A Pakistani and a Texan Take Aim
by Max Goldt
(translated by Andrew Hammel)
The dominant opinion today is that blogging is “kind of passé,” – the blog-bubble may not have popped just yet, but it’s as good as popped. I don't agree. True, we no longer have to read as many newspaper articles about blogging as we did one or two years ago, and we’re now spared such foppish expressions as the “blogosphere.” But I have always enjoyed reading the odd blog here and there – much more, in fact, than reading journalism about them. In the coming lines, I'm going to permit myself to mention my favorite online diary. It’s called German Joys, and it’s written by a foreigner whose career has brought him to Düsseldorf. Later, we’ll get to what sort of foreigner it is, exactly. In principle, what expatriates have to say about Germany is always interesting. Of course, most of them lie out of politeness, and others are too slow-witted to understand much. But some are clever and notice the right things. I recently read a report about a Pakistani ethnologist who had chosen Germany as the object of his studies. He observed, for example, that Germans often greet each other quickly and curtly, but make up for this with longer goodbyes. He also reported visits to German homes during which women kneeled on the carpet in order to hug – and then thoroughly massage – the host’s dog. These dog-greetings sometimes degenerated into lengthy tussles.
The ethnologist didn’t simply happen upon a curious exception. Those who maintain a somewhat regular social life will have been present at similar domestic scenes. Nevertheless, it’s somewhat awkward to think that this scientist will now go back and report in Pakistani talk shows that Germans distinguish themselves by a tendency to roll about on the carpet with their dogs. To be sure, only 11 percent of German households have a dog. The other 89 percent have, however, generally chosen a stance of tolerance toward dog owners. Even those who find extravagant dog-greetings rather strange never critique the practice. Instead, they smile with strained courtesy during the display. This cavorting with dogs, practiced more by women than men, is partly explained by our “practical” clothing customs: German women mostly wear American working pants (jeans) and modified men’s undershirts (t-shirts). In contrast to a Dior dress, this sort of outfit practically invites the wearer to grapple with greasy animals. The very notion of a Pakistani woman in an artfully-wrapped sari wrestling with a dog on the ground is utterly unimaginable. If you imagine it anyway, you’ll have to imagine her unwrapped – which is fine by European standards, but presumably not traditional Pakistani ones.
The ethnologist was also bemused when he invited a German acquaintance over for dinner — whether to observe her or unwrap her is discreetly left unmentioned. Scientists who research people, I would imagine, frequently face situations in which their academic and personal interests overlap. Whatever the case may be, he was shocked, first, because the woman brought her dog along to dinner – but was even more surprised when she put a half-empty bowl under the table, whereupon her hairy companion noisily claimed its contents. After the woman said her goodbyes, the ethnologist threw the bowl in the trash. We Germans should hope it wasn’t too expensive.
Andrew Hammel doesn't write about our custom of according dogs the status of equal, and perhaps even privileged, family members (which really is remarkable). Perhaps matters aren’t very different in the USA, his country of origin. Andrew Hammel is, by the way, the name of the man who writes my favorite blog, which, as noted, is named German Joys, and which offers glorious reading material for Germans who read English, and who wish to see their homeland through the glasses of an intelligent outsider with impressively diverse interests. Hammel is a Texan and, as I understand, has worked for several years at the University of Düsseldorf law faculty. His specialty: capital punishment. To avoid misunderstandings: he is against it. What’s surprising is that, despite his professional activities and an active traveling life, he finds the leisure to write a regular and extensive public diary, and what’s more, in well-built sentences free of fashionable catch-phrases and with only the occasional typo. Apparently, he is one of those enviable authors whose thoughts are ready to print, and who don’t need to pace about for ten minutes after every sentence, plagued by self-doubt and puffing on a cigarette. He’s cordial enough to refrain entirely from discussing his private life or spouting redundant opinions about pop music or sports. Instead, there are all manner of witty comments on politics, culture, science, and the sort of thing one bundles into the well-worn category “everyday life,” as well as useful categories such as German Word of the Month. A recent one was Sargzwang (coffin requirement). Had I not been a Hammel reader, I would never have heard of this word, which refers to a legal rule requiring bodies to be buried in caskets. The rule has apparently been lifted in some states recently, which is important to Muslims, who prefer to wrap their dearly departed in shrouds rather than plant them in wooden boxes. For my part, though, I am a quiet supporter of our German coffin requirement. I hereby call upon all people of Bavaria, where an atmosphere of Gemütlichkeit is still enforced, to join hands with coffin-makers, and demonstrate for Bavarian coffin requirement. Shouldn’t these men be permitted to ply their honorable trade?
We can also thank Hammel for the analysis of an extremely tiresome ritual, which I had never thought was characteristic of Germany. In Hammel’s opinion, however, it is. It concerns what people call “public debate.” A politician – let’s call him Politician A, says something, perhaps during the back-door meeting of some local city-council meeting. It then becomes public. Politician B then takes the microphone. He says that what A said was outrageous, and that A has therefore rendered himself unacceptable. The next day, Politician C joins the fray, and says that what A said was a piece of unprecedented cynicism, and demands A’s resignation as the only acceptable consequence. Now, however, Politician D leaps to A’s defense, and says B and C are exploiting a sensitive subject for purely political purposes, and that is the true disgrace, for which they must both apologize. Now, the Federal President jumps in and says that the controversy has taken a turn that cannot please anyone who is interested in an objective discussion. Politician D then advises the Federal President to think of the dignity of his office, and keep his views to himself. The Chancellor then scolds Politician D, saying it’s hardly appropriate to criticize the Federal President. The back-and-forth goes on for a while, and newspapers of all grades reprint the pointless politician-chatter as if it were a serial novel. The novel ends abruptly after a week. Not, mind you, because the players eventually begin to see how ridiculous they look. No, the debate ends because someone else somewhere said something that is perceived as a scandalous breach, whereupon the same ritual starts again with slightly different characters playing the various roles. Should a week go by in which no politician says something “completely outrageous”, then we may be sure some bishop or former newscaster will take the baton. Why do the media carefully document literally every single instance of these reflex-like, completely automated exercises in back-and-forth nagging? People likely mistake disinterest in this general babbling for disgust with actual politics. We will probably never live to see a Politician B go before a microphone and say: ‘My colleague A has indeed just said something rather silly or incautious. We probably shouldn’t go carving into the side of a monument. But really, who cares? After all, not all of my endless prattle is the cream of the crop, either.’
Everybody eventually says this or that, once in a while. Shortly after the opening of the new Berlin Central Station, I invited a handful of guests to my home, to coddle them with mixed salted nuts. All that cozy crunching put me in a polemical mood, so I announced that this new station was ‘just another one of those miserable glass boxes; a Jacques Tati nightmare delayed forty years; an overgrown shopping mall that you could just as well find in Cleveland, Ohio. Even in the longest architect’s life,’ I continued, ‘the chance to design a new central station for a city of millions is a rare opportunity– and this is what we get. Albert Speer would surely have done a better job.’ Did my guests storm out of my apartment in disgust, demanding a formal apology to Meinhard von Gerkan, the architect of the Berlin Central Station? Of course not. They returned to their selected nuts and remarked: ‘Sure, whatever – the things you say in your moods of exalted sociability!’ I imagined that I was Federal Minister of Something-or-Other, and was in this capacity was forced to take part in the ceremonial opening of the train station. Tortured by the unbearably dull speeches that public representatives have to listen to during such occasions, I might have turned to an ntv-reporter and bellowed into his microphone that which I said during my salted-nut evening. The next day, I would have seen an unflattering picture of myself in the Bild tabloid, right next to Adolf Hitler’s countenance. On television, we would see parliamentarians saying that my remarks were a slap in the face of millions of victims of National Socialism and their surviving relatives. I should immediately apologize to Mr. von Gerkan, Charlotte Knobloch*, and everyone else you could imagine apologizing to.
At this point, though, I would probably get backing from a controversial art professor who would say that ‘in artistic and intellectual circles in London or New York – and even in Jewish circles – we’re long past the days when it was social suicide to regard the architecture of the Third Reich from an aesthetic perspective. Indeed, many of our more broad-minded pop stars have already laid the groundwork for us here.’ This professor would naturally also have to spend quite a while in the eccentric’s corner, and we’d have to read about how his comments ‘served to provoke outrage.’ Compare that phrase to serving up ‘a good meal’ or ‘entertainment’. It would seem that, for some people, outrage is a fundamental human need, much like eating, drinking, or amusement.
Andrew Hammel from Texas by no means accuses Germans of lacking spontaneity, humor, and a sense of irony (at least in private). He does, however, take exception to Germans binding humor only to certain occasions. He suggests that we get rid of Carnival and, in its place, distribute merriment and general non-uptightness throughout the year, and even among official circles. Fortunately, he makes such suggestions only on his blog. If he made them in the press we would soon be reading: “Death-Penalty Cowboy Wants to Ban Our Carnival! We Demand an Immediate Apology!”
* Translator's note: Charlotte Knobloch is currently the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
Source: "Im Visier von Pakistan und Texas" Titanic, February 2008, pp. 62-63, with later changes by the author.