Offcourse Literary Journal

Loose Leaves from a German Journey, by Ricardo Nirenberg.



Freiburg im Breisgau. The German love of legends. Empty rhetoric. A Francophile town. An Aula with an aura: Martin Heidegger, 1929. Monseigneur Fumaroli. The Anglo-Saxon danger. Gurs.

On the avenue leading from the Freiburg railroad station to the famous university there is a statue, in full Franciscan frock, ropes and all, of the local alchemist and 14th-century monk Berthold Schwarz who (so the story goes) invented gunpowder. It is difficult to imagine on what grounds that disaster has deserved the honors of hard bronze. Then, a little further, there's a sign: GURS 1027 Km. A yellow, squat, pointing pentagon, lettered in black. Although in form it is no different from many other road signs in Europe, yet, you will agree, the information therein is rather surprising: for who has ever heard of a place called Gurs? And where does one find signs showing the road to a point that distant?

Reflecting on those puzzles, I absentmindedly arrived at the main university building, a dull, 1920 or so structure bearing above its front portico the golden-lettered motto: DIE WAHRHEIT WIRD EUCH FREI MACHEN. "The truth shall make you free," which, according to John's Gospel, Jesus said to the Jews, urging them to accept Him as God's anointed one. I went to the end of the building and turned left; there, over the ornate side gate it is written: DEM EWIGER DEUTSCHTUM, "To the eternal Germanness." Now, whatever that may mean, if we assume it means something and that it is true (I mean, that Germanness is eternal), that truth doesn't seem likely to make anyone free, least of all the Jews. But perhaps, when it comes to legends and mottos, it is preposterous and pedantic to expect all sides of a university building to be coherent with one another, just as it would be extravagantly foolish to expect the professors inside to be coherent with one another, or even with themselves. However that may be, I couldn't help putting those incoherencies, together with the ugliness of the building, between brackets, and I had to acknowledge the reality of this elementary phenomenon, that the University of Freiburg appeared to my consciousness surrounded by the sublime, mysterious aura which only philosophy and scholarship can lend.

Life in the U.S.A., forty years of it, cannot possibly be bracketed off even if I wanted to. This huge democracy, where poets and thinkers are considered in no way superior to plumbers or slickers, makes me long for the spiritual elitism, the poetico-pilosophic aristocracy that, perhaps, had I chosen to live in Europe instead, I would have detested. Thus, in Berlin, I stood for a long while under the rain at one of the corners of Kant Street with Uhland Street, just breathing the air, getting wet, and rejoicing at the marvelous conjunction. I know it was a silly thing to do: those who enjoy sociological explanations might attribute such silliness to my having grown up, before moving up North, in a remote, snob-infested, semi-barbaric South-American city which fancied itself part of Europe.

Academic life in the U.S.A., moreover, does not prepare one for the long hours of dreadful flow of empty rhetoric (in German and in French) which inaugurated the conference I attended at the University of Freiburg, and which was the occasion for this, my first visit to Germany. A Federal Minister for Cultural Affairs, the Prorektor of the University, then the Bürgermeister, followed by several diplomats - the French embassy in Berlin, the Swiss embassy in Germany and the Bureau of Québec in Munich all had sent someone with a tedious, solemn speech - followed in turn by the Couselor to the Chancelor on Franco-German cooperation, and by the President of the German Society of French Studies, and I lost count: there would have been a speech by a Hofrat, a Justizrat and a Relegationsrat too, except I think those titles have long since disappeared. The Bürgermeister claimed, this much I understood and remember, that Freiburg is the most Francophile town in all of Germany, which seems to be the case since nobody from other towns lifted a finger to contradict him.

So many paeans were being recited about the cooperation between the two nations separated by the Rhine and by so many ancient rancors, that it became impossible to reflect on the fact that in the not-so-distant past they had fought three wars in eighty years; this being Germany, however, the logorrhea was relieved by some lively pieces for piano four hands played by two young men with Hungarian names. I must hasten to add that, notwithstanding the tedious speeches, as far as I was concerned I would have been happy to sit there all day and all night, for the hall where this ceremony of ours was taking place was the University Aula. Yes, the very same Aula, if with some cosmetic changes on walls and ceiling as I was informed, where, seventy-five years before, Heidegger had delivered his arch-famous inaugural lecture, Was ist Metaphysik? In the brief space of that lecture, the man who has been called the greatest German philosopher since Aristotle addressed precisely the point which was bothering me a short while before, I mean how foolish it would be to expect the professors at a university to be coherent with one another, or even with themselves. Not so, declared Heidegger in this very same Aula in 1929. If we look at it from the metaphysical standpoint, all professors are in perfect agreement with themselves and with one another. For (so Heidegger argued) what is it that all scientists and scholars agree to study? Things that are, and other than those, nothing at all. Now, obviously, nothing at all is the key notion here, and that constitutes the object of metaphysics. The true philosopher ought to be, if you allow me the comparison, like a diver into the boundless waters of Nothingness, in which the other disciplines —math, the natural sciences, history and the sciences of the spirit —are but islands, or rather like atolls, since they, willy-nilly or unconsciously, enclose a lagoon.

However it happened that such a simple, fundamental insight had not been hit upon until then, its importance was soon realized in Germany, and upon translation, in France too; so much so that two generations of French intellectuals, from Sartre to Derrida, were brought up on, and nourished by, it. Except perhaps for Schwarz's gunpowder, soon taken up by the French at Crécy (or was it somewhere else?), it would be hard to come up with a better example of German-French cooperation than this Heideggerian insight, yet not one of the many speakers made the slightest reference to either gunpowder or nothingness. Instead, they kept talking about democracy.

To be fair, I should point out that the title of the conference was "Sprache, Literatur, Demokratie / Langue, Littérature, Démocratie", and certainly one can argue that neither Friar Schwarz nor Martin Heidegger had much to do with democracy.

In spite of all the talk about cooperation, deep disagreements between Germans and French became evident on the subject of the holy trinity of speech, literature and democracy. The Culture Minister said in no uncertain terms that each of those three concepts was impossible to conceive without the other two. Now, this business of declaring some idea inconceivable unless accompanied by some other idea(s) has long been a favorite of philosophers: many have affirmed that color, for example, cannot be thought without extension, and Ortega y Gasset wrote somewhere that a spherical surface cannot be thought without the solid ball inside. When I am really, madly angry, however, I see red without experiencing any spatial idea: I simply see red. And any competent mathematician will testify that it is perfectly possible to imagine an n-dimensional sphere without any reference to the n+1-dimensional ball bounded by it. But the imagination of philosophers, like that of politicians, tends to be irretrievably bound by their particular agenda. So I will always be skeptical about statements such as the one by his Excellency the Culture Minister; yet I wasn't quite prepared for what followed, I mean for the astounding counterstatement from the keynote speaker, Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. mult. Marc Fumaroli, de l'Académie française, professeur au Collège de France.

Before we plunge into the astounding counterstatement, though, it may not be a waste of time to say a few words about Monsieur Fumaroli himself. I had read some of his stuff, and vaguely remembered his splenetic defense of the French language against the threat of international American English, which, to his mind, is purely instrumental and does not demand any engagement on the part of its speakers. I'm only quoting and am not sure what "engagement" may mean here precisely; perhaps it has something to do with the mystic frisson that, as I have heard a French poet claim, is elicited by French words such as terre and ronce, earthy words containing a rolled r. Perhaps Fumaroli dislikes American English because it lacks that special sound. Whatever the reason, his dislike is stark. Having never met him nor seen his photograph, I recognized the academician as soon as I saw him on the Freiburg streets leading from our hotel to the university. For who else could that white-haired gentleman be, impeccably dressed and groomed, walking straight and nobly, holding his hands behind his back, followed by lictors and flanked by obsequious lesser lights? An ancient Roman senator redivivus, or a Renaissance Roman cardinal at the height of prestige.

When his turn came after the pianists finished playing Georges Bizet's Jeux d'enfant, Monseigneur Fumaroli took to the lectern and said he was quite surprised to have heard Bizet instead of Richard Wagner in Germany: Bizet whom Nietzsche, toward the end of his life, preferred to Wagner... Then, getting serious and brandishing Tocqueville, he proceeded to declare democracy all but incompatible with literature. What better proof than America? America where only money speaks, America who had not recognized Poe's genius as the French did. At this point I thought I saw Fumaroli enveloped in smoke and heard him hawking roasted chestnuts. I feared he was going to declare, like Baudelaire, his debt to Joseph de Maistre. But no: instead, he proclaimed himself a disciple of Leo Strauss, thank God. And thank God, too, no one seemed to notice the strong disagreement between the French academician and the German minister.

About the old contention between arms and letters which occupied Renaissance wits, we moderns placidly agree that none of those two had pride of place or was a help or hindrance to the other; but when it comes to the present pair, namely democracy and letters, how could Fumaroli and the German minister agree? The former dreams of "le grand siècle" of Louis XIV, the other has the Nazi years never far from mind. Where the Frenchman concluded very Frenchly that "la littérature naît toujours d'un désaccord avec le conformisme du régime en vigueur" [litterature is always born as a reaction against the conformism of the ruling system], how could a German mouth the like without sounding an awful Nazi or Stalinist chord? This historical difference between the two nations came up again a little later, at the session where I had been invited to speak, when, at the end of his talk, a French poet was taken to task by two young German scholars. The poet had lamented the situation of his Acadian confrères, writing in French but surrounded and threatened by Canadian English. German scholar number one burst out, "You French, you're tiresome, always carrying on about your Francophonia!" And German scholar number two: "Identity politics again! All that belongs to the past!" Finally, German scholar number one asked, "What has such nonsense got to do with good literature?"

You can easily put yourself in the German scholars' shoes: suppose your right leg has just been amputated, and someone comes to you complaining about a corn in his toe. And you can as easily see why "identity politics" doesn't hold much charm for young Germans who, unlike most French, do not feel that keenly about their national identity, nor about the need to protect it against hegemonic Americanism. Moreover, the poor German scholars had probably built up a head of steam, sitting mum while Monseigneur Fumaroli sermonized for well over an hour on the perils American democracy and American English pose for literature, just as, about a century ago, he would have sermonized on the dangers of ragtime. Before I forget, let me give the French academic his due: toward the end of his lecture he did propose a remedy, namely, universal instruction in the classical languages, Greek and Latin.

Out in the street again after the keynote speech, I remembered Plutarch's advice, that just as, upon rising to leave the barber's shop, we inspect our head on the mirror to see if the barbering job is well done, after a lecture we ought to examine our mind, whether it has shed any encumbrance and superfluity, and has become lighter and more cheerful. Well, about Monseigneur Fumaroli's lecture I wasn't certain. When I arrived at the road sign I have already mentioned - Gurs 1027 Km - I interrupted the examination of my mind because I noticed a plaque I hadn't noticed before. On the plaque it was written that on October 22nd of 1940, 350 Jews from Freiburg were deported to Gurs, where 273 perished. This explained the unusual sign, pointing to a place so unrealistically distant: it was meant as a memory, perhaps as a symbol of repentance. But where was Gurs? And why there?

A friend of mine, Eric Freedman, a specialist in the history of the Vichy regime who was also a speaker at the conference, informed me that Gurs is a small village in France, in the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, where the administration of Maréchal Pétain maintained a concentration camp — originally built in 1939 by the French Republic to hold the refugees from the Spanish Civil War — and that all those Freiburg Jews died there perhaps because no provision whatever was taken for the lodging and feeding of so many people (a total of 6,538 Jews were sent there, on the same day, from several regions of Germany). 350 people is a crowd hard to miss in a town the size of Freiburg: what did Heidegger think, or say, he who had just taught a course on Nietzsche and European nihilism, when, on his way to or from the university, he saw, or heard, or heard of, those rounded-up unfortunates? And October 22nd 1940: that is surprisingly early in the history both of the Vichy regime and of the German effort to exterminate all Jews. Why there, in Gurs? One may say, perhaps, that it was a pioneering venture, a prominent modern example of Franco-German cooperation.

And so I stood before the road sign pointing to remote Gurs, and was reminded of that song, one of the most poignant of Schubert's Winterreise: "Habe ja doch nichts begangen, daß ich Menschen sollte scheu'n... Einen Weiser seh' ich stehen unverrückt vor meinem Blick; eine Straße muß ich gehen, die noch keiner ging zurück" — I have committed no crime, that I should thus shun mankind... I see a road sign standing there, firmly before my eyes; I must travel a road on which no one has ever traveled back.


To next stop: Tubingen.

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