Marcel Broodthaer's Poetry in English

Marcel Broodthaers was a poet before he was an artist, and two of his early collections have now been translated:

What comes across insistently in both collections is Broodthaers’s attraction to thresholds, to points of transition that equally signify ends and beginnings. He makes reference to voyages undertaken and to midday, daybreak, and other such points of passage in our experience of time. Midnight ends not in darkness but at dawn, as its concluding poem “The Morning” closes with a gift of visionary illumination: “A light filters through to me, a / light of the crests of grasses.” One of the more moving poems in the Siglio volume is simply called “Final Poem,” coming at the end of My Ogre Book, suggesting that the book’s particular journey has reached a kind of terminus:

The streets enter from all sides. Blue flies begin to circle. They cast their eyes down to the pavement. They cry out :

That it is morning

That it is war

That life is costly

That it doesn’t fail to run too fast

That a storm has come quick

That it isn’t surprising

And that one has said it well.

Telescoped here is a sense both of distilled experience and of pride: the poet has made it through, at a cost. But on the opposing page, as a kind of envoi, we’re told that the storm has subsided and “That which had been lightning / became the zigzag of my steps”—the finality of the book’s last poem has now been transmuted into new, animated movement, leading to an unknown beyond.

There’s a restlessness on display in Broodthaers’s poetry that reveals something integral about what he achieved through his career’s varied projects. The poems seem to come from a radically different place than the later visual and conceptual work, but what unites all of it is an emphasis on renewal, reinvention, moving onward in the wake of what one has brought to completion.


German Literary 'Great' Inflation

Lithub has a feature on a German literary festival:

This weekend, the Neue Festival Literatur is offering a crash course in the best of contemporary German literature, with panels and readings from some of the most notable writers currently working in German. This year’s festival theme is “Seriously Funny.”

The post features English-language excerpts from recent work by Vea Kaiser, Xaver Bayer, Sibylle Berg, Iris Hanika, Pedro Lenz, Christopher Kloeble. Inspiring to see so much new German fiction getting a hearing in English.

My only objection is to the title of the post, which is 'Six Great Contemporary Writers Working in German'. No, these writers aren't great. They may be talented, interesting, innovative, wryly funny, or challenging, but they're not great. They're all way too young to have earned that adjective yet.

It looks like LitHub has been struck by what I call 'great' inflation: the tendency in German cultural circles to label about 60% of Germany's total literary production in a given year 'great'. Writers you've never heard of are described in German Feuilletons as 'great', as are books that sold 457 copies, won the Johann-August-Nepomuk Schleifenbumser prize from the town of Pflängenholz, and then disappeared.

I get it: the German urban haute bourgeoisie is terribly proud of the fact that it still Reads Books, and believes its mission on this earth is to convince as many people as possible to Read Books. One of the tactics they've settled on is 'great' inflation. Perhaps if we keep describing all books not directed at a mass audience as 'GREAT' often enough, people will begin reading more of them.

But it backfires. I've read some of the books described as 'great' over the years by German critics, and none of them was. Don't get me wrong: some were quite stimulating and very much worth reading. But not 'great'. Others, frankly, were crap -- which leads me to believe that many of these 'greats' are being doled out as favors to friends inside some incestuous literary clique. Reviewers should be required to reveal if they're friends with the people who wrote the book under review. 

German critics! Please stop the great inflation. If you apply the word 'great' to any but the most overwhelmingly magnificent 2-3% of literary productions, you drain it of all meaning. Look in your thesauri for other ways to express approval. Think long and hard before bestowing the title 'great' on a book or a person. The result will be clearer, more honest, and more lively reviews.


'Emily's Magical Bejeweled Codpiece'

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"Tom, museum curator and expert in Renaissance jewelry, doesn’t think his boyfriend Peter is 'The One.' Peter is perfectly happy with Tom, but Tom is obsessed with the artist Benedetto Emilio Nesci—exciting, passionate, extraordinarily talented… and dead for over 400 years. 

Tasked with researching a bejeweled codpiece, Tom abandons his professional ethics—and his sanity—to try on the codpiece and is transported halfway around the world and back in time, right into Florence, Italy and Nesci’s workroom."

Read more here.


Arab Spring and Arab Immigration

Marc Lynch is an American professor and Middle East expert who blogs at Abu Aardvark. Late last year, he wrote a disarmingly frank and honest article for the Washington Post on what scholars of the Middle East had gotten wrong about the Arab Spring of 2011. Many of them had high hopes at the time, which were later dashed. As I read it recently I thought to myself: 'Some of this wishful thinking and distorted perception reminds me a lot of what I am seeing currently in Germany.'

See if you agree:

I asked a group of the authors from my edited volume “The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East” to write short memos assessing their contributions critically after having another year to reflect. Those memos have now been published as POMEPS Studies 10 “Reflections on the Arab Uprisings” (free PDF available here). Their auto-critique is full of worthy observations: We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.

One point that emerged in the workshop discussions is the extent to which we became too emotionally attached to particular actors or policies. Caught up in the rush of events, and often deeply identifying with our networks of friends and colleagues involved in these politics, we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment. That’s a fine quality in activists, but not so helpful for academic rigor.

...

As for me, there are a number of areas where I’ve been rethinking things over the last year or two. There are some negative developments that did not surprise me, I should add, even though I had hoped they would be avoided. My earlier book, “The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East,” devoted an entire chapter to demonstrating how each previous round of popular mobilization in modern Arab history had ended up with the consolidation of even more heavy-handed authoritarianism. The disastrous results of the decision by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to field a presidential candidate were easily foreseen. So were the catastrophic consequences of external support to the Syrian insurgency, which has produced unbelievable human suffering but few real surprises to anyone versed in the comparative literature on civil wars and insurgencies. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the problems of Yemen’s transition.

...

New Arab Public: For a long time I believed that a mobilized Arab public would never again allow themselves to be manipulated and dominated by autocrats. Whatever the tactical setbacks and inevitable ups and downs of difficult transitions, I thought that the generational transformation would keep trends moving in the direction of more open politics. It was this new Arab public that gave me at least some optimism that the region could avoid repeating the failures of the past.

That conviction suffered a near-mortal blow in Egypt, where a shocking number of the youth and public voices who had made the uprisings proved more than willing to enthusiastically support the restoration of military government and violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was not simply the military’s successful coup that was shocking – such a denouement was always a possibility. The shock was the coup’s embrace by many of the popular forces upon whom hopes of irresistible change had been placed. The new Arab media and social media proved to be just as capable of transmitting negative and divisive ideas and images as they had been at spreading revolutionary ones. Egypt’s military coup traveled just as powerfully as had its revolution. The pan-Arab revolutionary unity of early 2011 has long since given way to sectarianism, polarization between Islamists and their enemies, and horror over the relentless images of death and despair in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

The media generally played a highly destructive role in the post-uprisings environment. For a brief, tantalizing moment, independent television stations and newspapers seemed to constitute a genuine Egyptian public sphere. But that quickly collapsed. Unreconstructed state media offered up a relentless stream of propaganda. Many private media outlets were captured by the state or by counter-revolutionary interests and the airwaves filled with the most vile forms of populist incitement. Meanwhile, transnational broadcasting descended into little more than transparent vehicles for state foreign policies, a change most noticeable – and damaging – with the once proud Al Jazeera. And while social media and new Web sites have certainly offered a plethora of opportunities for information to flow and opinions to be voiced, they have largely failed to supplant mainstream media as a source of news for mass publics.

"[W]e understated the importance of identity politics...we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment."


On Charles Bukowski

A favorite in Germany. Dan Piepenbring:

I have for many years now actively enjoyed not reading Charles Bukowski. I want to say with conviction that Bukowski is not so much a voice from hell as a voice from Hell-Lite™, a kind of flimsy, adolescent imitation of true misanthropy—but I have no evidence to furnish in my case against him. How could I? I’ve never read him. All I know is that I’ve listened to a tepid Modest Mouse song about him; I have spoken to a stranger at a bar who told me she’d “snort his words off the page,” if she could; and I’ve sneered at the cover of Ham on Rye in a Park Slope Barnes and Noble. If you asked me to mount a cogent defense of my antipathy, I’d have to say something pretentious like “I find his role in the culture banal.”


German Word of the Week: Schmähgier

I've been reading (well, listening to) Martin Gregor-Dellin's magnificent biography of Richard Wagner and came across a word which may well have been invented by Wagner himself. During his early years of pretty much unrelieved poverty, Wagner wrote feuilletons and music criticism to earn money while he desperately tried to get his early operas and overtures played. And they're still worth reading. This was before Wagner developed the pompous, semi-messianic tone that marks his later writing, including his autobiography. Gregor-Dellin cites some elegant turns of phrase to prove his point.

In 1840, Wagner met Heinrich Heine, the German poet who had been forced into Parisian exile for his political views. (Heine was Jewish, this was before Wagner's anti-Semitism became more pronounced.) Impressed by Heine's wit and strength of character, Wagner publicly defended him (g, pdf) against the withering attacks in the German press, which Wagner denounced as a product of Schmähgier.

This is brilliant German portmanteau word. Schmähen is a German verb meaning to viciously criticize or vilify. If you yell it it's a Schmähruf (vilify-call). If you criticize someone so harshly that it amounts to vilification, you may be legally liable in Germany for Schmähkritik (g).The German federal constitutional court has stated that although harsh criticism is protected by freedom of speech, criticism that is intended primarily to humiliate and insult and heap scorn on someone, without engaging in serious argumentation or debate, can be prosecuted under Germany's laws protecting personal honor. A lawyer who called his opponent (who apparently had a title of nobility) a 'chiseler' and 'Prince of Bullshit' (Flunkerfürst (g)) got dinged by a court in Hamburg for Schmähkritik.

Gier is greed or desire. Habgier is the greed to have (haben), i.e. avarice. Neugier is the greed for the new, or curiosity. You can have Gier for anything, there's even Mordgier, for those with an uncontrollable compulsion to kill. So Schmähgier is yet another short German word with tons of meaning packed in: the compulsive desire to vilify someone else.

I can't readily find this word anywhere before Wagner's use of it, so I would like to believe the master invented it himself. 


Kureishi in English for German Teens FTW

Düsseldorf has public bookshelves (g) dotted around the city. These are hardly, well-designed glass-walled boxes the size of a telephone booth (designed by architect Hans-Jürgen Greve) in which you can leave and pick up books for free. Most of the offerings are long-forgotten historical romances with names like 'Prince of the Thuringians' or 'Stolen Homeland', but I've also found a history of garden gnomes, a Polish cake cookbook, a manual of German parliamentary procedure, and other amusing things.

But the hippest find so far has been:

Kureishi front real

Dry, angry wit! But it gets better. I opened it to find a German schoolgirl's name written in the front cover and some annotations on the blurb:

Kurieshi front cover

So an English-language novel about Pakistani counterculture types coming to terms with sex, drugs and rock and roll was assigned (or at least) accepted as official class reading by a German Gymnasium for a 17-year-old girl.

Germany, you have regained my respect.