The Defiance Of Rhetoric. German Diary (1984)

excerptsWhen you arrive in Frankfurt, coming from Eastern Europe, you find too little of what you knew about Germany from the readings of its great writers. Another world, other values, another history. A civilisation of concrete and of computers. It is only when you arrive downtown, in front of the imposing old building which hosts the city hall (der Römer) and two steps near it, you can also see Saint Nicholas church, built in a flamboyant Gothic style, it is only then that you feel you have found something from the traditional Germany, the one from the books. But neither here, nor now is it that simple. It is Sunday, a beautiful day, the square downtown is animated, around the dome there are thousands of people. An amazing spectacle. There are Yugoslavian workers, accompanied by their women and children, all dressed up. They know each other, greet themselves merrily and form small groups. From the town where Goethe was born and raised, few old buildings were left. The war was merciless here as well. The Germans started again from the beginning in many places. The hardworking and skilful men have reconstructed their towns, consolidated a prosperous industry and built cultural institutions in the old style. I visit, before anything else, Goethe's house, completely reconstructed and I try to catch something from the secret of this genius's personality who opened up a new horizon for European culture. The thinking on man and his relation to the outer universe was in one way before, and in another after Goethe's appearance in cultural Europe. It is this Goethe that I am trying to discover in the environment in which he lived. Impossible. A world of dead objects, nothing more. The sign of his existence must be searched somewhere else, in culture, of course, but also in that unmistakable way of being in the world of the German man, who, as Mrs. de Staël said, always thought more than he could express. Goethe, whom I am trying to discover in the solid house in Frankfurt, wanted to make the German spirit known worldwide, to give it a universal dimension. "There is no patriotic art, neither is there a patriotic knowledge," he says in a famous text. "Both, like everything that is high and good, belong to the whole world and can progress only by the free mutual action of all contemporaries, always paying heed to what we are left with and what we know from the past." The last specification corrects the imprudent beginning of the paragraph. Art belongs to the whole world: this is a beautiful and very proud statement. It belongs to it to the extent that it expresses (entails) a past, that is, a fundamental experience. And even further: art can progress only by the free mutual action of all contemporaries. This statement laid the basis of a new science (comparative literature), a science in which the Germans, after two centuries, are still unequalled. It studies horizontally the evolution of literatures trying to discover the areas of influence, the circulation of motives, the synchronisation forms of literatures. Modern comparatism focuses on something else (the structure study of an artistic phenomenon or the study of styles!), but the concept of universal literature remained. But let me come back to Frankfurt am Main, the financial core of Federal Germany. My companion, Mrs. Barbara Schander takes me to see Haus Wertheim, the oldest house in town. It hosts today a reputed beer house. The walls are decorated with pictures of famous men who visited the place. Above the bar there is a small plate on which a sentence from Schopenhauer is written. It is strange, this appearance of the most pessimistic philosopher of the 19th century in this environment made up especially by people with big bellies and thirsty mouths. They grip energetically the pints with white collars of froth and bring them to the mouths ready to receive a brew that entered German mythology. Barthes referred to the French fries as to a myth of French modern life. Beer has become, we might say, a symbol of German life. Somebody, referring to English literature, separates the prose in which they drink whisky from that in which they drink tea. How could we read, from this point of view, German literature? Instead of whisky there is, most certainly, beer. Tea remains, as everywhere in Northern Europe. It involves a private space, a protected interior, and a time that is not rushing. A drink that causes reverie and stimulates analysis. Beer is, on the contrary, a social drink, it stirs the mind quickly and predisposes one to sociability. I could not tell what kind of prose predominates in German literature, and neither could I tell which its succession was: the prose of tea or the prose of beer, the analytical, intellectualized prose, the prose of reverie and hibernal seclusion, or the realistic, social, political prose. This dissociation came to mind while I was visiting the beautiful, symbolic and quite agitated Haus Wertheim in Frankfurt on a splendid Sunday morning of August, met by locals, bravely, with the pints full of the divine coppery liquor. Before entering the art museum, we go for a coffee at Laumer's, where Adorno, the philosopher, would often come. It is quiet and very pompous. Plush chairs, solemn gentlemen and elegant ladies, well-bred and polite garçons. We taste a desert specific to the land. Delicious. We have stepped, without realizing, in the tea area. However, we do not have time to analyse. We go to the art galleries. Several pieces are remarkable. A Velasquez, two pictures by Rembrandt, a splendid head of the famous Simonetta Vespucci by Botticelli, a recently purchased Watteau, which, I am told, cost three million DM, several canvasses by Monet, Renoir and the always present Rubens that dominates all German museums. I am looking for the Expressionists; I find them; Dix and Kirchner are well represented. In order to get a more exact view on the amplitude of this school, with powerful echoes in literature as well, you must visit the museums in München and Berlin. The German spirit shouldn't be searched only in museums, though. This idea crosses my mind on time, and I go out in the street. It is dark, the streets are animated, Sachsenhausen – a sort of Latin quarter of the town – is assaulted by tourists. The small and winding streets have retained the mediaeval style. We sit in a crowded beer house, we take some cider, a drink which tastes differently than the cider from the famous Mouftard Street in Paris. The Frankfurt cider, to be honest, is not to my liking; my companions are nevertheless thrilled, they praise it and order one more round. Meanwhile I am watching the fret on the street. I see youngsters in noisy groups, with stridently painted crests. It is the so-called Punk or Stadtindianer generation, better represented in West Berlin. They replaced the hippies of the last decade. A young, I couldn't tell how effective, form of protest. The girls dye their hair in impossible colours: green or red. The boys wear leather jackets and have on their bare arms complicated tattoos. They have imposed a clothing style, rapidly taken over by the fashion houses.

by Eugen Simion