NER nonfiction editor J. M. Tyree speaks with NER 37.3 author Joseph Pearson on Pearson’s essay “Three German Cities,” and the links between the “I,” history, and politics.
J. M. Tyree: “Three German Cities” beautifully blends your personal writing with your observations on cultural history as you travel through Hamburg, Munich, and Berlin, where you live now. In your notes on each city, you describe the effect of Allied bombing campaigns on these cities. Yet your annotations on these cities also connect with what’s going on there now. Do you think the balance between past and present is different in Germany?
Joseph Pearson: The past is never in the present, whether you are in America or Germany. But in some places there is what you call a different balance, and there are what I might call “better listeners.” Augustine, in his Confessions, writes about time, and compares its passing to the experience of listening to music. He calls our awareness of the past in the present “distention.” He observes how the moment we hear a note, it is immediately gone; we are distended over that note, and that distention is painful. Perhaps I like pop music—including some really obnoxious Eurotrash—because it gives me, the listener, a sense of control. The rhythms and melodies are so repetitious that I can joyfully anticipate what’s coming next even if I don’t know the song. This is very satisfying for a historian used to history rhyming but never repeating. Historians are always left contemplating what’s vanished, trying to represent it somehow imperfectly. And some political scientists spend time creating complicated, often useless, theories to anticipate what comes next. The public culture of memorializing in Germany, at least for now, compared to many other countries—because of the process of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” or “coming to terms with the past” of the crimes of the Holocaust—is more concerned with paying attention to these past notes.
Recently, with a group of friends, we sponsored two “stumbling stones,” or “Stolpersteine.” They are actually bronze plaques inserted into the pavement in front of our apartment building for two middle-aged Jewish sisters who were deported in 1942. Fifty thousand of these “Stolpersteine” have already been sponsored by individuals in Europe to victims of National Socialism. They are slightly raised, and the idea is that people stumble over them. Maybe when they look down at ours in Berlin-Kreuzberg, they will see the names of Meta and Margarete Zamory, and read that they were taken from our building by force and murdered in a camp in Poland. The women’s music is gone, but here there is an effort to write down a few insufficient notes. The sadness here is that their music—if we can belabor the metaphor just a little bit longer—cannot be replayed. But maybe we can learn from it to become better listeners. I would like to see a similar project of memorializing in other places, like in my birth country Canada (to the native populations who have suffered under state crimes).
JMT: In The Haunted Screen, Lotte Eisner describes the German love of ghosts and mist, as well as that territory of moods covered by the word Stimmung, that Murnau-like atmosphere that seems to pervade your description of the sea fogs of Hamburg and “storage hangars that always feel like cemeteries to me . . .” I picture postindustrial analogues of the street lanterns of Nosferatu or the glistening pavements from The Last Laugh! About Berlin you wonderfully describe ghosts who “won’t share a pillow.” But Stimmung, according to Eisner, also contains the atmospherics of nostalgia and desire, “lust of body and soul.” Does this term resonate with your observations of Germany?
JP: I always run into a hermeneutic problem when talking about Germany, or any other country for that matter. Germany is so many places—regional, city, countryside—but then again it is also almost immediately recognizable no matter where you are. This might be because of the clean fonts in rail stations, the aridity of public spaces, the smell of certain cleaning products, or the paucity of verbose politeness. I was recently in Basel, Switzerland, and took a city bus ten minutes across the border into Germany to what might as well be a suburb. The clues that I’d left Switzerland were more the tattiness of the discount shops and the more serious expressions on people’s faces in public transport than anything as atmospherically Murnau-like as mist or moody atmosphere. So the question for me is why so many German artists cloud these everyday realities in this mist, or why I, too, as you’ve rightly pointed out, use these devices (although in “Three German Cities” I am talking about a city, Hamburg, where there is actually a lot of fog rolling in from the North Sea). What I can say, for my own part, is that the mist is maybe a way to soften talking too firmly about how things are. It gives solid things a sense of changeability, and therefore also more flexibility to meaning. I don’t wish to direct readers, but rather to give them something more unstable that also provides some freedom of interpretation. Stimmung is a lovely word because it too means so many things within certain limits: atmosphere, morale, spirit, vein, temperament, the mood among a group of people, or even how the piano in the next room is voiced. Maybe some German writers—who historically have had quite enough of authoritarianism, and are often more in love with ambiguity than their “Anglo-Saxon” peers—have influenced me just a little.
JMT: It feels honest and refreshing to let in the free play of first-person subjectivity. Was this decision difficult or did this leap of faith feel organic to your creative process? It’s always a dilemma about how much autobiography to include, isn’t it? And do you see your project here—and your new book on Berlin—being connected to the journalistic projects on the city and its culture undertaken in the 1920s by writers like Benjamin and Kracauer?
JP: Berlin has a long tradition of first-person narration about historical subjects that, as you suggest, really came into its own in the 1920s, especially in the politicized climate of New Objectivity. Writers of the period, more broadly, were writing what they called “fiction” with the tools of nonfiction writers (the docu-fiction of Christopher Isherwood, Ernst Haffner, Irmgard Keun, or Hans Fallada), and others are working from the opposite trajectory (the literary journalism of Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Joseph Roth, Franz Hessel, Kurt Tucholsky). I felt rather more legitimized to approach my subject with a narrative focalized through a first-person character than I would have if I were still living in North America. There, the English courses I took at college were still influenced by New Criticism and my historical training banished the word “I” from any serious analysis. This might sound a little naïve, but I think the “I” is just more honest (and also a usefully flexible variable that can indicate: I am here. I am the observer. I am not just a camera. I might be a character. My “I” could just as easily be “you”). Certainly the personal essays in my forthcoming book,* a short history and portrait of Berlin, are indebted to this tradition.
There is also a political desire here. I do not believe in great unseen historical spirits. All these I’s will determine how history will unfold. And living in Berlin, with Europe and America moving towards intolerant populism, I feel the link between the “I”, history, and politics very strongly. I want to indicate that connection in my writing, to suggest our political agency in light of past tragedies; “I” is the pronoun of witnessing, and we need witnesses in complicated times. The “I” is a vector for political change based on historical understanding. And I do not think the political impoverishes writing (this is just an excuse to keep artists out of politics). We are the ones who occupy all these moody places—shipping yards, mountain trains, or Jewish cemeteries—so briefly. What we do—as the ones who remember, or vote, or then protest and resist, to make for a better future when we are gone—counts so very much in the instant. Germany provides, in the 1920s and 1930s, an instructive warning for a future we can’t anticipate but can still influence.
*Joseph Pearson’s book Berlin will be published by Reaktion Books in 2017.