Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
As both a reader and a book collector, I’m a big fan of college library book sales. Held annually or bi-annually at colleges and universities across the country, these sales convert library discards and unwanted donations into desperately needed funds. Uncluttered by the kinds of books that glut public library sales, the college library book sale paints an interesting picture of town-gown reading habits.
When I had the opportunity to attend The Friends of the Library Used Book Sale at the State University of New York in New Paltz, I tried to get there as early as possible, knowing that ambitious local booksellers and scouts would arrive when the door opened at 8:00 a.m. Not that I was necessarily looking for an overlooked first edition (although applying my esoteric knowledge about books and collecting for profit would be fun). Lest you think that the tables were filled with the fifth edition of the MLA Handbook, I will declare up front that I did find one such diamond in the rough — a first edition of Dwight Macdonald’s Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture in a Brodart-enclosed dust jacket (always a good sign). The book was not an ex-library copy — a red flag for collectors, but not readers — and because I had studied the book in graduate school, I knew not only its academic value, but also its scarcity on the market. I had purchased my own copy about ten years ago, settling for a yellowing, faded paperback, which still sits on my shelves. It’s not a find that will make me rich, but if I chose to sell it, I could buy five New York Times bestsellers in hardcover.
I found an uncanny number of books at this sale that I would have purchased had I not already owned a copy, such as Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness, a classic of the American counterculture movement; or, David Denby’s 1997 tirade about preserving the Western canon, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World; or David Lodge’s superb satire, The British Museum is Falling Down. I should have bought that last one anyway, my copy is badly worn. A hardcover of Johnny Tremain, the story of a young silversmith apprentice in Revolutionary America, caught my eye, but again, I had one in similar condition at home. I read this book in seventh grade and recall it now as one of the books that made me like reading and learning about history.
When I noticed a copy of Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, I felt a pang of sadness and wondered whether this amazing work — one I relied on heavily in graduate school — cast off in such a way means that Jane Tompkins is no longer a staple in English and history departments. Surely that can’t be the case; it was just being passed along to a new generation of scholars, and some young English major will adopt it. It’s hard to believe that Tompkins published that book twenty-five years ago.
There are always some textbooks mingled into the college library book sale, and at this one, I also spotted a book of literary terms quite like the one I bought when I was in high school. The fiction struck me as exquisitely cerebral. The Well of Loneliness, a 1928 novel by Radclyffe Hall, was the subject of censorship and banning when it was first published in the U.S. Though critics felt it beautifully written, its lesbian content was impossible to overlook. This novel is found on the syllabi of women’s studies and sociology courses; I wrote a paper on it in a class on the history of propaganda. In more modern (but literary) fiction, A. S. Byatt’s Babel Tower, a novel set in bookish 1960s England, and Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka, a surreal critique of nobility, almost came home with me. (Both authors are highly enjoyable, thought provoking, and, admittedly demanding.) When I spied the fine dust jacket of Joyce Carol Oates’ You Must Remember This, I thought I might have another treasure in my hands. Alas, it turned out to be a book club edition (red flag!).
Dare I call these selections highbrow? Is this what the intellectual elite reads? What would Macdonald say — that academics are still valiantly resisting “masscult”? (It would help explain the dearth of Da Vinci Codes at this sale.) Would he categorize them as “high art” or, more likely, “midcult” — i.e., watered-down “high art”? Three of the novelists cited above were, at some point, Book-of-the-Month Club picks, of which Macdonald writes, “Midcult is the Book-of-the-Month-Club, which since 1926 has been supplying its members with reading matter of which the best that can be said is that it could be worse.” (Byatt’s most popular novel, Possession, was a BOMC selection. It also won the Man Booker Prize. Having read it, I’d be hard-pressed to call it lite literature.)
What did I end up buying at the SUNY sale, aside from old Macdonald? Only one other book: a Modern Library edition of The Collected Short Stories of Dorothy Parker. I enjoy the handy format of older ML editions, and this one retained its jacket in good condition, which is always a plus. This slim volume will fit nicely on the shelves I’ve devoted to Parker and the Algonquin Round Table. Modern Library, a publisher known throughout the twentieth century for its reprints of so-called classics, is often spotted at college library sales, as are some of the other classic reprinters; I recognized several World’s Classics at the New Paltz sale.
My husband found two books to take home that day — one, a professional monograph on voice and diction (his area of expertise) and the other a book called The Winter Beach by Charlton Ogburn Jr., a blend of memoir and natural history strikingly similar to the Henry Beston classic, The Outermost House, that he admires.
I brooded over what it says about me as a reader that my tastes are so easily reflected here on the tables outside a college library. But then, who cares what it says about me — what’s more significant is what it reinforces about campus reading. First and foremost, it says that physical books aren’t dead! The sale was packed — with students. Secondly, it manifests our common academic purpose in a liberal arts education — to read and think broadly and seriously in areas like sociology, history, and modern literature. Finally, it shows wide (concentric) participation in the stimulating circle of readership. Books at college library sales generally are not rare, collectible, or even particularly well cared for, but they are read, studied, assigned, highlighted, underlined, bought, sold, and loved (or hated) by students, professors, and college-town locals, and that is encouraging indeed.
Image credit: UofSLibrary/Flickr
Two years ago I spent some time in Lenox, Massachusetts, at a house once owned by the poet Amy Clampitt. I slept in her bed, rifled through her books, gazed out the kitchen window at the tree by which her ashes are buried. Since 2001, the house has served as a residency for poets; as the ninth Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, my boyfriend was awarded a six-month stay. On a January weekend I helped him move into the grey clapboard house with blue-green shutters. Just down the road, The Mount, the mansion built by Edith Wharton, stood in baronial splendor. Everything about the more intimate Clampitt house struck me as perfect: the cozy living room with its comfy upholstered chairs; the loft bedroom and writing nook overlooking the snowy street; the spare bedroom crammed with boxes of Clampitt’s manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. We found a bin stacked with copies of Clampitt’s own books of poetry, and my boyfriend noted how cool it would be to read Amy Clampitt’s Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher.
I reluctantly caught the bus back to New York, where I had an M.F.A. thesis to write. This meant churning out and polishing short stories, and also producing a critical essay. I decided to write about Clampitt. Now I had an excuse for riding the Greyhound to Lenox as often as possible: I had research to do. But I immediately ran into trouble. I wanted to write about both Clampitt’s poetry and her house, but what was the connection between the two? Clampitt, who grew up in Iowa and spent most of her adult life in New York City, bought the house in Lenox when she was seventy-two, after winning a MacArthur grant. The places that loom large in her poems are primarily the rural landscapes of her childhood, the Manhattan streets of her adulthood, the Maine beaches where she vacationed in the summer, and the Europe of her travels—not the Berkshire towns along the Housatonic River. Six months after Clampitt moved to Lenox, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year and a half later. On one of her bookshelves, between Dickens and Howard Moss, I found a spiral-bound workbook called Chemotherapy and You. Some of the pages were paper-clipped, marked for use.
In a piece here at The Millions, Luke Epplin discusses his visit to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. This house “is exceptional among existing writers’ houses,” Epplin observes, in that Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like.” The design of the house, the attention to detail, the arrangement of treasured possessions—all seem to capture the spirit of the writer of Odes to Common Things. But even as he enjoys seeing the house as an extension of Neruda’s poetic sensibility, Epplin is suspicious of the way that such museums tend to present a limited portrait of the writers who once lived there. In his critique of the literary tourism industry, he calls on Anne Trubek’s recently published A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a book I find charming, if a bit oddly conceived. Trubek spends a lot of time describing places that irritate her. She finds writers’ houses that have been turned into museums dispiriting and even dumb. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.”
But she keeps going, reporting on her half-hearted treks around the country with a curmudgeon’s pleasure in disparaging what she sees. The first writer’s house she visits is the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman published three editions of Leaves of Grass and an autobiography, Specimen Days. Whitman died in this house, but, Trubek notes, “The house is set up, as are most house museums, to fool us into thinking that Whitman was still living there.” His things, or replicas of his things, are staged in a way that Trubek finds false. Though writers’ houses are meant to make their former inhabitants come alive, Trubek observes, “They remind me of death.”
In Lenox I became friendly with the poet Karen Chase, a great friend of Clampitt’s in the last few years of her life, and one of her literary executors. Karen was at Clampitt’s bedside when she died. We talked about this one morning in the kitchen of the house that Karen helped to furnish, taking her friend on “junking” trips to local antique stores. Karen told me that after the funeral the cleaning lady set up a little memorial to Clampitt: a table with a doily and an arrangement of Clampitt’s books, along with books by Edith Wharton. “I sort of messed it up,” Karen said with a touch of pride. “It was museum-like. It would have gone against her grain in the deepest way.” Trying to learn who Clampitt was (or Amy, as I really thought of her, longing for intimacy), I stared at the framed photograph of a woman both lanky and pixie-like, prim and hippieish, standing in a whirl of autumn leaves. I read her letters, filled with descriptions of European trips and anti-war rallies, the books on her nightstand and the flowers in her window box. And of course I read the four books that make up her Collected Poems, mostly on bus trips between Manhattan and Lenox. I was pleased to think of Clampitt herself, suddenly a poet in demand in her sixties, riding Greyhound to give readings and lectures.
The poems that struck me the most, the poems I decided to focus on in my M.F.A. thesis essay, were her portraits of the dead, at once somber and lovely. “A Winter Burial” describes a woman’s death, which seems as lonely as her time in a nursing home:
. . . one nightfall when the last
weak string gave way that had held whatever
she was, that mystery, together, the bier
that waited—there were no planes coming in,
not many made it to the funeral, the blizzard
had been so bad, the graveyard drifted
so deep, so many severed limbs of trees
thrown down, they couldn’t get in to plow
an opening for the hearse, or shovel
the cold white counterpane from that cell
in the hibernal cupboard, till the day after.
This is bleak, indeed: an old forgotten woman literally buried even deeper by a snowstorm. Still, the music of the poem—those lovely incantatory final lines—dignifies the death in a way, placing it not in a sterile box, but in a space of privacy that the snow-covered earth allows. Clampitt’s poems memorialize the dead not by portraying the person who once lived, but by paying acute attention to place, sometimes places where the subject died or is buried, sometimes places that invoke the relentless flow of time and history. One of her most famous poems, “A Procession at Candlemas,” observes, “Sooner or later / every trek becomes a funeral procession.”
She’s also wise to the way that paying tribute to a place can profane it, the kind of thing that troubles Trubek. “Amherst” refers to the worshippers who flock to Emily Dickinson’s house on the anniversary of her death: “the wistful, / the merely curious, in her hanging dress discern / an ikon; her ambiguities are made a shrine, / then violated.” Clampitt includes herself in this group: “we’ve drunk champagne above her grave, declaimed / the lines of one who dared not live aloud.” She wants to address her—“(Dear Emily, though, / seems too intrusive, Dear Miss Dickinson too prim)”—even as she knows this makes her part of the adoring crowd that reduces the woman to literary icon.
As an alternative to preserving a writer’s house, Trubek suggests greater attention to his or her work. Reflecting on the plans to restore Langston Hughes’ former house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, she asks, “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house . . . ? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. It would not be cost prohibitive to give every resident of Fairfax a book, or every teacher a classroom set of, say, Poetry for Young People.” After visiting Louisa May Alcott’s house, one of an exhausting number of literary sites in Concord, Massachusetts, Trubek reflects, “Here’s what I wish for Alcott, today: Her books assigned in schools as often as are Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye; her reputation remade into that of the tortured romantic genius; it would also be nice to have a foundation in her honor dedicated to offering women writers grants or scholarships for female writers.” To promote the work, to elevate the status of a woman writer, to support other writers: these are worthy goals, and the Clampitt House, in its quiet way, fosters them. While the lavish Mount down the road lets tourists see where Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels, perhaps increasing the readership of these books, it could be argued that the Clampitt House is better for writers (if only, so far, eleven of them) by providing a place to stay rent-free for an extended period of time and get work done. I imagine Trubek would approve of the Clampitt House: not a memorial, but a practical living space.
I don’t think Clampitt envisioned that her house would one day serve, in her name, as a temporary home for other poets. Her husband, who lived for seven years after her death, came up with the idea for the residency program. I do know that she had some romantic ideas about the former dwelling places of writers she admired. In her essay “A Poet’s Henry James,” she writes, “When I made a pilgrimage to Rye a couple of summers ago, it was with the objective of standing on the spot where Henry James dictated The Ambassadors.”
In the essay I completed as part of my M.F.A. thesis, I wrote about the experience of staying in the house of a writer who had died there, and I wrote about Clampitt’s poems that deal with death. I don’t think I quite found a successful way to link them. But though it puts me in danger of romanticizing Clampitt and the place she once lived, I can’t help but feel that her expansive poems about loss are connected to the cozy grey clapboard house in Lenox. According to Trubek, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy.” There is something melancholy about the Clampitt House. As Clampitt observes about Dickinson’s house, the poet’s “ambiguities” are inevitably given over to strangers’ imaginings of what she must have been like.
It’s a good kind of melancholy, though, the kind that allows us to miss people we’ve never met. During a talk she gave at Grinnell forty-five years after she had graduated from the small Iowa college, Clampitt addressed the question of what a writer needs to know. “In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be . . . .Writers need company. We all need it.”
Image: Clampitt House, courtesy the author
It was raining last Thursday (because it is always raining in New York) when I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear a panel called “Language in New Forms: The Work of Andrey Platonov.” I’m glad I braved the weather, however. The panel featured four of the most mellifluous voices in Anglo-American letters – Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser, and intellectual historian T.J. Clark. I could listen to Ondaatje read the phone book. Even more remarkable, though, was Platonov himself. Indeed, this Russian writer of the Soviet epoch turned out to be my big discovery of this year’s festival.Edwin Frank, whose NYRB Classics imprint has brought Platonov’s fiction back into print, opened the proceedings. Reminding the audience to turn off cellphones, Frank had a kind of Woody Allenish mien, but he waxed eloquent as soon as he began discussing Platonov’s complicated publishing history. Platonov’s “pressurized, contorted. . . lyrical” style made him “the most inventive writer of the revolutionary era,” Frank suggested – a Slavic peer of Beckett and Kafka, only with a desire “to bind up [the world’s] wounds” in addition to probing them. His admirers and champions included Yevtuschenko and Gorky, and like the latter, Platonov truly believed in the revolution. He had the utopian spirit. And yet, perhaps detecting the negative capability that is always hostile to ideology, Stalin’s functionaries suppressed Platonov’s best writing.After this fulsome introduction, the panelists let Platonov’s work speak for itself. Ondaatje read from an early short story. Then Lesser undertook a mash-up, reading half of “Fro” from the recently retranslated collection Soul and half from the “barbaric” older translation (which NYRB published in 2000 as The Fierce and Beautiful World). Apparently, publishing complications have followed Platonov even into English, and Lesser’s reading made clear why. Platonov is an intensely unusual stylist, blending modernist subjectivity with futurist, revolutionary diction and visionary mysticism. Francine Prose’s reading from “his finest story,” the eponymous “Soul,” revealed an animist sympathy with trees and rocks and buildings. “After reading him for a while,” she said, nodding toward her bottle of Aquafina, “you start to wonder what the water bottle might think of this evening’s proceedings.”The most spirited performer of the night, however, turned out to be T.J. Clark, who read a remarkable excerpt from the newly reissued novel, The Foundation Pit. Clark “did all the voices,” as the third-graders I used to teach would say, and drew the audience into a story remarkable, above all, for its sensibility: passionate, tender, absurd, and tragic. It’s a sensibility I look forward to reading much more of in the coming weeks.
Bayerisches Viertel is an upper-middle class residential area in Schöneberg, a southwest borough of Berlin. On a warm Sunday in August, the streets are almost empty and except for some cafés and Spätkaufs (bodegas), all the shops are closed. It feels distant spatially and spiritually from the internationally celebrated areas of Berlin — the traffic and energy of Kreuzberg, the young-family-brigade of Prenzlauerberg, the old grandeur of Museum Insel. The bullet-holed and graffitied aesthetic that so typifies a city whose history can feel almost convulsively exteriorized is absolutely absent here; instead one finds well-groomed green lawns, cream and rose apartment buildings with decorated balconies, and quiet tree lined streets, and almost all of the very few people out walking or cycling are elderly and white. Barbarossaplatz, for instance, is a perfectly pleasant place to sit with a brötchen and enjoy the wind in the leaves. The street leading there, Barbarossastrasse, is a street like many others, in other family neighborhoods, in any other city: you see a mother and baby on the street, an older couple on their patio reading the paper, children’s bicycles in a pile, and a colorful, well-displayed street sign with a cat on it, the other side of which reads: “Juden dürfen keine Haustiere mehr halten,” which translates as, “Jews may no longer own pets.”
Twenty years ago this summer, German artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock, installed their “Places of Remembrance,” 80 street signs with images or symbols on one side, and a particular anti-Jewish (and sometimes anti-Polish) Nazi law on the other. Stih and Shnock proposed this project in 1991 as their submission to a competition calling for ideas for a memorial in the neighborhood’s central square, right off Martin-Luther-Strasse. By unanimous vote, the jury — consisting of artists, historians, city planners, and representatives of the Jewish community in Berlin — opted for Stih and Schnock’s controversial, non-traditional memorial over the more palatable, reassuring option of a centralized monument. In 1993 the signs went up.
In interviews the artists suggested they wanted to make a memorial that would adequately reflect the ways in which the alienation, harassment, and eventual deportation of Berlin’s Jewish residents was not a sudden, immediately recognizable, or universally resisted attack on the community, but instead operated as a kind of integrated and initially subtle management of daily life and routine. Schöneberg was known in the 1920’s as “Jewish Switzerland” thanks to its largely wealthy Jewish residents, yet it is also remembered as a culturally diverse community enjoying an intellectual climate: it was one of the first gay neighborhoods during Berlin’s Golden Years, and thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein lived here. What Stih and Shnock’s work seeks to bring out, however, is that non-Jewish Germans met the anti-Jewish laws, not with great resistance but accommodation (though of course there was some organized resistance, notably the Social Democrats, the Communist party, and workers unions). Where a single, discrete, and perhaps noble memorial might suggest a single, discrete, and perhaps terrible event, peppering an ordinary neighborhood with inconspicuous (until you read them) signposts suggests a different kind of integration into history, and demands a different kind of negotiation in the present.
German has two words that we might translate as memorial in English, though exactly where to draw the conceptual distinctions is not obvious even to native speakers. A Denkmal is a memorial or monument whose purpose is to remind us of something that has happened or someone who has lived. Denken is the German verb “to think,” so a Denkmal stands as a testament to something on which we have a duty to reflect. Denkmals can be bloated and grand — as in the Soviet Memorial in Berlin or Mount Rushmore in South Dakota — or sombre and respectful — as in the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, a black wall engraved with service members’ names, dedicated to honoring those who fought in the war.
A Mahnmal is something subtly different, and we have no readily available English translation. Mahnen means both “to admonish” and “to remind;” it is often paired with the idea of caution or observance, as when one urges someone to take caution or be vigilant. A Mahnmal, then, is something meant both to remind and to warn, it pleads for remembrance not for the purpose of glory but for the purpose of heedful acknowledgment, even shame. A Mahnmal takes the idea of “never again” and gives it shape.
Berlin has an impressive Mahnmal culture. The most famous is the Holocaust-Mahnmal, or the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, a vast grid of concrete vertical slabs arranged on rising and falling ground. Across the street stands the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, a concrete cube with a small window into which one can look and see a video of men kissing (following protest, the video now changes every two years and includes lesbians as well). There are also the Stolperstein — “stumbling stones” — the some 30,000 gold bricks lain in the streets that note the name, address, and place of death for those Jewish Berliners murdered by the Nazis. Again, it isn’t immediately evident that these works would count as Mahnmal rather than Denkmal; for some people I spoke with, a Mahnmal calls to mind something rather imposing or commanding in structure, while the Stolperstein, for instance, are anything but. But one can argue that a Mahnmal is a work the purpose or effect of which is not to communicate historical knowledge but to occasion a new commitment to hold in mind the difficulties of reality and history.
Like the stumbling stones, Stih and Shnock’s signs are effective precisely in their unobtrusiveness. In both cases, one can fail to notice these small pockets of admonishment, and indeed this possibility of failure, this ever-present capacity for not seeing, is exactly what is being consecrated with these works. Where a Denkmal asks us to remember some thing, person, event, or place, a Mahnmal reminds us of the fact of our not having seen, recognized, acknowledged, or acted, the fact that when what is being memorialized was live or happening, it went unattended. In calling to this historic inattentiveness, these works complicate and darken our present willingness to pay attention; unlike a Denkmal which can make us feel edified or exhilarated in our remembrance, a Mahnmal tends to make you sick, suddenly exhausted, borne down upon. In this way a Mahnmal calls not just to the past but to the present, making an intervention not just in history but in reality.
There are 80 signs in Schöneberg, 80 images and 80 laws (of more than 400 such laws), extending over many blocks. Hardly any attention is given to them now, though at the time they were erected there were protests, both anti-Nazi and anti-Semitic. On the Sunday I visited, I rode up to Bayerisches Platz on my bike and scanned the streets, unsure what exactly I was looking for or even if I would find them. The first sign I saw was bright blue with a cartoon loaf of bread. Its banality is heart stopping. On the back it specifies that Jews are only allowed to buy groceries between 4:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon. The more signs I saw — signs forbidding Jewish children from public schools or the employment of Jewish actors and actresses, signs demanding that jewelry owned by Jews be turned over to the state and that Jews without Jewish-sounding names adopt either “Sarah” or “Israel” — the more ill I felt. There is a sign with an enthusiastic Welcome mat on one side (“Herzlich Willkommen!”), and the following law on the other: “to avoid giving foreign visitors a negative impression, signs with strong language will be removed. ‘Jews unwelcome here,’ will suffice.”
Speaking with German and non-German Europeans, some young people expressed some exasperation with efforts like this. The thought is essentially, “we know that this took place, that these laws were enacted and were evil — we’ve been remembering for decades now. But we have to move on eventually.” Stih and Schnock’s signs, though, have much less to do with memory and the disseminating of history than these reactions would suggest. There are other ways to learn about the history of anti-Semitic Nazi laws: the excellent Jewish Museum in Berlin, for instance, has a wealth of information. But the placing of signs in a residential neighborhood outside the main drags of the city, their pop-art colors and present-tense phrasing, all works to do something other than bring the past to us in the form of historical fact. The impatient desire to move on from the past can only arise from the belief that the past and present are neatly separable, that there is some discrete event or time to move on from and somewhere beyond to move on to; if anything these signs assure us that this is not possible. But again, they don’t do this by reminding us of something — something that happened, that was done by some to some others — but by placing a possibility, or better a reality into the present. And by articulating that reality with punchy color and bitter humor — “Welcome!” — it becomes harder to assure ourselves that what’s done is done, or that we can move on now, or that only unusually cruel humans, which we certainly are not, could do such things (just think of Russia’s new law banning “gay propaganda”).
On that Sunday in August, Stih and Schnock’s signs were competing for attention with others kinds of signs; not only traffic and city regulations, but massive political posters in anticipation of Germany’s upcoming national election. In other neighborhoods — Wedding, Kreuzberg, and Neuköln especially — one finds alongside the political posters signs both in support of and critical of the crowded refugee center in the suburb of Hellersdorf, where many asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan are housed. Berlin has recently seen a rise in visible neo-Nazi activity; this month, NDP party supporters showed up in Hellersdorf to protest the arrival of asylum seekers, carrying signs saying, “Tolerant today — tomorrow we are strangers in our own country,” and “Maria, not ‘Sharia,’” accompanied by a picture of a flaxen-haired German woman juxtaposed with a woman in a niqab. In bars now it is common to see signs out front stating “Nazis are not welcome.” In such a climate, Stih and Schnock’s work no longer seems like a relic, but instead as a voice in a contemporary and frightening contest for allegiance, as part of reality as history.
In his radio lectures titled “At the Mind’s Limits,” the Jewish French intellectual and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry said that he holds onto his resentment so that the crimes against him can become a “moral reality,” in order that “history become moral.” Améry was concerned, skeptical, and furious that the German and international community seemed to so swiftly embrace a culture of forgiveness, before the scope and reality of the harm and brutality of the Nazi regime was acknowledged, before any responsibility or guilt was shouldered. Decades on, there is a no-less-urgent need to acknowledge that reality, to challenge ourselves to recognize that we haven’t yet, cannot ever, fully appropriate responsibility for that reality, don’t yet know what proper acknowledgment would mean. Stih and Schnock’s work seems to be part of that effort to make history moral, to make reality moral.
Image courtesy the author