Friday, August 31, 2007

from fasnacht, in february

card catalgoue

The card catalogue was once the mainstay of my maiden visits to public libraries: the first in my memory being by the public swimming pool on San Vicente Blvd. by the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, where we would collect children's books in the summer; the more regular outpost of my youth being the branch on Robertson Blvd. between 18th and Airdrome, before the massive renovation, where I used to check out books for new yoga poses or meditation techniques in what amounted to a dark, oversized room that smelled of hot dust. In the center of this room, like an anchor or a pole that pitches a tent, stood the card catalogue. At my elementary school, I recall taking out a drawer of a card catalogue - which they told us never to do - to try and get at one of the cards way in the back, only to accidentally drop the drawer and spend the next five days after school re-alphabetizing all the cards that had scattered across the floor. (In my subsequent encounters with card catalogues, which became fewer and farther between, I learned in retrospect that cards are usually actually attached to their drawer by means of a rod that runs its length and through a hole at the bottom of all the cards to avoid precisely this mishap.) And in my middle school, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. library, we spent an entire afternoon learning the Dewey Decimal System - I distinctly remember it being the single most boring day of my school career (which is still in process). In the end, the only thing I used that library for was to take my AP exams under the patient gaze of a poorly rendered MLK.

Yale's Sterling Memorial Library displayed its card catalogue semi-reverently in the gothic bays of its first floor - something you had to pass by on the way to get in to actually use the library. I still recall the admissions materials that made a point of highlighting the (by then out-of-use) card catalogue with the language reserved for any of its other treasures or precious curiosities. By contrast, the card catalogue for Harvard's Widener Library is nowhere in sight, though the one for the Fine Arts Library still mutely surrounds the computer terminals. There was a rumor my first year in graduate school that they were going to throw it away, but that did not come to pass.

Now the library I find myself using on a daily basis is the library at the Kunstmuseum Basel, the University's art library. And here I am confronted with the bizarre presence of the card catalogue once again, not as a relic of a bygone era, but as something I must actually use. Any book the library acquired before 1990 (I think) has to be looked up in the card catalogue, a call slip filled in by hand (each one separately, each with my full mailing address), and the book picked up a few hours later. The catalogue is organized by Author, Keyword, Galerienkataloge (which are museum catalogues), Kuenstlerkataloge (which, more often than not, are gallery catalogues), Auction catalogues, and Periodicals. If I wanted to look up all the books about the artist Naum Gabo, for example, I would have to go online and then go to the card catalgoue. I would then look up his name in the Keyword drawers, where I would find three books about him. Then I would look his name up in the Author drawer, which might yield another one or two tomes. Finally, I would check the Kuenstlerkatalog, and find, to my relief, the bulk of the books on Gabo, which a library of its quality certainly has but which, for some mysterious reason, are not also cross-referenced in the Keyword catalogue. Unfortunately, in the case of Gabo, as I experienced two days ago, his Kuenstlerkatalog drawer is currently being entered into the online catalogue at last (a good thing), making it unavailable for at least a week (a bad thing).

Having already lived through the era of agonizing digitization of library catalgoues (and suffering at the moment as slide libraries make the analogous "upgrade"), I am none too pleased by my daily guesswork with the Basel card catalgoue. And this despite my general leniency towards bibliophile nostalgia.

Friday, August 24, 2007

you never know

As I was delivering my good-byes at the museum today, thanks all around for help and Großzügigkeit, my capacity to speak German utterly failed me. Reading too many letters by Kurt Schwitters in a sitting can have that effect. In one letter, the man can wander from German to Norwegian to his idiosyncratic English to Dutch to French, flexing his mastery of now-forgotten nineteenth-century shorthand scripts, a kind of cursive Fraktur (so-called gothic writing), even trying his hand at cuneiform writing (though fortunately admitting defeat pretty quickly)! To be fair, the bulk of the letters are in German, are legible to the modern eye, or are in a whacky English that is remarkably fluent and unbelievably mangled at the same time. I like to imagine that’s how his German reads to someone who knows better: I for one have never read the language used in a way quite like his.

H. asked if I had been out to “Waldhausen” yet and I had no idea what he was talking about. Which must have shocked him at first, because it was the street on which Schwitters lived in Hannover, where the fabled Merzbau once stood, and whose name marked the top of every one of his thousands of missives on his specially-designed letterheads prior to his flight from the Gestapo. My incomprehension had just as much to do with the unexpected nature of the question as it had my rapidly disintegrating grasp of the native tongue. On the other hand, it was also the most natural question in the world to ask and I was taken aback by the idea that it hadn’t even occurred to me to find out where Waldhausen Strasse was, let alone see the spot where the house (destroyed in an air raid) once stood.

H. however jumped at the opportunity to enlighten me: the house next door had survived and furthermore it is an architectural Spiegelbild – a mirror reflection – of the Schwitters home. If I went on the pilgrimage, I’d at least be rewarded with a semblance of what it must have looked like on the outside in nearly the same spot. What’s more, the graveyard where Schwitters is buried is right across the street and H. told me vaguely where I could find it – “somewhere behind the chapel.”

Ironically, my patient attention to all this information – the directions to the house, the right tram to take – caused me to just miss the earlier train to Basel, the second to last that day, which also happened to be the very last day my BahnCard was valid. So, with two hours to spare before the very last train I would take in Germany for the foreseeable future, I decided, what the hell, I’d go and do a little dissertation tourism after all. When I thought about it, barely a week went by this year when I was not in Hannover for at least two days, and it was a bit absurd that I hadn’t had the slightest curiosity about the street where the man whose mail I had been sifting through (drowning in) had lived or even a wee bit of interest in visiting his remains. Then again, I also take it as a healthy sign that I didn’t want to indulge in what could easily be a melancholic wallow in the life of a person who exists more as a concept or idea for me. Albeit a very funny and brilliant one.

Save for my camera and umbrella, I left my baggage in a two-hour locker for a euro – and two hours was exactly what I had. I ordered a gelato, crossed the Bahnhofplatz to the tourist office, got a free map, and set out with the tram to the edge of the city. When I emerged at Waldhausen Strasse, I immediately saw the Döhrener Turm, which I had seen just minutes before in a sketch Schwitters had sent in a letter in 1935. As absolutely nothing around it looked the same, the vision of the medieval tower had the effect of a dream displacement.

It started to rain lightly when I got to Number 5, which, true to form, was a nondescript bit of postwar West German construction. Pretty much every other house on the block, however, was a splendidly renovated, glistening specimen of fin-de-siècle building. Just our luck, I thought, the one building to be hit had to be the Merzbau. I took a photograph of the Spiegelbild and its blank left side, which must have cleanly abutted Number 5 but now visibly cleared the significantly shorter replacement.

This blank wall clearly betrays, as do so many similar walls in Germany, the wounds of the war despite all attempts at Sanierung and Verschönung these decades later. (These words mean “renovation” and “improvement” respectively, but in the echo of “sanitation” in the former and Versöhnung, or “appeasement,” in the latter, the truth oozes out like pus.) Tear down every building with “bad memory” in Berlin, for instance; sublimate every bit of history into countless bronze plaques to trinket up the soulless, safe architecture of the Wende – these blank walls remain indelible. They’re the only thing around that allows me to actually see that any sort of catastrophe ever happened here.

(And here I am suddenly reminded of the news I received at the start of this journey that Raul Hilberg, a pioneer of Holocaust studies, had recently died in Vermont. In Lanzman’s Shoah he goes into excruciating detail about how the Reich nearly bankrupted itself with the Deutsche Bahn as it coordinated shipping Europe’s Jews to all the concentration camps. Sifting through receipts and order slips for ever more train cars before our eyes, reading them out one by one, your mind is supposed to glaze over with tedium – until that moment when Hilberg says that in his hands are the documents that set in motion the Holocaust and the largest planned and organized migration in history. And that the bureaucracy of it all makes this fact invisible, makes you struggle to remember – even as you are watching a 9 hour Holocaust documentary – that each car actually reified so many dozens of people.)

Standing under my umbrella across the street, under the suspicious eyes of a woman living in the Spiegelbild house that I had just photographed (I was about to write “captured on film”!), I thought how depressing it was that there wasn’t a Merzbau behind its walls, even as the view I had wouldn’t be essentially any different if it had indeed survived the war. I thought that behind a very similar façade (just mirror reversed) once was the Merzbau, and it would have been very easy for one of the neighbors to have walked their dog every day by Number 5 and never have had the slightest idea. It sent a shiver down my spine. What was more bizarre was there wasn’t even a plaque mentioning that Kurt Schwitters had once lived in the now-vanished neighboring house. (Having just spent the last four days living in Göttingen, where every single house bears a plaque saying which seventeenth-century chemist or novelist or anthropologist once lived there, it was shocking that Schwitters didn’t get the same quintessentially German memorial honor.) Needless to say, I kept my eyes firmly focused on that blank face of brick wall.

The paranoid tenant was now out on her balcony trying to lure me into a staring contest, and not having the desire to stick around to see if she had called the local police, I trotted off to the cemetery. I misread the map and entered in at completely the opposite end where H. had said Schwitters’ grave was. I wandered about for a quarter of an hour, searching and marveling at the pristine grounds and the gorgeously integrated (new and old), at-attention headstones. This was probably the polar opposite of the Jewish cemetery in Prague, I thought. I remember that mess of stone and tree roots from a photograph my parents gave me from their first trip out of the States.

When I realized my mistake, I noticed I was running short on time, so I walked briskly to the other end of the cemetery and hoped that with any luck, where the grave was would be immediately obvious. I needed a famous-grave/interesting-headstone map, like the one they have in the sprawling Milan cemetery (its centerpiece being the most moving Holocaust memorial to my knowledge). Schwitters’ plot fulfilled both those criteria – fame and an arty stone – and was probably the only one in the whole place that did. I had read all the correspondence by his son about moving the grave from England, where he was originally buried, as the little church in the Lake District disapproved of having a stone replica of Schwitters’ abstract sculpture Die Herbstzeitlose [The Late-Bloomer] on the headstone. Apparently, it was his father’s wish, and off the body went, to where they would let them erect the sculpture – back to Germany of all places.

Of course, when I got to the chapel H. had mentioned, it was distinctly not self-evident where Schwitters was buried and I wandered aimlessly, checking my watch at every other headstone. I absolutely could not miss this last train. But now that I was here I wanted to see the grave. More than anything. It started to thunder. Then lightning. Perhaps the Spirit of Schwitters would guide me. After all, I felt like I knew that spirit pretty well by now, if not the man himself exactly. It started to rain harder. I tried to be “open to his vibes,” be sort of mystic and Californian and receptive to forces at work beyond this world, etc. But I kept heading to inscriptions bearing stern Lutheran injunctions or grim, appropriately sober crucifixes. I looked at my watch one last time. I definitely had to go. Oh well, if anyone asks again, I’ll say I saw it, I thought. I did the next best thing: the best I could.

I wandered towards the chapel and to the gate that leads out to the tram tracks. I turned my head to look down the very last path that forked off to the right before reaching the gate. Staring me full in the face was Die Herbstzeitlose. It wasn’t lining the side of the path like all the other graves did on all the other paths; it was standing at the other end of the axis, my Spiegelbild, a vanishing point. I laughed out loud – not a very dignified thing to do in a cemetery, to be sure, but appropriate. It would seem that the Spirit of Schwitters had guided me in the end, and, true to form, at the midnight hour. Late bloomer, indeed! I risked a few minutes to look at the sculpture and read the inscription – Man kann ja nie wissen [you never know]. I looked around for a rock to put on the headstone, and in the manicured lawns of this decidedly un-Jewish cemetery, the best I could find was the lone pebble the caretakers seemed to have overlooked. A more perfect stone I could not imagine.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

gelato captial of germany?

I am here for my final four days in Hannover - to be exact, tomorrow will be the last. This short reprise has allowed me to read more of Schwitters´mail (and his son´s and his wife´s and his mother´s and his daughter(s)-in-law´s), read an amazing poem about fleeing the Nazis in Norway, and find snippets of the sort that could finally anchor my free-floating Passagenwerk of a dissertation right now. All in all, worth the trip.

More so as it has enabled me to sing a swan song to this nonexistent summer with the best gelato this side of the Alps. There is an ice cream parlor in the Hannover Hauptbahnhof that is so popular they have an extra "to-go" stand just for cones. After swiping a Süddeutscher Zeitung from the Deutsche Bahn lounge, I used to do a drive-by nearly every time I caught the train to get back to Hamburg to help clear the "archive brain." It is also ridiculously cheap. And did I mention heavenly? And delicious?

Tomorrow my Bahn Card 100 expires marking a full year of my German adventure and I am ending it where it began, in Göttingen, of all places. I am staying at P.´s new palatial place - he has just moved in but is actually still in Basel. This is the second friend´s apartment I´ve squatted in this summer while the rightful tenant has been in another country. I think they deserve a special line of thanks in the ballooning acknowledgements of my magnum opus.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"articles may not be exchanged"

Adorno is always good for an aphorism, and in today's perusal of Minima Moralia (London: Verso, 2002), I found the following astute perception:

"We are forgetting how to give presents... The decay of giving is mirrored in the distressing invention of gift-articles, based on the assumption that one does not know what to give because one really does not want to." (42)

Now, this could be read as a plea for more presents, and, in a way, it is. But in the same beat, I'd like to make mention of one of the best gifts I ever recall receiving: for my twenty-first birthday, S. gave me a three-page list of movies I simply had to see. If I had seen any of them, I certainly don't remember it, for my overwhelming impression after the first read was sheer novelty. And I am still working my way through the list to this day. No only did it rescue me on more than one occasion from rental-store paralysis (a pathology dying out in the wake of tailored "recommendations" from the likes of Netflix or Amazon), but it also opened up a whole world of cinema that had, due to my family's peculiar relationship to film, remained resolutely closed to me. (In my childhood, we went to the movies once a year, inevitably to our great disappointment, but we saw a film every night thanks to the invention of the VCR and always one from the Silver Screen.)

To repay her for giving me Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep and Atom Egoyan's Exotica, I gave her, for her birthday some two weeks later, a similar list of classic Hollywood films that were, until the intervention of her gift, exclusively my daily bread. Now that I am living in Basel, divorced from the independent and revival theaters in Hamburg with their 4 euro student prices, T. and I are thinking twice about going to the cinema for 18 CHF a pop and have taken to frequenting the local video rental store. This is no cause for (utter) despair: I am capable of fetishizing the rental experience almost as completely as I am the movie-going one. This often begins with a profoundly empathetic relationship to the man (always a man, always a little nerdy) behind the counter - a heady cocktail of pity, adoration, and self-pity.

I was a little shocked that T. had never seen a Hitchcock film in its entirety (after an aborted viewing of my copy of Vertigo on one of his return flights from Boston), so it seems we're doing a little mini-retrospective these days. Last night, we saw Foreign Correspondent, which immediately sent me off to make a list - one that had Strangers on a Train, Notorious, and Rebecca but also All About Eve, Laura, and Sullivan's Travels. And while I was furiously jotting down a movie list for him, I said, "maybe we should have an Ingmar Bergman retrospective too." To which he replied, "between Stephen Colbert and French and Saunders, I think I already got one."

Which doesn't mean that I won't make him see Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander with me too.

Friday, August 10, 2007

memory lane (everybody wants one)

I haven't given much thought to what it is I'm doing here until I uttered the word "fanzine" to T. on the couch this morning. And when I went online to see if I could come up with one of my favorites, Murder can be Fun (whose special issue on "(Anti-)Sex Tips for Teens" was a mainstay in the back rows of my trigonometry class), I realized that there was - of course - already a whole discussion online about the fate of the zine in the digital age.

I don't really have a desire to contribute to that conversation other than to quizzically call attention to the website of MRR (Maximum Rock 'n' Roll), which was the music rag of choice of my teendom. Unlike Rolling Stone, in which you were guaranteed to have heard of every band they mentioned before you read the issue (thus serving to reinforce what you already knew and goading you to go ahead and buy this or that album after all), in MRR, it was a right honor to your cred if you had heard of a single band mentioned within its crappy newsprint pages. It was the magazine where you learned about your friend's band before she even got the chance to tell you she had a band.

While I love the idea of rediscovering MRR online, it is germane to the experience it exists to promote that you get physically dirty from the ink flipping the pages. And it would seem that I'm not the only one who's attached to the paper - the website is devoted to radio broadcasts, subscription info, and a history lesson about the magazine, but the thing itself still has to come in the mail. Diggit!

free love in upstate new york

From my utopia list-serv, here.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

in-flight movies

On the way out from Frankfurt to Boston, Blades of Glory, which was inspired comedy a la Zoolander. It managed to acknowledge that lazy homophobia that is the hallmark of so many of these dude comedies and simultaneously skirt (even subvert?) it.

On the way out from JFK to Los Angeles, Meet the Robinsons, which I chose not to watch.

On the way out from Los Angeles to JFK, Shrek the Third, which I chose not to watch because, again, why all the CGI cartoons?

On the way out from JFK to Zurich, The Last Mimzy, which was another child-oriented (though live-action) feature with overtones of fantasy (my least favorite genre to boot), but as I inadvertently packed my book in a bag that was checked through, I watched it with the German dubbing. I enjoyed it because after a month in the States, I didn't suddenly lose my comprehension skills.

Also playing on that flight was Roman Holiday, which I decided was worth skipping any attempt at some restless shut-eye to see again. I always liked this movie (Gregory Peck and Rome, what's not to like?) but in the wee hours of the evening-turing-into-morning limbo somewhere past Reykjavik as a few of the Orthodox Jews on my flight began to daven, I suddenly realized all these ways the film is enormously complex and potentially troubling.