically their English Teaching Assistantship–an opportunity almost impossible to attain, but too gleaming to pass up. It would place me in a German school for a year, teaching English to high school students, with a full stipend and time for outside research and study. And doors opened to me for further study in the United States or abroad. I can’t not try. The photograph is taken from my front porch.

In his Glasperlenspiel, Hermann Hesse defines vocation as a Call and an Admonition. It is a Call, he writes, because to experience one’s vocation is first to experience a summons from without, whether in the form of an idea, event, or another human being. This meeting of self and the world, he continues, brings with it an Admonition–the one called now has a charge to make good on it, to reach out to others as he or she was once reached out to. Vocation is both a gift and a commandment, and as such has the power to shape a career and a life.

My vocation is to teach. I define the word in its broadest sense: to share knowledge, to bring into dialogue and create conversation, to give others something that will shake them up and force them to see the world in a slightly different way. To engage in the pursuit of knowledge with the goal of giving it all back one day.

I’ve always had the passion, I think, though things were once more complicated. Homeschooled on a mountain farm in Vermont, I had few opportunities in highschool to engage in the sort of intensive academic dialogue I was looking for. I grew up surrounded by a supportive family and exhilaratingly lovely physical space, but my intellect was a closed loop–impatient, grasping, restless. Though I listened and talked and read, my desire to teach had nowhere to go.

Still, I tried. I hosted a series of “Symposiums” for siblings and family members, where I delivered pretentiously-titled lectures on joy in Nietzsche and early psychoanalysis. I read books my parents would not have approved of, and then blew my cover because I had to talk about them. I found online forums where I could write page-long posts about stage production in German opera. Outside of school, I led tours and taught fiber arts classes on our farm to hundreds of children and adults from around the world. But it wasn’t enough—by my senior year I was making myself crazy with excess intellectual energy, on the edge of serious depression and academically horribly lonely.

After all of that, stepping onto my college campus was like stepping into the sun. This was Hesse’s Call—suddenly there were hands reaching out, pulling me alongside, giving me a place to stand and more opportunities than I could take advantage of. The intellectual dialogue that had existed for me only in the ideal world became suddenly vital, something I could take hold of as a career and a future.

It was at college, then, that I fell fully in love with teaching. Today, as a rising senior I have my own third-grade Latin classroom at a local Preparatory School, spend my evenings working in the Writing Center, hash out adjective endings and coach oral exams as a German tutor. I take students to the opera and talk about politics and music, sit on undergraduate conference panels on Greek tragedy or 20th century Germany. A professor told me last semester, “Don’t go into teaching unless you have a fire in your belly.” I do, I said, and this is where I want to be.

And what about the future? I hope to continue my studies and someday teach at the college level. Wherever I end up, however, education will always be for me as much a career as a life philosophy. Firstly, because I have always found that teaching, along with being an artist, is of all the professions the most hopeful: it begins with the understanding that there is something in mankind worth passing on, and those worth passing it on to. That, to me, is the root of all humanism, of all true creation and scholarship. And secondly, because the worldview behind education leaves so much room for awe, curiosity, and humility. There is something both incredibly humbling and beautiful about working with the human mind, about seeking to unlock its potential for admiration and understanding.

Above all, though, I want to teach because of the second part of Hermann Hesse’s definition–the Admonition, the commandment. For me, it’s not enough just to be grateful to those professors who sought me out when I was very much alone. I want to offer something in return for their investment. And so I would be honored for the chance to reach out to other young people, to talk to them, to let them speak when they are trying to say something. In the end, teaching does not just or even primarily have to do with imparting knowledge–it is also about giving others the tools they need and the opportunity to articulate a voice.

This, I think, is what it means to make the pursuit of knowledge unrelentingly, magnificently personal.

Being: Language, Virginia Woolf, Sugaring Season

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The thing about studying this beautiful foreign language is that it leaves me starving for English. After oral exams and sight translations I want to collapse into familiarity, into the comfort of Shakespeare or Nabokov or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  For all the intoxication of foreign languages, there is always for me an underlying level of disquiet, a persistent feeling of having the rug pulled out from under one’s feet. There such a luxury in one’s own speech, really, in the ability to fly through paragraphs unencumbered by dictionary and pocket grammar. The resonance behind the words, cadence and illusion–all there for the taking. English majors are spoiled, I think.

The desire to flee into English was strongest last August when I returned from Germany. I was weary of my own ineptness in the language, of stumbling through small-talk with bus drivers and trying to read between the lines in Kleist, who never meant what he wrote anyway. Petulantly, I wanted beauty and familiarity, wanted to be able to read a hundred pages in one afternoon. So I fell into Nabokov on the iron daybed on our porch, reading, reading, reading, too hot, with my eyes half-shut and the neighbor making hay across the road. Nabokov’s prose was sick and beautiful, and above all searingly good English.

This Christmas break the desire for familiarity was the same, after a semester where the only prose in my language I studied was secondary articles on Cicero. Boring, oder? So I looked forward to a few weeks of literary English, Plato word lists be damned. This time, there was Virginia Woolf–The Waves, on the recommendation of a friend who copied out a quote for me that was too arresting to ignore.

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I finished The Waves in two afternoons in front of the wood stove, moving a bronze bookmark back and back to the last page. It had been three years since I had read Virginia Woolf, and I had forgotten the beauty of her English–heady stuff, prose not as red-blooded as Nabokov but equally as musical.

The first time I read Woolf–To the Lighthouse–I was 17 and a senior in high school, making notes in the margins for a presentation on art and atheism. My recollection of the book had since receded to only a sense of the prose, vague outlines of imagery like the wedge of darkness before the sea.

Memory is funny, though. The book and author are, for me, unalterably bound to another recollection, one still piercingly vivid. It was late March in Vermont–maple sugaring season–and I was reading To the Lighthouse in the tiny sugar house across from the barn. I copied out the quote about the wedge of darkness and wrote a little more.

I am sitting in the sugar house, looking out the white-washed door into the last clean light of day. Luke is on the step, spitting into the yard and melting the edges of his rubber boots on the door of the arch. This is a terrible season for sugaring, and all the neighbors gather to commiserate. Too warm–too early–the sap is not sweet. The Beedes made 9 gallons out of 400 taps, and Jim Curtin burned his new front pan. The Cute Farmer Down the Hill once again drank more beer than he made syrup.

There is something about the light in March in Vermont, like it is filtered through air that is is thinner or sharper or something. As clear as Woolf’s prose, or clearer, perhaps the apotheosis of clarity. And the whole world is flowing, water, mud, sap, everything is liquid flowing downhill. My sister and I scratched Elvish into the arms of the plastic chairs inside the sugar house, raw-cheeked and smelling like smoke. The steam off the boiling sap curled the pages of anything we were reading. The wind was coarse but warm enough for sweaters and no hats. There were lambs in the barn.

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Now reading Woolf again, in January when nothing flows, this memory of sugaring comes back and the vagueness of To the Lighthouse is also filled out. There are the same themes, I think, running throughout Woolf’s entire opus like a symphony.

For instance there is always the sea. The descriptions of ocean and light that run through To the Lighthouse and The Waves are like worded versions of the sea interludes in Benjamin Britten’s opera, I think. Dawn, Morning, Moonlight, Storm.

 

And time. Time is romanced in Woolf, ebbing and flowing like snowmelt in March, or like music, but certainly not like history or clocks. What was she getting at? Perhaps Wagner had it right in his Parsifal. Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit–Here time becomes space. Or perhaps it was the opening lines of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

In Woolf one is never certain. A day, a life–which has passed? And was the one as long as the other? And time lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. What does that mean?

And one more thing, that struck me as especially oxymoronic, dreadful, somehow misplaced in the clear light in March, and also now in the firelight in January. In Virginia Woolf there is such darkness at the edge of being. The roar of blackness just within consciousness was louder than any spring flood, measureless, burning. I was disturbed, and tried to get at that in the art and atheism presentation. And now, here it was again, writ large in The Waves.  Now I say there is a grinning, there is a subterfuge. There is something sneering behind our backs. That was frightening.

And so Virginia Woolf’s sea broke itself, her nights were full of wind and destruction. But the destruction, whatever else it was, was beautiful.