Thursday, December 1, 2011

Berlin: Some Thoughts on Form

Living in Paris sometimes makes you forget about this.

Or these.

Living in Paris makes you long for streets like this one, in Prenzlauerberg, which conform better to the Parisian's ideas of an elegant building facade.

But walking around Berlin, I had to remind myself that I wasn't in the Paris space of hyper-aestheticized nostalgia anymore. If being a tourist in Paris is being a tourist of the romantic past, then being a tourist in Berlin is being a tourist of war. District by district, I was struck time and again by this fact. War was everywhere, not only in the many museums I went to, almost all of which dealt either explicitly or implicitly with WWII, but also in three-quarters of the buildings I saw across the city.  The city's midcentury modern aesthetic was, I'm guessing, the necessary by-product of bombings and occupation and a period of frantic rebuilding. I was thinking a lot about this architecture, in large part because of my time in Paris, interestingly also a city that was itself razed and rebuilt after a period of war, and because many of the art galleries and museums I went to in Berlin also seemed particularly fascinated with architecture.

These were from a Tomas Saraceno show at the Hamburger Banhoff museum, which specializes in contemporary art. Saraceno's show on architectural utopias was in a large wing devoted particularly to the architectural arts, whose most interesting display (not shown here; the images don't do it justice) was by a woman named Andrea Pinchl. She created an installation called "double blind" which showed a standard East Berlin housing project apartment she'd constructed out of plywood  (scaled down to fit the display's confines, of course) and onto which she projected images of housing projects in Dublin, Paris, the GDR and Tashkent.  The photos weren't labeled by city; viewers had to guess which cities constructed which housing projects. What was striking, of course, was how similar the housing projects were in their essential design: almost as if there were a universal political model for how the poor should be housed. There were slight variations on the theme--better materials in the wealthier cities, better execution of design--but the forms themselves were almost identical.

Which made me wonder: do we think that poor people like, or perhaps need, certain housing structures, or do we give them these structures in part to signal their poverty? Or does the similarity of these structures begin to take on its own meaning in the end, becoming one of the visual symbols of poverty?

Another thing that struck me was how the museum itself becomesnth interesting architectural space, one not just of beams and bricks and plaster, but of words.

These were taken from the underground museum that accompanied the city's Memorial for the Deportation of European Jews. Let me just say right now how impressed I am by the Germans' commitment to display--freely!--all the particular horrors their country unleashed on the world during the war. Not only was this museum free, but the Topography of Terrors was free, as well as anything having to do with Nazism, the rise and fall of the SS, the Holocaust and the concentration camps. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if the US had a museum devoted SOLELY to its use of slavery and that this museum was located right on the Washington mall, maybe just a stone's throw away from the White House. 

Hard to imagine this happening, right?

Anyway, what got me most about the architecture of museum language was how moments of the memorial reminded me very strongly of Charles Reznikoff's book of poetry Holocaust. If you know the book, or you know his work, you know all of the language in it was taken from court testimony, in particular the Eichmann trials in Israel. Reznikoff wrote the book in the mid 70's, distant enough from the Holocaust enough for him to be wary of the "kitsch" value of Holocaust art and popular narratives. ("Kitsch" is his word, by the way, not mine.) So Reznikoff worked hard to undercut all the normal narrative structures that he felt would, wrongly, give the reader a sense of catharsis. He took away the protagonist figure. He took away any kind of language that could be construed as sentimental or even judgmental, preferring the most objective, reportorial language possible to describe the events. He took away first person pronouns. He blurred stories together, so that one person's narrative became another and another's without any sense of resolution being achieved for any of these individuals, which had the effect of also taking away the victims' individuality.

In short, Reznikoff stripped everything down to facts, creating a series of poems that refused to allow the reader to identify with the victims of the Holocaust.

It's a bold move, one I felt that the museum was making, too. The bulk of the exhibit used the same reportorial language. No attempt was made to shift the blame or contextualize the Germans' involvement in the genocide. Individuals mentioned on the museum placards would crop up only to disappear again, with no attempt to find a narrative ending. Some families' stories ended with a person surviving, others with no one surviving. Even the hall in which the known victims' names were recited, in both German and English, began with a brief history first of what happened to the Jews in the area in which the individual was known to be living. There was no speculation as to the personal belief, feelings, character or history of the individual who was killed.

And yet, I was struck by how this language was also extremely inadequate at times, at others hauntingly poetic or pointed. For instance, what is the diffence, really, between "murdered" and "died" when the person is a victim of the Holocaust? And by focusing on the essential randomness of survival, by insisting on the language of reportage and fragmentation throughout the museum--a fragmentation that becomes, in its slippages, increasingly lyric in feeling--don't we acccidentally make it poetic?

And if it does become poetic, thus playing into certain authorial anxieties about a reader's "kitschy" or sentimental identification with a subject, is that always bad?

At that point, I began to wonder about poetic language and elegy. In particular, what the markers of the poetic elegiac form might be now, beyond its early conventional or prosodic definitions. For instance, have the Objectivists and WC Williams worked their way so deeply into our language that we no longer have the ability, the poetic wherewithal, to express feeling outside of the fragmented, the colloquial, the reportorial? Have fragmentation and ellipsis become our elegaic meter? Are there really now forms that "feel" to us even before the words themselves begin to "mean"? 

And if so, have we begun to use these forms predictably?

Finally, are all these things "felt" by us basically as a response to deeply ingrained convention? The way, perhaps, that the architecture of housing projects all, depressingly, begins to look the same? Have we  created a form that signals something to be "appropriately" felt, that allow us to mourn in recognizably correct language those who have died, even those who may be socially, if not actually, dead to us?

I don't know. I think I may be considering these things because I have finished a book that is essentially a 200 page elegy that also relies on several of these strategies, and it's on the verge of being published. Sometimes it seems that the fragments of fiction, nonfiction and poetry I used throughout it was inevitable, but then I make myself step back and remember how highly, frankly excruciatingly, conscious each decision became, and how once one decision was made, it necessarily cut off other avenues. And opened different ones.   The book began solely as poems. And ended up being a mix of everything. I don't know if these were the best avenues to have gone down, either, and maybe won't ever know. Maybe knowing isn't the point. Right now, I have too much time to think more about this, as the photographic copyright/reproduction quality problems are delaying publication another couple of months. Regardless, I think we talk a lot about the "organic" qualities of form, rather than admitting that artistic convention plays a healthy part in our acceptance of something as "natural" or "organic." One thing that I keep trying to remind myself about writing: every decision made is not necessarily the right, or wrong, one. It's just another decision, out of which others will come. Each possibility is another poem.

Perhaps: each possibility--taken or not, conscious or not--is the poem.

So. This is one of the things Berlin got me thinking about. 

It's a pretty great city.


  1. Sorry to hear about the book delay; Tupelo & Amazon still have it posted for this month. Glad you also visited Eisenman's Holocaust Memorial. Very effective how the ground and tops of the stones don't follow the same shape. I found it unsettling when you get into the "deep" parts.

    Really like the installation with glass spheres. You enjoying the (comparably) posh accommodations?

  2. I am enjoying being in a place where I can stand up and shower for a week. Btw, I forgot to email you back! I'm bummed you won't be able to make Vietnam. But it's probably for the bet, as I no longer know how long I'll be in Vietnam. I'll private message you the reasons why. But I also agree with you about the unsettling feeling that you get from the headstones. And the Jewish Museum layout was even more architecturally unsettling.

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