On Friday, I debated American law professor and death-penalty proponent Robert Blecker in the 'New Auditorium' of Heidelberg University, which was freshly renovated in 2011 to celebrate the 625th birthday of that institution. The room was pretty crowded, and the audience -- almost exclusively students -- asked interesting questions. The Heidelberg Symposium (g) is organized exclusively by a small group of idealistic, hard-working students, and they did a fine job, presenting dozens of interesting speakers (I went to several other presentations myself and was never disappointed) and making guests feel more than welcome. If you want to support this entirely voluntary, student-run, interdisciplinary conference, go here (g). They also welcome Sachspenden (in-kind contributions).
Given all the charming people I was meeting, I did rather a bit more drinking and socializing than I normally do -- in fact, on Friday night, I stayed up until 6 AM, and walked home to the Hotel Tannhäuser.* Many thanks to my readers for the suggestions. Unfortunately, the weather was cool and rainy, so all the Biergärten were closed and no space was left inside, so there was no white asparagus with braised pork knuckles (or whatever they eat in Heidelberg) for me. My drinking companions and I always seemed to end up in the Weinloch ('Winehole'!) in the Untere Straße, which stays open until 3 AM and lives up to its name.
I finally got a chance to see the Prinzhorn Collection of art by patients in a clinic for the mentally ill, collected in the early 20th century by an idealistic psychologist and art historian named Hans Prinzhorn. The classic book he published in 1922, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (g) (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), influenced a generation of modern artists. And I didn't just buy if for the pictures; Prinzhorn's innovation was to treat artworks by mentally ill patients not as curiosities or signs of disease, but rather as serious expressions of the primal human need to understand the world, bring order to sense impressions, decorate one's surroundings, and express states of the soul.
The project was perverted a generation later, when the chairman of the Heidelberg psychiatric clinic, Carl Schneider, permitted works from the collection to be used by the Nazis to 'prove' that modern art was no different from the 'scribblings of mental degenerates'. Prinzhorn himself was prevented from further developing his own fascination with racial ideology (g) by his early death in 1933. Many of the artists whose works appear in the book were later murdered in Grafeneck (g) as part of the T4 program. Prinzhorn's masterpiece has been translated into English and has consistently remained in print in Germany, with the last edition appearing in 2011. The Prinzhorn collection is now housed in a thoroughly-renovated old lecture hall, and is the perfect size.
I have a few other observations about Heidelberg:
- In the early morning, the streets of Heidelberg are full not only of drunken students, but also lots of drunken random citizens speaking a neurologically-impaired version of whatever their native language is. Or their 'school English'. You'll also see a lot of swarthy men showing each other rather intense levels of public affection. There are almost-nightly fights, which the police actually don't do much to prevent: they watch over things and make sure nobody gets seriously hurt. It's all loads of fun until somebody loses an eye, but it's not exactly the academic idyll it is often portrayed as.
- The university's world-famous Egyptian collection is closed, apparently indefinitely, while it's being moved to a new location. Naturally, you won't find this clearly stated anywhere on the University's website or at any signs at the former location of the exhibition.
- The traditional German style of holding a 'Vorlesung' lives on among many of the crusty old professors at Heidelberg (but not only there, of course). The professor stands behind the lectern, reading a prepared text (or simply reading a slightly revised version of their most recent book or commentary) in a monotone. The text is read word-for-word, page for page. Deviation from the text is a cardinal sin, as is the idea of integrating contemporary examples or empirical verification. After having droned on for the required amount of time, the professor gathers his or her papers and leaves the room. Interruptions and questions are not permitted, and the professor simply doesn't care if half the students leave mid-lecture out of sheer boredom. The fact that this 'lecture' style could also be performed by an Amazon Kindle doesn't seem to have inspired thesed professors to change their ways. Fortunately, this style of lecturing is slowly dying out even in German universities, but it's always gob-smacking to see one of these 'old-school' profs displaying such open contempt for the audience.
- Heidelberg 'Student kisses' are the most delicious candies in the world.
UPDATE: The indefatigable Christian Boulanger asks how the debate was. You'll be able to judge soon enough, since it will be posted on YouTube. Until then, my impressions. My job was to defend the 'European model' of criminal punishment, which could be summed up as (1) avoid prison confinement wherever possible; (2) integrate retributivism (as the basis for the length of the sentence) without going overboard; (3) make sure prison does as good a job as possible resocializing inmates; and (4) keep criminal justice out of the hands of the people and in the hands of politically insulated civil servants. Blecker, for his part, is an 'emotive retributivist' who favors capital punishment for the 'worst of the worst' and supports making prison life gradually more restrictive depending on the level of moral culpability of the offender, meaning those who displayed serious depravity of mind would be subject to punitive segregation. His views are more nuanced than some of the video clips circulating on the Internet may make it seem: he believes the death penalty is used too frequently in the United States, agrees that America has a serious over-incarceration problem, and that too little is done to try to rehabilitate prisoners. His focus is on severe punishments for the 'worst of the worst', but on correspondingly less severe punishments for those whose crimes don't demonstrate utter viciousness.
I was preaching to the choir, since I was defending a system that most of the middle-class to upper-class university students tend to see as natural and normal and humane. (This complacency is aggravated by the 'respectable' German media's disinterest in highlighting the many problems plaguing German criminal justice, with the intermittent exception of Der Spiegel (g)). I don't normally like preaching to the choir, so I tried to leaven my endorsement of European mildness with some criticisms. Nevertheless, the students listened to Blecker's point of view respectfully, and Becker earned applause for his frankly, honestly retributive opinions -- such as that he has little use for the abstract notion of 'human dignity', and that he considers the 'human dignity' of people like Magnus Gäfgen as much less worthy of protection than that of the young boy he callously murdered.
Anyway, that's my two cents. The debate was captured on video by a pretty professional camera team, and I've been promised it will be posted on YouTube in the next few weeks. As soon as it shows up, I'll post it here, and you can draw your own conclusions...
And now for a few random pictures from my photostream: