The Masses and the Maidens
by Max Goldt
(translated by Andrew Hammel)
For years, I’ve been plagued by a thought that I’d hardly like to spend the day with, much less the night. A ghastly, thoroughly uncooperative thought in the category: ‘What if…’ The thought is: ‘What if the great catastrophes of humanity had never occurred? If all those plagues, wars, famines, expulsions, and genocides had just never taken place? If all those poor sods who died before they could start families had actually had children, whose descendants would now be driving around in cars, craving beef, and wasting water? The earth would be gray and desolate. Shouldn’t we really be thanking these people, instead of categorically mourning them?’ Good God, you sit there on your chaise longue entertaining such stupendously ugly thoughts, and nobody offers you an arm to lean on. Perhaps it’s similar with masturbation. When children begin pleasuring themselves, they think for years that they are the only people on earth who do such things – and who knows, perhaps I’m only one of a few who let themselves be irritated by such idle thoughts. Since you can’t profit from them, you must drive them away. Turn on the television – and discover that there are currently two television series in which dogs solve crimes. And why not? After all, there are six competing candy-egg catalogs, and, what’s even wilder, 4 and ½ million people who have to answer the call of nature at night. Or you can dash out into the street, chasing distraction, and check out how far the labeling of the population has progressed. The answer is: Quite far! Five years ago, only the young carried labels. Now, you can find something on every sleeve. Recently, I saw a woman, about 70 years old and with hip problems, wearing a jacket whose bottom border sported four repetitions of the slogan THE SPIRIT OF FASHION. On the back of the jacket – which was never modern, and will never be fashionable – there was a superfluous triangular leather patch which read ACTIVE LINE MORE AND MORE. I once met a man whose jeans-jacket read: Move it up in the world alternative Nature Boyswear Environmental Message. English-speakers who travel abroad react to this nonsense with amusement, surprise, or, as the case may be, disgust. I recall once hearing that, in the USA’s early days, there was a vote on whether English or German should be that country's official language. The choice was English, by a close vote. If German had won, then German would have become the world’s lingua franca, and we could travel the world and register annoyance or disgust at people whose clothing proclaimed: Wurst turnt treu durch Heide eins zwei Marmorhaus drei Knabenkraft Umgehungsstraße.*
Why do the people let this be done to them? Is it supposed to be cool? I once explored the local terrain with an expert in questions of style and coolness. We saw a man with a sweatshirt that said HARD ROCK CAFÉ BERLIN. My companion intoned expertly: “Really, there’s nothing uncooler than that.” I possess only one written-on article of clothing – a T-shirt given to me as a joke, which reads: BEER FORMED THIS BEAUTIFUL BODY. Back then, it was new to the joke-shirt market, and still somewhat funny. Still, I never put it on. I recently thought about giving the shirt to an extremely pregnant friend of mine – not, however, before I’d crossed out the word BEER and replaced it with the substance relevant to her situation. However, I’d already annoyed this friend with a most inelegant motherhood-related joke before, and I didn’t want to be banished entirely from her sphere of favor. We were sitting in a café, and there was still one seat left at our table. Through the door came a sleazebag whom I, regrettably enough, slightly knew. There are some people who are so unpleasant that they seem to represent the entire overpopulation of the world, standing there before you, compressed into one body. Out of disgust, I said to my friend: “You’re a woman. You can give birth. Bear a hedgehog, please, and put it on the free chair, so the bugger doesn’t sit here.” The friend didn’t like that at all. “Don’t ever say anything like that again,” she said, nervously stroking her belly. Thus, I forbade myself the inelegant T-shirt joke.
What is elegance, actually? In the Wahrig dictionary, we see “fashionable (but economical in means), style-conscious, surprisingly sophisticated.” Surely there are even better definitions from the mouths of Coco Chanel, Wolfgang Joop, and other experts. How about: “Elegance is a form of complexity which doesn’t feel itself superior to simplicity.” Classy definition! Surely I found it on a sugar-cube wrapper, credited to Peter Ustinov, Oscar Wilde, or someone similar? Au contraire! It is a home-made definition, cooked up with much care in my own private mind. Contrived, you say? Perhaps, but even the most contrived homemade definition is always better than homemade pig’s-head aspic. Many a housewife has sought to sprinkle some stars in the dimly-shining sky of her marriage by surprising her returning husband with aspic every evening. But for years, he has always responded: “Pig’s-head aspic’s vile taste / Keeps the codpiece tightly laced!” Spider-webs form between the couples’ pillows, which experts consider a sure sign that the pretzel stick we call desire is no longer capable of moving the billiard ball of sex along the pool table we call marriage. For a change, “she” should try surprising “him” with a homemade definition once in a while. She’ll be stunned at the result: The key crunches into the keyhole. The man puts his briefcase in the briefcase-holder compartment. The wife prances gaily out of the kitchen and warbles: “Do you know what love is? Love is not surprising a man who doesn’t like pig’s-head aspic with pig’s-head aspic, but with homemade definitions and seasonal salad variations!” The man is delighted – and gladly takes up his conjugal duties once again.
I should bring out a gift book with aphorisms like “Cleaning up is what you do before visitors arrive” or “Overpopulation consists of all the people who don’t love you” or “Wine is what you drink when the beer’s all gone.” Or better yet, I’ll fob off these astounding slogans on joke T-shirt impresarios. The T-shirt with the wine slogan will be a hit with punked-out winemakers’ sons who don’t want to take over their father’s business. It would also be a good accessory for the more loutish sort of tourist. They could wear said T-shirt while strolling through the vineyards during harvest time, whistling an innocent tune. That would be something! But the T-shirt has to cost at least 40 Euro. People pay no attention to cheap stuff, and free stuff is always useless. Free flyers are everywhere, lying on steps, buffets, and consoles. Because they’re free, people grab a few of them, then throw them away, unread, as soon as they get home. Millions of tons of paper, printed for no reason! The masses print themselves so much to read, you’d think they wanted to provide distraction for everyone who’s ever been done in by nature or by their fellow man.
Free cultural events are also anything but fantastic. They lure the culture spongers. Those who think quiet passages in the music exist to let the public exchange opinions about the loud parts. Those who crackle papers, who bring dogs, who constantly go in and out, who spout off comments, shake their heads back and forth, and generally stand between the paying public and joyful sentiments. A big thumbs-down to them! Talking about shaking your head back and forth: When I took advantage of a pause between two bombings to swan about a little in Paris back in early August, someone explained to me how to recognize German tourists. They crowd around street musicians at the Pompidou Center, shaking their heads and dancing ecstatically, with their sweaters tied around their waists. Representatives of other nations just tap their feet a little. Germans, however, must always show how uninhibited they are by putting on their very own I’m-Desiree-from-Tübingen-and-have-as-much-un-self-conscious-joi-de-vivre-as-all-of-Senegal show. Actually, I find that more cute than shameful. Just as cute is how German girls spend their time in Paris: going from one portrait artist to the next. The sketch artists have it down to a science: with one careful look, they ascertain all physiognomic features and transfer them to paper. The girls, however, think it’s important to remain terribly still and avoid even the slightest superfluous blink. They sit there utterly stiff, with powerfully wide, terrifyingly expressive eyes, and always with the mouth slightly open. Once or twice they unobtrusively moisten their lips, since it also counts as expressive – even erotic – to have a moist, slightly open mouth. Really, though, the girls could pick their noses and chew Hubba-Bubba the whole time, and the sketch artists would still paint expressive eyes and erotic mouths. They don’t live under stones, after all. After their modeling sessions, the girls go to the souvenir shop and giggle at length over the postcards with the nude men. “Look, Vanessa – he’s so cute!” – “Stephanie, you have really good taste in clothes, but when it comes to boys, you’re hopeless!” – “I think he’s got an incredibly aesthetic and expressive body.” – “Wanna bet he’s gay?” – “Oh, Vanessa, you’re like so totally mean. Why would he be gay?” – “‘Cause they’re all gay, Stephanie. Those are the gay postcards.” – etc. The cards they actually end up buying feature soft-focus drawings of wild horses in the Camargue, or an intellectual-looking black-and-white photo of a man sitting in a bistro and reading a newspaper. Girls: they want to gaze upon ‘challenging’ pictures with their expressive eyes, and why should anybody stop them?
Some people feel themselves imprisoned in the wrong body and wish they were girls. When I look in the mirror, though, I think to myself: Tragic place that the world is, this is exactly the right body for me. But just as I’d be interested in being black or Yemenite for some period of time, I’d also be interested in being a girl between 12 and 16 for a year. Having all this wild female biology thunder upon you with full force must be as exciting as any crime thriller. But the best thing about being a girl must surely be the squealing. There are various theories why women die later than men. To me, the answer is clear: Uninhibited squealing relaxes and soothes the body with such lasting positive effects that women are better able to defy life’s later adversities. Whenever TV reports on the squeal-girls, the implication is always that they’re crazy or terribly sensitive. A boy group split-up may cause a girl here and there to destroy her parent’s living-room – but that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that millions of other girls simply lay about, whining happily and peaceably. They do this because it’s fun, because their confused father says: “What happened to my little girl?”, and because they can still get away with it at that age. Later, it won’t be tolerated. Ten years ago, I squealed during a roller-coaster ride. Afterward, my companion told me she’d never ride a roller-coaster with me again.
Recently, a group of girls who’d apparently just written a biology paper got into the subway. From out of the general chatter one of the girls, about 15, crowed a sentence that almost made me explode with pleasure: “Silly old fruitcake that I am, I forgot to write ‘rectum’ in parentheses after ‘colon’”!
Of course, even the finest girls don’t say such delightful things all the time. But it’s always nice to hear them say the typical sentences that intelligent young people say, such as: “I think it’s okay to be photographed nude, as long as it’s aesthetic,” or: “Chaos is the beginning of every new order.” Adults should avoid such phrases, of course, but the young have a license to babble. Another very good one: “Sexuality has quite a bit to do with death.” Sexuality has, of course, nothing at all to do with death, but when a 15-year-old says that, it’s just adorable. I say: “Girls are the beginning of every new order, and have quite a bit to do with death.” Isn’t that also adorable?
* “Sausage exercises loyally through the heath one two marble house three boy-power bypass.”
Source: "Die Leutchen und die Mädchen", from Ä (Rowohlt Verlag, 2004), pp. 86-94. Column originally written in October 1995, with some later changes by Max Goldt.