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Final Chapter

October 16, 2014 | by

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A portrait of Kleist from Die Gartenlaube, 1858.

On November 21, 1811, the writer Heinrich von Kleist shot his beloved, the terminally ill Henriette Vogel, and then himself, on the banks of Kleiner Wannsee. The innkeeper who housed them the night before described the couple, thirty-four and thirty-one, as cheerful and voluble; Kleist wrote in a final letter to his sister that he viewed death with “inexpressible serenity.” Although controversial, troubled, and financially unsuccessful in his day, he went on to achieve a monumental posthumous reputation and is today regarded as one of the finest writers—playwright, philosopher, and novelist—in the German canon.

Vogel was herself an accomplished intellectual. Theirs is one of the most famous suicide pacts in history, but the details are hazy—some accounts say the suicide was her idea, others that she wasn’t even his first choice, a theory espoused by the recent film Amour Fou. The exact location of the bodies is unknown.

Because of the nature of their deaths, Kleist and Vogel were denied church burial and were instead interred where they fell, by the lake. An immediate tourist attraction for romantic rubberneckers, the gravesite fell into disrepair for most of the nineteenth century. It was freshened up when Kleist was claimed by late-century nationalists and was commemorated with a large, Nazi-style stone for the 1936 Olympic Games. (The Nazis claimed Kleist as theirs, too, but they had to redo the stone when they discovered they’d accidentally inscribed it with a quote by the Jewish poet Max Ring.)

In 2011, the site was given the grand bicentennial treatment: paths were laid through the nearby woodlands, the area was landscaped, and both Kleist and Vogel were given fresh markers; hers is new, his is the old stone turned 180 degrees and inscribed, once again with the Ring quote: “He lived, sang and suffered / in gloomy and difficult times / he sought death here / and found immortality.” 

The site is easy to visit; it’s on what’s now the southernmost edge of Berlin, a short walk from the S-Bahn Station through the woods. And when the sun shines off the lake and filters through the yellowing branches, it’s heart-catchingly beautiful.

I don’t know any Kleist by heart—one wishes to be the sort of person with reams of quotations at her fingertips in such moments, and I, instead, had to look up what I wanted on my phone. I was thinking of Kleist’s well-known essay “On the Marionette Theatre,” collected in the fabulous On Dolls. These are its closing lines:

“Now, my excellent friend,” said my companion, “you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course,” he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

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Epicurean Materialism

October 15, 2014 | by

spinozabook

Photo: Clemcal, via Flickr

Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many.
―Baruch Spinoza

A little after nine, on the western outskirts of Berlin, we tried to find a bite. The first restaurant was filled with merry revelers and contained a video of a brightly burning log, but we were informed that a party was in progress, which went some way toward explaining the five dirndls, two pairs of lederhosen, and single loden jacket on the premises. That left us with a single option: the train-station restaurant.

The train-station restaurant appeared to be closed but was in fact merely deserted. A visibly drunk waiter gave us our choice of any table in the two massive dining rooms. Both were funereal, brightly lit by a series of 1980s chandeliers and enlivened by sepulchral muzak. The menu was strange and dubiously cross-cultural; we ordered dumplings. The drunk waiter conferred with a man in chef’s whites in the corner while they stared at us.

Some minutes later, the chef himself approached our table. They were out of everything but turkey dumplings, he said. Would we like turkey dumplings? The answer was obviously no, but we smiled and said, Of course, and sure enough, the turkey dumplings appeared. Aware of potential scrutiny, we feigned great enthusiasm. The drunk waiter, who had started hiccuping cartoonishly, wove by a couple of times. To our immense relief, a small group of Japanese tourists wandered in and sat on the other side of the dining room.

It was at about this time that the chef reappeared at our table. He was carrying a plastic bag and smiling mysteriously. From the bag, he removed a book. He put it down on the table with an air of revelation. We looked at it. It was a German copy of Spinoza’s Ethics. Read More »

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Trim Size

October 14, 2014 | by

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An illustration from Bundesbuch von Magenau (Book of the Covenant of Magenau), 1790.

One of the many things that dates my childhood firmly to the eighties and early nineties is the ubiquity of large reference books in it. Reference books, big ones, figure in most of my memories; I guess they were easy to find at tag sales. At any given moment, you could find me poring over The Great TV Sitcom Book, The Doctor’s Book of Home Remedies, Best Movie Quotes, or The Big Broadway Fake Book, which is in fact probably still in use for auditions, since it contains only sheet music. (I read this only in moments of desperation.) However, it should be said that lines were drawn: someone once gave my family one of those dedicated Great American Bathroom Books, and my mother found it disgusting and threw it away immediately.

For a few years, this sort of tome—eighties excess between two covers—must have had imprints in every major publishing house of the era. There was a distinctive look to the volumes, which were probably intended as gifts or coffee-table items, but had their own low shelf at our house. Monumental title adjectives—great, big, ultimate, definitive—were desirable. The font had to be assertive. It was also a good idea to have lots of the content listed on the jacket, a taste of the great knowledge contained therein. Obviously they had to be physically large, as unwieldy as possible—although I carried them from room to room. It wasn’t just me, either. My friends liked them, too, as I remember, but this may be a comment on the quality of entertainment on offer at my playdates. Read More »

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Profanity-Laced Tirade

October 10, 2014 | by

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No cussing! A postcard ca. 1909.

The following human-interest story ran recently on Metro UK:

A grandmother who once hated the idea of swearing now turns the air blue after a stroke left her unable to control her potty mouth ...

‘Before I had a stroke I would still get annoyed at things but I could control my upset, however now I just can’t help it,’ she said.

The retired bank worker says her swearing particularly irks her husband, as he used to be a head teacher and therefore has an obvious aversion to swearing.

She has introduced a swear box since her stroke last January in an attempt to train her brain, and is also receiving help from psychologists.

Of course, nowadays, not cursing is more noteworthy than swearing like a sailor. I’ve never been very good at cursing, personally. There was a very brief vogue in my middle-school homeroom for trying to get me to curse; it corresponded with general mockery of my uptightness. But I stand by that; I think I understood that however ludicrous a tiny, flannel-clad nerd trying to be dignified might have been, the same tiny, flannel-clad nerd peppering her speech with profanity would have been more ludicrous still. The problem is that I never learned to do it, and to this day in moments of extremis will give voice to ejaculations like, Oh, gosh! Gee whiz! Drat! And, when things get really bad, Darn it!

But then, I don’t come from much of a swearing family. Even the grown-ups didn’t go in for what my mother calls “coarse language,” and we kids wouldn’t have dared. (As with many normal things, however, my brother seems to have taken to it much more easily than I.) With the exception of the famous occasion on which she listed cunt on her Boggle scorecard—“isn’t this a word?”—my grandmother never used words stronger than fouled up. As for my grandfather, he managed to invest his gin-playing epithets—“DAMMIT!” “I’LL BE DIPPED!”—with such rage and menace that the words themselves were almost immaterial.

Cursing may coarsen the culture and display a lack of verbal imagination, but it is a useful skill to have. Back when those kids used to tease me, I remember replying with dignity that I like to be able to use the same language with my grandmother that I do the rest of the time, and thinking that this was a really good answer. But then, there are grandmothers and grandmothers. As the article tells us, Preston “has even called her grandchildren ‘little b******s’ when they were playing up.”

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Psychodrama

October 9, 2014 | by

Popcorn, 2008

Andrew Stevovich, Popcorn, 2008.

To those of us who enjoy seeing movies alone, the practice does not require any defense; it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. While—obviously—everyone likes seeing a film with a like-minded friend, and while some (The Room springs to mind) derive half their pleasure from the shared experience, there’s a lot to be said for the total lack of self-consciousness inspired by a solo venture. The practical benefits are self-evident—seeing what you prefer, sitting where you like, leaving if you want—but those of reacting in a vacuum are even greater. However independent-minded you might be, it is hard not to be aware of your companion’s amusement, or disdain, or (in the case of my dad) checking of his watch whenever he gets bored. How much more relaxing to sit alone and let your impressions form, and then digest and recollect in tranquility.

Last night, I went to see Gone Girl. It struck me as a perfect movie to see alone; unlike much of the English-speaking world, I didn’t know the plot, and looked forward to thoroughly losing myself in an absorbing story. With this in mind, I purchased a ticket for one of the stand-alone seats at the back of the theater; this multiplex has assigned seating. I figured the privacy—the space to react—mitigated the distance.

But when I arrived for my showing, it was to find that, in fact, these seats were not stand-alone; while my seat was indeed isolated from the general aisle, it was one of a pair. And there was an older man already occupying the other half of what, basically, amounted to a love seat. I should perhaps add here that this theater is famously romantic; since its 2013 remodel, its fully reclining, softly padded seats, with their removable armrests, have been a destination spot for teens on the make. Not only would I not have privacy; I would be relegated in bizarre intimacy with this stranger. I had a horrible flashback to the time in seventh grade when I was invited to a bar mitzvah where I didn’t know anyone and we were seated in the order in which we filed in and I ended up sitting next to three random boys for the duration of a joust at Medieval Times. Read More »

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Gobble-uns

October 7, 2014 | by

Orphant

A photograph published alongside “Little Orphant Annie” in an edition of poems ca. 1900.

There’s a new iteration of Annie opening this year, starring Quvenzhané Wallis as the plucky eponymous orphan. You’ve probably seen the 1982 movie; maybe you’ve caught one of the musical’s many revivals. And most everybody knows that the musical itself was adapted from a popular and long-running comic strip. But did you know that all those were based, in turn, on the 1885 poem “Little Orphant Annie?” Or that James Whitcomb Riley wrote the poem about a real-life orphan, Allie? And that it’s creepy and scary? Well, now you do!

Mary Alice “Allie” Smith was an Indiana neighbor of the Riley family. When her father was killed in the Civil War, twelve-year-old Allie—the name change was a typographical error—came to live with the Rileys; the future poet was a child himself. Allie apparently entertained the other children of an evening with scary stories that made a huge impression on young James. The poem, which is made up of Allie’s cautionary stories, was one of his most popular, and a major part of his well-attended speaking tours. Well, it was the Victorian era. Read More »

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