An Excerpt from ‘Joy, Discipline, Faith’

While rummaging through some used-book stalls at the University recently, I found this book (g), whose title translates as 'Joy, Discipline, Faith [the motto of the Hitler Youth]: Handbook for Cultural Work in the Camp':

Freude Zucht Glaube Cover

It's a manual for leaders of Hitler Youth summer camps, published in 1943 (4th edition!) by the National Socialist Party. It features a short foreword by Baldur von Schirach. The book addresses many issues: setting up the camp, raising the official Nazi flag every morning and bringing it down every evening, 'communal' song evenings, marches, and ceremonies, and even what sort of writers should be invited to the camp to recite their work. There's a section on sayings and songs appropriate for camp life, and even a 20-page section on recent German history for camp leaders, told from a …distinctive perspective. The words 'sacrifice' and 'betrayal' pop up frequently. There are also suggested 'political' songs and plays for the (apparently incessant) communal singing events as well.

I'll be translating sections of this fascinating document in the coming weeks. Here's a foretaste, from a section called: "Hosting a Writer" (Die Dichterlesung), pp. 220-222 (I translate the word Dichter with various equivalents below):

Visits by writers to the camp harbor a danger that it is best to eliminate during the preparatory phase. Not every writer who says truly important things in his writings has a personal appearance that is capable of holding its own with a camp full of exercise-honed young men. Camp life imprints individual boys strongly with the role model of an upstanding man who can speak in a loud, clear voice…

[Although poets in cities are permitted to slouch,] outdoors, in the camp, we want to hear only from men who, in their entire being and appearance, belong to our community (in the narrowest sense!). It should also be expected that young writers, if they belong to the Hitler Youth, should appear in the traditional summer duty uniform. If they are in another unit of the movement or not organized at all, they should still appear in clothing which is appropriate to the surroundings.

The writer should eat dinner together with the camp leaders, at the table sitting around the small camp flag. The boys should learn that poets — and they often have a strange idea about this profession! — eat the same plain bread that they do.

Afterward, the boys all go to the campfire, or sit in a  large ring. The poet should, if possible, read to a group that is not too large, so that he can sit among them like a comrade among comrades. It is now up to the poet to get across his desired message by a mixture of spoken and read words. The leader on duty will have spoken with the poet earlier about which points the reading or lecture should be interrupted with a song.

Even when the poet must leave the camp on the same evening, he should never fail to take part in the lowering of the flag. At this point, he will stand behind the camp leader. The lowering of the flag should be an obligation for him, through which he fits into the life of the camp as a comrade.

Perhaps the most basic rule for the writer's visit to the camp is: it is better that no writer come to the camp as for such an occasion to go awry for any reason — either through poor preparation or through the writer's clumsiness. Our boys should see the poet as a 'the people's bard', who lives in struggle and service as everyone else. They should believe him — and precisely because the boys are ready to believe, a disappointment can ruin a great many things.

James Wood Has a Go at Paul Auster

For reasons that have never really been clear to me, Paul Auster seems to be Europe's favorite contemporary American writer. Perhaps it's down to his heavy-lidded, writerly good looks, or because his last name means 'oyster' in German, or because his novelist wife speaks Norwegian. At any rate, his books are immediately translated all major European languages an many minor ones, and he is feted over here. Over at the New Yorker, critic James Wood wonders why:

A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading—a woman drawn and quartered in a German concentration camp, a man beheaded in Iraq, a woman severely beaten by a man with whom she is about to have sex, a boy kept in a darkened room for nine years and periodically beaten, a woman accidentally shot in the eye, and so on. The narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere. People say things like “You’re one tough cookie, kid,” or “My pussy’s not for sale,” or “It’s an old story, pal. You let your dick do your thinking for you, and that’s what happens.” A visiting text—Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett—is elegantly slid into the host book. There are doubles, alter egos, doppelgängers, and appearances by a character named Paul Auster. At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist.

Although there are things to admire in Auster’s fiction, the prose is never one of them…. When he thinks about actual America, however, his language stiffens into boilerplate. Recalling the Newark riots of 1968, he describes a member of the New Jersey State Police, “a certain Colonel Brand or Brandt, a man of around forty with a razor-sharp crew cut, a square, clenched jaw, and the hard eyes of a marine about to embark on a commando mission.”

The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue. Peter Aaron, the narrator of “Leviathan,” whose prose is so pressureless, claims that “I have always been a plodder, a person who anguishes and struggles over each sentence, and even on my best days I do no more than inch along, crawling on my belly like a man lost in the desert. The smallest word is surrounded by acres of silence for me.” Not enough silence, alas.

Lutheran Food and Liquor and in Wittenberg

Wittenberg is a small East German town quite close to Berlin. It's most famous, of course, as being the place where Martin Luther, according to legend, nailed his 95 Theses (g) to the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church). Wittenberg was a university town before that, and remained one for generations. Many of the houses in the city center bear large white plaques with the names of famous scholars who lived or taught there. Wittenberg University has now been absorbed into the Martin Luther University of Wittenberg-Halle (g), and, judging by the how utterly mouse-dead it was on a Saturday night (to Englishize a German expression), all of the student life seems to have decamped for Halle.

The town apparently built a shiny new visitors' center after the Wall fell, anticipating an influx of protestant tourists which doesn't seem to have materialized. Wittenberg is nevertheless filled with Reformation-related museums and Luther-kitsch. You can visit the permanent exhibition on Luther's life, and the house where his colleague, Philip Melancthon, lived and worked (Melancthon's original name was Schwartzerdt, or 'black earth', he later 'grecianized' it into Melanchthon). Local stores sell 'Luther Burps' schnapps, Luther beer, and Luther bread. As you see in the slideshow, you can even get 'lutheran food' in Wittenberg (bland and rigid?). Martin Luther marital aids are apparently so common that we saw one discarded near a construction site.

What's odd about Wittenberg is the cheek-by-jowl juxtapositions in the city center. You'll pass a row of trendy shops in carefully-restored buildings, and then encounter an abandoned, boarded-up hulk. A faded legend identifies the building as a former soap store or brewhouse, but the bottom floor is now encrusted with tattered posters, and the windows on the upper floors are shattered. The alleys and courtyards around these buildings offer numerous poignant still-lives of decay and abandonment. One building featured an impressive set of deer antlers nailed atop an ancient-looking carved-wood deer head, presumably the former emblem of a pub, or taxidermist or hunting shop.

Signs of East German material culture, such as Barkas trucks (g) (the 'Mercedes of East Germany', the owner proudly informed us) and typical elongated-oval streetlamps, are everywhere. Not to mention the 'Kramladen' (junk store) that offered 'Soviet childrens' gas masks' and displayed an Obama 'yes we can' T-shirt with a gun muzzle pointing at it. The local Sparkasse Bank was recently vandalized, leaving an oddly beautiful pattern of fracture planes in the front windows. Graffiti was everywhere, much of it of thoughtful or enigmatic.

Overall, Wittenberg left a somewhat somber and desolate impression, despite the fine churches and friendly people. Perhaps it's more inviting in the summer…

‘Death Rapture’ by Joseph von Eichendorff

Death Rapture

Before he sinks in the blue floodwaters

The swan still dreams and sings drunken with death;

The flowers of a summer-weary earth fade,

She lets all her fire glow in the grapes;

The sun, showering sparks as it sinks,

Gives the earth one more time glowing fire to drink,

Until, star by star, wonderful night rises

To receive the drunken one.

translated by Diana Dachler and Fiona Cairns. 

Where is the Collection of Books from the DDR?

A brief bleg for my intelligent, good-looking readers. A few months ago, I was leafing through a newspaper and saw an article about someone who had started a collection of books published in East Germany. The person had rented a big warehouse and already collected something like 200,000 books. I believe this person was some sort of entertainer who had some kind of link to the DDR. The plan is to create a big library of East German books, to preserve some of the cultural memory of East Germany.

Can anyone help me with the name of this person and of the project? Thanks in advance!

Traumatic Insemination

No, it's not the latest bête noire of human-rights activists, it's how bed bugs mate. I ran across this description (pdf) while doing some entomological research for a friend, and I'm going to share it with you because . . . well, because I need help, that's why:

Bed bug mating is extremely peculiar. The female has a notch on the underside of her abdomen known as the Ribaga's organ–an invagination of the body wall. Males have a single laterally-placed dagger-like paramere (clasper)–a fearsome-looking organ. Bed bugs mate, unusually for bugs, with both individuals facing forwards. The male puts this paramere inside the entrance to the Ribaga's organ and literally pierces the body wall of the female. The spermatozoa migrate through the haemocoel (blood equivalent) to the genital tract. The terminology for this is apt–'traumatic insemination'.