time traveling

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day;
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme–myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme:
The similitudes of the past, and those of the future;
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings–on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;

– Walt Whitman Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

A cold fog has settled in Berlin. It seeps underneath your jacket and reaches deep down in your chest. Every morning I think it might be better to stay inside our cozy apartment writing and reading than to venture outside, but Chris has been in Belfast the last few days at a conference and deflecting all hope of contact with the outside world doesn’t seem like a good idea, especially not when the sun is going down just after 4 pm. All this could combine to make early on-set winter blues a distinct possibility.

So I wrap myself up, throw my laptop bag over my shoulder and ride the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz. This is where I’ve been carrying out most of my research. A large branch of the state library is just down the street, the art library sits behind a church around the corner, and the film archive floats above the square in a beautiful glass and steel structure at its center (the Sony Center). I board the glass elevator with artsy tourists that step out on the second floor where the film museum is located and feel very important as I stay put and watch the courtyard recede beneath me. I’m headed to the upper floors–to the archive and the library. This futuristic building is my time machine.

With newspaper clippings of film advertisements, reviews, and press releases from the 1920s spread out on the white tables of the archive’s reading room, I am transported back a past that no longer seems that distant. In Weimar Germany movie stars may have been a new thing and film premiers unprecedented, but the excitement and the mild derision accompanying them is not such a far cry from what we encounter with the movies today. Some people are willing to take film seriously, most are happy not to, but nearly everyone is eager to see what amazing spectacle its technology will offer next.

Today as I’m working, music and cheering rise up periodically from the courtyard and I notice people beginning to crowd up to the fences around a long stage constructed before the Sony Center’s theater entrance. Countless posters lining the stage inform me that the commotion is related to the premier of the last installment of the Twilight Saga and I’m guessing that the stars must be planning to make an appearance. It’s such an energetic juxtaposition: the thrumming energy from the people below me waiting to catch a glimpse of heroes they know won’t arrive for another 6-7 hours and the fresh faces of now-anonymous starlets in gracefully sloping hats looking eagerly out of the yellowed pages of an Ufa catalogue dated 1923.

   

When the archive closes early, as it always does on Fridays, I encounter more of this city’s brand of strangeness back down on the street. Weaving my way toward the back of the Christmas market, I run up against an old section of the Berlin wall that they’ve left standing in remembrance of its course through the once-decimated square. This one is tucked away behind a building and not flocked with tourists like most of the sections left here are. Rounding the corner, I’m startled by the contrast between its craggy surface and the modern simplicity of the train station first erected after unification.

     

Clearly it’s not just the festive Christmas market on the corner that lends the sense of happening to this place. I’m half-curious to stick around and take in the chaos surrounding the Twilight premier, but I have no idea what the timeline is, and I’m anticipating Chris’s arrival in Berlin tonight much more than I would a glimpse of Hollywood glamor. My fingers begin to fumble with the cold, and I find it’s not a hard decision to leave. I hurry down to the underground platform and catch the train home. Speeding off into the future.

who stands there moved

Art is creative long before it is beautiful. And yet, such art is true and great, perhaps truer and greater than when it becomes beautiful. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (trnsl. John Gearey)

Last weekend Chris and I traveled to Strasbourg, France to meet his little sister Monica who has been studying in Toulouse this semester. There I was fascinated to re-encounter many of the cultural elements that I associate strongly with Germany, half-timbered houses, Flammkuchen, and Brezeln, here with French names and a place in French history.

That the city has changed hands repeatedly throughout its history is obvious. A short walk from the charming neighborhood known as “le petit France” brought us to the Strasbourg Cathedral, the subject of Goethe’s famous essay “On German Architecture,” (1772) which, with its defense of Gothic design, sparked a debate about German national style that lasted well into the nineteenth century. Goethe, the super-celeb of German lit, urged his country to reclaim this style as its own and cease modeling its buildings on the Greek tradition that was the trend throughout Europe, particularly in Italy and France.

Nationalist overtones aside, Goethe’s essay on the Strasbourg cathedral is one of my favorite pieces on aesthetics. It’s not that I’m so head-over-heels for Gothic architecture, but (ok, not surprisingly) I find something liberating about Goethe’s stance against the academic precepts of his time. Having been educated to believe in the supremacy of classical architecture with its geometrical clarity, Goethe writes that he first went to the cathedral expecting it to be primitive, disorderly, unnatural, cobbled together, and overwrought. Nonetheless, he found himself transfixed by its myriad of painstaking details collectively unified in the crescendo of its incomprehensible presence.

      

Drawn into an imaginary exchange with its long-deceased architect, Goethe describes himself returning to the structure at all hours of the day to watch it transform with the undulations of light and shadow. As he observed its lines fade and solidify in the shifts from dusk to dawn and back again he experienced a blissful cognitive struggle to take in the architectural elements that seemed as multiple and yet as harmonious as those found in nature.

Goethe’s essay encourages us to let ourselves be inspired by art and architecture even in cases where it doesn’t live up to what we might call (or maybe hope to call) our aesthetic standards. He suggests that we are better off following our own instincts about what is meaningful to us than by accepting what convention might tell us is good. Consider it. You may not have to feel guilty about your guilty pleasures at all. In them there is a need of yours being fulfilled, a question of importance being asked, even if not so smoothly or eloquently. In fact, Goethe insists that art is bound to get messy and disorderly in precisely those moments when it moves forward to encompass greater truths about our existence. In first allowing ourselves to be moved we not only take part in the joy of living, but clear the way for meaningful contemplation and understanding. I am grateful for the reminder to both create and appreciate boldly!

        

All Saints

When I take a peaceful happy step, I take it with all my ancestors. — Thich Nhat Hanh.

We didn’t celebrate Halloween this year at all. It’s not a traditional holiday in Germany and what’s made its way over feels like a cheap commercial import. Instead, in honor of All Saints Day, a christian holiday that is recognized by protestants and catholics in Germany, I decided to take some time to reflect on the passage of life as well as the beauty of my favorite season with a walk through the cemetery near our apartment.

I went at noon when the light was turning the autumn leaves into a great kaleidoscope that reflected against the smooth surfaces of the polished headstones, and, sheepishly, toted along our heavy camera, hoping that the visitors there wouldn’t find it disrespectful to take pictures in such a sacred space.

        

I tried to steer clear of where family members were bending over to tend to the graves of loved ones. Mostly they didn’t notice me as they were busy tending to their plots, pulling away fallen leaves and filling little flower boxes with spindles of erica and boughs of pine to symbolize eternal life. Still, I felt compelled to search my memory for suggestions on cemetery etiquette and recalled a second-grade field trip where our teacher showed us how to make headstone rubbings with crayons on large pieces of white butcher paper. We came back to the classroom to compare graphics and dates as if we had been on a kind of scavenger hunt.

This made my current excursion seem less bizarre, but, still, I haven’t heard of anyone collecting gravestone-rubbings since then, and I would find it a little weird to come up to the grave of a family member and see a stranger bent over it with a crayon or a camera.

Ultimately I decided that if I was discrete I could justify taking (and sharing) a few pictures. After all, I certainly wasn’t looking for ghost stories. I wasn’t hoping that the camera would pick up the impression of some stray spirit like an uncanny lens-flare visible only once enlarged later on my lap-top monitor. Instead, I was interested in the history that I expected the cemetery would reveal, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Architectural elements that demonstrated intense care followed by, in many cases, profound neglect gave me a tactile sense of the passage of time in the 164 years since the cemetery had been dedicated. Some markers of family plots show not only the signs of the natural world reclaiming the memorializations of loved ones past, but the scars of war and destruction that have come to be a part of Berlin’s cultural identity.

Nonetheless, history’s relentless force is quiet here; its terrors are subdued by the more palpable struggles of individual people to hold on to happy memories of loved ones against the irreversible reality of loss.

In such ambivalent territory, I find it difficult to know how to conclude this small observatory exercise. My historical-analytical training might send me in a different direction, but instead I’d like to preserve the experience as I lived it: as a moment of appreciation for the love, compassion, and work of my ancestors all over the world and throughout history.

I will try to make the most of my inheritance.