Coming to Terms with Günter Grass

Marian Wirth allowed me to post his pithy assessment of Grass, hoisted from a comment feed on another website:

Grass was pretty much the last surviving founding father of German post-war literature. He became instantly famous with his debut novel and used the financial independence and the fame to promote authors younger and/or less successful than him, to improve Germany's position in the world and to boost interest in German as a language all over the world.

It still confuses me to hear foreign authors praise Grass - celebrities like Salman Rushdie, who spent the day Grass died defending him on Twitter, as well as national celebrities in, say, Brazil or Nigeria, who tell you how much they adore Grass ever since they read the TIN DRUM as a teenager and I'm always like "WHAT?!" when I hear that because everything about Grass and his most notorious book is so German that I have still trouble believing it even got translated into English.

Bottom line: He was THE most important figure for German literature and one of the leading brand ambassadors for German culture. Even people who disagreed on everything with Grass can't deny that and it drives them crazy, I can tell you.

Grass was a man of many talents. Unfortunately, he got famous for writing novels, his least developed talent.

He was a world class boozer, smoker and dancer.
He was an outstanding sculptor.
He was a phenomenal graphic artist.
He was an efficient SPD canvasser.
He was one of the three leading anti-Semites in Germany, and a decent poet, resulting in the ugliest piece of anti-Semitism published in Germany after the second world war.

His novels are more or less unreadable, since he subscribed to the leading principles of German post-war literature such as the following: avoid direct speech at all cost. Direct speech and dialogue are evil, leave them to the Americans and their movie-script like writing. It's your job to make the readers suffer. Insurmountable blocks of text are your thing. Long winding, meandering sentences filled with German guilt and with guilt to be a human being enjoying life are your profession.

I have read several of his novels, though failed twice to read the TIN DRUM (I'll give it a third try soon). "Too Far Afield" took me over a year to get through. My favorite Grass novel is The Meeting at Telgte.

Politically, he was wrong on everything after 1990. Not only was he wrong on everything, his criticism was always over the top, mean, vile and presented in an apodictic fashion that made it impossible to argue against it. This rant is presented in a similar way to make it more obvious what drove me away from Grass.

So much for an executive summary of what needs to be said about Grass. Vale, rest in peace etc. should still apply, of course.

Zedler's Recipe for Spiced Beer Against Melancholy


A couple of German libraries, assisted by the German Research Council, have scanned all 63,000 pages (g) of 'Johann Heinrich Zedler's Great Complete Universal Encyclopedia of All the Sciences and Arts', published in 1732. It's even searchable. And it's fantastic.

I searched for melancolia in various spellings and came across this recipe for 'Spiced Beer Against Melancholey'. The antiquated spelling and Fraktur script make it a bit hard to read, but the recipe seems to have at least 15 or so ingredients, including young beer, 'hermo-dates(?)', carrot seeds, radishes, white wine, coriander seeds, juniper berries, St. John's Wort tips, and much more:

Krauter beer melancholey

There's got to be some philologist out there who can interpret the weights, measures, and cooking instructions. We can only hope all the spices are still available.

Let's all get together and whip up a giant cauldron of this stuff and get rid of our Melancholey once and for all! Who's with me?

Depressed Dawg in da Haus

Hip-hop was created in the USA, but since then it's spread everywhere, like a gigantic sentient fungus with moist, throbbing, pinkish pedipalps. The biggest mainstream hip-hop band in Germany is the Fantastischen Vier (Fantastic 4). The Fantastic 4 are amusingly earnest. One of their MCs, Smudo, for example, is a socially-conscious vegetarian.

The most 'gangsta' rapper in Germany is, naturally, not white. His name is Anis Mohamed Youssef Ferchichi, otherwise known as Bushido. Bushido's rhymes cover reassuringly familiar territory: fucking bitches, buying expensive shit, getting beatings from drunken parents and rival gangs, drug excesses, beating up faggots (Schwuchtel), etc., etc. The cherry on top is Bushido's alleged links to organized crime, rumors of which which he carefully cultivates. Runner-up position goes to Sido, a white German named Paul Würdig, whose stage name stands for the German abbreviation for 'Super-Intelligent Drug Victim'. His solo breakthrough came in 2002 with the sentimental lullaby Arschficksong, or 'Ass-fuck Song'. The cherry on top for Sido is that his civilian name, Würdig, means 'Dignified'. 

And then there are rappers who rap about how much they despise society and how depressed and helpless they are. Normally we associate rappers with unrealistically high self-esteem, but Germany wouldn't be Germany if it didn't produce rappers who drop knowledge like this (g):

Ein Opfer der Gesellschaft, ein Opfer deiner Eltern. Die andern werden größer und stärker, du wirst nur älter.

A victim of society, victim of your parents. The others get bigger and stronger, you just get older.

The composer of these lines was Jakob Wich, alias NMSZ ('Nemesis'), a rapper with the Düsseldorf outfit Antilopengang, most of whose members were formerly associated with a scene called the Anti-Everything Crusade, or Anti-Alles Aktion (g). I don't know how this rhyme continues, but I'm not all that eager to find out. I'm still American enough to have a deeply-ingrained aversion to, well, whining about how fucked-up everything is. Whining, however accurate, doesn't add to humankind's reserves of wisdom, inspiration, creativity, resolve, compassion, or beauty.

Given the proudly untreated depression and learned helplessness which emanates from just those two lines, it should come as no surprise that, tragically, NMSZ killed himself earlier this year. Here's another one of his songs, for the curious: 

German Bitchy Resting Face: The Suspicious Grimace

Above is a mildly amusing video seeking to 'raise consciousness' about people who have naturally bitchy expressions. This is a universal problem. For one thing, the British newspaper the Daily Mail quickly embraced the phenomenon, and who can argue with the World's Tabloid?

For more proof, look at this photograph, taken at a German automatic restaurant in 1965, taken from a historical article in Der Spiegel about automat restaurants:


The woman on the right has the archetypal German facial expression, which I call the 'suspicious grimace', or SG (misstrauische Grimasse in German). It's a look that says 'What the hell is he doing here? Why is he looking at me? Is he going to come up to me and fondle me or hit me or ask me for money? I wish he'd go away.' This is the default facial expression of all Germans over 30, especially middle-aged and older females. I see it at least 15-20 times on my 10-minute bike ride to work.

I could go out right now with a hidden camera to any German city and, within an hour, bring you at least 50 photographs of random strangers -- mostly older women -- with exactly this expression. In fact, I've often thought of doing just that, but you can get in trouble in Germany for using someone's image without their permission, so I haven't actually done this. Note that as with BRF, the SG is not necessarily a sign of bad temper. If you strike up a conversation with one of these people and defuse the initial assumption that all strangers are potential perverts or criminals, even the grumpiest-looking frump often proves to be quite pleasant.

What explains this national trait?  Is it genetic? Is it because most Germans are more fearful and insecure (pdf) than many other nationalities? Is it a lingering national memory of totalitarian government? Is is a curdled form of the remote, serious facial expression considered to convey personal dignity and reserve? Your guess may well be as good as mine -- we'll see in comments.

If you want to see what Swedes do when they notice strangers paying attention to them, follow the jump.

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Rules for Cemeteries

No trip to Kassel would be complete without a visit to the Museum für Sepulkralkultur (g), a museum devoted to death and burial. There are coffins from around the globe (including simple boxes for Orthodox Jews and gaily-decorated Ghanaian models), hell money and hell cigarettes, Totentanz sculptures, hearses, monuments, embalming kits, memorial portraits, 'death crowns' for children and young unmarried people, monuments, death masks, and art inspired by death, funerals, rebirth, and reincarnation. Outside, there are innovative grave markers designed by contemporary artists. Of course, there are also programs for kids.

There are also the obligatory information-drenched placards describing the origin and nature of European funeral practices. From these you learn that the practice of burying people in individual, marked graves only became uniform in Europe in the last 200 years -- before that, most poorer citizens were dumped in mass graves. You also learn that modern German cemeteries are facing a space crisis -- they're not running out of it, they often have too much of it, since almost 50% of Germans now choose to be cremated, and those numbers keep growing.

While there, I stocked up on a few back issues of Friedhof und Denkmal: Zeitschrift für Sepulkralkultur (Cemetery and Monument: Journal of Sepulchral Culture). In the 2-2011 issue of this handsome magazine, there is a discussion of the model rules for grave design in Catholic cemeteries that were recently promulgated by the Archbishopric of Cologne:

Basically, the new regulations contain only required dimensions for the grave, as well as bans on some materials that are inappropriate for cemeteries. Completely covered graves are forbidden: the grave-plate can only cover up to one-third of the grave.... [Individual church cemeteries can still] add regulations that servce to express shared religious beliefs. An example is a ban on polished stone, since this prevents natural change in the stone, which itself is an expression of the transitoriness of human life in this world. A ban on snow-white marble and showy (überschwänglich) golden inscriptions serve to prevent excessive ostentation in the religious sense.

The back of the book contains reviews of recent burial-related books, including a 400-page work by Regina Deckers on 'The Testa Velata in Baroque Sculpture' (g) an entire monograph (written at the University of Düsseldorf!) on the motif of figures with veiled heads or faces in funerary sculpture.

Now for some of the odd and delightful things in the museum, hover for info.

Skeleton Sculpture MfSK Kassel
Totentanz Figure Knight MfSK Kassel
Death and the Chinaman MfSK Kassel

Skulls Inscribed with Owners' Names from S. Germany MfSK Kassel
Nietszche Memorial Model MfSK Kassel
General View of 19th Century Embalmer's Kit

Eye-caps from 19th Century Embalmers' Kit MfSK Kassel
Kubach & Kropp 'Stein fuer das Licht' MfSK Kassel
Spinster's Burial Crown MfSK Kassel
Martin Luther Death Mask MfSK Kassel
Beethoven Death Mask MfSK Kassel

Treated Like Cattle in the Gemäldegalerie

No visit to Berlin is complete without a trip to the Gemäldegalerie, one of my favorite museums. On previous visits, I'd never stayed until closing time. This time, I saw what they do there at closing time, and it wasn't pretty. Hence the letter:

Dear Berlin Museums Visitors’ Service,

Recently, I visited the Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery) in Berlin. The museum advertised that it was open until 18:00, and I decided to stay until that time to enjoy the collection.

I have always enjoyed my previous visits to this elegant museum, but this time was different. 15 – perhaps even 20 -- minutes before 18:00, my ears were suddenly assaulted by an audio message from blown speakers in the museum’s ceiling. Amid crackles of distortion, the announcement played the melody of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ and announced to visitors that the gallery would be closing shortly. The first announcement, in German, was then followed by an equally distorted and almost unrecognizable message in English, then, if I recall correctly, in French.

But that was not all. At the same time, the museum’s docents positioned themselves in all the doorways to the individual rooms, as if they were nightclub bouncers. To actually get into a room at 17:50 and see a painting, you had to convince a docent to let you in. Many of the docents were unfriendly and suspicious, treating visitors who wanted to enjoy a painting at 17:54 as if they were potential criminals. Finally, all the museum’s visitors were herded out of the museum at exactly 18:00, after being pressured to leave.

As I could tell by the visitors’ comments, this unprofessional treatment left a terrible impression that the museum’s visitors will take back to their home countries. When guests pay to enjoy a museum which closes at 18:00, then they should be able to actually enjoy the museum until 18:00.

To improve the visitors’ experience, I suggest that the Gemäldegalerie (1) repair the speakers in the museum ceiling; (2) broadcast only one closing message (everyone will know what it means, even if they don’t understand the language) and do so at, say, 17:57; and (3) give guests 10-15 minutes after the official closing time to leave the museum.

As paying guests in one of the world’s finest collections of Old Masters, they deserve no less.


Andrew Hammel

Taking German Chauvinists Down a Peg

FINAL UPDATE: OK, I've inserted a few more links and done a bit of editing, so I'll leave this as the final version.

Let me reiterate one critical point: the purpose of this list is not some sort of a scorecard for an asinine whose-country-is-best locker room contest. Many of the stereotypes of America listed in the left-hand column have more than a grain of truth, and there are plenty of counter-arguments to mitigate the criticisms of Germany. This is not meant to be an even-handed scholarly analysis. It is just a handy cheat sheet to use when a certain (blessedly rare) kind of pompous, overbearing German launches into an anti-American tirade. In my experience, these episodes have become much less frequent since George W. Bush left office. But nevertheless, you never know when you'll get cornered at a party with one of these people, and this list can help the hapless Yank move from defense to offense.

UPDATE 12 April: Since a few commenters have implied I'm making these criticisms up or don't know what I'm talking about (which I do), I've decided to go through the list, revising a bit and adding links to back up my points. Still an ongoing process...

By popular demand, here's the list I mentioned in a recent post. As noted, the list is largely not of defenses to these stereotypical shortcomings of American society (many of which I find accurate). Rather, they are lists of similar/comparable shortcomings in German society. If I can't think of a comparable fault, I just say Touche.

The point of this informal, highly unserious list is just to provoke reflection and provide talking-points to wrong-foot German chauvinists, not make anybody feel bad. I haven't provided links to proof of the German shortcomings, but I'm pretty sure they're accurate, and proof is available if you know where to look.

American failing German Failing
Americans are hostile to science because they reject evolution / global warming About 2/3 of Germans (g) believe in homeopathy; Germans have a widespread, exaggerated fear of certain technologies such as nuclear power and genetically modified food.
The American criminal justice system discriminates against minorities because they're overrepresented in prison Judged by that metric, so does Germany (g). The typical response of the German chauvinist to this uncomfortable fact is the overrepresenation of minorities in German prisons shows their bad character and failure to integrate into society, while the predominance of blacks in American prisons shows exclusively the racism of the US justice system. I always find this amusing.
Americans are fat Touche! Yet Germans are catching up fast (g).
Americans eat garbage fast food / have no idea about quality, freshness, etc. Touche! Yet German cuisine isn't up to much, and ordinary Germans seem to like US fast food as much as ordinary Americans do. Perhaps even more, given that they pay much higher prices for it (g).
Americans worship money and are obsessed with the lives of the rich and famous Many rich Americans earned their fortunes, while many rich Germans simply inherited theirs, and haven't done a thing to contribute to society in decades, except perhaps open an art gallery. Germans may not be quite as openly money-obsessed as Americans, but easily make up for it by their lust for  titles, nobility, and social status.
The American education system privileges the rich and well-educated So does the German system (g). The German system also quasi-forcibly shunts (g) most students off into non-university education tracks quite early, and it's difficult to overcome this decision.
Americans are racist; America is a racist society Racist attitudes are at least as widespread in Germany (g) if not more so. Germany had to be prodded repeatedly by the EU to pass a law banning racial discrimination among private actors, and only did so in 2006, after a loud debate, and had to take 'anti-discrimination' out of the law's title to get it passed. The law continues to permit many forms of discrimination and has been criticized as toothless (g). Germany was criticized by the UN as late as 2011 for ongoing discrimination against non-Germans. Many Germans believe it's OK for private business owners and landlords to discriminate, while such practices have been made illegal and stigmatized by society in the US since the 1960s. You won't hear an American say anything about a black person that Germans haven't said about Turks -- most recently in a book written by a prominent German politician which became one of the bestselling non-fiction books in German history (g). Also, 1933-1945.
Americans don't love nature or the environment Wrong. Americans were creating national parks and raising environmental awareness long before Germans were. Americans burn about as much fossil fuel per capita as Canadians do, for basically the same reason -- big countries, lots of space to cover.
Americans are obsessed by the military/easily led into war without considering the consequences Touche, at least since 1945.
Americans file too many lawsuits Surprise! Germans file almost twice as many lawsuits as Americans do per capita, and are the most litigious society in Europe, perhaps in the entire world.
Americans file crazy lawsuits like the hot coffee lawsuit Germans file lawsuits over ludicrously trivial matters, such as €1500 for the fact that a hotel room had only two single beds instead of a double bed (g) or because an employee was called by the informal 'du' instead of the formal 'Sie' (g). And besides, what's so bad about litigiousness? Most of the world's population desperately yearns to live in a country in which the powerful can be called to account and disputes can be reliably settled without violence.
The fact that large numbers of Americans don't have health insurance is scandalous Touche. 
Americans are uneducated and lack knowledge of history & the outside world A much higher percentage of Americans has college degrees than Germans. Embarrassingly, German universities punch well below their weight in international comparisons (in part because cheating is rampant among German university students), while American schools regularly top almost every ranking. Plus, Americans are far ahead of Germans in understanding & using the Internet, an inexhaustible source of knowledge. Who created Wikipedia?
Americans often vote for foolish/unqualified politicians Germans have no direct control over the leadership of their political parties, and have much less control over policy than American voters, leading to widespread alienation and lack of enthusiasm (g).
Giant corporations control Congress Lobbying is just as widespread in Germany and the EU, and 85% of laws passed by the German Bundestag originate in Brussels. Further, the situation on lobbying and campaign donations in Germany is much more non-transparent than in the US.
There are dangerous ghettos in American cities filled with disaffected, outcast populations Germany, like all modern nations, has neighborhoods and cities which are concentrations of the poor and minorities. In German, they're called Soziale Brennpunkte (g), roughly translatable as 'socially-deprived hot spots.' There are many of them all around Germany. In Gelsenkirchen, for example, 21.5% of the population lives from government assistance (g). Not to mention no-go areas where far-right and neo-Nazi groups predominate. The only difference is that Germans tend to stack their poor on top of each other in run-down housing projects, while in the US they tend to live on the ground next to one another. And in America, they have more guns.
America is a violent society Ever notice how giant police cordons are required to keep German soccer fans from beating each other to a pulp? More statistically, the overall crime rate in Germany is almost twice that of the United States, according to one study, although that probably overstates the matter due to different ways of counting crime. Nevertheless, overall rates of violent crime in Europe and the US are comparable and Europe has higher property crime rates. Murder rates are higher in the US, mainly because of guns. In Germany as elsewhere, your likelihood of encountering violence is overwhelmingly dependent on where you live and who's in your social network.
Many American workers work for pitifully low wages with no job security The US has a national minimum wage, which Germany so far lacks. And Germany is rapidly catching up with the US in creating an easily-exploitable, low-wage workforce (g) with minimal job security. Since 2000, median German wages have actually declined, whereas American wages have merely stagnated.
Americans have a sexual double standard that combines prudishness with porn Touche.
Americans discriminate against Muslims since 9/11 Germans were doing it long before 9/11 and haven't stopped. American Muslims are much better integrated into American society than German Muslims are; a comprehensive 2007 study (pdf) described American Muslims as 'largely integrated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.' -- a state of affairs Germany can only dream of.
American television shows lots of garbage So does German television. Ever seen a 2-hour-long Volksmusik program? The best American television drama and comedy (The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Community) beats comparable German fare hands-down in terms of realism, freshness, quality of writing, universal appeal, and even social criticism.
Americans watch too much television Touche! Yet once again, Germans, who watch 4 hours 2 minutes per day (g) aren't all that far behind.
American news media are too tame and superficial Germany lacks a culture of aggressive, oppositional investigative reporting and passed its equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act about 30 years after America did. Lots of German papers are full of pompous opinion pieces and court stenography of the rich and powerful. Plus, Germany has Bild, an influential (g) tabloid full of T&A, nationalism, reactionary platitudes, scandal-mongering, and crappy reporting (g). Nothing quite like Bild exists in the U.S.
Americans are superficially cheerful and fake Germans are superficially cold, reserved and rude. And sometimes not just superficially.
Americans lack a culture of literature and reading The percentage of people who genuinely read quality literature is tiny in all societies, and many German 'literary' novels have to be heavily subsidized, sell 200-300 copies maximum, and are so derivative, navel-gazingly self-indulgent or dully Germany-specific that they attract zero interest in other countries. The same is true of most German art-house movies as well.
American society is too car-dependent and lacks good public transportation.


UPDATE in response to Marcellina's comment:

Americans are uncultured and don't provide enough state support to museums, symphonies, etc. America's flexible, multi-source model of cultural funding actually brings its own kinds of vibrant results. Germany's top-down system of cultural subsidies has been often criticized as elitist, wasteful and redundant (g). It also gives dictatorial power to self-indulgent directors and smug, insular, out-of-touch cultural bureaucrats, who routinely interfere deeply with artists' expression. Anyone who's ever been to one of the countless plays and operas defaced by gratuitously offensive / nonsensical / tediously didactic productions will wonder whether Germany's problem is actually too much arts funding with too little accountability.

UPDATE 2: Oh, and one other thing:

American beer and coffee are undrinkable Note how I had to leave wine out of this one to even make it a fair fight. Everywhere there's a Starbucks, and that's everywhere except maybe nuclear missile silos, you can get a cup of coffee brewed with reverse-osmosis-purified water and expertly-roasted, freshly-ground, 100% Arabica beans. Germany's beers, while consistently tasty, are also boring, predictable, uniform, and old-fashioned, when they're not sickening beer-cola swill. This is a product of German brewers' adherence to a pointless 500-year-old law that cripples their ability to innovate. Germany had to resort to naked protectionism (g) to try to protect its beers from the glorious diversity of foreign beer, and even so, the German beer industry is withering. By contrast, the average American grocery store on any streetcorner stocks a much wider selection of beer from all over the world than all but the most exclusive German luxury shopping stores.

Now is the Time on Sprockets When We Experience Communicative Socialisation

The very German-looking Philip Oltermann (the glasses!) asks whether Germans just don't get social media because they, er, don't get communication in general:

When news magazine Focus announced this week that Germans were finally cottoning on to Twitter – the site reaching a record 3.5 million users – it was met with the digital equivalent of a shrug. One blogger suggested that Germans just don't know how to deal with social media:

"What they fundamentally do not see and get is the obvious, namely that Social Media is about communication. Communication/conversation is a dark hole in German culture. For Germans, talking first and foremost means conveying information. Conversation as a bonding agent in any form of interpersonal encounter is literally a non-starter in Germany. (If you've ever been to an awkward German office party where people have no problem with facing one another without saying a word for, oooh half an hour, you'll know what I mean.)"

Most Germans will recognise at least a grain of truth in that. Even back in the late 19th century, the sociologist Friedrich Tönnies wrote in despair about the German inability to get its head around the concept of an open and interactive Gesellschaft or society – tight-knit, closed-off Gemeinschaften or communities was apparently all they could do. Few young Germans still keep up the Stammtisch tradition, though small talk can still be a struggle. I recently attended a German conference in which the last item on the programme was billed as Kommunikatives Beisammensein, "communicative socialisation". Or, as people might call it in Britain, "going to the pub".

The rest of the article tries to add some caveats to the stereotype, in my view not very convincingly. Germans are just plain much more reticent and cautious about sharing information than Anglo-Saxons. Again, as with all national traits, this is a matter of averages and bell curves. The chart below, which I stole from some website, shows light orange as the standard normal distribution of 'communicativeness' (or 'chattiness') among Anglo-Saxons on the right, and among Germans on the left, in darker orange.

No, really, this is exactly what the chart shows! This is Science, people! In any event, if makes my point: although you can always find some German who's chattier than an American, the modal German is much more taciturn than the modal American. I think the Brits would fit just about in the middle, but I'm no expert there.

The German Scientific Monotone Claims a Royal Victim

American are often accused -- quite rightly -- of having an instinctive weakness for showbiz that causes them to attach all sorts of fripperies and bells and whistles to the most mundane -- or profound -- things. Witness Baconnaise, Christian exercise videos, facebooked family tragedies, etc.

Germans, on the other hand, are accused of having precisely the opposite gift (curse?): the ability to take inherently interesting subjects and drain all the sizzle, controversy, originality, and human interest out of them.* One aspect of this is the Scientific Monotone, the low-frequency drone emitted by professors and experts when called upon to explain something important. This curious tendency appears to have emerged from the notion that just as the most powerful medications taste the worst, the only respectable (konsequent) way to deliver specialized knowledge is to crucify your audience on a cross of dogmatic boredom.

The Scientific Monotone can drain an inherently fascinating subject of life faster than a spider can suck the juice out of a fly. When the technique is applied to a not-particularly-fascinating subject, the results can be life-threatening. As the Queen can testify:

According to a new biography, “Our Queen” by Robert Hardman, she has fallen asleep at work once, very briefly, in 2004, during a lecture on new insights into biology and medicine with the use of magnets at the Heinrich Heine University, Dusseldorf.

(h/t Ed Philp).

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