Thursday, December 29, 2011

Stumbling Stones (Germany #21)

Of late, The Active Voice has been, in a word, inactive. No excuses, but now we’re back. I thought I was through with reporting on my fall visit to Germany (20 posts seeming like plenty). But now that I’ve finally finished Peter Watson’s 964-page opus, The German Genius (HarperCollins, New York: 2010), I feel the need to pen just one more. The book, a gift from family members upon learning of my trip, is a fascinating history of German ideas over the past 250 years. Watson explains that Germany’s late arrival at nationhood in 1871 coincided with its late renaissance and late introduction to the industrial revolution, all of which helped produce the powerhouse nation that set out to dominate Europe in the 20th Century.

There is way too much in this book for a blogger to adequately cover, so I won’t even try. But I do want to make three points before leaving the subject:  1) that the term “German genius” is no misnomer, as evidenced by the list of German geniuses I’ll share with you momentarily; 2) non-Germans do not realize the extent to which today’s Germany was changed by the social revolution of 1968; and 3) Germans today take responsibility--and show many signs of deepest regret--for their nation’s past sins.

#1: The “German geniuses” of the past 250 years include ‘the standard “backbone” of classical music … Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms … as well as scientists/inventors Friedrich Bayer (pharmaceuticals), Carl Zeiss (microscope), Alfred Krupp (weaponry), and Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler (automobile), to name but a few. Watson notes that, "with the exception of market economics and natural selection, the contemporary world of ideas is one that, broadly speaking, was created by, in roughly chronological order, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Rudolf Clausius (thermodynamics), Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Planck (quantum theory), Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Max Weber (Protestant work ethic), and two world wars. The ideas of another German, Gregor Mendel ("father of modern genetics"), are gaining ground fast as the start of the 21st century …”

#2:  Non-Germans do not realize the extent to which today’s Germany has changed. “Despite the successful establishment of democratic institutions in Germany after (WWII), authoritarian thought patters tended to persist and it was not until the 1960s that the modernization deficit was overcome. A crucial factor … was the generational rebellion of 1968, when the younger (generation) … turned on its parents for the acquiescence in horror they had shown in the Third Reich and for their inability to face their guilt; and only then, in 1968, did Germans start to internalize democratic values, develop a counter elite and demand self-government and democratic counter-power…. Henceforth Germany had a critical, skeptical public, an entity that had been common enough in, say, Great Britain, France, or the U.S. for generations, but that had now finally arrived in Germany…. The fourth postwar generation has adjusted to the terrible German past and has the courage to face up to the fact that “almost everyone” in the Third Reich knew what was going on…. (But) many outside Germany still do not grasp (with the Germans themselves failing to see why outsiders do not appreciate this profound truth), the social revolution of 1968, particularly in West Germany, was a much bigger set of events there than anywhere else

3) Germans today take responsibility--and show many signs of deepest regret--for their nation’s past sins. In my other posts from Germany, I’ve pointed out numerous ways this is evident throughout the nation. As I was finishing Watson’s book, I came across the following paragraph--and realized I’d actually seen these “stumbling stones” during my visit to Cologne: “In some ways the most effective--and most beautiful--architectural project (or is it sculpture?), which also presents the face of a Germany we haven’t seen before, are the Stolpersteine, the ‘stumbling stones’ of Gunter Demnig. These stones, set into the pavement, in Cologne to begin with, are slightly raised cobblestones located outside houses where murdered Jews once lived. A brass plate is nailed to each stone containing basic details: “Here lived Moritz Rosenthal. B. 1883. Deported 1941. Lodz. Died 28.2.1942.” The first stones Demnig installed were illegal, but the idea caught on and in 1999 he was officially approved More than a thousand stones are now in place in Cologne and in several other cities.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Inner Resources

Got a wry response (always a cause for celebration!) to my last post on ego surfing that went, “Okay, I have Googled myself. I was as boring on-line as I am in real life. I was hoping for more.”

Aren’t we all?

In response, I quoted two writers I admire and offered what I hoped would be sage encouragement:  “I'm not in the advice business, but if you really hope for more from life, my advice is to do something about it. Like right away. Good luck.”

And that, friends, is why I am not Dear Abby. Although I have opinions and the occasional insight (dutifully reproduced in this space when I’m not too busy writing other stuff), my advice generally stinks. To me, self help really is self help. And when I’m bored with myself, I usually fall back upon my imagination. I mean, what else is there?

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
--John Berryman, “Dream Song 14”

Mark Twain once said: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

Personally, I don’t think it’s ever too late to try this. But to all three of you out there who may be reading this, please do not misinterpret my meaning. I’m not saying you should try hang-gliding, mountain-climbing, or deep-sea diving (though I have done a little of the latter and it’s really fun). What I am saying is just go for it. Do what you want to do with your life. It’s the only one you get.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ego Surfing

Ever Googled yourself? Bet you have. It’s called “ego surfing” or “vanity searching” and, according to a study by the Pew Internet & American life project, 47% of American adult internet users have undertaken a vanity search in Google or another search engine.
An “ego surfer” is one who surfs the Internet for his or her own name, to see what, if any, articles appear about himself or herself. The term was coined by Sean Carton in Wired (Wikipedia).
I did it today myself in order to see how often my blog would come up on Google. Of course, once I got started, I couldn’t stop until I’d gone through multiple pages to see anywhere else my name appeared. Didn’t matter whether it was in connection with something recent or decades ago. Didn’t even have to be about me; it’s amazing how many other people share my name (public officials, jailbirds), which I’d always thought an uncommon one.
Yes, such is vanity--and we are all vain.
Artists (like dogs and perhaps all God’s creatures) have always tried to leave their mark behind, whether in the form of cave paintings like the Paleolithic ones at Lascaux in southwestern France, whose age is estimated at over 17,000 years, or monuments like Mount Rushmore, which was completed in 1941.
Personally, I wouldn’t dignify carving one’s initials on a public park bench or tagging someone else’s property with graffiti by calling it art. But even these reprehensible acts probably stem from the same primal impulse that moves inventors to try and leave their mark in inventions, athletes in record books, and even some business tycoons by starring in their own cheesy commercials.
Writers, of course, try to leave their mark in books they have written (as opposed to vandals who leave their mark in books someone else has written). Likewise, musicians leave their marks in the songs they’ve made, from the earliest wax recordings to today’s digital technology.
Now that same digital technology is being used by ordinary shlubs to see their name in lights, if only on a computer screen. This is not surprising. The Anglo-Saxons of 1,500 years ago would’ve understood it perfectly. Beowulf, for instance, makes an heroic boast about his past glories before taking on a terrifying monster unarmed. We remember him because 1) he lived to tell the tale and 2) someone wrote it down.
More recently, Muhammad Ali boasted he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Also, that he was “the greatest.” He backed it up, too. Now look at him--he’s got his own museum.
Even before late night talk shows, boasting was a way to achieve fame. And fame mattered because life was short and who knew what came next? The Anglo-Saxons had a fable about a bird who flies out of the darkness into the light of the mead hall, but only for a short time before vanishing again into the night.
Is it any wonder we put tombstones on our graves--or ego surf?

Journey's End (Germany #20)

COLOGNE--Hard to believe I’m nearing my journey’s end. This is Germany’s fourth largest city, and on this trip I’ve now seen all of the others except Hamburg. Day before yesterday, it took our bus about half an hour to climb out of the steep wooded Rhine Valley following our river cruise. We came back here, freshened up at our hotel, and dined at a French bistro on coq au vin and chocolate mousse.
Yesterday morning (Oct. 12, actually), we began our last full day in Germany with a lecture on “The Romans in Cologne,” followed by a visit to the city’s famous cathedral; built between 1248 and 1880, it’s the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. Cologne, which is located on both sides of the Rhine, was founded by the Romans in 50 A.D. It was the capital of a Roman province until being occupied by the Franks in 459, and later a sovereign state within the Holy Roman Empire until being conquered by Napoleon.
Cologne survived WWI without significant damage. But in WWII, the city center (including the famous Twelve Romanesque churches and many other cultural treasures) was almost completely wiped out by Allied bombing. Also, by 1945, essentially all of Cologne's pre-war Jewish population of 11,000 had been deported or killed by the Nazis and the six synagogues of the city destroyed. The synagogue on Roonstraße was rebuilt in 1959.
Following the devastation of WWII, Cologne suffered through another half century of Soviet domination and its grim architecture before Germany was reunited. Reconstruction of the center city (which was rebuilt to look old) lasted until the 1990s, when the Romanesque church of St. Kunibert was finished. Today, Cologne is home to more than 30 museums and hundreds of galleries, as well as its namesake university, one of Europe's oldest and largest.
Coffee houses have been a Cologne institution since Napoleon’s time, and for lunch yesterday we visited one of the city’s finest, the restored Gothic Café Reichard. Located on an elegant shopping street, the cafe seats 400 inside its glass pavilion, and 400 more on a beautiful terrace. But its most endearing feature was a magnificent assortment of cakes and pies that included gooseberry pie, something I’d never tasted and found delightfully tart. After lunch, we had free time the rest of the afternoon. At 6:15, we reconvened in the hotel lobby and went out together for our wonderful farewell dinner at nearby Renaissance Hotel.
Very, very early this morning (5:50), we were in the lobby of Hotel Flandrischer Hof waiting for our airport shuttle when my wife wished aloud for come coffee. There seemed little chance of this happening. Yet to our astonishment, a kindly hotel clerk immediately called across, “One? Or two?” and proceeded to brew us each a steaming cup. This small kindness typified our experience with the German people, who seemed so much like Americans.
Most everything on this tour was well-planned with lots of attention to detail evident. For anything that wasn’t, our amazing tour leaders made seemingly effortless adjustments (though I know they were sometimes exasperated). Throughout our stay, I’ve admired German cleanliness, up-to-date technology, style, and efficiency. This continued with our minivan ride to the shiny and apparently new airport.
Joachim walked us right up to customs, making sure we were okay before exchanging heartfelt farewells. As we showed our passports to German officials, I recalled learning on this trip that since I am of German descent (through my great grandparents), I could qualify for a German passport. What a strange feeling that gave me.