Sunday, 30 September 2012

Michael Schumacher and the (Male) German Psyche

The news spread like a brushfire through the German media on Friday morning: Mercedes had fired their legendary Formula One driver, Michael Schumacher. Well, to be completely accurate, the reports were that they would not be renewing his contract beyond the end of this season, which amounts to more or less the same thing. Therefore the chances are good that, at the age of forty three, Schumacher will be retiring for the second time from the first division of motor racing – this time for good.

So what? Another overpaid top sportsman finally quits. Like Michael Jordan, Zinedine Zidane, Carl Lewis, David Beckham, and all the others. They entertained and were idolised by hundreds of millions, earned hundreds of millions and then rode off into the sunset, turning up occasionally as experts or “celebrities” on TV, their doings (particularly if there was even a whiff of scandal about them) being breathlessly reported in illustrated magazines and the more sensationalist of newspapers and (increasingly) web-sites. Big deal.

And the same is largely true of Schumacher. In 2010, one source estimated his net worth at around 830 million US dollars. That was the year he came back to Formula One after three years in retirement, Mercedes reportedly paying him around 30 million US$ annually to do so (not including what he earns from endorsements).

The argument often made with regards to the insane amounts earned by top sportsmen is that – in terms of returns – they are actually worth it, earning through their success much larger sums (through sponsorships, advertising value, TV-rights – especially TV-rights) for those who are actually paying them their millions. The irony about Schumacher is that success has eluded him and his Mercedes paymasters for the past three years; the best he has achieved in that period is one third place in a Grand Prix. 90 million dollars plus for that kind of performance? Nice work, if you can get it.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so small minded. Formula One is a global business where the millions are simply sloshing around, and Bernie Ecclestone, the geriatric Andy Warhol lookalike who actually owns the whole circus, is much richer than Schumacher. Economically rising and wannabe prestige-hungry countries like India, Russia, Turkey and Bahrain (to mention but a few) are all spending millions on purpose-built circuits just to attract this circus for an annual visit. They are also prepared – according to most reports – to pay Mr. Ecclestone handsomely for the privilege. And if there are human-rights or other such issues (as, most famously, in Bahrain recently), well, that kind of thing doesn’t really bother Bernie. Sport is sport and politics is politics and, hey folks, the show must go on. Bernie has been known to express some rather strange political views (about not everything being old Adolf’s fault, for instance) but then, there may be the onset of some slight senility here. His comrade in arms for much of his career, Max Mosley (boss of the FIA, the sporting body responsible for Fomula One), had the dubious distinction of being the son of the old British fascist, Sir Oswald Mosley – but then, we can’t choose our parents, can we?

Schumacher – to be fair to him – doesn’t really seem to be driven by greed; not as much as many of the others involved in his business/sport at any rate. He is quite a generous philanthropist, most famously donating $ 10 million in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami/Earthquake of 2004. On the other hand, he moved his main residence from Germany to Switzerland, apparently for tax purposes. But then, a reluctance to pay taxes on their massive earnings in their native countries is a characteristic he shares with many of his racing colleagues, quite a few of whom prefer Monte Carlo as their place of residence. And from the beginning of his career up to a few years ago he was managed by the notorious, larger-than-life Willi Weber, a German impresario with a tendency to occasionally questionable business practices and a sharp eye for the best deal in every conceivable situation. Weber discovered the young Schumacher, gambling on his talent and bankrolling his entrance into Formula One in 1991 in return for a fifth of all Schumacher’s earnings for the next ten years, thus gaining him the nickname “Mr. Twenty Percent.” That deal gave Weber a powerful incentive to maximally market his client in every conceivable way, and he was diligent indeed.

No, no, no! I could easily carry on in this vein for the rest of the essay, the slightly supercilious tone of the university-educated, left-leaning, eco-conscious, culture-vulture, politically-correct intellectual I suppose I am, doing the usual condescending deconstruction of one of the favourite sports of the shallow, media-conned masses. This kind of thing practically writes itself. I could sneer about all the things that irritate me about Michael Schumacher, particularly his deification by so many ordinary German men, the kind who read the Bild newspaper, pin up Playboy centrefolds in their places of work, wash their cars every Saturday, go to Majorca with their mates from the bowling-club for a long weekend of boozing and tail-chasing every year, and dream of driving expensive cars with three-pointed stars or blue and white badges. Let me try another approach …

Benz Patent Motorwagen 1885
Germans have a particular fascination with motor cars. Although there were many people working on the concept of the “horseless carriage” in the second half of the 19th Century, it is generally agreed that the inventor of the automobile was the German Karl Benz, who took out a patent for it in 1886. Many of the other significant names working in the area were also German, Gottlieb Daimler and Rudolf Diesel, for instance. So from the very beginning there has been a deep connection between Germans and the automobile, something they themselves are well conscious of, frequently calling the car “des Deutschen liebstes Kind / the German’s favourite child.”

The argument I am developing here may be contradicted by many Americans, who can justifiably mention the central role the automobile has played in American consciousness for a hundred years, referring to Buicks and Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Chryslers and pointing out that Henry Ford was mass-producing Model Ts decades before Adolf Hitler ordered Ferdinand Porsche to design a “Peoples’ Car” / Volkswagen. And there is, of course, much truth in this.

However, I would contend that the essential difference between Americans and Germans in this regard is that the American fascination is fundamentally that with the road, while the German obsession is with the car itself. Both have to do with mobility, of course, but the meme of the road, as central to the understanding of the American psyche, goes far beyond the means of transportation to encompass all sorts of themes like freedom, frontier, adventure, leaving it all behind, a whole way of life and consciousness. The German preoccupation with the car has more to do with the object itself; its possibilities, its design, its engineering, speed and comfort. The car as a symbol of … status, power, even freedom.

For many Germans, the car itself quickly becomes an object of obsession, almost a fetish. While the dusty, battered pick-up is one of the cultural icons of a particular American rugged identity, the idea of driving a dirty, dinged car is almost physically painful to most German motorists. The following ad, highlighting one of the differences between the French and the Germans, illustrates the point I am trying to make very well:

For the typical German male, his car is one of his most treasured possessions. It is carefully looked after, regularly serviced, the smallest defect is immediately taken care of, and it is washed, waxed and polished regularly (traditionally on Saturdays, though for environmental reasons the private washing of cars is today generally prohibited). Even the smallest, most insignificant scrape between two cars will, in Germany, immediately lead to the police being called (so that questions of liability can be cleared up immediately, in case of possible dispute), where everywhere else people are quite happy to simply exchange insurance numbers. Though in many respects I have become completely “Germanised” after twenty six years in this country, in this case I am, and will remain, obstinately foreign; I regard an automobile as nothing more than a comfortable means of conveyance from A to B and still do not understand why nearly all modern cars are sold with bumpers painted the same colour as the rest of the vehicle.

While I don’t want to get into sexism or genderism here, I think it is generally accepted that an interest in the “mechanics” of things is more prevalent among the male of the species. Combine this with a fascination for speed, and a strong competitive instinct (also more typical masculine preoccupations) and you start to understand the seemingly mindless pleasure men derive from watching cars driving at speed around in circles, or – even better – driving them themselves.

Almost uniquely, the Germans – normally so uptight and controlling about things – actually allow everyone with a driving licence the possibility to live this out to an extent. On the German Autobahns there is no speed-limit, so that you can actually personally check out the top speed specifications the manufacturer claims for your car. Of course, large parts of the motorways do have speed limits for all sorts of safety reasons, but there are also enough long straight stretches where you can really let it rip. Despite a general acceptance of all sorts of “green” consciousness by Germans, none of the major political parties (with the obvious exception of the Greens) are prepared to put general Autobahn speed-limits into their programmes – it’s an absolute vote killer. And let me tell you, there is something viscerally very satisfying about driving at well over a hundred miles an hour, your concentration completely on what you are doing – and fuck the fact that you’re burning twenty per cent more fuel than you would be by driving more sedately. Need for speed, yeah!

But, of course, to do this at the really top speeds possible, in competition with others, demands a level of skills very few of us have, a willingness to risk one’s life continually in order to win, and the kind of motorised technology beyond the financial possibilities of most of us. Hence motor racing.

And then there’s that other thing, the thing we don’t like to admit to, that deeper truth which comes from that more savage, dark, primitive part of our nature. The thing that set our ancestors howling on the stands of the Roman gladiatorial arenas, hissing at medieval beheadings, or heretic or witch burnings, looking on with grim, self-righteous approval at 19th Century public hangings. That part of us which isn’t just appreciating the speed of the competitors, their skills in overtaking opponents, the clever strategy of a pit-stop judged just right. The cruel, bloodthirsty part of us which is just waiting for – to be honest, hoping for – the crash. Wreckage and maybe even blood and body parts flying all over the place. Burn, baby, burn!

Ok, so what about Schumacher? Get on with it!

A combination of circumstances can sometimes give rise to a situation where a figure of general public interest may become something more than this; an avatar of the hopes and aspirations of a whole group or nation. The most complete and perfect way to this kind of transformation comes through sudden, usually (though not always) violent death. Examples of this kind of apotheosis are Elvis, John Lennon and, of course, Princess Diana. But it happens to the living too, like a kind of aura which comes over them and lets them shine in an almost inhuman way for particular groups, nations or transnational groups for a while. It happened to Bob Dylan in the early sixties, and the Beatles soon after that. Muhammad Ali was one, so was Michael Jordan. Bob Marley (already before his death in his native Jamaica, after it worldwide).

During the 1990s Michael Schumacher’s popularity grew steadily in his native Germany, particularly after he won the World Championships in 1994 and 1995. In the 1996 season he moved to Ferrari and over the next few years worked with the Italian team to establish the combination of the best driver in the best car in Formula One. The result was an unprecedented period from 2000 to 2004, when Schumacher was World Champion for five years in a row.

This was the period when Schumacher became immortal for his German fans and an icon of the hopes and dreams of millions of German men. Ordinary men, what you might call “blue-collar” men.

At the end of the last century, many of the traditional self-defining characteristics of the ordinary German blue-collar male were coming under pressure. The increasing mainstream acceptance of much of the feminist agenda had much to do with this (as in the rest of the developed world), but there were also other, specifically German factors. The economic and social pressures caused by reunification were starting to make themselves felt, as were the effects of increasing globalisation. Immigrants were making up an ever more visible part of the human landscape.

The old social consensus of the Bonner Republik was in flux, the model according to which anyone prepared to work hard would find a job, be able to live a decent live with a modicum of comfort with his family and look forward to a happy old age, backed up by a secure contributory state pension. Tax money was flowing in billions into the former GDR, leaving less for the old West Germany, semi-skilled jobs were melting away, wandering into Eastern Europe or Asia where wage-costs were much lower. The old, relaxed, certain world of the work place was coming more under the turbo pressure of performance maximisation and targets, rationalisation, increased continual training and expertise requirements. Brain trumped brawn everywhere and it was the young business graduates with their suits and computers who seemed to be taking control of everything.

But against all this, there was Schumi, the kid from an ordinary working-class family, without privilege and attitude (or even much formal education), who wouldn’t even had had enough money and influence to break into the elite super-rich world of Formula One, despite his talent, if Willi Weber hadn’t financed him. But he did break into it and showed the world what an ordinary German man, possessing the characteristics of an ordinary German man, the ability to work hard, be dependable, and know motors, could do. He was the typical kid next door and allowed the fantasy that – had Lady Luck just tossed the dice a little differently – you or me could have done this as well. After all, every German man is secretly convinced that he too is an excellent driver. Not to deny, of course, that Unser Michael / our Michael is supremely talented, a consummate sportsman, and deserves every million he earns.

Unser Michael. For a particular segment of Germans, Schumacher became an embodiment of Everyman, a universal figure of identification. Even in the name the connection was there, the Deutscher Michel being a personified representation of ordinary Germanness, like John Bull or Joe Bloggs in the UK, or Joe Sixpack in the USA. All of this cannily encouraged by Weber’s comprehensive marketing and the fact that RTL, the most popular private TV channel in Germany and one whose strategy was to broadcast programmes for the “ordinary” German with a large dollop of naked tits, sensationalist reporting, Jerry Springer-like talk shows, and docu-soaps, had the franchise for Formula One. And it was this identification which turned Schumi into a figure of adulation; important enough to get millions of German men up before 6.00 a.m. on a Sunday morning to watch him race live in the Australian or Japanese Grand Prix. And win.

Such avatar phenomena are finite. Dylan gradually lost his after his controversial decision to go electric and Schumacher’s slowly faded after his (first) retirement in late 2006. The comeback was always going to be a risky business – of all such icons, Muhammad Ali was the only one who can be said to have managed it, and Ali was a special case because his retirement was forced at such a young age. And (dare I say it?) because his whole personality and character are exceptional in a way that Schumacher’s are not.

Of course, all this could just be pseudo-intellectual bullshit and Michael Schumacher may still really be the latest incarnation of Jesus Christ. Whatever, I still don’t like the lantern-jawed bastard!

Pictures retrieved from:

(Comments: I'll be away for the next few days and my internet presence may be sporadic, so don't worry if it takes some time for your comments to appear.)

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Expletive F***ing Deleted

Fuck it. I wonder if others who write have often had that experience of roughly knowing what they want to say, but not being able to find the proper beginning. That bitch of a Muse of mine doesn’t seem to have got her lazy ass out of bed this morning. Shit!

I started thinking about this whole subject after reading something my fellow blogger, Lisa Golden wrote, “I'm trying to not curse. It's an experiment, an exercise in self restraint …” and where she went on to talk about “season[ing] every sentence with a sulfuric dash of that oh so versatile word fuck.”

Actually, I don’t. Or at least don’t very frequently, if only because of the fact that around 90% of the time I’m generally speaking German rather than English and cursing is different in German. Indeed, of around the half dozen languages in which I manage to be more or less incoherent, in none of the others can what is sometimes called “foul language” be so consistently and comprehensively integrated as in English.

Oh, there are certainly flowery and expressive expressions available in other languages. One need only think of the Spanish, “La puta madre que te pario!” or the Italian, “Stronzo! Figlio di puttana!” The Mediterranean languages seem to have a tendency to go beyond simply calling someone a bastard to directly stating that his mother was a whore. But English is the only language I know which offers the possibility of taking a vulgar word for copulation and then inserting it as an adjectival or adverbial qualification with almost unlimited frequency in every sentence.

It makes me wonder about how translators sometimes deal with this particular variety of colloquialism. Of course, colloquialism is always a difficult area for translation, since it involves a very good command of both languages as well as a healthy portion of imagination.

Many years ago, after first coming to Germany, I spent a while working as an English teacher. There is a German colloquial expression for extreme indifference, Scheiss egal. I remember a student once telling me with some pride that something was “shit equal” to him.

“No, Stefan, you can’t say it like that in English,” I told him.

“Ok, well then, how do you say Scheiss egal in English?”

I thought about it for a moment and then grinned. I had the perfect English equivalent.

“Right, Stefan, remember this one, because this is really good English. Though you wouldn’t say it to your granny, any more than you’d say Scheiss egal to her. The English for Es ist mir scheiss egal is … I don’t give a fuck!”

But on reflection, that one was easy. There are however other scenarios.

This is not working, at least not the way I want it to. There’re all kinds of ideas I have about this subject but they’re just not gelling. Fragments. No fucking flow

There is a nexus about bad language; it’s all associated with sex and digestive waste elimination, penis and vagina and anus, urine and faeces – fuck and prick and cock and cunt, piss and shit. And it all has to do with common, low, vulgar words. Calling a woman “you copulating vagina!” doesn’t really cut it, anymore than telling someone to urinate or copulate off does.

This is all very Freudian, of course, perhaps even a kind of practical proof that the old papa of psychoanalysis was onto something pretty basic with his categorisation of oral, anal and genital phases (though the oral phase doesn’t play any significant role when it comes to cursing). And in terms of national characteristics, the Freudian interpretation can also be carried through to an interpretation of the German psyche as based on linguistic characteristics.

Where in English bad language the copulatory “fuck” or “fucking” is the most common linguistic qualifier, in German it’s Scheisse or Scheiss-. And whereas in English probably the most common denigratory personal expression is “bastard,” in German it’s Arsch [arse] or, most frequent of all, Arschloch [arse-/asshole]. Which suggests that Germans are – in the Freudian sense – extraordinarily anally fixated. Which explains why Germany is a country where so much emphasis is placed on organisation, discipline, administration and efficiency (even if it often doesn’t work and is frequently counterproductive). Anally fixated, the whole lot of them, real controlling arseholes. Just ask the Greeks.

[If my memory serves me correctly (for it is many years since I read the book) Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying offers corroboration for this viewpoint. She describes a particular kind of toilet bowl, common in Germany at the time, which has a kind of porcelain shelf on which the turd lands after a bowel movement rather than landing directly in the water, so that it can be examined by its producer before being flushed away – another indication of anal fixation. However, I can also report that in the almost forty years since the book was published, such toilet bowls are becoming increasingly rare in Germany. Whether that is a deeper indication of a “loosening-up” in the collective German psyche is a judgement I’m not prepared to make.]

All right, all right, this shit is finally starting to go somewhere! Down the toilet. But, Jesus Christ, there’s that fucking wall again – just when I think I’m on a roll, my shite imagination runs out of fucking ideas and I have to start on another track. Bollocks!

There is also a tremendous amount of ambivalence, not to mention hypocrisy, about this whole subject. We were taught as kids (and, indeed, most kids are still taught today) that these are all naughty words, bad words, and that it’s wrong to use them. But of course children do, teaching each other all the words, whispering them to each other before they have an idea what many of them actually mean, giggling about them. Because they know that, somehow, they are words of secrecy and power, words which refer to that uncertain world of pleasure and danger which is adult and seductive and scary all at the same time. Sex, in other words. Ah, Freud, there he is again!

Bad language, it’s called; cursing or swearing. In fact, of course, it is neither of these. Cursing means a formal wishing or calling down of ill or evil on someone. Swearing is a formal declaration of the truth of something. Saying “fuck,” “shit,” “cunt,” “prick,” or “arse” has nothing to do with either of these activities. But, in my old-fashioned, early Catholic education, I was taught that this was “cursing,” and cursing was a sin. So you went to confession and said, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It’s two weeks since my last confession. I cursed twenty seven times.” And you got absolution for it, and a penance – maybe three Hail Marys, something like that.

Now, exclamations like “Jesus Christ!” or “Mother of God!” are something of a different case. From a religious point of view they could be conceivably called sinful on the basis of “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” On the other hand, their frequent use could also be seen as a sign of fundamental religiosity, an expression of a subconscious awareness of the continual presence and support of God and his saints in one’s life, so that one is constantly moved to spontaneous prayer, the repeated invocation of divine support in every moment. Calling on God, even in the moment of climax.

Oh God! That bitch of a Muse of mine is really fucking lazy today. I need a blow-job from her to finish this and I don’t even get a prick-tease. Cunt!

Our society has been loosening up in this whole area over the last fifty years or so. In 1960, the publication of the unabridged version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was finally allowed by the courts in the UK (a year earlier in the USA). Apart from the explicit descriptions of sex, one of the major complaints about the book was the use of the words “fuck” and “cunt” in it. Today, broad-band networks are being clogged with millions of downloads of Fifty Shades of Grey and no one gives a shit. You’ll find “shit” and “fuck” turning up even in quality newspapers occasionally – without conventional circumlocutory asterisks – particularly in interviews or quoted speech. In Germany, it was the young Green politician, Joschka Fischer (who later became Foreign Minister), who first broke a parliamentary taboo in the Bundestag in 1984 with his famous statement to the deputy speaker, "Mit Verlaub, Herr Präsident, Sie sind ein Arschloch.". ["If I may say so, Mr. President, you are an arsehole"] – using, one notes in passing, the polite Sie rather than the familiar du form of address.

In the list of 105 films which use the word “fuck” more than 150 times in Wikipedia, only five were made before 1990. Martin Scorsese makes the Top 30 twice (Goodfellas [1990] 11 – with “fuck” or its derivatives occurring 300 times in the course of the film – and The Departed [2006] 28 – 237 “fucks”). But the use of “explicit” language has even spread beyond cinema and into television. The Wire, in my opinion probably the best series ever made (though fans of Breaking Bad, and Mad Men may, with some justification, disagree), has a classic scene, where two cops, Bunk and McNulty, spend five minutes investigating a crime scene and solving a mystery in the process and in which the entire dialogue consists solely of “fuck” or derivatives thereof. It doesn’t get any better than this.

  “Bad” language is a characteristic of almost every character in The Wire, from the drug dealers on the street, to the politicians in City Hall and beyond. Worth mentioning particularly here is State Senator Clay Davis, with his marvellous, “Sheee-it!” And, speaking of politicians, it is reported that President Obama has stated that The Wire is his favourite TV show. Which gets me to wondering about how The Wire would have portrayed the president telling Secretary of State Clinton about the planned attack on Osama Bin Laden:

Yo, bitch, we gonna fuck that motherfucker Bin Laden, shit, we gonna waste his nigger Ay-rab ass!”

Though to be completely accurate, motherfucker would become mo-fuh in Baltimore project slang.

Well, fuck you, Muse, I’ve finally managed to get to the home stretch of this bitchin’ essay, Just goes to show that you haven’t left me entirely on my fucking own. Gimme a last little kiss, you cunt!

Nothing is as sensitive to inflation as bad language. My general philosophy is not to forbid myself its use – either in speech or in my writing here – but to use it very sparingly (with the obvious exception of this somewhat experimental essay). It works much better that way, retaining its original potency to emphasise, to shock, to pull the reader up suddenly and refocus her or his attention on what you want to say. It’s like the difference between the marvellously seductive promise of a skilfully erotic hint of a flashed nipple and the jaded tawdry tiredness of a spread-legged full-frontal cheap porn centrefold. Sometimes “fuck” is the only way to say it, more often you don’t need to.

And, despite all the authenticity and spontaneity of modern film and TV, our use of expletives is far more under our conscious control than we would often like to admit. Even the most habitual serial foul-mouthed punk will be able to control his expletives if he suddenly finds himself in the company of half a dozen nuns. We have a remarkable linguistic flexibility which enables us to instinctively almost completely adapt our language styles to the environment. Even people who in many situations cuss with an instinctive fluid frequency will automatically “tone down” their language in the presence of their children, or children generally. Not to mention in the presence of their mothers …

Shit! I’ve just realised my mother reads every fucking thing I post here.

* * *

[Note on the music: I usually put some music at the end of a post which has some kind of connection to the theme I’ve been writing about, and I usually don’t insult the intelligence of those who visit my blog by explaining the connection. But this one needs some background.

When John Lennon recorded Working Class Heroforty-two (!) years ago, the song caused some furore by containing the word “fucking” twice at a time when this kind of language in the music of a major star was almost unheard of. It’s a perfect example of an excellent use of “bad” language – “fucking” being used naturally and perfectly to give just the right emphasis to the mood and expression of the sentiments involved in their context. There’s not a hint of gratuity or prurience about it.

The two lines in question are:
“’Till you're so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules.”
“But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see.”

Thirty seven years later, Green Day released an excellent cover of the song, as part of an Amnesty International Campaign about Darfour. In the official video the two “fuckings” are blended out. Ah, the eternal hypocrisy of the music business! If you prefer to listen to an uncensored version you can find it here]

Pictures retrieved from:

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Islam and Freedom of Opinion

It’s happening again. Once more, somebody has been less than respectful about Islam, or the prophet Mohammed, and once more throughout the Islamic world – particularly the Arab world – enraged mobs are demonstrating before embassies and consulates, burning them down when they get the chance and not even stopping short of killing westerners, should they get their hands on them. Whether it’s Salman Ruhsdie’s Satanic Verses, a film by Theo van Gogh, caricatures in a Danish newspaper, the provocative burning of the Qur’an by a lunatic American fundamentalist – any perceived insult to Islam seems to provoke protest and violence by thousands of adherents of that religion against the easiest target they can find to which some kind of tenuous connection can be constructed with those responsible for that insult.

In common with millions of others, I’m getting really sick of it. I am the last person to deny that the ordinary – and particularly the poor – people of countries like Egypt, Libya, the Yemen, Sudan, etc., may have many good reasons to be angry with the USA, and western countries in general; reasons associated with colonial history, economic exploitation, the support of brutal dictators. That’s fine; if they were (peacefully) protesting about such issues before western embassies throughout the world, I’d be the first to be cheering them on. But they’re not. What they are doing, in essence, is protesting at the fact that our societies allow people to have free opinions and to express those opinions, even if these opinions are offensive to a few, some, many, or even the majority of their fellow citizens or the whole population of the planet.

Let me just get a few things straight – for the record. The film The Innocence of Muslims is a badly made, artistically worthless, obnoxious piece of junk. I’ve watched a few clips from it on YouTube and I’m not putting up a link here because, honestly, it’s really not worth viewing and I do not choose to help its makers reach any more viewers. If you’re really interested, you can google it easily enough anyway. Moreover, the sole purpose behind it seems to be to provoke Muslims to precisely the kind of reaction we have been seeing worldwide in the past days. It is a reprehensible, worthless product of small-minded, fundamentalist bigots, designed to insult and elicit a violent reaction from other small-minded fundamentalist bigots. The only real difference between the Christians initially behind this film and the thousands of Muslims protesting against it is that most of those Muslims have at least the excuse of being very poorly educated members of societies without a democratic secular tradition. Worse, they are being manipulated by more intelligent, better educated bigots called mullahs or imams, dangerous ideologues who really want to create some kind of Islamic-theocratic world order by whatever means they regard as necessary, or cynical people in power who encourage this kind of thing to divert the attention of the masses they are exploiting from the real scandals in their societies.

In this context, I want to look at what has been happening here in Germany a little more closely. Last week an angry demonstrating mob attacked the German embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. The demonstrations were reportedly instigated by a number of Muslim preachers who had picked up on reports that anti-Islam protests had taken place in Germany this summer, which had involved caricatures of Mohammed.

Those reports were true – as far as they go. In the past couple of years, a new extreme right-wing group has been growing in Germany. It began in Cologne, coalescing around protests against the building of a large mosque there. In a cynical move to gain support, the group called itself Pro-Cologne. It has now organised itself on a national level and calls itself Pro-Deutschland.

Let’s keep this in perspective. There is a continual, very small minority in Germany which is consistently prepared to vote for the far right. Such nuts are present in every country; in Germany we have been lucky that they have never amounted to more than two or three percent nationally. In their latest incarnation, they have taken an overt stand against Islam, realising that they may be able to gain support from many people worried about the problems arising around the whole question of the integration of Muslim immigrants into German society.

They have turned up in my home town of Remscheid too, where we have quite a substantial Muslim minority (around 12%), mostly of Turkish origin. On Mayday this year, they announced a demonstration against the proposed building of a new mosque. A spontaneously formed group (“Remscheid Tolerant”) quickly called for a counter-demonstration. My regard for the views represented by Pro-Deutschland being around the level of my enthusiasm for root-canal work without benefit of anaesthetic, I decided to take part.

It was a nice, sunny first of May afternoon as a work colleague and I joined of group of maybe four hundred to march through town to the planned site of the new mosque. About two thirds of the demonstrators were of Turkish origin, but the rest was a motley crew, from local politicians to punks and even some representatives of the near-anarchist Autonome movement. As my colleague had some friends among those general left-wingers, I finished up marching with them.

It was fun. The atmosphere was good humoured and I found myself reflecting on other demonstrations I had taken part in when I was younger. With a feeling that I was indeed getting older and more staid, I realised that it had been nine years since my last demo – the huge protests against the impending Iraq war in 2003.

When we got to the site of the planned Mosque, the demonstrators from Pro-Deutschland were there – all eleven or twelve of them. They were a sorry little group, separated from us by around sixty policemen and women, around half of them in riot gear. They half-heartedly waved a couple of placards, featuring reproductions of Kurt Westergaard’s famous Mohammed-as-a-bomb caricature. They tried to chant a couple of slogans, Deutschland für die Deutschen, stuff like that, but were comprehensively shouted down by our much larger group, the punks delightedly challenging them to, “Piss off home, you Nazi wankers!” and inviting them to go fuck themselves. Meanwhile, the politicians and trade union leaders were making speeches about tolerance and solidarity and a group of Turkish schoolgirls were doing a folk dance. Just an ordinary demo, a practical public expression of the democratic rights of anyone to express their opinions in public. The cops looked attentively bored and there was no suggestion of violence, though in neighbouring Solingen, another little group of Pro-Deutschlanders were stoned by some Salafis - planned provocation and a planned response. After about an hour everyone went home.

In the midst of the current controversy, Pro-Deutschland have announced that they plan to hire a cinema in Berlin and publicly screen The Innocence of Muslims. There are also reports that they have invited Terry Jones to attend, that mad Florida pastor who is so keen on burning Qur’ans. Made nervous by the events in Sudan last week, and under pressure from various Muslim groups, there are reports that the German government is looking into the possibility of banning the showing.

That would be, in my opinion, a mistake. At the core of this issue is not the question of insulting Muslims, or Mohammed, or Allah, but the question of freedom of opinion and freedom of expression. And this is a value which is central to any free, open society.

The freedom of opinion, of belief, of expression has, at its foundation, the realisation that people will have different, often contrary opinions, and that no society has the right to force anyone to believe particular things. This also has the corollary that no group or section in that society has the right to forbid others from holding different opinions to themselves, or from expressing them – even if they find that expression personally offensive, providing that expression does not infringe on the particular rights of others (as is the case with libel or slander). There are also limits with regard to questions like incitement to violence or crime, but otherwise the right to one’s opinion, and the right to express that opinion, is a central component of any free society.

Religions often have problems with this necessary aspect of secular society, because religions tend to claim to possess absolute truth. If Christians are right, then atheists are wrong – and so are Muslims. If Muslims teach the truth, then Christians are in error.

Christianity has two advantages over Islam in this regard. Firstly, it has had over two hundred years, since the American and French Revolutions to get used to the idea. Secondly, the modern philosophy of the secular state, as a-theistic as it may be, evolved initially within Christian dominated cultures. Even so, the Catholic Church only finally made its peace with modern secular society in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council (and I frequently think that there are many among its current leadership who would like to roll that back).

Islam still has a long way to go here, but it is a road that it must take. No religion has the right to dictate how any modern society should be organised on the basis of its self-proclaimed divinely inspired teaching. The very right to freedom of opinion and expression for everyone, including – especially – those who think differently than we do, is the only guarantee that any religious group has for its own security in a multi-cultural world. To claim otherwise would be to acknowledge that the interpretation of this world religion as held by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban is implicitly correct. And if that is the case, then the modern world is indeed at war with Islam and we will all have to accept that the teachings of this religion are incompatible with the way most people – including many Moslems – understand themselves and the world.

And so, much as I find their views disgusting and reprehensible, I must argue that Pro-Deutschland, that ghastly group against whom I protested a few months ago, should be allowed to go ahead with their laughable screening of that worthless film. To prohibit it would be to concede that anyone who claims to be insulted – for whatever reason – by someone else on religious grounds would have the right to prohibit that other person from expressing their views. It is an admission of the superiority of religious beliefs over all other ideas, views, and opinions. It is incompatible with any vision of an open, tolerant and free society.

In the end, the whole Muslim perception of insult is rather pitiable anyway. It is a sign, for me, of a deeply seated insecurity, even a self-perception of inferiority. How can a God who is as great, compassionate, merciful and all-powerful as Muslims proclaim Allah to be, really be mocked by the writings of a Salman Rushdie? How can a man as reputedly wise and blessed as the prophet Mohammed, who has been dead for nearly 1.400 years, really be insulted by a Danish caricature or a worthless film produced by a vindictive, criminal American Christian of Coptic origin?

The author of The Satanic Verses has been much in my mind while writing this. Twenty three years ago, the Ayatollah Khomeini spoke a fatwa, basically condemning Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy. Rushdie spent many years under police protection and had to endure major forced changes in his life because of his literary treatment of the prophet. In an interview in The Guardian yesterday, he commented on the current controversy,

‘"The film is clearly a malevolent piece of garbage," says Rushdie. "The civilised response would be to say of the director: 'Fuck him. Let's get on with our day.' What's not civilised is to hold America responsible for everything that happens in its borders. That's crap. Even if that were true, to respond with physical attacks and believe it's OK to attack people because you're upset at this thing, that's an improper reaction. The Muslim world needs to get out of that mindset."’

Pictures retrieved from: 

Note: The famous quotation from Voltaire isn’t, unfortunately, from him, but rather attributed to him (as a summary of his position) by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1906)

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Dada wouldn't buy me a Bauhaus

It was a post by my blogger friend Gina about the Dada movement which got me thinking about a number of different cultural/artistic movements in the first third of the last century. I have nothing like Gina’s deep understanding and expertise in the whole area of art – a comprehension which always leads me to visit her Pagan Sphinx site with a delicious combination of anticipation and admiration – so it is with some trepidation that I dare to put my toe into this particular pond. And it is because I am intensely aware of my limited understanding in this area that I will endeavour to take a more historical approach here, an attempt to consider particular “artistic” schools or movements within the broader context of general societal and cultural developments, a stage (without meaning to be presumptuous) on which I feel more comfortable.

Moreover, it is probably inevitable that I further limit this essay (in the particular consideration of two artistic movements) to a largely German, or at least Central European in a somewhat wider sense, perspective, given that I have been living in Germany for the past quarter century and feel marginally more secure on this ground than on a wider one, encompassing a wider European, or even global perspective.

After all that the 20th Century subsequently brought, it is difficult for us today to fully realise how massive the cataclysmic shock the First World War was to the consciousness of those who experienced or were affected by it. In the more than forty years since the Franco-Prussian War, which saw the humiliation of France and the formation of the German Kaiserreich, the general atmosphere had been one of continual, apparently boundless progress. Indeed, despite some discrete, largely local upheavals, such as the revolutions of 1848, many would have regarded this period of progress as going back almost a hundred years, to the post-Napoleonic settlement of 1815. At any rate, the general mood of the world was one of optimism. Things just seemed to be getting so much better all the time; from Edison’s electric light bulb to those magnificent men in their flying machines, from motor cars and modern armaments to the spread of the benefits of civilization all over the world through enlightened European Empire and the spread of US manifest destiny from sea to shining sea. And if that meant the killing of millions of savage negroes in Leopoldian Congo, or the annihilation of the cultures and lives of the Plains Indians, well, those were just the inevitable results of Darwinist survival of the fittest and the unavoidable collateral damage of the spread of superior and more powerful cultures, nations and races.

Admittedly, the situation between the five major European powers (France, Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia) was continually tense. But that had been the case for over forty years now and dealing with that continual tension was what professional diplomats were for. For decades they had moderated and orchestrated the complex, dangerous game of chicken the great powers continually played with each other, dancing defiantly to the edge of confrontation and war, threatening, feinting, pulling back, brokering new compromises with new promises of future confrontations and gains. The Tangier Crisis, the Bulgarian Crisis, The Agadir Crisis, etc., etc., etc.; then all as significant as the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missiles or the Prague Spring were to the Cold War generations, now forgotten except to professional historians.

The world of the early 20th Century culture was already much too complex to be encapsulated by the description of any one “movement.” An additional problem arises because the general cultural flavour of the time is generally classified as Modernism, a catch-all term which tends to describe everything by defining nothing and which, as generally used, is extended to include and go beyond WWI. But – generalising and simplifying enormously – pre-war Modernism was still characterised by an optimistic view of progress, despite deeper questions of meaning and sense raised by thinkers like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche or Kierkegaard, the abandonment of conventional form by the early Cubists, or Einstein’s demolition of the classical Newtonian universe with his Special Theory of Relativity (1905). The avant-garde might be challenging progressive Realism on the cultural edges; for the mainstream such challenges were generally seen as dilettantish.

And then in Summer 1914, in the wake of the assassination of the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the diplomats finally dropped the ball and Europe collapsed into conflagration. Although propagandist jingoism, confidently predicting victory by Christmas, was generally believed on all sides, it was the British Foreign Secretary, SirEdward Grey, whose prescience in August 1914 turned out to be truly prophetic; “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.”

Raoul Hausmann ABCD (Self-portrait) Photomontage, 1923-24
In the German dominated cultural area of Central Europe, two artistic reactions to the incomprehensible carnage and destruction of the Great War emerged. At the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, a group of artists, many of them German exiles, were in 1916 the origin of a movement which came to be known as Dada. Dada was deliberately, almost despairingly provocative, one of the original group, Hans Richter, even describing it as “anti-art.” In retrospect it can be seen as an attempt to express the sensation of horror and loss of meaning and all moral foundation, all structure even, resulting from the experience of the war. Despite other possible etymologies, I personally prefer the explanation of the word “dada” as an expression of ultimate meaningless glossolalia. Dadadadadadadadadadada… But in German the word carries further connotations. Da in German means there. Dada is a kind of despairing showing, a pointing at the hopelessly shattered fragments of meaning, of decency, of sense; the rubble of everything governed and destroyed by the prevailing world order, acted out in the hopeless carnage of the trenches. There! And there! And there! And there! … Seen against this background, the frequent use of collage by Dada inspired artists takes on extra significance.

Max Ernst, Murdering Airplane, 1920
Dada was chaotic, unorganised, anarchic; it couldn’t be anything else. It was an outpouring of enraged creativity, not confined to art alone, but also finding expression in workshops and absurdist literature, like the writings of Kurt Schwitters (a good example is Anna Blume). As such it quickly surpassed itself; many of those who identified with it, such as Max Ernst, developing themselves further in Surrealism, which, at least partly, grew out of Dada.

Bauhaus building in Chemnitz
The Bauhaus movement also emerged as a reaction to the experience of the Great War, but took a very different direction – a new attempt to find meaning and order, to learn from the horrors of the war, to find an integrated approach to the individual and his/her place in society so that all the suffering would not have been in vain. The emphasis on form and structure is inevitable, given that Bauhaus was initially and primarily an architectural and design movement. Though its first leader, Walter Gropius, was non-political, many of those involved were left-leaning. Bauhaus was, by its own definition, radical: “The underlying idea of the Bauhaus, which was formulated by Walter Gropius, was to create a new unity of crafts, art and technology. The intention was to offer the right environment for the realisation of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). To this end, promising artists were to be taught in a school with an interdisciplinary and international orientation.”

Paul Klee, The Twittering Machine, 1922
Gropius and his successors, Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, were at pains to involve various artists and craftsmen in the realisation of their concept and both Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky taught for years at the Bauhaus School in its successive homes at Weimar, Dessau and Berlin. Piet Mondrian, not unexpectedly, also lectured there. Identifying itself with the wider Modernist movement, the Bauhaus emphasised simplicity and functionality – an architectural and design expression of the “form follows function” aphorism, while not abandoning at any point a striving for aesthetic excellence. The interaction between art and design is well exemplified by Kandinsky, who taught both basic design for beginners as well as advanced theory at the Bauhaus during a period in which he himself was intensely exploring geometrical elements and relations in his own work.

The basic philosophy of the Bauhaus was humanist, egalitarian; it envisaged a cooperative equality of skilled workers, artists, artisans and architects, a democratisation of art, a demystification of design. This had political, revolutionary aspects, and there were many committed Marxists at the Bauhaus. But even without them, the whole direction of the movement was deeply suspicious to other, darker forces.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, The Brno Chair (1929-30)
On January 30 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. The Bauhaus was soon wound up, and in the following years most of its talent left the country. As did many of those who had been involved in Dada. For, although their reactions to the brutal lunacy of the First World War were in many respects antithetical, the attitude of the New Vandals who had taken control of Germany to them was essentially the same. According to the Nazis, both schools propagated entartete Kunst [degenerate art] and as such were subjected to bannings, persecution of those artists who had not left the Reich, and the destruction of some of their works.

Nonetheless, their legacies survived. The anarchic freedom, the celebration of apparent meaninglessness expressed by Dada bubbles up repeatedly ever since, exerting its spell on figures and movements as diverse as Josef Beuys, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Malcolm McClaren and punk. The Bauhaus left a lasting influence on modern architecture ever since, as well as all sorts of areas of design. Just think about Scandinavian furniture – even that IKEA bookshelf you’ve got in your study. And, looking at the works of Andy Warhol, I like to think one can see the inspiration of both movements.

Note on the Title: Much as I would like to claim it as original, honesty forces me to admit that I first heard the phrase over twenty five years ago from my old friend, the philosopher Paul O’Grady, of Trinity College, Dublin.

The walrus was Paul
Pictures retrieved from: 
First image: Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the last Weimar Beer Belly, 1919


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