Adalbert Stifter's American Fan

Michael Lipkin discovers Adalbert Stifter:

I found Stifter’s novella collection Bunte Steine (Many-Colored Stones) in the deathly quiet German-language stacks of Bartle Library. Over the course of several taciturn afternoons, I waded through the idyllic landscapes and kitschy interiors that make up the bulk of the book. Typical of the book’s style, the third story, “Tourmaline,” opens in a Viennese townhouse belonging to an idle man of culture. Taking unhurried note of the paintings on the wall, the grand piano, the writing desk, the porcelain figurines, Stifter leads the reader through the house until he reaches the bedroom of the man’s wife, where a gilded angel wafts a white curtain over their baby, sleeping in her crib. The terrors of the outer world have been shut out; the pendulum of history has stopped midswing. The clock in this room, writes Stifter, never strikes the hour. Its ticking is so faint as to be scarcely heard....

Youth and childhood are the focus of much of Stifter's work, whose naïve style runs sharply counter to the blasé worldliness of European realism. Unlike Dickens or Flaubert, Stifter describes the world as though he is speaking to a child, not yet ensnared in the web of assumed half-truths and skewed generalizations that constitute adult common sense. By seeing things as though for the first time, Stifter hoped—in vain—to save them from the forces of industrialization and speculative capitalism, forces that liquidate the world’s very materiality. And, to be sure, there is a distinctly pedophilic dimension to Stifter’s obsession with the crystalline purity of childhood and the holy terror with which he avoids any mention of sex. Stifter’s own history with children was a tragic one. He and his wife, Amalia Mohaupt, could not conceive. Their first adopted daughter died young; the second, Amalia’s niece Juliana, ran away from home and threw herself into the Danube.

What Stifter’s naïveté offered me, at the age of nineteen or twenty, was a respite from my increasingly suffocating desires. Living in Binghamton made me vertiginously aware of my own desire to live “well”—which is to say, in New York City, at an extremely high level of material comfort. I found it particularly difficult that spring to read, among other things, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which depicts artistic aspiration and idealism as either the resentment of the lower middle-class or, alternatively, the idle narcissism of the rich. In Stifter’s work, by contrast, money is present only in its total absence. From my own incompetence managing even very small amounts of money, I had a strong suspicion that this elision stemmed from deep personal shame. Reduced to poverty by the sudden death of his wealthy father, Stifter was never at ease in the salons of Vienna. It wasn’t until the decade before his suicide that, as a reward for a series of newspaper articles denouncing the Vienna uprisings in 1848, Stifter was appointed superintendent of schools in Upper Austria, allowing him to pay back the substantial debts he owed to various creditors and family members.

 The ideal life, as Stifter saw it, is the one depicted in his novel, Der Nachsommer [Indian Summer], which recounts the friendship between the young protagonist, Heinrich, and the Baron von Risach. Risach, an older man, has withdrawn into a secluded manor, where he has devoted himself to botany, restoring furniture, reading books, looking at paintings and, most importantly, eating (a recurring subject in the diaries of Stifter, who was morbidly obese). No mention of money is ever made. In this novel so boring that, even with the best will, I couldn’t kick myself past page sixty, Stifter shows us how the world might look if the intractable conflicts between human beings, society, and nature could somehow be resolved. In an age that accelerated every aspect of life to breakneck speed, Stifter believed that only literature—slow, deliberate, and loving—could broker the truce.

In Which I Reveal My Views on Soccer to a Breathless Audience

Fahnenmeer

The New Republic analyzes Borges on soccer:

In his lifetime, he saw elements of fascism, Peronism, and even anti-Semitism emerge in the Argentinean political sphere, so his intense suspicion of popular political movements and mass culture—the apogee of which, in Argentina, is soccer—makes a lot of sense. (“There is an idea of supremacy, of power, [in soccer] that seems horrible to me,” he once wrote.) Borges opposed dogmatism in any shape or form, so he was naturally suspicious of his countrymen’s unqualified devotion to any doctrine or religion—even to their dear albiceleste

Soccer is inextricably tied to nationalism, another one of Borges’ objections to the sport. “Nationalism only allows for affirmations, and every doctrine that discards doubt, negation, is a form of fanaticism and stupidity,” he said. National teams generate nationalistic fervor, creating the possibility for an unscrupulous government to use a star player as a mouthpiece to legitimize itself. 

This is a pretty good summary of what many bourgeois Germans think about soccer. To them, too, flag-draped cities and mass 'public viewings' uncomfortably recall the Nuremburg rallies, of individuals sinking rapturously into the blissful Wir-Gefühl (We-feeling) of ideological consensus. Add to that the bloodless siege of marketing that surrounds every World Cup, and you have a perfect storm of mass culture and consumerism, enough to curl the toenails of any self-respecting turtleneck-wearing aesthete.

But let's not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Stuffy Germans turn up their noses at lots of stuff that's really fun, like cheap liquor, guns, porno, naked sledding, dope, tabloid newspapers, and sex with 60 kilos of ground beef. If you studiously refused to enjoy everything they studiously refuse to enjoy, you'd end up as dull as they are.

So Europeans who proudly despise soccer do so because it's favored by beer-swilling chavs. Intriguingly, soccer has the opposite reputation in the USA. It's a complex, oustside-the-mainstream, English, low-scoring game which people from Europe and developing countries are hella good at. This makes it fair play for hipsters and Europhiles. Further, it requires no expensive equipment and isn't dominated by freakishly tall or muscular people.

No, Americans who dislike soccer because they find it boring and / or pointless. The Simpsons, as usual, has this covered (unembeddable video here). What do I think about soccer? Speak for me, bullet-points:

  • Yes, the masses' obsession with soccer is tiresome and alarming, and the cliche that soccer is a religion in country X is beyond tiresome. Whenever I hear that country X is soccer-obsessed, that the nation stops functioning and planes drop from the air when a game is on, that mothers are having the names of the latest stars tattooed on their babies' eyeballs, I think: "Good God, what a bunch of lazy sods. Why don't they think up their own games?"
  • However, the mere fact that many people who love soccer are mindless clods doesn't mean I must hate it.
  • And in fact, I rather like it. If you learn the rules and pay a bit of attention, a good soccer game can be totally engrossing. This World Cup, in particular, has offered up some thrilling games so far -- think of the epic second half of Germany v. Ghana. What's most mesmerizing to me is the continuous flow of the game. And soccer also seems to be a bit more competitive than many other sports. Sure, there are occasional 6-0 blowouts, but team that are clearly less talented than their opponent can still stage tremendous upsets.

So I will be there tomorrow in Boui Boui Bilk watching America v. Germany, drinking copiously, and cheering on the American team.

But my face won't be painted in red-white-and-blue -- that's strictly for morons. 


Co-Opting Nietzsche for National Socialism

David B. Dennis has a long, fine essay on how National Socialist propagandists spun Nietzsche in the Völkischer Beobachter:

In addressing the “Germanness” of Nietzsche, however, the cultural politicians of the party faced some difficulties. The newspaper did not try to verify Nietzsche’s racial origins—as it did for many other Western creators, including and especially Wagner and Beethoven—despite the fact that he occasionally claimed to be of Polish heritage. But it did have to confront indications that the philosopher rejected nineteenth-century trends of nationalistic identification.

As one contributor to the Völkischer Beobachter wrote, there is “one important point in Nietzsche’s mental attitude on which even his friends have remained silent, from which they tried to distance themselves as much as possible: this is the matter of Nietzsche’s attitude toward Germanness and the state.” The philosopher, according to the paper, had seen with “sharp eyes” that while the Second Reich had been formed, it still “remained a shell without content” under Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik. To him, nationalism was the “illness of the century” because it “attempted to hide its emptiness.” In his words, “Nationalism as it is understood today is a dogma that requires limitation.”

But the point to keep in mind, according to the Völkischer Beobachter, was the qualifying phrase: “as it is understood today.” Nietzsche’s opinions about the German state could be understood only with reference to this phrase—that is, as critiques of his own specific time, not as categorical rejections of German nationalism.

This opened the way for the newspaper to present Nietzsche as a fervent patriot and strong representative of “Germanness.” In fact, the paper reminded, Nietzsche actually said of himself that “I am perhaps more German than the Germans of today.” And he valued the “earnest, manly, stern, and daring German spirit.” He knew that “there was still bravery, particularly German bravery,” that is, “inwardly something different than the élan of our deplorable neighbors.” Compared with the French essence, in particular, he was “consistently, strongly, and happily conscious of the virtues” of the German character. Above all, Nietzsche held that “it is German unity in the highest sense which we are striving for more passionately than for political reunification—the unity of the German spirit and life.”

Very few others “saw things so clearly” in those days, said the Völkischer Beobachter. As if on a mission to confirm the philosopher’s Germanness, another contributor traveled to Sils-Maria, wandered the region, and ruminated on passages Nietzsche had written there. The landscape, Ernst Nickell reflected, is “consecrated by German fate and German tragedy.” Nietzsche “needed this landscape; he had to stand near the highest things and the firmament”—because he was “German despite everything.”


Wagner's 'Fungal' Genius

Nicholas Spice has a brilliant essay called 'Is Wagner Bad for Us?' on the LRB website, which includes this passage, one of the finest English-language descriptions of Wagner's innovations I've come across:

The state in which he found the art of opera in the middle of the 19th century didn’t please him. He deplored its tired routines and swept them away. Where a traditional opera typically hauled itself along through a series of arias, duets and ensemble pieces, strung along a line of recitative, Wagner integrated words, drama and music into a discourse of continuous gesture. This did a lot to dismantle the structures which in traditional opera keep the audience at a distance from the action. In an opera by Rossini or Donizetti, we hop from one aria or duet or ensemble to another, negotiating an archipelago of self-sufficient pieces of music, and this acts as a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, repeatedly ejecting us from the narrative, an effect the custom of applauding individual numbers as though they were concert items made even more pronounced. Wagner replaced this ‘singing of pieces of music’ with a free declamatory vocal style, embedding his singers in the fabric of the drama and rarely permitting them to sing at the same time as each other. In his mature operas, the ebb and flow of the action is controlled by music (Wagner partly characterised it as ‘endless melody’) which loosens the certainties of diatonic harmony and gives a wide berth to effects of unwanted closure in the musical syntax. As a result, the listener is given only rare opportunities to bail out of the musical and dramatic argument.

It is a central aspect of Wagner’s genius (Mann writes about it wonderfully) that he conceived a way to draw the literary and musical components of his operas towards each other. His understanding of the ideographic potential of music – the capacity of music to suggest things, characteristics and ideas – was something quite special to him, and it probably partly accounts for our sense of his work as in certain fundamental respects different from most other music in the classical canon....

As the works unfold, the listener moves continuously and fluidly between the music on the one hand and the drama on the other, holding them in a kind of dynamic equilibrium in the mind. The patterned integration of the leitmotifs into the musical fabric – like small marine fossils in certain kinds of sedimentary rock – symbolises the accumulation of experience over time (it was this aspect of Wagner that so excited Proust). And as a formal device, the leitmotifs helped Wagner give coherence and unity to immense spans of musical narrative. Wherever we surface in the onward stream of these operas, whether listening to them or reading them in score, we see a landscape of familiar forms, though always subtly evolving and combining in a kaleidoscope of shifting permutations.

The words often used to describe the effect of Wagner’s work – ‘seduction’, ‘irresistibility’, ‘enchantment’ – and the way Wagner is spoken of as a magician or sorcerer or trickster, suggest dark and inscrutable arts; and, given that the stories he tells and the music through which he tells them, are full of emotional drama, at times extreme, we might assume that his power derives from his passion, and that if we feel a loss of will in the face of his work, it is because we have been overwhelmed and swept away by a lava stream of expression or irradiated by a blast of psycho-spiritual energy, or – and this is perhaps the most common trope of all – drugged. Echoing an observation of Mann’s, Boulez has said of Wagner that ‘his genius was both hot-headed – even irrational – and extremely analytical.’ Brecht said that Wagner’s art ‘creates fog’ and Tolstoy thought you could achieve the same effect more quickly by getting drunk or smoking opium. But what has always struck me about Wagner’s work – certainly, the seven mature operas – is not that they enthral us through bewilderment or narcosis, but how unnervingly intelligible they are, and how, in being so intelligible, they hold our attention, and, in holding our attention, draw us ineluctably in.

Later, Spice notes the commentary of English composer Thomas Adès:

Only last year, Thomas Adès described Wagner’s music as ‘fungal’, lamenting his influence on the composers who followed him: ‘his grubby fingerprints’ are ‘everywhere’. ‘Fungal’ is in one sense rather a good image for the modular patterning of Wagner’s music, but it also suggests infestation, decay, sickness and a tendency to spread uncontrollably, while the phrase ‘grubby fingerprints’ brings to mind something insalubrious, if not criminal.

 


Naipaul's Opinions on Thomas Mann and Jane Austen

The New Republic has an amusing interview with V.S. Naipaul (h/t SK). His opinions on Mann, Wodehouse and Jane Austen:

IC: I was wondering what you like to read now.

VSN: I read many things. I read to fill in my knowledge of the world. I am reading this writer, [Thomas] De Quincey, here [points to the book]. The other thing I am reading, quite unusual for me, is Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks. I was staggered by it.

IC: Why did it stagger you?

VSN: It was so wise. Wonderful narrative gift. His language is wonderful. When he is talking, it varies from mode to mode. And it’s always marvelous. He has to deal with typhoid, which will kill his character, and he does it pulling away. He goes inside the sufferer and says, this is what happens to a cancer patient, a typhoid patient. At a certain stage, life calls out to him. Very beautiful way of writing. I am feeble trying to paraphrase. Very, very moving. I was dazzled by it.

IC: Are there English or British authors you go back to time and again?

VSN: No, no. Who do you go back to?

IC: [George] Orwell. P.G. Wodehouse.

VSN: I can’t read Wodehouse. The thought of, shall we say, facing three or four months of nothing but Wodehouse novels fills me with horror.

IC: What about George Eliot?

VSN: Childhood, you know, childhood. A little of [The Mill on the Floss] was read to me. It mattered at the time. But as you get older, your tastes and needs change. I don’t like her or the big English writers. I don’t like [Charles] Dickens.

IC: No British writers.

NN: The poets he likes, not the prose. He likes the columnists more than the writers.

VSN: I don’t want to upset them.

NN: He upsets people for no reason.

IC: I was going to ask about his Jane Austen comments.

NN: Oh God, everybody hates Jane Austen. They don’t have the balls to say it. Believe me. Who did we meet the other day, that famous academic who said Jane Austen was rubbish? And I said, “Why don’t you stand up and say it.” And he said, “Am I mad?” They have all reassessed her, but they just don’t want to say it.

IC: Do you want to expand on why you don’t like her? You think she’s trivial?

VSN: Yes, it is too trivial. A romantic story. It doesn’t do anything for me. It doesn’t tell me anything. It’s not like Mann talking about death. He has a way of dealing with it.

That's an intelligent reason for admiring Buddenbrooks, which I find otherwise a bit tedious.


My Take on the Cologne Circumcision Case

Here is my take on the famous German circumcision judgment. Thanks to the friendly folks at verfassungsblog.de for cross-posting this.

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The Cologne Landgericht decision proclaiming religious circumcision to be a form of illegal assault will apparently soon be superseded by legislation permitting the practice under certain conditions. Nevertheless, the mere fact that the decision came about – coupled with its endorsement by many members of the German criminal-law community and the fact that approximately half of Germans want to see religious circumcision punished by law – points at a continuing controversy. Circumcision also presents an interesting cross-cultural case study, since it is not expressly regulated in either the United States or (yet) in Germany. An enlightening 2002 analysis by Geoffrey P. Miller shows that all U.S. published U.S. court cases about male circumcision involve botched operations or problems with obtaining parents’ consent. It appears that no U.S. court has yet addressed a situation in which a doctor has been criminally prosecuted for competently performing a circumcision with the consent of the child’s guardians.

Even were such a case to emerge, it’s difficult to imagine a similar outcome. Following the First Amendment’s explicit ban on ‘established’ churches, the Supreme Court has limited government interference in private religious rituals. A line of Supreme Court cases has called for the government to display a ‘wholesome neutrality’ toward all religions, and to avoid unnecessary ‘entanglement’ of church and state. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has forbade American government entities from pronouncing on internal church administration, drawing government administrative boundaries to accommodate religious sects, or banning controversial religious practices under the pretext of public safety. This basic suspicion of intermingling secular administration and religion is widespread among legal officials. The average District Attorney, presented with a case in which a third party complained about a properly-performed circumcision, would almost certainly use her discretion not to prosecute.

The second (somewhat related) strand of jurisprudence emphasizes family autonomy. In a landmark 1972 case, Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court upheld the right of Old Order Amish families to withdraw their children from formal education at the age of 16, observing that though there is no explicit guarantee of family autonomy in the Constitution, ‘the values of parental direction of the religious upbringing and education of their children in their early and formative years have a high place in our society.’ The state, for example, may not ban parents from sending their children to private religious schools or even educating them at home, as long as curricular standards are met. The fundamental Constitutional principle of American family law, repeated in case after case, is to presume that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children”. When parental autonomy is bound up with religious practice, the rationale for judicial circumspection becomes even clearer.

And indeed, the decision of the Cologne court demonstrates the problems that occur when courts intrude in this area. Considering its worldwide resonance, the decision itself is astoundingly brief, just a few paragraphs long. At one point, the court accuses the doctor (and, by implication, the boy’s parents) of infringing the boy’s right to choose his own religious affiliation. Yet the mere fact that a child is circumcised doesn’t irrevocably commit him to Islam, as the 55% of American males who are circumcised can attest. Second, the court can hardly have thought through its proposed right for children to freely choose their religion. Both of Germany’s established religions provide for elaborate public rituals in which children are brought into their parents’ or community’s faith long before they are of age to make binding legal commitments under German law. Granted, these induction ceremonies don’t involve circumcision, but the court did not bother to limit its principle only to these cases. Like many legal commentators, the court also confidently proclaimed circumcision to be against the child’s best interests without ever suggesting why the child’s parents, who obviously had different views, should be ignored.

These problems help explain the different reactions to the decision among German and foreign observers. Christian Germans (whether devout or nominal) are rarely circumcised. This is in stark contrast to the United States, where routine circumcision was adopted during the late 19th century on hygiene grounds (including the prevention of masturbation) which would now be considered dubious. Yet the practice remains well-accepted: The American Pediatric Association recently concluded that “scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision” and explicitly noted that it is “legitimate for parents to take into account cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions, in addition to the medical factors, when making this decision.” By contrast, circumcision in Germany has only been customary among two religious minorities, one of which was decimated during the Third Reich, and the other which only arrived in significant numbers in the last 40 years. The generally positive reaction to the decision among Germany’s socially conservative legal culture shows a lasting undercurrent of suspicion against customs and beliefs that have “non-European” roots – and of the parents who wish to pass them on to their children.

Two Models of Freedom and Responsibility

Yet there is another factor driving the circumcision controversy: a stronger emphasis on social cohesion. Again, the comparison with the United States is instructive. America is, in many respects, an an outlier in terms of governmentally-enforced social cohesion. There is no national identity card in the United States, and some 10 per cent of the population has no picture identification of any kind. American rules regarding home schooling and religious education are among the most liberal in the world. Unlike every other government in the world, the American state is constitutionally debarred from banning hate speech and propaganda in the name of social harmony. Aside from wartime, compulsory military or civil service has never existed in the United States. And, of course, the American social safety net is designed only to provide transitional, time-limited aid. The possibility that the devout might create self-perpetuating ‘parallel societies’, a perennial source of anguish in the European media, is largely absent from American public discourse. This is not because such parallel societies do not exist in the USA – quite the contrary is true – but because their existence is not seen as problematic as long as they do not encourage crime or exploitation. (Of course, these libertarian hallmarks coexist with a massive security sector and the highest imprisonment rates in the world – but exploring this paradox is beyond the scope of this post.)

Although the German political order also guarantees its citizens wide-ranging civil freedoms, the approach is subtly different. In an interesting article on the ‘German Idea of Freedom‘ Edward J. Eberle argues that Germany’s conception of individual liberty — while robust and deeply-rooted — differs significantly from that found in the United States. In contrast to the freewheeling American conception of individual rights (accompanied by an equally unfettered free market), the German conception of liberty ‘take[s] place within a moral structure erected on ethical concepts that include human dignity and its multiple radiations, people acting within the bounds of a social community with its ensuing reciprocal obligations, and a Sozialstaat.’ Further, the discussion of rights in Germany is coupled with ‘duties rooted deeply in the culture and community’.

This conception of ‘freedom’ conditioned by social integration (which, of course, prevails in many Continental European cultures) enables the state to make claims on its citizens that would be controversial in Anglo-Saxon countries. German court decisions, for example, permit government officials to reject parents’ chosen names for their children on a number of grounds, including that the name might subject the child to ridicule or does not clearly indicate the child’s gender. Until recently, military service was compulsory in Germany, although many young men opted out under liberal conscientious-objector laws. Germany also has a registration law, which requires Germans to timely inform their government of any change in address. Germany has comprehensive federal laws regulating everything from the permissible size of huts on garden allotments to the content of vacation contracts, and a sizable contingent of ‘order police’ (the Ordnungsamt) to enforce them. The German legal order does not provide for untrammeled free speech – pro-Nazi rhetoric is illegal, and media which publish insulting or privacy-intruding material may be confiscated and their owners fined.

The flip side of this intrusion is an impressive network of social rights and benefits. Despite recent reforms, German social welfare benefits are still much more generous than their American counterparts — but recipients may also required to submit to intrusive surveillance. Germany has universal health insurance provided by subsidized insurance companies which are run on the principle of ‘solidarity’. Germans receive large welfare subsidies for having children, and enjoy some of the most generous family leave policies in the world. Virtually all higher education is provided free of charge (or for nominal tuition) by government-funded universities. All workers are guaranteed several weeks of paid vacation per year. Even welfare recipients can petition for extra money to pay for a child’s wedding or a vacation.

To put it simply, the German social bargain permits the state to intrude more deeply into citizens’ affairs in certain areas, in return for providing them with an array of services designed to foster personal development and socialize common life-risks. Germans face more subtle pressure to conform to majority social norms, but in return enjoy benefits conferred by that majority itself. This ideology of ‘duties rooted deeply in the culture and community’ may have influenced the German court’s reasoning: Instead of simply endorsing parental autonomy tout court, the judges asked whether the parents’ choice would bind their child closer to the majority ‘culture and community’ of Germany. Because it would not, it was that much easier to second-guess. Yet the reaction to the court’s decision seems to mark a subtle shift in consensus-minded Germany toward accommodating beliefs and rituals which will always remain outside the mainstream.

The Legal Flea Circus

FleaCircus-Prof-W-Heckler-4I'm reading Thomas Fischer's entertaining essay Spuren der Strafrechtswissenschaft (g) (h/t Markus) and came across this gem:

The most malicious parable concerning the education of lawyers is found in a short sketch by Klaus Eschen: Legal education resembles the training of fleas -- you lock them in a box and put a glass plate on top of it. When the fleas try to jump, they hit the glass plate. As time goes by, they learn to jump less high even when the plate is removed. The process is repeated, putting the glass plate ever lower, until the fleas can do no more than creep  around: "When they've learned to move around only by creeping, they have completed their training for the flea circus. In legal terms, this is about the time of the bar exam."

Thomas Fischer, 'Spuren der Strafrechtswissenschaft', in Festschrift Für Ruth Rissing-Van Saan Zum 65. Geburtstag Am 25. Januar 2011, p. 163.

Fischer, a criminal-law judge on Germany's highest criminal court, is here reviewing another book, 'German-Language Criminal Law in Self-Portrait', a collection of autobiographical essays by leading German criminal-law professors. Fischer's essay could have been yet another German exercise in Selbtsbeweihräucherung*, but Fischer decides to probe beneath the surface. What do these essays reveal about the character and personality of German criminal-law professors, and of the state of the profession?

His conclusions are not particularly flattering. He finds the professors, in their own portraits, curiously passionless and conformist. Their life stories highlight conventional bourgeois virtues and portray a relatively quick and painless integration into the realities of university life: the long years spent sucking up to various authority figures, tedious disputes about arcane dogmatic positions, the gradual accumulation of a thick carapace of self-importance and professional vanity.

The primary maxim of most of these professors' lives, Fischer argues, is 'don't rock the boat'. This helps explain why they did startlingly little to analyze the role of German criminal law in National Socialist times. Although the professors writing their own biographies were born too late for the war, their mentors certainly weren't and many of them were active Nazis, sometimes fanatical ones. There are many descriptions of the brilliance and harmless eccentricities of the previous generation of scholars, but their involvement with Nazism is downplayed or ignored altogether. In German professorial circles, it seems, controversies about theoretical constructs which are of no interest to anyone outside a tiny circle are welcome, but discussions about the fundamental questions of personal responsibility, individual and social morality, and other such suspiciously interesting topics must be avoided at all costs.

Altogether a fascinating, if disturbing read. Nor did it go unnoticed: saying non-complimentary and occasionally controversial things about prominent professors has also gotten Fischer into a bit of trouble (g). Is Fischer on target, or is he too cynical? Just click on this link and judge for yourself. Oh wait, there is no link. As with so much of German academic writing, the essay appears nowhere online. It exists only on dead trees, packed into a 900-page book, gathering dust at your local law library. Sad, really -- this is a lively and insightful piece which deserves a broader audience...

Continue reading "The Legal Flea Circus" »


Lichtenberg Aphorisms in English

From a website called Mangan's (Adventures in Reaction), I stumbled on a nice collection of Lichtenberg's aphorisms translated into English. A selection:

  • "I ceased in the year 1764 to believe that one can convince one's opponents with arguments printed in books. It is not to do that, therefore, that I have taken up my pen, but merely so as to annoy them, and to bestow strength and courage on those on our own side, and to make it known to the others that they have not convinced us."
  • "Nothing can contribute more to peace of soul than the lack of any opinion whatever."
  • "He traveled through Northeim to Einbeck and from there through Mlle P. to Hanover."
  • "With my pen in hand I have successfully stormed bulwarks from which others armed with sword and excommunication have been repulsed."
  • "Proposal: in a cold winter why not burn books?"
  • "Truth will find a publisher at any time, complaisance usually only for a year. That is why when you write you should always do so with courage and candor."
  • "I forget most of what I read, just as I do most of what I have eaten, but I know that both contribute no less to the conservation of my mind and my body on that account."
  • "It is almost impossible to bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing somebody's beard."
  • "Not only did he not believe in ghosts, he wasn't even afraid of them.""We have the often thoughtless respect accorded ancient laws, ancient usages, and ancient religion to thank for all the evil in the world."
  • "The world offers us correction more often than consolation."
  • "Since this life is no more than an evanescent point of time, I find it incomprehensible that the state of unending bliss and glory does not begin at once."
  • "There are people with so little courage to assert anything that they dare not say there is a cold wind blowing, however much they may feel it, unless they have first heard that other people have said it."

Werner Herzog as Pharma Giant

In an upcoming Simpsons episode, Werner Herzog will play a "German pharma industrialist" (h/t JR).

Herzog describes his "ecstatic" idea of truth in this lecture, hosted by Boston University's website (h/t SK). Excerpt:

History offers one analogy to the extent of [change brought about by] the virtual, other world that we are now being confronted with. For centuries and centuries, warfare was essentially the same thing, clashing armies of knights, who fought with swords and shields. Then, one day, these warriors found themselves staring at each other across canons and weapons. Warfare was never the same. We also know that innovations in the development of military technology are irreversible. Here’s some evidence that may be of interest: in parts of Japan in the early seventeenth century, there was an attempt to do away with firearms, so that samurai could fight one another hand to hand, with swords again. This attempt was only very short-lived; it was impossible to sustain.

A couple of years ago, I came to grasp how confusing the concept of reality has become, in a strange way, through an incident that took place on Venice Beach in Los Angeles. A friend was having a little party in his backyard—barbecued steak—it was already dark, when, not far away, we heard a few gunshots that nobody took seriously until the police helicopters showed up with searchlights on and commanded us, over loudspeakers, to get inside the house. We sorted out the facts of the case only in retrospect: a boy, described by witnesses as around thirteen or fourteen years of age, had been loitering, hanging around a restaurant about a block away from us. As a couple exited, the boy yelled, This is for real, shot both with a semi-automatic, then fled on his skateboard. He was never caught. But the message [Botschaft] of the madman was clear: this here isn’t a videogame, these shots are for real, this is reality.