Georg Friedrich Haas and His ‘Perverted Negress’

The New York Time profiles Haas, an Austrian composer (and an interesting one), and his wife, Mollena Williams-Haas, a/k/a The Perverted Negress:


And now to the article, which I'm just going to leave here:

The Austrian-born Mr. Haas, 62, a music professor at Columbia University since 2013, has recently been increasingly open about the unusual nature of his marriage, which he says has dramatically improved his productivity and reshaped his artistic outlook. He will be the subject of a two-concert American Immersion series on Wednesday and Friday presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum, which includes the American premiere of his “I can’t breathe,” a dirgelike solo trumpet memorial to Eric Garner.

In a joint appearance with his wife, who now goes by Mollena Williams-Haas, late last year at the Playground sexuality conference in Toronto, then in an interview this month in the online music magazine VAN, he has “come out,” as he put it, as the dominant figure in a dominant-submissive power dynamic. Mr. Haas has chosen to speak up, both because Ms. Williams-Haas’s sexual interests are widely known (her blog, The Perverted Negress, is not shy about kink and bondage) and because he hopes to embolden younger people, particularly composers, not to smother untraditional urges, as he did.

The fundamental feature of their relationship is not obviously sexual, Mr. Haas and Ms. Williams-Haas, 46, said in an interview at their airy apartment near Columbia, with expansive views of the Hudson River. “It’s not caning,” he said. “It’s the fact that I need someone who is with me when I work.”

Their marriage can seem, in this regard, distinctly old-fashioned, and not in a Marquis de Sade way. While the terms they negotiated at the start of their relationship do not prevent her from pursuing her own professional and personal life, Ms. Williams-Haas devotes much of her time to supporting the work of a man — “Herr Meister,” she has nicknamed him — for whom a “good day” is one in which he composes for 14 or 15 hours.

Thomas Bernhard Taking No Prisoners

The blog 'The Philosophical Worldview Artist (Weltanschauungskunst für alle Weltanschauer) run by one Douglas Robertson (no idea who he is) publishes fine translations of German-language texts, including this typically scorching 1984 interview with Thomas Bernhard:

FLEISCHMANN: But surely with distance one ought to be able to write about the past more composedly.
BERNHARD: That’s the big cliché about contemplating the past, and it’s obviously totally false.  Old people can write books like that when they’re sitting paralyzed in their armchairs, but it’s not my mode, not yet; maybe the day after tomorrow I’ll still be excited; whenever I write anything, even something peaceful, I’m still basically excited.  In any case, excitation is a pleasant condition; when your blood is sluggish, excitation gets it moving, pulsing; it keeps you alive, and consequently keeps the stream of books flowing.  Without excitation there’s absolutely nothing; you might as well stay in bed.  Now for you, Miss Fleischmann  (laughs), being in bed  is of course only a way of passing the time when you’re excited—right?—and being in a book is every bit as much a pastime.  Writing a book is after all a kind of sexual act, but one that happens at a more leisurely pace than the literal act, which one engaged in when one was younger; it is, to be sure, much more pleasant to write a book than to go to bed with somebody.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you regard writing as a substitute for sexual fulfillment?
BERNHARD: “Sexual fulfillment” is just a catch-phrase, like, for example, “self-development.”  It’s unadulterated bullshit.  But of course I’ve already said what writing is.  I’d just be repeating myself if I said any more about it.
FLEISCHMANN: In this book Vienna is an institute for the annihilation of spirit; what does Vienna mean in your opinion?
BERNHARD: Well, as I’ve stated in the book, Vienna is essentially an art-mill, or the biggest art-mill in the world, into which everybody leaps of their own free will, and the current miller is the chancellor, who is in charge there, the cabinet ministers are the miller’s helpers, and all the singers, actors, stage-directors, fling themselves into the mill, and down below the flour comes out.  But this process can only be kept going for so long before the flour for some reason comes out all moldy and smelly.
FLEISCHMANN: And why do you think that it’s specifically in Vienna that artists are so [thoroughly] destroyed?
BERNHARD: Well, because here in Vienna is where the most spiteful people in the world are to be found; on the other hand you have this mill, the greatest [possible source of] amusement.  Is it not after all amusing to watch people, geniuses and people of good character, flinging themselves into it up at the top, and coming out all deformed down below?  Don’t you find it amusing?

Adalbert Stifter’s American Fan

Michael Lipkin discovers Adalbert Stifter:

I found Stifter’s novella collection Bunte Steine (Many-Colored Stones) in the deathly quiet German-language stacks of Bartle Library. Over the course of several taciturn afternoons, I waded through the idyllic landscapes and kitschy interiors that make up the bulk of the book. Typical of the book’s style, the third story, “Tourmaline,” opens in a Viennese townhouse belonging to an idle man of culture. Taking unhurried note of the paintings on the wall, the grand piano, the writing desk, the porcelain figurines, Stifter leads the reader through the house until he reaches the bedroom of the man’s wife, where a gilded angel wafts a white curtain over their baby, sleeping in her crib. The terrors of the outer world have been shut out; the pendulum of history has stopped midswing. The clock in this room, writes Stifter, never strikes the hour. Its ticking is so faint as to be scarcely heard….

Youth and childhood are the focus of much of Stifter's work, whose naïve style runs sharply counter to the blasé worldliness of European realism. Unlike Dickens or Flaubert, Stifter describes the world as though he is speaking to a child, not yet ensnared in the web of assumed half-truths and skewed generalizations that constitute adult common sense. By seeing things as though for the first time, Stifter hoped—in vain—to save them from the forces of industrialization and speculative capitalism, forces that liquidate the world’s very materiality. And, to be sure, there is a distinctly pedophilic dimension to Stifter’s obsession with the crystalline purity of childhood and the holy terror with which he avoids any mention of sex. Stifter’s own history with children was a tragic one. He and his wife, Amalia Mohaupt, could not conceive. Their first adopted daughter died young; the second, Amalia’s niece Juliana, ran away from home and threw herself into the Danube.

What Stifter’s naïveté offered me, at the age of nineteen or twenty, was a respite from my increasingly suffocating desires. Living in Binghamton made me vertiginously aware of my own desire to live “well”—which is to say, in New York City, at an extremely high level of material comfort. I found it particularly difficult that spring to read, among other things, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which depicts artistic aspiration and idealism as either the resentment of the lower middle-class or, alternatively, the idle narcissism of the rich. In Stifter’s work, by contrast, money is present only in its total absence. From my own incompetence managing even very small amounts of money, I had a strong suspicion that this elision stemmed from deep personal shame. Reduced to poverty by the sudden death of his wealthy father, Stifter was never at ease in the salons of Vienna. It wasn’t until the decade before his suicide that, as a reward for a series of newspaper articles denouncing the Vienna uprisings in 1848, Stifter was appointed superintendent of schools in Upper Austria, allowing him to pay back the substantial debts he owed to various creditors and family members.

 The ideal life, as Stifter saw it, is the one depicted in his novel, Der Nachsommer [Indian Summer], which recounts the friendship between the young protagonist, Heinrich, and the Baron von Risach. Risach, an older man, has withdrawn into a secluded manor, where he has devoted himself to botany, restoring furniture, reading books, looking at paintings and, most importantly, eating (a recurring subject in the diaries of Stifter, who was morbidly obese). No mention of money is ever made. In this novel so boring that, even with the best will, I couldn’t kick myself past page sixty, Stifter shows us how the world might look if the intractable conflicts between human beings, society, and nature could somehow be resolved. In an age that accelerated every aspect of life to breakneck speed, Stifter believed that only literature—slow, deliberate, and loving—could broker the truce.

In Which I Reveal My Views on Soccer to a Breathless Audience


The New Republic analyzes Borges on soccer:

In his lifetime, he saw elements of fascism, Peronism, and even anti-Semitism emerge in the Argentinean political sphere, so his intense suspicion of popular political movements and mass culture—the apogee of which, in Argentina, is soccer—makes a lot of sense. (“There is an idea of supremacy, of power, [in soccer] that seems horrible to me,” he once wrote.) Borges opposed dogmatism in any shape or form, so he was naturally suspicious of his countrymen’s unqualified devotion to any doctrine or religion—even to their dear albiceleste

Soccer is inextricably tied to nationalism, another one of Borges’ objections to the sport. “Nationalism only allows for affirmations, and every doctrine that discards doubt, negation, is a form of fanaticism and stupidity,” he said. National teams generate nationalistic fervor, creating the possibility for an unscrupulous government to use a star player as a mouthpiece to legitimize itself. 

This is a pretty good summary of what many bourgeois Germans think about soccer. To them, too, flag-draped cities and mass 'public viewings' uncomfortably recall the Nuremburg rallies, of individuals sinking rapturously into the blissful Wir-Gefühl (We-feeling) of ideological consensus. Add to that the bloodless siege of marketing that surrounds every World Cup, and you have a perfect storm of mass culture and consumerism, enough to curl the toenails of any self-respecting turtleneck-wearing aesthete.

But let's not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Stuffy Germans turn up their noses at lots of stuff that's really fun, like cheap liquor, guns, porno, naked sledding, dope, tabloid newspapers, and sex with 60 kilos of ground beef. If you studiously refused to enjoy everything they studiously refuse to enjoy, you'd end up as dull as they are.

So Europeans who proudly despise soccer do so because it's favored by beer-swilling chavs. Intriguingly, soccer has the opposite reputation in the USA. It's a complex, oustside-the-mainstream, English, low-scoring game which people from Europe and developing countries are hella good at. This makes it fair play for hipsters and Europhiles. Further, it requires no expensive equipment and isn't dominated by freakishly tall or muscular people.

No, Americans who dislike soccer because they find it boring and / or pointless. The Simpsons, as usual, has this covered (unembeddable video here). What do I think about soccer? Speak for me, bullet-points:

  • Yes, the masses' obsession with soccer is tiresome and alarming, and the cliche that soccer is a religion in country X is beyond tiresome. Whenever I hear that country X is soccer-obsessed, that the nation stops functioning and planes drop from the air when a game is on, that mothers are having the names of the latest stars tattooed on their babies' eyeballs, I think: "Good God, what a bunch of lazy sods. Why don't they think up their own games?"
  • However, the mere fact that many people who love soccer are mindless clods doesn't mean I must hate it.
  • And in fact, I rather like it. If you learn the rules and pay a bit of attention, a good soccer game can be totally engrossing. This World Cup, in particular, has offered up some thrilling games so far — think of the epic second half of Germany v. Ghana. What's most mesmerizing to me is the continuous flow of the game. And soccer also seems to be a bit more competitive than many other sports. Sure, there are occasional 6-0 blowouts, but team that are clearly less talented than their opponent can still stage tremendous upsets.

So I will be there tomorrow in Boui Boui Bilk watching America v. Germany, drinking copiously, and cheering on the American team.

But my face won't be painted in red-white-and-blue — that's strictly for morons. 

Co-Opting Nietzsche for National Socialism

David B. Dennis has a long, fine essay on how National Socialist propagandists spun Nietzsche in the Völkischer Beobachter:

In addressing the “Germanness” of Nietzsche, however, the cultural politicians of the party faced some difficulties. The newspaper did not try to verify Nietzsche’s racial origins—as it did for many other Western creators, including and especially Wagner and Beethoven—despite the fact that he occasionally claimed to be of Polish heritage. But it did have to confront indications that the philosopher rejected nineteenth-century trends of nationalistic identification.

As one contributor to the Völkischer Beobachter wrote, there is “one important point in Nietzsche’s mental attitude on which even his friends have remained silent, from which they tried to distance themselves as much as possible: this is the matter of Nietzsche’s attitude toward Germanness and the state.” The philosopher, according to the paper, had seen with “sharp eyes” that while the Second Reich had been formed, it still “remained a shell without content” under Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik. To him, nationalism was the “illness of the century” because it “attempted to hide its emptiness.” In his words, “Nationalism as it is understood today is a dogma that requires limitation.”

But the point to keep in mind, according to the Völkischer Beobachter, was the qualifying phrase: “as it is understood today.” Nietzsche’s opinions about the German state could be understood only with reference to this phrase—that is, as critiques of his own specific time, not as categorical rejections of German nationalism.

This opened the way for the newspaper to present Nietzsche as a fervent patriot and strong representative of “Germanness.” In fact, the paper reminded, Nietzsche actually said of himself that “I am perhaps more German than the Germans of today.” And he valued the “earnest, manly, stern, and daring German spirit.” He knew that “there was still bravery, particularly German bravery,” that is, “inwardly something different than the élan of our deplorable neighbors.” Compared with the French essence, in particular, he was “consistently, strongly, and happily conscious of the virtues” of the German character. Above all, Nietzsche held that “it is German unity in the highest sense which we are striving for more passionately than for political reunification—the unity of the German spirit and life.”

Very few others “saw things so clearly” in those days, said the Völkischer Beobachter. As if on a mission to confirm the philosopher’s Germanness, another contributor traveled to Sils-Maria, wandered the region, and ruminated on passages Nietzsche had written there. The landscape, Ernst Nickell reflected, is “consecrated by German fate and German tragedy.” Nietzsche “needed this landscape; he had to stand near the highest things and the firmament”—because he was “German despite everything.”

Wagner’s ‘Fungal’ Genius

Nicholas Spice has a brilliant essay called 'Is Wagner Bad for Us?' on the LRB website, which includes this passage, one of the finest English-language descriptions of Wagner's innovations I've come across:

The state in which he found the art of opera in the middle of the
19th century didn’t please him. He deplored its tired routines and swept
them away. Where a traditional opera typically hauled itself along
through a series of arias, duets and ensemble pieces, strung along a
line of recitative, Wagner integrated words, drama and music into a
discourse of continuous gesture. This did a lot to dismantle the
structures which in traditional opera keep the audience at a distance
from the action. In an opera by Rossini or Donizetti, we hop from one
aria or duet or ensemble to another, negotiating an archipelago of
self-sufficient pieces of music, and this acts as a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt,
repeatedly ejecting us from the narrative, an effect the custom of
applauding individual numbers as though they were concert items made
even more pronounced. Wagner replaced this ‘singing of pieces of music’
with a free declamatory vocal style, embedding his singers in the fabric
of the drama and rarely permitting them to sing at the same time as
each other. In his mature operas, the ebb and flow of the action is
controlled by music (Wagner partly characterised it as ‘endless melody’)
which loosens the certainties of diatonic harmony and gives a wide
berth to effects of unwanted closure in the musical syntax. As a result,
the listener is given only rare opportunities to bail out of the
musical and dramatic argument.

It is a central aspect of Wagner’s
genius (Mann writes about it wonderfully) that he conceived a way to
draw the literary and musical components of his operas towards each
other. His understanding of the ideographic potential of music – the
capacity of music to suggest things, characteristics and ideas – was
something quite special to him, and it probably partly accounts for our
sense of his work as in certain fundamental respects different from most
other music in the classical canon….

As the works unfold, the listener moves
continuously and fluidly between the music on the one hand and the drama
on the other, holding them in a kind of dynamic equilibrium in the
mind. The patterned integration of the leitmotifs into the musical
fabric – like small marine fossils in certain kinds of sedimentary rock –
symbolises the accumulation of experience over time (it was this aspect
of Wagner that so excited Proust). And as a formal device, the
leitmotifs helped Wagner give coherence and unity to immense spans of
musical narrative. Wherever we surface in the onward stream of these
operas, whether listening to them or reading them in score, we see a
landscape of familiar forms, though always subtly evolving and combining
in a kaleidoscope of shifting permutations.

The words often used
to describe the effect of Wagner’s work – ‘seduction’,
‘irresistibility’, ‘enchantment’ – and the way Wagner is spoken of as a
magician or sorcerer or trickster, suggest dark and inscrutable arts;
and, given that the stories he tells and the music through which he
tells them, are full of emotional drama, at times extreme, we might
assume that his power derives from his passion, and that if we feel a
loss of will in the face of his work, it is because we have been
overwhelmed and swept away by a lava stream of expression or irradiated
by a blast of psycho-spiritual energy, or – and this is perhaps the most
common trope of all – drugged. Echoing an observation of Mann’s, Boulez
has said of Wagner that ‘his genius was both hot-headed – even
irrational – and extremely analytical.’ Brecht said that Wagner’s art
‘creates fog’ and Tolstoy thought you could achieve the same effect more
quickly by getting drunk or smoking opium. But what has always struck
me about Wagner’s work – certainly, the seven mature operas – is not
that they enthral us through bewilderment or narcosis, but how
unnervingly intelligible they are, and how, in being so intelligible,
they hold our attention, and, in holding our attention, draw us
ineluctably in.

Later, Spice notes the commentary of English composer Thomas Adès:

Only last year, Thomas Adès described Wagner’s music as ‘fungal’,
lamenting his influence on the composers who followed him: ‘his grubby
fingerprints’ are ‘everywhere’. ‘Fungal’ is in one sense rather a good
image for the modular patterning of Wagner’s music, but it also suggests
infestation, decay, sickness and a tendency to spread uncontrollably,
while the phrase ‘grubby fingerprints’ brings to mind something
insalubrious, if not criminal.


Naipaul’s Opinions on Thomas Mann and Jane Austen

The New Republic has an amusing interview with V.S. Naipaul (h/t SK). His opinions on Mann, Wodehouse and Jane Austen:

IC: I was wondering what you like to read now.

VSN: I read many things. I read to fill in my knowledge of the world. I am reading this writer, [Thomas] De Quincey, here [points to the book]. The other thing I am reading, quite unusual for me, is Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks. I was staggered by it.

IC: Why did it stagger you?

VSN: It was so wise. Wonderful narrative gift. His language is
wonderful. When he is talking, it varies from mode to mode. And it’s
always marvelous. He has to deal with typhoid, which will kill his
character, and he does it pulling away. He goes inside the sufferer and
says, this is what happens to a cancer patient, a typhoid patient. At a
certain stage, life calls out to him. Very beautiful way of writing. I
am feeble trying to paraphrase. Very, very moving. I was dazzled by it.

IC: Are there English or British authors you go back to time and again?

VSN: No, no. Who do you go back to?

IC: [George] Orwell. P.G. Wodehouse.

VSN: I can’t read Wodehouse. The thought of, shall we say,
facing three or four months of nothing but Wodehouse novels fills me
with horror.

IC: What about George Eliot?

VSN: Childhood, you know, childhood. A little of [The Mill on the Floss]
was read to me. It mattered at the time. But as you get older, your
tastes and needs change. I don’t like her or the big English writers. I
don’t like [Charles] Dickens.

IC: No British writers.

NN: The poets he likes, not the prose. He likes the columnists more than the writers.

VSN: I don’t want to upset them.

NN: He upsets people for no reason.

IC: I was going to ask about his Jane Austen comments.

NN: Oh God, everybody hates Jane Austen. They don’t have the
balls to say it. Believe me. Who did we meet the other day, that famous
academic who said Jane Austen was rubbish? And I said, “Why don’t you
stand up and say it.” And he said, “Am I mad?” They have all reassessed
her, but they just don’t want to say it.

IC: Do you want to expand on why you don’t like her? You think she’s trivial?

VSN: Yes, it is too trivial. A romantic story. It doesn’t do
anything for me. It doesn’t tell me anything. It’s not like Mann talking
about death. He has a way of dealing with it.

That's an intelligent reason for admiring Buddenbrooks, which I find otherwise a bit tedious.

My Take on the Cologne Circumcision Case

Here is my take on the famous German circumcision judgment. Thanks to the friendly folks at for cross-posting this.


The Cologne Landgericht decision proclaiming religious
circumcision to be a form of illegal assault will apparently soon be
superseded by legislation permitting the practice under certain
conditions. Nevertheless, the mere fact that the decision came about –
coupled with its endorsement by many members of the German criminal-law community and the fact that approximately half of Germans
want to see religious circumcision punished by law – points at a
continuing controversy. Circumcision also presents an interesting
cross-cultural case study, since it is not expressly regulated in either
the United States or (yet) in Germany. An enlightening 2002 analysis
by Geoffrey P. Miller shows that all U.S. published U.S. court cases
about male circumcision involve botched operations or problems with
obtaining parents’ consent. It appears that no U.S. court has yet
addressed a situation in which a doctor has been criminally prosecuted
for competently performing a circumcision with the consent of the
child’s guardians.

Even were such a case to emerge, it’s difficult to imagine a similar
outcome. Following the First Amendment’s explicit ban on ‘established’
churches, the Supreme Court has limited government interference in
private religious rituals. A line of Supreme Court cases has called for
the government to display a ‘wholesome neutrality’ toward all religions,
and to avoid unnecessary ‘entanglement’ of church and state.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court has forbade American government entities
from pronouncing on internal church administration, drawing government administrative boundaries to accommodate religious sects, or banning controversial religious practices
under the pretext of public safety. This basic suspicion of
intermingling secular administration and religion is widespread among
legal officials. The average District Attorney, presented with a case in
which a third party complained about a properly-performed circumcision,
would almost certainly use her discretion not to prosecute.

The second (somewhat related) strand of jurisprudence emphasizes family autonomy. In a landmark 1972 case, Wisconsin v. Yoder,
the Court upheld the right of Old Order Amish families to withdraw
their children from formal education at the age of 16, observing that
though there is no explicit guarantee of family autonomy in the
Constitution, ‘the values of parental direction of the religious
upbringing and education of their children in their early and formative years have a high place in our society.’ The state, for example, may not ban
parents from sending their children to private religious schools or
even educating them at home, as long as curricular standards are
met. The fundamental Constitutional principle of American family law,
repeated in case after case, is to presume that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children”.
When parental autonomy is bound up with religious practice, the
rationale for judicial circumspection becomes even clearer.

And indeed, the decision of the Cologne court demonstrates the
problems that occur when courts intrude in this area. Considering its
worldwide resonance, the decision itself is astoundingly brief, just a
few paragraphs long. At one point, the court accuses the doctor (and, by
implication, the boy’s parents) of infringing the boy’s right to choose
his own religious affiliation. Yet the mere fact that a child is
circumcised doesn’t irrevocably commit him to Islam, as the 55% of American males who are circumcised
can attest. Second, the court can hardly have thought through its
proposed right for children to freely choose their religion. Both of
Germany’s established religions provide for elaborate public rituals in
which children are brought into their parents’ or community’s faith long
before they are of age to make binding legal commitments under German
law. Granted, these induction ceremonies don’t involve circumcision, but
the court did not bother to limit its principle only to these cases.
Like many legal commentators, the court also confidently proclaimed
circumcision to be against the child’s best interests without ever
suggesting why the child’s parents, who obviously had different views,
should be ignored.

These problems help explain the different reactions to the decision
among German and foreign observers. Christian Germans (whether devout or
nominal) are rarely circumcised. This is in stark contrast to the
United States, where routine circumcision was adopted during the late
19th century on hygiene grounds (including the prevention of
masturbation) which would now be considered dubious. Yet the practice
remains well-accepted: The American Pediatric Association recently concluded that
“scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn
male circumcision” and explicitly noted that it is “legitimate for
parents to take into account cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions,
in addition to the medical factors, when making this decision.” By
contrast, circumcision in Germany has only been customary among two
religious minorities, one of which was decimated during the Third Reich,
and the other which only arrived in significant numbers in the last 40
years. The generally positive reaction to the decision among Germany’s
socially conservative legal culture shows a lasting undercurrent of
suspicion against customs and beliefs that have “non-European” roots –
and of the parents who wish to pass them on to their children.

Two Models of Freedom and Responsibility

Yet there is another factor driving the circumcision controversy: a
stronger emphasis on social cohesion. Again, the comparison with the
United States is instructive. America is, in many respects, an an
outlier in terms of governmentally-enforced social cohesion. There is no
national identity card in the United States, and some 10 per cent
of the population has no picture identification of any kind. American
rules regarding home schooling and religious education are among the
most liberal in the world. Unlike every other government in the world,
the American state is constitutionally debarred
from banning hate speech and propaganda in the name of social harmony.
Aside from wartime, compulsory military or civil service has never
existed in the United States. And, of course, the American social safety
net is designed only to provide transitional, time-limited aid. The
possibility that the devout might create self-perpetuating ‘parallel
societies’, a perennial source of anguish in the European media, is
largely absent from American public discourse. This is not because such
parallel societies do not exist in the USA – quite the contrary
is true – but because their existence is not seen as problematic as
long as they do not encourage crime or exploitation. (Of course, these
libertarian hallmarks coexist with a massive security sector and the
highest imprisonment rates in the world – but exploring this paradox is
beyond the scope of this post.)

Although the German political order also guarantees its citizens
wide-ranging civil freedoms, the approach is subtly different. In an
interesting article on the ‘German Idea of Freedom
Edward J. Eberle argues that Germany’s conception of individual liberty
— while robust and deeply-rooted — differs significantly from that
found in the United States. In contrast to the freewheeling American
conception of individual rights (accompanied by an equally unfettered
free market), the German conception of liberty ‘take[s] place within a
moral structure erected on ethical concepts that include human dignity
and its multiple radiations, people acting within the bounds of a social
community with its ensuing reciprocal obligations, and a Sozialstaat.’ Further, the discussion of rights in Germany is coupled with ‘duties rooted deeply in the culture and community’.

This conception of ‘freedom’ conditioned by social integration
(which, of course, prevails in many Continental European cultures)
enables the state to make claims on its citizens that would be
controversial in Anglo-Saxon countries. German court decisions, for
example, permit government officials to reject parents’ chosen names
for their children on a number of grounds, including that the name
might subject the child to ridicule or does not clearly indicate the
child’s gender. Until recently, military service was compulsory in
Germany, although many young men opted out under liberal
conscientious-objector laws. Germany also has a registration law, which
requires Germans to timely inform their government of any change in
address. Germany has comprehensive federal laws regulating everything
from the permissible size of huts on garden allotments to the content of vacation contracts, and a sizable contingent of ‘order police’ (the Ordnungsamt)
to enforce them. The German legal order does not provide for
untrammeled free speech – pro-Nazi rhetoric is illegal, and media which
publish insulting or privacy-intruding material may be confiscated and
their owners fined.

The flip side of this intrusion is an impressive network of social
rights and benefits. Despite recent reforms, German social welfare
benefits are still much more generous than their American counterparts —
but recipients may also required to submit to intrusive surveillance.
Germany has universal health insurance provided by subsidized insurance
companies which are run on the principle of ‘solidarity’. Germans
receive large welfare subsidies for having children, and enjoy some of
the most generous family leave policies in the world. Virtually all
higher education is provided free of charge (or for nominal tuition) by
government-funded universities. All workers are guaranteed several weeks
of paid vacation per year. Even welfare recipients can petition for
extra money to pay for a child’s wedding or a vacation.

To put it simply, the German social bargain permits the state to
intrude more deeply into citizens’ affairs in certain areas, in return
for providing them with an array of services designed to foster personal
development and socialize common life-risks. Germans face more subtle
pressure to conform to majority social norms, but in return enjoy
benefits conferred by that majority itself. This ideology of ‘duties
rooted deeply in the culture and community’ may have influenced the
German court’s reasoning: Instead of simply endorsing parental autonomy tout court,
the judges asked whether the parents’ choice would bind their child
closer to the majority ‘culture and community’ of Germany. Because it
would not, it was that much easier to second-guess. Yet the reaction to
the court’s decision seems to mark a subtle shift in consensus-minded
Germany toward accommodating beliefs and rituals which will always
remain outside the mainstream.

The Legal Flea Circus

FleaCircus-Prof-W-Heckler-4I'm reading Thomas Fischer's entertaining essay Spuren der Strafrechtswissenschaft (g) (h/t Markus) and came across this gem:

The most malicious parable concerning the education of lawyers is found in a short sketch by Klaus Eschen: Legal education resembles the training of fleas — you lock them in a box and put a glass plate on top of it. When the fleas try to jump, they hit the glass plate. As time goes by, they learn to jump less high even when the plate is removed. The process is repeated, putting the glass plate ever lower, until the fleas can do no more than creep  around: "When they've learned to move around only by creeping, they have completed their training for the flea circus. In legal terms, this is about the time of the bar exam."

Thomas Fischer, 'Spuren der Strafrechtswissenschaft', in Festschrift Für Ruth Rissing-Van Saan Zum 65. Geburtstag Am 25. Januar 2011, p. 163.

Fischer, a criminal-law judge on Germany's highest criminal court, is here reviewing another book, 'German-Language Criminal Law in Self-Portrait', a collection of autobiographical essays by leading German criminal-law professors. Fischer's essay could have been yet another German exercise in Selbtsbeweihräucherung*, but Fischer decides to probe beneath the surface. What do these essays reveal about the character and personality of German criminal-law professors, and of the state of the profession?

His conclusions are not particularly flattering. He finds the professors, in their own portraits, curiously passionless and conformist. Their life stories highlight conventional bourgeois virtues and portray a relatively quick and painless integration into the realities of university life: the long years spent sucking up to various authority figures, tedious disputes about arcane dogmatic positions, the gradual accumulation of a thick carapace of self-importance and professional vanity.

The primary maxim of most of these professors' lives, Fischer argues, is 'don't rock the boat'. This helps explain why they did startlingly little to analyze the role of German criminal law in National Socialist times. Although the professors writing their own biographies were born too late for the war, their mentors certainly weren't and many of them were active Nazis, sometimes fanatical ones. There are many descriptions of the brilliance and harmless eccentricities of the previous generation of scholars, but their involvement with Nazism is downplayed or ignored altogether. In German professorial circles, it seems, controversies about theoretical constructs which are of no interest to anyone outside a tiny circle are welcome, but discussions about the fundamental questions of personal responsibility, individual and social morality, and other such suspiciously interesting topics must be avoided at all costs.

Altogether a fascinating, if disturbing read. Nor did it go unnoticed: saying non-complimentary and occasionally controversial things about prominent professors has also gotten Fischer into a bit of trouble (g). Is Fischer on target, or is he too cynical? Just click on this link and judge for yourself. Oh wait, there is no link. As with so much of German academic writing, the essay appears nowhere online. It exists only on dead trees, packed into a 900-page book, gathering dust at your local law library. Sad, really — this is a lively and insightful piece which deserves a broader audience…

* Selbtsbeweihräucherung is also the German Word of the Week. It translates, roughly, as 'wafting incense around yourself'. It's a wonderfully poetic way to refer to the sort of pompous, smug self-congratulation that's especially common during official events. Christoph Maria Herbst recently went beyond merely denouncing it to enacting it when he gave a speech at the German movie awards. Handing out portable censers to the guests in the front rows, he encouraged them to waft themselves in incense, since that was the main point of the ceremony — to allow the German film industry to celebrate its ability to make worthy, horribly dull movies.

Lichtenberg Aphorisms in English

From a website called Mangan's (Adventures in Reaction), I stumbled on a nice collection of Lichtenberg's aphorisms translated into English. A selection:

  • "I ceased in the year 1764 to believe that one can convince one's opponents with arguments printed in books. It is not to do that, therefore, that I have taken up my pen, but merely so as to annoy them, and to bestow strength and courage on those on our own side, and to make it known to the others that they have not convinced us."
  • "Nothing can contribute more to peace of soul than the lack of any opinion whatever."
  • "He traveled through Northeim to Einbeck and from there through Mlle P. to Hanover."
  • "With my pen in hand I have successfully stormed bulwarks from which others armed with sword and excommunication have been repulsed."
  • "Proposal: in a cold winter why not burn books?"
  • "Truth will find a publisher at any time, complaisance usually only for a year. That is why when you write you should always do so with courage and candor."
  • "I forget most of what I read, just as I do most of what I have eaten, but I know that both contribute no less to the conservation of my mind and my body on that account."
  • "It is almost impossible to bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing somebody's beard."
  • "Not only did he not believe in ghosts, he wasn't even afraid of them.""We have the often thoughtless respect accorded ancient laws, ancient usages, and ancient religion to thank for all the evil in the world."
  • "The world offers us correction more often than consolation."
  • "Since this life is no more than an evanescent point of time, I find it incomprehensible that the state of unending bliss and glory does not begin at once."
  • "There are people with so little courage to assert anything that they dare not say there is a cold wind blowing, however much they may feel it, unless they have first heard that other people have said it."