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The Answers to Walter Benjamin’s Riddles

December 11, 2014 | by

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Last week, we published a transcript of one of Walter Benjamin’s radio broadcasts for children from 1932. It had thirty brainteasers in it. Here are the answers: Read More »

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A Crazy Mixed-Up Day: Thirty Brainteasers

December 4, 2014 | by

Walter Benjamin credit Doyle Saylor

Image: Doyle Saylor

From 1927 to early 1933, Walter Benjamin wrote and delivered some eighty to ninety broadcasts over the new medium of German radio, working between Radio Berlin and Radio Frankfurt. These broadcasts, many of them produced under the auspices of programming for children, cover a fascinating array of topics: typologies and archaeologies of a rapidly changing Berlin; scenes from the shifting terrain of childhood and its construction; exemplary cases of trickery, swindle, and fraud that play on the uncertain lines between truth and falsehood; catastrophic events such as the eruption of Vesuvius and the flooding of the Mississippi River, and much more. Now the transcripts of many of these broadcasts are available for the first time in English—Lecia Rosenthal has gathered them in a new book, Radio Benjamin. Below is one of his broadcasts for children, including thirty brainteasers. (Want the answers? They’re here.)

Perhaps you know a long poem that begins like this:

Dark it is, the moon shines bright,
a car creeps by at the speed of light
and slowly rounds the round corner.
People standing sit inside,
immersed they are in silent chatter,
while a shot-dead hare

skates by on a sandbank there.

Everyone can see that this poem doesn’t add up. In the story you’ll hear today, quite a few things don’t add up either, but I doubt that everyone will notice. Or rather, each of you will find a few mistakes—and when you find one, you can make a dash on a piece of paper with your pencil. And here’s a hint: if you mark all the mistakes in the story, you’ll have a total of fifteen dashes. But if you find only five or six, that’s perfectly alright as well.

But that’s only one facet of the story you’ll hear today. Besides these fifteen mistakes, it also contains fifteen questions. And while the mistakes creep up on you, quiet as a mouse, so no one notices them, the questions, on the other hand, will be announced with a loud gong. Each correct answer to a question gives you two points, because many of the questions are more difficult to answer than the mistakes are to find. So, with a total of fifteen questions, if you know the answers to all of them, you’ll have thirty dashes. Added to the fifteen dashes for mistakes, that makes a total of forty-five possible dashes. None of you will get all forty-five, but that’s not necessary. Even ten points would be a respectable score.

You can mark your points yourselves. During the next Youth Hour, the radio will announce the mistakes along with the answers to the questions, so you can see whether your thoughts were on target, for above all, this story requires thinking. There are no questions and no mistakes that can’t be managed with a little reflection.

One last bit of advice: don’t focus on just the questions. To the contrary, keep a lookout for the mistakes above all; the questions will all be repeated at the end of the story. It goes without saying that the questions don’t contain any mistakes; there, everything is as it should be. Now pay attention. Here’s Heinz with his story. Read More »

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Berlin’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Part 2

November 7, 2014 | by

Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Read Part 1 here.

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Karl-Marx-Allee Block C South, 1951.

Philipp and Quentin live in an apartment next to the Rose Garden, in Block D North, a comely segment of the Karl-Marx-Allee designed by Kurt Leucht.

“It takes time to get used to the style of the buildings,” Quentin tells me. “It’s so massive. There’s nothing delicate in the style.” He points to the oversized street lamps from his window. The lampposts dwarf the cars parked beside them; the lights alone are taller than a seven-year-old child. Life disappears in this enormity. “If you’re sitting on the grass, you don’t see the insects. If you look out the window, you see everything.”

The apartment’s former tenant, Philipp tells me, spent some six decades here and just recently passed away. In the kitchen, Philipp shows me the “refrigerator” that tenant used in the days of the GDR: a wooden cupboard under the window, built into the building’s thick walls. It was the coolest space in the room.

When they were built, the buildings of the Stalinallee were—with their elevators, gas heating, warm water, and private bathrooms—considered luxurious. But the GDR faced a severe lack of resources: certain innovations and foreign-produced goods, like automobiles and refrigerators were produced and acquired at a stiflingly slow pace. Over time, the immaculate facades of the Karl-Marx-Allee fell off. The GDR was coming apart, and so were its buildings. The ceramic tiles began to drop—some fifty thousand square meters of them were lost. There were no replacements, and even if there had been, there were no volunteers and hardly any workers to put them up. Read More »

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Berlin’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Part 1

November 6, 2014 | by

Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee, Block C South. Read Part 2 here.

© WalcherBild Fridolin Walcher 2014

In the late eighties, the German Democratic Republic was bleeding people like money; the Iron Curtain was coming apart at the seams. November 9, 1989, would be the turning point, the evening on which the Socialist party allowed what had once been unimaginable.

In Block C South of the Karl-Marx-Allee, Otto Stark sat in the quiet of his apartment, tuning in to the historic national blunder that precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall: one of the few international press conferences in East Germany’s history, with one very ill-prepared party spokesman, Günter Schabowski, at the microphone.

Schabowski: (reading from a memo) “Permanent departures can be made through all border crossing points of the GDR to the [West German] Federal Republic of Germany. This eliminates the temporarily allowed issuance of appropriate permits in foreign missions of the GDR or permanent exit with the identity card of the GDR via third countries.” […]
Reporter: When does this take effect?
Schabowski: (leafing through his papers) To my knowledge this takes effect immediately … without delay.

Further along the Karl-Marx-Allee, people were buzzing at the Kino International. They had come from the West to see the first—and what would be the only—gay film of the GDR. Later, these West German visitors would witness, by accident, the historic event, as thousands of East Berliners gathered at the border-control points and the confused guards finally relented. Thousands of East Berliners strolled through the gates of the Berlin Wall, their blue GDR passports waving in the air. Scaling the Wall, sitting on the Wall, ecstatic reunions between families after three decades apart.

But things were quiet in the Stark household on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Mr. Stark, the famous actor and later director of the Cabaret Distel, and his wife, the famous actress Ilse Maybrid, did not go out that evening: they would wait until the next day to see for themselves what was going on at the Wall. Otto had had a long day; it was nearing midnight when the gates opened, he was already in his late sixties, he’d just returned home from work. The Starks held a privileged position in the GDR. They were a prominent couple, they traveled to the West on professional engagements, and they lived in a penthouse on the showcase boulevard—something reserved for celebrities and the “best workers,” as Otto Stark, now ninety-two, tells me from his living room of fifty-four years. The same living room in which he and his wife first watched the collapse of the GDR on television, twenty-five years ago this Sunday.

Less than one month before, tanks had rolled down the Karl-Marx-Allee for the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had hugged General Secretary Erich Honecker, the two sides coming together after years of stubborn disagreement. “If we stay behind, life will punish us immediately,” Gorbachev told Honecker that day. The last Day of the Republic, the last military parade on the crumbling Karl-Marx-Allee. Read More »

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A Sensual Act

October 16, 2014 | by

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From Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (The Advantages of Windfowl), 1956.

I started writing and drawing at an early age … My first book was a book of poetry and drawings. Invariably the first drafts of my poems combine drawings and verse, sometimes taking off from an image, sometimes from words … With drawing, I am acutely aware of creating something on a sheet of paper. It is a sensual act, which you cannot say about the act of writing. In fact, I often turn to drawing to recover from the writing.
—Günter Grass, the Art of Fiction No. 124, 1991

Happy eighty-seventh to Günter Grass. That “first book” he refers to is Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (The Advantages of Windfowl), from 1956; Princeton’s Graphic Arts Collection has a few of the lithographs on their site. As Martin Esslin writes, “It is hard to tell whether the poems are there to illustrate the drawings, or the drawings to illustrate the poems”—which accords with Grass’s fairly circular description of his process. Here’s another:Read More »

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Epicurean Materialism

October 15, 2014 | by

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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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