A Fake Quote from Peter Handke in the New York Times and Everywhere Else

Peter Handke has questionable political judgment, which is something he shares with most artists and writers. This post isn’t meant to defend his stance on the Balkan wars of the 1990s, although, as a German reader, I can state that it is much more nuanced than is being reported in the English-language press.

But one of the most-repeated and most-tweeted charges in the indictment against Handke is false. The charge is that, when confronted about Serb atrocities in Bosnia, Handke said: “You can shove your corpses up your ass.” Even the New York Times published this false quotation.

German-language outlets have established this quote is fake. As far as I know, no English-language source has yet done so. So let me be the first.

Here is what Handke actually said, live and in-person:

This was a recording of a talk Handke gave at the Akademietheater in Vienna in 1996. A member of the audience asks Handke why he never visited Bosnia, only Serbia. Handke says everyone else was already visiting Bosnia, and he wanted to be on the “wrong” side. This comment is obviously meant ironically, and the audience laughs.

The questioner then asks whether “journalists who were trapped in Sarajevo” might have been more “affected” (betroffen) by the war than Handke.

Handke then interrupts and says “‘Betroffenheit’ — das kann ich schon überhaupt nicht hören…” — “I can’t stand this word ‘Betroffenheit’. Go home with your ‘Betroffenheit’, stick it up your ass.”

To understand what Handke was saying, we need to unpack this word Betroffenheit. The verb betroffen means to be affected by something. Betroffen has a standard, neutral meaning in the sense of being literally affected: i.e., this law does not apply to you, you are not betroffen by it; they changed the test, but I graduated before that, so I was not betroffen by the change.

But betroffen also has an emotional meaning: something has affected your emotions, has touched you, has caused you anguish, etc. Usually it’s used in response to negative events: I was betroffen to hear of your mother’s death; he was betroffen by images of starving children on the television.

Betroffenheit is simply the noun version of the adjective betroffen — it means the state of being emotionally affected by something. Whenever a disaster or terrorist attack hits Germany, politicians always tweet about their Betroffenheit: they want to say they are deeply affected by whatever happened.

It’s kind of like the secular German equivalent of an American politicians saying their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims after a mass shooting. And this analogy is spot-on. Just as “thoughts and prayers” is a cliché in English, Betroffenheit is a cliché in German. It’s mocked as an platitude which politicians trot out just so they won’t be called insensitive, and which doesn’t require them to take a stand. In German-speaking media, people of all political stripes mock politicians for calling attention to their Betroffenheit all the time.

This is the point Handke is making. As someone who lives by language, he finds the words “betroffen” and “Betroffenheit” offensively unoriginal. And on another level, he is calling expressions of sympathy and concern by Western journalists and commentators are hypocritical, because these commentators focus exclusively on the suffering of Bosniaks and Muslims, while downplaying or ignoring the suffering of Serbs.

So he’s not saying “shove the corpses up your ass”. He is saying “shove your Betroffenheit [one-sided and hypocritical expressions of dismay] up your ass”.

Again, I am not here to defend all of Handke’s views. But this is a major error which, to my knowledge, has yet to be corrected and acknowledged in the English-speaking press.

Korn, or Breakfast Whisky

Schwarze Frühstückskorn 0,7L 32% vol.Korn is a German distilled alcohol made from grain, between 32-38% alcohol by volume. It’s got sort of a shady reputation as cheap rotgut — it’s not hard to make, and a bottle of average Korn costs well under €10.

It’s the kind of thing you see sold in tiny €1.99 bottles behind the counter of neighborhood shops — the “secret drinker” stash. You sometimes see people sitting on park benches openly drinking from bottles of Korn. These folks, unlike the beer drinkers, are in the very lists of dissolution. If you hang around all day in public drinking 12-15 bottles of 38-cent Oettinger beer, you’re part of the Trinkerszene: the ‘Drinkers’ Scene’, a rowdy but generally harmless addition to any neighborhood.

If you hang around all day in public drinking Korn, you’re slid down several levels from the Drinkers’ Scene, who themselves may shake their heads in disapproval at you. One fine Sunday morning I was on the way to visit a friend and encountered a drunk guy collapsed face-down on the pavement in front of my apartment building. He had just fallen straight down face-first, nearly breaking his nose, and lay there like a beached seal. As we lifted him and and propped him up, waiting for the ambulance, we saw he had collapsed directly onto the bottle of booze he’d been drinking. Which was, of course, Korn.

So it was with some trepidation that I bought a bottle of Korn the other day out of curiosity. I chose a brand manufactured by the Schwarze distillery called Frühstücks-Korn, or “Breakfast Korn“. You can choose to see this either as amusing or horrifyingly cynical. “You’re just trying something new”, I repeated to myself as I poured the first shot. “It’s a traditional German drink going back to the 15th century,” I said to myself as I poured the second shot. “You’re more or less solvent and employed. You are not an alcoholic, or at least you’re not hanging around in parks all day yet,” I said as I poured the third shot.

My verdict? Korn is tasty! It’s incredibly smooth, almost flavorless, with only a touch of appealingly earthy graininess to it, like chewing on a grass stalk. Frankly, it’s so smoothly drinkable it’s a bit dangerous: there are no acids, zippy congeners or high-proof throat-fire to remind you you’re drinking hard stuff.

I’m still a whisky man, first and foremost, but I will certainly try out of a bottle of Korn once in a while, to pay homage to a noble and ancient German distilling tradition. And get pie-eyed for cheap.

Itten’s Enemas, or: Bauhaus Kooks

I’m reading James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia, an erudite broadside against the International Style and Brutalism in 20th-century architecture. One of the many refreshing things the book does is provide a non-hagiographical account of the Bauhaus. When I was growing up, it seemed that Bauhaus was universally revered as the most important design movement of Modernism, if not in all of human history. A famous band named themselves after it! Young female Bauhaus students looked so ahead of their time!

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Bauhaus’ progenitors were described in hushed, reverential tones, and their many glaring faults ignored. (Nobody mentioned, for instance, that Ludwig Miës van der Rohe was born plain old Ludwig Mies, and added the diacritics and extra words out of pure affectation.)

Curl is having none of that. He acknowledges Bauhaus’ many achievements, but also holds it responsible for many of the most regrettable aspects of 20th century architecture: sandwich-like buildings with horizontal windows, flat roofs, a puritanical ban on ornamentation, soulless prefabricated cubic “machines for living”, etc.

And he points out that many people associated with Bauhaus were, not to put too fine a point on it, kooks. Case in point, Johannes Itten (from pp. 94-95):

He was a devotee of Mazdaznan, one of a great many mystical or quasi-religious cults that flourished in Germany at the time. It was related to the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, and therefore tentatively associated with Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (though any connection with the philosopher’s ideas was hopelessly corrupted). It held that the world was a warzone between good and evil, and that what is perceived as reality is really only a veil that hides a higher existence that can only be achieved by rigorous physical and mental exercises, a vegetarian diet (featuring huge doses of garlic), fasting, and regular enemas. Mazdaznan macrobiotic dishes became de rigueur in the Bauhaus canteen, and some students adopted Itten’s garb (a loose robe) and shaved their heads.

Some, of course, regarded him as a saintly figure, but many, probably more accurately, saw him as a charlatan. Itten would accept students on his ‘intuitive judgement’ without even looking at work or asking questions. One of the many problems that emerged from this régime in malnourished, bankrupted, demoralized, defeated Germany, was that dishes like the garlic paste insisted upon by Itten caused students to look rather ill, with grey-green skin: furthermore, apart from the enemas, peculiar rituals such as ‘purification of the body’ involved pricking the skin and anointing it with oils, so that the pin-pricked areas began to suppurate: resultant infections caused illnesses.

How ‘Fucked’ are Germans?

An editor’s website advises Germans not to use the word ‘fuck’ in professional settings:

A lot of Germans are surprised to find out that Brits and Americans can be rather prudish when it comes to using swear words. After all, in TV and movies, they hear the F word all the time so they don’t realise that in everyday life in the UK and the USA, swearwords can be quite controversial.

When I first came to Germany, I was astonished how many people swore, even in business situations and in front of children. Even children in Kindergarten were told so say, “Armeisenscheiße!” instead of saying, “Cheese!”, when getting their photograph taken.

This is sort of true, sort of not. Germans will often use the English word ‘fuck’ in all sorts of situations — both in Germany and France, it’s often used to express dismay at a minor catastrophe: dropping an ice-cream cone, or stubbing a toe against a piece of furniture, getting shot. And then there was the notorious ‘Fuck the Diet‘ (in English) ad slogan by a German food company.

Many Germans simply don’t understand quite how rude this word is in English. One handy guide is to tell them that it’s as rude in English as the word ficken (“to fuck”) is in German, which is very rude indeed. Why they wouldn’t have understood this from the beginning is an interesting question. My guess is that it comes from watching American movies and TV shows, where characters say “fuck” far more than ordinary Americans do in real life:

On the other hand, the German law students I used to teach nearly jumped out of their skins the first time I dropped an ‘f-bomb’ on them. German law students, bless their prim little hearts, are old-school haute bourgeoisie. Think wooden toys, recorder lessons, set mealtimes, and choir practice.

I didn’t do it for effect — not at first. I just naturally sometimes say ‘fuck’, don’t we all? Most of my law professors dropped an effy once in a while, although of course they didn’t make a habit of it.

Eventually, I confess, I started dropping f-bombs just for the fun of it. They never failed to elicit a few gasps and chuckles. To prepare my students, I decided to play an educational recording for them about the word ‘fuck’ in English:

This really helped cross the cultural bridge!

‘New Metallurgists’ at the Julia Stoschek Collection

One of the many advantages of life in one of the world’s most cultured cities is that, in addition to the ‘official’ public museums and galleries run by the city, there are dozens of exquisitely-run, professional-standard small private museums and galleries to explore.

When Julia Stoschek inherited millions from her family’s auto-parts business, she did what many wealthy Germans do: she began collecting art, focusing on contemporary video and installation art — or, as the promotional material for the collection puts it, “time-based” art. By all accounts, she’s a thoughtful and dedicated connoisseur (or is it connoisseuse?).

Just over ten years ago, she converted a former factory built in 1907 (g) in the tony suburb of Oberkassel to house her collection, with a nod to Beuys at the entrance.

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Oberkassel, with typical Gründerzeit townhouses and a signature Düsseldorf gas lamp

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You’re missing an ‘e’ there, but we forgive you ‘cuz you art good

The Julia Stoschek Collection is open to the public for free every Sunday. It has a theater in the basement for showing art films and films about art, and several exhibition floors designed for video installations. Some of the rooms are open, others are closed inside glass walls to limit sonic bleedover and enable better concentration. This means views within the museum offer layered reflections of several different pieces at once:

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The current exhibition is ‘New Metallurgists’, featuring recent works by Chinese artists.

The reference to metallurgy is derived from some bit of Deleuze/Guattari foofaraw which need not detain us further.

Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’m rarely impressed by contemporary Chinese art. Too often, it combines an obligatory shout-out to China’s Rich Cultural Heritage™ with a cheeky reference to contemporary ‘social issues’. Yang Yongliang‘s traditional landscapes speckled with building cranes and half-finished housing developments, for instance, or basically anything by Ai Weiwei. Snarky juxtaposition only takes me so far. Maybe it’s the German in me, but art doesn’t get its hooks into me unless it has a seam of the ineffable/oneiric/eerily sublime buried in it somewhere.

Some of pieces in ‘New Metallurgists’ don’t get far beyond the snarky juxtaposition, for instance a piece tracking the many interim owners of a mid-sized airplane scattered about the globe, or an three-part video display tracking hundreds of players in a World of Warcraft game.

Other pieces were less on the nose. Fang Di was represented by three cheeky, trippy works the length and style of music videos, the most interesting of which was Triumph in the Skies, in which three cyborg flight attendants with creamy, soft plastic sex-doll faces cavort in a sort of post-apocalyptic cave bar.

Warm Spell by Shen Xin is a 35 minute long (many of the works are around this length) exploration of a Thai tourist resort, stripped of all conventional narrative. The effects of mass tourism are hinted at, but the film is mostly an moistly atmospheric, meandering, hypnotic exploration of jungle, sea, and people working. There is a bit of narration, in broken English and Thai, by a native, some of which is translated, some of which isn’t. Other pieces that caught my eye were the 9-minute Ecdysiast Molt (what a title!) by Yao Quingmei, an impossible-to-categorize work in which an amateur choir sings and recites odd bits of philosophy and song while a traffic cop seems to guide an ecdysiast (striptease artist, that is) through her performance.

And then there were two pieces by Wang Tuo, the most interesting being Smoke and Fire, which juxtaposes an elliptical portrayal of a migrant worker’s revenge killing filmed in color with grainy black-and-white interludes depicting fragments of Chinese revenge and ghost stories. It all hangs together, and falls apart, in an agreeably dreamlike way.

Overall many sharp, provocative pieces in an interesting space. It seems churlish to complain about a free museum, but the bare benches in many of the rooms were too uncomfortable to sit on for the longer pieces, and the headphones were too loud, although that might have been the artists’ specification.

Random Spottings of Avant-Garde German Literature of the 1950s

Post-war German literature never generated international household names except for Günter Grass and, later, W.G. Sebald. Anyone can recognize what it means for a character to read Sartre or Camus, but Johnson or Bachmann are likely to elicit only head-scratching. There’s something about German writing — its ‘interiority’, long sentences and paragraphs, tendency toward abstraction, and often quasi-mystical or fantastic elements — that makes it a bit of an acquired taste, although it’s one well worth acquiring.

That’s why name-checks of modern German writers tend to be rare. My favorite came from a very unexpected place: the ‘Parker’ novels, the best hard-boiled crime novels before James Ellroy. They were written by Donald E. Westlake under the pen name Richard Stark. Here is how Wikipedia describes Parker:

A ruthless career criminal, Parker has almost no traditional redeeming qualities, aside from efficiency and professionalism. Parker is callous, meticulous, and perfectly willing to commit murder if he deems it necessary. He does, however, live by one ethical principle: he will not double-cross another professional criminal with whom he is working, unless they try to double-cross him. Should that happen, Parker will unhesitatingly undertake to exact a thorough and brutal revenge.

So there I am, listening to one of Parker novels from the early 1960s. A peripheral female character has intellectual/beatnik tendencies, as evinced by the collection of avant-garde literature on her bookshelves, including books by Uwe Johnson.

Wait, what? A fictional early-60s beatnik living in a fictional town in the American West is reading Uwe Johnson in translation? Of course, it would have been über-beatnik if she were reading Johnson in German. (Or would it?) In any case, I checked, and yes, there were English translations of Johnson’s books available in the early 1960s.

And now, a second random upcropping of the German literary post-war avant-garde. This one is in an even stranger context: A book reviewer noticed the unusually large number of books with “horse latitudes” in the title, and decided to read every one of them. The result is worth reading, but what grabbed my attention was entry number 4:

4. The Egghead Republic: A Short Novel from the Horse Latitudes (1957), Arno Schmidt.

This is a deeply weird, out-of-print German experimental novel. It concerns itself with dividing walls, radiation, and juvenile sexual frolicking in about equal parts. A possibly unintended commentary on what was happening in Germany post-war, but also a deliberate commentary on punctuation. It’s sexist and racist and totally daffy and pretty wonderful.

Title Relevance: 4/5. The novel takes place aboard a jet-propelled island that can only safely inhabit the horse latitudes because the water is calm there. No actual horses are at risk.

Quote: “And upon renewed stroking and whispering: they snorted in exasperation (must also have been inhibited by their ridiculously thick gonads: half horse, half human: horse latitudes!)”

Describing Schmidt as “deeply weird” barely scratches the surface. I haven’t read this book either in German or in English, but it looks like I’ll be needing to soon.

“Jewish psychic Nazi leprechauns who enjoy S&M”

From a Facebook friend who doubtless wishes to remain nameless, this review of a 1966 ‘adult fantasy’ novel about … Nazi leprechauns. I give you The Little People. Grady Hendrix of Tor.com read this book so you don’t have to:

nazi leprechaunsChristopher … introduces us to the Gestapochauns: a gang of miniature people living in the castle and battling rats with their tiny bullwhips. He then clears the hurdle and jumps the shark all at once by letting us know that these are not just any Nazi leprechauns. These are Jewish psychic Nazi leprechauns who enjoy S&M, are covered with scars from pleasure/pain sessions with their creator, were trained as sex slaves for full-sized human men, and are actually stunted fetuses taken from Jewish concentration camp victims. And one of them is named Adolph.

Take a moment to wipe the sweat from your brow.

While all this information is being hosed into the reader’s eyes like a geyser of crazy, this book rockets from 0 to 60 on the Loony-meter and over-delivers on practically every front. From the moment the Gestapochauns play a mean practical joke on the old Irish washerwoman who works in the kitchen to the moment the lawyer/fiance realizes exactly what—my God!—the tiny Nazi Leprechaun named Greta is actually up to inside his pants, it’s one long, 50-page passage in which this book is firing on every cylinder, and then some cylinders that don’t even exist in our dimension.

German Words of the Week: Scheißen / Schießen

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while, but one of my New Years’ resolutions is to revive the blog. Going to try to make it more regular.

Today’s German words of the week are probably familiar even to some of the non-German-Powered®. They are:

Scheißen (SHY-sin): to shit.

Schießen (SHE-sin): to shoot.

You can see the blunt Germanic roots of our Anglo-Saxon English. In German, you always pronounce ie or ‘ie’ according to which letter comes last. Weiner is VIGH-nehr. Wiener ist VEE-nur.

By the way, that ß is called, in German, the esszet. (ess-tzett) It looks like a stray bit of Thai. Foreigners love it almost as much as umlauts. The last reform of written German reduced the use of ß, which I found regrettable. Some people even want to ban it entirely. I say to them: you can have my ß when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Where was I? Oh right the shoot/shit scheißen/schießen confusion potentialHere is a picture of a news brief from a Facebook feed called “Pearls of Local Journalism”, which collects gaffes from local news:

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The translation:

No Medals for Ski-Hunters

Yesterday, the German men’s biathlon team failed during shitting. Today, the women are expected to make up for it. Page 19

It did require some tedious explanation, but it was worth it, no?

The Mysterious Store Which May be an Oscilloscope Repair Workshop

A few years ago, a shop opened up on the Aachener Straße, in my beloved Bilk neighborhood. At first they stripped the walls down to the bricks, which led us all to thing yet another coffeeshop was coming. All that was needed was Edison bulbs, and the Global Coffee Shop aesthetic would be complete.

But no. Instead, the shop filled up with neatly-organized racks of what look like oscilloscopes, and tables piled with…something:

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It looks like a Stasi listening post, but I doubt many Stasi listening posts were housed at street level behind a glass facade. You can often see a man puttering around in overalls inside. He’ll give you a friendly wave if you make eye contact at him.

The workshop — if it is a workshop, and not something far more sinister — has no name or sign of any kind. It’s not listed on Google Maps.

What the hell is going on here?

German Universities Ranked by Ugliness

First there was Poets Ranked by Beard Weight, now here comes Vice Germany with German universities ranked by ugliness (g). Surprisingly, the winner isn’t the Ruhr University Bochum:

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Bochum places fourth, out-uglied by Regensburg, Siegen, and Bielefeld.

Some may ask: Wait, I thought German universities were quaint and picturesque, like Heidelberg or Tübingen. Don’t you study in old castles, or at least with views of old castles?

There are two separate kinds of German universities. The first kind are established old universities, which often don’t have any ‘campus’ as such; their faculties are spread out around the city, in buildings ancient and modern. These are the kinds of traditional universities people spontaneously associate with the phrase ‘German university’ (if they associate anything at all).

But that’s not where most German students learn. Almost all of the universities on the most-ugly list were thrown up hastily in the 1960s and 1970s. Along with various other social movements, there was a mass movement to reform the German university system, which was regarded as outdated and elitist. Criteria for university admission were drastically loosened, and a system of free tuition and student stipends was intended to reduce financial bias in admissions. As a result, the number of students at German universities quadrupled (g) between 1970 and 1997.

Lots of new buildings were needed for all these new students, and — alas — the need for these new buildings coincided with the flowering of Brutalism, the most inhumane and arrogant architectural movement in human history. Yes, there are some interesting and even beautiful Brutalist buildings. But for every one of them, there are 20 soul-crushing banalities.

Sad fact: The reason Brutalism prevailed was not because it was wise or inspiring or but because it was cheap. Just pour 50,000 tons of concrete into prefabricated molds and Bingo! There’s your university. What’s that you say? No, my friend, you don’t need to put anything over that concrete. Students and professors will be mesmerized and enchanted by thousands of cubic yards of stained, graying concrete and pea-gravel bearing the imprint of the wooden forms into which it was poured. Why cover that fascinating vision in gray with bourgeois fripperies like molding or paneling or paint or any fucking form of decoration whatsoever?

So that’s how newer German universities got to be the way they are. As I often told visitors to the University of Düsseldorf (which could have fit neatly in this Vice article): “Yes, most of this University is composed of hideous, soul-crushing bunkers which look as if their only purpose was to survive nuclear war. But this is what education in a social democracy looks like. The buildings are cheap, the salaries low, and middle-management basically non-existent. But you can still get a good education here if you put a lot of work into it. And that education is free. Which would you rather endure: 4 years of study in this monstrosity, or $100,000 in student-loan debt chasing you for the next 30 years?”

Fortunately, things are improving. German unis no longer need to expand at any cost, and now usually commission pleasant-looking buildings. And if they can’t afford to do that, at least they have started covering the naked slabs of exposed concrete with something humans might enjoy looking at. But time is running out: Some of these buildings are going to get protected historical landmark status soon if we’re not careful. Be on the lookout, and be proactive!

 

 

Time Capsule Bilk/Unterbilk, October 2018

Yesterday I took a stroll around the neighborhood, and took a few pictures of ephemera:

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Frozen between cheap cars and Juncker trips
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Every tree in Düsseldorf has a number, but not all have a felt wreath
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Basement Chemistry: Dirty-Hard and Bass-ocial
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Everything about being a soldier is dumb, say young commies

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“You come with Kölsch, we come with gasoline” (local soccer fans threaten)

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